Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Who are tomorrow's superheroes?

Just watched Captain America, and recently saw Green Lantern, and the Planet of the Apes, and it got me thinking - what kind of superhero would we need today? At the end of Captain America ('spoiler' coming up), he finds himself awake in today's world 70 years after the end of WWII. What would he do? What use would his shield be today? And Green Lantern - fine for fighting single space-faring aliens, but what about most of out troubles here? Could either of them fix the spiraling debt problems afflicting many economies, or root out corruption, or take out despots without killing all their supporters and plunging such countries into (maybe worse) chaos?

The world is a complex place, and it's nice to go and watch a movie where all the bad can be focused onto a nasty villain with a red (or green) face and an accent (don't we all have an accent?), where all the villain's cronies have terrible aim, or only aim at your shield,  and to have a single unbeatable weapon which will win in the end. Oh, and I mustn't forget the girl. But by the time the popcorn or ice cream is digested, it's back to reality.

Most 'villains' today are unseen, and working behind the scenes. Rather than one bad guy there's a network and complicity from lesser bad guys, too, or a large corporation with super-lawyers who are working just within the law and screwing the environment and lesser institutions.  So what super-powers would be useful to prevent another stock market crash and global economic meltdown which would increase poverty and feeds war, etc., or to prevent turning Earth into a toxic dump for our grandchildren?

Maybe an ex-UN Secretary who could fly, be invisible, and be a whiz on the internet? But you'd also need to be in many places at the same time. Perhaps, then, a 'multiple man' (or woman) who could be in a dozen places at the same time with a collective mind - it would be the only way to see what is going down and maybe stop it through coordinated action. Being able to stop time would be handy, but not necessary.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a superhero tackle today's problems, and kick some butt? Might even break out the champagne afterwards...

I grew up on Marvel comics, and for me the point was to show kids like me the difference between right and wrong, and to believe that you can fight against wrong and win. But while yesterday's comics are still fun, and the films are okay, they're not relevant anymore, and even kids know that. We need a new breed of superhero, and more realistic villains, too, because the ones we have today are actually more scary...

Other suggestions welcome...

Monday, 29 August 2011

What would aliens really want with Earth?

As Douglas Adams famously wrote, space is really big. So any aliens who might come a-knocking will have travelled really far to get to our neighborhood, possibly having slept a few hundred years en route. So what could possibly be worth the cost and physical endurance of such a trip?

1. Land: a place to live?
Many problems here. First, gravity. Aliens would have to come from a planet of similar size and density, otherwise they'd find it pretty rough going living here; unless intelligent (space-faring) life as the galaxy knows it could only exist on a planet such as ours, so that its size and make-up alone meet some kind of 'sweet spot' engendering life via just the right atmospheric and life-giving (e.g. water) conditions. Second problem is that there are probably (i.e. probabilistically speaking) many planets nearer to them than us, and if they can travel the stars, they can probably do some basic terraforming nearer to home. Third problem is that earth is already a bit toxic, irradiated and polluted, and that's not counting the billions of bacteria which might give aliens more than a cold.

2. Water; resources?
Sounds reasonable at first sight, but surely an advanced civilization who can beat or approach light speed can bundle together a few atoms of hydrogen and oxygen to form water? And again, our water is full of local microbes and toxins, not exactly the 'evian' of the galaxy. Other resources? Metals, ore, maybe? But you don't tend to seek out what you don't know about, and any civilization capable of serious space travel should have a few alchemic tricks up their sleeves.

3. Slaves, cheap labour?
Are we really that useful, physically speaking? Our physical strength, endurance, and tolerance to environmental variation is not outstanding. Many Scifi films and series focus on this plot-line. Slaves at first sight sounds reasonable; for us, maybe, but for aliens? Wouldn't they just make robots? I really wonder if this is just one of our own personal (galactically speaking) hang-ups.

4. A dangerous species to cull
Now we're talking, and a number of authors have already tackled this one. If there was any kind of Standard & Poor's rating agency out there looking at wolfling races like us, they might after a quick scan decide that we are too dangerous to be allowed to reach interstellar travel. We make atomic weapons and wage wars all the time, and trash our planet. We might be considered weeds. [This is the plot of one of my upcoming short stories, called the negotiator].

5. Research
Maybe aliens are curious like us, and come and abduct people every now and again, either to keep a check on us, or to catalogue our development. Sounds plausible, but as an ex-researcher, I'd sure like to have that kind of research budget!

6. A quick snack en route...
Aliens might be passing by and need something to eat. But remember, space is really big. Chances of ending up here by accident are like winning the lottery twice.  Again, physiological incompatibility might make us poison to an alien species, or just plain tasteless...

7. Biodiversity
Now we're getting interesting. In my novel series and one or two stories I hint that we may be unique in our biodiversity, i.e. the sheer number of species of life on a single planet.  This is just a hunch, that you don't need this much diversity to lead to intelligent space-travlling beings. If the hunch is correct, then Earth might be seen as a cornucopia to research and/or harvest.

8. Genetic base material
In one of my (less serious) story lines (Looking for Hell; Escape from Hell) an advanced race (the Skrim) pops over from another galaxy, having digitally-encoded its entire species, which it then needs to 'download' onto basic DNA, which happens to be us.

9. Sport
Hunting, to be precise, as in the film series 'Predator'. Problem here is that we'd surely be poor sport for any alien species capable of star-travel. Still, many sports we indulge in seem crazy, so why not?

10. Drugs
Many pharmaceutical companies these days forage the Amazon basin (no, not the online store, the other Amazon) for new plants or frogs whose genetic make-up can lead to new medical wonders. This 'alien plot-line' is really a combination of biodiversity and research. But it could also be that material here could be drugs in the more common sense today, i.e. allowing aliens to get 'high'. This was the plot-line of an old film called 'Dark Angel' where a nasty alien was after our endorphins, but didn't know the word 'please'.

So, in summary, maybe it's not that surprising we've not been visited by aliens. My own Eden Trilogy builds on two of the above so that a species called the Q'Roth have an unhealthy interest in humanity . One thing's for sure - if aliens do one day arrive, they're probably not going to announce why they're here. The epithet "a friend in need is a friend indeed" probably does not apply to aliens who come a-knocking...

The Eden Paradox is available on ebook on and and Barnes & Noble
And as paperback from October 15th. Sequel Eden's Trial available from November 8.
Free stories are available here.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Anatomy of an alien battle scene

Have you ever been watching a movie where aliens and humans fight, and in the end it comes down to them shooting at each other, and usually alien hand (or claw) and eye coordination is lousy? Or a space battle, where many ships converge on a (relatively-speaking) tiny piece of space and slug it out with lasers and quantum torpedoes? Did you ever think, would it really be like that? Is ‘Cowboys vs. Aliens’ as good as it gets.?

The first time I was impressed with a scifi battle scene was when I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, and one group ambushed another by ‘jumping’ at light speed to the enemy’s coordinates, so the enemy were immediately surrounded. Such a battle scene might not look much on a big screen, but it was at least smart. Iain Banks’ Excession frankly blew me away with its battle scenes between advanced AI-controlled ships, occurring in the blink of an eye.

So, when I was crafting battle scenes for my novel The Eden Paradox, I wanted to avoid clich├ęs. Since the aliens (the Q’Roth) are vastly superior physically, no point (thank goodness) having hand-to-hand combat, since any humans indulging in such tactics would end up shredded beef. But the book occurs not too far in the future (about fifty years), so I needed to make it credible, and so I focused on drone technology, which is already advancing to ‘scifi’ levels (see related blogs on this site).

In the excerpt below, Vince is on another planet (Eden) and is trying to stop the enemy (Q’Roth) attacking large transport ships stocked with human cargo, killing all humans on board, and then heading to Earth. Here’s the scene:

Vince piloted the lead Sarth missile at a distance, using a virtual immersion "head-can" as the mil called it, bulleting across the desert. While he remained physically back at base, the neural interface allowed him to steer the C6-laden dart just above the dune-tops, caressing Eden’s skin, zeroing in on the latest Earth-origin ship arrival. A black scab formed on the horizon. He clicked on zoom.

The swollen image resembled an animal carcass engulfed by ants. "Shit, too late – again," he muttered, knowing Vasquez and the controllers back at base could hear every word. Not that it was necessary – they saw everything via the slave screens. He ground his teeth – each time a ship landed full of human cargo, the Q’Roth began harvesting within minutes. He zoomed in closer. People flooded out of the ship, dazed and bewildered, then fought to get back inside, eyes and mouths wide in panic, scrambling over each other upon seeing the Q’Roth warriors swarming towards them. He zoomed out, suppressing a well of anger.

He rapped a control to relay coordinates to two tandem missiles, and the pair of piloted F-39s trailing behind with their nuclear payload. He signaled the attack pattern to the base controller with a single word: "Delta". The "D" stood for destroy – he judged it was too late to save the people; instead he had to make sure the ship didn’t take this particular Q’Roth hive back to Earth. A letter flashed in his left field of vision, "‘S", meaning Save. This was the third time Vasquez had disagreed with him. Okay, we’ll try it your way. He ramped up the acceleration for all three missiles, scratching across Eden’s flesh.

His recon system auto-zoomed onto four small Q’Roth ships buzzing like flies around the feed – he’d seen similar ones around the last ship too. A blue band slashed in front of him, missing him by less than a meter. He sent a command to stutter his engine thrust, making it harder for the Q’Roth to get a fix on him. His vision auto-compensated – but that was because he was there virtually – the F-39 pilots couldn’t use this trick, so he had to take out the smaller ships. But there were four of them, and he only had three missiles. As if on cue, they lifted off, accelerating towards him in a square defense pattern. He picked the nearest one and went to maximum speed, transmitting the command "frag-mode", as he spiraled through blue beams latticing the sky. He pummelled into his target too fast to make out any expression on the Q’Roth pilot’s face.

His vision leapt to the second missile, scorching in from the East. He dipped low to avoid a web of azure fire. He saw that his first missile had found its target – a plume of flame billowed mid-air, the wreckage of the Q’Roth vessel fire-balling to the ground. Better still, some of the explosive fragments had scraped another one, not destroying it, but sending it to the ground like a swatted fly. He swerved his missile to the right, attracting another ship away from the transport, breaking their defense formation.

His vision snapped to the third missile – the second missile must have been hit. He shrugged it off; he’d distracted the ships, allowing the two fighters to roar in from the West ten meters above ground. He watched their high-energy pulse lasers strafe the rear edge of Q’Roth warriors, slicing a hundred out of existence like a razor clearing stubble.

The remaining two Q’Roth ships disengaged from Vince’s missile and pursued the fighters. Vince was about to take one of them out when he spotted the source of the Q’Roth horde. A steady stream of warriors hemorrhaged from their underground nest into Eden’s noon sky faster than blood from a slashed artery. He didn’t give it a moment’s thought: he broke off his pursuit and swung the missile full throttle into the cave’s mouth.

He saw white. He tore off the head-can – no more missiles.

"Christ, Vince," Vasquez shouted, "you just sentenced those pilots to death!"

Vince muscled past Vasquez to the screens relaying video from the two fighters. Most people on the transport were already dead, thousands of Q’Roth warriors scurrying over the mound of corpses to get inside the ship, to head toward Earth. A screen relaying live video from the first pilot blanked. Vince snatched the microphone from the military controller handling the second fighter.

"Nuke the transport – do it now, you’re dead anyway!"

Vasquez pushed next to him, seizing the microphone, but offered no counter-command. They watched the screen in silence as the fighter banked hard enough to make the controller flinch. The transport grew large in front of them as the jet aimed straight for the main hatch, a red light indicating the nuke was about to detonate. The screen flashed white.

"Yeah, I know," Vince pre-empted Vasquez, "another hero. You should be proud. Medals all around later. How many Eagles left from the second wing?"

Vasquez’s lips squeezed to a white line. "Four."

Vince eyed him, recognizing the look. '‘Want me to fly one? I can, you know. I’m a bit rusty, but –'’

Vasquez grimaced. "What are your orders?"

Well, there it is. One of the main aspects of all such scenes in this book and its sequel, Eden’s Trial, is the speed, ferocity, and coordination of alien attacks (see also the short story Galactic Barrier, actually an excerpt from Eden’s Trial). In this story, a vast fleet of thousands of ships and drones is defeated without a single shot being fired; intelligence trumps firepower.

If aliens find us first, they're likely to be more intelligent, not just thinking deeper and broader, but quicker. That means that if we are ever to defend against such an enemy, the command and control structure of our defences has to be equally fast and flexible. As one of the characters says in the second book, "in this galaxy, shit doesn’t just happen, it happens fast."

The Eden Paradox is on  and, and will be released in paperback October 15th
Eden's Trial will be released before Xmas.
Galactic Barrier can be read for free under Stories

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Writing Schedules and the Writing Process

I'm often asked when I write, or in particular when I find the time to write, since I have a demanding full-time job. So, here goes:

1. I often get insomnia - and rather than lie in bed getting fed up with not being able to sleep, I wake up my Sony or my Mac (which is recovering in a Mac-hospital from an accidental beer-drinking episode) and write. The funny thing about 4am is that I find it pretty useful for generating new scifi ideas, maybe because I'm in a semi-dreaming state of wakefulness.

2. I write most at the weekends, usually eight hours spread over the weekend, or else flat out on Sunday, interspersed with yoga or the gym. Ideas need some concerted time to mature, otherwise they just hang around like flotsam, and they remain as flights of fancy that never end up in a story.

3. I also usually blog at the weekend. I find once a week is enough, since I do longish blogs and couldn't think what to write about every day - and in any case I prefer to be a writer than a blogger.

4. When I travel, which is often (so far this year, every week), I often do some writing on the way back. Usually on the way there (wherever there is) I'm preparing for work. I often get insomnia at hotels. Recently I wrote an entire short story in one four hour bout of insomnia at a hotel in Brussels.

5. During the week I try to do some editing, and also to read pieces from my writing colleagues, since they are also reading mine.

6. Every night before going to sleep I read, even if only a few pages. Recently it's all been scifi, since that's what I'm buried in writing at the moment. But I like other stuff, too. I usually catch up on that when I'm on holiday.

7. I always work on more than one project at a time. Right now, I've just had one story accepted, I have another submitted to an online journal, and another almost ready to go out. I have two more in early stages, about a third written, but I don't know the endings yet.

8. Sometimes (like now) I go away for a week to work on something major. This week, spent by the rainy coast of Normandy, I'm editing the sequel to my novel The Eden Paradox, which is called Eden's Trial, doing about 4-5 hours each day.

9. I don't force myself to write. If I'm not in the mood then I write rubbish, and life is too short. Some people say 'write 500 words a day, no matter what.' That doesn't work for me, and would kill my passion for writing. As a friend of mine used to joke, 'love comes in spurts', and that's how I write: driven.

10. I stopped with Facebook a while ago and haven't yet started with Twitter. I'll be honest, they don't fit my character very well, nor my job which tends to require 8-10 hours of focus every day, so I can't keep distracting myself with these things.

11. Every three weeks or so three or four of us get together in Paris and review each other's work. Reviews ranges from 'fantastic' (very rare) to 'what were you thinking?'. I sometimes re-edit and take it back a second time, depending on the damage the first time. But we know each other well and trust each other's judgement.

12. For major pieces (books) when I've done everything I can think of, I send them off for professional reviews, e.g. Cornerstones or Writers Workshop in the UK. They're not cheap, but then you get what you pay for.

I get feedback occasionally, and so far it tends to be good, sometimes exceptional. That makes it all worthwhile. But even if I didn't, I'd still write. These stories that unfold in my head have to come out...

See free stories here
The Eden Paradox can be bought here

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ten rules for sharpening your dialogue

When I first started writing my dialogue was bland. It sounded okay in my head, but to others it read (and sounded) flat. In truth, it was awful.
    "You really think so?"
    "Yes, I really think so."
So I read a lot about dialogue, paid attention to what people said, and read good dialogue. Now, when my writing gets reviewed, it gets rated as anywhere from 'serviceable' to 'quite good'. So, here are ten rules I use when writing, and particularly when editing.

But first, the strategy: writing and reading is like a dance - the author should be leading the dance, and staying just ahead of the reader. Once the reader can predict what the writer is going to say next, it becomes boring. Why spend time reading something when you know what's going to happen? So, the author, via the characters, is one small step ahead. But not two or three, or else the author is going to lose the reader, because they can't follow. The reader will trip and say "what the..?" and find another dance partner.

So, here are the rules, in no particular order:

1) Interrupt. People do it all the time.

   He waved the gun at her. "Listen carefully. You're going to lie down on the bed. Then I'm going to--"
   "Just pull the trigger, asshole."

2) The snappy reply (see also (1) above). This makes characters interesting. They say things the reader might have said if they'd had more time to think of them (the author does have the time).

   He couldn't believe he'd been set up again. "You bastard,Vince!" Micah threw a punch.
   Vince caught it mid-air, not even flinching. "Pretty rich, Micah, coming from someone who's only just re-discovered his father."

3) The crevice. Seeing deeper into a character, but only for a moment.

   "You know your blondie partner is screwing Micah? Kinda kinky, I had a ringside seat. A bit out of his league, to be honest." She flicked ash onto the interrogation room floor, watching his eyes. No reaction. "They must take stuff out of you, huh? You must lose something, you know, a piece of yourself."
   Vince's eyes intensified and then broke her gaze. "Actually, it's more like they put 'stuff' in."

4) Going too far.

   [backstory: Micah is in love with Antonia, who he thinks is in love with someone else]
   "I saw her this morning in the program. She wasn't in good shape." He watched Antonia's shoulders lock. "The carrion birds are still searching for her." He noticed she was barely breathing. He had to be sure. "To be honest, Antonia, I don't think she's going to last much--"
   "Stop! Stop it! You're hurting me!"

5) Saying something you can't take back (note - this can also be a form of telling lies)

   "Do you still love me, Harry? Can you forgive me?"
   His hands were shaking. His best friend. How could she? But then the shaking stopped, and his anger cooled like metal, forming a blade. He held her wrists, stared into her eyes, and spoke quietly. "I've never loved you, Sarah." He held her startled gaze, waited for her tears to come. "Ever."

6) Telling lies

   He glanced at the sms from Dolores: 'Miss you. When can we meet?' He shoved the phone, switched to silent mode, back in his pocket.
   Sarah came back out of the kitchen, picked up her coat. "Ready?" She opened the front door, then paused. "Your phone, it is switched off, isn't it?"
   He swung his coat over his shoulder, smiling. "Of course it is. Come on, or we'll be late."

7) Non-sequiturs

   [backstory: Jennifer & Dimitri are deep underwater in a small sub searching for a lost ship]
   Jennifer had never seen anything move so fast underwater. She watched Dimitri gazing through the porthole, like an excited scientist who'd just discovered a new species of shark, failing to realize it was on an attack vector. She understood now why the last mission hadn't made it back to the surface. She made her decision and jettisoned the last data-pod - the next mission would be better prepared.
   "Jennifer - why...? There is still so much more to record down here."
   She clutched her locket. "I love you."
   His puzzled gaze moved from her to the creature outside, then back to her. He glanced down to the radar screen tracing the creature's movements. "No, not like this!" He blurred into action...

8) Cutting to the chase

   [they're on a spaceship]
   "We're losing oxygen, Sir. One per cent an hour. I don't know where it's going." Pierre spoke flat, as if reading a newspaper. He handed Blake the data-pad.
   Zack bridled. "This could be a sensor-glitch, Pierre, especially as you can't find the leak. Wouldn't be our first." But he knew Pierre was never wrong about facts and figures.
   Kat broke in. "But we'll be on Eden in a week, and there's a whole planet-full of air there."
   Blake handed the pad back to Pierre. "We'll be dead in two days."

9) Not saying what you should

   Antonia laid a hand on his shoulder. He couldn't remember her ever touching him before. "Micah, can I ask you to do something for me?"
   Micah didn't move. Anything. Everything. "Sure."
   "Will you protect her. watch out for her?"
   He made his head nod, keeping his lips clamped.
   "Micah, would you do something else for me, you don't have to, but ... would you mind just holding me for a moment. I miss her so much."
   And so he held her in his arms, as he'd dreamt of doing a hundred times. But he wished her lover was there instead, because right now he was in hell.

10) Not answering the damned question
    "You can't be serious? They want to recruit me? I'd rather burn in hell. But you, why, for God's sake, why did you join them? You've betrayed everything we stood for!"
   She gazed through the window, the fire outside reflecting in her eyes. "I told them you'd say no."

To see dialogue in my own work, see The Eden Paradox on and, and (free) Stories on my website.

See also:
Dialogue, by Diane Kempton, Writer's Digest Books, 2004
How not to write a novel, by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, Penguin, 2008 

© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot