Cheeseburger Gothic

'The Spy' by Mr James Phelan

Posted December 7, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

The latest wet work from the machine that calls itself Phelan. With a cover quote from Mr Lee Child. I am envy.


Washington DC

Dan Bellamy looked at the highlighted screen of his unlisted cell phone and considered bumping the call. He’d had confirmation of the job just fifteen minutes ago, and now his field operative was calling him again. He had been expecting a call, but not this call. It was too soon.

A complication, at their end. Calling him from the field.

He leaned back in his chair and rested his feet upon his desk. Looking out his window, he could see straight to the Capitol Building. It was after midnight. He had come by the office to handle some paperwork; at least that’s what he told his wife. In reality he was here to make sure the operation was successful. Bellamy had a lot riding on it. Too much.

Across the room – a modest wood-panelled space that was swept for surveillance bugs every week – his daughter slept on the couch. Still in her soccer uniform; she had won tonight. A good omen. His baby girl.


Bellamy answered the phone. ‘This call came sooner than expected.

You can’t be outside Rome yet.’

‘I’m still here. There’s been a complication.’

‘What is it?’ He thought the worst: carloads of Italian cops have his operative’s team surrounded. If that were the case, it would be gut-wrenching stuff until his lawyers did what they did and he did what he did to bury it all.

‘There’s someone on scene,’ the voice said.

Bellamy relaxed a little. ‘Someone?’

‘A man.’

Bellamy paused, said, ‘A man. On scene?’


‘Define “on scene”.’

‘Inside the target’s apartment.’

Bellamy winced. ‘I don’t want to know such details.’

‘It’s a complication.’

‘And you’re still there?’


Bellamy thought it through, then said, ‘Forget it. Get out of there.’

‘No. Not like this. I don’t like it.’

Bellamy processed the implications: the op had started barely half an hour ago, they had been in and out within fifteen minutes, and yet his team was still there, watching the scene of their crime. Why?

‘Who is it?’

‘I don’t know,’ the voice replied. ‘A guy. Could be a cop, but I doubt it.’

‘But you’re spooked by him. Enough to break protocols and contact me.’

‘I thought I’d check in first.’


‘Before I proceed.’

Ah, right . . . it’s about money. Trust, too, but money. To those guys in the field, this was another job.

Bellamy didn’t have time for complications. He checked his watch.

Eighty-one hours until deadline.


Inside the apartment in Rome it looked like a bomb had gone off. Jed Walker entered warily, unarmed, using the heel of his boot to push the door closed behind him, leaving it unlocked as he had found it. The place was empty, but the trail was warm.

He scanned the rooms in ten seconds and learned all he needed to. It was late nineteenth century, well made and maintained. A corner site on the second floor, with two windows looking south, three to the east. Opposite, two doors ran off to a kitchen and a bedroom with en suite. Everything was tastefully appointed, the furnishings sparse and modern: hardwood parquetry floors, herringbone pattern; an expensive TV and stereo the centrepiece of the living area; a set of custom-made golf clubs by the door. All of it fitted the profile of a successful banking executive – the cover job of the CIA operative who had lived there.

It had all been tossed. Recently.

Walker looked around each corner of the apartment and concluded that whoever had tossed the place was looking for something specific. They’d done a messy job of it, like cops do in the movies when they search a perp’s apartment: lamps and vases broken, the sofas slashed and overturned, the carpets lifted, the bed flipped on its side, the kitchen cabinets emptied. The refrigerator had been pulled out and its panels separated; the oven and washing machine and dishwasher too. Piles of screws were everywhere: they had used cordless drivers to pull things apart quietly rather than pinch bars to wreck it loudly. The desk was upside down. A mess of cables remained, but at least two hard drives and a laptop were gone. Whatever was in the desk’s drawers was also missing. No useful physical evidence remained.

This had been a search for something small, or a clean-up of anything incriminating that might lead back to the guy’s employers. Could have been by the CIA or another crew. Either way, no friends of mine.

Walker knew that this had been conducted by pros.

And he knew that the occupant had been killed here, within the past hour.

‘It’s your op,’ Bellamy said quietly to his man on the phone while his daughter slept across the room. ‘It must be clean, that was my main requirement. Clean and final . . . but that’s not why you called me now.’

There was a pause, and then the man said, ‘I thought maybe you sent another crew.’

‘Now, why would I bother doing that?’

‘I don’t know.’

Bellamy was silent.

‘Okay. Well, this guy,’ his contact said, ‘he’s not local. He looks ex-military. Big guy. Late thirties. Caucasian. Can handle himself.’

The wheels in Bellamy’s mind turned on that one. He trusted his operator on this mission, and trusted that like could spot like. So, who is this ex-military guy in the apartment? A competitor? The target’s protection, arriving too late? Could be anyone. Could mean anything.

Could mean that they were too late . . . either way, this is getting messy.

Bellamy said, ‘Can you pick him up? Take him in? Question him?’

‘When he gets out,’ the voice said. ‘Though it will attract attention.’

‘What if he makes a call from inside the apartment?’

‘We’re scanning for that.’

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Go back inside. Deal with him in the apartment.’

‘Do it,’ Bellamy said. ‘Question him first, see who he is and what he knows, then clean it up. Go in there and clean it up and be sure of it. Don’t leave a trace. Burn it all.’

‘Copy that.’

The voice was waiting.

Bellamy said, ‘Something else?’

‘My fee? This matter of another target . . .’

‘Consider it doubled.’

Bellamy ended the call. He stared at his cluttered desk. This op was not meant to be messy. Getting rid of a guy in the middle of Rome?

Getting rid of two? All in a day.

He looked across at his sleeping child. Some books and a field of McDonald’s debris were spread on the table in front of her. It’s all getting harder, busier, less certain. It’ll pay off, soon . . .

He looked through his open doorway, to the large open-plan office empty of staff for the day; an office and business he had created from nothing more than a limited skill set and a lot of networking and risk-taking. Now INTFOR was on the verge of becoming the largest and most powerful private intelligence outfit on the planet. He swivelled around in his chair and focused on his collection of framed photographs: him with presidents and prime ministers and VIPs from around the world. Powerful men and a couple of powerful women. All of them more reliant on him with each passing day. He looked out the window to his left.

The sun was gone, now the streetlamps and uprights bathed the monumental town.

The end of another day.

A new dawn was just around the corner. Three more dawns before everything changed.


The blood the killers had left behind told Walker most of what he needed to know. The mattress in the bedroom held a bloodstain – large, the size of a frying pan, and still red. After about two hours’ exposure to oxygen, blood that has thinned and splattered and atomised onto absorbent material like a mattress oxidizes and turns brown.

They never got that right in the movies.

So, Felix was killed where he lay. Which meant that his killers entered quietly enough not to wake him. Which meant that this was an assassination: either to get what Walker had come here for, or to tidy up a loose end. Maybe both.

Two kill shots, through the chest, the heart probably. Not the head – less messy that way. Plus, like Walker they knew to protect the head; like Walker they knew what type of information was in it.

So, this was not a straightforward case of professional killers. This was the work of men in the know of current CIA tradecraft. Maybe they had asked Felix a question or two before they fired, but probably not – this was a quick job, and what they needed most was not known to their target. Yet it was on his person.

They, like Walker, had come for what was sewn into the base of Felix’s skull: a tiny chip containing information. Felix was a head-case courier, used by the CIA to transport intelligence from one wireless hot spot to another. Someone knew what was on that chip – if not the killers then whoever had hired them.

On the floor, blood had pooled where they had tossed the body from the bed. Once blood leaves the body, it begins to clot quickly, within five to ten minutes. After that the blood begins to separate as the clot retracts into a dark knot and squeezes out a halo of yellow serum. This process takes another hour or more, when the blood then dries to a rusty brown stain.

The blood here had clotted but not separated – this hit took place more than ten minutes but less than an hour earlier. The bed sheets were missing, so the killers had wrapped the body in them and then placed it in a wheeled duffel bag. Judging by the track marks of blood on the floor, it was a 120-litre bag, which meant they had folded and stuffed the body in tightly. They weren’t squeamish, these men, and they were strong. There were at least two, probably three, so someone stood sentry in the apartment while two dealt with the body. Or perhaps he had tossed the place while the others packed the body. The packers must have noticed the tracks the wheels had started to make, from where they had run through the blood pool, and wiped the castors clean with the quilt. The tracks then disappeared.

They had been careful and relatively quiet but they hadn’t taken the time to clean up. So, it was a quick job. A three-man crew, on the clock. Walker inspected the mattress. Two gunshot holes punctured the centre of the bloody mess. The underside was shredded. The floor below looked like it had been sandblasted, the surface pockmarked with dime-sized punctures, grouped more tightly in the centre, spreading out to a dozen chips in a diameter roughly the size of a dinner plate. Soft fragmentary rounds had been used, semiwadcutters with heavy grain, the slugs further slowed by a suppressor, fired up close, the soft lead tearing apart as it hit bone and bedsprings. So, the bigger and slower .45 calibre rather than a 9-millimetre.

Serious men doing a serious job of it.


Outside the apartment the three professionals in the back of the van readied and checked their weapons. Each had a Beretta .45 calibre, the PX4 Storm, locally sourced and made, custom silenced, untraceable, ten-round capacity apiece. Their leader was Brendan Crowley, a contractor who did most of his work for the CIA, from extraordinary rendition around the Mediterranean to making people disappear completely. He spoke half a dozen languages and could pass as a local in Italy, France, Croatia, Greece and Spain. As an intelligence operator he was a specialist in wet work; the messy end of the intelligence world. He and his team were known as ‘outcome specialists’. Those back in DC didn’t want to know specifics about the jobs these men took care of – just outcomes. Positive outcomes were their preference.

Crowley had planned that his team would stay on the scene for twenty minutes after their exfil from the apartment, mainly to be sure that their near-silent work had gone unnoticed, and partly to complete their cover. The van was marked as city-gas department, which in this middle-class but crumbling neighbourhood would not draw second glances. Outside the van they had erected a taped-off cordon around the street’s main supply and left the hatch open. It had now been twenty-five minutes since they had left the apartment, and they had sat in the air-conditioned van, silent, watching, waiting. In the back were two large duffel bags of rubbish to drop, weighted down, in the

Adriatic later that day. One bag contained the body of CIA courier Felix Lassiter, the other a collection of his papers and computer equipment.

The spoils of a job done.

The disposal, however, would have to wait.

Crowley and his team had another job to do.

Time to go back in.

Walker knew better than to search the apartment hoping for a clue missed by those who had worked here this morning; this was the well-executed job of a well-trained team. Maybe not the best operators, but they weren’t far from it. They were expensive, and not many entities had access to such men.

This fitted what he knew about the man who owned this apartment.

Not so much a target as a person of interest and an unwitting courier – a perfect cut-out agent. For the CIA, and for someone else. It was the someone else that was of interest to Walker.

And clearly Felix Lassiter had garnered the interest of other parties.

Time to leave.

6 Responses to ‘'The Spy' by Mr James Phelan’

Barnesm ducks in to say...

Posted December 7, 2013

Another throughly enjoyable piece of work from the redoubtable Mr Phelan, though when I saw this book I thought it was a biography about a spy with the same name as the author.

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Therbs ducks in to say...

Posted December 8, 2013

Just in time for some lazy summer reading.

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Chaz asserts...

Posted December 9, 2013

Great Book, everyone should buy at least two copies....

still not a fan of the cover

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Guru Bob mumbles...

Posted December 15, 2013

Looks like it could use some customer reviews over at Amazon as well? Mr Phelan dropped into the last Burger gathering in Melbourne and it was great to see him...

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Naut has opinions thus...

Posted January 16, 2014

This series is going to take off big time. Be an early adopter so you can tell your friends how clever you are.

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Respond to ''The Spy' by Mr James Phelan'

Running With the Blood God

Posted November 4, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham


Blood and Ecstasy

The gutters flow crimson in downtown Zanjan from tens of thousands of sheep being slaughtered on the street and given away with rice to the several hundred thousand people cramming in for the marches. The dish, chelo gosht, is warming in this north-western city spread below snow-streaked ranges; the night breeze is frigid but so terribly sweet after Tehran. We arrived last night and today is Tasua, the eve of Ashura. I stand on the edge of a bloody jube and wave a small black flag that a friend of Mehrak has given me as vast lines of men stomp past smacking their chests and singing. Ahmad, a tall, leonine young computer salesman who seems to know just about everyone – soldiers, cops, marchers, butchers, knife sellers – thought it might help me join in the Shiite carnival of grief, but now he wants to give frowning lessons. ‘More sad,’ he says, pulling a misery face and punching me in the arm. ‘Feel the pain.’

I laugh and he hits me again.

‘Show more pain. Or is it not hard enough?’ He cocks his fist, his black eyes boring into mine, and then bursts out laughing, setting me off too.

‘No,’ says Mehrak, grabbing hold of me, his face tight. ‘Don’t laugh. It is very dangerous. People here are extremely serious about Islam. They have extremely strong belief. You are the kafir here, and the only kafir. What do you think will happen if you insult them? Don’t make any attention. Don’t laugh.’

Cheeks burning, I pull my thermal cap lower and turn back to the parade, trying to ignore Ahmad’s grins and pokes to the ribs. The marchers come in huge groups, each trailing a man standing on a pick-up truck covered in funeral wreaths and laden with a generator and loudspeakers, who blasts out rolling, bludgeoning chants about Karbala – or, as it sounds in the guttural roar, KAR-BA-LAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Each side of the march, the narrow streets are solid with spectators singing along and smacking their chests or waving flags. Family groups and others lean out of upper-floor windows lining central Zanjan. My hotel room overlooks one of the main routes and squares, and when I finally shut my window at one am last night the shuffling, stomping, shouting processions were still powering on, or overpowering on, as it felt after a day of hammering, concussive chants about death and glory in Kar-ba-la.
Mehrak has spooked me about being the only kafir in Zanjan. This is no cross-pollinating Latin carnaval bursting with eccentricity, irreverence, flamboyance, horn sections, sex and flesh of every colour. This is a male and singular drumbeat of Shiite grief. I keep my eyes down when police and soldiers are near but it is deeply unnerving knowing that the Basijis are just men in the crowd. Must stay very low-key.

‘Come,’ says Ahmad, taking my elbow and dragging me through layers of bystanders until we burst through into the marching zone. A panicked-looking Mehrak is right behind. Ahmad taps the back of a marcher who lifts his hand off the man behind, opening a spot for us. I’m shaking my head but Ahmad just drags me in and gets stuck into the chant. Ahmad lands his left hand on my shoulder and I plant mine on Mehrak’s, so come what may we’re in the line now, right feet forward for the stomp followed by a shuffle with the left. Flag up with the beat, and another short thrust and then thump, hand on the chest. We’re mirrored by a second line of marchers, while men patrol the centre yelling and shaking their arms at us to go harder and harder. Also free-ranging in the middle are young men wielding huge flags, red for blood, white for sacrifice, black for mourning, and Islamic green, the traditional colour of Mohammad’s family.

Ahmad says he has something he wants to show me tonight so we peel out of the parade, but the streets are so crowded that it is difficult to move. ‘Off the road,’ he says, leading us into an alley winding through an old walled section of the city and into the internal courtyard of a mosque. Men stand around chatting and Ahmad talks to a few while Mehrak shelters me. ‘It’s okay,’ Ahmad says, drifting back over. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing at a taped-up poster of the Supreme Leader in which Khamenei’s eyes have been painted red and his mouth torn out.

‘Wow, they’ll be in trouble, won’t they, if someone sees that?’

‘Bale,’ says Ahmad. ‘Let’s go.’ We climb another small set of deeply-worn stone steps into a lane that twists onto a street marginally less jammed than the last one. We stick close to the shop fronts – diners, knife sellers, clothes and grocers – and make some progress, gradually overtaking a march in which many of the chest-beaters wear headbands. Ahmad puts out his arm, stopping Mehrak and me, and stares at the group. ‘They are a Basij mosque,’ he says, talking about the plain clothes militia that the government dispatches to beat the hell out of protesters and dissenters.
‘What – those guys are Basijis?’ I ask.

‘Bale. Very bad, very dangerous.’ He clucks his tongue in disapproval.
If I see them perhaps they’ll see me, but flanked by Ahmad and Mehrak I creep forward.

The regime goons have the pugnacity of a volatile sporting team – the casually-worn aggression generally so absent from Iran. Milling thicker on the road than most other marching groups, they crane their necks, peering all about to claim their share of the pious limelight. They jostle and herd each other, hands everywhere as their throng engulfs the street. There are a few stereotypical martyr beards but many are too young to shave. I wonder who among them swung clubs at yesterday’s protest here and helped fill Zanjan’s jails.

‘Do you have any friends who are Basijis?’ I ask Ahmad.
‘No. You cannot.’

Mehrak is not sure if we are going the right way, and I ask where we’re headed.

Ahmad smiles, and claps his hand on my arm. ‘We go to a mosque where you can see something special.’

Teenage boys, men and music spill all around the mosque as we make a midnight approach. Half a block away Ahmad stops us to say that kafirs are forbidden to enter and there will be trouble if I am noticed. ‘Don’t speak. Don’t show your eyes.’

We join a flow of men heading towards the throbs and faint wails, and climb the steps to a kind of foyer, but I don’t see too much because it’s barely lit and I’m looking at the ground to hide my infidel eyes. Staff hand out cloth pouches for shoes to be bagged and dropped into barrels. One of the mosque crew is right next to me and I swivel away but Ahmad moves between us, taking two pouches and then gesturing for me to head in.

Mehrak shields me as we zip through the door and around a heavy curtain, emerging into a circular, domed furnace of heat and sound. I gaze dumbstruck: hundreds of men and boys stripped to the waist are leaping into the air and banging into each other as a trio of musicians thrash out an overwhelming cacophony of twisting, intertwined rhythms. A vocalist almost eats his microphone as he hunkers down in a rapid, heavily distorted chant of ‘Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein’ while another unleashes an incendiary account of the torments of Karbala: a performance beyond the most narco-assisted extremes of any psycho-rocker I’ve seen. And all the while their percussionist pounds out convulsive funk rhythms with brutish speed. Above the band hangs an enormous silk banner painted with a desert scene where lightning bolts pierce a burnt-orange sun dripping with blood as a riderless horse wanders the sands near chador-clad women lost in grief.

I’m about to lose my fucking mind, and the shirtless men hurl themselves higher and higher, smashing their chests as they fly, whipped up and up by a man in the centre swinging an immense black flag of death in wild arcs. The air is so thick and hot it burns my teeth and chokes me in its stench of superheated, supersaturated male flesh. It is all I can do to stand in this vortex of the blood god.

Two soldiers carrying AK-47s and binoculars enter the gloomy lobby of the high-rise Sepid Hotel, where I am the only guest. They talk to the woman at reception and then walk upstairs. I’m feeling so profoundly unwell, so fatigued, so weak-lunged and so nauseous, that it might have been a relief had they detained me, thereby excusing me from this morning’s garden party. But here’s Mehrak, right on time in his father’s car.

‘My mother was worried you would not have breakfast,’ says Mehrak, passing over a spoon and a bowl of porridge and shreds of lamb. Ahmad also scores a bowl of halim when we pick him up on the drive through the gritty but spacious Zanjani suburbs. Huge Farsi script has been fashioned in white on a hill overlooking the city, and Mehrak says it means Mahdi. Mehrak say this is also the meaning of Valiasr, the street bisecting Tehran. Many names; many faces. Mehrak takes the Tabriz road, and we drive north-west through a rocky, scrubby countryside. It is a bleak morning.

‘Where’s the garden?’ I ask, head pounding, chest wheezing. Last night’s plunges from frigid night to steaming mosque and back again did me in.

‘Garden?’ says Mehrak. ‘Oh, in Amin Abad.’ He points in the direction we’re travelling.

We pass an upside-down car, its occupants sitting in the dirt tending to their bruises. Every few kilometres police stand watching the traffic. ‘Think there’ll be any problem with the cops?’ I ask.

Mehrak shrugs, but Ahmad says no. ‘My friends do this every year,’ he tells me.

‘What do they think about the ayatollahs saying it is haram?’

‘They do not agree. Many people do not agree with the ayatollahs, many times even ayatollahs do not agree with other.’

‘What do you think?’

‘People can do it if they want,’ Ahmad says. ‘It is between them and Allah. They do it for a good reason: because they love Imam Hussein. As for me, I prefer what you saw in the mosque.’

‘You do that?’


‘Aren’t dancing and displays of the flesh forbidden in Iran?’

‘You can do anything for Imam Hussein.’ Ahmad grins and stretches back in his seat.

Twenty kilometres from Zanjan we reach a dirt-poor settlement of mud-brick houses. It is Amin Abad and my spirits sink to see police at the turn-off. They have stopped a car heading in and are questioning the driver. But they ignore a pick-up that barrels by them, and then another car, and we take the plunge, driving past and up a road narrowing into a rugged alley of dirt and mud. Mehrak has to go slowly and really work the wheel, taking care to steer well clear of women in full chadors leading children through the labyrinth of alleys lined with high walls. There are men on foot, too; men with moustaches and pockmarked faces, men with caps and grey beards, and young sharpies stepping gingerly in leather slip-ons and white socks. My jaw is tight with apprehension about the relentless, concentrated, grinding exposure of being a kafir voyeur hanging around in a tiny garden of devout Shiites on their holiest day.

The track is getting thick with traffic and the walls are now lined with parked cars.

‘They aren’t all going to the ceremony, are they? How many people usually?’

‘About a thousand.’ Ahmad tells Mehrak to park as soon as he sees a space.

Out in the teeth-chattering air we join a stream of people walking towards the fringe of this hard-scrabble village. A pair of policemen stand straight ahead eyeballing us all and Mehrak steps around to block their view of me but there’s not so much need anymore; I’m an old hand at shuffling with my head down and gloves buried in pockets – the trudge is automatic. If more Iranians wore sunglasses then I’d have mine on but very few seem to wear them, so downcast it is. The cops don’t look twice. A kid soon does, however, and the tubby little boy walks almost backwards so he can keep checking out the alien blues.

Stalls give away hot, sweet milk which I want to drink more and more of but we trek on through mud and litter to a football pitch built on a slope. The police are hovering so we walk to the summit of the pitch and watch its perimeter fill with a circle of about a thousand people. I try texting Arman to ask if he made it to Tabriz, but the SMS won’t send. I try texting Mehrak, who’s a foot away, but again there’s no service.

‘Look at his head,’ Mehrak says, nodding towards a man in front of us whose crown has a hairless patch exposing a pink and scarred scalp. ‘He has done it many times.’

A dozen or so men make their way into the centre of the pitch carrying a black banner and loudspeakers set on poles. The two policemen soon join them and word spreads that they have said ghammeh zani is prohibited and anyone practising it will be arrested.

‘That’s it?’

‘It will happen,’ says Ahmad.

Within minutes the scarred man and a bunch of his companions walk from the pitch and disappear down the side of a ravine. Shortly afterwards we hear the sound of chants and cries of ‘Ya Hussein!’ The police don’t move.

‘They’re not going to arrest them?’ I ask.

‘Two police and a thousand believers? The police don’t want to get killed,’ says Mehrak. ‘They will stay away.’

People start peeling off to the ravine. From the top we look down on about twenty men locked in a marching formation, the same as last night – left hands on each other’s backs or shoulders, right feet forward for the stomp – but now the steel of twin-edged swords shines from the right hands of several.

We skid down the dirt slope to join a swelling audience of men gathering at the bottom; women in chadors form a jagged black line across the top of the ravine. Some husbands stay with them up on the lip of the dirt wall, others squat a few yards down the face, holding the hands of the more adventurous of the numerous little kids.

Another circle of swordsmen has formed, the colliding chants of the two groups messy and loud. The participants are aged from their late teens to their sixties, most being in their twenties. Some of the older men have the worn faces and clothes of poverty while plenty of the younger ones are flash in designer jackets and jeans. Only three or four have the cultivated anti-vanity of the cookie-cutter fanatic: surplus jackets and choppy beards under dumb, hateful eyes. Watchers press in holding up cell phones and camcorders.

Blood trickles brightly down the face of the scarred man we saw earlier, but I never saw him cut himself. He is talking to someone holding a squirt bottle – of antiseptic presumably – and a bag of dressings. Now another man detaches from the circle, stepping into its centre and raising a sword in both hands. The mustachioed gentleman in his late forties rocks on his feet with the surges of the chant, tilts the sword down and whips it back. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang; he slams the top of his head again and again until an aide stops him with a hand to the shoulder. The hacked man drops to a squat, blood running onto his black shirt. He shows no pain and doesn’t seem to be breathing hard; he just stares into the forest of men’s legs until someone brings a bottle and squirts his wounds. The medic dresses the deepest cuts and winds a bandage from under the man’s chin up around his head. By the time he finishes another bleeder is waiting. The medic moves straight on. No gloves.

‘Infections not a concern?’ I ask Mehrak.

He shakes his head. ‘They believe Imam Hussein will heal them, and maybe a glass of whisky tonight.’

For more than ninety minutes the swords swing nonstop. The ravine is strewn with bloody bandages, and I’m so ill that I squat among them, unable to stand for long and too queasy to move up the slope. Men mill about with bloody and bandaged heads, smoking and watching ever more join their ranks. Ahmad has been bandaging and his hands are stained with blood and antiseptic. I stand again as he brings over his friend Roozbeh, who has organised much of this. Roozbeh, who runs a construction company, is a foppish fellow with a dreamy air. He is unusually colourful in a pink sweater. ‘You are welcome here,’ he says, taking my hand, even as his eyes track an ankh-shaped blood pattern on the back of a shroud-wearer walking by.

‘Thank you. Have you ever done this?’ I ask, knocking on the top of my head.

‘Yes,’ he says, his eyes now on mine. ‘Every year for five years.’

‘What does it feel like?’

Roozbeh takes a deep breath. ‘I cannot speak of it. All I know is that I miss Imam Hussein.’

Almost two hours now and I’m shaking and trying to think about being far away but the chants and Ya Husseins and blood and the impossibility of getting warm keep me entirely in the present. Loudspeakers have even made it to this spiritual abattoir, with the rants and chants jarringly loud. Mehrak has seen enough too, but Ahmad is still on bandage duty and until he is finished we are staying in this bitter, barren ravine.

‘Old man,’ says Mehrak. I think he’s talking about me but then he nods towards the far edge of proceedings, where a dense mob of shroud-wearers is hard at it.

Struggling to my feet, I see a man who must be in his seventies winding himself up for a cut. He’s a firebrand, too, putting the young motor-mouths to shame with the vehemence of his calls. His last cry is to the holy handless Abolfazl before letting rip with the steel of God. Clonk. Mehrak and I look at each other. It’s the day’s crispest sound of sword on skull. Clonk. He does it again and I have to squat. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk.

Finally, it’s time to leave – but first we eat. The queue on the edge of the village for chelo gosht is long and slow and I need to lie down but my friends are hungry. The cooks have run out of meat, but a beautiful, purplish-dark, long-coated sheep is led past to have its throat slit.

‘Salam.’ It’s Roozbeh, his head wrapped, blood on his face and clothes, his expression soft and dreamy. ‘Khoda hafez,’ he says, wandering into the village. ‘Khoda hafez,’ says Ahmad, and turns back to Mehrak and me. ‘For Roozbeh, he cannot cut himself with other people around. He helps everyone, all day, and when there is nobody left he takes the sword for Imam Hussein.’


The cell phone wakes me up with a message. It’s night and I’ve been asleep since stumbling back in from Amin Abad. The text service must be working again. It’s Mehrak: Look at TV. I heave myself up, switch the TV on to the news channel. Tehran torn by riots. Police cars on fire. Banks burning. Government buildings attacked. Dead people.

2 Responses to ‘Running With the Blood God’

Therbs swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 4, 2013

That mob are loco bananas. They should realise that beer is a better option to smacking oneself in the head with a sword. They remind me of those idiots who get themselves put up onto crosses at Easter. Fkn nutters.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted November 4, 2013

A story as in a short narrative here, or something more formal?

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Respond to 'Running With the Blood God'

2nd Monster Book. Teaser

Posted October 30, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

The follow up to A Protocol for Monsters picks up a few days after its prequel. Although I'm trying to write them in such a fashion that you could read the titles out of sequence without losing too much.

That's a challenge for ya, right there.

As in Protocol it's a single PoV novel, with the story told from the hero's perspective. I am indulging in a couple of points of view in the prologue however. Partly to give myself some relief, partly to help confused readers who come to the series out of order.

So Book II is as yet untitled, and there's a cameo to be had for anyone who can come up with something as pleasing to my ear as A Protocol for Monsters. But the prologue takes place on the same day the day the monsters emerge in Protocol. In the scene below, however, nobody except Dave, our hard partying, deadbeat dad and Deepwater Horizon safety boss has figured out the monster thing.

It's raw copy. Even Murph hasn't had a chance to tell me all the ways I've got it wrong yet. There are two more sections to the prologue. At least one involving monsters. If you behave yourself, I might let you see them. Maybe.

A frame from The Demons of Buttecracke County, a not entirely unrelated story.

On a mild evening of the second day of Autumn in the year of our Lord, 2009, Supervisory Agent Robert ‘E-for-Easy’ Lee Suffolk II, went out to catch him a Goddamned Russki. A spy, but not just any old spy. Special Agent IN Charge Easy-Lee Suffolk’s Russki was an honest-to-Goddamn master spy of the female variety.

Because this damned Russki, a colonel of the GRU no less, was not your run of the mill agent, but a field controller of deep cover agents, a femme-most-fatale, Robert E-for-Easy Lee Suffolk, Supervisory agent of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Division in the New York Field Office insisted on belt and braces and extra safety pins all around to ensure it was not he who ended up pants down and red-faced at the end of the night.

This lady was, in his professional opinion, less Anna Chapman and more Nikita.

Right on the knocker at nineteen hundred and thirty hours, fifteen fleet vehicles rolled out of the underground car park at 26 Federal Plaza, bearing thirty-three special agents, including twelve heavy hitters from Manhattan’s FBI SWAT team.

The convoy moved east on Chambers for five blocks, escorted by two police cruisers. By prior arrangement with Metro Transport their progress through the thick, early evening traffic was hastened by staging a pulse of green lights between Federal Plaza and the target address on W27th street. The two cruisers did not power up their flashers. The long train of heavy black vehicles did draw the attention of some New Yorkers as it passed, some of whom used their phones to take photographs of the convoy, doubtless posting them immediately to Facebook or Twitter, and causing Special Agent in Charge Easy Lee Suffolk to wonder for the umpteenth time how anybody in his line of work was expected to get anything done in secret these days.

The soft warmth of the summer just gone still lingered in the evening air, and in the lead vehicle, a black Chevy Tahoe, SAC Suffolk sweated inside his dark blue suit jacket and heavy ballistic vest. He rode up front on the passenger side – the shotgun seat as he liked to call it – with the climate control pushed all the way down to Arctic, but his vest was leaden with trauma plates and his bespoke three-button blue suit was a heavy wool blend that he had had tailored at a very reasonable price in Hong Kong. It looked very smart, but did not breathe well. The ballistic vest he wore over it did not breathe at all. Every Special Agent rolling in convoy on the small art gallery in Chelsea were similarly attired and weighed down by armor. Boss’s orders.

The nick-name Easy Lee? That was strictly ironic.

The twelve tactical operators riding in two anonymous commercial vans just behind Suffolk’s Chevy were kitted out in armour, helmets, combat goggles and tactical black. They too looked the part but Easy Lee still worried about their combat load out and readiness. They were not HRT, which he had requested. Twice. The New York office, like all regional offices, maintained a tac-squad of part-time volunteers. Naturally, they received extra training and specialised equipment. The very name of the squad – Special Weapons and Tactics – would otherwise be a misnomer. But Agent Suffolk worried that his twelve operators were not quite special enough.

After all, this was one of the GRU’s top field operatives they were rolling on this evening. This lady had game.

Easy Lee Suffolk had thus seen fit to remonstrate with Assistant Special Agent in Charge Malcolm Preston, the part-time commander of New York’s part time SWAT team, that he was mistaken if he thought this would be some sort of cake run just because the target was a woman and her intention tonight was not to openly subvert the United States of America, but rather to launch an art exhibition. The art, after all, was part of her cover.

And anyway, were you to ask the opinion of Special Agent in Charge Easy Lee Suffolk, when he was off the clock and entitled to a private opinion, he would definitely tell you that as threats to the long term survival of these United States went, artists and communists were not a thousand miles removed from each other, or Ay-rabs or gay marrieds or that damned Rachel Maddow woman.

“Karen Warat – nee, Varatschevsky – is a full tweety bird colonel of the goddamned GRU of the Generalnovo Shtaba of the Armed Goddamned Forces of the Russian Federation,” he had lectured Agent Preston. “And if you assume her to be anything less than a deadly threat you will make an ass of ‘U’ and ‘Me’.”

Agent Preston had reminded Suffolk that he was, in fact an Assistant Special Agent in Charge, and that neither he nor his men made any such assumptions.

Still, as the police cruiser ahead of him swung onto Chambers for the quick run up West Street, Easy Lee could only wish that his request for a full HRT squad had been approved. Or even his request for a couple of back up NYPD SWAT teams in Bearcat armoured vehicles. Or a helicopter. Just one lousy helicopter would have been a consolation to his anxious mood.

The two NYPD liaison officers would make sure the local precinct uniforms took care of business out on West 27th, closing off the block to traffic, clearing any civilians who wandered into the tactical area like dopey cud-chewing moo cows and, of course, screening anyone swept up at the art gallery but…

Easy Lee Suffolk remained less than easy.

34 Responses to ‘2nd Monster Book. Teaser’

Darth Greybeard would have you know...

Posted October 30, 2013

I have a suggestion for the cover design. As long as @NBlob will sign a release on this photo.

So far it seems to have more Reds under the bed than Monsters? Um, "No Rules of Engagement"?

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w from brisbane reckons...

Posted October 30, 2013

That is terrific fun. Thanks JB.

I realise this has not gone thru the editing process etc. and I know no one would pay 2 cents to read my action adventure, but if I didn't like you (in an internet acquaintance sense) I wouldn't give a rat's arse, so

" that he had had tailored ". 'Had had' is gramatically correct, but can be jolting. I think the contraction " that he'd had tailored " has better flow

"Bearcat armoured vehicle" I think the manufacturer prefers BearCat

damian mutters...

Posted October 31, 2013

He could smooth the "had had" jangle with a contraction, or it could usefully be written with slightly different emphasis, something but necessarily exactly like "was tailored, at a very reasonable price in Hong Kong, from a heavy wool blend".

But if I ever look like I might be starting down a copy-editor's path, please shoot me.

NBlob puts forth...

Posted October 31, 2013


I can't turn the editor in my head off either, except when reading My work.

damian reckons...

Posted October 31, 2013

Last night I had a phone chat with an old school friend I haven't seen in 15 years. He tells me he'd been a copy editor for many years, including for Better Homes and Gardens, and that it is as soul destroying as you might imagine. He's been the corporate comms guy for a local council in Sydney for the last 4 years, something that he likes a lot better in that (if you look at it from the right angle, I guess) it has some redeeming social value.

Oh and that should be "something but NOT necessarily exactly like...". And under recursion, see recursion.

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Bunyip asserts...

Posted October 30, 2013


BTW, Easy Lee makes me think of the M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" Sherman. Just saying...

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John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted October 30, 2013

Dubya, I actually had BearCat in the original. Damned autoerect. (See what I did there?)

The double 'had' however? I got no excuse.

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Murphy reckons...

Posted October 31, 2013

At Oblivion's End.

Mainly because I think that would be a cool title.

Reads well so far. I haven't gone over it for deets yet.



On the Outer Marches

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damian mumbles...

Posted October 31, 2013

I'm still getting over this nasty cold, so I'm unable to vouch for the coherence of the comment I just sent to Blunty. But anyhoo.

damian has opinions thus...

Posted October 31, 2013

If I hadn't quite achieved incoherence previously, I'm sure the latest comment did :/

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Peter Bradley would have you know...

Posted October 31, 2013

Four and a bit pages and I am hooked already. Damn you Birmingham!!

"The Game Just Changed" or "First Encounters with the Enemy"

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insomniac swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 31, 2013

in the absence of my go to gal for titles, ms insomniac, i'll just have to submit my own lamo version, "Bring Yesterday Back".

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Brother PorkChop swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 31, 2013

The monsters are coming, and I for one can't wait. For a simple reader, following the previous title appears a trifle fraught with danger. The danger would be heading down the Ludlum path of cheesy title progressions. What is the collective noun for MONSTERS? A Mash of Monsters? An Horror of Monsters? A Terror of Monsters? Do they come in Cataclysms or Hordes? Maybe a new collective noun for monsters in the title.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted October 31, 2013

Loving it.

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Rob asserts...

Posted October 31, 2013

'Billy and the Monstersaurus' how does that grab you?

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Surtac reckons...

Posted October 31, 2013

'A Discourse with Demons'?

'A Dialogue with Daemons'?

Summat like that perhaps ...

I can't help it - I like alliteration.

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Legless mumbles...

Posted October 31, 2013

"A Covenant With Demons"

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w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted October 31, 2013

The Menace of Monsters

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NBlob asserts...

Posted October 31, 2013

Please release a bestiary.

Title: Devils take Gulfport

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Sparty2 mumbles...

Posted October 31, 2013

its on an oil rig right?

there are Demons?

"Drilling with Demons" - only way to go

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Therbs mutters...

Posted November 1, 2013

The Diet Of Demons

Demon Apps

Monster Mission


Earthborn Eruption

Demon Tide

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John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted November 1, 2013

Jesus wept, there's a reason you people dont work in publishing.

w from brisbane mutters...

Posted November 1, 2013

I was going to suggest,
"Dave the Monster Guerrilla".
Which is absolute genius! But I suspected you martini-soaked publishing wankers couldn't tell a good idea even if it was tattooed on your olive.

Rob asserts...

Posted November 1, 2013

I work in the public service. I'vemade my bed and now I have to live in it. feck.

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Therbs puts forth...

Posted November 1, 2013

We may not be in the publishing caper but we do love extracting urine.

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Brother PorkChop is gonna tell you...

Posted November 1, 2013

My Little Book of Monsters?

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w from brisbane mutters...

Posted November 1, 2013

There have been some great title suggestions.
Luckily, there are some smart people in publishing who understand titles.
If it was all people like JB, we would never have gotten the children's classic.

"Pooh Gets Stuck"

insomniac mumbles...

Posted November 1, 2013

Sorry ... Cooking With Pooh

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Murphy is gonna tell you...

Posted November 2, 2013

In reading up on FBI HRT vehicle support, they generally use a Mowag variant called the Bison. An eight by eight probably isn't the best for Manhattan. But then I am not sure why they'd need the BearCats either (meaning I'd have turned down the request). This secret agent type would probably prefer to exfiltrate away from any problem as opposed to stay in one place and confront it. Which, near as I can tell, is usually what an armored vehicle is good for in a SWAT situation, drawing the attention of some idiot while they find a way to gas or otherwise subdue them.

Low profile then would be better.

I do not see anything that jumps out as wrong in this scene other than the wishful thinking for a BearCat and even that can be sorta handwaved away.

Chevy Suburbans are the best vehicle for the FBI SWAT guys who would most likely be equipped with MP-5s, olive drab uniforms and body armor. They are likely to have the more advanced kevlar helmets. If needs must I can get deets on that. And a lot of these guys seem to have a nomex glove fetish.

A sample of what I do, folks.



On the Outer Marches

damian is gonna tell you...

Posted November 2, 2013

They still make Suburbans? They stopped selling the Holden badged version in 2001 (though a quick look over shows many of the late 90s examples carrying Chevy badges anyway).

Or are fleet vehicles longer-lived over there? Here it is usual for organisations to replace them at 2-years, though I think there are tax and insurance reasons for that which on reflection could be Oz-specific.

damian asserts...

Posted November 2, 2013

By way of answering myself, I see the Chevy site has the 2014 model up for $46.3k, which seems like good value to me.

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Dino not to be confused with mutters...

Posted November 3, 2013


Do I detect a theme?

As for a title what about the "WestaBaptaChapta meets Earth's Enema"?

Too catchy?

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Dirk swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 6, 2013

Heya JB,

If this is the central arc of the story my two cents for a Title would be "Gospodina". That's Russian for female comrade.

Point of interest though. You would make use of an FBI SWAT team. Maybee Murph can add his input on this too, but would it not be a mission for the NYPD SWAT team, namely the ESU?

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Respond to '2nd Monster Book. Teaser'

Under a Graveyard Sky extract:

Posted September 8, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Below is an extract from John Ringo's just released zombie/military thriller. I'm a huge fan of Ringo's Posleen invasion series and have been waiting on this bad boy for over a year now. With this an Steve Stirling's The Given Sacrifice out as well, it's looking like a good readin' month. For those coming here straight from Twitter, there is a introduction to the series by the Lord of Ringo himself in the post above.

Y'all can buy the Kindle version right here.


Snippet from Story One of Graveyard Sky (Light a Candle):

"Well," Kaplan said, catching the tossed rope. "I can see the family resemblance…"

Sophia had packed one 'good' outfit: a cream business suit and matching shoes. Which was what she was wearing. She was carrying a briefcase and had a backpack over her shoulder. And, because she wasn't stupid, she was wearing a nose/mouth respirator.

Faith on the other hand…

She had on body armor. And a full face mask respirator. And a tactical helmet. And a full coverage uniform. And tactical boots. And tactical gloves. And a radio. And a machete. And a kukri. And two or three more knives. And three, count 'em, three tasers, cause Uncle Tom hadn't mentioned (she couldn't carry) tasers…


"Do we have to go right back to the boat?" Sophia asked.

"It's getting dark," Steve said. "And there's a curfew."

"Which is hardly enforced," Tom said. "Even with the National Guard they're too busy rounding up infected."

"And it's getting dark," Steve noted.

"Up to the parents," Tom said, shrugging. "There are some clubs still open and I hear there's a more or less continuous concert going on in Washington Park. More of a rave, really."

"Concert?" Sophia said, her eyes lighting.

"In the dark," Steve said. "In zombie infested New York city."

"I've never been to a concert," Faith said, sadly. "I mean, that's one of those things you do when you're a teenager. The way things are going, I'll never get a chance. Or go to prom…" She sniffed.

"We are not going to a concert at night in a park in zombie infested New York!" Steve said. "And that's final!"


"This band sucks," Faith shouted…

(Yes, they went to the concert and, no, their father is never going to let it go.)

Longer snippet from the concert portion:

Sophia was reloading, visually tracking another inbound target, when her arm was grabbed from behind.

"What are you doing?" Christine asked. "You can't shoot those people!"

" 'Can't', 'may not' and 'shouldn’t' are three different things," Sophia said, seating the magazine and letting the slide go forward. "And what I'm doing is protecting you. Why the hell are you still here?" She looked over her shoulder and was amazed that the concert was still going on. Thinking about it, Voltaire hadn't even missed a beat.

"They come every night," Todd said. "It's their concert."

"What?" Sophia asked, her eyes wide. "Don't they…? Don't you get attacked?"

"They bite some people," Christine said. "Sometimes they eat. I've been waiting to get bitten. But they haven't taken me, yet."

"WHAT?" Sophia screamed. The infected was inside fifteen meters so she put two rounds in her chest and turned back, keeping her weapon pointed downrange and looking over her shoulder. "WHAT? Are you flipping nuts? You WANT to be a zombie?"

"There's nothing to be afraid of if you're a zombie," Christine said, starting to cry. "You just are. You just exist. It's like…"

"It's like zen, you know?" Todd said, swaying back and forth. "You just exist in the moment, man. There's no stress. No school, no work, just eat or be eaten. It's like Rousseau's noble savage, the beast inside every man."

"You are absolutely batshit freaking nuts," Sophia said, looking back to the target zone. Another inbound. "I am not going to be turned into a zombie. My sister got infected but she pulled through and we are not going to be zombies. We are not."

"You just don't get it," Todd said. "Myrmidon."

"Idiot," Sophia said, double tapping the next inbound. She looked around and had time so she quickly reloaded her magazines.

"And now you've brought the soldiers here," Christine said, disgustedly. "They're going to just blow us all away! Babykillers!"

"You want to be a zombie?" Sophia asked. She grabbed Todd by the arm and walked him over to the nearest fresh corpse. Then she pulled out a clasp knife. "Cut your arm. Wipe some of the blood on it. Instant zombie."

"I…" Todd said. "Let go of me…"

"You're not going to because you're afraid," Sophia said, holding the knife up to his eye-level. "You're afraid because you're not willing to fight back. You're the poet. What's the thing about the raging and darkness?"

"You mean Dylon Thomas?" Todd said, disdainfully. " 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light'?"

"Do not go gentle into this good night," Sophia snarled, waving at the darkness all around. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"That is what you should be doing!" she finished. "Raging against the dying of the light. You're not even in old age!"

"You knew the poem," Todd said, wonderingly.

"I got an A plus in a really tough AP English class," Sophia said. "And AP Physics. And Calculus. And I know how to kill zombies. What the hell have you been doing with your life?"

"You want to tell us what's been going on here, miss?" the sergeant of the three man team asked. They weren't up and pointed but you could tell they were here for a fire-fight.

"We're having a poetry and philosophy discussion, Sergeant," Sophia said, holstering her pistol. "I'm glad you could join us…"

Snippet from the beginning of story two (I Will Not Bow):

"If not us, who?" Steve asked. "Tom, if he's out there still, is locked into a fortress and can't get out. Ditto any remaining government groups. There probably are government secure points that held out. But they're trapped by the zombies. We have mobility. And there are other boats, ships, survivors out there. We'll rescue them and organize."

"You think they'll go for it?" Stacey asked. "Tina's a lovely child but she's not going to be much help. They're all going to be traumatized, terrified…"

"Some will," Steve said. "Those that don't…" He shrugged. "Cross that bridge when we come to it. We'll cross every bridge when we come to it. We're going to win and I'm not going to let the bloody damned zombies stop us. I will not bow."


Longer snippet from the Second story:

"Have you ever wondered why my daughter is called Faith?" Steve said.

"I had assumed you were a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Galloway said. "Or at least that was suggested by one of my advisors."

"Never saw it until after she was born," Steve said. "My masters was on logistics in a low support condition, specifically keeping the Gloster Gladiators flying on Malta during the Siege."

"I have a lot of history, but… Standby… Ah, my senior Air Force advisor just filled me in. Faith, Hope and Charity. I see."

"Three obsolete biplanes faced down the Luftwaffe for nearly two years and kept flying, sir," Steve said. "Their crews had to make parts from scrap metal. Parts would come in for Hurricanes. Hurricanes. They didn't see their first Hurricane until 1943. So they would rework Hurricane parts to work in Glosters. They would beg, borrow or steal. Rework, refit, literally use chewing gum. When they had chewing gum."

"That makes sense," Galloway said. "I guess you are well prepared for your current situation."

"Does your Air Force advisor know which aircraft had the most kills, sir? That never missed so much as one battle?"

"She admits that as a bomber pilot she'd sort of consider them the bad guys, so, no."

"Put it this way, sir," Steve said. "Whenever they went to battle, they always had Faith."

23 Responses to ‘Under a Graveyard Sky extract:’

Dilph mutters...

Posted September 8, 2013

Some fairly bad HTML issues here, bossman...

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted September 8, 2013

Yeah, but once you get past the intro code, the shout out is fairly cool.

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ShaneAlpha asserts...

Posted September 8, 2013

On the gripping hand, liked the extracts. Must. Spend. More. Money. On. Zombies.

Darth Greybeard reckons...

Posted September 8, 2013

Stinkin' Motie!

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Anthony mumbles...

Posted September 8, 2013

I bought the advanced readers ebook from Baen yesterday. For once I'm at the leading edge :)

Now all I have to do is get around to reading it...

And JB, be greatful Clive didn't take up your offer. You could have ended up a politician...

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MickH mutters...

Posted September 8, 2013

No political debate this year John?


Used to enjoy those in the past

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted September 8, 2013

Later, Mick.

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 8, 2013

I too thought Mr Abbott wins the election an already the formating is Fracked. Thats a great extract and I have purchased the book on Kindle.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted September 8, 2013

We are drifting off topic, but that can only be deemed natural considering that your National Party has achieving power via a coalition that includes a big chunk of the Australian lunatic fringe, and the Derpocracy (I adore that term; thank you Bob) that results. It will be interesting to see if this has the same effect it had in the US.

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted September 8, 2013

You know if you paste the HTML salad above into a web browser it calls up a clip of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody being played backwards and it sounds like it is saying "Freddie is the Devil".

Darth Greybeard reckons...

Posted September 8, 2013

(thinks: What rubbish! But it is Barnesm so maybe I should try it. Hmm. Soul is devoured and browser reverts to Netscape Navigator. Damn you Barnes.)

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted September 8, 2013
Off topic (again) Barnes' comment reminds me of a news story I read back in the early 1970's about a group of fundamentalist Southern American Christians who bought and burned a big bunch of records with the Mr. Ed theme song on them ("a horse is a horse/of course, of course/ and no one can talk to a horse, of course..."). They claimed that, if you played the Mr. Ed theme song backwards a demonic voice could be heard chanting "Someone sang this song for Satan."

I laughed and laughed when I read that news story. What a bunch of maroons.

Now those people are in control of the US House of Representatives in the American Derpocracy.

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Murphy has opinions thus...

Posted September 8, 2013

Not only is the kudo from Ringo well deserved but I gotta say, if he didn't find any quibbles with the military bits of the Disappearance Trilogy then that is something to crow about.

I'm getting a copy next payday. Looking forward to having something on my stack that I actually WANT to read again.



On the Outer Marches

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w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted September 8, 2013

"And you must be Ringo.
Look darling, Johnny Ringo.
The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say.
What do you think, darling? Should I hate him?"

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Quokka reckons...

Posted September 8, 2013

Um, what happened to my burst of cackling at all that code?

That completely made my day, that the first thing I saw on the internet under the new world order was that littany of code transcription horror.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted September 8, 2013

I deleted it. And I cackled like a crazy cat lady while doing so.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted September 8, 2013

I thought you were a manic completeist? Or are you completist tendancies inconsistant? rending it pointless, yet poigniant.

Mmmm. Render.

Quokka mumbles...

Posted September 8, 2013

Well that explains the buckshot in my avatar.

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w from brisbane is gonna tell you...

Posted September 8, 2013

Ringo stands calmly looking on. The desert stretches out into the distance beyond him. If Ringo is taken aback by Curly's shotgun, he doesn't show it.

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w from brisbane swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 8, 2013

A favourite movie scene.
Latin translations are accurate in meaning, but not literal. I have nicked them off someone else.

Doc Holiday:
And you must be Ringo. Look, darling, Johnny Ringo.
The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say.
What do you think, darling?
Should I hate him?

You don't even know him.

Doc Holiday:
Yes, but there's just something about him. Something around the eyes.
I don't know, reminds me of... me.
No. I'm sure of it, I hate him.

Wyatt Earp (to Ringo):
He's drunk.

Doc Holiday:
In vino veritas. (When drinking, I speak the truth.)

Johnny Ringo:
Age quod agis. (Do what you do best.]

Doc Holiday:
Credat Judaeus Apella. (I don't believe drinking is what I do best.)

Johnny Ringo (pats gun) :
Ecentus stultorum magister. (Fools have to learn by experience.)

Doc Holiday (Cheshire cat smile):
In pace requiescat. (It's your funeral)

Sherriff White (enters, appeasing):
Come on now, we don't want any trouble in here. Not in any language.

Doc Holiday:
Evidently, Mr. Ringo's an educated man. Now I really hate him.

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Anthony is gonna tell you...

Posted September 9, 2013

Not working today so I actually read it through. I think Mr Ringo may be mellowing a little with a bit less of his political views coming through. I enjoyed it - with the usual reservations which I won't mention yet because of spoiler.

Not a bad job of having an Australian central character - he's not quite got the language right but a far better effort than most.

The bastard has ended with a "To Be Continued". I hope it's continued soon.

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JOHN RINGO would have you know...

Posted September 10, 2013

I wrote all four books in the series in a year. Baen got out a crowbar and shoehorned them into a year or so of schedule. Next one is due in February so you won't have to wait long on the 'to be continued.' The first two books end 'To be continued' the third ends 'The Beginning.' The fourth I don't think I put a 'the end' or anything. It's simply... there. (Didn't really want to write the fourth book but the situation called for it.)

My great grandfather's first cousin was not educated in Latin. (Although my GGF was.) He was a mean drunk with a surly disposition. He gained fame from claiming to have killed two men. (Some question whether he did. Whether or not he did, they were 'bushwacked', IE 'snipered.' Shot in the back with a rifle from cover. Not face to face.)

He missed the OK Corral from, take your pick, being too hung over or too cowardly. I go with both. There's no indication that he ever faced a man in cold blood in his life. He was just a surly drunk and a bully who waved a gun around alot. He probably took his own life in a fit of depression which runs in the family. (God knows I've got it.)

My GGF was a marshal in Kansas when his cousin was in Texas. Family legend has it that they had an agreement: Johnny didn't go north, Ben didn't go south. That way they wouldn't have to try to kill each other which makes family dinners awkward. I've got better than even odds on my GGF.

He'd gone west to seek his fortune, ended up working as a clerk in a store in a cattle-town. (Where they brought the cattle herds to get loaded on the railroad.) Young men who hadn't seen civilization for months and who had to be armed for a variety of reasons on their jobs would come into town looking to get laid, get drunk and get into a fight in no particular order. He, being a young man as well, would go to the bars. He quickly got a reputation as a guy who could 'calm' things and when that didn't happen could 'end' things quickly and definitively. He was initially hired as a 'cooler' then was asked the take over as marshal. The previous marshal had quit cause the job was impossible. The one before that had been killed.

He sent down some of his maxims through the family. "Never start a fight. If you can, try to calm people and stop it that way. If you cannot avoid the fight, be the last man standing."

(I used to be able to do this, by the way. My 'friends' HAH! in the army would get a bar on the point of riot then throw me in to 'see what I was made of.' Five minutes later, everybody would be singing along to 'Carolina'. (Carolina, nananaa, hey, hey, hey, Gooood bye!) They truly hated me for that.)

My GGF had to return home to take over the affairs when his father had ill health. He later attended Princeton, became a lawyer then a magistrate and retired as a Circuit Court Judge. (Back when that meant riding a horse around the circuit.) His reputation was as a judge you wanted to be before if you were innocent and avoid if you were guilty. Fair but firm and absolutely unyielding to the guilty. He ordered more than one death sentence.

We have his pistol and regalia from his marshal days. They say that carving a notch on your pistol was a sign of a tinhorn. Whatever. You only carved a notch if it was a stand-up fight.

He had seven.

Which is one of the many many reasons I cordially hate any reference to that turd who got a reputation as an 'infamous outlaw.' I somewhat wish I'd been named Benjamin but it was taken by a cousin my generation. However, the name has probably helped sell some books.

And I am an educated man.

John Ringo

Anthony is gonna tell you...

Posted September 11, 2013

Them's good news about the books...

Romantic ancestors are not always romantic. My wife has an ancestor who was sent out to NSW as a convict. He was convicted of "Robbery on the King's Highway" .The family had notions of a gallant Dick Turpin "stand and deliver" type. What they discovered was basically a thug who in company with a couple of accomplices would creep up behind people, hit them over the head and make off with whatever they had.

A common or garden mugger.

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Book Extract - Extreme Cosmos by Prof. Bryan Gaensler

Posted June 16, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

The First Sounds in the Universe.

You can buy it here in OZ/NZ.

And here everywhere else.

There are supposedly no sounds in space, because space is a vacuum. After all, sound is a pressure wave that needs air in which to travel, so space must be completely quiet.

But as it turns out, there are sounds in space. Space might be more rarefied than anything we can produce in a laboratory here on Earth, but it is certainly not empty. In a typical part of the Milky Way, far from any stars, planets or nebulae, every cubic metre of space contains about a million atoms. This is more than 10 million trillion times fewer atoms than in a cubic metre of air at sea level, but it is still not a vacuum. Correspondingly, the pressure of the gas in space is extremely low. But because the pressure is not zero, the movements of stars, planets and other celestial bodies through the cosmos will produce upwards or downwards variations in this pressure. And these pressure fluctuations will then travel through space as sound waves.
As a result, the Universe is full of noise: the deep roaring of giant black holes, the sharp cracks of supernova explosions, and a myriad of other sounds. One way or another, all these sounds are produced by the actions of stars, black holes and galaxies. But these constituents of the cosmos have not always existed. We know that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, and we know that there were times, very early on, when no stars or galaxies had yet formed.

So before the first star and before the first galaxy, were the vast stretches of the Universe filled with nothing but silence? Or was there a cosmic song long before there were individual singers? What was the first sound in the Universe?

These questions sound like the sort of thing best left to philosophers. But incredibly, astronomers can answer them with considerable precision.

There is very strong evidence that space and time both began with an event known as the “Big Bang”, which from our current best estimates occurred 13.8 billion years ago. But despite its name, the Big Bang is thought to have been utterly silent. The distributions of matter and energy created in this sudden cataclysmic event were almost perfectly smooth – there were no oscillations in pressure that could correspond to any noise.

However, after much less than a trillion trillionth of a second, when the observable Universe had expanded to about the size of a beach ball, the cosmos had become decidedly lumpy. As time passed, and the Universe continued to expand, the denser clumps of material used their gravitational attraction to pull in more mass toward them. These clumps then grew in pressure as the gas in them became more tightly squeezed, forcing the gas to expand. As these clouds of gas expanded, their pressure dropped and their expansion slowed. Gravity then began to exert itself, and the process repeated.

By less than a millisecond after the Big Bang, gas clouds over a whole range of sizes had begun collapsing and expanding, their pressure rising and falling as a consequence. Oscillations of pressure had been established – the Universe had found its voice!

These first sound waves were special. Rather than travelling from point A to point B, like my voice sending sound through the air to your ears, these waves oscillated up and down in pressure without actually going anywhere. These are known as “standing waves”, and are very similar to the stationary sound waves set up inside a flute or organ pipe.

The length of an organ pipe determines the tone of the sound it produces: the smallest organ pipes produce the highest notes. In an analogous way, the age of the observable Universe at these early times dictated the pitch of the primordial tune. When the Universe was very young, only clumps of matter that were relatively small, and for which the gas was able to expand and contract rapidly, had had enough time to complete one full cycle of pressure oscillations. Correspondingly, the cosmic choir was comprised only of sopranos. As the Universe aged, increasingly slower oscillations were completed, and correspondingly deeper notes were added to the chorus.

Furthermore, as time went on, the music became louder. This is because the overall level of clumpiness in the Universe increased as gravity began to exert its grip. As the clumps grew in size, the contrast between expansion and contraction of gas clouds was higher, and the pressure waves became stronger.

So what did the standing waves in the early Universe sound like? Just 10 years after the Big Bang, the dominant note in the Universe was F-sharp (but 35 octaves lower than the lowest note a human ear can perceive), at a volume of 90 decibels (about as loud as standing next to a lawnmower). Over the next hundred thousand years, a whole new set of larger gas clouds were able to begin oscillating: more than 13 octaves of even deeper notes were added to the celestial pipe organ, with the volume increasing by a factor of 20.

At any moment in time, just as the largest possible gas cloud was completing its first cycle of collapse and expansion, there were other gas clouds, exactly half the size, which had completed two full cycles, and yet more clouds, half again as large, which had oscillated four times. As a consequence, the loudest note was accompanied by a whole set of fainter harmonics and overtones.

However, do not envisage some pleasant sounding barbershop quartet. This set of harmonics was not the pure timbre of a musical instrument, but a blurry blend of overlapping notes. The result, if you could hear it, would be a fuzzy hiss, steadily descending in pitch and gaining in volume as the Universe aged.

This celestial song lasted for 380,000 years, but then abruptly ceased, never to resume. What happened to mute this enormous cosmological pipe organ? And how do we know that these sounds ever happened, if they vanished billions of years ago?

At very early times the Universe was a dense fog, because a ray of light was unable to travel even a short distance before colliding with a sub-atomic particle. It was throughout this period, known as the “pre-recombination era”, that clumps of gas expanded and collapsed, producing these first sounds.

However, after 380,000 years, the Universe had cooled to a temperature of 2700 oC, cold enough that sub-atomic particles could combine to form atoms. With this soup of free-floating particles removed, the skies cleared, and the cosmos became transparent.

This process silenced the Universe, because it changed the speed of sound. Before recombination, sound waves travelled through a gelatinous mix of light and matter, for which the speed of sound was about 60% of the speed of light, or about 620 million kilometres per hour. At this high sound speed, gas clouds were able to collapse and expand relatively quickly.

However, once matter and light went their separate ways, the speed of sound plummeted essentially to zero. At the moment of recombination all the sloshing of gas in and out immediately ceased, and the Universe became silent.

The cosmic symphony suddenly halted, right at the time when the Universe opened itself up for view. So how do we even know that these sounds existed?

We know because although these sounds have long since faded, the final crescendo is forever frozen into the very fabric of the cosmos.

The moment of recombination left behind the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a faint, cold light that fills the Universe. The CMB was discovered in the 1960s, and immediately became the object of detailed study by astronomers around the world. By the 1990s, precision observations were able to show that the glow from the CMB was not completely uniform, but that some parts of the sky were 0.001% warmer or cooler than others.

As measurements have continued to improve, these tiny variations have revealed a spectacularly detailed portrait of the Universe at that moment of recombination more than 13 billion years ago, just 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Because what these small temperature variations correspond to are individual clumps of gas, frozen in time in the middle of their pressure oscillations in or out. Those oscillations have now ceased their motion, but we can see them at their final positions. It is as if we have a photograph of the orchestra as it hits its final note: the conductor’s arms are raised high, and the performers can all be seen straining with effort as they play their instruments at their loudest volumes. But the sound itself is missing.

Astronomers have analysed these temperature fluctuations in considerable detail, and have found that the CMB is not comprised of a random jumble of different-sized sized patches of hot and cold, but that regions of higher or lower temperature tend to have certain sizes. In particular, most of the temperature variations that we can see extend over extents on the sky about twice the diameter of the full moon. This implies that there is a clear fundamental tone imprinted onto the Universe (subsequent analysis has that this is accompanied by at least five higher harmonics).

We can thus state with considerable accuracy and confidence that the dominant note of the cosmos at recombination was almost exactly 54 octaves below middle C, at an ear-splitting volume of around 120 decibels. To play this note, an organ would need a pipe more than 10 trillion kilometres long!

After recombination, the Universe continued to expand and cool, but did so in absolute silence. Over the next hundreds of millions of years, clumps of gas that happened to be near maximum contraction at recombination were able to continue collapsing under the influence of gravity, and eventually coalesced into the first stars and galaxies.

There is a startling connection between the strange harmonising of the pre-recombination era and the hubbub that the cosmos experiences today.

As we can see directly from the CMB, the hottest gas clumps at recombination (i.e., those that were just completing the compression part of their pressure oscillation at the moment the Universe became transparent) all had a particular size. The size that we see on the sky, about double the size of the full moon, corresponded to a physical extent of 460,000 light years at the time of recombination. However, over the more than 13.8 billion years since then, the Universe has expanded by more than a factor of 1000. As a consequence, if these regions still existed now, they would have been stretched so that they would now be 500 million light years across.

In the early 1980s, astronomers began to measure the three-dimensional positions of hundreds of relatively nearby galaxies, and found that they are not scattered uniformly, but are clumped into complicated patterns. The realisation that the Universe is not totally chaotic but has a characteristic structure was a remarkable discovery.

But in 2005, when astronomers had expanded their catalogues of galaxy positions to many tens of thousands of objects, an even more incredible result emerged. Not only is the distribution of galaxies clumpy, but the size of these clumps is not random. How big is a typical clump of galaxies? Pretty close to 500 million light years, the same size the hot clouds of gas from recombination would be if they had survived through to the present.

The conclusion is inescapable: these hot clouds have survived, but have now evolved into galaxies, stars, planets and people. What we see all around us, and indeed ourselves are part of, is a fossil record of the oscillating sound waves from the earliest times in history, forever woven into the distribution of matter throughout the cosmos.

The first sounds in the Universe ceased long ago. The conductor and the musicians have departed the cosmic stage, taking their instruments with them. However, the performers have left behind their sheet music. By studying the cosmic microwave background and the large-scale structure of the Universe, we can recover the first music ever played, music that was never intended to be heard.

Bryan Gaensler (@SciBry) is Director of the Centre for All-sky Astrophysics at The University of Sydney. This is an edited excerpt from his book Extreme Cosmos, published by NewSouth Books (Australia/NZ) and Penguin (everywhere else).

2 Responses to ‘Book Extract - Extreme Cosmos by Prof. Bryan Gaensler’

Barnesm reckons...

Posted June 16, 2013

Love this stuff, and its available in the kindle

if interested in this sort of science stuff check out Downloaded the Universe reviews these sort of electronic books.

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Neuronhead would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013

"Comprised of"

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Book of the Week: Philosophy in the Garden

Posted June 9, 2013 into Book Extract by DAYoung

Available direct from Melbourne Uni Press.

All this thinky at such a low, low price.

And you can support an indy bookshoppe.

Aristotle had a reputation as a dandy. According to ancient biographer Diogenes Laërtius, the father of scientific philosophy lisped fashionably, and was known for his schmick wardrobe and bling.

The impression, bolstered by his ties to the Macedonian royals, is of a metropolitan bon vivant with a taste for opulence. And this makes historical sense: as Aristotle himself noted, philosophy arose in big, rich cities, which gave literate upper classes the leisure to converse and write.

But Aristotle’s school was not in the Macedonian court, Athens’ prestigious suburbs like Kerameikos, or the agora, the busy marketplace. The philosopher preferred to give his famous lectures in a park.


His school, the Lyceum, was named for the shaded groves where the philosopher rented his buildings. Situated east of the city walls, the Lyceum was dedicated to Apollo Lyceus, the son of Zeus in his “wolf god” guise. It had walks, running tracks, change rooms, wrestling schools, temples and stoa- porticoes, shaded from sun and rain. Military parades were held there, along with cult rituals. It was an all-purpose reserve for sports, religion, politics – and philosophy. Aristotle taught his students as they strolled around the peripatoi, the colonnades – hence their name, the “peripatetics”. His Lyceum also housed the first botanical garden (probably stocked by the Macedonian empire), which undoubtedly contributed to his lost book On Plants.

In this, Aristotle was following his teacher, Plato, whose Academy was also in a sacred grove, and who similarly taught on the hoof. (“I’ve been doubting long, and walking up and down like Plato,” gibed playwright Alexis, “but only tired my legs.”)

This devotion to gardens lived on in Classical philosophy. Aristotle’s own student and successor, Theophrastus, wrote the first systematic treatise on botany, and bequeathed the Lyceum gardens to his colleagues “as may wish to study philosophy and literature there . . . on terms of familiarity and friendship”.

The Lyceum and Academy schools remained at the heart of Mediterranean intellectual life for over two centuries. One of the great Hellenistic critics of Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus, retired to his backyard in suburban Athens for a life of grumbling austerity. His school was called “The Garden”: a symbol of his independence, and a means of realising it. “He who follows nature,” Epicurus was quoted by Porphyry as saying, “is in all things self-sufficient.”

Educated Romans also took to gardens for scholarship and conversation, often in a knowing nod to their Greek forebears. Shoved from public office, Cicero wrote of opening an “Academy” in his own Tusculum villa. He and his students worked while walking outdoors, and Cicero noted the particular joy of watching plants grow. “I am principally delighted,” said Cicero’s Cato in On Old Age, “with observing the power, and tracing the process, of Nature in these her vegetable productions.”

At the end of the Classical era, more than 700 years after Aristotle opened his school, the Platonic theologian Augustine was converted to Christianity in a garden. “I flung myself under a fig tree,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and gave free course to my tears.”


Philosophy was often alfresco. There are many reasons for this. Most obviously, gardens are a bulwark against distraction. Philosophy is a gregarious pursuit, which thrives on social ferment. But too much stimulation leads to madness, not meditation. Even in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, cities were noisy, busy and full of interruptions. Athens’ streets were small and winding, with residents walking at all hours (often drunk, stumbling home after symposiums). Wagons rumbled and squeaked all day, and if the comic playwright Aristophanes is to be believed, the roads were often dumping grounds for emptied bladders and chamber pots.

But Athenians couldn’t flee the streets’ chaos by heading home, as they often had donkeys, goats and other livestock as housemates. The Lyceum let Aristotle and his students escape the commotion of urban life and focus on the finer points of logic and metaphysics.


The ancient Greeks were also a physical people, for whom study did not mean a sedentary life. The first schools were gymnasiums for sports like sprinting and wrestling. A public park was a place to stretch their legs, flex their oiled muscles. And gardening itself was, as Socrates reportedly pointed out, an exercise.

“Quite high and mighty people find it hard to hold aloof from agriculture,” he was reported to have said, in Xenophon’s Economist, “combining as it does a certain sense of luxury with the satisfaction of an improved estate, and such a training of physical energies as shall fit a man to play a free man’s part.”


Aristotle, like many of his students, was also an empirical philosopher. That is, he was not content to merely theorise – he wanted hard evidence. “Those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts,” he wrote in On Generation and Corruption, “are too ready to dogmatise on the basis of a few observations.”

Hence his cultivation of a botanic garden, and his studies abroad. His work on biological classification was detailed, rigorous and unparalleled for millennia – so much so that Charles Darwin referred to the great taxonomists Carl Linnaeus and Georges Cuvier as “mere schoolboys to old Aristotle”.

For the philosopher, the Lyceum garden was most likely a regular source of philosophical material, for dissection, analysis, synthesis and lecturing – a field trip and laboratory demonstration in one.


But there are more intellectual reasons for philosophy’s plein-air tradition. The garden is not simply a retreat or source of physical exercise. It is intellectually stimulating in its own right, because it is a fusion of two fundamental philosophical principles: humanity and nature. This is suggested by the word itself, and its cognates in German and the Romance languages: Garten, jardin, giardino.
Like the English “yard”, they refer to enclosure, which requires two things:something cordoned off (nature), and someone to do the cordoning (humanity). Beginning with sacred groves like the Lyceum, every garden is a union of this kind: nature separated, bordered, transformed by humans.

What makes gardens unique is the explicit character of this fusion. Nature is regularly and radically transformed by humans. As Aristotle pointed out, this is the very definition of craft: realising natural possibilities that cannot realise themselves.

In art and manufacturing alike though, the contributions and combinations of nature and humanity are often hidden. For example, trees become timber; ore becomes metal, zooplankton and algae become oil then plastic – they are natural in origin, but no longer “nature”. Nature is understood as wilderness, disease, esoteric symbols – as distant “other”. Meanwhile, human labour is also invisible: we see products and services, but not necessarily the people who produced them.

The garden overcomes this double alienation, by displaying human and natural processes together. Plants and stones remain recognisably plants and stones, but they are arranged, cultivated and maintained artfully. In this, they demonstrate our specific relationship with nature – what we make of it, physically and intellectually.
Aristotle saw nature as something of an organism, full of growth and movement. Plato’s nature was a divine blueprint, Epicurus’, a random strife of atoms.

There is no final word on what nature is – what “is” is. Precisely because of this, mankind is also a puzzle. Our existence is enigmatic, because human nature is not universal or eternal, and we are opaque to ourselves. There is not only nature, but also second nature – the first given, the second made.


Yet what humanity makes of itself is often unclear and unpredictable. These were the unspoken points of the riddle of the Sphinx, the premise of one of Athens’ premier tragedies, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
“Man” is the answer to the Sphinx’s question: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening, yet keeps its voice?”– but this is a deceptively simple reply. The species continues, but we keep transforming. As individuals and societies, we are works in progress, with novel perspectives and trajectories. And as poor Oedipus discovered, these are rarely completely clear. Humanity is an ongoing question, not an answer.

These riddles, nature and humanity, combine in the garden.


For all Aristotle’s speculative flights, he recognised that humans are embodied creatures: ideas are often inspired and expressed physically. This is doubly so when they are given some organic or primal form, like plants or rocks.

The garden gives basic concepts a vital dynamism or dense gravitas. This intellectual and sensory richness is why gardens still have an air of sanctity to them.

Many religious buildings – from the Lyceum’s “wolf god” temples, to Buddhist monasteries, to medieval cathedrals – have gardens attached or nearby. But these are simply the more notable examples.
The garden is not strictly a theistic or spiritual phenomenon. It has its roots in more basic impulses: to carve off a portion of the landscape, and distinguish it from ordinary places.

This is suggested by the origins of the word “sacred”: from the Indo-European sak, meaning to separate, demarcate, divide. The opposite of the sacred is not the secular but the ordinary, from which it is set apart. In this light, the garden is one of the original sacred sites, preceded by groves like the Lyceum: an area cordoned off from purely natural or human activity, but which explicitly unites both. While perfectly secular, its walls, fences, ditches or hedges symbolise a break from “common sense”.

The garden is, in other words, an invitation to philosophy.

This invitation is not only for professional philosophers – as if reflection were a private club for tenured academics. Starting with the Greeks, philosophy has a long amateur tradition, which flourishes as much in literature, poetry and fine art as it does in philosophy seminars.

It does not require a university, but rather the balance of society and solitude that universities, at their best, provide. Like Aristotle’s Lyceum, the garden is a companion to the life of the mind.
Aesthetically, it caters to varied tastes: colourful or muted, geometric or serpentine, busy or austere. But more importantly, in an era of acceleration, over-stimulation and interruption, the garden is a chance to slow down, look carefully and think boldly – it is an antidote to distraction. ‘The human race lives,” wrote Aristotle in Metaphysics, “by art and reasonings.”


Over two millennia on, the garden remains a rare refuge for both. Gardens can be beautiful – sometimes overwhelmingly so. They can console, calm and uplift. But they can also discomfit and provoke, and this is often their philosophical value. For all their common themes – order and disorder, growth and decay, consciousness and unconsciousness, stasis and animation – gardens reveal conflict: the conceptual strife in every civilisation, and every civilised mind.
For this reason, the story of the garden – told through my book – involves varied characters, with jarring sensibilities.

Jane Austen looked to her cottage garden for the comforts of perfection. Leonard Woolf’s frozen apple trees suggested exactly the opposite: a taste of the world’s precarious brutality. For Marcel Proust, stuck in his musty, latrine-smelling bedroom, three bonsai symbolised a search for lost time. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Italian thought-tree gave the sickly philosopher a surge of strength and bravery: forget the past; keep creating and destroying.

The scandalous French author Colette discovered contemplative peace in roses. A generation later, her cafe-haunting countryman Jean-Paul Sartre described the nausea provoked by a chestnut tree – an existentialist cry that rallied a generation.

In this way, gardens make the truth of philosophical discord easier to identify, and harder to ignore. “Piety requires us to honour truth,” wrote Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, “above our friends.”

In this spirit, this exploration offers an increased intimacy with nature, human nature, and their mysterious fusion: the garden.

Buy it now.

25 Responses to ‘Book of the Week: Philosophy in the Garden ’

Brian reckons...

Posted June 9, 2013

Nice. A lot of stuff that I've been doing and reading in one place. Went to Monets - Water Garden exhibition where similar themes are explored . En plain got thrown around a lot - French, in the open air ref. painting outside.

Missed one thing on Aristotle a peripatetic - wandering or walking philosopher. A jarring note.

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2013
Hi JB, you're up early. Or late. Anyway, thanks for this. I've read a number of 'philosophy for non-philosophers' books over the years and some struggle to balance accessibility with sufficient detail to remain interesting . This book appears to have achieved the balance and I really enjoyed the writing style.

Couple of things came to mind. Donna Tartt's The Secret History features ' The Lycaeum' but it refers to a building rather than a garden - although having read the above, I now suspect Tartt selected the name to symbolize the cultivation of the students' minds by their teacher.

Gardens do play a significant role in Austen . I don't know if the book goes on to discuss it

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mumbles...

Posted June 9, 2013
But there are often references in books of that time to 'a wilderness' part of the garden i.e. Plantings deliberately mimicking a wild place untouched by human hands. So we have the appearance of wildness and danger without the risk.

I do feel smarter!

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 9, 2013

I seem to recall spending a few pars in Leviathan on competing systems of thought re landscape gardening in eighteenth century Europe, one of which emphasised order and another the 'natural wilde'. You can do that in long books.

DAYoung swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 9, 2013

Thanks, Jayanthi's Atomic Cat. The book actually has a chapter on Jane Austen. (Her silhouette's on the cover, too.)

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mumbles...

Posted June 9, 2013
Cool! Thanks DA . Shall definitely get a copy..obliged to now as a Janeite.

DAYoung mutters...

Posted June 9, 2013

*secret Janeite handshake*

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mutters...

Posted June 9, 2013
Your book 'Distraction' looks interesting too DA . I feel some philosophically indulgent Sunday afternoons coming on.

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Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2013

Nice change of pace for the Sunday extend pieces.

Dino not to be confused with mutters...

Posted June 9, 2013


Yes a nice change.

I wonder if there are any chapters on Zombies?

A dialectic on Nature should include zombies IMHO.

Barnesm would have you know...

Posted June 9, 2013

agree completely

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w from brisbane reckons...

Posted June 9, 2013

The author probably covers this, but I would say the main reason for the plein air tradition is a lack of electric lights.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted June 9, 2013

They had candles.

w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted June 9, 2013

They also had oil lamps. Still not great light and it costs.

Also why Shakespeare's Globe Theatre had no roof and plays were preformed in the afternoon.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2013

I do have a vague recollection, however, about one of the Greek brainiacs insisting it was better to be outside in the world while you learned about it. Probably wrote a whole scroll on it. Or rather talked up a scrolls worth of thinky that someone later wrote down.

Brian asserts...

Posted June 9, 2013

Hmm . . .no doubt someone did. I think that they did all their work outside. The gymnasis was more a rich boys school where everything got taught. One reason their are so few scrolls was that they had really good memories and writing was what scribes were for.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted June 9, 2013

Yes! And one of the really famous ones, possibly Aristotle, used to complain about the invention of scrolls cos he thought it would ruin people's memories

w from brisbane asserts...

Posted June 9, 2013

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book.” Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC)

Ippy Percival swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 9, 2013

Yes to the thing about writing and memory. Part of the reason I think the changes we are seeing now with the start of the information age are just the beginning and are are profound as the invention of writing itself.

Brian swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 10, 2013

Ever see one of these scrolls? No punctuation,nospacing.

Sophists were the memory guys and they got bad raps from Socrates onwards. The writing gag was mentioned by him and attributed to an Egyptian god and a pharaoh. Re. Sophists, they played around in memories and altered them hence . . .the bad rap.

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pitpat swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 9, 2013

Watching the rain tumble down listening to Gram Parsons( as well as the discordant sounds of guitar and piano being practised) looking over the garden thinking that it is good that it is raining and we ( the garden and I ) do not have to join battle today. The grass is safe. Also just finished reading Joe 'The Bloody" Abercrombie which defenitley colors my outlook.

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Darth Greybeard reckons...

Posted June 9, 2013

Checked with my wife. Apparently I'm no smarter and she wants me to do the mowing. Gardens. What a gyp.

DAYoung ducks in to say...

Posted June 9, 2013

Couch grass makes me stupid.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted June 9, 2013

Hmm, perhaps because you were coming off such a high base, el Beardo?

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Dino not to be confused with is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2013


Having real trouble with this link-(at the bottom of the Front Cover)-

"All this thinky at such a low, low price.

And you can support an indy bookshoppe."

The better half is going to buy it for me straight from the Kindle shop.

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