Sunday, 26 June 2011

On writing convincing Scifi jargon

One way to tell a scifi book from any other genre is by its jargon, the words it uses. Thanks to Star Trek most people have become familiar with the concept, and have heard 'Beam me up Scottie' or 'Klingon'. The words we write paint the future world, and if we were writing about life in 2065, the reader would be disappointed if the hero kept picking up the telephone, or entering data on his IPad. Even Apple would admit (and perhaps hope) that such common artefacts will by then be things of the past. To make the future convincing (unless post-apocalyptic, which is trickier), there should be new gadgets which are nevertheless seen as commonplace by people in the story.

I remember presenting some of my work in a non-scifi writing group and somebody complained that some of the words I used didn't exist. I replied that they didn't exist yet. But the challenge is to invent words that seem and sound reasonable, yet elicit at least interest, hopefully a small amount off fascination, and occasionally 'wonder'. They need to be understandable, crediblevivid, and smart, and then they need to be smooth on the reader's 'ears'. This adds up to a scifi writer's 'sleight of hand', like a magician, trying to weave magic for the reader without drawing too much attention to the props.

In my short story 'Galactic Barrier' there are no humans, and the story centers around a drone defending the barrier. So, it has already started - there is no galactic barrier we know of, but the reader can already conceive what a galactic barrier might be; the galaxy is big but not infinite, and there are many galaxies, and most of us have seen visualizations of galaxies. Some will know that in fact galaxies are moving and can collide (ours may well collide with another in about four billion years, by the way), and therefore, that there might be a reason to erect a barrier. So, this one is not too much of a stretch of any (scifi) reader's imagination. But is it credible? A reader might think: A galactic barrier? Around the entire galaxy? You're kidding me, right? Who could do that? So, such questions must be answered in the story. But not just by 'info-dumping', it needs to be explained (by one of the characters, not by the narrator [author] expounding on his or her pet scifi theories) in a vivid way, telling us 'why' it exists more than 'how' exactly it works. Below, the drone is explaining...

The Galactic Barrier was a genius-engineered cosmic phenomenon, aimed at maintaining the integrity of the galaxy. If there was a need to resort to something as imprecise as a metaphor, then the barrier was a membrane, akin to the ‘skin’ of the simplest form of organic life, the amoeba. It stopped matter leaking out and, more importantly, prevented almost all dark energy seeping in. It was a repulsive force, devised by the ancients using equations of energy harmonics long since lost.

Notice the metaphor of the amoeba, which is visualisable, and a reader can think of galaxy and amoeba in the same moment, it's simply a matter of scale (isn't the brain just amazing?). Note also a trick used here, since the explanation of one future concept (the barrier) is reinforced by another one: dark energy. Scientists are just getting to grips (they wish) with dark matter, and dark energy is the next logical step. The magician's flourish which wraps it up is the last sentence. Too damned right we'd have no clue how to devise such a barrier, let alone drape it around an entire galaxy, but maybe an ancient race who existed a couple of billion years ago and who reached who-knows-what dizzy technological heights, maybe they could have done it.

But to make it convincing, it needs to be vivid. In the next extract, the drone is 'looking' at the barrier:

He took a few milliseconds to study the barrier. Though invisible to organics, to his sensors it looked like a shimmering, electrified wall crackling with hostility. How could they get through?
‘Five seconds.’

So, the reader can probably visualize this (no doubt helped in the original publication of the story by the NASA artwork borrowed by the editor, Sand Pilarski, of Piker Press). I could have gone further, but at this point the pace is accelerating, as the barrier is about to be breached, and the drone Dapsilon is in serious trouble. This of course is another trick of the trade - keep the story moving with characters the reader cares about, and they will be less picky over scifi details.

So, for 'smart' and 'smooth', I take another example from the same story, concerning how to break through a galactic barrier. Again, the drone is 'talking', rather than the narrator, and this is also a trick - the drone is having a hard time, and so is a sympathetic character for the reader - he is more likely to be trusted as a source:

Eventually – several hundred thousand angts later - ways out had been found, the most popular involving polarisation of a membrane weak spot, and careful insertion of a liquid-diamond stent, opening it up using artificial black holes. But then there was another, more pernicious problem: the void itself. 

What is an angt? Obviously from the context, it is a unit of time. I use it in my novels, and I never, ever explain it, and the reader assumes (correctly) it more or less equates to a year. The actual breaking of the barrier involves polarisation of the membrane - again, I'm using the amoeba metaphor, and polarisation is a nice 'tekkie' word that does exist and can be looked up, and for scifi tekkies it will sound reasonable since they will assume that the barrier is electromagnetic in nature, and polarisation of a particular spot could weaken it. But without doubt, the bit the reader will be drawn to is the 'liquid diamond stent'. Now, it sounds cool, right? We value diamonds, and they are as beautiful as they are hard. So liquid diamond sounds, well, interesting, right? Diamond doesn't exist in a liquid state, but what if it could? Wouldn't it be interesting (going for the 'fascination factor' here)? And most people know what a stent is, an artifice used to prop open a coronary blood vessel. So, three words, two of which are known but never used together, with an adjective that raises the interest level considerably. Artifical black holes are also understandable, though they don't exist outside of scifi, and again, the plot is racing along by this time, with a hook to pull the reader along into what the 'more pernicious problem' is (dark worms, incidentally).

None of these words are clunky. I didn't use 'carbo-titanium', I used 'diamond'. I didn't use 'orifice', I used 'stent'. In an earlier section, when the drone (he's called Dapsilon) gets happy, I didn't invent a word and phrase like 'Dapsilon quobulated vigorously', I simply wrote that 'his circuits hummed.' The reader gets it...

In one of the books i'm reading right now, one of the characters keeps 'data-vising', which I've gathered means he somehow sends mental commands to a computer. It's a nice word, very tech-sounding, but a little clunky, and after reading it six times in as many pages I was irritated by it - it was getting in the way of the story. This is the danger for a scifi writer - we can get excited by our neat little word inventions, but they can end up not being smooth. The solution to this is to have non-SF readers look over the work. When they say (as Orson Scott card puts it) "Huh? I'm lost here, what the hell is going on?" you know you have some more editing to do.

To read the short story Galactic Barrier see:

Galactic Barrier is from Eden's Trial, Book Two in the Eden Trilogy, available in Autumn 2011. To read Book One in the Eden Trilogy, The Eden Paradox, see and also this website

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Writer’s block and the creativity process

I had writer’s block recently. Partly because my day job was pretty intense and occupying my every waking moment. But I had a scifi story which I’d got stuck in. Instead of aliens abducting normal people, they decide to abduct the President of the United States. It had a nice slow-burn start developing his character, followed by fast-paced action as he is captured. And then… Hmm.

My creative juices ran out. Problem? Not at all. Here’s why.

When I took psychology at Southampton University, I studied creativity, in particular the work of Liam Hudson. He had a theory based on studying many creative people, including scientists who’d made big breakthroughs. What he found was that often people had an idea, which was really just an inkling. They then researched, often for years, going around in circles, unable to develop the idea to fruition, unable to get rid of their previous baggage to do with how scientists at the time thought the world worked – unable to re-write the ‘software’. The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn also wrote about it, how we break out of one paradigm (how we think things work) into another. The way he wrote, ‘paradigm-shifting’ was like a scientific war.

So, these scientists would get the equivalent of writer’s block. They couldn’t put the problem down, it occupied their every waking moment, their wives or husbands would be going crazy for being ignored, uncomprehending of their mate’s obsessional behaviour. If you’ve seen the film ‘A beautiful mind’, where for once Russell Crowe doesn’t act himself, you’ll get the idea.

Liam Hudson calls this frustrating, relationship-wrecking period, incubation, like a chrysalis waiting to emerge as a butterfly. When it does, it is often sudden, and triggered by some trivial event.

When I fell out of Catholicism at the age of fifteen, my parachute was Zen Buddhism – not the religion-like Soto school of Zen, the other one, where you study koans, impossible questions, until your mind splits and you see the world in a new light. You’ve probably heard the most famous Zen koan: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Anyway, same principle. Butt your head against a mental wall until your mind cracks and you suddenly get it (or go insane :-).

My own cure for writer’s block is simple. I work on a different story. I’m usually working on three stories at any one time, and if I get stuck in one, I switch to another. This happened this weekend, while I was taking a break from work, on the Normandy coast. The rain helped. I walked down to my favourite French patisserie, Charlotte Corday’s in Trouville, intent on getting the President out of the mess I’d landed him in. Instead, my mind started writing another story, the third story in my ‘Hell’ series. I’d also been struggling with how to start this one, since the second story (Escape from Hell) ends with a cliff-hanger where the two protagonists are in a lethal face-off. I’d been watching ‘The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button’ on Friday night, and at the end the credits mentioned it was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, one of my favourite books of all time, the quintessential novel of its time (maybe of all time). What Fitzgerald excelled at was deciding from whose point of view the story should be told (if you’ve not read The Great Gatsby, you’re in for a treat). So this got me thinking. I needed a new viewpoint, a new character to resolve the story. And  I’d just been reading some Scifi by Robert Silverberg, who has a great ‘voice’ (a writer’s term for the way his writing makes his characters lift off the page as real people), which gave me an idea for my new character’s own voice. By the time I reached the patisserie (I was nearly running), the first two paragraphs were sitting in my forebrain, and I quickly ordered coffee and croissant and started writing on a piece of paper. By the time breakfast arrived, I was smiling, because as writer Carol Emshwiller says, “As I start writing, I can tell by the first paragraph if I should go on with it, if I get that trembly feeling…” It wasn't just the strong coffee.

So, I broke the writer’s block, just not on the story I was working on. And as for the President? Well, he’s going to have to sweat on that alien ship for a while, as I work on the Hell story. I’m not worried for his story, though; it’ll come to me sooner or later.

So, if you’re a writer with writer’s block, what should you do? Maybe take a couple of days off, it can help. But no more. Watch some movies, walk by the sea, listen to your loved ones. Read some good fiction, either in your genre or not, but make sure it’s good writing. Then pick up your pen or your laptop, and start writing. Trust your instincts. But above all, don’t be afraid of writer’s block. As Liam Hudson pointed out, the longer the incubation period, the greater the final result.

For the 'Hell' stories, see
For my novel The Eden Paradox, see

Saturday, 11 June 2011

X-Men & the price of super-powers

Saw the latest X-Men movie last night - it was entertaining enough, but raised an issue for me. When I read the original Marvel comics as a kid - and the X-Men was one of my favorites - they were gripping because they had these fantastic powers but it really cost them personally. They were tragic heroes. Think also of the original spider man, Fantastic Four, etc. Most of the films trivialize this (especially Iron Man, though I like Robert Downey Jr's sense of humor), or at least don't get inside the characters' angst as much as the comics used to. The latest X-Men tries to do this with two of the characters - Mystique and Beast, and that for me saved the film, but mostly the X-Men movies focus on their powers and external conflict, either mutants vs. humans, or mutants vs. mutants. What is needed, though, is more internal conflict, realized in some of the Batman movies. This makes them more interesting characters, and more sympathetic, too, because otherwise they have something we wouldn't mind having, and envy is a powerful emotion.

A related comment from a friend Chris who also saw the film, was that some of the superpowers seemed banal or just plain not credible - e.g. a girl with a wasp's wings, or a boy being able to blow out air to the point he could fly. It seemed not much thought had gone into these particular superpowers.

Makes me wonder what superpowers I would actually want. The series Heroes had some interesting ones, as did the cut-short series The 44000. Probably right now I'd settle for super-marketing powers, so I could sell more of my books :-) (well, okay, after being able to bring world peace, cure aids, etc.).

Still, I'll keep watching the Marvel Comics spin-off movies, though so far I've resisted Thor...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

How easy should Science fiction be to read? Resisting the urge to explain...

A science fiction author usually aims to transport the reader to another world, universe, dimension, etc. - to cause wonder or at least fascination with the world the author has created. The way to give that world credibility, is to have the characters act as if it is normal. For example, twenty years ago an I-Phone would have been science fiction. Today it is commonplace and young toddlers learn how to use them before they can write. But what if the reader, instead of being dazzled by the author's ingenuity, is instead confused, and doesn't understand what is going on?

There is actually a thin line between achieving this science fictional 'sleight of hand', and confusing the reader to the point they put the book down.

Try this:

Greg's espersense perceived Edwards hovering indecisively on the step...

Now, what is espersense? It doesn't exist, but you get it, right? Some kind of heightened perceptual state. That was Peter F. Hamilton, Mindstar Rising - great book by the way. You learn more about espersense as the first chapter continues.

Now try this one:

'Sally sipped her ultresso, drumming her fingers, waiting outside the Eggshell. She focused inwardly and glanded her own personal cocktail of clarity and cogspeed; the other participants in these meetings were usually slick operators.'

Now, you're wondering what the Eggshell is, right? What about 'glanded'? Some of you probably got it, some are saying "she what-ed?" So, how to give a small hint without killing the tension with a tedious information dump?' The answer is of course in that writer's phrase I hate, but which is correct, namely 'show don't tell':

The hormone-drugs kicked in, her senses heightening: clinically white room, muffled sounds somewhere down a corridor – alien workers. Cassiopea Alpha’s ruby sunlight strained through shades behind the inter-stellar meeting device that was shaped like a giant egg, creating a lattice of rainbows on its underside. She felt a little dazed at first from the mental rush, then her mind stilled like a lake at dawn. She was ready.

So, the Eggshell is a meeting device, and she can control her glands (pituitary and hypothalamus in case you're interested) to affect her cognitive performance. But imagine it read what I just wrote in the previous sentence. It would be informative, sure, but dull, dull, dull.

You can also read Greg Egan to see how he does this type of writing well, and of course Iain Banks and a bunch of others (try also Gary Gibson and the legendary William Gibson who kicked a lot of stuff off with Neuromancer). But it's not for everyone. You have to like this type of thing, and the author has to tread that fine line, intriguing the reader, and giving little details later on (usually within a page) which clarify what is going on. The reader has to work harder, but gets rewarded because they interact with the writing and its scenery, unravelling the code the author has created.

Once you've crafted it, you have to take it to your readers and see how many get it, and how many go (as Orson Scott Card says) "huh?" Then you send it to lit mag editors and they sometimes say "got it on page 2, sorry" or else " read it three times now, still don't know what is going on." So you tinker with it until you get it just right, and then it gets published.

So, that's where I am with Sally in the excerpt above. We'll see if and when I get it exactly right this time. But for examples where I have apparently, see 'Looking for Hell' and 'Galactic Barrier' under Stories on this website, and the sequel 'Escape from Hell' coming out on Monday evening in Piker Press. And of course my novel The Eden Paradox, where wristcoms, optrons and nodes are just matter of fact items in 2065, pretty much like I-Phones are today, and if you could afford one, you'd wear a nannite jacket...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Stream of consciousness writing & insomnia

Earlier I blogged about how I often write when I have insomnia. Well, it happened again this week in Malta, woke up at 3:30am and started writing a new SF story 'The Negotiator'. But in the recent past I also wrote about insomnia itself, what it's like. The passage below uses a writing technique called 'stream of consciousness', whereby you see the unabridged flow of thoughts. It's not used so much these days in conventional fiction, but maybe it should be - it's an intense form of writing both for author and reader. It seemed to me the perfect style for insomnia, where usually the problem is that the flow of thoughts won't stop. So, without more ado, here it is. A word of warning - chronic insomnia isn't fun so there are some swearwords. And 'Marna' is fictional, naturally...

I crack open a crusty eye towards the offending instrument. 2:15. Fuck, an hour since I woke up, two hours since I went to bed, having taken the usual potions guaranteed to make me sleep eight hours. I change sides again, left side of my face on the pillow this time, flat on my stomach.
I could count my breaths again. What did I reach earlier? 237? What’s my record? Read, the books say – what else would they say, they’re books for Christ’s sake. But I’m tired, too exhausted to read. Anyway, light wakes you up, they also say.
It’s dark outside. I’m a chronic insomniac, I can pretty much tell the time by the shades of black, the depths of night. And of course the sounds. The cars usually stop after 1:30, pizza moto’s – those mosquitoes I’d like to swat – give up around half-past midnight. Of course an ambulance can happen anytime, or some asshole driving home fast, drunk, heading towards their own bed, probably after sleeping in someone else’s first, racing towards Morpheus’ embrace, that cool balm that evades me. Lucky bastards.
I turn back onto my right side, that’s the best one for sleep, or for relaxing without sleeping. I let my mind drift. The office starts up: what I should have said to my boss, but of course didn’t. Great, that’s really going to help. Someone else at the office. Marna, her breasts in my hands, her lips hard against mine, me shoving her up against the back of my office door that won’t lock… I sigh. That’s not exactly going to help me sleep, is it? I sneak another pointless time-check, hoping my brain will recognise the figures and suddenly shout, ‘Oh shit, sorry man, I thought it was only 10:30, here you go, sleep time!’ 2:39. Brilliant.
I get up. No need to turn the light on, I know the layout of my bedroom, just like a blind man. I walk over to the window and open it a crack; it’s cold outside, but quiet enough now to allow in some fresh air without the attendant noises that might wake me. Except the foxes of course, haven’t heard them yet tonight. I really should buy an air rifle. I peel back the curtain. Ice-white stars punctuate the darkness. No moon, though, that old insomniac’s nemesis. Nope, no excuse this time.
I try some yoga, a shoulder stand, feet stretching up in the air, balancing on my shoulders and elbows. My neck feels tight; I shouldn’t really go up into it just like that. But then ‘should’ has no rights here does it? I should be asleep after all. I come down, lie flat on my back, knees up. I can feel there’s more oxygen now the window’s open. Before it was like a deluxe coffin. I wonder if I’ll sleep when I’m dead, or just lie there for eternity listening to the worms hunting rotting flesh. I shudder, get up, collapse back into bed.
I ram the pillow vertical up against the headboard, sit cross-legged, back against it, and meditate. Try to anyway; it’s difficult to meditate when you’re so fucking tired. Desperate; tortured. Scenes flash through my mind; it’s like channel hopping on TV. I wait. The TV goes off, and I see an empty universe. I move the current one aside so there’s nothing there, really nothing, not even distant stars. I imagine it’s two hundred years in the future, so I’m dead and long forgotten, and concentrate on the space, the sound it doesn’t make, the texture it doesn’t have. I focus really hard, stretching my mind out in all directions, surfing nothing. My back relaxes, tension dissolving, cool rain drizzling down my spine like pebbles tumbling down an up-ended rainstick. Now, it has to be now. I lie down. One last glance. 3:03. I close my eyes; right side; breathing calm. I can feel it coming. Shhh. Don’t scare it off. Sleep. God’s design error. The little death. Bliss.   
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