Monday, 30 April 2012

Eden's Trial free for three day period

The second book in the Eden Trilogy, Eden's Trial, is now free for just three days from Amazon - today until close of business (US time-zone) Wednesday. My publisher and I are interested to see what this does in terms of uptake, so if you're reading this now, please take advantage of it.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

We need to start looking for somewhere else to live...

A friend just sent me a link to a news item. It says we need to start looking for a new home (another habitable planet) now, and if we don't find one, we risk becoming extinct. [The nice picture to the left is theirs.]

Back in 1976 (I'm showing my age) I took part in a school debate, one open to parents. At the time there was a lot of fuss over space programs and people starving to death in Africa, and where to put the money. I led the 'space' camp, my buddy Mike leading the 'domestic' front.

The school was Catholic, run by priests, so you might say traditional conservative mores dominated the audience. But at the end of the debate, I made an impassioned plea for continued space exploration, arguing that one more nuclear war would finish us, and that we might trash the world even without one, so we needed to have a Plan B.

My side won by a small margin, and Mike and I remained friends.

Since then I've been dismayed by our slow descent into wrecking our environment, with no controls over capitalist expansion and general 'short term thinking'. So I wrote a book about what is likely to happen in the next fifty years, and called it The Eden Paradox, not only because it makes sense in the story, but also because I sometimes think we're kissing Eden goodbye when it's right under our feet.

You probably know the one about how to boil a frog, right? You raise the water slowly, and the frog doesn't leap out, and by the time it realizes it's in trouble, it's too exhausted to get out of the pot.

Well, in my day job I work in the risk area, and there's a new term, it's called 'riskscape'. It's like a landscape, but it is a risk contour, height determining your risk. Imagine a gentle slope downwards, that ends up in a funnel, with no escape. Same thing as the frog.

Right now nobody is going to win an election by promising more space travel, or better satellites to find a habitable planet in the 'Goldilocks zone' (i.e. a planet not too big or small, with oxygen and water, and not too hot or too cold). But maybe afterwards, someone somewhere should have the vision to set up a long term program to do just that.

Imagine if we found one. What impact would it have? It would be hope, right? It would make people look up from their desks and their smart phones (some of which could find the planet in the night sky, with the right 'app') and gaze up at the stars, and wonder. It might make some politicians more inclined to work together (though perhaps I'm being naive).

Hopefully we'll find one, and then work out a way to get there. Before our cooking pot gets too hot.

In my book I set the timer at fifty years. Trouble is, I'm an optimist...

The Eden Paradox is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

In Science Fiction, love is a dish best left to simmer...

There is a famous Klingon quote in Star Trek that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Equally, I’d hold that love – in science fiction at any rate – is a dish best left to simmer, and is rarely savoured. Why? Here are seven reasons to chew on:

  1. Love in Scifi is not what the reader is looking for
  2. Fulfilled love kills tension
  3. When the girl gets the guy it’s the end of the story, and Scifi writers love trilogies/series
  4. Romanticism is a fairly recent phenomenon in literature; Scifi looks aeons into the future (or the past)
  5. Scifi writers are poor at writing ‘love’ – maybe also why they often stay ‘poor’ as well (romantic fiction makes much more money)
  6. Aliens and robotic forms may not be capable of love: As Spock would say, “That is illogical, Captain!”
  7. Sadly, there’s no scientific basis for love…

It’s hard to think of a science fiction book or film where love is the central premise; it usually plays second fiddle at best. Readers of SciFi are looking for spaceships, aliens, new worlds, and cunning plots. Think of Star Wars, probably the best-known Scifi film – Luke initially is drawn to Princess Leia, but it doesn’t work out, and in fact she turns out to be his sister. In any case she is more interested (who wouldn’t be?) in Han Solo. But such threads are secondary to the vast sweep of The Empire, Darth Vader, the Force, Obi Wan Kenobe, light sabre fights and the Death Star.

Similarly, all of the Star Trek series played down love. Jim Kirk ‘got around’ quite a bit, but the girl would be gone by the next episode. In the Next Generation, Picard never had anyone steady (almost never had anyone, period!), whereas Riker and Troy had an on-off (mainly off) relationship that didn’t tie the knot until after the entire seven seasons were finished, and we were into one of the later films. In Star Trek Voyager, Janeway and Chakotay had a long term unrequited interest, Chakotay finally falling for Seven-of-Nine (again, who wouldn’t?) at the end. Star Trek Deep Space Nine’s Benjamin Sisko fell in love after several seasons, and overlooked his lover’s illegal trade, only to lose her at the end.

The long-drawn-out slow-cook love trope is also found in many other series, e.g. Stargate, between Jack O’Neill and Sam Carter. Whenever they get close to kissing, dastardly aliens interrupt, reminding us it’s science fiction and what we’re here to watch.

In books it’s similar. Scifi classics such as Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, or Clarke’s Rama series, don’t have love as a central premise – it’s not what we remember about these works, although Dan Simmons’ Hyperion has one of its pilgrims’ stories recounting a love story that is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space is also a rare, exceptional mixture of galaxy-spanning space opera and ‘love at any cost’. But generally, from Larry Niven’s Ringworld to Iain Banks’ Culture novels, love is in the background. If readers want to read romance novels, these are available by the bucket-full in mainstream or romance fiction. Occasional cross-overs (the Time-Travellers’ Wife) may look like science fiction, but for most Scifi fans they belong more in the romance genre.

Requited love kills tension. It works best – if at all – at the end of a book or film. This is true in any fiction. Think of Gone with the Wind, possibly the greatest romance film of all time. When Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara finally get it together (just for one night), the film ends a few minutes later, which was a really good call, because if it hadn’t, we’d have got up to do something else. In fiction it is the chase that is interesting.

Maybe we’re trained as children, since most fairy tales end with the words “and they lived happily ever after.” As we grow up and watch our parents, we know that at the very least that statement is a gross simplification. But it is as if we’re trained to switch off at that point. Taking a very successful non-Scifi TV series as an example, House, the two central characters (Greg House and Lisa Cuddy) obviously love each other, and at several points in the later seasons they not only ‘do it’, but become an item. The series writers immediately realise their mistake, and at first it turns out to have been Greg’s drug-induced hallucination, and then it becomes ‘reality’ but ‘real life’ isn’t happily ever after and they break up, and then… well, to cut a long series short, each time Greg and Lisa get together the writers go to increasingly desperate measures to break them up in order to regain the tension which keeps viewers watching.

Back in science fiction land, the series Farscape had such strong love tension that the writers allowed the hero (John Crichton) to be cloned so that one of him could fall in love and be loved, only to have that version of him killed off, and for his lover Aeryn Sun to reject the surviving ‘copy’. This was a brilliant plot development, where there was some requited love which actually ended up increasing the tension.

If you study literature, the whole romanticism thing is relatively recent (nineteenth century onwards). I’m sure we loved before then, but, well, life expectancy was a lot lower, and there were wars, plagues, marriages of convenience and poverty-a-plenty, so it wasn’t top of most people’s agendas. Stephen Baxter’s novel Coalescence paints a bleak picture of life in the middle ages and its hardships, showing why the protagonist has ‘no time for love’. The point is, however, that this current fascination with love (pronounced ‘lurve’) may be a passing phase in humanity’s projected history, most brilliantly portrayed in the Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are not allowed to love in our current understanding of the concept, and sleeping with the same person more than once is frowned upon.

Of course, Scifi writers might just be geeks who don’t get much ‘luvvin’, and well, as the saying goes, you ‘write what you know’, the implication being that the converse also holds. Well, I’d have to disagree (I would, right?), and there are some notable ‘proofs’, such as Orson Scott Card who writes great Scifi (Ender’s Game, etc.), and also writes romance [thanks Orson, for shielding our collective reputation!]. Iain Banks is another eminent Scifi author who writes in other genres. I also remember, when producing my fist Scifi book, having professional editors asking me to tone down the ‘love’ angle, as it didn’t fit the genre, and downright remove some of the more exotic sex scenes: simply not done, old chap!

Of course when it comes to aliens, they might not love at all. Geneticists would tell us that love is all about procreation, and in fact is a myth we’ve woven onto a biological need to further the species. This possible truth is easier seen when mapped onto fictional alien species, especially when the method of procreation can be rendered less human (e.g. insectoid species laying eggs). But good Scifi writers don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and for example I always found a strong part of the film Alien to be that the alien in question was fiercely protective of her offspring, which makes sense for any species, and we don’t have to call it ‘love’.

What does annoy me, however, is ‘love colonialism’ [Star Trek is guilty of this over and over] wherein humans convince non-loving aliens that they are really missing out, and that love is some universal truth. It might be, but let’s not get carried away with ourselves; bacteria do pretty well in terms of survival without it.

Aliens in my books don’t normally exhibit strong love tendencies, though they ‘care’ in particular for their own, although in my third book I do have a very advanced species (called the Kalarash) who seem to have some depressingly familiar love issues: e.g. a couple of them have not been talking to each other for half a million years after a tiff. Beneath this seemingly flippant situation is a deeper hypothesis – that love might be a product of civilisation. Very advanced cultures might eschew love and go beyond it (as in Stargate’s idea of ‘ascension’), or else it might be the ultimate goal. 

I have to confess that in my second book (Eden’s Trial), I have a couple of drones (artificial intelligences) fall ‘in love’ (they experience ‘perfect electronic resonance’), though it is brief, and in keeping with Scifi tradition, it doesn’t end well… More seriously I’m exploring the effects of genetically-engineered advancement on the ability to love, in all three books of the Eden trilogy, most strongly portrayed in Eden’s Trial between the characters Kat and Pierre.

Which brings me to the seventh premise, that (regrettably?) there is no scientific basis for love. Love may simply be an inferred (learned) experience that we map onto natural hormonal responses: we feel something (endorphins), and we learn to call it love. Certainly as any of us who experienced teenage love and then fell out of it, it feels like drug withdrawal, doesn’t it? Endorphins are a natural drug we can secrete in our heads (when I was a kid I misheard this word, and thought we had dolphins in our heads, which is not such a bad image).

At a more basic level, a very young baby smiles, and we respond (this is an instinctive response) and learn to love the baby, though we know if we think about it logically that the baby in question has no concept at that age of who or even what we are, or of caring or loving, or pretty much anything beyond being hungry or comfortable or in pain or needing to do certain bodily functions. Is this analysis a bit brutal? Sorry. Follow this logic, though, and you end up with ‘love is just something we make up’; it’s not real. It’s the blue pill (I’m referring of course to the film Matrix, not Viagra).

Alternatively, science and science fiction have to accept the possibility that love is real (phenomenologically speaking, this is ‘true’), but science is too dumb (yet) to be able to measure it. I hinted at this, and the importance of love for an alien species, in my short story The Sylvian Gambit, which is essentially a Scifi love story (a little violent, I’m afraid), wherein the protagonist says near the end: “Love: wrap an equation around that.”

So, where does this all end up? Well, love may be second fiddle in science fiction, but since science fiction is essentially the exploration of human nature in possible futures (or pasts), to have no love interest whatsoever weakens it both as fiction and as an honest exploration of our nature and possible evolutionary pathways. Love can enable us to do terrible things, but also great things, including advancing ourselves individually and collectively. That's something worth writing about!

So, in both the fictional and science fiction sense, love creates possibilities. 

Rock on, humanity!

The Eden Paradox available ebook& paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Amichellis, and Waterstones.

Eden's Trial available in ebook from Amazon, paperback Fall 2012

Eden's Revenge due out Xmas 2012

Free short stories (Scifi & Fiction) online here.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Science Fiction and Medicine

William stared at his hand, curled his fingers, watched supple skin stretch taut over fresh knuckles. It felt so fragile after Q’Roth armoured flesh. His arms, however, still had the appearance of corrugated iron, blue-grey from shoulder to wrist, petering out into tan hands. Good enough. He held his breath as he pulled the sheet off to reveal his new legs. A metallic blue sheen glistened over powerful, hairless musculature, tailing off in sturdy feet with five toes, all of them prehensile.

The above is an excerpt from Eden’s Revenge, by no means the first (or last) science fiction book or film to consider the possibilities with medical advances. While few science fiction books are uniquely focused on health, many have this as a background thread, including how it affects society. So, why the obsession with medicine?

Science fiction explores our hopes and fears, and the possibilities in between. All of us sooner or later experience sickness or injury, and many of us lose loved ones or friends along the way; mortality is part of being human. So the idea that a particular disease could be cured, a prosthetic limb re-grown, or our life expectancy (and youthfulness) extended, is attractive. But usually science fiction imposes a personal or societal cost on such boons – like the proverbial deal with the Devil: you know that somewhere down the line, there’s going to be a cost.

My favourite SciFi medicine-related aliens are the Vidians from Star Trek Voyager, a race with a horrendous disease, whose only means of survival is to steal organs from other races, including humans. I was fascinated by their plight, wonderfully brought out in successive episodes of Voyager, where at first they are depicted as despicable criminals, and only later are their other attributes (e.g. incredible medical prowess) discovered.

In the (brilliant, if violent) SF book Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan) people can cheat death – if they can afford it – by having back-up copies of themselves inserted into new bodies (called 'sleeves'). Morgan explored the downsides of effectively living forever, with what he termed the Methuselah complex, where incredibly old but young-bodied people basically get bored, ever seeking new and more perverse thrills.

In Peter F. Hamilton’s equally compelling (and violent) Mindstar Rising, the hero can ‘gland’ substances at will to affect his capabilities. I borrowed this for my short story ‘Executive Decision’, wherein the heroine secretes various synthetic hormones whilst trying to mitigate the fall-out from an alien weapon (the cost for her is very high in the story).

Most science fiction, however, doesn’t delve too deeply into the medical science itself, just what it can do. Thus, futuristic hospitals are usually displayed in film and TV as swanky affairs, bright white or pastel shades with superb beds and definitely no needles (hypo-sprays being the Star Trek surgical implement of choice). In the book I’m currently writing, I wanted to do something a bit different in terms of ‘hospitals’, and make them more alien. Let’s return to William’s bedside for a moment, after his operation to make him human again…

He lay back on the pillow, inspecting the stars through windows on the domed roof. The vast hangar containing him and other alien patients was so strange that at first he thought his eye surgery had gone awry. Swathes of colour – violet, red, teal, and apple, swirled in the air as far as he could see, never mixing. Each layer was grainy, with fine particles that moved like sand beneath a wave, shifting and flowing, occasionally surging from one spot to another. The ‘air’ around him was teal. It had no taste or texture, and he had no idea of its function. The surgeons – squid-shaped creatures, transparent so that he could see all their organs and watch their two hearts twitch – drifted and surfed in the currents. When they had worked on him it had felt like a feather-touch, even when they had peeled back his armoured ribcage as if it were made of paper. He’d expected terrible pain when the anaesthetic wore off, but there was none at all, not even an itch.
One of the squids had gurgled to him in Largyl 6. “Sure want this? Q’Roth physiology beautiful design – human arrangement flimsy.”
            William told the squid it was necessary for political reasons. The surgeon made a strange gulping motion, then got back to work. Afterwards, the squid whispered that it understood, and had added some refinements to make life in a human body more bearable. William wondered what those might be, but no surgeons had approached him again since the operation, several hours ago.
He guessed the various coloured layers were for different patient species on the hospital ship, run by the Level Ten Ngankfshtra – he could no longer pronounce it properly with a human tongue – and that the swirling sediment had multiple purposes including bio-containment, regeneration, sterilisation, and monitoring of recovery progress and health parameters. Infinitely better than the last time he’d been in hospital, though he did miss having human nurses around.

Star Trek considered numerous medical angles and their attendant moral dilemmas, from episodes in the original series, which had, for example, a race without disease and a chronic over-population problem, so they used Captain Kirk to incubate a fatal disease. In Deep Space Nine the 'Dominion' inflicted an incurable and painful disease on a population as a control and punishment mechanism, and even the legendary Julian Bashir couldn’t cure it, the only solution being euthanasia in its final stages.

Another Scifi ‘trope’ is disease we might inflict on ourselves, due to accidental release of experimental medicinal substances that could kill tens of millions. This possibility is unfortunately closer to fact than science fiction, as some advanced medical labs do study highly virulent flu strains in order to try and create vaccines. This prospect has led to TV series such as BBC’s ‘Survivors’, where less than one per cent of the population survives such an outbreak. In my first book, The Eden Paradox, I assumed this will happen sometime in the next few decades, though I chose a nano-plague (via a release of invasive airborne nannites from a nanotech research lab) rather than a flu virus (and yes, nannites are currently being developed in certain labs around the world). Michael Crichton also explored this possibility in his book Prey, and of course his original smash hit book and film, The Andromeda Strain.

In my second book, Eden’s Trial, I had an alien race entirely bred to serve as the galaxy’s doctors. The Ossyrians have a Hippocratic oath but, given that the galaxy is also something of a jungle with predators wishing to use medicine as bio-weapons, they have to be capable of defending themselves and their technology. The following excerpt from Eden’s Trial shows how they react to such attempted theft while they are trying to purge the local population of a disease. The scene is seen through the eyes of two humans, Kat and Pierre, who are onboard one of a number of Ossyrian ships in orbit around the infected planet.

Kat watched from the viewport of their small pyramid that had detached from the mother ship. The huge silver ball shed pyramids like crystal snowflakes falling from orbit towards the yellow-green planet below. Despite herself, she was impressed by these Ossyrians, and relieved that compassion wasn’t a uniquely human trait. She felt Pierre’s hand touch hers, tentative, unsure. She took it, wrapped her fingers around his, and squeezed. She would lose him, sooner or later. Sooner, she decided. She let go.         

She stepped away from the portal and glanced at their upright dog-like Ossyrian minder Chahat-Me, who was maybe looking at them both, maybe not – it was impossible to tell with the Ossyrian’s quicksilver eyes. Kat sat cross-legged in front of the Hohash mirror. It displayed data on the progress of the medical mission as she’d requested. She’d studied epidemiology at University, and was interested to see how much more advanced this race was at dealing with pandemics.
            The Hohash entertained a number of vistas and displays with fuzzy maroon borders: some were actual pictures relayed from the surface. One showed the Ossyrians in golden encounter suits which she presumed served as protection against the plague, either for themselves or to prevent them from becoming carriers. They streamed out, administering equipment and drugs. Some Ossyrians were on foot, others on amber sleds that skimmed the surface as smoothly as an ice skater on a frozen lake.
Another vista showed Ossyrian pyramids, slowly spinning, traversing the landscape at low level, dispersing a colourless haze over the landscape. However, she was drawn to one particular data screen illustrating circular pictograms of the spread and density of the affected areas: concentric circles radiating out from an obvious epicentre. Three-dimensional graphs, like mountain ranges, showed intensity of the plague as a function of the region, and time since it had started. As she stared at it, she knew something wasn’t right.
It looked perfectly normal, exactly what she’d expect from her knowledge and understanding of epidemiological incursions; a textbook case. She studied it harder. It was a classic example. Too classic. She stood up and grabbed the Ossyrian’s shoulder.
“It’s a trap. It’s so perfect an example of plague radiation, so classic a mixture of randomness and single node origin that it has to be false. Someone has lured you here.”
Chahat-Me’s mercurial eyes danced.
“What’s she saying, Pierre?” Kat couldn’t yet interpret the Ossyrian ‘eye language.’
He moved side to side with her. “I don’t know, it’s too fast, too complex, or both. I think she’s communicating with the others, rather than us.”
Kat supposed he was right – their Ossyrian guardian had that look of being elsewhere, as far as she could tell. Abruptly, as Kat looked on, fascinated by the shapes in its eyes forming and collapsing at almost subliminal speeds, the eyes settled down, then appeared flat. But she wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Chahat-Me held out her two arms, and each one split into two thinner ones, peeling apart as if they had only been lightly stuck together, all the way to the armpits. Kat and Pierre both took a step backwards. One pair of the thinner arms swung back behind Chahat Me to a wall control panel, and blurred into action. The space they occupied went dark, just before their craft rocked heavily.
Kat tumbled into a corner, her head smacking hard against one of the benches. She tried to get up but a sudden burst of acceleration squeezed her into the soft fabric, her internal organs pressing against her back ribs. She realised they must be doing high-G manoeuvres, straining the inertial dampers to their limit. When it stopped she ended up rolling helplessly into the centre towards the other side, only to be stopped by one of Chahat-Me’s feet which stamped down on her chest, pinning her to the floor. The room spun a few times and then a sense of normality returned, leaving only a trace of nausea, reminding her of her space sickness training two years earlier.
The foot released her. She sat up, glaring at Chahat-Me, but she managed to growl a begrudging “Thanks, I think.” Pierre was already standing behind her, and helped her to her feet. “What –?” But she didn’t need to ask, as soon as her gaze reached the portal.  She saw the mother ship shattered into several large chunks, surrounded by myriad smaller fragments. Flames sputtered and winked out as soon as they formed, as the oxygen flashed into space. She glanced at the Hohash, still in view mode, giving ugly close-up shots of Ossyrians tumbling into space, jerking spasmodically for a few seconds before freezing into corpses that would shortly be cremated as they fell through the atmosphere. A number of Ossyrians on the planet lay prone on the ground, their encounter suit helmets smashed open, their muzzles gasping and bodies twitching, clearly unable to make any concerted movement. Nerve gas, she reckoned. The low-level pyramids were crashing, one by one, she presumed due to some kind of EM pulse or similar device disabling their engines or guidance systems, probably both. She watched the mother ship explode into even more fragments.
Only then did the other ships appear – black, spiked spheres reminding her of long-spined sea urchins. They approached the fragments and pricked their hulls. They’re boarding the mother ship, or what’s left of it.
“Why?” Pierre said.
Kat knew it was a pointless question. What he really meant was how could they? She reckoned it was probably technology capture by a lower level race. Then came a shock. The Hohash showed some of those boarding. They were wearing space suits and though she couldn’t see their heads inside the helmets, they definitely looked humanoid. She snuck a glance at Chahat-Me, to find that she was communicating with Pierre. She waited, trying not to look at the carnage.
“Mannekhi raiders,” he said, “Level 5.” He seemed about to speak, but stalled, staring at the Ossyrian. 
 “What?” Kat asked.
Pierre’s brow creased, and he looked from Chahat-Me to Kat, then out the portal. “We’re … we’re cloaked. So…”
Kat walked up to him and gripped him by his elbows. “Pierre, talk to me. What’s going on?”
He turned back to her, then sat down on the bench. “The Ossyrians have a vow to help people, a kind of Hippocratic oath.”
She folded her arms. “So, they’re going to stand by, while these Mannekhi bastards –”
“No. No, that’s just it. They have a higher oath, related to Galactic security. If the Mannekhi get the technology, the database from an Ossyrian mothership, well…” He waved a hand, listlessly.
She glanced through the portal again. Around thirty of the spike-ships festooned the collapsing hull fragments of the Ossyrian’s mighty vessel. “What can they do?’ What can we do? We’re just one tiny ship, maybe the only ones left alive right now.”
Without warning, Chahat-Me seized Kat’s shoulders and spun her around to face her, catching both her wrists and locking them in a vice-like grip. Kat’s eyes went wide. “Pierre!” But she sensed no movement behind her. Damnhe knows what she’s going to do to me! She watched as Chahat-Me’s second pair of aluminium-coloured arms transfigured at the ends into large syringes.
“Pierre! What’s going on?”
He stood up, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Chahat-Me is saving your life.”
With a blur, the first syringe stabbed into the left side of her neck, a fraction of a second before the second one punctured her belly.
“Christ!” she yelled, just as Chahat-Me released her. She took a swing at the dog-faced alien but hit nothing more than air, nearly falling over.
“Kat, don’t,” Pierre said quietly.
She regained her balance, and glared at the dispassionate Ossyrian, then turned to Pierre. “Wanna see if you can move that quickly too?”
He moved right in front of her, chin bared. “Go ahead. I won’t move.”
Her fist ached to connect with someone, or something; she realised how much she’d been holding in this past week. She thought about hitting the wall, but she’d given that up years ago. “Tell me what she just did to me.”
Pierre walked over to the portal. “Come and see.”
Reluctantly she joined him, just in time to catch a flash of emerald lightning. For a moment, as far as she could see, space turned an eerie green, then faded back to black. “Fireworks. So what?”
He nodded towards the vista. She watched. The bustle of activity slowed down. Ships still moved, but nothing changed course. One or two of the spike ships collided, bursting into flame for a second before snuffing out. Her anger subsided. Everything was stilling, silent – she tried to avoid the word which most aptly described the scene, but said it anyway. “Dead?” She tried to imagine how that could be.
He nodded.
“How?” So fast, she thought, so damned efficient.
“An Ossyrian weapon, like an electromagnetic pulse, but tuned only to organic signatures. Operates on what they call the epsilon spectrum: subatomic, penetrates hulls and shields.”
She felt light-headed, nauseous. “Then why aren’t we dead?”
“The weapon targets anything organic without Ossyrian DNA. The ship’s cloak transmits the DNA signature, and, I already have some Ossyrian DNA, and now … well, now you have some too.”
She sensed there was something else he wasn’t telling her, but it would wait. She moved back to see the Hohash, and was aghast. “The population! It’s wiping them out too!”
“I know. You were right about it all being too perfect. Most probable scenario is that the inhabitants, or at the least their government or factions of it, were in on the raid from the start. Probably they were promised advanced technology by the Mannekhi.”
She stared in disbelief. “But that’s all supposition. You don’t know that. Chahat-Me doesn’t know that for sure!”
Pierre faced her. “Kat, thanks to you they had a few seconds to take the appropriate precautions, or at least to set in motion their contingency protocol.”
“A few seconds! A few seconds to decide and execute genocide!” Her fists were ready for use again.
“The Ossyrians are Level Eight, Kat, compared to our Level Three. They think much faster than we do, and have considered all manner of scenarios before, including this one, and the appropriate response.”
“Stop talking like a diplomat, Pierre! It doesn’t give them the right –”
“But it does, Kat, that’s the whole point. That’s how this galaxy works.”
“Like the Q’Roth culling us. That okay with you too, Pierre?”
She saw his confidence falter, a crack in the fa├žade. Too little, too late. But she had nothing more to say. She moved to where she could see neither the Hohash nor the portal, drew her knees up to her chest, and wrapped her arms around them. Pierre kept his distance, but the Ossyrian walked over towards her. It opened its mouth revealing the fibrous layers, like she’d seen once inside a dead whale’s jaws. A shrieking noise like a psychedelic choir emanated. Through the cacophony, Kat made out two distorted words: thank you.
Kat turned her head aside, unable to think of a suitable response.

The last provocative thought I’ll leave you with is that other alien races might consider us as a disease or virus, something to be contained as in Greg Egan’s masterful novel Quarantine, or eradicated (Greg Bear’s Forge of God series).

Let’s hope that idea remains science fiction.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis Ebooks
Eden's Trial is available as an ebook from Amazon, and in paperback Autumn 2012.
Eden's Revenge is due out for Xmas 2012

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Children in Science Fiction

Every since I watched Village of the Damned as a kid (directed by Wolf Rilla, 1960, based on the SF book The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham), I realized that kids could be pretty scary. Then I watched The Tomorrow People which was about kids who were the 'next generation', and they were good, if  bit nerdy, so I relaxed. At the end of the day, whenever kids turned evil in Scifi movies or books, I could relax and then say, well, it's just Scifi.

Then I read Lord of the Flies, by Nobel prize-winner William Golding, and it changed my mind. Not SciFi, it's about kids who get shipwrecked on an island, and it ends up getting pretty ugly.

I read the whole Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, for different reasons. Ender's Game is about a bunch of kids on an orbital platform being trained for a space battle with an alien race. Although Ender is the main character, I actually found the Bean character more interesting and like a kid, albeit well beyond his years. Card obviously understands kids and how they think and interact, and how they can be cruel to each other, including killing each other. In 2013 it will be released as a film, with Harrison Ford starring as one of the adults in charge of them.

Somewhere between Ender and Lord of the Flies, is Greg Bear's novel Anvil of Stars, part of the Forge of God series. Anvil concerns a group of children sent on a mission to destroy an alien race. As usual with Bear, his grasp of the science underlying SciFi is impeccable, but his insight into kids under pressure, and how their neuroses can fester and manifest, makes this novel a great study, taking Lord of the Flies into space. Although a bit long (I nearly gave up on it in the middle part), it has a superb climax and 'bullet-proof ending', rare in SciFi.

What makes kids an interesting Scifi topic is the idea that we so-called adults can't control them, that they can outsmart us. Also is the idea that they haven't yet been 'socialized' or 'civilized', and so don't have the same limits we do.

Typically in Science Fiction there are a group of kids, or one kid, and the question is whether society will tolerate them or not. I wanted to turn that idea around. So, in my current novel (Eden's Revenge) all human children have been genetically 'upgraded' by an alien race, and surpass their parents by the age of twelve. This creates a mountain of social problems. At a time when the entire race is under imminent threat, the kids get the upper hand.

However, unlike Bear or Card or Golding, it's mainly viewed from the adults' point of view, except one kid called Petra. This is because most conflict is felt by the adults, not by the kids (except Petra). The inevitable question in the book is whether the kids will desert their parents and start a new race, leaving their forebears to disappear into obsolescence...

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon as ebook and paperback and also on Barnes & Noble, Omnilit, AmpichellisEbooks, and Waterstones.

Eden's Trial is available on ebook on Amazon and in paperback later this year.

Eden's Revenge will be available first as an ebook by Xmas 2012.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Tourniquet Plotting

If you want to write a page-turner, there has to be tension. This makes it hard to put a book down. The reader needs to know what happens next.

This can be surface-level tension, as in much of the best seller the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, where the reader is pulled along by a succession of events, and at the end of each chapter is a hook that makes you want to see just around the next corner (where there will be another hook, of course). However, some readers may feel manipulated by such writing, and if they analyse the plot afterwards, will realise there were ‘tricks of the trade’ to keep them reading, and the plot was rather convoluted, and, viewed as a synopsis, didn’t hold up that well. The same can be said of TV series like ‘24’, where some people feel that once you have seen one series, you’ve seen them all. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good fun or entertainment (I enjoyed both and borrowed some of Dan Brown’s techniques), and doesn’t mean it won’t sell a million, but at the end of the day, it’s superficial.

Then there’s character-based tension, where a character is put into a set of escalating events, and his or her mettle will be tested to the limit. A straightforward (and perfectly-executed) example of this is Lee Child’s 61 hours, which also uses a time-based ‘countdown’ to raise the reader’s pulse, as Jack Reacher is pitted against a rather nasty villain in a freezing mid-American town. The ongoing question for the reader (well, this one) is not only who will survive, but also whether the hero can kill in cold blood when it comes to it.

There is story-based tension, such as Lovely Bones, which, unusually, starts with the narrator informing the reader how she was murdered by a serial killer. The tension hangs around whether the serial killer will be stopped or not. This is gripping fiction about something that is any sane person’s worst nightmare, so there is a natural tension inside us already, it just needs good writing to bring it out.

Tourniquet Plotting
So, what is tourniquet plotting? A good metaphor for tension is a rope. Is it taut or slack? Rope is a nice metaphor, because the writer can imagine pulling the reader along. But if the writer makes the plot too complex with too many loops and flashbacks, the writer will either tie the reader in knots, or else hang themselves in the process. Also, coming back to surface tension, it can make the reader feel ‘yanked along’ every now again, and they can get annoyed by it.

Okay, so what is a rope made of?

Individual strands.

The way I write is multi-protagonist (see also some better writers than me, like Jack McDevitt, David Brin, Dan Simmons, etc.). It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But it has an advantage in plotting for tension. I introduce characters one by one, and they each have their lives, goals, and conflicts, and there is a mystery to be solved. I go back to characters frequently so the reader doesn’t lose track (e.g. using an alternating chapter format). Each character holds a piece of the puzzle. Only the reader sees the tapestry that is building.

There are no ‘spare characters’. Each one has a specific role. There are no ‘loose ends’ in the rope. Same goes for events. Things happen for a reason, even if that reason is not apparent at the time (a number of people say they like to read my books twice).
I write books in classic three parts (Parts 1, 2 and 3). By the end of Part 1, a number of the strands have already tightened, others have not. For the main protagonists, the tension never eases off for the rest of the book. By the end of the second part, all the strands are under tension, and the reader has the feeling the plot is literally turning, the strands getting closer, forming a braid. By the end, all the main (surviving) characters literally come together in one key place. In this final part, the braid tightens like a tourniquet.

I had a professional reader review my second book (Eden’s Trial) prior to publication, and she remarked that two thirds of the way through, she began to wonder if I could tie up everything, but then in the last quarter she simply couldn’t put it down, because everything came together.

To do this requires careful plotting from the start, and at the least, by the end of Part One of a book, a good vision of the rest, and who will be left standing by the last page. It can also require a lot of editing once the first draft is completed, with careful pruning of strands (even cutting some out) that don’t really add anything, or tightening others related to the central protagonist(s), so the reader knows which strands to pay most attention to.

It also needs good characters to begin with, and a storyline that is not too ‘contrived’. In this vein, I feel that Lord of the Rings, for example, was more successful than Harry Potter, where I found the last few books a little contrived with the ‘Horcruxes’ which just seemed to stretch out the story without much added value. Did anyone really doubt that Harry would survive and win the day? Whereas with Frodo, there was a real chance that he would slip into the netherworld.

There are two main dangers of this ‘tourniquet’ approach. The first is that some readers, particularly those who prefer a single head to view the world through, may get lost or lose interest. This is a danger with multiple point-of-view characters, especially if readers read, say, a chapter a week, because it will be difficult to remember who is who. The solution here is to give the reader a good ‘handle’ for each character, and make sure the reader could pick each one out of a police line-up. The second danger is that if there is not sufficient action, all the reader will see are strands lying limp on the floor, and she/he may get bored. Usually if there is enough action from the start, this helps. As mentioned earlier, some strands should stay taut throughout, until they are almost at breaking point by the end. Usually with books like this, if the reader gets past the first 60 pages, they are locked-in for the rest.

An exception to tying up all strands is with book series, such as trilogies, like my own. In the first two books, there are a few strands left deliberately open. These usually occur near the end of the book (in the second book, in the epilogue), so the reader knows these are essentially links or even ‘teasers’ to entice them to read the next book. This is like a piece of rope stretching into the void. If the reader has enjoyed the ride so far, they will grab that rope.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ampichellisebooks, OmniLit, and Waterstones UK.

Eden’s Trial is available as an ebook on Amazon (currently free with Amazon Prime) and will be out in paperback in the Autumn.

Eden’s Revenge is in progress and will be available as an ebook for Xmas 2012.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Internal Conflict in Science Fiction

British SciFi writer Gary Gibson just did an interesting post on the subject of internal/external conflict (see ). Basically external conflict is fairly easy, especially in science fiction and fantasy, where there can be a malevolent enemy or force to fight against. The epitome of this frame is the superhero (and perfect counterpoint, the super-villain), or the classic Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scenario (the ‘force’ and its ‘dark side’; the ring and Sauron). It’s good fun, and can be solid entertainment. But we know reality isn’t like that, it’s rarely black and white, or the primary colours of a superhero’s cape.

Internal conflict, however, is where we live. In superhero terms, this is most evident in Batman but also Spiderman, both very ‘conflicted’ individuals, so we root for them, because they’re like us. So, in fiction, how does it work?

W.C.Fields famously wrote ‘there are three rules for successful fiction; nobody knows what they are.’ Well, I agree, but here are some rules for writing internal conflict:

  1. It has to be realistic, something the reader can relate to (empathise).
  2. It has to be true to the character’s nature.
  3. It has to be relevant to the plot.
  4. It should tell us something about the character, his or her ‘mettle’.
  5. It has to raise, or at least enrich, the ‘stakes’.
  6. It has to lead (eventually) to action and resolution.
  7. It should be well-written, fit the situation, and not be melodramatic.

All of the above rules can be broken, but you have to be a damned good writer to get away with it.

Realistic internal conflict
Ever loved someone who didn’t love you back? If not, then good for you, but a lot of people empathise with this situation. In the following extract from The Eden Paradox, Micah loves Antonia, who barely recognises his existence. He’s got a lousy track record with women because of his introverted character (rule 2), but suddenly she has to depend on him (rule 3) to try and save her lover. Micah gets angry in the following sequence for reasons earlier in the chapter, and then regrets it, but it firms his resolve to help her (rules 3, 4 & 5), though it will put him in danger. There is a partial resolution of this particular internal conflict near the end of the book (rule 6), but the real resolution doesn’t come until book 2, and again in book 3.

The set-up: Micah has just been interrogated by Vince for a murder he didn’t commit; Antonia is following him on the metro (called the Bubble in 2065), because her lover’s (Katrina’s) ship, the third mission to Eden, has gone missing, and she thinks Micah can help. Micah and his murdered colleague Rudi analyse data returning from the space-craft via a simulated landscape. Micah has recently found a covert 'avatar' (here called a ‘simulacra’) of Katrina in this virtual landscape, who can maybe tell him what is happening on the real ship, ninety light years away.

It had been a long day. Micah was bone tired, and broody as hell. His mind swirled with dark thoughts, like sharks circling, hunting bait-fish. He headed toward one of the high speed bubbles that wormed out of his building, to start the trek home, then slowed; the back of his neck tingled. He turned around, sure someone was following him. But all his eyes met was a flood of flushed, rush hour faces, irritated he had blocked the flow, delaying them a few precious seconds. Unable to pick anyone out from the crowd, he carried on and squeezed into the lozenge-shaped bubble that would flush him and his fellow commuters down to Kaymar Nexus. Just as the doors were closing, someone slipped in behind him.
            It was so packed he couldn’t turn around. Hardly anyone ever spoke on the bubbles. Dismal music played, mercifully drowned out by the whooshing and rattling of the mass transit system kids aptly called the pea-shooter. Several teenage commuters wore I-vids – opaque sunglasses cradling their eye sockets, evanescent light patterns occasionally leaking out – seeking refuge outside of the present.
He felt eyes burning into the back of his head. A synthetic, incomprehensible female voice blurted out the name of the next station. Micah decided he was getting off, no matter what. The noise whined down and they jolted to a stop, the doors opening a little too early so that the person behind him stepped out. Micah twisted to see a bedraggled Antonia standing on the platform, eyes edgy, in amongst passengers trying to board. With an effort he carved through them and disembarked from the bubble, whose doors zipped shut, as it catapulted down the tunnel to its next destination. The bubble’s wake blew her skirt around her legs. He tried not to look.
There she stood, the girl of his dreams, right in front of him on the platform with its ebbing wash of people. Four minutes max before the next one. Patches of his recently-aired anger from his debrief with Vince hung like flotsam around him. It wouldn’t take much to set them off again.
"Why did you follow me?" he said. He still had a faint thread of hope, though his rational mind said he was wasting his time.
Her face flushed, her hands wrestling each other. "I came here to find out something."
            He didn’t want to get angry with her – or did he? He wasn’t sure.  
"You came to ask me about the simulacra in the landscapes," he said.
"How did…? Wait – Vince doesn’t know, does he?" Her voice betrayed more than a hint of concern.
            "Not yet, though he’ll figure it out soon enough."
She looked crestfallen. Micah was feeling fed up, anger at being rejected welled up inside him, heading for the surface. He went on the offensive.
"I saw Katrina’s simulacrum in Rudi’s landscape. Rudi’s world is pretty ravaged. The Katrina simulacrum wasn’t in good shape." He noticed how she became increasingly motionless, holding herself together, barely breathing, not meeting his gaze. He had to be sure. "To be honest," he said, "I don’t think she will survive – "
"Stop! Stop it," she said, not yelling, which made it worse. "You’re hurting me!"
Micah recoiled. The words cut through him, snapping off his breath. The angst deserted him, leaving him suspended like a surfer whose wave had just vanished into thin air. His bravado freefell. What the hell was I thinking! Now is no time to behave like a bastard; like my father.
She bit her lip, eyes swimming in salt water, but held his gaze, not caring.
"Micah, you have to help her. The real Kat, I mean. I keep having these terrible… She and I …" she choked off. He closed towards her cautiously, like a child who had hurt his sibling when playing rough, not meaning to cause real pain. He reached out and touched her arm, gesturing to some uncomfortable-looking fixed seats plastered with seedy holo-graffiti. He hoped they hadn’t been desecrated by the tramps who slept there. They sat down on the gaudy, unyielding plastic.  
She sniffed tears away and stared at the swirling incandescent ads on the opposite wall. "We met at an international dignitaries’ function nine months ago – my uncle is the Slovakian ambassador – I’m not usually into girls, but she was so funny, in a dark sort of way. She stole a kiss from me. It changed my world."
Micah felt hollow. But he said nothing, accepting his retribution for how he’d just acted.
"Ever since, we’ve been seeing each other secretly, up until the launch. We signed a three-year pax agreement before she left orbit." She glanced at him sideways. "You’re okay, aren’t you, I mean with girl-girl… Oh, never mind. Anyway, about a week before we lost contact, the messages she’d been sending me via the simulacra stopped. I knew something was wrong, that someone was tracking it down. I didn’t know if it was you or Rudi. I was going to talk to Mr Kane. When he was murdered, then Rudi, I was desperate. I knew the danger had penetrated the Eden Mission staff. I didn’t know who to trust."
He cleared his throat. "Antonia, I’ll do my best to help you get back in contact with Katrina –"
"Kat, if you don’t mind."
 "Okay, Kat – and I don’t mind at all," he lied, because this was hell. "But I’ll need your help tomorrow finding the simulacra, if it’s not already decompiled."
            "Gladly, I want to do something!" Her face lit up. She pressed her hand on top of his. "I hoped you’d help. It means a lot to me." She retracted her hand. He stared at his own hand, making sure it didn’t follow hers. Commuters began clogging up the platform.
            The first wisps of air ruffled her blouse as a bubble thrashed its way down the tube, its braking screech getting louder. He stood up. "Tomorrow, then."
           She stayed seated as he turned towards the platform’s edge. He struggled not to look back. The bubble arrived, a popping sound as its doors opened. Boarding it, engulfed by the sweaty throng of other passengers, Micah caught a last glimpse of her, head hung down, as the bubble vomited out of the station.
He wondered how his father would have handled it. He’d probably have somehow seduced her away from Katrina – Kat – seeing their Lesbian affair as a challenge. Seduction had been his father’s other forte, so he’d heard. But it wouldn’t be his path. He recalled his mother sobbing alone at night, when he was too young to understand, but not too young to make the connection. Every hero has a dark side, Vince had said.
His stop arrived. As he and the anonymous crowd flooded out of the station into the constant warm breeze of Kaymar cavern, a flower-seller, whom his mom always complained was ridiculously over-priced, called out to him and other passers-by. His father had always brought home red roses for Micah’s mom – afterwards. Micah bought white.

The following extract concerns another protagonist, this time Blake, from the second book Eden’s Trial. In the first part of the book, Blake managed to save mankind, but ended up in a coma. He awakes four months later, rescued by Rashid, only to find that everything has gone to rack and ruin, after a despot (Shakirvasta) has seized power. Always the soldier, the commander sending others to their death or victory, he’s had enough. His wife Glenda is dying of cancer, and he wants to see her, no matter the cost. Even if he knows it’s a bad decision, he’s just been through too much. But Rashid has an ace up his sleeve…

Blake paced the small cavern. His heart thumped loudly in his veins. He’d had enough. He pressed his eyes closed, then thought of his priorities. And there lay the solution, he realised. His priorities, not ‘the people’s’. His heart eased off.  
“So, Glenda is in this new central complex at the heart of the city?” He picked up and checked the pulse rifle: fully charged.
            Rashid frowned. “It is not so simple. The city is effectively under martial law.”
            “She’s my wife, and neither of us is technically a prisoner, right?”
            Rashid sighed, and hung his head. “Your good wife told me to give you a message, if you became…”
            “Difficult?” He rammed the rifle into the one of the skimmer’s gun slots.
            “She said use it only as a last resort, to stop you doing something… foolish.”
            “Rashid, after what I’ve been through – after what we’ve all been through – I can’t just leave her there. Even if Shakirvasta takes me prisoner, I’ll be closer to her.” He parked the second pulse rifle in the remaining gun slot. “Coming?”
            Rashid squatted down. His hand glazed across the sandy floor. “Please, reconsider. At least, let us form a strategy, gather support. Give time for the rumours of your escape to reach the population, and let Shakirvasta’s true nature be exposed by his actions.”
            Blake felt the anger brewing inside him like a thunderstorm. He’d not given up everything just so Shakirvasta and his cronies could turn their new society into a dictatorship, with people working the land as effective forced-labour or as minions in ‘services’. And as for Jennifer – how had he misjudged her so? But he recognised a deeper seat to his anger. His mentor, General Kilaney, had warned him about it. He’d said that given enough time, every career soldier, at least once, will seriously question if the people he’s prepared to fight and die for are worth it. He realised he was boiling inside that particular crucible right now. He’d done his part, freed people from the Alician menace, only to see them hand power to a megalomaniac. How could they be so stupid? The only person he wanted to save now was Glenda. Nothing else, and no one else, mattered.
“Sorry, Rashid, but I’m done with saving other people all the time. I went to Eden knowing my wife had terminal cancer, knowing I might never see her again. Then I ran a suicide mission against Louise, saying goodbye to Glenda again. And now she’s a prisoner. This is personal, Rashid, I’m done being the Commander; I just want to save my wife, you understand that, don’t you?” He knew damn well Rashid understood – Rashid had gone to Eden leaving his wife behind, never to see her again. Blake knew he shouldn’t have said it, but it was out now.
            Rashid found a pebble on the floor, and weighed it in his hand, saying nothing. Blake mounted the skimmer, and grabbed his helmet.
            “Commander, here is the message.” Rashid spoke to the floor. “Glenda said that Zack told her about Robert. That was all she said. I do not know what it –”
Rashid stopped as Blake’s helmet slammed into the wall, then ricocheted off onto the floor several times before sloshing to rest in the pool of water.
            Blake sat on the skimmer, breathing hard, his arms hanging by his sides. His right hand trembled, the one that had pulled the trigger all those years ago. “Zack had no right,” he whispered, his voice almost breaking. He gritted his teeth, remembering his and Zack’s botched rescue attempt to save those captive boys near the end of the War in Kurana Bay. His own son, Robert, had been… transformed by the enemy into a mindless fighting machine… Only he and Zack had known. Robert had been declared missing in action, presumed dead.
            The fight drained out of him. Glenda’s message was as clear as it was brutal. No more botched rescues: use your head. He knew she was right. And the message was double-edged – she might well be angry with him, or not, he couldn’t tell. He could imagine her pounding him with her fists, tears running down her cheeks, screaming ‘How could you?’ Maybe that was what he wanted, or needed.
His breathing slowed. He remembered Pierre once used a French expression about the need to maintain one’s sang froid – cold blood. His right hand stilled.
He dismounted, walked past Rashid, and retrieved his helmet, shaking it a couple of times to rinse out the fetid water. He went over to the field stove and began preparing tea. ‘Names, Rashid. I need names of those you trust with your life, those who are on Shakirvasta’s side, and those who could be turned to our advantage. And I need schematics of the city, as well as the political infrastructure.’
Rashid came to Blake’s side. He stood to attention, and saluted. “Good to have you back, Commander.”

So, internal conflict is usually the key difference between us and super-heroes – they can make the right calls all the time, it’s in their DNA, whereas we can’t, unless with a little help. But perhaps that's what maybe makes us worth saving.

The Eden Paradox is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon, Brnes and Noble, and from Waterstones (UK)
Eden’s Trial is available as ebook from Amazon (currently free with Amazon Prime), and will be in paperback in autumn 2012.
The finale, Eden’s Revenge, will be available in ebook December 2012, paperback Spring 2013.
For a light-hearted exploration of superheroes and their lack of internal conflict, see my free short story ‘Conversation with a Superhero’, on my ‘Stories’ page on my website.
© Barry Kirwan |
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