Fire Boy Extract: Roadside Picnic

Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah.

These things happen. They happen all the time, in fact. And they care not a whit whether we believe in them. What happened to the two men on their drive back from a village in the interior of Sind, for example, really did take place.

Tariq and Parvez left Karachi just before sunrise and drove all morning on roads that were nothing more than gravel pressed flat by the passage of trucks. Through larger villages where every building was concrete and every house had electricity, to smaller ones with houses made of packed mud and lanterns in the windows. Tariq steered and Parvez sang songs and told stories the entire way, each one containing more poorly constructed puns about sex than the last.

They hunted till sunset at a friend’s farm, shooting at wild boar and quail and managing to hit neither. The two reluctantly put their guns back in the jeep only once the first stars appeared in the purple sky. Still, with enough hash to last them the drive back and Parvez’s cache of stories not yet fully emptied, they were looking forward to the long return journey.

As Parvez and Tariq took turns exhaling sweet, thick smoke, their stomachs began protesting loudly. Parvez searched the backseat in vain for forgotten bags of chips or half-full biscuit boxes, but found only wrappers and cigarette packs. And so, hunger growing, they drove on through the dark, hoping for a shop or truck stop around every corner and cursing loudly when they found none. They were passing through long stretches of darkness, with the headlights of the jeep casting stretched ovals of halogen white on nothing but gravel and trees.

Soon the hunger grew so intense that both of them fell silent. So when Tariq saw a man pushing a cart in the distance, a tiny figure pecked out of the dark by a solitary streetlight, he pushed down on the accelerator with a whoop of joy. They stopped just a few yards away and bounded out, loudly thanking Allah and praising the cart vendor for finding his way into their lives. They didn’t notice that the vendor didn’t turn in their direction. He was an old man, bent and tired, a grey shawl draped over his head like a burkha, splattered with dried mud. A thick, white beard spilled from inside the hood. As Parvez drew closer, almost running in his enthusiasm, he saw the cart was not carrying any vegetables or fruit, but was laden with four large rolls of cloth, their ends drooping over the side like softening candles. He slowed down, disappointment replacing elation. Behind him, Tariq dropped down to one knee to tie an opened shoelace.

Parvez walked up to the man and gestured at the cart.

‘Asalam-o-Alaikum Baba ji, we are starving. If you have any food, we would gladly pay you for it.’

The old man didn’t reply. He just stood stooped over his cart, as if inspecting the wares, his face completely hidden in a puddle of darkness. Parvez, glanced down at the cart, taking a closer look at the cloth. Each roll was white as ivory and almost as long as he was. An old rusted metal weighing scale lay on top of the spool furthest from him. It was this scale that the old man was giving all his attention to. Moving closer, Pervez saw the ends of the spools were leaking, a dark liquid dribbling steadily from whatever was wrapped inside. Each droplet made a plip sound as it splashed in its respective puddle.

‘Baba ji, what is –’

From behind him Tariq began stuttering loudly, Arabic words hiccupping from him. Parvez recognised them as the words from the last chapter of the Quran. Words that offered protection against the devil and against evil.

And against djinns.

He turned to look at Tariq, who was still crouched and staring straight ahead at what was on the cart. His eyes had widened, tears streaming and flecks of spit flew from his mouth as he struggled to get the last words of the prayer out. Parvez turned back and was startled to see the man was standing closer, somehow having moved silently out from behind the cart.

The droplets were falling faster. Plip plip plip.

The face that emerged from inside the cavern of cloth confused him at first. The eyes were too low on the head, just above the chin. Then he understood and with comprehension came a terrible shriek. The beard was not a beard, but was in fact hair. A thick white tumble of hair hanging down from a head oriented the wrong way up. Black eyes stared out at him just above the wrinkled brow, a nose curving upwards above that and a twisted scar for a mouth on top. The shawl began to pull apart, revealing two arms, naked and thin with pink skin sagging off them. They ended at the wrist in blunt, red stumps. Parvez stared stupidly, taking in the small, jagged shards of white bone that stuck out of the rotted ends. Then he looked back at the face. Torn and blistered lips parted and a line drool tracked down over the cheeks and around the eyes below, disappearing into the course matting of hair.

A single sentence was said. Parvez wailed and Tariq screamed like he hadn’t screamed since he was a child. They turned and ran, back to their jeep that had been mercifully left running. Both jumped in, knowing better than to look back, Tariq not even waiting to close his door as they accelerated away. The man was still standing, blunt arms outstretched as the jeep rocketed past him, the question he asked ringing in their ears even when they finally stopped the hysterical crying much later.

‘How will I weigh them?’ he had asked.


Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah.

Fire Boy Extract: The Fare

Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah, in both audio and written versions.

These stories always happen to someone’s cousin’s brother’s nephew. Muzammil Bangash was, unfortunately for him, just that. His entire family – all the cousins and brothers and uncles included – lived in the same tiny village in Pakistan’s north, in the shadow of the Karakoram mountains. It was the combined crush of relations and oppressive topography that drove Muzammil away. Shortly after turning 17, he announced he was leaving home and moving to Karachi.

When he told his father there had been violence. Even though Muzamil was taller, he did not dare protect himself from the thick leather belt his father beat him with. All he could do was let the old man exhaust himself, allowing the silence he offered in return as his only defence. When he told his mother, she retaliated with a marriage.

In a hurriedly arranged ceremony, Muzammil was wed to his first cousin, Mina, and had he been less obsessed with escaping the confines of their village, he would have been grateful for her. That night, when he took her virginity, she gasped, nails digging into his shoulder. He felt a spasm of sympathy for her, but it was replaced with the need for release that sharpens men’s senses to a singularly focused point. Afterwards, as she slept next to him, he stared at the ceiling, forcing himself not to turn and look at her nakedness, so that the anger and bitterness may grow in him unabated; she was a part of his parent’s plan to keep him from going away, from replacing the mountains that filled his horizon with the towers and structures of the modern world. And so, in the morning, after telling Mina he would return in nine months for the birth of their son, he left.

A year passed and he did not go back. Karachi swallowed him whole. He got a job working for a distant relative who owned several taxis and shared a small room on the fourth floor with three other men, their lives partitioned by bunk beds under a roof sagging with water seepage. Every morning he cleaned the old black Daihatsu he rented from his uncle and set out in search of passengers. His day would end once he had earned enough money to fill petrol for the next and still be able to put away for the weekly payments for the taxi. Then he would drive to the edge of the city, where land gave way to ocean. There he’d sit on the rocks, looking out at the world ahead. He played at wondering how long before he would be able to leave even Karachi behind and travel to the rest of the world. He knew of another taxi driver who had managed to get construction work in Dubai and the idea of crossing to another country gave him a dizzying thrill.

It was while driving back from the beach one night that he saw the woman on the side of the road. The road leading back from the beach was barren and dark, thorned bushes on either side of a dirt track, lit only by the feeble glow his headlights threw a few feet ahead. Yet the woman stood out brilliantly in the gloom, wrapped in a shawl so red she was like the flame of a candle.

Muzammil was speeding when he saw her and by the time his taxi came to a stop, he was well ahead of her. The car grunted loudly as he threw it in reverse, giving a teeth-rattling shudder whenever asked to do anything other than move in a straight line. He sped back towards the woman and braked just in time to come to a rest near her. He checked the meter and flipped the switch on top that reset the rotary dial. When he turned to look, she was still standing near the back of the car. Just as Muzammil began to reach back to open the rear door from the inside, she started walking around the car. He could hear footsteps crunching on the gravel as she rounded past the trunk and all the way to the front seat on the passenger side. The wind increased, throwing fans of dust against the windscreen and pressing her shawl against her. A slim hand rose up and tapped the window, red nails clacking on glass. He almost threw himself at the door, cursing as hands that suddenly seemed large and unsteady struggled to pull up the small latch. He finally succeeded and yanked the handle, letting the door swing outwards. The woman manoeuvred herself into the car and sat next to him. Muzammil got his first proper look at her; straight black hair, utterly still and brushed so neatly he could make out each individual strand; her face was white, fairer even than the women of his village and they had been renowned for their complexion; the eyes were bruised with mascara and the lips were coloured as red as the nails that had tapped against the window. All of it came together with such symmetrical beauty that Muzammil found himself staring. She turned to him, fixed him with deep black eyes and smiled.

He visibly shook his head, resetting it back to working condition, and then turned to look at the road ahead. Small whorls of sand were spinning like carousels in the light his car threw.

‘Where to baji?’ he asked, patting the meter.

‘Just start driving,’ she replied, in a voice that laid phantom kisses across his mind.

Muzammil depressed the accelerator, trying to shift in his seat so that he could better hide the erection swelling under his clothes.

Needing to hear her voice again, Muzammil asked, ‘Baji, it is not safe to be here so late at night. Why were you walking at this hour?’

Hearing no reply, he glanced at her. She had shifted in her seat, so that her body now angled towards him. The shawl was lying in her lap, the blouse beneath the same deep red, curving over ample breasts and ending several inches above her navel. She looked at him with eyes that were not shy and soft like Mina’s had been on the night that he had lain with her, but hungry and full of promise. Muzammil’s foot lifted off the accelerator and the car slowed. His erection was an obvious tent in his shalwar, so hard that it throbbed painfully.

‘Baji, I –’

‘Stop here,’ she said, reaching out with one hand and placing it on the side of his face. It was cold and he could smell roses on her fingertips. Muzammil pulled the steering wheel sharply to one side and brought the car to a skidding halt on the gravel. He switched it off and darkness pressed against the windows.

Muzammil was now thinking of only one thing. His mind had already raced ahead to imaginings that drove all other thoughts from his head. He turned towards her, desperate to press his face against her skin and taste the roses and sweat he could smell on her. And she was reaching down, her hands gripping the stiffness between his legs. He lifted her up, trying to pull her onto him, finding her almost weightless. She raised a leg, bringing it across his lap. Which was when he saw her foot.

Muzammil began screaming.

The erection, firm in her hands just moments before, shrank and his bowels loosened. He was still shrieking when she bit out his tongue with teeth jagged as shards of glass in a broken window. Her eyes filled with darkness, the contents falling backwards inside her skull. He stared into two empty sockets that swallowed his sanity. She pushed her fingers into his eyes, popping the eyeballs like soap bubbles. As he died, Muzammil’s last thoughts were of Mina, lying there in bed next to him all those months ago.

The thing that had been a woman fed. When it was done and there was nothing left, it climbed out of the car and walked away, the footprints it left in the dirt facing the wrong way.


Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah.


The Monsters We Keep

Essay by Sami Shah

My monsters are different from yours.

I’m talking about true monsters, the things that exist only in the thinnest moments before sleep, or just as you enter a dark room and can’t find the light switch, even though your hand is pressed against the place on the wall where it should be.

When you walk into that room, or when you lose the struggle against sleep just as a silhouette passes in front of the window, you will fear things that I would not. You might think of ghostly little girls rising behind you, or vampires lunging from the corner. Maybe a werewolf. Perhaps as zombie.

But if you were walking through the moonlit streets of Manila, you might instead hear the tik-tik­ of an Aswang pulling closer, its mouth opening as a hollowed tongue unfurls towards you.

If you were to look in the rear-view mirror while driving across an American highway, you might see a skin-walker standing on its hind legs, a coyote’s head turned towards the night sky. Then you’d hear it scream. Not howl. Scream.

In Karachi, when, as a child, I whispered prayers of protection to Allah with my face hidden under a blanket, it was djinns I feared. Not the djinns you know of though. Not a blue animated genie trapped in a lamp who speaks with the voice of a dead comedian, nor large men with turbans, and fangs curving like scimitars. The djinns we grew up with did not grant wishes. They were made of fire and it was that which identified them, for it was visible in their eyes. They were malicious and cruel, scaring children into insanity by becoming that which you feared the most. They hated mankind because Allah had chosen us over them, and the good ones who might defend us were too few.

I had an uncle who could speak to djinns, could even see them. My mother told me it was because he was so dedicated in his piety that Allah had gifted him with the ability. They would wake him before dawn, in time for the first prayer of the day, and advise him on the true intentions of those he met. I remember once, as a child, asking him if there were any djinns in the TV room in which we were all sitting. ‘No,’ he said with a smile, ‘there are no djinns here’. Then he pointed to the hallway leading to the storeroom.  ‘But there is one there. Don’t worry, it’s a good djinn’.

I avoided the storeroom for years after.

There were rules to djinns, although none involve numbers of wishes and prohibitions on love and death. If a djinn chooses to kill you it can do so easily, and if it chooses to fall in love with you, that too is beyond your control. But the rules offer some protection. If you are a girl, avoid trees with overhanging branches, especially if you have long black hair. Djinns live in those branches and are attracted to long black hair. Never leave a room empty for 40 days, for if it unattended for so long, it belongs to a djinn. If you recite one of the many surahs contained in the Quran that offer protection against djinns, witches, and black magic, then a djinn cannot approach you. If you see that they have fire in their eyes, you might run away in time.

These are the things I remembered as a child when warding off the fear that builds in the dark.

Of course, all of this was useless against the Churail. Or the Pichal Pairee. For they are not djinns, but other … things entirely. The latter is why I always check to see which way a woman’s feet are turned before letting her enter my house, a habit of superstition.

There were yet more taught to me by my Islamic teachers: The Dajjal, and the Hajjuj Majjuj, whose return to our world would be the final signs of the apocalypse.

These are the monsters I grew up with. They were told to me by friends who claimed to have either seen them from a distance, or relatives who knew of a friend of an uncle of a cousin who had just escaped one. When I slept it was potential visitations by these one-eyed men, false-women, and creatures with eyes of fire that woke me screaming.

When I moved to Australia in my late-thirties, I considered myself too old to fear them. Besides, I reasoned, their mythology is tied too intimately with the city in which I grew up. To fear djinns in Karachi makes sense, because that is where djinns live. But to fear them in Perth, or Melbourne, or London, or New York, is ridiculous. Those cities have their own creatures of horror, and those are the ones we fear when there.

But, like all immigrants, I missed my homeland. That yearning for the familiar is at its strongest when trying to settle into a new country, especially when confronted with the most mundane puzzles that immigration forces on us: What’s the best calling plan? Which bank should I sign up with? What is superannuation? How do I get my international driver’s license converted to an Australian driver’s license without having to get a Learners Permit despite having driven for 20 years? No, seriously, what is superannuation?

During the day, the things I’d miss about home were my parents, the food, and the familiarity of intuitively understanding a system of life after having lived in it since birth. At night, however, the things I thought about were djinns. I wondered what they were doing in Karachi. I wondered if they ever left the cities they began in. And most of all, I wondered if I could tell their stories to others.

We learn about other places and other people by their food, by their language, by their dress. I think there’s another way though. I think we can also learn by the stories they tell to frighten themselves. Those mythologies reveal them at their most insecure; they teach us of their perceived weaknesses.

Mostly, though, they remind us all that when the lights go out, there is so much more to fear. So much more, indeed.


Essay by Sami Shah, author of Fire Boy, which you can pre-order here.

Writing Lessons from … Narcos

TDW: Welcome to the first edition of Fantastica’s Writing Lessons, where we take examples of writing from popular media. Today we’re looking at Narcos, a Netflix original TV show. What can we learn from the story of Columbian narcos and the American agents sent to stop them? Read more

Nexhuman Afterword

TDW: Exciting news, everyone. We have just re-released Livid by Francesco Verso as Nexhuman! This means a revised jacket and a new afterword written by Jana Vizmuller-Zocco, which you can read below. And don’t for get you can now get Nexhuman from your favourite retailer. Read more

Over-explaining: A necessary evil?

TDW: We’ve all read it, and if you’re an author, you’ve probably written it too. Exposition, or more to the point, obvious and intrusive ‘info-dumps’. It was repeated throughout during my Creative Writing degree that exposition was to be stamped out. The great and infallible mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ was pounded into our impressionable heads.

I doubt my lecturers ever read sci-fi.

You see, when you’re world-building you will need to explain some elements. More to the point though, you have to find effective and subtle ways of doing so. This is easy, say, when your main character is naive, whether a time-traveller to the future of explorer of unknown worlds. Here the protagonist could ask questions like, ‘what are the rituals of this planet?’ or ‘why are all the people oppressed?’ News articles can explain events, or meetings where a leader is expressing a dire need for revolt. Of course deft writers will put a lot more showing in, but sometimes it works to lay it all out, have a character explain exactly what the author is thinking (often in terms of political persuasion).
Recently I finished two books which I would argue are at opposite ends of the show-tell spectrum. The first was Invisible Cities, a book I’ve been meaning to read since my tutors harped on about it and used samples in classes to illustrate a point. Calvino certainly knows how to show. But show what, exactly? There is little narrative, obfuscated metaphors and a certain sensation of fluffiness. I did not enjoy reading Invisible Cities as a story. It is far too whimsical with only moments of clarity and focus that are a delight to read. Conversely Fahrenheit 451 is an SF classic that I was unsure of going in. I had read some previous Ray Bradbury, mostly short stories, that felt out-dated and not exactly the height of good prose. But this book blew me away, possibly helped by the short space of time in which it was written. There’s no accounting for passion and immediacy. Here is a book that wears the author’s message on its sleeve, coattails and offensively coloured tie. The writing is immediate and gripping. The message is relevant and will no doubt remain so for eternity. The characters are realised and have fully-formed agendas.

And Bradbury is not afraid to tell. His characters sit down together and tell each other exactly what they think, which is of course what the author thinks. Indeed, there is little world-building per se, but what is not said perhaps creates a greater understanding of what is at stake.

These two books exemplify that there is a time and a place for showing and for telling. The adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ is a black-and-white misnomer, a false dichotomy that is as out-dated as the belief that you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’. The true brilliance of SFF is the ability to make the necessary exposition of world-building a part of that world.

The Future We Deserve

TDW: Dystopias are everywhere. The Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as countless other gloomy books and films, reflect our fascination with totalitarian and fascist regimes where the general populace are nothing more than pawns of the privileged. The is a reflection of the times as inequality rises, environmental degradation continues unabated, and the surveillance state closes in. But that isn’t why we have this fascination with dystopias. No, a dystopia implies we can escape from whatever malaise effects our current culture. As Gerry Canavan describes it:

Dystopia is about oppressive social conditions that might be altered, evaded, or averted, and so it still contains hidden within itself the same hope for a better world that drives utopian speculation.

Most people would define a dystopia as the bad version of a utopia (dystopia literally means ‘bad place’), the negation to quote Gerry. Interestingly utopia means ‘not a place’, which isn’t as hopeful as you would think – it is a place so fanciful that it cannot possibly exist. When we see a dystopic future it paints the same picture, which is that things could be better than they are (one fanciful, one an escape fantasy). But these two futures don’t go far enough. What we really need today is to delve into – now that the world appears to be coming to an inevitable end – the anti-utopia, or the place from which we cannot escape. Literature that focuses on this aspect would be more confronting.

Using Gerry’s definitions, there are two other possibilities to the typical utopia and dystopia. The first is the idtopia, which I propose as it carries the idea of the unconscious self – in other words, human nature. An idtopia is the anti-utopia, so that while we think we can achieve perfect balance, our own primal instincts will lead to problems forever (usually involving violence). Utopia can never be achieved because we are quite simply awful. Following from that there is the anti-dystopia and the negation of the anti-utopia: a praetopia. This world is merely déjà vu; it is what has come before. The worst of all possibilities to imagine is that this is the best we can achieve, that our current neoliberal tendancies allow for nothing more. We have reached our peak; why bother striving for better?

Dystopian fascination has almost come full circle. With the film release of The Giver – arguably the kickstarter for the present dystopian YA fascination – coming to cinemas soon, it seems that territory has well and truly run its course. So what next? What should literary trendsetters portray now that dystopias will soon peter out and have had little effect beyond titillation? Enter the id- and praetopia.

A good example of the latter is Snowpiercer. The movie is set on a globe-trotting train on which the last of humanity survives after a neoliberal attempt at solving global warming goes horribly wrong. The main character leads a revolution to free his people from the back of the train and wrest control from the powerful overlords. Spoiler: When he gets there he finds out that it has happened before and that it is all part of the plan. Indeed, the current ruler wants to handover to the revolutionary who will have no choice but to continue in his stead. The only other option is to make the whole cycle crash and burn. Certainly, this is not a hopeful ending.

This could be the beginning of a harrowing trend. There is no hope for our future selves, so what we need is the facts. There is no escape from the perpetual machine unless we take drastic action. We will be doomed to repeat mistakes, doomed to be satisfied with our lot, doomed to never try. But the exciting thing is that science fiction can always imagine escape routes, devious and ingenious plans to avoid The End. We need science fiction to show us our idtopias and praetopias. Then maybe after we can explore a spetopia (hopeful place).

We are Livid!


Livid by Francesco Verso

Livid is set in a future where consumerism has made much of Earth into a junk heap. Peter Payne is a trashformer, a scavenger, a kid under the thumb of a world too brutal to stay human in. When his one chance for love and to change his fate is violently torn away from him, he spends the rest of his life in a quest to rebuild the object of his obsession.

Filled with themes of cybernetics, prosthetics, consumerism, over-consumerism, robots and transcendence, this is a novel that expands on classic tropes to build world as deep and confused as the main character.

Francesco Verso is an Italian author and this is his first work to be published in English. Winner of the Urania-Mondadori Award, Verso writes classic sci-fi inspired by contemporary social and environmental concerns that are explored through characters that are beautifully fallible.

– Winner of 2013 Odissea Award by Delos Books.

– Winner of 2014 Cassiopea Award
– Finalist at Italia Award
– Finalist at Vegetti Award

Premio Italia premio-vegetti Odissea Delos

Livid is the first book from Fantastica and we are immensely proud to be working with such a talented and committed author. Scheduled for release in August 2014 in print and ebook. Please email [email protected] for information and pre-orders.




Science Fiction as Metaphor

TDW: I want to get the ball rolling with a discussion on what I think is one of the strongest pillars of great science fiction: metaphor. Allegories and analogies, futuristic parables, scientific symbolism, figurative fiction and emblematic anecdotes. At the heart of it I think SF is best when it stands in for something else.

That is, after all, how human beings operate. We tell white lies, shades of the truth. We say ‘IT WAS THIS BIG!’ when, really, it wasn’t close. Our stories are rife with signs that convey meaning when the reality is too boring or mundane. Of course, metaphor and simile isn’t restricted to science fiction and is a staple of all writing. But when we’re talking about possibilities it leaves room for much stronger messages when metaphors are somewhat fantastical.

A great example of this would be a book I listened to in audio format last year. It’s called ‘Slow Birds’ by Ian Watson and was about a planet where very lethargic floating bombs would suddenly appear then disappear at random. Sometimes they would explode leaving gigantic glass craters, and it was feared that inevitably the entire planet would be crystalised. Events unfold and the main character creates a religious cult promoting the inevitability of destruction and a new outlook on life, only for his ideas to be challenged years later. So what is this an allegory for? I’ll give you three guesses.

No, not the silent surveillance of machines.

Probably not the falsity of religious foundations.

What’s that? Why yes, it is a metphor for climate change!

Ok, so that’s my interpretation (heck, I thought Pacific Rim was about climate change), but if you read it you’ll probably agree. The inevitable geographic destruction of a planet brought on by merciless machines while the people make do and accept it as fact? Sounds about right. And the multiple interpretations is also a beautiful aspect of science fiction; different people can read a story about alien planets and wars and all come out with a unique understanding. You might have a great idea for a story, but science fiction allows for so much room for comment by mirroring the present.