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

© Barry Kirwan |
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