Today’s post a day question is peculiar to say the least and bizarrely worded yet it gave me an idea for another discussion piece for science fiction.

New Scientist has a fascinating article on nanotech, its practical use now, speculation on future technologies and the sort of debate it has generated.

I must admit I am fairly new to nanotech in science fiction, my reading on the subject has been fairly limited and only Alastair Reynolds has dealt with it in such a big way where it is a part of every day life and thus, why The Melding Plague (that I have mentioned previously) was so devastating in Revelation Space. I wouldn’t want to go into it to too much here because his universe is so complex and I wouldn’t want to be the cause of anybody’s brain exploding.

Like any fledgling technology, sensational scare stories are rife in the media, so rife that they are cliché and would be conspicuous by their absence. What is refreshing is that Reynolds dispenses with the ethics of the technology, because it has become such a part of every day life and they would no more be concerned about the ethics of nanotech than we would be concerned about whether travelling by train would cause our bones to shatter (as the anti steam movement claimed in the 19th century).

The potential of tiny computers is limitless and the potential benefits are many, particularly for medical research and the environment. Some of the ideas in the New Scientist article above are a long way off but already we are starting to see investment in nanotechnologies coming to fruition. I look forward to what the fascinating concept might bring in real terms.

New target – end of March for untitled short story

Been a busy few days but I want to get this current short story finished by the end of March, when we will firmly be in spring :)

I think this is going to require a brain storm complete with flow chart and lots of indecipherable squiggles. I hope to confuse you all and will post my musings over the weekend. And maybe I will dazzle you all with supreme multimedia skills by posting a photograph.

Challenging your reader

There are many things that can make a good novel or short story truly great. Some may prefer depth of plotting, others might prefer strong characters, or the development of those characters. Others still may loved vivid description that explore the range of senses or the richness of the world.

But for me, those novels that really stand out are those with strong ideas that challenge social norms and present us with situations that force us to confront everything that we believe or think we know about the world. I consider myself a realist in that if what I believe will not stand up to scrutiny then those beliefs are not worth having. When we take this to the extreme, we end up becoming conspiracy theorists and double back on ourselves and don’t allow our alternate views to be scrutinised.

It was such a premise in The Da Vinci Code which attempted to challenge people’s social norms. Not particularly well written with some glaring factual errors it would have gone down as a quirky mystery novel, but not amongst the most notable, had it not been for Dan Brown’s claims to be based on true events and actual research (A better example of the religious-history-mystery novel for me is Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar). The success of The Da Vinci Code then is that it challenged social norms about what we have been led to believe about the life of Jesus and of Mary Magdalene and the nature of their relationship.

Of course there are much better examples of challenging the reader, and not all of them are about appealing to conspiracy within ‘the establishment’.

One of the most fascinating was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It is ultimately about the age old struggle between traditions and progress. Without giving too much away, the gods of the old world have migrated to the USA for hopes of a better life. But they find that war has followed them. All those things we see as progressive: roads, globalisation, the internet, mass transit, the mobile phone are personified and determined to destroy the old gods. Gaiman was showered with accolades for the novel and it is not difficult to see why. The challenge to the reader here is that ultimately we need to strike a balance between traditions and progress. Embrace the future because you can’t stop it, but never forget the past because it makes us who we are.

The one writer whose work I always find challenging in the cerebral sense is Kim Stanley Robinson. My introduction to his work was his “Martian Trilogy” (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) which gradually evolves from a hard sci fi adventure in the first novel to a literary piece about society, philosophy, religion and politics in the third as the Martian colonists seek to gain independence and forge a new world. Similarly his “Capitol Trilogy” (40 signs of rain, 50 degrees below, 60 days and counting) about catastrophic climate change moves from combating inaction and a well-funded denialist movement to the politics and social approach of what to do about it and where to start.

I can only hope to match the brilliance of Robinson or Gaiman and I hope some day I can write something that makes readers pause for thought. I feel that my most challenging short story is ‘Evil Begets Evil’. Another monastery-based short (though this time an Italian convent in the modern day), it is about a young lady who is isolated within the community and cannot engage in most activities because of an unspecified medical condition. This creates a conflict between the young woman and one of the senior nuns who takes it upon herself to find out what the young lady is up to. If you have already read it or don’t want to read it but still want to know what the pause for thought is then read on…

*SPOILER*The young lady, Sister Marcella, is a vampire yet feels the religious calling. The antagonistic Sister Isobel is initially shown to be small minded and self-important, a control freak if you will. Isobel is suspicious of the young nun and convinced that she is not taking her duties seriously and using vague references to ‘medical problems’ to excuse herself of her duties.

Isobel follows the young lady out into the forest one night and she comes to a clearing where she observes Marcella and a man engaged in angry conversation. There is a brief fight and Marcella kills the man only to discover Isobel was watching the proceedings. Marcella sends Isobel back to the convent with a warning of an attack by the vampire community that Marcella had once been a part.

The nuns survive the overnight assault but Marcella does not. Isobel is sad and attempts to discuss funeral arrangements. She is horrified that the Mother Superior ordered Marcella’s body cremated without last rites or any proper ceremony because Marcella was not human.

Both women fall prey to their prejudices but it is the Mother Superior who is revealed as the most callous in denying Marcella what she would have wished for, a woman for whom church law trumps compassion.

Veritas ex Machina – A discussion

Another link to my short story Veritas ex Machina

The title: was actually the last thing I did. Usually the title comes early on, almost certainly before the half way mark but as I finished the final sentence I paused and thought deeply but could not come up with a decent title. “House Master” would have been unimaginative and insufficient and didn’t really evoke the idea of Channel 4′s Big Brother and wouldn’t until the reader was a few hundred words into the story.

So in the middle of nagging my wife to read it I expressed concern that the end might be a little ‘deus ex machina’ (latin for God from the machine). Deus ex machina is a plot device that literally means pulling a contrived and unexpected (or perhaps incredulous) conclusion out of thin air. For example, one of the early episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who saw an imprisoned Dalek chained in a cell several miles beneath the Earth’s surface in Area 51. The Dalek was losing power (let’s not forget that the Dalek casing was always just a travel machine). Rose Tyler, taking pity on the giant pepperpot reaches out and touches the casing. The heat and static from that touch recharged his power cell and allowed him to escape. To me, this is deus ex machina.

But I digress, having expressed concern that the ending may have been deus ex machina, I was suddenly struck with the idea that this story was about getting to the truth… and the latin word for truth is ‘veritas’. Struck with the obvious thought that the story was about getting to the truth about some dark secrets, and that nobody knew how the electronics were able to pick up these things (not even the Police who saw the obvious benefits of such a premise) I decided on that title.

The development: where to start? It all began about six years ago when the TV Show Big Brother still had a sliver of respectability. The tagline that year was ‘Big Brother gets evil’ and if I recall correctly, after the first week the house was divided into a pampered half who got all the luxuries and a punished half who lived on basic rations and were denied alcohol, cigarettes etc. I thought to myself ‘what if Big Brother really did get evil? How far would they or could they push the housemates before anyone snapped?’ My initial idea was to have various tests of their fortitude until one of them broke. Overall I did not have enough ideas of events to keep the narrative flowing and even if I did it would have been an exercise in lurching from event to event without much characterisation and therefore, no reason to care about the people in the house or their various fates.

As a result, the story came to a halt at roughly the place where Kirsty is about to moon at the camera and it explodes. I toyed with various ideas but nothing really worked at the time.

What changed? : When I came back to it a few years later (last year) it was in the swansong year of Big Brother with viewing figures nowhere near what it had been when I started to write “Veritas ex Machina”. It was also after having seen the Channel 4 drama Dead Set (Big Brother is attacked by a plague of zombies) which meant that a post-apocalyptic vision for my short story was out of the question. A few years before that, the slasher genre honoured reality TV in Halloween: Resurrection and the psychological drama element had already been attempted in My Little Eye. So the question I had to ask myself was whether an exhausted TV premise that nobody really cared about any more being twisted into a horror story could really work and feel fresh and appropriate?

I also toyed with the idea of changing the reality show in question. I thought about putting a creature onto the set of something similar to I’m a celebrity get me out of here!, a creature or alien that has rampaged through the studio but the celebrities are safe inside the compound and only notice that something is wrong when the cameras no longer work and the food drops no longer happen. I was concerned that such a story would come across as an unintentional parody (think Predator gets a little lost on his way to meet Arnie in South America and ends up surrounded by a handful of non-entities eating locusts). Eventually though, and for spooky atmosphere, I settled for a remote castle and changed the descriptions from a purpose-built house to a much older structure.

Their crimes: It was my wife who came up with the idea of an elaborate Police sting which fitted quite well with my general feeling that there wasn’t to be a supernatural/sci fi/horror element with this one. There was only one problem, as much as I liked the idea it would seem a little too convoluted a plot simply to ensnare people and elicit a confession, even on something as serious as murder or manslaughter. That was when I had the idea of a ghost in the machine that would extract confessions – or in this case replicate their memories – onto the electronics of the speakers and the video screen.

Some ideas for the future

On top of my existing incomplete short stories and completed novel, my laptop is littered with snippets of ideas about what I want to write in the future and for that purpose I always find it handy to have a notebook to jot down my ideas. I’m never going to be able to write a perfectly constructed short story or novel the second I get the idea in my head, and there will always be gaps that need to be seen on paper before I can think of a pathway through the fog.

Here are just some of my ideas:

  • A novel about a space station that crashes to a planet that the crew and staff have been studying over many years. The story is one of survival and of humanity, coupled with unravelling the lost civilisation and its archaeological remains. In that way I see it developing more like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Lord of the Flies than Lost. I have a couple of chapters written already and two main characters that I’m quite pleased with
  • With little more than a prologue written, I also have a post-apocalyptic novel about a world dominated by werewolves. As it stands I don’t have an idea beyond that so I have little confidence that it will ever turn into anything. I imagine an Iron Age type world but I’ve also toyed with an alternate history premise set in post-Roman Britain
  • The two works above are stories where I have already written something. Recently, I have been itching to write in fiction form a critique of the anti-science movement.

There are many ways I could approach this as there are so many denialist movements: the climate change deniers, evolution deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby, the anti-MMR lobby, the anti-GM crowd, the anti-nuclear and though not so guilty of mudslinging as the others, yet arguably much more dangerous, homeopathy.

But when I think about the sort of story I want to write, I come up against several problems. The only novel that I have read with such a message was Robert Silverberg’s Hot Sky at Midnight. The human race is facing impending disaster but far from acting with a sense of urgency, there is much navel gazing, a lot of talk and focus on irrelevant minutiae. I didn’t like the novel, it was a good idea but executed poorly. It is truly difficult to sympathise with characters who are stupid and ignorant and most of the characters were both of those things. If they had been likeable but with a character flaw that they could not see beyond their own petty human constructs and unwilling to save themselves by changing their lifestyles, the novel could have been an excellent parable for the 21st century.

The other problem is that it may stray into preaching, or worse, an aggressive rant that is supposed to contrast those people you are criticising (who have only aggressive rants in lieu of scientific evidence most of the time). This could alienate a lot of readers who may still be looking to be persuaded or feel intimidated by the science, or even those who are on your side but don’t like being bludgeoned by somebody else’s beliefs. So perhaps an existing scientific premise may be out of the question, but we still have the problem that it may end up a thinly disguised sermon. Perhaps if I ever write this it may be a good idea to write a parody. I will of course keep this blog updated.

Comments are appreciated.

Next up…

So that is it for the short stories I’ve been sitting on for several years, but I still have a couple more to be getting on with. Both of them were started last year, one in the summer and the other roughly this time last year.

The first is about a school boy who keeps having vivid dreams about being on a sailing ship. The most intense is in the middle of an exam and he comes out of the dream to find his exam paper completed and he has no memory of writing anything on it.

The other is the story I discussed in the ‘Free Writing’ article where I used the first three words that came into my head: OTTER, CYBORG and RAIN. The otter in this story is a genetically modified human designed for deep sea engineering and repairs to the enormous ocean cities. The cyborg is a private detective investigating her murder and they inhabit such a city in the ocean. It is raining when the cyborg is called to examine the body.

With a view in mind that I want to give one more thorough edit to my novel, and that the “otter, cyborg, rain” idea may even be a series of short stories, each of the same incident but with a different viewpoint, I think that story needs to be shelved for a little while longer. I could come back to it to keep me occupied while I am searching for an agent.

So to the as yet untitled story of the boy with vivid dreams then…

My favourite and least favourite words

The pen is mightier than the sword -Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
(And just as deadly in the wrong hands as Jack Nicholson’s Joker proves in Batman: The Movie).

Words can do a lot of things. They can hurt an individual or they change humanity for the better or worse. They can be used to spread the truth and to spread lies. They can do untold damage or they can stir people into action. They can educate, indoctrinate and manipulate. They can make you laugh and cry. They can calm or anger a person or inspire fear or pride.

Words are regularly manipulated to create a negative or positive impression, and that is no more apparent than in those who attempt to influence the general population.

The media, for example, when describing a 14 year old will use the term “youth” if they are the perpetrator of a crime and “child” if they are the victim. When a pensioner is viciously attacked by 14 year old “youths”, is it more tragic because he is a war veteran? The media feels the need to tell us these things. But why? In order to appeal to our prejudices that such a hero deserved more protection than any other pensioner? Is a pensioner who did not fight in the war worthy of less respect or perhaps is it more acceptable as a crime? Of course not, and nobody would dare suggest this was the case but this is an example of how the media attempts to manipulate our emotional responses to be most favourable to their slant on the story.

Media manipulation annoys me no more than when it deals with scientific stories. Such stories usually start with the word “Boffins” or “Eggheads” that creates a very specific image that is a parody of scientific research and the findings of said researchers. They do nothing for the process of science and though such an approach ought to be damaging to their reputation as a serious newspaper, it only creates and maintains a parody of what scientists do.

Climate science is one of those big issues. During my time at university I wanted to understand how I felt about environmental issues. I was a neutral observer with no real opinion either way. I was (and still am) wary of the prophets of doom at Greenpeace and the politically motivated denialist movement of the ultra-capitalist right wing. During my first year, in my spare time I took to reading academic papers on environmental science. I looked at a wide range of data and even in my third year when I had less time yet a greater understanding of the data, I still sought to understand current research. So much so that I was convinced that this is a very real problem. Unlike perhaps a great many others who share my view that climate change is happening and is a danger to the planet, I do not trust the media outlets that I would otherwise be looking at to provide me with information. The Independent is as manipulative as The Telegraph and The Daily Mail and like the vast majority of media outlets, seek only to appeal to people’s pre-supposed prejudices… facts be damned, we want a juicy story and the more sensational the better. Yes, I feel the media has fallen that far.

But I’m getting off subject…

Politicians manipulate words too. I’ve lost count of how many times Clegg and Cameron have used the word “fair” to describe the social and economic changes they are trying to enact during this Parliament. I am neither amongst their harshest critics nor their most ardent supporters but only time will tell whether they have truly created the “fairer society” that they keep insisting is going to happen. We’ve heard it all before (empty words). Who knew that Labour’s “education, education, education” would mean trying to push everybody into university and create a labour shortage in other sectors?

But I’m getting off subject again…

And is there any word more corrupted (at least in the USA) than the word “liberal”? The OED defines it thus: willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas: favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms: favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform:. This is the definition as I have come to accept it (social liberalism) and I do not recognise the scaremongering use of the word by the political Conservative movement of our cousins across the Atlantic. The meaning there changes depending on what they want it to mean and is used interchangable with “Socialism” and “Marxism”. Words like “liberal” and “progressive” are tools of fear in the way that “Communist” was during the 1950s-60s, the way that “papist” was to the Reformers of the 16th century and “heretic” was in the middle ages.

Shut up and get on with it, what are your favourite and least favourite words?!

Truth is amongst both my most and least favourite words. Too many people claim to be in possession of it and so the word becomes meaningless. Conspiracy theorists have “Truth”, so does religion, the politicians and the media yet they are nothing more than manipulators. Though they may have part truth, their tactic is often to bury it within a lie or to twist the truth to support whatever they want to be seen. Yet truth, when it is pure and unmanipulated, can be the most powerful weapon we have.

Eoferwic pronounced Yoffer-wick. Doesn’t mean anything, it is the Anglo-Saxon name for the city of York. I just like the sound of it. I actually like far more Anglo-Saxon words than that, and Anglo-Saxon names such as Aethelred, Ulfwic, Aethalstan.

Bludgeon. One of those rare breeds of word that sounds like its meaning; rather like flippant or shiny.

Pritt. As in the stick adhesive “pritt stick”. I don’t like the combination of “p” and “r” as it makes my mouth feel funny.

Didacticism. Do we really need such a complicated word for such a simple meaning?

Soccer. Please, nobody outside of North America ought to be using it and even then I’d rather they didn’t.