Monday, 26 December 2011

What makes a good alien character (2)

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog on this topic, and via Reddit Scifi got about 50 replies, and thought I'd summarize what people said. First, a reminder of the five 'rules' I posted:

1. Aliens won't look humanoid
2. They won't speak English
3. They will be more intelligent than us
4. They won't share our value structure
5. They won't wish they were human

Most comments agreed, though a couple of people took issue with number 3. Anyway, here's  summary of what people said.

1. Most agreed that, different to most films/games/TV series, the non-humanoid alien was best for books and stories. There was a big discussion as to why other media still go for humanoid aliens, despite the power of computer graphics; in brief, films etc. have to gain empathy from the viewer much quicker than a book does, and so humanoid central characters, or at least anthropomorphic (essentially humans even if in disguise) characteristics are the norm.

2. Avoid the 'humans are special' trope (my rule 5 above), which one person pointed out was the same as the 'Everyone wants to be American' trope.

3. Those that accepted my 'more intelligent' rule thought it should be intelligence at a completely different level. Somebody pointed out that genetically there's not that much difference at DNA level between us and chimps, but the actual differences in what we achieve are enormous. 

4. Vastly more intelligent aliens would probably not be interested in anything we had to say. This 'indifference' can be used to great effect in books, creating mystery and 'alien-ness'. Incidentally, even less intelligent beings can be indifferent to great effect, as with the Bikura in Dan Simmons Hyperion.

5. Intelligence is a product of environmental need. If a species is surviving nicely, thank you very much, and has a stable niche (like the cockroach, or jellyfish), then there may be no need to evolve, and intelligence level will plateau. This is a challenge for the SF writer, to indicate why intelligence might increase, perhaps due to interaction with other species (e.g. David Brin's Uplift saga). Other options are eugenics, cybernetic augmentation and psychosurgery, and inter-species mating.

6. Some stated that intelligence would be limited by a species' physiology, with a bit of leeway for social evolution. Similarly with civilization - it would go so far and then just add more of the same, despite technological advances, the end result being social advancement and/or stagnation.

7. The most convincing aliens have an entire culture behind them, which takes a lot of time and skill to develop. 

8. Further to (7), space-faring aliens will likely have met other aliens, and so there will be cultural mixing  or at least references between different alien cultures. This is akin to normal fiction, where writers mention a character's half-brother or uncle or day-job, to give the reader the feeling the character has a life off-page. This suggests a galactic society in some cases, and a long history to boot.

9. Intelligence can be electronic, as in the 'Minds' of Iain Banks, or in some of Alistair Reynolds' works, or the later Dune sequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson

10. Advanced cultures might be less technologically-focused (i.e. been there, done that), and be more focused internally (zen aliens). This might mean they don't need ships to travel, and maybe are seeking some kind of (Stargate-like) ascendance to a higher realm, or just trying to get out of this galaxy/universe (as in Stephen Baxter's Xeelee aliens). In brief, they might be more concerned with 'inner space' than outer space. 

Since posting the blog I've thought of two other facets which can be useful for 'building' alien cultures:

11. Mode of reproduction. A lot of human social life is actually geared around reproduction, and in fact it is probably the biggest driving force in nature. The actual mode of reproduction will affect social behavior and traits which can be quite alien to us. Incidentally, someone pointed out that insectoid aliens (as brilliantly done in the Ender series by Orson Scott Card) have been a bit overdone, so new approaches would be preferred.

12. Perception. Humans are generally very visual, and a little bit auditory. What if aliens weren't, or were perceptive of a different or vaster range on the electromagnetic spectrum, or telepathic, or just thought much faster or slower? Perception shapes a lot of who we are, ditto for aliens.

So, where does this lead me? I'm writing book three of the Eden Trilogy, and have some work to do as I already have several species far more intelligent than humans. For me the biggest lesson is that aliens, even if they have some interest in humanity, must never, ever be 'human-centric'. Aliens, as the dictionary says, are different.

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook on Amazon
Eden's Trial available in ebook on Amazon
Eden's Revenge - available only in my head ... until September 2012.

Friday, 23 December 2011

When's the next space-bus to Kepler, please?

If you were the head of NASA's Space Division, and had unlimited budget, what would you spend your money on? Okay, let's assume the world economic mess is 'fixed' and world poverty is eradicated, back to the question: where would you focus?

Well, our own backyard seems an obvious place to start, Mars being everyone's first choice, because Venus is too hot and the Moon has no atmosphere, right? And the gas giants have too much gravity, though their moons might be interesting, if a little icy, and maybe there are some exotic particles hanging around Jupiter that might help answer some of our big questions about the universe. But what would we do on Mars, or the Moon or any other moons for that matter? We could do research, a bit of mining, maybe, but transport costs would likely make it a bad business model...

So, what about terraforming? Thinking of Mars again, maybe strips at a time. Could Mars be reclaimed one day? But do we really have any clue how to terraform?

Okay, let's think interstellar. Many do, but the word on the street is 'not in the forseeable future': see NASA's website here. We have lots of ideas, but they are still more at the speculation stage than the science stage.

But we keep discovering planets, right? Sooner or later, we're going to find one or two like Kepler 20 & 22 that are either 'terraformable', or downright habitable. Why go there, you may ask? After all, in America most people don't even have a passport, let alone an inter-stellar visa. Well, give it another 50 years, and let's just say that one or two (billion) might be interested in a fresh start...

When I was a kid, I won a high school debating contest on whether to put money into space research or not. This was in the 70s (I got teary when Armstrong put his feet onto the Moon, by the way). My final clinching argument was that if there was a global calamity (no, not the current one, a real one like a man-made swine or bird flu virus breaking out of one of those oh-so-safe labs, and don;t get me started on nannites...), then we might need somewhere to go. You see, I think it'd be a shame if First Contact arrived and we weren't around to party. Aliens would look around, see interesting stuff and hear our cool music and lofty speeches, and think, gosh, that's a shame, they might have been fun.

So, back to the question: what do you spend your money on?

We're actually blocked by our lack of understanding of the laws of physics. We need more geniuses, and we need to get out into the rest of the Solar System, because it's likely some of the answers are out there rather than in CERN's Hadron Collider.

Now, back to reality, because budgets are short these days. In which case spend it on physics, and on beautiful minds that can unravel today's conundrums, and work out how to break the light speed barrier, or at least bend it. I personally reckon we have about fifty years to make a breakthrough. If you study the statistics of wars (which follow a Poisson distribution, incidentally), or look at how accidents arise, and mix into the pot that everything is so connected these days that small Wars or accidents could turn global, fifty years sounds generous.

So, think fast, boys and girls with beautiful minds, think hard and fast... And NASA - give them some more funding!

The Eden Paradox is a near-term Scifi thriller about our first inter-stellar trip to what we hope will be Eden. But in this galaxy, there are no free lunches...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What makes a good alien character?

For many years when reading science fiction, I was continually struck by how aliens were simply mirrors for humanity, foils against which heroic humans could find inner strength and show how good humanity could be. It didn't mean it was not enjoyable and even great, but for me it had the trappings of fantasy where the ultimate story is about good and evil, about what we can be (as is most fiction). When I stumbled upon David Brin's Startide Rising I uttered a 'Hallelujah' and plunged into the 'otherliness' of his aliens in the Uplift saga. I recently read Jack McDevitt's Deepsix and loved it for the same reason.

So when I started writing SF I was determined not to fall into conventional traps and set myself five simple rules:

1. Aliens won't look humanoid
2. They won't speak English
3. They will be more intelligent than us
4. They won't share our value structure
5. They won't wish they were human

Judging from feedback I've had for my first two books, I've been at least partly successful, though I'm not nearly at Brin's standard.

The first is easy in principle, but as a writer I need to be careful and not chuck it all onto the page at once like a police description. I had some good advice early on from Jen Dick (a poet who loves scifi) who pointed out that people tend to describe things in different ways. So, in The Eden Paradox, in the first two thirds of the book there are only glimpses of the principal alien character, the Q'Roth, and people who see it describe it in different ways. Only later in the book is the reader able to piece them together to get a good look. This is used in films such as Alien, where only at the end is the creature really seen. Meanwhile, the reader's imagination gets a workout, which is what Scifi is all about, isn't it?

Communication is not only oral. In Eden's Trial there is an alien artifact called a Hohash, which cannot speak or utter sounds. Several professional readers (and SF author Gary Gibson) found this 'being' one of the most interesting aspects of both books (think of an I-Phone left to evolve for a million years...). Trapped onboard an alien vessel with a lone human female (a 'baddie' incidentally), the Hohash resorts to physical violence as a form of communication, always stopping short of killing her, its motives unclear until the very end of the book. Another alien, a reptile called Ukrull, can speak English, but hates to do so, because he finds humans so simple he'd rather not bother. The Ossyrians, a medical race, take another tack - they perform brain surgery on one of the humans so he can understand them, slowly destroying his humanity in the process. In Eden's Trail, there is no handy 'universal translator', and the human characters are constantly struggling to understand and be understood when they encounter aliens. Isn't that the most probable situation when we finally encounter aliens?

'More intelligent' is difficult to write, for obvious reasons. A trick is to make alien motivations obscure, adding lots of technological advancement and capability, and we infer intelligence. I'm just finishing Timelike Infinity by Stephen Baxter, and the Qax fall into such a category (also of course some of Greg Bear's works), though towards the end they started having human failings which for me lost some of the impact (but Baxter is such a terrific SF writer, who cares, right?). More intelligent can mean thinking faster, and as a writer this is easier to manage, since aliens can 'get it' when it has taken their human counterpoints a long time to reach what to the alien is obvious. In one scene in Eden's Trial I make this even clearer, by having the 'upgraded' human mentioned earlier thinking through a series of complex options literally while his former partner blinks once. Near the end of the book, Ukrull remarks of this human, "not so dumb."

Creating different value structures requires a lot of thought. Whilst loving most of the entire Star Trek series, the one race which stands out for me was the Cardassians. Initially they were painted as simply a nasty race, torturous, treacherous and brutal. But towards the end of Deep Space Nine, more of their culture became apparent, and their different value choices to ours became a little more understandable, and richer.

In The Eden Paradox, the Q'Roth are mankind's nemesis, and are a little black and white in terms of their value structures. But in the sequel, their role in the galaxy becomes clearer. In the finale of the trilogy, Eden's Revenge, which I'm writing now, a human who was hell-bent on their destruction has been turned into a Q'Roth and forced to fight alongside them against a larger enemy. Through his eyes (well, slits, actually), we gain an insight into what they care about, and what they simply don't feel (compassion, sympathy, love, the need for positive feedback, etc.). He still hates them and would like to destroy them, but he begins to respect them as the bravest soldiers he has ever seen.

The last rule (aliens shouldn't long to be human) requires the author to distance him or herself from the warm embrace of human contact and think instead about the cold hard vacuum of space: in other words, not to get 'romantic' about humanity and aliens, and not to secretly write fantasy under the guise of science fiction. A useful allegory is the African savannah of the Serengeti, where a panoply of animals co-exist, often by eating each other, according to the implicit rules of the food-chain and animal hierarchy. A wildebeeste doesn't 'want' to be a lion, for example, it just tries not to be the one taken down when chased. Would any of them want to be human? Really? I've been there, trust me, they wouldn't. The reverse might be true...

In dictionaries, the third definition of the word 'alien' usually means "a being from another world", and later definitions include the adjective "unfamiliar". Whilst I still read science fiction which is predominantly about humanity and may have no aliens whatsoever, frankly I get enough of humanity in daily life, so I'm always looking for books which have well-developed and thought-out aliens, to make me think about possibilities, because one day, I think they'll come a-knocking, and for me, they sure as hell won't look or be like us.

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Omnilit.
Eden's Trial available from Amazon on kindle (B&N soon, paperback version summer 2012)

Friday, 9 December 2011

The main advantage of multiple characters, multiple points of view

When you read a book, often there is a single protagonist, a single point of view (POV) through which the reader sees the book's events unfold. This may be the book's hero or heroine, whom things happen to, or it may be somebody slightly off-centre watching the events (a great example of the latter is The Great Gatsby).

A lesser-used style is multiple points of view - the reader gets to sit in 'more heads', and can for example see why certain people may act badly or wrongly. It is generally harder to write multiple characters in this way, because not only must their dialogue sound different to the reader, but also the way they think. The author also has to keep a careful track on what each POV character knows as the plot unfolds (a useful tool to help is called Scrivener, available for Mac or PC).

So, why bother making it difficult for ourselves as authors?

The main reason an author may write with multiple POVs is, for example, where the story is complex, and a single POV protagonist simply cannot know enough to let the reader make sense of it. The standard solution is to use what is called omnipotent third person, so the reader floats above all the heads, seeing everything. But this is a little impersonal, not the same as being in different people's heads in different chapters, not the same as really knowing a character better than we know people in our real lives, because we can know their innermost thoughts, fears and desires. Going inside their heads is a form of intimacy, and can connect the reader and the characters, creating a bond which says "I really know this person." Only if it's well-written, of course, and if the heads explored are interesting and the ones relevant to the story. Stieg Larsson's Millennium series is amazing at multiple POVs, using over thirty in one book.

But the main benefit of course must be for the reader, not the author.

In a single protagonist book, the reader may like the central character. Imagine if they don't, however - will they keep reading? The author's solution is to have the main character be 'sympathetic', by which is meant the reader can at the least empathise with the character (if they are not a very nice person, for example, but are a product of their past and present circumstances), and at best root for and wish they knew them personally. A classic example of the latter is Captain Black Jack Geary in the Lost Fleet science fiction series. Many readers will love this character and wish they were him. But of course they're not. Well, I'm not, anyway.

So, here is the main advantage of multiple POVs: with a larger cast of characters, the reader is bound to identify closely with one of them. For example, in my own book, The Eden Paradox, there are ten main characters, twelve POVs, of which four take up most space. My neighbor, and quite a few women who have read the book, loves Gabriel, who is an assassin. My neighbor is a martial artist, which is why he connects with Gabriel and his code of honor, and several female readers like him because he is a tortured soul, despite his career choice, and because he is a man of action. Other connections are less obvious, but there is plenty of choice - Blake, the heroic type, Micah, slightly geeky and anti-heroic, Rashid, an Indian with his own strange code of honor, and Louise, who most male readers like, despite (or because of) her dark side, Kat and Jen, strong yet completely different female characters, Pierre, a socially-inept scientist, Dimitri, a wily professor, and Vince, a savvy interpol agent who never takes prisoners. Readers can root for one character, while identifying with another. My first reader actually said to me, "Barry - you want to be Blake, but you're actually more like Micah." It was a cutting remark personally, but in a sense, as an author, it meant I had succeeded.    

Multiple POVs allow the reader to find emotional resonance with one of the characters who is more like them personally, even if they'd rather be another character. This means that the author can connect with the reader, and hopefully cross that fine line between a reader saying, "Yes, I liked that book, it was good,", towards "I loved that book. When's the next one coming out?"

There is a cost for the author. We must carry these characters round in our heads. Mine won't go away. I had to write the sequel because they demanded it, and now that's coming out, they want the final. I've done a deal with them - three books and I get a vacation. Not sure if I can trust them, though...

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and elsewhere
Eden's Trial available on Amazon very shortly...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stargate Universe - what is the missing ingredient to break the two-season barrier?

Just finished watching Stargate Universe (SGU) 2nd and final season - a bit late, I know, but I live in France and had to wait for the DVDs to reach me... (no FTL delivery here).

I enjoyed Season 2 a lot better than Season 1, but still had a few problems with it. On the good side, the characters were realistic (aka flawed) rather than cliche'd, it particularly didn't go for happy or cheesy endings, and it showed the Universe to be a pretty hostile place (as in my books :-).

On the downside, it was more soap than Scifi, and lacked plot cohesion through most of both seasons, in the sense of 'where was this going, what was the grand plot, other than going forwards?' The first season had the element of novelty - after all this was inter-galactic travel rather than intra-galactic, and there was enough antagonism between various characters to keep it edgy. In the second season however, most of the characters 'made up', lessening the tension, and the main plot device was the specter of (Greg Bear-like) drones trying to destroy the ship each time it came out of faster-than-light (FTL) travel. But rather than try and defeat the drones, the crew give up to skip to another galaxy. Also, people who got killed had a habit of miraculously coming back to life - okay, this can be done once or twice, but too much, and like the TV Series Heroes, we stop taking the death of any cast member seriously anymore, and the tension goes out of the story.

My daughter said she stopped watching SGU because it was depressing. In Season 1 there's a lot of crying, and in Season 2 there's a lot of soul-searching - but is that what we really want in a Scifi show? In Caprica, too, there's a lot of crying, a lot of intense negative emotions. Is that what Scifi viewers want?

In SGU, there was such potential for wonder, which was over-looked; so many planets looked like Earth, and the aliens were very few and far between, and not too smart either, so all we had to focus on was the 'family' onboard. Occasionally there'd be flashes of humor, but too infrequent. And what about having fun? They're on an ancient starship cruising the universe, sounds like fun to me!

One of the 'extras' at the end of the DVD included some interviews with the cast, and at the very end, they're around a table doing the very last shot. Once the shot is taken, you see them start to shout, and whoop, and laugh, like I've never seen them do on the show. Dammit, that was what I wanted! In the show, not on the cutting room floor. Every now and again, we need to kick ass and shout about it and whoop, or else we've lost out humanity.

So, please, in the next Scifi TV series, just once or twice, let the characters revel in their glory, so we can too. And let some of the main characters get killed off, because then we'll really root for the others, and well feel real emotion, you won't have to fill the screen with it. And then we'll keep watching, and Scifi series will break the two-season barrier.

Books: The Eden Paradox, apparently as good as Orson scott Card at half the price :-). Available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats (also Barnes & Noble). The sequel Eden's Trial - space opera like you've never seen it before, coming on Ebook before Xmas, paperback in February 2012...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Draft cover design for Eden's trial

So, here's the draft cover for book 2 in the Eden Trilogy (Eden's Trial). The little 'spirals' will disappear in the final version and the font might change, but this is pretty much it, otherwise (comments welcome!). The vortex is a real feature in the latter part of the story, and as for the ankh symbol, well, you just have to read the books (it's on the cover of book one [The Eden Paradox], too, and will be on book three, Eden's Revenge).

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What will meetings look like in five hundred years' time?

During the Fukushima nuclear accident, I watched as each decision seemed to take too long, letting the accident worsen, and I wondered how executive decisions would be made in the future. Threats then would probably be of a different nature, but would still need people - probably based on different planets light years apart - to reach an agreement quickly.

The short story 'Executive Decision' concerns Sally, codename Remtak, who is called into such a meeting. She is good at making tough calls, but the future she lives in is not a hospitable one... The story is published on Piker Press, to read it click here.

Two other free stories concerning this patricular universe, called Sphericon, where humanity is dominant but not particularly pleasant, are The Sylvian Gambit, and also The Sapper - see Stories on this website.

For novel-length science fiction, see The Eden Paradox on Amazon, the sequel Eden's Trial coming soon.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

What music would we play at the end of everything?

A while ago I sat in one of my favorite jazz clubs in rue des Lombards, home to four of the top jazz clubs in Paris (Sunset, Sunside, Baiser Sale [salty kiss] and the Duc des Lombards). That night I had a dream that the world was ending, and I was there, listening to jazz while it was happening outside. When I woke up, I wrote the 'flash fiction' piece down below.

Humanity is a musical species - we like to sing, play instruments, and dance. It's in every culture, all over the globe, and if we ever reach the stars, we'll take it with us too. It's one of our more endearing traits. If we ever do come to a sticky end, I'm sure that, like on the Titanic, or on battlefields of old, someone will be playing music, to stir or to soothe, or just to remind us who we are. It won't save us of course, but it's a defining part of our character, a rather good part at that.

The Last Jazz Session
Outside the world was ending, inside a jazz band played its heart out. Two angels surveyed all: the carnage, the battles lost against the invaders, the valiant but hopeless defenders, a few desperate couples’ last attempts to make love, once-estranged families huddled together, mothers protecting their children. They came upon Rue des Lombards. Paris, night, the Eiffel Tower melted like a toy, the city ablaze. In amongst all the pain and screaming outside, a velvet-curtained room where a three-piece band belted out jazz to the applause of the forty-strong audience. The angels paused. All humans’ death was imminent, and jazz resolutely ignored it. They took a closer look. ‘Keep jazz live’ etched on the double bass. The piano player sweated buckets but grinned as he ripped through scales, threading through chord changes with the skill of a virtuoso, the drummer and bass player in perfect counter-point. A few in the audience cried, but all stood and cheered the band on. One angel mused: was jazz mankind’s swan-song, its creativity, its brashness, its unrepeatable solos, each one individual, to be heard once, live, and never again? The other angel noticed she was tapping with her foot. A curious sensation. They saw the flash far away on the South side of the city and glanced quickly to catch the last vision of the jazz session before it was wiped out forever, framing in their memories the sight of these three talented men, their spirits soaring, fingers a-blur, the audience hammering on the tables, as a white roar swept them away. The foot-tapping angel stopped tapping, and turned to her colleague. “I believe that was what was known as an ‘incandescent solo.’” The other angel frowned. “Don’t you think your humor’s a little irreverent?” The other angel smiled. “No, I think in fact that was rather the point.”

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Finally in a bookstore

Finally got my book into a bookstore, so it's not just on Amazon. It's in WH Smith, the largest English bookstore in Paris. It felt nice to see it there on the same table as Peter F Hamilton (bottom left)... Next stop, Waterstones...

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Could we lie to aliens? Would we get away with it?

These are two serious questions, to which the answers are, respectively, 'yes', and 'unlikely'. 

What started me thinking about this was an article in this week’s Economist ('The terrible truth') which remarked that much of civilization is built upon the ability to lie, and our acceptance of lies in our culture. This applies at a micro-social level, e.g. “Yes, you look great in that suit that just cost you $500,” or at a macro-political level, e.g. “We have nothing to do with the Stuxnet cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.” It’s easy to say we shouldn’t lie, but when your five-year old screws up in the school play are you really going to tell her she was awful? And if you were a politician, and you knew the truth would unleash a War, would you still tell it?

Of course lies aren’t told only for good reasons (so-called white lies). Most lies are told to profit/protect the individual transgressing the truth, and no one else. But the point is that lying is embedded in our social mechanisms, and is a fact of life in politics. If you want to envisage a lie-free culture, you’d better look towards fantasy, which often hankers towards purer value structures, usually in an ancient context, as if we never used to lie in the olden days (well, maybe not quite so much).

Much of science fiction assumes politics in the future will be similarly riddled with dissimulation, whether taking a ‘human-centric’ vision of the future, or one which is alien-dominated. But I find two faults with this.

The first is that other intelligent life forms may have evolved with different emotional needs, or with none whatsoever (think of animals, or an insect collective, for example). They would not necessarily lie. Would a worker ant lie to its queen? 

What would aliens who didn't lie think of humans, and their constant lying? Would they warm to us? Could they do business with us? Would they see us as interesting or funny (peculiar), and just accept us, or would they see us as needing re-education, or even as a threat, a danger, or a pariah in galactic society?

The politician's answer might be, "Well, it depends if we could get away with it..." Would they know we were lying? Well, either they’d be more intelligent and realize it before they arrived (they could watch a few movies en route, and quickly get the picture), or they’d find out soon enough.

A second problem with projecting our own cultural hang-ups onto alien civilizations, is that they might be telepathic, or just very good at 'reading' each other. After all, some humans are very good at knowing when someone is lying to them. An alien 'exo-biologist' checking out Earth would be sure to look at non-verbal behavior patterns, pheromones, and all sorts of indications and see if they contradicted what was actually said. 

So what? It’s just fiction, right? Fiction is lies by definition, right?

Let’s say it’s not. Let’s say there are probably (in the statistical sense, which is an art form all on its own when it comes to lying) aliens out there, and if they arrive here first, it will be because they are advanced compared to us, and maybe not just technologically. As a species we have become a little ‘tekky’, always thinking about new gadgets or advances in phones, rather than about advancing ourselves as a species, as a culture. We'd show them our latest toys and they'd shrug - been there, done that, a few aeons ago, actually. They'd focus on us. Would we be good allies, business opportunities, a nice holiday destination?  

Think of it like inter-stellar speed-dating. An alien vessel arrives, and gets to know us quite quickly. Do they like us, or do they move on? And if we one day need help, because a nastier alien ship turns up, would the previous one come to our rescue?

Some people would like to have missiles up in space, pointing outwards, in case alien invaders arrive. But again, if they can do inter-stella travel, they can probably disarm any weapon we might have at our disposal. Our main weakness may not be insufficient technology, or the need for bigger weapons, but ourselves, the way we are.

So, do we need to stop lying?

Well, I'm not sure we can. But we need to be prepared for how it will be when aliens finally come a-knocking. Here's an (abridged) extract from one of my books where this happens. Four people have just killed an enemy alien during a fight in a 'public' (i.e. multi-cultural, multi-alien) location, and the local alien police want to take a statement. Do they just ask one of them? Well, yes and no, because - remember - these aliens aren't stupid... (note: Gideon has a 'resident' in his head, a smart translation device, like a very, very advanced I-phone I suppose...)

Gideon and the others didn't have long to wait in the damp, oblong cell, but it was just enough time for them to agree their story. He reckoned they could get out of this one - there had been no witnesses, and the Arcturian ambassador had started the fight. 
The circular door opened, revealing the bird-headed Finchikta agent standing on its filament legs, in front of a large sphere of shifting colours. Jack slapped his thighs and stood up. "I'll do it, it'll be fine." He walked toward the sphere. It hovered toward him and then enveloped him completely. Sabine joined Gideon at the doorway, clutching his wrist so hard it hurt, but he just watched. Within a minute, the sphere retreated, leaving behind a translucent form of Jack, like a highly detailed waxwork model made of crystal. But even from the way it stood, Gideon knew it wasn’t Jack anymore. Gideon's 'resident' kicked in. Transpar – that was what this simulacrum was called – a transparent witness, unable to lie, his personality erased completely, his bodily functions obliterated. A vessel containing transparent memory strings – the perfect witness. The resident offered a footnote: Transpar procedure used only for species below Level 8, including humans, since such species cannot be trusted to know or tell the truth reliably. The idea stung Gideon. Was it reversible, or had they just lost Jack?
The Finchikta addressed him and the others. “You will remain silent during the deposition, on pain of immediate death. It turned to the crystal Transpar. “You have the memories of the human known as Jack.”
It didn’t sound like a question, more a statement, a judicial formality.
“Yes,” the Transpar said, its voice tinkling like wind chimes. Even its eyes were transparent, like watery glass.
“Did you help kill the Arcturian Ambassador?”
“Did you help kill the other Arcturians using a wormhole mine attached to their ship's hull?”
Sabine clutched Gideon's arm. This wasn’t looking good.
“Do you wish the destruction of the Arcturian race?”
“Yes,” it answered, without hesitation.
“Does this go for these humans, and the rest remaining on Earth?”
The Finchikta spoke to Gideon. “Deposition received. Trial convenes tomorrow. If you lose, your race will be handed over to the Arcturians. Do you wish to call any witnesses in your defence?”

[abridged extract from Eden's Trial

So, we probably will lie to aliens, sooner or later, when we finally meet them. It'll then be a question of what the consequences are, for the individual, and our societies. One of my favorite stories as a young boy was 'the boy who cried 'wolf!'. Maybe one day, in the distant future, some alien mother will be telling her young son the story of 'the humans who lied', and what happened to them afterwards.

The Eden Paradox available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.
Eden's Trial due out December 2011

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Creating SciFi Battle Scenes

For Book 3 of my trilogy, I needed to start with a space battle scene, so I asked a lot of readers about cool scifi weapons, good battle scenes, and studied specialist SF writers etc. (e.g. Excession, by Iain Banks; The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell).

I applied the following 'rules' for creating a science fiction battle scene:

1. The reader needs to be able to 'see' it.
2. Space is limitless, not the size of a TV or cinema screen, so ships don't have to attack from close up or in formation, but if they are very far apart, then lightspeed effects have to be taken into consideration
3. The hero has to be someone we care about (preferably not relishing battle)
4. He or she has to be at personal risk
5. There has to be a lot at stake.
6. There should be some new weapons...

Here's a sample of what I came up with:

If Q’Tor had still been human he’d have shaken himself. The Q’Roth had been his sworn enemy; he’d fought against them and killed thousands of them in the last days of the battle for Earth. But he’d been captured, and offered a stark choice – join forces or die. He’d spat at his captors, told them where to go, and they'd obliged him by venting him into space. But they'd downloaded his memories beforehand, and taken enough DNA to produce a hybrid clone. He learned the hard way that the Q’Roth leaders usually got what they wanted – in this case his intuitive battle strategies. Initially they’d tested the clone without his memories, but its performance had been rudimentary. So they’d uploaded his personality, and he’d woken, surprised to be alive, and then disgusted at what they’d turned him into – a six-legged, three metre tall Q’Roth warrior.
            For eight years he’d refused to cooperate. But they kept taking him on missions. He witnessed the inexorable slaughter as the invader Qorall slashed and burned his way across the galaxy, and he knew where the remnants of humanity were – right in Qorall’s path. They wouldn’t last a second. Four ships full of human cargo had fled the Q’Roth’s culling of Earth fifteen years earlier, and without doubt still saw the Q'Roth as their prime enemy. But Q’Tor had seen many species far worse, and knew just how brutal the galaxy could be. And Qorall put even those alien races to shame.
So, here he was, fighting alongside the species who’d nearly erased humanity. He even had command of a battleship, and if he’d wanted to, he could cause it to self-destruct, or fire on the other Q’Roth ships and take out as many as possible. He had enough command overrides on the Bridge, and was alone – his lieutenants worked a deck below in Tactical. But futile bravado had never been his style.
He knew the other commanders never fully trusted him, despite his strong performance in the last dozen battles – he’d gotten this fleet out of a sticky mess in the Ossyrian sector less than a week ago, seconds after Qorall fired an anti-matter bomb into its sun, triggering a supernova, engulfing four defending fleets and two of Q’Tor’s destroyer squadrons unable to jump fast enough. Still, to his colleagues, Q’Tor was an aberration. One of them had even fired on his flagship a month earlier during a fire fight when Qorall had surprised them by launching planets through a wormhole at the third largest Q’Roth shipyard, after destabilising their cores to turn them into planet-sized grenades. None of them, even the oldest Q’Roth warriors from the Anlechratian Campaign five centuries earlier, had ever seen anything like this level of carnage or firepower. The errant commander had confessed his misdemeanour and taken the honourable way out, piloting a Hunter vessel stacked with atomics deep into Qorall space, taking out one of Qorall’s supply convoys.
But Q’Tor understood the Q’Roth’s sense of frustration – they were warriors, foot-soldiers of the highest calibre, space dog fighters extraordinaire, but such skills were completely irrelevant against Inferno Class weaponry. Moreover, Qorall’s strategy eluded the galaxy’s indigenous species – he did not seem interested in the spoils of war, whether worlds, technologies, or resources, except for swelling the ranks of his armies and navies. Instead, he spread inexorably across the galaxy like a cancer. What perplexed Q’Tor in particular, was that the arrowhead of Qorall’s general sweep had from the start charted a course towards the new home world of humanity. It didn’t make sense: mankind – what was left of it – was as much a threat to Qorall as an ant was to a Q’Roth warrior. And yet through fifteen years, despite brief deviations, his forces held this course. Perhaps that was one reason the Q’Roth High Guard wanted to keep Q’Tor alive.
Q’Tor’s ex-humanity gave him a poor standing amongst the commanders’ ranks. He lived with it. As with all front-line commanders, his nights were numbered. Yet the Q’Roth High Guard were increasingly desperate – they had lost thirty-three battles in a row, and more than eight hundred ships; they couldn’t keep taking those kinds of losses. And so this mission was different. Q’Tor had outlined a new strategy, enlisting the aid of the mysterious Tla Beth, bringing one of them out from their hyper-dimensional safe havens where they strategized, moving ships and inter-stellar counter-measures on trans-dimensional maps that no species below Level 15 understood. The Q’Roth all but worshipped the Tla Beth, and so if anything happened to one of them… But that was why they’d recruited him into their ranks in the first place: to think outside the cube. He prayed his gambit would work.
His upper claw hovered above the ‘fire’ button during the extended jump into Qorall-controlled space. His fleet re-materialised as planned, the enemy’s flotilla dead ahead, and he and fifty other commanders unleashed the planet-breakers. Waves of energy whipped like fluorescent barbed wire at the bubble-shaped shield protecting the ships. Secondary artillery fired automatically, spewing volleys of pulses and anti-matter torpedoes, which crashed into the energy barrier like silent psychedelic hail on glass. He hated using anti-matter weapons, as they tended to rip the space-time fabric, leaving jagged potholes for any traffic transiting through the affected sector, but as they were in permanent retreat that hardly mattered. In any case, as had happened the last three times he’d encountered this enemy formation, their shield remained intact. Their strategy was simple – they would wait until the Q’Roth forces had expended considerable firepower, then lower the shield and attack faster than exploding shrapnel. Q’Tor would have bitten his lip if he’d had one.
            As planned, five Hunter Class ships broke formation and hurtled toward the sphere. Ten other Q’Roth ships vectored particle weapons around the tightly-packed quintet toward a single point on the barrier, inflicting the heat of a hundred suns. In fifteen years of warfare, no one had successfully breached one of these shields, and Qorall’s army had remained unstoppable, conquering more than half the known galaxy, laying waste to any sector refusing to surrender.
Q’Tor’s claw squeezed hard as the glare of the beams blotted out all the stars. Now would be good… On cue, a small Tla Beth single-occupant ship, iridescent and shaped like a gyroscope, popped into existence behind the five Q’Roth Hunters, sucked along in their wake. Steady… He’d not been able to ‘talk’ with these creatures directly, having instead to explain his strategy through several layers of intermediaries. He accepted this state of affairs – after all, he was a mere Q’Roth, Level Six intelligence standard, and the Tla Beth were Level Seventeen. He’d never even seen one up close. He hoped the upward briefings had been effective.
            Q’Tor scanned the intel on the holo dashboard: nothing but bad news, the barrier was holding. Their attack was looking increasingly like a suicide run. If any more Q’Roth ships joined in with their weapons, the radiation backlash would fry their compatriots.
            He signalled “Break off” to the Q’Roth admiral, but already knew the answer, which remained unspoken. His suggestion was broadcast to all commanders simultaneously, using a mind-plexing system the Tla Beth had taught them, enabling them to communicate and react as one. Humans could never use such augments, it would sound like a deafening cacophony and paralyse them; one of the advantages of being Level Six.
Still, he imagined his own standing amongst his commanders had dropped a notch for even suggesting to abort the suicide run.
Space appeared to ignite as the ships pummelled into the shield. It would have burned out his retinas if he’d had any, but instead the six slits on his trapezoidal head oozed a little more vermillion than usual, rending the scene blood red. He missed his human vision, but then his Q’Roth senses allowed him to see what no human eye could have. Amidst the searing flash, the small Tla Beth craft launched a black hole torpedo at the glowing area of the barrier wall, which turned electric blue and shattered as the toy-like Tla Beth ship rammed it. Fire and ice – smart bastards.
Q’Tor wasted no time. His flagship and four other battleships supported by ten destroyers jumped according to a pre-ordered pattern, and punched their way through the fissure.
            As soon as he was inside, he knew something was wrong. His battleship stuttered, its engines faltered, and they lost speed. Black ships shaped like sea urchins approached, but the beam weapons he fired dispersed like a lamp in fog; letting loose the planet-breaker would simply backfire on his own ships. It took him a second to recognise what was happening: they weren’t in open space anymore – it looked like space but it had density.
He ignored the storm of comms from other commanders; instinctively he knew what it was – he’d been a Perisher, a submarine commander back on Earth a lifetime ago. They were in a transparent liquid. Some of the Grid Alliance scientists had conjectured this possibility, how some form of unknown ‘liquid space’, presumably from Qorall’s galaxy, could make the shield more resilient, offering internal pressure, and dampening any energy-based attack on it.
“Torpedoes!” he barked in Largyl 6, the formal command language. His own battleship drenched the nearest ship, and he saw hundreds of other missiles to port and starboard snake their way through the invisible medium, homing onto their targets. He recognised the enemy ships’ design: Mannekhi. So, they’d joined ranks with Qorall. Not surprising, they’d been treated like dirt by Grid Society for centuries. But such defections bled away effort that should have been targeted at the real foe.
            The Mannekhi ships returned fire, purple pulses spitting from their spines, unaffected by the fluid. He ignored the battering as the energy bursts slammed into his battleship, keeping one sensory slit focused on the damage indicator, which was dropping slowly from ninety-three per cent. At fifteen per cent, his ship would implode. He leaned forward, two of his six slits trying to see the dark shape behind the walls of Mannekhi vessels.
            The enemy sea urchin in front of him ignited, a third of its spines flaring before melting. Something nagged at him, but he and the other commanders drove on. This was the first time they were actually winning; for fifteen years it had been a cycle of defeat, retreat, re-group, attack, defeat. He checked that the other ships outside the sphere had installed a stent to ensure the hole didn’t close; he didn’t want to be trapped inside a galactic pitcher plant.
            His battleship forged through three layers of Mannekhi ships, decimating dozens. Fifty-three per cent integrity left. That meant casualties. Connection broke with three destroyers whose hulls were less protected. They were winning, but the attrition rate was punishing. He sent a coded message up the chain to the Tla Beth: . He knew how many Q’Roth were perishing in this battle, but that would pale into insignificance against a single Tla Beth.
            Out of the blue, amidst the fire and flare of battle – his lieutenants and the automatic systems handling the Mannekhi ships – his age old rage surfaced. He recalled watching as the Q’Roth purged a dying Earth of its atmosphere and all its water, all its life. When he’d first emerged as a Q’Roth clone, he’d promised himself one day that he would exact revenge, seizing an opportunity to eradicate a large number of Q’Roth. And here it was. If he turned and opened fire on the other battleships, the Mannekhi would not stop to question, and together they would annihilate the Seventh Fleet. He’d promised himself that he’d never empathize with his blood enemy, the Q’Roth, no matter what. Billions of people wiped out, he reminded himself.
But he didn’t know anymore; didn’t know himself anymore. What he did know was that against all odds thousands of other humans had survived, safely quarantined on Ourshiwann, the so-called spider planet. The quarantine would come down soon, and he wanted to ensure that he held off Qorall as long as possible. If they had any sense, as soon as quarantine ended, mankind’s refugees would run like hell to the far end of the galaxy. And if he somehow met them one day, he wouldn’t expect anyone to understand. He’d be quite happy if they dealt out rough justice, court-martialled him for treason and executed him. That would be more than okay. The one thing he wished he could remember, though, but couldn’t, was his original human name. They'd carved it out of his memory for some reason.
            The Tla Beth ship, buzzing about like a mosquito, occasionally visible, then moving too fast for even Q’Roth vision to keep up, brought his attention back to the battle. What was it doing? Why hadn’t it left? But he knew why: curiosity. Like him, it was trying to determine what was lurking in the background. The Mannekhi ships had given up firing at the Tla Beth ship, after even a coordinated beam-lattice sweeping up and down failed to touch it.
            Q’Tor’s ship nudged through the wrecked sea urchins, and dispatched Hunter Class vessels from his bays to clean up the mess – just as well, since his ship had run out of torpedoes. He ignored the charred corpses drifting around cracked hulls – the Mannekhi were humanoid in shape, the only species he’d seen that resembled humanity. He’d more than once wondered if they were distant cousins. Too bad, they’d chosen the wrong side.
The last row of sea-urchin ships was white, burning bright, masking whatever lay behind. Seven Q’Roth ships remained active inside the shield-bubble, five others including two battleships were now debris; three destroyers limped back to the stent – they would have preferred to fight to the death, but the Q’Roth ship-yards were finding it hard to keep up with daily losses, so any ship not obliterated was towed back for re-conditioning.
The tiny Tla Beth ship spun into view ahead of Q’Tor, and fired a metastaser – a weapon he’d only heard vague rumours about until now. An orange light bathed one of the sea urchins and then it leapt across to adjacent ships, spreading outwards to the entire array, latching onto any material with a Mannekhi signature, ignoring Q’Roth ships. The sea urchins shimmered then exploded one by one, opening up a gap in the last defence perimeter.
That was when he saw it. He resisted the urge to take a step backwards.
It was darker than anything around it, like a slug-shaped hole in space. Except it moved. One of the fabled dark worms. As he tried to take it in, to see any features, a priority message plexed into his mind: the stent was collapsing. His gun turrets trained on the worm, fifty times the size of his four hundred crew battleship, but he didn’t fire – he’d read the reports. One of the other commanders lit it up with focused particle beams, but as Q’Tor had heard before, no sooner had the beams touched the worm’s ‘flesh’, than black tendrils traced their way back to the firing ship – as if they could latch onto light – and yanked the ship towards the worm with alarming speed – enveloping it inside its obsidian folds.
He now knew why the Mannekhi and the liquid space had been present: to exhaust their supply of torpedoes, though he wasn’t sure they could really have inflicted much damage on these mythical creatures that existed in the null-space between galaxies, surviving on dark energy seepage and any vessel foolish enough to attempt such a voyage. Qorall had used them in the first battle to defeat the galactic barrier, but they’d not been since, and most in the Alliance had hoped they had returned ‘home’. Q’Tor sent a priority message back to those outside the stent, to dispatch one ship back immediately back to the High Guard with news of this new development.
The worm writhed towards the Tla Beth ship. Why wasn’t the Tla Beth running? The other commanders were eerily silent. He broke protocol and tried contacting it directly on the emergency channel, but there was not even a transponder response.
He skimmed through sensor readings and then his mind snagged on one: the worm had emitted a dark energy spike that had been off the scale, directed at the Tla Beth ship. No one knew much about Tla Beth tech or physiology, but Qorall must have known somehow what one of their weak spots was.
Qorall’s tactic was suddenly clear to him: all of this, all this slaughter had been a ploy with a single objective, to destroy – or more likely capture – a Tla Beth, the highest level of intelligence in the galaxy. Qorall wanted one, presumably alive, to study. The Tla Beth were the only species of any real threat to him, and Qorall didn’t know enough about them, coming as he did from the Silverback galaxy. Q’Tor understood the importance of military intelligence. If Qorall captured a Tla Beth…
He used the mindplex to tell the other commanders. He didn’t bother to say he was sorry to have involved the Tla Beth in the first place; that was in the past now, and regret wasn’t in the Q’Roth psychological lexicon.
Immediately two battleships lurched forward to place themselves between the worm and the Tla Beth ship. He received a message . The other commanders appended a codicil which translated as “Sir”. It was the first time in all his years serving with them that they’d used it. They were respecting his overall command of this mission. He understood why – for the first time they’d penetrated the sphere and had gained valuable intelligence, even if they now risked losing one of their masters. He had an instinct to salute them and their imminent sacrifice, but his Q’Roth anatomy wouldn’t do it justice. Nor did he return with a “Good luck” or any such aphorism – Q’Roth culture stated that such things should be understood.
Instead he spun his ship into action, plotting a loop-and-catch manoeuvre that would push more ‘G’s than a human would have been able to handle. Using a gravity field he snatched the inert craft into the main hold. As he raced back toward the collapsing stent, the liquid space increased its density, slowing his ship down. That made him realise something else too, about the sphere – it had intelligence. He wondered if it was alive in some rudimentary way; so much of Qorall’s arsenal was organic, compared to this galaxy’s focus on techware. Instinct could react faster than intelligence. He wanted to think this through but he had other priorities: his ship’s integrity was at twenty-one per cent and falling. Two destroyers paved a way before him, attracting space mines which hadn’t been there on their way in. The two battleships behind him went silent. He gunned all engines and thrusters, ordering his faster Hunter craft to fend for themselves. Instead, they turned and made suicide runs on the worm, trying to buy him some time.
But he knew he wasn’t going to make it. The stent was already too small. One of the outside commanders informed him the whole sphere was shimmering, and believed it was about to jump, probably away from the front, back deep inside Qorall space. The destroyer to port exploded, and two seconds later the one to starboard peeled off, its drives heavily damaged, and made a run at the worm. 
Q'Tor and his surviving crew were alone now.
His sensors told him the worm was chasing him, increasing its speed as it swam through the same medium which was like treacle to his ship. He had twenty seconds before it would leach the energy from his battleship, including all Q’Roth life, and capture its prize.
Q’Tor considered his options, and decided that there were only two. He set the self-destruct timer for ten seconds and then broadcast a message to the commanders outside. “They won’t get the Tla Beth. Take the intel back to Ch’Hrach so you can prepare better next time.” He didn’t add what he thought: that it had been an honour serving with them, that they were the most impressive, fearless soldiers he’d ever seen.

to be continued...

The Eden Trilogy:
The Eden Paradox - available on Amazon in paperback and ebook (also Barnes & Noble)
Eden's Trial - available December 2011 as ebook, March 2012 in paperback
Eden's Revenge - coming September 2012

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

How to Get the Most out of Writing Conferences - Guest Blog by Harry Bingham

When I was setting up our first Festival of Writing, I had a sneaking feeling that the whole thing was a fraud. After all, I’d long told authors that all they had to do was write a wonderful book, send it off to literary agents, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Sure, there were some basic things you could do to ensure that your submission was likely to be looked at more positively. You needed to pick agents in a half-sensible way and write a covering letter that wasn’t awful, but that was it. Write a wonderful book. Don’t be an idiot when approaching the industry. Everything else was guff.

I still half-believe something similar now. Or rather: if you hate conferences and don’t want to network, you can still succeed. The quality of your manuscript remains by far the most important thing. Get that right and the rest won’t matter.

On the other hand, having now organised two massive writing conferences, I realise that for countless people our Festival of Writing has acted like an epiphany. More precisely, it can set in place a series of detonations that propel you forward, changing how you think about yourself, the industry and your book. More about that in a moment, but first a word about what a conference actually involves.

Our Festival of Writing, like most other writing conferences, offers a mixture of workshops, talks, seminars and one-to-one pitch sessions with literary agents, or one-to-one editorial sessions with book doctors. Ours is an ‘on-campus’ event, meaning that accommodation and food is all provided on the same college campus, which means you may find yourself sharing breakfast with a bestselling author or sitting up boozing with a well-known literary agent.

Those chance encounters are as important to the overall experience as the workshops and seminars themselves. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself encountering some critical and essential plotting point in a seminar, getting feedback from a publisher that really heartens you, hearing some words of advice from a boozy agent that give you a flash of illumination as to why your chapter two still feels a little dead. The sequence and propinquity of these things can make for an incredibly intense, nervy, but uplifting event. I also know that we get far more writer-agent connections established at our Festival than you’d expect from simply popping your manuscript in an envelope and getting it out to agents that way. In the last ten days alone, I’ve heard of one writer whose book has just been sold to Random House, via an agent he met at the Festival. Another writer has just had his book optioned for film, again from a Festival-forged connection.

The writers who do best at these things are the writers who have done the most preparation. First, if you are coming to a conference hoping to get taken on by a literary agent, your manuscript must be agent-ready. No one will want to represent you just because you’re charming, or buy lots of drinks, or have a great idea. You have to have a wonderful manuscript, well presented. In an ideal world, you’ll get there all by yourself. In the world most of us live in, you’ll probably want to get professional feedback and advice on your writing somewhere along the way.

If you do decide that professional feedback is worth it, then you should schedule it in early. Most festivals will probably need agent submissions a month or so beforehand (so agents have time to read your work). An editorial assessment will take a few weeks – allow a month – and you should give yourself a good few weeks to respond to any advice and feedback you’re given. That means that, at the latest, you should be sending your manuscript out for feedback three months before the event. And, of course, it makes no sense to solicit feedback until you’ve edited your manuscript as hard as you can first, which pushes the timeline back further still.

All that sounds arduous – and it is – but agents can easily tell which manuscripts have been loved and worked at and which ones are simply underripe. No prizes for guessing which one they’ll be most interested in.

Secondly, you should come to a conference with notes about who you want to talk to, what their background is, which authors they represent – anything that means you’ll get the very most from the encounters you have. I know one author who came to the Festival with a colour-coded list of all the people she wanted to talk to, with short notes on each one. That was a brilliant piece of preparation – and she ended the Festival with a couple of literary agents eager to read her completed manuscript.

And finally, a couple of social points. It makes no sense to be too pushy with agents. They’re there to work, sure, but they’re also there to have fun. If you are pleasant, tactful and responsive when talking to agents, you’ll do a lot better than if you’re not. If you start talking to an agent and you see they’re tired or just not in a place to chat, then leave it. They’ll thank you for it – and you’ll have other chances to make those connections.

Additionally, if you don’t like turning up to these events knowing no one, then go along with some of your friends from your local writing circle, or join an online community (like the Word Cloud) so you don’t feel isolated. These events are fun, but they can also be quite high pressure. Having some friends there with you is a good way to share the load. (Oh, and our conference, like most others, can probably be persuaded into offering discounts for multiple bookings, so it’s well worth calling up and seeing what you can haggle.)

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help with literary agents and feedback on your writing. It also organises an annual Festival of Writing – scheduled for September 7-9, 2012.

Monday, 24 October 2011

My path to publication

At the launch of my book in paperback a week ago, Harry Bingham, who runs the Writers Workshop, asked me to write  about how I got published, and I agreed. It's published on their website, and the link is here. In it are some tough lessons I learned: mainly on what not to do, but then a few more positive suggestions!

And here's a photo of me and my rapidly decreasing pile of books :-) I always think I have more hair than I do...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Making Cyberpunk a reality

A comment I got from a major SF imprint when touting my book around was that Cyberpunk was dead - been there, done that. I disagreed for two reasons - first, it's not the major part of my book anyway (now published) and second, surely we're getting closer and closer to it becoming a reality? Neuromancer was phenomenal; don't we need a lot more like it to see what comes next?

We live in a 'connected world' with IPhones, data-sharing on a global scale, drone warfare, and cyber-terrorist threats, which are definitely not fictional (the Chinese government, incidentally, see cyberterrorism as a form of strategic defense, a way to even up the odds against other military options).

One of the problems is that it is hard to keep track/awareness of all these data sources, which are so rich in their variety, fertile ground for viruses and hackers. But people are excellent pattern recognizers, still way beyond machines, able to sift out noise and see what is going on. So, what if we could translate data into visual images, enabling analysts to see anything wrong, anything which didn't fit? Remember Matrix, when Nero sees a cat twice? Straight away the rest of the gang know they've just been screwed over...

In my book (The Eden Paradox), two analysts (cyberpunks?) are analyzing telemetry slip-streaming back from the Ulysses, but someone is tampering with the data, suggesting that all is well, when it is not. Earthbound protagonist Micah uses a device called the Optron to analyze the data, transforming it into a virtual landscape. In his landscape, everything looks fine. Then he enter's his colleague Rudi's 'data-world'...

Micah tensed as soon as he entered, completely unprepared for what he saw. He didn’t know if his physical body recoiled or not, but as soon as he arrived in Rudi’s world, as usual from a medium height above the landscape, he shot back upwards, away from the scene. The sky was a swirling mess of fierce blue and purple, streaks of scarlet zipping from one horizon to another. But that was not the worst. Beneath him was a charred city, bodies strewn amongst the ruins. Mutated human figures staggered amongst the carnage. Micah had difficulty controlling his breathing, and then realised why: a stench of burnt flesh. His own landscape was visual, but some analysts also used taste and smell.
Micah had never seen anything so apocalyptic – or had he? He remembered in training, once, the professor had briefly shown his students a landscape that had been used to develop a highly resilient and aggressive computer virus. 
He thought about it: a virus, but not a normal one that just destroys. What had been done had been subtle, an "Emperor’s Cloak" virus. It prevented real data getting through and supplanted it with fake data, what you wanted to be seen. But this was also a virus in the more conventional sense, eviscerating a vast data-stream. Micah pulled back and gazed towards the horizon. Flames billowed in the distant sky; voluminous clouds of grey-black smoke drifted across the land. He flew, increasingly fast, to see how far it extended, whether the whole landscape was the same, and whether the virus had affected everything.
He covered a dozen kilometers surveying the devastation below, everything dying or dead. Raven-like creatures tore strips of flesh from corpses; it meant non-recoverable data deletion. Although it was sickening to watch, he was impressed – data streams were highly protected by security protocols – to do this inside the Optron environment must have taken immense skill on Rudi’s part. He saw a green flash down below, the colour catching his eye. He dropped down. It seemed to be a figure, hiding behind the large stump of a tree. He was stunned when he got close enough. It was Katrina, the astronaut. Micah had never met her, but ten minutes ago he had been looking at her on the poster, even if she now had a jade green body. The simulacrum beckoned to him. He drew closer, at first reluctantly, and then he chided himself – nothing physical could happen to him here.
"Take me to the South river," she said. Her voice was scratchy, synthetic, she clearly had problems speaking. Micah knew that it meant her programme was degrading. Yet there was desperation in her voice.  He had no real plan in any case, so he nodded, and moved behind Katrina. Then he realised he did not know where South was, so he asked. She pointed to the right.
Weight wasn’t a problem in the Optron landscape, so he picked her up, holding her by her waist as they flew. There was little sensation of touch, Micah noted – presumably Rudi had toned down that particular sense – not surprising given the violence all around.
Carrion birds flocked in the distance. "Higher. Go higher," she gurgled.
Micah complied and whooshed above the birds. They were now so high it grew dark, though there were no stars. Katrina coughed. He knew the simulated air rarity affected her programming, and he made to descend, but she shook her head vehemently.
"Not yet."
After five minutes that included gut-wrenching coughing on her part, she pointed down to the right, and Micah swooped below. He saw green in the distance. He accelerated. With a sense of exhilaration he realised that it was his own landscape: beyond a boundary of red-soaked earth, lay green hills and trees, and a river winding toward the horizon.
"Stop!" she screamed, coughing in spasms that juddered Micah. He slowed down, intending to land on his own territory.
"NO! Stop NOW!" Lime green blood sprayed from her mouth.
Micah stopped dead, and they hung for a moment. Her body relaxed, though the coughing continued. Slowly he descended to the ground. She was a mess. She curled up in a foetal position on the damp red heather, and pointed to the other side, a few meters away.
"Walk," she croaked, and then resumed coughing.
Micah looked from her to the green lawn, and walked towards it. As he made to step onto cool grass, he collided with an invisible wall; it connected with his foot, knee and head, and he bounced off, falling back onto the turf. It hadn’t hurt him, just been a surprise. He got up again and tested the barrier. He could barely see it, but it was impenetrable. No wonder she’d screamed at him to stop. He glanced back to her to check Katrina wasn’t going anywhere, then shot straight upwards at high velocity to find the top edge of the wall. About a kilometre above the ground, the glass curved backward behind him. A dome. No way through or out.
"You should go now," Katrina said, her voice a thin scratch across his ears.
"What about you?"
"You can only help me from the outside. Or maybe from in there." She pointed to Micah’s world. He stared through the glass to note certain landmarks in his landscape to find the border again. He wondered if the Katrina simulacrum would remain there. He doubted it. The carrion birds would erase her first chance they got.
He gave the mental command to exit, and changed the setting on the Optron to his own landscape. In that brief instant he thought maybe he heard a small noise in the real world, but he didn’t have time to check it out; and there was no sign of Rudi.
It was refreshing to be back in his world. Rudi’s had been so stressful. He headed to the far North of his landscape. After some minutes, he saw the landmarks: a telegraph line, a deserted stone farm building, and the river. But he could see nothing of Rudi’s world. He slowed down. In the distance, a similar telegraph line and a deserted stone farm building. He stopped and looked back, then forward. Idiot! He glided down and stood at the bank of the river. He saw in front of him, his reflection; a mirror, the perfect metaphor for reflecting a data-stream back on itself, and one difficult to spot given his chosen landscape format.
He tried to reason it out: Rudi’s landscape was chewing up the real incoming data from Ulysses, and feeding his with false data. But where did the false data come from? Later. He needed to get out before Rudi returned.
He imaged the exit symbol, rubbing his eyes, and removed the headset. He pinched the bridge of his nose between fore-finger and thumb. As he opened his eyes, about to get out of the chair, he stopped dead. Rudi stood before him, aiming a pulse pistol at his face.
"Hello, Mikey, been anywhere interesting?"

The Eden Paradox, available on Amazon in Ebook & Paperback, also Barnes & Noble (Nook).

© Barry Kirwan |
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