Sunday, 31 July 2011

On writing: alternating chapters as a plot device: rotating POV

If you are writing a book from a single viewpoint, then this blog probably isn't for you. But if you have different characters and points of view (POV), using alternating chapters can be a good device to maintain tension and drive plot, keeping the reader turning the pages. The device is also used to a great extent in film and TV series (e.g. Heroes being an extreme example), but beware - it is much easier to hold a viewer's attention with scenes shifting between different characters and their viewpoints on film, than it is to do the same thing in a book. This is because with film/TV you see the characters - there is no need to 'bring them alive' off the face of a page, as there is in a book.

But it can be done really well and to effect. The most straightforward approach is ABAB. This means that in chapter 1, it is from character A's POV, in ch.2 from B's POV, then back to A, etc. A good example of this in Science Fiction is Iain Banks' book 'The State of the Art'. Reading it sets up a powerful rhythm, and the climax of the book is magnified by this structure. Would it have worked as AAABBB? Maybe, but the writer risks losing the reader when the switchover chapter happens. The reader has invested a lot of time in character A, and suddenly B arrives and 'takes over'. What if the reader doesn't like or sympathize with B? Also, the reader may feel like their 'psychological contract' with the writer has been violated: "You told me for half the book this was about A, and now suddenly B comes up?" It can be done, but there are risks.

What gets interesting and more challenging is when there is a cast of characters whose POV are necessary for the story. I try and write space opera and mystery-based Scifi where I need a number of sub-plots merging towards a single climax. In my book The Eden Paradox, there are four main characters. If I did ABCDABCDABCD etc., how many people would bother to read it? It would be tiring, right? You'd lost the details of chapter 1 by the time you'd have gotten to chapter 4.

So, what I did was as follows:
Chapter 1: A & B (using section breaks in one chapter)
Chapter 2: C
Chapter 3: A
Chapter 4: C
Chapter 5: A
Chapter 6: C
Chapter 7: B - this character comes back, and from now on appears about every four chapters.
Chapter 8: A
Chapter 9: C
.... Mainly A & C
Chapter 12: D - the fourth character is brought in, but then disappears for about six chapters
... Mainly A & C
Chapter 29: B is killed. D starts to appear more regularly now.
Final 4 chapters: A, C, and D are all involved in the climax and the denouement. The POV in each of these final chapters is chosen for maximum effect.

So, even with multiple POVs, it's important to let the reader settle in and get to know a couple of main characters in depth before introducing another one. If one character gets killed off, that leaves some more space for one of the other POVs.

Sounds complicated - why bother? Well, several reasons. Here's six:

1. If you have a complex plot taking place in different locations and with different characters, you can use other narrative styles, but an individual POV allows you to go inside their heads so we get to know them better (an advantage over film and TV). The more involved a reader is with a character, the less likely she is to put it down.

2. Fiction should mirror reality, even if it is science fiction. Our lives are more complex than they used to be, and aside from superhero stories, if a protagonist wants to achieve anything major, e.g. bring down an unjust corporation, she can't do it alone. We also live in a world less black and white, so that villains have a story to tell, too, and sometimes there are no out-and-out villains, just shades of right and wrong. Good fiction can show this, and multiple POV allows us to see why someone did something, even if we don't agree with it.

3. Alternating chapters builds up a rhythm, and pace can be better-managed towards a crescendo. For example, if we need some back-story or slowing down with character A, we can sequence such a chapter just after a real cliff-hanger chapter with character B: readers will tolerate the slowing down of the story because they know the one after is going to be important.

4. A neat trick is getting characters to talk about other characters, e.g. in a character 'B' chapter, this character makes some disparaging (or complimentary, or insightful) comment on character A. This saves having to give boring narrator-led description about each character. It also leads to a deeper appreciation of the character by the reader: for example, in a series of chapters I have four astronauts, and each one of them occasionally 'has the floor', i.e. the reader sees from their POV. Occasionally they make references to each other, and the reader sees the same character traits described, but with subtle nuances not allowable from a single POV. This is like gaining a 360 degree view of a character.

5. In any book there is often what is known as the 'sagging middle', where the book seems to lose momentum, and the reader may lose interest. At this point, if the plot needs it, a new character, with a new POV, can give the novel a push out of this 'dead zone', keeping the reader going until the natural pace of the plot accelerates again.

6. A final benefit of this approach (see also David Brin and Jack McDevitt for this style of writing), is that when characters, for example, A and D, who only meet at the end of the novel, finally meet, the writer will pick one POV only, and maybe not the one the reader is expecting. Such 'meetings' can add a freshness for the reader, who for example is used to hearing A's POV whenever A is in a scene, and suddenly sees A through D's eyes. I did this in the last few chapters of the book, and it is not an easy choice to make, but always leads to interesting results.

Of course there are disadvantages, and here are six to counter-balance the 'pros':

1. Some readers hate 'head-hopping'. It's just not for them.

2. The reader can get confused between the characters, particularly if the narrative 'voice' of each POV is not distinct.

3. The reader can lose the plot, or at the start, actually wonder if there is a plot, as they have three or four chapters introducing different characters in different locations or even different time-frames.

4. Multiple POV stories tend to be longer. [My own book is 420 pages, and for a first time writer, most publishers want it less than 300 for paperback economic reasons].

5. It is harder to write, and harder to edit, because the writer has to become a little schizophrenic, moving in and out of different characters' heads frequently.

6. The plot has to be compelling, for all the main characters - they must have strong motivations and for some of them, also major obstacles in their path. There is a danger with too many POVs that the motivations, and in particular the obstacles may seem to be 'contrived',  so that the plot starts to seem far-fetched, or at worst, farce.

Despite these pitfalls, I have to say that personally I seek out multiple POV fiction, especially science fiction, because in a good writer's hands it is richer and ultimately more satisfying.

The Eden Paradox is available from here and from here
See also

Attitudes to buying ebooks: USA vs. Europe

I'm sitting in Dulles Airport (Washington DC) about to return to France after a week's business, reflecting on very different attitudes to ebooks here compared to UK & France.

I wasn't here to sell ebooks, or in fact anything to do with my writing - this was a technical safety workshop with peers in the US. However, during the short breaks we end up talking about what we do, and my SF writing came up on the first evening. The reactions were along the following lines: "Wow, that's great, I've got a kindle/nook/Iphone/laptop, what's it called?" Two people bought it that evening and started reading it. By the end of the week I reckon I've shifted six copies without even trying. I stress these are work colleagues I see maybe every 2-5 years.

In the UK/France it goes more like this: "Really? Ebook. Hmm. Is it in paperback or only ebook? I don't have a kindle, I like to hold a book in my hands. Let me know when it's out in paperback."

In the UK, the ebook also has a different status - if it is a paperback as well as an ebook, that's okay, but if it's only an ebook, people think there's something wrong with the writing/author. In the US, people didn't even ask if it was in paperback.

I'm not going to ruminate on why it's like this - just hoping the UK and Europe is going to catch up.

Soon, please.

On the way to the airport lounge I checked out the top books in Borders. Lee Child, an English exile living in US, was topping the chart with his latest Jack Reacher novel. I picked it up and read the first two pages. Solid details, sharp dialogue. As usual. Way to go, Lee. I put it back on the shelf, but only because I'm going to download it tomorrow onto my Sony.

As I head back to France I can console myself as an author that the two people who, this Monday, bought my ebook The Eden Paradox have said, respectively "holds your attention" and "stayed up till 4:30am reading it."



Saturday, 30 July 2011

Drones - where fact is only seconds behind science fiction

Drones in scifi have been around for a long time. In Frank Herbert's Dune series small drones were used to assassinate people, and similar (though sometimes more peaceful) concepts are used today in a number of Iain Banks' novels. Probably the most famous drones are from Star Wars, with R2D2 and C3Pio. Only recently, however, have they entered our lives, and the theatre of War, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week's Economist has an article discussing the ethics of drone warfare - how, for example, might a remote pilot thousands of miles away from his or her drone, be prosecuted if the drone destroys a school bus instead of a truckload of 'insurgents'? Furthermore, what if the pilot is CIA rather than US Army?

The article mentions moral issues but shies away from what I believe is a current moral balance sheet in the so-called 'war on terror'. The idea of War that most of us have instilled in us is of two sides fighting a battle with soldiers, seamen and pilots who can see each other. The idea that one side can pick off people from afar doesn't seem 'fair'.

But ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, since Hiroshima to be precise, War has evolved. ICBMs can fly missiles to pretty anywhere on the planet. With the exception of so-called rogue states, this is avoided by the mutual destruction principle and general rationality: if you push your launch button, I'll push mine.

But with the advent of terrorism, morality has changed. The Lockerbie bombing caused outrage, a single man blowing up a passenger plane killing all plus many on the ground. The September '11 attacks on the US took this strategy to a new level: people on their home territory going about their normal lives, suddenly killed, orchestrated by people thousands of miles away. Not drones as such, but the same principle. How do you defend against something you can't see?

So I wonder if one reason there has not been so much debate about the ethics of military drone usage is because some feel it is an appropriate and proportionate response to the horrors of terrorism, and in particular its methods; therefore fighting one evil with another. This is of course little comfort to any family mourning loss of a loved one, a civilian who was accidentally killed by drone warfare, effectively 'collateral damage'.

Because this is not meant to be a political blog, I turn back to science fiction: where does this leave scifi writers, where drones are already fairly advanced. We can add more intelligence, make them alien so that aliens could wage war on Earth from afar - many writers have already explored such ideas. Science fiction writers themselves could turn to address the ethics of drone warfare, since that is one of the roles of scifi - ethical issues can sometimes be seen in sharper colors when placed in an 'alien' context. Perhaps it is time to address the human (or alien) faces and responsibilities behind remote warfare. I've done this recently in a short story I've submitted to a SF magazine, called Executive Decision, about a woman who fights a war hundreds of light years away, only to reap very personal consequences.

When I grew up, I knew nothing of terrorism, not even the word. Now it is part of our daily lives, part of our global culture. Technology grows with us, and so drones are probably here to stay. Perhaps they can be put to more friendly civilian use, now that War has advanced their technological capability. I hope so.

I recently finished a short story (The Sapper) centering around a terrorist plot. Then the terrible Norwegian bombing and shooting occurred, the latter scarcely believable and difficult to comprehend. I thought about shelving the piece, but then, we need to write about this issue, to explore it, and to unearth better ways to live with each other.

One day, I hope, drones will be more like the way Banks writes about them, a service, not a threat.

See Iain Banks: The Player of Games.
See also 'Stories' on this website.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

How to program clones

I've been watching Caprica lately, and was interested in the series' theory of replicating the human mind. Clones have been around for a long time in Science Fiction, and in real life since Dolly the sheep was cloned. Two big questions are, first, whether a human clone would be like one of us, or would it be like a dead thing brought to life, and second, whether we could also clone personalities. To me, the questions are related.

The first question has been around a long time, at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and countless sci fi works including Philip K Dick's Blade Runner (Do androids dream of electric sheep?), and the ghola clones in Frank Herbert's Dune series. Would clones be more than ciphers, flesh and blood robots? Would they make interesting conversation? Would we allow one the vote?

The second question is more interesting to the human condition, because it relates to the idea of immortality, and its counterpart, fear of death. If we could clone personalities, especially our own personalities, we could effectively achieve immortality, having a back-up clone ready with streamed memories to pick up from wherever our current body left off (I've used this in a couple of my own stories). So, nice idea, but as they say, the difference between theory and practice is that in practice theory doesn't always work (a scifi author would add 'not yet'). So, how would it work? How would you download a personality?

Back to Caprica then. The theory in Caprica is that it is all about memories, that the brain holds only a few Megabytes of memories, and that it is how these data are accessed that really matters. So, if you can store memories, from what the person does in their lives (major and minor events) to what they look at on Facebook and Google, then you can map not only the memories but also the personality.

Nice theory. But what would make such memories come alive?

For me the answer lies in fiction. What is fiction about if not personalities, motivations and conflicts: the heroine wants something, but something else is in her way (a bully; her mother; an alien; her pride). This is the crux of any novel, because our lives are like this, and fiction lets us see how other people solve their particular problems. But a novel which only has external problems or threats (e.g. an alien force invading Earth) is really flat if the heroes don't also have significant 'internal' problems. These can be anything from rivalry to jealousy to lack of self-confidence, it all works out the same - the hero has to overcome some aspect of herself to defeat the enemy.

Ultimately, it's internal conflict which matters. That's when we feel most alive: when the conflict is at its peak, and when it is resolved.

Frank Herbert evidently had the same idea in his original (and brilliant) Dune series, where clones of the dead hero Duncan Idaho were repeatedly fashioned, and placed in a situation that tore at the clone's allegiances; this was the only way to bring the ghola to life and resurrect the 'real' man.

So, sure, you need the memories, the more detailed the better. But memories on their own don't have meaning unless the motivations and conflicts are also known. Caprica is I believe right in one sense - it's how the data are accessed that matters. This can be literal in terms of brain physiology - referring to the sequences in which millions of neurons fire in the brain in response to events, and how this firing pattern is affected by each new event and influenced by previous events. 'Coding' motivations and conflicts would probably be much harder, but if you could, then perhaps you could predict how new events would be perceived, not neutrally as if collecting bits of information like a recorder, but based on prior experience and motives, bending new experiences to fit with existing motives and biases, suppressing or fighting against those which go against the flow. Starts to sound more human.

As a psychologist I'm naturally interested in this area of science fiction, and so as a writer I try to explore it whenever I can. It's a theme in a new story just written called The Sapper, which should get published in the next few months. Here's a hint from the story: if you want a clone to appear human, don't just give it motivations, give it internal conflicts.

Related stories: Galactic Barrier; Looking for Hell - click here
Novel: The Eden Paradox
(coming Xmas 2011: Eden's Trial)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

In a hundred years time, will real books have disappeared altogether?

I was in London yesterday and dropped into a science fiction literature exhibition at the British Library, next to St Pancras Station. It runs till September, and contains many first editions including, amongst countless others,  Jules Verne's Voyage to the Moon (in French), HG Wells' The Time Machine, Frank Herbert's Dune, and Heinlein's 'By his own bootstraps' short story (about time travel) which was published under a pseudonym. There were categories including time travel, post-apocalyptic fiction, space travel and space opera, and, because it is the UK, a section on Daleks (from the television Doctor Who series). It's not as big, say, as Seattle's Science Fiction museum, but as a science fiction author, it felt great to see all these first editions, this history of science fiction literature. And that got me wondering: with a gradual shift to ebooks, will exhibitions like this exist in a hundred years time?

Of course exhibitions exactly like this could still exist, since these and current first editions can be preserved. But if in the future everyone is reading electronic format, would people have that same connection to real books anymore, other than seeing them as quaint and vaguely humorous, like the way we might today look at an old-style telephone? What would a contemporary science fiction literature exhibition look like in a hundred years' time? Maybe virtual tours, because perhaps by then cyberpunk will be more like reality, and many exhibitions will be via immersion into virtual worlds, or via a home holographic projection system so the whole family can visit an exhibition from the comfort of their lounge.

If we do give up books completely, though, we may lose something important, a part of our heritage, and also a part of us. When you read a paperback, when you touch and feel it in your hands, turning the pages over and over, there is a connection, a kind of respect (if you like the writing, and maybe even if you don't). If you lose respect for the media, you risk losing respect for the message.

I converted to e-books nearly a year ago, but I've noticed that if I'm getting a bit bored with one, I'm far quicker to put it down and start another than with an actual paperback. Perhaps aware of this, I bought my first paperback in over a year just a few days ago (Jack McDevitt's 'Deepsix'). I'm not giving up e-format, because it's so convenient and environmentally-friendly, and I travel so much, and my own novel is currently only an e-book. But e-books are yet another sign of our increasingly ephemeral, throwaway, short-memory span, digitized, 'flash memory' culture. If Newton had been a sociologist, his second law might have read differently: "Whenever you gain something, you must also lose something."

Whatever science fiction literature exhibitions might look like in the future, I hope that people will still feel that emotional connection in a hundred years' time, and think, wow, these authors were so inventive, creating new possibilities, imagining humanity's future, shaped by the best and the worst of its character.

One final thought struck me as I left the exhibition to come back to France. Most of these authors wrote about space travel and discovering new worlds and meeting new species. In the hundred and thirty odd years of science fiction, we're still not there yet. If, in a hundred, or maybe two hundred years time we start reaching other inhabited worlds and meeting new species, will there be such a demand for science fiction?

Science fiction thriller 'The Eden Paradox' available on and
Available in paperback end of October. Free SF stories available: click here

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Science Fiction and Music

What would aliens think of our music?

It's not such a banal question. Voyager, one of the first deep space probes sent out to contact other sentient life, contained (amongst other things) classical and popular music, to show what our culture is like.

Music is endemic to humanity. All cultures and sub-cultures have music. If we were to discover an unknown tribe in the Amazon rainforest tomorrow who had never had contact with the rest of the world, without doubt they would have language, painting of some sort, weapons, and music.

Music is also a form of mathematical expression, as much as it is a way of conveying emotion. It is a language of sorts, trying to communicate joy, sorrow, or just "get up off your ass and dance!". Think of whalesong or birdsong - it is not just there for our pleasure, it may mean "follow me", or "keep out of my territory", or "anyone fancy mating?"

All music follows a mathematical form (scales), some more complex than others (e.g. Indian classical music works on a different scale - if you're not used to it, you really don't hear the nuances). Jazz follows rules as does classical music, but is more flexible, allowing musicians to 'bend' those rules more. Because it is mathematical, it is a sign of intelligence, and alien species might be impressed by it (or not), and might even find it culturally more 'telling' about humanity's nature and 'social desirability' on a galactic scale than scientific logic or technological advances.

One drawback is that our music is all confined to a narrow band on the electromagnetic spectrum; even dogs can hear more than we can. We live in air of a particular density, whereas other alien life might live in water, gas, or communicate by light more than sound (David Brin's classic Sundiver science fiction series had intelligent plant-life-forms which preferred communication by light).

Would aliens like our music, or understand it? Most science fiction ignores this part of our heritage, saving it for compelling film anthems or TV SF soap theme tunes (Star Wars, Star Trek), or for incidental 'tekky' musical scores (e.g Vangelis' fab score for Blade Runner - including my all-time favourite SF 'track', Memories of green). Occasionally SF deals with music, but it usually portrays it as very different and cacophonous to our ears and tastes (a good example being the futuristic choral piece near the end of the film Planet of the Apes - although not alien as such). In contrast, Luc Besson's cult film Fifth Element contained a piece of 'space opera', a multi-limbed alien singing a rather compelling operatic number.

One optimistic example is provided in an episode of Star Trek Voyager, wherein an alien culture finds Earth-music fascinating, though only for a while. Nevertheless, this is the outlook I chose for my second novel (Eden's Trial, due end of 2011), in a glancing reference that if humans need to trade, they should consider music, because it is valued in the galaxy, being so different and creative. I can attest to this, having in the past week been lucky enough to see Pink Floyd's (Roger Waters) The Wall, two outstanding classical/jazz guitarists (John Williams and John Etheridge) and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Whatever else humanity does, it rocks.

Maybe one day we'll intercept a probe from another species. Maybe as well as other information, there would be music. Now wouldn't that be interesting to hear?

SF stories free to download from
Novel available from

Monday, 4 July 2011

Dreaming Science Fiction - where do the stories come from?

On Saturday night I watched an episode of Fringe, and a bit later, the new BBC sci fi series Outcasts, which I'd not seen before. During the day I'd spent a few hours working on one of my 'Hell' short story series, struggling with a plot aspect. I called it a night and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up with a completely new story in my head. I mean all of it. I lay there for a while thinking about it. The hero, and his nemesis were there; the future time-frame, the Earth scenario, and most of all, the plot. No aliens this time. All were just sitting there. I got up fast and fired up my Sony, and began typing. Details filled themselves in as I typed, the other stories pushed to the back of my brain in the rush to get this one down. I had to think up names, because they weren't there. I typed more than half of it before I had to do other 'life things'. I'll finish it tomorrow. I already know how it ends.

What I have no clue about is where it came from. I'm a psychologist, and I studied creativity, but this one really beats me. But you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. It's called The Terrorist, at the moment, about a man trying to prevent a terrorist threat being carried out in future Manhattan. It'll need polishing, but already I have a good feeling about it.

Strange, though, how the brain works...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Is the space age over?

I just read an interesting article of the same title in the magazine 'The Economist.' It suggested that 2011 is the year historians will see as the end of the space age, because the last space shuttle launch is scheduled for next week (July 8), and the International Space Station (which it sees as the most colossal waste of money of all time [$100bn]) is also coming to an end in 2020 when it will be 'de-orbited'. It notes that perhaps China may send a man (or woman, or both) to the moon, but the appetitie for further space travel has simply disappeared from governments who face more pressing problems at home (Earth). Probes have landed on most planets and haven't found much to warrant (vastly expensive) human exploration.

I have been pro-space travel since a kid. When sixteen, I led the pro-space angle in a public debate at school, on whether space research should be funded or the money should be spent closer to home. My arguments then (a long time ago) were not only about finding new resources, and the boon of spin-offs from such scientific and technological challenges but were also about the spirit of mankind, the need to explore, to grow. We won the debate, by a narrow margin.

My unbridled enthusiasm was tempered when Challenger blew up. Some years later (1994) I was writing a non-fiction textbook on human reliability assessment, a narrow scientific field which aims to predict human errors and accidents. I dedicated it to 'the seven', i.e. the seven astronauts onboard.

My arguments haven't changed all that much, except I've added another one: if there is other intelligent life out there, it's 50:50 whether they'll be hostile or altruistic. In most of my stories the best we can hope for is indifference, and in my novel series, aliens, too, are looking for resources, and they will simply take them. If alien life does turn up, the fact that they found us first means they will be more advanced. This doesn't just mean more technology, they may actually be more intelligent, the way we are more intelligent than, say, an ape or a dolphin. When we need to cut down a forest or carry out intensive fishing, do we ask them what they think about it?

If another race was surveying us, how would they judge our intelligence, our fitness for survival? They'd maybe be impressed we'd split the atom, and almost certainly less so that we used nuclear bombs against each other. They'd weigh up our technological advances and balance them against the fact that rich nations don't solve the poverty of poor ones, and that corruption and greed seems to be prevalent in our genes. They'd certainly extrapolate underlying racist tendencies to a potential hatred of aliens. Hopefully the'd see some of the good and the creative in us, though I'm not sure it would be enough to tip the scales favorably for an alien race trying to ask the basic question: can we trust humanity? So, what might tip the scales?

Space travel. A thirst for exploration, and not a conquering one. Scientific endeavor. The wish to seek out new life, and not as a food source. Sounds like Gene Roddenberry, doesn't it? And why not. So, for those not of the Star Trek moral persuasion, here's another argument: is it better to be sitting cooped up on one crowded planet when an alien race finally arrives, or to have some options at hand?

I'd like to see an end to poverty and injustice, same as (I hope) the next person would. But space travel doesn't cause any of this. Like many, I feel sickened by the last economic crash where greed led to the loss of over a trillion dollars - and I never thought I'd read the word 'trillion' outside of a scifi story. What could a trillion dollars have done for world poverty?

I like The Economist as a magazine, but it seems to be ignoring some of it's own 'science': many economic patterns are cyclical in nature. The space age might ebb for a while, as many people are hurting financially, and 'belt-tightening' is the norm these days. But it will be back. Not because it makes financial sense, but because it's in our nature to question, to want to know more, to explore. One day, we'll reach Mars. One day, a long way off, we'll break light speed. And then we won't look back. Hopefully by then, we'll have left some of our sorry baggage behind us.

P.S. My novel The Eden Paradox, first in a trilogy, is about our first alien encounter, in 2065. It doesn't go too well... Many of the arguments about the existence of alien life and why we've never seen it (Fermi's paradox), and the need to be better prepared for when aliens do finally come 'a-knocking' are embedded in the novel. Available on Amazon now as an ebook: and from late September as a paperback.See also for short stories on encounters with alien societies.
© Barry Kirwan |
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