Thursday, 18 December 2014

Targets

Like any well brought-up management consultant, I have targets that are specific, measurable, achievable, recorded (if only in my head), and time-bound.

My specific writing target is to sell three stories a year.  Preferably to SWFA-accredited markets, but no matter.  Bottom line is three.  Well, this year I've sold five.

As well as My Avatar Has An Avatar at Daily Science Fiction, and The Lodeon Situation at Fiction Vortex, three acceptances have come in at once, like proverbial hover-buses:

  • My flash story Divorced from Reality has been selected for Christina Escamilla Publishing's Welcome to the Future Anthology (and I've been paid already, which is nice)
  • Shooting the Messenger (think Homeland meets sci-fi) has been taken by Geminid Press for their Take Me To Your Leader anthology.  It's intended to be the first chapter in a novel called Toefoot, but as I've only managed two and a quarter chapters in about five years, there's no danger of it trying to sneak out before Geminid's book.  I haven't been paid yet, but that's probably because the contract is still in the scanner.  And,
  • Domain SF have taken my water-warning story Farndale's Revelation - at least, I think they have; not exactly sure, contractually, what their expression of interest means.


Still, my spreadsheet (like any well brought-up management consultant I love spreadsheets) shows a sea of red at the intersections of story title and publisher - Mister Clarke continues to bat my work back like we're playing Pong - but a few splashes of green on the page give me some heart in carrying on writing.

But would it make that much difference?  Like most corporations, missing targets rarely seems to change the strategy.  I think I'd still be tapping away, bloody-minded, ploughing my own furrow, whatever.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Fisheggs


Captain Kamen slowed the skimmer down to the point where the planet’s surface was no longer a blur and switched the controls to manual.  His pressure suit partially deflated; the control yoke swung over his shoulders and into his hand.  He turned his craft towards the coordinates the Kasstelleeian had given him before he died.  He barrelled on, safe in the thought that his Galactic-issue mark IV magpistol was strapped to his right thigh, three spare clips on his left.

‘Fisheggs,’ Captain Kamen swore softly to himself as he stared into the mouth of the cave system that lay at the coordinates.  The Galetti lay moored within, out of sight of the satellites that swept the sky overhead searching for her.

But that wasn’t what surprised the ageing spacetrooper.  ‘That spaceship… miaowed.’

I have a confession.

I find much sci-fi, possibly most sci-fi, slightly embarrassing.

This isn’t much of a confession, unless you’re trying to write sci-fi and get it published.  Which I am.

I’ve been meaning to write this confession for a while, but have struggled putting it into words, giving it definite form.  Because I’ve struggled with exactly what it is that I find embarrassing.  I’ve tried to write a bit of breast-beating space opera to illustrate what makes me squirm, although it’s nowhere near as bad as I wanted to make it.  I think I must have some kind of quality threshold which I can’t push myself below.

I think at a very surface level it’s authors’ obvious enjoyment of making up names - of spaceships, planets, races, weaponry - over and above deepening character and focussing on story.  George Lucas, for both JarJar Binks and the elements you revealingly focussed on in scrubbing up the earlier films - no, Mos Eisley was never crying out for flurries of little furry creatures, I’m very much thinking of you.

At a more sophisticated level, given sci-fi’s reputation for being a 'genre of ideas', it’s when there is a surfeit of ideas.  Just boy meets girl or black hats versus white hats in space.

‘In space’.  Hold that thought.  Because any pitch with ‘in space’ afterwards become sci-fi, in a way that doesn’t apply to any other genre.  Northanger Abbey, the story of Christ, the wide-mouthed frog joke.  Add ‘in space’ afterwards and they all become sci-fi.  But not real sci-fi.  Just stories wearing sci-fi’s clothes.  In short, there’s too much of it around.

This line of thought has been prompted by Tomorrow’s Worlds, Dominic Sandbrooke’s TV history (? personal walk-though?) of sci-fi.  It’s reasonably engaging stuff, but all a bit random, because it’s such a wide genre that it doesn’t really have much of a history that can be grabbed hold of easily.  Sure, there’s a few milestones - Melieres, Verne, Lt Uhuru - but for the main part it’s a ragbag of Dom’s favourites.

One of the more thought-provoking parts was when Sandbrooke contrasted and compared HG Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ with the US film versions, with the book set in the Surrey stockbroker belt, the stateside versions in the big city.  He quite rightly contrasts the quiet of Surrey’s rolling landscape with the coming of the Martians in a way that doesn’t quite apply to the American versions as the story arc begins to tend towards ‘more is more’.

And it’s this contrast between the everyday, the prosaic, and the alien that makes sci-fi disconcerting.  And disconcerting, I've decided, is what I look for in thought-provoking, adult, idea-driven sci-fi.  And - I think this is where I find sci-fi squirmy - there’s a direct correlation between lack of disconcerting-ness and feelings of silliness.  There’s a disconcerting-shaped hole left behind.

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe it’s a British or Commonwealth thing.  Maybe it’s a non-Californian thing.  Or maybe it’s something that everybody except Michael Bay shares.  But I’d much prefer a story in which nothing happens except everybody who was left-handed became right-handed and vica versa than the planet blows up.

Captain Kamen, out.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

UFOs


I’ve seen a UFO!  Weh-hey!  What are the chances of that?

Let me add some of the detail to the horde of UFO-lore.  I was lying on a beach at the very southern tip of Gran Canaria off the coast of Africa staring at the sky.  Staring at those things that float around in the aqueous humour of your eye, to be honest, letting my focus drift between them and the deep azure of the heavens when I saw it.

There wasn’t a lot to ‘it’.   A dot at the edge of space.  Bright on the side catching the sun; the opposite dark with shadow.  It didn’t pulse, shimmer, shiver or make any movement apart from arcing across from the point I saw it until I lost it over towards the northern horizon.  Arrow straight, it must have taken ten, twelve, fifteen seconds to traverse those ninety or so degrees.  Way faster than a plane and without any contrail, I concluded that I’d seen a satellite.

It also fitted with those satellite trails you sometimes see overlaid on world maps, arcing sinusoidally over the Earth north to south, each pass seeming to move on a few hundred miles whereas its really the Earth that turns beneath.

But then a gull flew over at great height, but not so great that I couldn’t pick out detail, grey and white, the sun catching one side of it, gliding on the Jetstream.  It too arced at velocity in a perfect line - the same line too - until out of sight in exactly the same direction.  But if what I’d seen had been a gull then it had been practically stratospheric.

So, satellite or seagull?  And you thought that I was going to talk about flying discs and little green men…

And this is my point: it’s unidentified; its identity is yet to be established.  And if a UFO is an ‘unidentified flying object’ then what I saw was, QED, a UFO.  In fact, anything that flies that we’re not sure about is, pedantically, a UFO.  UFOs are therefore quite prosaic, everyday entities.

What we really mean, of course, is ‘unidentifiable flying object’ which is much rarer.  I’d suggest rare to the point of non-existent.  Satellite or seagull?  Yes, one or the other…

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Hell is Other People


No, not really, he says desperately trying not to come across as some kind of sociopath, but we do have visitors at the moment...

Visitors who nicely illustrate a cultural divide between non-digital natives and others.  Evening entertainment seems to revolve around plonking themselves in front of the TV, regardless of what's on.  I do remember a time when I would have been happy to sit and absorb whatever happened to be on telly, but since adopting the PVR I either watch what I want without the adverts, trailers and having to place my arse on the sofa at the whim of a scheduler, or I go and do something more valuable if it's somebody else's turn with the remote.  I won't just sit and veg in front of whatever just happens to be on.  (I should be working on my novel, but I'm in that endless wasteland of act 2 and the blog seems easier.)

One effect of the digital revolution, all of which would have been science fiction just a few years ago, is that we losing our enslavement to other people's timetables.  I suppose it started long before - your first car freed you from bus and train timetables, greenhouses and herbicides freed you from the growing seasons.  Email and computers frees your employer from expecting you to leave at 5pm...  My point is about those things specifically, but that I don't think anybody saw any of this coming as a sci-fi future prediction from times past - but now it's here the behaviour change feels entirely natural.

It’s normally hard to work in a reference to the National Trust into a sci-fi blog, but we went to the Killerton Apple Day last weekend - thought the cider a touch sour, but admire their commitment to 'keeping it real' - where the site includes a preserved 1950s Post Office.  On 'sale' was a 1957 (I think) Dan Dare comic, the cover story of which was set in 1997 dealing with issues concerning ray guns, or possibly death rays.  Rays of some sort, anyway.  (The Post Office also had a pack of suet pudding in a ‘utility jacket’.  Not sure what a suet pudding would need with all those pockets, but I digress.)

Whatever it was about, 1997 wasn't big on ray guns and flying cars or anything else from 1950s era sci-fi.  Those guys predicted the future about as well as one of those laughable animals they roll out every World Cup to predict the winner.

But we're not any different - my guess is that the future is going to be way, way different to whatever we're writing about now...

Friday, 17 October 2014

BBC Genome Project


The BBC have this great site, Genome, where you can look up what was on telly on any day in history.  Since the invention of telly, that is.  Obviously.

So I looked up what was showing on the day I was born.  Good God.  I though ‘An Evening with Dame Sybil Thorndike’ was a Python sketch.  No wonder the pubs were full.

Which is, obliquely, the point of this posting.  Its one of the things that classic sci-fi never quite predicted.  Whether utopian or dystopian they’ve tended to show us societies, tribes, clans.  Peoples - not always human - coming together through some shared sense of identity or need.  As if that's our default, the need to flock together like penguins in a blizzard.

Which is ironic, really, when you consider these are stories banged out by some bloke on his tod in front of an Olivetti portable or whatever was the equivalent in the time of Verne or Wells.

But we’ve gone from everybody down the pub to avoid ‘An Evening with Dame Sybil Thorndike’ or a documentary on the cost of motor insurance (no, really) to walling ourselves up in our living rooms huddled in family units to watch three, then four, then a dozen channels.

Which was, of course, just a waymarker on a longer journey.  We’ve since gained screens in every room and have fractured our society into even smaller parts, whole families sitting in different spaces watching different - or, even worse, the same - things.

And now, forget a fixed screen in every room, we have a screen in every palm.  And we can film our own material to boot.

Society is like water or lightning.  It takes the path of least resistance.  That’s why, when you take away the need to man a loom for fourteen hours a day, the average mind drifts to porn and drugs.  It’s a default.  We’re animals, really.  And I mean that literally first, and metaphorically second.

The future is us sitting in our own filth with screens over - and then in - our eyes watching content of our own making.  And if that’s just a waymarker too and not the end of the journey then I have no idea what comes next…

Work that into part seven, George.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Get off the bike

I've noticed a strong correlation between finding time to write (again) and the end of the cycling season, having been at least a week behind watching highlights of the Vuelta on the PVR.  And if you think the Grand Tours have no place in a sci-fi blog, then just consider Alberto Contador's win having broken his leg just a few weeks before.  Put that in a character arc and they'd just laugh at you...

So, let me make this science-y and fiction-y and just a tad controversial by saying that I have no issue whatsoever with drugs in sport.

Yes, you heard.  No issue at all.

Let me explain.  Sport, at a professional, dedicated level, involves living an entirely artificial life.  How you eat and sleep and everything in between is dictated by the demands of sport.  Take diet.  Carefully controlled, carefully managed and not just in the balance between carbs, fat and protein, but supplements too.

Everything that you push into your face - food, pills, whatever - has a physiological effect on you.  Except sweetcorn, that comes out the same, everybody knows that.  So how and why differentiate one from another?  One's a pill and the other's on a plate?  We can bat such presentational matters away simply, science can present one thing in the guise of another quite easily (e.g. here in Britain, horse meat as beef).

No, no, you cry, this is about drugs, chemicals.  But everything is a chemical when looked at at that level.  So what makes these chemicals naughty?

Is it the old chestnut of one being man-made and the other natural?  Why should a supplement derived from a plant be okay but one derived in a lab not?  What if, on a molecular level, they were the same?  We can make aspirin, or get exactly the same stuff from trees.  What then?

What if we could put together chemicals with some Breaking Bad-meets-Minecraft device?  We could then tweak and tweak a molecule from being some benign sugar to being king of the go-faster stripes.  Where's the line that was crossed?  You don't know because there is no hard, fast, objective difference.  Probe and the seemingly black and white distinction becomes a sea of grey as you push the envelope until it falls off the table.

Given everything the elite sportsman does is artificial the only way I see that you could justify banning drugs in sport is if you banned all artificial interventions and chose ordinary people at random to represent their countries.  Rather like the ancient Greek's approach to democracy - 'oi, you, you're a senator, get used to it...'

So much for science-y, where's the fiction-y?  Well, if Charlton Brooker can outline a story in his Guardian column and then, a few years later, bring it to life as the first episode of Black Mirror, although I seem to remember it was Terry Wogan who had to have relations with the pig initially, then so can I.

It's about a cyclist.  He's good, but not great.  On the fringes of a professional team, a domestique.  He's offered drugs.  He refuses, he has high ideals.  But the pressure mounts, to stay in the team he has to give in.  He takes them.  Performance improves, but so does a sense of guilt.  But the team management implore him to keep quiet.  They even seem adept at convincing the authorities.  He shops the team, throws his career away.  But then he finds out that he was taking placebos.  Had he kept quiet he would have been riding clean, but now no team will touch him as somebody who was prepared, even under duress, to ride dirty.

Better than Shakespeare, huh?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Aromatized wine-based drink

Sounds like science-fiction?  No, its already here and available at Lidl.

Remember kids, if we hadn't won the war we'd all be shopping there now and driving VWs.  Err, hold on...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doctor Who, and possibly Why

I had my first proper look at Malcolm Tucker as the new Doctor last week, albeit in the second episode as my ten-year old decided to unilaterally delete the first episode off our PVR.

Not as sweary as I expected, particularly when the dalek presented him with the perfect opportunity to say something akin to 'a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle' which, if I ever get to use in context, I'll go to my grave a happy man.  But then, I suppose it's children's telly not politics.

First up, I have something of a problem with the new Doctor Who and have had since Christopher Ecclestone was (mis)cast in the role, to the extent I've probably only seen half a dozen of the twenty-first century version.  It's a problem that I've found hard to pin down.

In part it's down to a suspicion of the gloss and special effects over the creak of the older version.  But I know that's a bit like saying you preferred your football team when they'd scrape a nil-nil draw against Huddersfield rather than after they got bought out by an oil sheik and brought a load of Latin magicians in: just reactionary old codger-isms.

I like to think my issues are more story based.  I remember the stories taking themselves seriously (which probably means they came across as pretentious as well as portentous) rather than being knowingly silly (and is it me or have they got sillier since the last series?).  I liked the four 25 minute episodes ending with cliff hangers rather than one hour long story for the soundbite generation.  Room for more story, rather than room for more stories.  My recollection (and that's all the research I'm basing this on) is that the old Doctor had a tipping point that he had to be taken to to intervene - didn't he even have a rule not to interfere? - which gave a depth to the narrative.

I can see the temptation to ignore that so the Doctor can come out all quips blazing - but then again I can see the temptation for crack.

It's not that it's a children's program and I'm now all grown up - I thought The Sarah Jane Adventures which I watched with the kids generally excellent.  And I'm delighted for its success for the people of Wales where it's practically replaced the coal industry.

There was a moment in hokum which really made me think bout story structure (can you tell I wasn't really wrapped up in what was happening?).  In a very Star Trek landing-party moment (red tops always draw the short straw), in order to get inside the dalek the doctor and chums have to shrink.  There's a machine to do just that.  How fortuitous.

My approach to the story would have been to make the shrinking machine (it had a nice sci-fi name which escapes me now) a point of risk, a tool to be used only when the need to do so outweighs the damage it could do.  A tipping point.  The act one/two break.  Not so much as deus ex machina as deus lying around on the stage just waiting to be asked to intervene.  But, no, the writers just hand the story a resolution before we've had time to dwell on the problem to be solved.

There's a reason why stories have had a beginning, middle and end and why that works and starting in the middle doesn't and this felt straight into act two.

Then again, they're highly paid, successful writers and I'm still pinging stories at SFWA-accredited markets which come back home like pigeons.  Perhaps it's me clinging to old story conventions: no, no, you always leave the bottom button of a waistcoat undone? why? pah! what's that? no waistcoat? no tie?! a pierced nipple?!!

Who knows...

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

27

In decades to come etymologists - or whoever it is who decides these things - will decree that there are 27 letters in the alphabet, and have been since the dying days of the Twentieth Century.

The 27th is, quite obviously, @.

How does it feel to live in such a maelstrom of history that even the alphabet is being rewritten?  Our children's children's children will look back and wonder at this most incredible age.  Whereas we, in the eye of the hurricane, are probably more concerned with getting the bins out in time...

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Some thoughts on time travel

No, nothing to do with killing your grandfather or sleeping with your grandmother...

This is a meme that's been at the back of my mind for some time now, but it was brought to the fore when, having moved to a new town, I gave our ten-year old a map and asked him to plan a walking route.

Not that he did badly; there's a lot of arcane symbolism on an A to Z if you're a ten-year old, although I would have thought going around one, not two, sides of a triangle would have been intuitive.

No, it was a large foldy piece of paper in the hands of a digital native.  Because he will grow up with a device, not a physical unwieldy map, in his hands.  And a device that translates and advises to boot.  And tells him where he is without having to look up a road name and then cross reference column and row and stare into the detail of a medieval streetplan, or line up churches, copses and hilltops on both paper and in reality.

Because they are all burdens which will be taken off his shoulders; necessitating skills, like hunting bison with sticks, which will become redundant.  His life will be easier than ours, particularly when we have connectivity up Everest and on the streets of El Dorado.

But - and this is where I don't know whether I'm being a seer or a fool - this is where I have a problem. Because challenges beget skills and abilities.  And without challenges we need be little more than Cartesian brains in jars.

Our generation learnt to read maps and then use maps.  His generation will simply be told where to go. There's a difference.  Our generation had the 'why learn maths when I can learn to use a calculator' question; his will ask 'why learn to do anything?'.  I genuinely wonder why we continually challenge him to improve his handwriting when he'll type virtually everything.

I've long thought that if and when the balloon goes up - let's say that sci-fi chestnut of the electromagnetic pulse that knocks over any silicon-based technology - that any fourteenth century youth would survive far longer than one from my generation.  He'd be able to catch, kill and cook his own dinner.  Mine would be looking for the tin opener and matches.  But my ten-year old's would be looking for the Ocado van and the fire-making app.

However, it's only just occurred to me that this process is on-going.  As technologies replace challenges (like the word processing package built into this blogger that takes the pressure off my being able to spell) our raw abilities erode.  And it's still going on.

So what of the future?  TV dinners mean some can't-cook-won't -cook; will food synthesis make it a completely lost art?  Anti-gravity will mean we'll never have to lift anything heavier than a finger ever again.  And then soon we won't be able to at all.  Communication by thought will destroy the art of conversation.  Robot cars will mean nobody can take the wheel when the machines go bad.  And so on...

But I know what you're thinking; can I cast any positives into this gloom?  Well, how about cryo-technology?  Because somewhere out there in this deskilled future may lie the last analogue native, deep frozen, probably thawing automatically, ready to explain to mankind what happens when nothing happens when you press a button.

Assuming somebody has the skills to revive him, that is...


Monday, 18 August 2014

Cosmic (dog) Egg

It is with great pleasure that I can announce that I've been offered a book contract for my sci-fi novel 2084, previously subtitled The Meschera Bandwidth which gives this blog its web address.

And it is with greater pleasure that I can say that it took me about ten minutes and no legal advice whatsoever to turn it down.

The lucky recipient of my decision was Cosmic Egg, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing.  As for my reasons, let me simply quote the feedback I left on their site (everything is done by logging into a database; even the contract offer email was unsigned and came from a no-reply address which rather gives an insight into their style):


Exploitative terms which do not suggest any desire on your part to develop a long-term mutually beneficial relationship

It wasn't so much that they wanted money to publish it - over £2000 - although I have a personal rule not to pay for publication; backing by a publisher, to me, represents independent verification of the quality of the raw material.  No, it was the fact that they would retain the rights, i.e. own the book, for the duration of copyright which, correct me if I'm wrong, would mean they would have it until 50 - or is it 75 now? - years after I'm dead.

But let's go back to the money question.  What other industry other than the arts makes the producers of the raw material pay for it to be processed?  No, really, think about it.  Name one.  I can't.


Actually, I have some sympathy for publishers and can understand why they'd wish to pass some of the business risk back to the author, particularly of niche products (which a sci-fi novel called 2084 isn't intended to be).  They'd argue that it is the information revolution, which has allowed me to submit to, and decline a contract from, Cosmic Egg with such ease that has flooded the market with product.  How do you get a new book by an unknown author noticed under those circumstances?

But my sympathy stops when a publisher wants me to pay for them to take a story off me for my lifetime plus most of my children's.

But maybe publishing is at a bleeding edge here?  What deal will farmers get when we can synthesise our own food?  What deal will anybody get when we have universal 3D printing with (to use Peter F Hamilton's term) 'raw' that can be turned into anything from aircraft engines to underwear?

The answer is simple: farmers will stop trying to sell foodstuffs at a loss, and the aeroengine and panties makers will adopt the new technology.  Only authors keep writing stories when the world has more books in it that anybody can read in a lifetime.  And under those circumstances is it any surprise they're increasingly being asked to pay to publish?

So, why do we do it?  Well, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you've gotta ask you ain't never gonna know...

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Off-Net

Last time I mused on some fairly obvious future inventions.  I did try to spin the in-ear translator into a storyline involving the 2065 peace negotiations between the Taliban and the west, but I kept coming back to gremlins translating innocent phrases into pork products, and given Daily Science Fiction put a parental warning sticker on my last story over a fairly lame bit of slang I didn't see it having legs...

I'll add a couple of culinary items to the list.  Firstly, the microwaveable tin can.  I'd pay the premium.  Secondly, genuinely hob to table cookware - a pan with a lid that acts like a sieve to drain my pasta but still seals when I want it to, and a body that can take a flame but I can also eat out of; non-stick even when I've gouged it with my knife.  If you want to have a go inventing that remember to send me my 10%...

But this posting wasn't intended to be about reinventing the kitchen, although co-incidentally Radcliffe and Maconie were musing on the possibility of cubic peas on 6Music yesterday.  I thought I'd predict a black swan that is, possibly, already happening.

The rise of The Off-Net.

We all know people who aren't online because of circumstances, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, or plain old inertia.  They probably make up most of the planet.  Here I'm positing another group, a blink-and-you-miss it demographic - those who actively refuse to take part in the Information Age.  Those who have opted-out.  The Digital Amish.

And opting-out is an activity.  It's like sitting in a leaky boat trying to stop data escaping.  Actually, a better analogy may be like trying to stop water evaporating, with the rise of CCTV snapping your face daily.  Just sitting still may be being recorded somewhere, somehow.

It's hardly surprising some will take minimising their digital footprint to an extreme.  We hear a lot about the dark side of the net, whether it be child abuse, personal data wriggling loose, or active snooping on us by governments.  We probably don't know the half of it.  I'm not the first person who gives a digital shrug to most of it which, when you think about it, is an odd response.  It's like we've all been conditioned to, well, not give a monkey's.  Conditioned?  Mentally poisoned, possibly...

But I know there are people out there who take it seriously.  I'd say too seriously but, hey, I'm one of the ones who have already been got.  They're Donald Sutherland and I'm Jeff Goldblum, or possibly Veronica Cartwright (hmm...).  They're the people who used to wear tinfoil hats but have got more subtle since the 60s.  They're the Off-Net.

I included the Off-Net in a story, They Hide in Plain Sight, yet to be sold.  In this, in the 22nd century, they're space hippies brought together by word of mouth to worship a new messiah.  Not sure it's the most coherent piece I've ever written but, hey, is all of PK Dick's oeuvre?  But those are the successors to today's Off-Net, some of whom may still have their parents' tinfoil hats as heirlooms.  Who knows who they are or what they're doing today.  All I know is that they won't be reading this...   

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Black Swan - the Impossibility of Invention

I've been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable' which, unfortunately, doesn't include Natalie Portman getting down with Mila Kunis.  Never mind.

Like many work colleagues and former college friends it's garrulous and engaging and takes you places where you find you don't really want to be.  Intellectual places.  I haven't yet finished it - that'll come when we have another week under canvas and will then I'll post a review on goodreads.com  - but one area I've so far got to where the mechanism of deception comes up over the radar relates to inventions, and this speaks to the point I made about Mark Twain predicting the web.

Taleb says - seems to say, it's tricky paraphrasing an argument that you suspect is screwy - that it is logically impossible to predict the future because, if you have done so, then the future has arrived.

Take the wheel.  If a caveman had said to himself, I predict the invention of the wheel, then, by thinking about the wheel he'd invented it.

Well, on the face of it, yes.  But what Taleb doesn't seem to allow is the caveman saying, I predict that very soon somebody will invent a better way of moving these dressed granite stones across Salisbury Plain...  He can't seem to separate the what from the how. 

Sci-fi is packed with 'what' predictions, the usual dilithium hyper-star-drive that allows our characters to get on with it.  And we live in such a complex world the what is now far, far separated from the how.  Think of the wheel - the what is in the shape which is also the how.  Now think of the Space Shuttle, or indoor fireworks, or paint that goes on pink but dries white.

But, putting sci-fi aside, there are more practical predictions we can make (doesn't mean to say that we may get them all right) just by looking at the way the wind is blowing.  I predict that electric cars will get more prevalent,  that their batteries will get lighter, that they'll develop solar roof panels as standard, that they'll get more efficient and effective.  A virtuous circle.

I predict government data sources joining together meaning it'll be impossible to receive a tax refund if I've got an outstanding speeding fine.  (I suspect this has been standard practice in sensible places like Scandanavia and the Netherlands for decades).

I predict in-ear translation devices.  One day.

There.  Three swift 'what' predictions before 7am without any attempt at the 'how'.  Just by seeing how the world is changing, none of them that original.

Actually, it makes me realise that I don't even know how much of the present works, let alone the future.  Take our satnav which knows where there are traffic delays in real time.  Is somebody feeding this in?  Doubtful - never seen an advert for that callcentre.  Or, more probably, is it working off feedback from other satnav users?  In which case when I'm told my route has a thirty minute delay, is it just you having pulled over to splash your boots and tuck a sandwich away? 


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Glass half what?

Glass half full: getting paid today by Daily Science Fiction for My Avatar has an Avatar - thanks.

Glass half empty: finding my book is "is currently ranked 588,894 out of over 400,000 books in the Kindle Store".  Ho hum.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

I Was There. Or Was I?

I'm writing this watching cricket - anybody from beyond the colonies may wish to google that word.

One of my least favourite things about cricket - a short list - is the on-pitch advertising sheets: sizeable smeared, twisted and stretched logos that make no sense from any perspective other than as a television viewer.  And then they seem to float oddly over the grass, modern technology allowing a child in minutes to design precisely what only MC Escher could have managed previously.

My complaint is not over computers' ability to compute - such design all comes back to numbers, after all - but about how we have come to see things in a world full of screens.  For those in the stands at Lords (a five-figure number) the scene is set out for those watching on screens (a seven-? eight-? figure number).  That's just economics - and not my gripe either.

No, my point revolves around being there and watching it on a screen.

More and more of us do it, taking constant and continual images of whatever is happening before us.  But there seems to me a correlation between watching events that are happening before you via a screen instead and a sense of disconnection.

I posted a couple of weeks back about watching the Tour de France cycle past.  Of course, as soon as the leaders and the then the chasing pack came past up went my phone, the resulting photos posted below.

I have the photos, but the sudden sense of being at once removed from the action gives me a slight doubt that I was there.  The waiting, the anticipation, the build up - that's all embedded on my memory - but the race itself?  A slight blur, a vague recollection - just a couple of weeks later.  Even though I have the photos to prove I saw it whereas all I have of the build up are memories - which science has shown to be less than reliable.

Was I there?  In retrospect I'm not sure it wholly felt like it...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why sci-fi's double whammy doesn't work

My mind drifted this morning on to an article I'd read a couple of days ago about the issues and risks thrown up by Google Glass and whether I could construct a storyline involving card counting and casinos before deciding that was all rather old hat.

From there it was a short (mental) step to the question of why science-fiction never predicted the Internet.

Of course, a quick Google reveals that, of course, science fiction did foresee both the Internet and social networking, firstly and most completely in Mark Twain's "From the 'London Times' of 1904" (1898) - which by all accounts is a brilliant story unless you try to read it.

Which then led me to ponder the really quite obvious point of why sci-fi hasn't done very well at predicting the myriad of things we use the Internet for on a prosaic, day-to-day basis: satnav, eBay, streetview, parcel tracking and so forth.  I'm no expert and will be willingly corrected (matron!) but I get the feeling sci-fi was always more eager to go down the virtual reality/mind-reading route than foreseeing fridges that would talk to the supermarket when your Parmesan got down to the rind.

My conclusion is this.  In the pre-digital age the Internet would have been a leap of faith, a deus ex machina for the writer to explain and the reader to buy into.  Mark Twain's Telectroscope, apparently, mainly let you do what you did normally (observe, converse) but geographically removed.  To then add a second invention, dependent on the detail of the first, would have stretched the credulity of the reader beyond comfort.  Virtual reality and mind-reading, whilst representing bigger asks in the real world are single step fictional inventions, whereas Internet plus kitten videos going viral is, somehow, two.

Or, maybe, the imaginations of most writers, me included, is limited so that we can only make out the next step; anything beyond being lost in the gloom.

I'm thinking out loud here.  Responses via however we'll be communicating in the year 2096, please. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

A Treatise on Human Nature


I recently heard something truly brilliant about cake mixture.

No.  Stay with me on this one.

Apparently, when instant cake mix was first marketed it was a total flop.  The trouble was that it was too easy.  The early variants needed nothing added to them to make your cake, you just poured it out into the right sized tin and popped it into the oven.

It was only when you had to add eggs and milk to some dehydrated powder and mix it yourself that the stuff took off.  More work, more washing up.  How on earth can that be?

To me it’s all about ownership.  It’s human to want to put some effort in, make a mark, even if it’s just adding milk and eggs and whisking.  It’s what gives us a mental stake in whatever it is - just try handing out organisational tasks to children, they lap them up.  As regards the cake, weighing, measuring, judging the state of the mix takes (a modicum of) skill in a way that just pouring gloop into a loaf tin doesn’t.  Previously your oven, given the tricky task of actually cooking it, would have had a greater sense of ownership.

Of course, the option of just buying a cake is (and was) always open, but somehow that doesn’t carry with it the same expectation of being a stakeholder in its creation.  Ownership, sure.  But not stakeholdership, whereas buying old style cake mix gave you ownership but also a frustrating delay whilst you added effort but not a commensurate degree of finesse.

There’s probably a PhD in this, which is probably what somebody has done and I was reading about.

Whilst on the subject of human nature - and, as Harry Hill so correctly observed, you can tell a lot about a person’s character from what they’re like - I recently went to see the Tour de France as it raced across the flatlands of Cambridgeshire.  Me and, apparently, at least a million others.  On a Monday.  (And, yes, Cambridgeshire isn’t in France, but I’ve always liked the organisers’ seeming inability to do geography).



Two hours driving, two hours stood by a road watching out for red ants whilst being besieged by thunderflies, all for twenty seconds or so of racing.  It shouldn’t have worked, but, oddly, it did.

Why?

Something to do with being human in a large group of fellow humans sharing an expectation, sharing an experience.  Not a crowd of individuals, but a crowd that has magically become more than the sum of its parts.  Not just an ‘I was there’ but an ‘I was part of it’ moment.  Not quite religious, but definitely on that spectrum.

I’ve read one theory that, as Thatcher fractured society so completely, robbed of the sense of community that our predecessors would have got from, well, their community, we now seek out ‘gatherings’ and ‘events’ whether they be Glastonbury or sport to make up for it.  Maybe, maybe not.

And the relevance to science fiction? - other than the fact that waiting for the Tour as the several hundred support and sponsors’ vehicles zoomed past in the two hours prior reminded me of nothing more than the hicks standing at the roadside waiting for the lights in Close Encounters.

Well, sci-fi's read by people, humans, and as such it has to be relevant.  I don’t mean relevant as in Star Trek’s loosely disguised coverage of racial and sexual politics and other 1960s dilemmas.  I mean that as writers we have to populate our stories with humans who are recognisably human regardless of when and where our stories are set.  We're always writing for 21st century Earthlings, an audience who we're still finding out about, let alone our characters.

The lesson is, whether Dick’s paranoids or Douglas Adams pompous bumblers, none of them, absolutely none of them, should be advocates of early cake mix, but they should be happy to stand on a roadside for two hours for twenty seconds of 'I was there' humanity coming together.  No, doesn't make sense to me either...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Because they asked me to

Fiction Vortex

I ****ing love you, Twenty-first Century

Okay, I had been somewhat mildly drinking when I cooked up most of the theme and content of this posting.

As I'm in the process of renovating a house I am sans broadband most of the time.  So, having had a rigorous day sugar soaping or painting or whatever I went in search of a hostelry with wifi.  So, all hail the Crown and Septre, St Marychurch, Torquay who not only had free broadband but gave me a short pint for free as it had got down to the crunchy end of the barrel.

And when I went online not only did I find that two people had bought my book on Amazon, but that I had a comment on this little old blog.  What touched me was that we now live in a world where an Indian woman in Canada can casually comment on the musings of a white bloke from a doubly-landlocked county in England.

So, the cider asked me, with the whole planet getting huggy, if not downright touchy-feely, how can there still be evil in the world?

Now, I know that anybody below forty will probably roll their eyes at being impressed by our joined-up planet.  Social media is as natural and everyday as breathing.  Hey, this is supposed to be about sci-fi!  Give us a hovercar or something and get on with it.

My family have never been early adopters of technology (except for the colour television, but I think that came down to Dad watching snooker) hence I'm still impressed and amazed at the technology we already have.  Try going back to the 17th century and explaining television or electricity, you'll start to think none of it makes sense.  (I had the same feeling when I attempted to summarise the plot of Thelma and Louise one).

But (you knew there was a 'but' coming) richness of functionality and ease of use bring with them consequences.  You see, it's so easy to be an online author or 'generator of content' that we're all at it to the extent that the rate of consumption of that content is pathetic (I've now had three sales! the last one in dollars!! so it's probably not even somebody I know!!!)

I know that there's something imperial/paternalistic/fascist about the logical conclusion of this argument;  that the authors should be an elite minority producing a small amount of stuff for the many eyes and brains to feed off.  I like the idea of democritising writing but quality tends to go for a Burton.  As a consequence many of us end up writing for an audience of one: ourselves or, worse, our imaginary friend.  Hence it comes as such a pleasant surprise when a stranger makes contact based entirely on what you've written.

This is the main reason that I turned my back on Facebook and Twitter - I simply don't want to know, continuously and continually, what you're thinking/eating/buying/sleeping with (Okay, I am curious about the latter...)  Everybody's talking, but nobody's being heard...

Touchy-feely-huggy?  Yes, but a bit onanistic at the same time...


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Don't you just hate technology when...

...it tells you that it hasn't saved your blog posting so you re-write the whole thing from memory just to find that it's been posted anyway?

Putting that gripe aside, my story My Avatar has an Avatar was published on Daily Science Fiction today, and Fiction Vortex have accepted 'The Lodeon Situation', a story which ranks amongst my personal favourites but has proved really hard to shift.  But it appears I've given it away for $10.  Still, a credit's a credit...

Saturday, 14 June 2014

In Praise of Mr Clarke

No, not Arthur C. but Neil of Clarkesworld.

Has he taken one of my stories?  No.  Actually, no for the the seventeenth time.

No, the reason for this praise is when Mr Clarke decides not to accept a story he takes no more than 48 hours telling me.  (Unless, of course, he has some email rule which rejects anything from my address after a plausible reading period...  Hold on, I may be on to something).

Tor.com took nine months to tell me they almost liked a story enough to publish it.  EscapePod have currently asked for an additional two or three months on my story 'The Soul of Solomon Kismet' which has gone to the 'final round of review'.  One possible outcome is that they take it and I'll be delighted, natch, but another possibility (probability? - I have no idea of the conversion rate) is another delayed rejection.

Before anybody thinks this is a criticism of those publishers that take weeks and months to accept or reject work I am realistic, I know how stretched resources are, and I know these frustrating waiting periods come with the territory.

Hence it's nice when somebody appears to be fully on top of their backlog.

Talking of backlogs I understand how easy they are to build up, but what I find harder to comprehend is a constant unchanging backlog.  Take Britain's two speed postal service.  I understand first class: get it there asap.  But what of second class?  Do they engineer in a delay?  Today's first class gets dealt with before today's second, but what of yesterday's second versus today's first?  And if they put in an extra half day yesterday would that mean they could process everything as first today and forever?  And what of the time taking to sort first from second, couldn't that be use to, ahem, get more post to us?  And will there be second class post in space?  (Had to remind myself this is meant to be about sci-fi).

Neil Clarke obviously thought my first seventeen stories somewhat second class.  I wonder how long he'll take if he thinks my eighteenth first class?

In Praise of Mr Clarke

No, not Arthur C. but Neil of Clarkesworld.

Has he accepted one of my stories?  No.  Actually, no for the seventeenth time.

No, this is in praise of Mr Clarke because when he doesn't want something he invariably takes no more than 48 hours over it - although it may be that he now has some kind of e-mail rule that reacts to anything from my address, delaying the reply sufficiently to give the impression of reading it...

Tor.com took nine months over a story simply to say they almost decided to publish it; EscapePod have asked for another few months for my story 'The Soul of Solomon Kismet' which has gone to their final review round.  Be delighted if they take it, natch, but there's always the possibility (probability? - I have no idea of the conversion rate from final review round to sale) of another further delayed rejection.

Before anybody points out that resources are stretched in the world of publishing let me emphasise that this posting is not a criticism of those that take weeks or month, just praise for one of the ones who appears to be on top of the submission process.  I know how these things work and that the frustration comes with the territory.

But talking of processes, it's easy to let a backlog build up, in which case response times increase or, if there isn't much to process, to be always responding swiftly.  But it's very hard to have a constant unchanging backlog. I've often wondered about Britain's two speed postal service.  I understand first class: get it there asap.  But what about second class?  Naturally, today's second class gets processed after today's first class, but what of yesterday's second class versus today's first class?  And if they put an extra half day's shift in yesterday, couldn't everything be dealt with as first class today and forever?  And how much time is spent separating out the second from the first, and what if that time were used to get the post to where its going?  And will there be second class post in space?  (Had to remind myself that this is meant to be about sci-fi).

Neil Clarke obviously thought my first seventeen submissions second class.  If he thinks the eighteenth first class I wonder how much time he'll take to tell me?

Monday, 2 June 2014

Hikikomori - the bleeding edge of human development?

I've always had sympathy with those much maligned individuals who hold a teleological view of human progress.

However, where I think they're going wrong is in thinking that the human race is heading for some sort of apogee, a nirvana.

No, water runs downhill and so does human nature.

Life is all about survival; tens of thousands of years ago life was hunt prey, kill prey, cook prey, eat prey, sleep and try to not die reproducing.  There was no leisure time.  I imagine the caveman who took time out to grind coloured rock and fingerpaint an elk or a hand shadow was regarded as somewhat eccentric.  But what he had invented, as well as art was leisure time.

And since then we've been carving out more and more leisure time from the necessary hunting, cooking and not dying bits of our day.

If you want to see the direction of travel, teleologically speaking, then look no further than the Japanese Hikikomori, the latter day hermits.  These people have created, or are least trying to create, 100% leisure time.

Hard work is going out of fashion and the Hikikomori are just leading the charge.  A century ago Britain had 20000 working class brass bands; now that figure is down to 1000 or so.  Men who worked with their hands were proud to maintain their own cornets and trombones.  Hard work was its own reward.

My children, given the choice between kicking a ball around and playing video games go for the video games.  I'm, of course, shocked and appalled because that's how society has wired my brain.  As a parent I feel a need to instill a work ethic in them, but I'm beginning to wonder whether a Protestant work ethic or Catholic guilt are two sides of the same socially-constructed coin (or possibly sides of a die as we want to be inclusive here); something society has made up to get us to work because we've had to.  Even the Hikikomori don't feel 100% happy with their lot.  Truth is that my generation only kicked a ball around because the XBox and Wii hadn't been invented.

What innovation will tender today's screen based entertainment redundant?  I predict some kind of floatation tank with added narcosis, foodstuffs made by robots and nanobots fed to us through tubes.  We'd all be watching blu-ray boxsets of shows made by virtual actors, the scripts churned out to algorithms cooked up by focus group and feedback loops.

As time goes on human progress is about us getting closer to our true nature, as reckless irresponsibles.  We're fighting against the social conditioning that hard work is its own reward (god knows I suffer from that more than most), so look to those least sullied by conditioning to see the truth - the kids.

Not pretty, is it?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Content not product

One of my stock phrases along with 'you get what you pay for' and 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' is 'content not product'.

I started to get a reasonable amount of disposable income at the height of the DVD/CD-era when we thought that filling our houses with shiny data-packed discs was the height of sophistication.  So I did.  Nowadays the kids know better and by putting everything on the cloud or online or wherever it lives its virtual life we've ditched the bathwater (the shiny disc) and kept the baby (the movie).

Hence I still have a mass of DVDs that I'm watching once more and recycling via the charity shop.  Latest one to stop off at my DVD player en route to Age UK was Alien.

Of course it's a stonewall classic.  Tight story, brilliant direction, lit superbly, but for me the standout is the production design.  Not so much HR Giger's alien [RIP Hans Rudolf - only just found out now when I Googled to check his spelling) but the Nostromo.  It's grimy and real.  This, to me, is what a spaceship should look like; there seems a sense that the Nostromo would exist even without the story, Parker whinging about shares, whereas I'm not sure the Millennium Falcon has any reason to exist except as a story device.

Although I've yet to get one through the quality filter of Neil Clarke and his ilk of SFWA-accredited editors, I have a series of stories set within the Galactic Merchant Marine; until I rewatched Alien I didn't realise how much of Ridley Scott's milieu had rubbed off on my efforts.

However, this isn't all hagiographic.  I do have one gripe and that's the technology.  It's not the miniaturisation that they didn't see coming - it's all big lit-up buttons and clunky green text and Tom Skerritt's captain has to go into a separate room to talk to 'mother' whereas now it'd be on a handheld.  (I briefly worked in aerospace R&D and that all looked like Flash Gordon, although it was for the company reckoned to be the last to work in imperial measurements in the UK so go figure).

No, it's the fact that they didn't seem to think that computers would work out the answers for you but instead they'd give you more raw data, quicker.  At one point Ripley stares at a screen cascading with ones and zeros as if that was what we'd be looking at in the twenty second century, having to do the mental legwork for ourselves.

Actually, I find all of that forgivable - power of hindsight and all that - but what, for me, goes off the hokum scale is the the self-destruct mechanism, although they're not the first or last to use that old chestnut.

Think about it.  You design a ship - a commercial tug vehicle, not some black-ops military vehicle carrying state secrets or bleeding edge technology - would you give it a self-destruct mechanism?  As the client would you specify that in your spec?  As the designer would you add it in as a nice-to-have?  If there wasn't a story to tell would it be there?  I vote for 'no'.

Ships can be scuttled, and I think it's this extrapolation from sea-going to space-going craft that's responsible for the modern-day equivalent to the deus ex machina.  But a) in a 2D world (which is what the surface of the sea is in effect) there is far more need to remove a counter from the board than there would be in the 3D world of space; and b) correct me, but I don't think any ship has a dedicated mechanism built-in for scuttling?

I may be wrong - in the best traditions of the interweb I have, of course, done no research whatsoever...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

It's my birthday and I'll cry if I want to...

Yes, it's my birthday, but I'm want to keep this as narcissism-free as possible.

As anybody with opposable thumbs living in the twenty-first century will know birthdays bring congratulatory messages generated by dates saved into Facebook and the like from friends and corporate behemoths wanting your business alike.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Actually, my point isn't about the corporate behemoths; I know I'm not really in the thoughts of Pizza Express.  It's the rarely-seen friends and acquaintances who ping off a message based on an automated prod from their digital manservant.  It feels so... contractual obligation.

But wasn't it ever thus?  When a card arrived through the post (if you're under twenty-five ask a grown-up) from anybody other than immediate family I never thought that that was all their own work.  No, of course the date was written down in a diary and without that the card would never have arrived.  So what's changed?  Other than the fact that we no longer have to remember to look at the diary, it reminds us...

But is that what I'm objecting to?  The fact that the burden of having to remember to check is taken off our shoulders?  That you'll no longer be able to tell those who remembered to check from those that didn't (maybe because I'd always be in the latter camp).  Is this one reason more why life feels ever-more diluted, downgraded, made greyer and blander?

But shouldn't it sound like progress, never having to remember to check?  Where else could we apply this principle?  I could really do with bins that put themselves out.  And (being male) I'm hugely reluctant to go to the doctor - could my body decide for me?  From where I'm sitting I can see shelves of books, a pile of DVDs, and a PVR that always has about 30 hours for me to catch up with.  There must be a better way than going through them line by line, frame by frame?  Can technology distill them, give me the impression of having read and watched them?

But isn't that it?  Am I not wishing somebody to live my life for me?  Given life's inherent pointlessness (feel free to argue teleology if you like, but I've never bought it) it's absurd to try to create a short-cut to a non-event.  I may as well be a Cartesian brain in a vat...

Which, on your birthday, sounds like not a bad idea...

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Spam, spam, spam, spam

Should have spent the weekend humming the Pythons' ode to spam - but, as I have an eight-year old rendering the Disney-saccharine songs of Frozen to burrow into my brain, that isn't my current earworm of somebody else's choice  - I didn't.

Why?  Well, taking an occasional - very, very occasional, probably the first time in two or three years - look at my email spam for a completely unrelated reason, I found that Daily Science Fiction had picked up my story 'My Avatar has an Avatar' more than a month before.

Naturally chuffed as, having chosen to target only SFWA-accredited markets, this was my first sci-fi short story acceptance in, oh, about two years.  Also provides a marker against the growing evidence that I can't actually write.  Of course, I like to believe that it's more a question of editors signing up to my particular and singular vision but, nevertheless, it was looking a bit bleak.  So regards to Jonathan an Michele at Daily Science Fiction; toffs, scholars and gents both.

But it did get me thinking.  What if spam filters weren't just on email?  What if you had them on your brain?  How would you set them?  What would be the effects?  How would it impact on your daily life?  There's a story there.

Maybe the mental firewalls are there already.  It would explain why I don't retain everything the good lady wife says to me (or, perhaps that's the early onset dementia).  Is there a whole layer of reality which we're missing?  Matrix-like, is there more to the world than we're aware of, a cross-cognitive equivalent of the visual blind spot?

I'll dwell on such thoughts and see if a story emerges... 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Close Encounters - just how sci-fi is it?

Re-watched Close Encounters yesterday and whilst there are, as a writer, elements about it that I just love - Roy Neary seeing shapes in the shaving foam is one of the subtlest act 1/2 breaks I know - there are still a whole load of things in it that don't make sense.

Why do the aliens send Earth co-ordinates, a totally artificial, man-made (literally) nomenclature?  How big are those alien ships? they seem to be either huge or the size of a car, depending on what SS feels like; Father Dougal would never cope.  And I've never quite understood the topography of Devil's Tower, there seems to be lots of climbing just to get to the bottom...

Matthew Dicks has some other, more major issues with it which, as a father of two I should share but oddly don't, well argued as his piece is.  I think the problem is with me rather than Matt...

But the reason for my mentioning my re-watching of the Speilberg classic is that, ask anyone whether this is sci-fi and they'd say yes, each and every one of them.  But is it?  It's about space and aliens, but science?  Even Truffaut wanders around saying it's important but he doesn't know why, and the officer in charge of the supposed gas leak evacuation tells him it isn't science.

This isn't about differentiating between hard and soft sci-fi, but noting that most sci-fi now doesn't even pretend to bother with science, not even a black box of gizmos that the mad professor has perfected to prevent the Zartrons from over-running the Bronx.  At least the (pseudo-)science, even if delivered as a deus ex machina, of the 1950s Blob-era B-movies made sense in terms of powering on the story.

Ask yourself this, can any movie set in the space, or in the future, not be sci-fi?  Is the flexibility of sci-fi - anything at all as long as it's got aliens, or is set in the future or another planet - actually its undoing?

I've got nothing against any of it, it's what I write, but I rarely find myself looking up any science.  My strongest science fiction was a detective story that involved poisons and placebos.  We need another name for science-free sci-fi.

Hokum-fiction?  Or is that too close to the bone?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Lest we forget...

Apart from the Finnish Iron Sky I'm struggling with decent sci-fi from non English-speaking nations and, if memory serves, even that was in English...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Pourquoi?

...and still, sort of, on the subject of working out where stories go wrong...

It was brought home to me recently how much of a snob I am when I found myself watching the Euro-drivel that is Salamander.  Like Britain's car parks, this fails to work on so many levels.  Why are the sixty-six senior figures holding material in their bank safes which can be used to blackmail them? why not simply burn it all?  Why does the inside man not simply empty the safes himself rather than mark them for people tunneling in from the sewers?  Why doesn't the perpetrator simply send it all to the police or the press if he's after the effect of the information going public - resignations and suicides - not money?

But my point is this: if this weren't subtitled I wouldn't be watching it.  Okay, so in part it's down to trusting the judgment of the good people at BBC4 who have to fill their Eurocrime slot somehow.  But, really it's snobbery.  To put it bluntly, I know that the best, possibly only way to get to watch Midsomer Murders is to dub it into Danish the subtitle it.

So why bring it up here?  Well, we're awash with subtitled crime, but I'm really struggling to think of any decent foreign language sci-fi, SE Asian monster movies apart.  And it was Jules Verne who (partially) invented the genre.

Any suggestions?

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Adjustment Bureau - in need of adjustment

This was going to be a quick post, commenting that I'm currently reading the 1959 Philip K Dick classic Time Out of Joint in which Ragle Gumm's middling life in middle America is disturbed, amongst other things, when a soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it and how that seems to be utterly prescient of what happens to photos on websites when links are broken.  Particularly websites designed by me.

But Mr Dick made another of his frequent crossings of my path when I finally caught up with the movie The Adjustment Bureau.

My initial reaction when the credits came up was that it must have been made during a writers' strike, but checking the web shows that it's a reasonably well-regarded movie.

Well, I thought it was a mess.

I perversely enjoy watching films that (I think) don't work in order to think about where they don't work.  And this one has taken a certain amount of musing.  Now I haven't read the Dick original, which is (crucially) a short story rather than a novel, so I think much of the film story can be attributed to the filmmakers rather than the late Mr Dick.  Which is exactly as it should be.

I've come to the conclusion that the root problem is all about point of view.  When you tell a story (sf or otherwise) you make choices about your point of view.  If you're going to live inside the head of your hero then, to a large degree, you don't need to worry about the methods or motivations of your antagonists.  If your point of view is more universal - the all-seeing eye looking down - then you need to see the chess game from both angles.  (This is all a rule of thumb, of course).

But, whatever you go for, stick to it.  I like cheesecake.  I like beer.  But I wouldn't want them mixed.  Either tell the story from one point of view or the other.  Mixing them just leaves biscuit base and cream cheese floating in my brown ale.

The Adjustment Bureau wanted its cake both eaten and left intact on the plate.  Most of the time it was telling the story from the Matt Damon character's point of view, with these inexplicable entities messing with his passage through time and space.  If they'd stuck to this then they didn't need to justify or explain the actions of the antagonists.

But they didn't.

As soon as you have scenes of the antagonists discussing their plans you've taken the point of view away from the hero.  You've become a disembodied, objective observer looking down on all the action.  And if their plans don't make sense then the audience starts to disengage.  And I was left utterly unconvinced by the logic and rationale of those trying to mess with Mr Damon's head but simultaneously feeling that I should have some understanding.

Maybe the reason the writers were so reticent, making their antagonists middlemen who only had part of the masterplan, was because the hell that was to be avoided - happily married mediocrity - didn't seem to be a hell at all.  Hasn't Hollywood taught us that love conquers all, is the most important thing?  Jason Bourne would have laughed in the face of the choice and tried to have (the apparently mutually inclusive and reinforcing) both.  I needed (and felt Matt Damon needed) more convincing that he couldn't have the girl and the career other than by the trilby tribe telling him so.

So would editing out all the scenes without Matt Damon in have worked for anybody other than Mr Damon and his agent?

Probably not.  You see, when you have a hero like that he stands proxy for us, he's an everyman.  And as soon as you think why didn't you do that? or why did you do that? he becomes less of an everyman.  When the audience have a whole list of questions of the 'who are you guys?' and 'where do you come from?' variety which don't get asked when the hero and the people getting in his way get face time together (or the hero fails to justify not asking the killer questions) then the story trips and falls.  The bottom line is that the everyman hero is us, and anything that breaks that link breaks the illusion.

Which takes us back to Ragle Gumm, don't you think?

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Also on the subject of rubbishing that which numerous others have found wonderful I've also just abandoned Nicola Griffith's 'Slow River'; you can find my review at Goodreads.com.  Again, I appear to be in a very small minority...