Saturday, 30 August 2014

Music to write by?

I normally write when there are no distractions, e.g. between 4am and 7am. Music can distract me most of the time, so I lock myself away and turn off the wifi and my phone. But sometimes a piece of music or a song I'm listening to encapsulates a character, a scene, or a mood, so I listen to it several times, and then write.

One of the bands that reminds me of a particular character is The Script, an Irish band that first caught my attention when I was in Dublin airport, so much so that I asked the music store who it was (this was before they became famous). Probably their best known song, via YouTube, is Hall of Fame (with Will I Am), but the song that reminds me most of one of my characters, Micah, if not the entire Eden Paradox series and humanity's struggle to survive in a hostile galaxy, is This is Love. It's not a conventional love song, and to me it captures Micah's spirit; he's an anti-hero, actually a bit of a loser, and gets knocked down a lot, but he always gets back up again, and at the end of the day, he's humanity's best chance.

It's in the eyes of the children
As they leave for the very first time
And it's in the heart of the soldier
As he takes a bullet on the front line
It's in the face of a mother
As she takes the force of a blow
And its in the hands of the father
As he works his fingers to the bone

Another band I listen to a lot is Coldplay, and The Scientist reminded me of another character, Pierre (a scientist), even before I realized what the song was called. There's something sad and tragic about the song, a man trying to love but not knowing how, trapped in his 'numbers and figures', believing in science but knowing it won't help him in what ultimately matters. Another of Coldplay's songs, God put a smile on your face inspires me to write intrigue and page-turners, though I've no idea why.

When I'm writing space (technically it's the sub-genre known as space opera, no less), good inspiration is Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene. For me the best part starts around 8:30 into the album. I can see ships firing on each other, chasing each other through nebulae and around ringed gas giants. It's the kind of music that inspired certain battle scenes in my third book, Eden's Revenge. In fact, since this is an instrumental album, I can listen to it while writing, though at 4 or 5am, that can get a bit anti-social...I narrowly missed his Millennium concert at the pyramids in Giza (I was a few hundred miles south, in Luxor at the time). I guess it's no surprise that one of the races in the Eden Paradox series uses pyramid-shaped space ships...

More recently, when I write space battle scenes, beforehand I sometimes listen to Pink Floyd's Run like hell (live). It's the opening instrumental sequence, in particular; I can see a space battle unfold listening to this, huge ships and small ones, space lit up by particle beam-fire.
I listened a lot to this when writing the final battle scene in Eden's Endgame, the last book in the series, when the fate of the galaxy depends on one final battle's outcome. Of course space is silent, so battles there would be unheard, unless you were on a ship under attack. Still...

Of course musical tastes are very personal. For me as a writer, though, sometimes a song can capture an emotional state, or even a character, perfectly. I fell in love with music at the age of five, it was my first love, and as the song goes (John Miles), it'll probably be my last.

Here's the rest of the lyrics from This is Love.

I'm standing under a white flag oh
Can you see me oh, can you see me oh
I'm standing for everything we have oh
Can you hear me oh, can you hear me
This is why we do it this is worth the pain
This is why we bow down and get back up again
This is where the heart lies, this is from above
Love is this, this is love
Love is why we do it love is worth the pain
Love is why we fall down, get back up again
Love is where the heart lies love is from above
Love is this, this is love
This is love (x3)
It's in the soul of a city
What it does after it crumbles and burns
And it's in the blood of a hero
To know where he goes he may never return yeah
I'm standing under a white flag oh
Can you see me oh, can you see me oooh
I'm standing for everything we have oh
Can you hear me oh, can you hear me
This is why we do it this is worth the pain
This is why we bow down, get back up again
This is where the heart lies this is from above
Love is this, this is love
Love is why we do it love is worth the pain
Love is why we fall down, get back up again
Love is where the heart lies love is from above
Love is this, this is love

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Eden's Endgame - First Review

The fourth and final book of the Eden Paradox, Eden's Endgame, is going through a series of reviews - two editors and five readers - prior to publication. The first reader has just finished. Here's an extract on what he had to say.

Me: So, how was it overall?

Reader: It was good, in fact better than I expected, because after the last one I didn't think you could pull this one off! It was more ambitious than any of the others, but you did it, it worked.

Me: How about the beginning?

Reader: It starts with a kick, jumping back 50 years, to just before the third world war, back on Earth. That was nice, added a bit of depth to the whole series. Then it launches us straight back into the future, plunging us deep into the action with a great battle scene, and we see a new side to the Spiders we've not seen before. And you almost had me rooting for Louise. Almost.

Me: How about Micah?

Reader: He's grown, though he still has some of his original faults, like he's still a bit clueless when it comes to women (laughs).

Me: The other characters?

Reader: You killed off my favourite, in fact, you kill off quite a few characters in the first half of the book. But when you killed xxxx, that hurt. I had to stop for a while. I didn't see how they could go on. Jen summed it up at that point when she said "We're totally screwed, aren't we?"

Me: And later?

Reader: You - well they - turned it around. Particularly the last third of the book. You saved the best till last, which doesn't often happen in scifi.

Me: How was the end for you, the climax?

Reader: Well, I could tell it was coming to a big battle scene. I was worried it would be space ships lined up against each other, like the space equivalent of a big brawl. But it didn't happen that way, and I thought, yes, this is how a real space battle would be fought. Clever what you did with the Kalarash right at the end, I didn't see that coming.

Me: This is the last in the series. Did it feel that way for you?

Reader: You know, seven chapters from the end I wondered how you were going to close it, it seemed impossible. But you did, those last few chapters, everything got resolved. And the Epilogue really nailed it, that was an unexpected bonus. I still wonder what happens with the Spiders, though, what they do next...?

Me: Good question...

In about a week I get the first editor's review, a week later the second editor will give me his feedback. I already know from them there are some things to clean up, but nothing major. Then it goes to two more readers, one of whom, a SF writer, checks out my 'science'. Then it goes to a proofer, then to the publisher.

Two things I'm going to add to Eden's Endgame are a 'Cast of Characters', as it's the fourth book, so it will help people who haven't read the others for a while, and a list of all the different ships used throughout the series, especially since by books 3 & 4 we're seeing what Iain Banks called 'Mindships', that are not only intelligent but also have their own character. In Eden's Endgame the ship Micah flies, called Shiva, definitely has her own mind, which is why she's the centrepiece of the front cover. The front cover is from a scene where Micah attacks the Alician homeworld, Savange.

I'm hoping it will be released by Xmas, though it might require some time travel...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Eden Paradox Characters #3: Pierre

When I was at school, at ten years old I won a prize. Okay, I was a bit of a swot. Anyway, I won a series of books to read. One was about famous scientists. Up until then, I'd been focused on Tarzan, Scott of the Antarctic, etc. Now, for the first time, I was enthralled by scientists from Archimedes to Pasteur to Curie. I wanted to become one. I kind of still do...

No surprise then that one of the main characters in the Eden Paradox series, Pierre, is a scientist. He had little choice, as both his parents were scientists, and his father ran genetic experiments on him to enhance his own intelligence. They worked, but at the cost of social skills, and so he grew up lonely, finding solace in his astrophysics equations.

A fellow writer who has read all three books and is reading the final, fourth volume, Eden's Endgame,  relates most to Pierre. I expect quite a few male readers do. In some senses he's a geek, but not to look at. He's more of a hunk than the guys in Big Bang Theory, for example (sorry dudes), and so in the books Pierre does get to have a love interest.

But Pierre is also the only one who often can grasp the larger picture of what is happening in the galaxy. If higher beings deign to talk to a human, as in for example Eden's Trial and Eden's Revenge, it'll likely be Pierre. And sometimes he sees the flaw in their strategy, and though he's too shy a guy to say it outright to aliens, he reflects on it, and so the reader can see his perspective and share  his insights on the larger picture.

But there's a bigger question that runs through all four books of the series: if we could enhance our intelligence, would we, and would it be a good idea? This question was touched on in my favorite of the four later Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, via the character of Doctor julian Bashir, who we find out quite late on in the series has been genetically altered to make him smarter - a crime in those (future) times.

For Pierre, this is not a general question as it was in Star Trek (especially the Wrath of Khan and its recent remake, Into Darkness), but a personal one. And inside him, he has nannites that can make the changes he wants, so in many ways he continues the experiments his father started, even though they to an extent ruined his life. In the final book, he is faced with the choice of whether or not to go the whole way... Well, more of that another day, I'm not going to give too much away.

One final point about Pierre: he doesn't like to kill. He's a pacifist, because his quest is to understand - he can always empathize with the enemy, even if he knows it's not always a good idea in practice. This is brought to the fore in the final installment, Eden's Endgame, due out before Xmas. In this scene, he and Jen are aboard an advanced alien ship about to do battle, possibly about to die...

Pierre had never killed anyone. That hadn’t been easy, having endured the Third World War on Earth, the fighting against the Q’Roth on Eden and Earth a decade later, and the past eighteen years gallivanting around a war-torn galaxy with Ukrull. The Ranger, being telepathic, knew Pierre’s value structure, and had done the necessary whenever they’d been in a tight spot. But Pierre had kept it a secret from his human colleagues. Until now. Jen was fuming.
            “What do you mean you won’t take Tactical?”
She got out of her immerser chair where she’d been controlling Nav, and walked right up to his face, then shoved him backwards, so that he fell into the seat controlling weapons. Jen was smaller than he was, but right now he’d prefer a Q’Roth warrior in front of him.
“It’s… against my morals, Jen. I’ve never in my life –” 
“Look out the window and tell me what you see.” She pushed his chin so he faced the screen at the end of the compact cockpit set in the front of the Duality, the ship Kalaran had ‘borrowed’ from the Kalarash being known as Darkur.
Pierre stared at the screen, and felt the blood drain from his face. Three hundreds Nchkani warships, black and white ovoids with feather-like blades brimming with weapons. They were circling the supernova concealing the Tla Beth homeworld, in opposing directions, as in old-style cartoons depicting electrons circling an atomic nucleus. Beyond this inner ring of hostiles, were more random swarms of the immense dark worms, their pattern more erratic, reminding him of how a school of hammerhead sharks swam around prey, the very randomness more menacing, offering no way out. 
“I see our doom, Jen.”
“All the more reason to fight!”
“Jen, I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” He levered himself out of the chair and tried to push past her.
Jen slapped him hard across the face, the shock of it more than its force making him sit back in the chair. Red-faced, her lips quivering, she pinned him to the chair with a firm hand on his chest.
Her voice quavered. “You –” She closed her eyes a moment, sucked in a deep breath. “Listen to me, Pierre. Dimitri is gone, Kalaran, too. They died to save us. They didn’t die so we could lie down and offer our throats to the wolves. You can’t operate Nav. You’re more intelligent than me, but you have no experience flying one of these.”
He studied the interface in front of him, its array of symbols and displays. A touch here, there, and lives would be snuffed out. Why was his life more important than theirs? He had no right…
“You still have a daughter. Petra is on Esperia. They’ll go there next.” Jen pushed off from his chest, and turned away from him, fingers grabbing and tugging at her hair. It reminded him…
Pierre’s mind switched back nearly forty years, to when he’d been bullied at school, punched in the face during a lunch break, knocked to the ground. A small group of kids had gathered around. He’d stood up, and been downed again. It repeated four times until the bully announced to the crowd that Pierre was too weird to waste his knuckle skin on.
His parents heard about the incident from the Principal, and then saw Pierre’s swollen, bruised face when they came to collect him. His mother had grabbed her hair just as Jen did now. Her face had been a picture of horror until she’d clasped him to her breast to comfort him. While they drove home, his father told him he’d done the right thing. But his mother, later that night, had a screaming match with Pierre’s father in the kitchen, calling him a coward, urging him to be a man and confront the bully’s father, a known thug. Pierre, still sore from the beating, had gotten out of bed and crept to the top of the stairs to hear his father’s response.
“It won’t help. He’ll start a fight, and like my son, I won’t fight back.” His father spoke quietly, but his mother shouted.
“Why ever not?”
Pierre held his breath, straining to catch the words.
“Violence is born of ignorance, pain, and the need or lust for power. If I fight back, all I do is reinforce those traits.”
 “And if someone tried to kill your son, and you had a gun in your hand, and could fire it? Would you?” His mother’s voice sounded exasperated, and Pierre imagined her shaking her head, incredulous.
But at that exact second, Pierre had leaned forward, causing the stair to creak. Pierre’s father had walked out of the kitchen to the bottom of the stairs, and seen Pierre.
“Go back to bed, son.”
He’d said it with such tenderness, which Pierre was not at all used to from his father, that Pierre obeyed and went straight back to bed, forgetting about the pain. It had only been later that Pierre realised he’d never known his father’s answer to his mother’s question. As he grew up, he decided his father would not have fired the gun. After all, when an assassin had murdered his father at a conference while he stood on the podium, his father had not tried to run into the crowd, instead making sure nobody was behind him, in case the assassin missed. None of the media had reported that.       
He studied Jen, whose back was towards him. Her body had stilled. Perhaps she was seething, perhaps crying; he didn’t know. He thought of Petra, but he barely knew his own daughter. While on the mission to Eden, Zack had once said that the whole purpose of life is not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. Right now, he imagined Dimitri, Kalaran and Petra, and his mother and father, sitting at the top of the stairs, listening intently, with him and Jen arguing in the kitchen. Pierre touched his face where the bully’s punch had knocked him down four times. The emotional scar had healed decades ago. Or had it?
He took a deep breath, and placed a finger on the interface in front of him, making it come to life.

“Take your station, Jen. I’ll do what I can.”

The Eden Paradox Series
Eden's Endgame - late 2014

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Why Apes (and other species) aren't human...

I just watched the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes film, as the first one wasn't so bad, and I enjoyed the original run of films back in the 70's. But I didn't enjoy this one much. Here's why:

Apes aren't human.

The film tries to make them seem human, American even, just hairier and stronger than us. This is a huge flaw for three reasons:
  1. It isn't credible
  2. We don't know who to root for
  3. As scifi it's less interesting.

I grew up watching Star Trek and noting that most aliens looked pretty much like us, and strived to be more like us most of the time. As a kid, it's reassuring to know that even though there may be monsters out there, they can learn to be humane and get along with us, and we'll be at the top of the pile because our values are noble and strong and true.

But like I say, I grew up. Humans kill leach other, trash the planet, etc. Sure, nobility exists, and individually we can try to make a difference, but collectively we have a long way to go. Besides, we're not mono-cultural ourselves. I travel a lot, and Hollywood's version of human values is pretty narrow, once you go to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, China, etc. So, if we can be so different as a species, surely aliens would be far more different, and also they themselves wouldn't be monocultural, would they?

This is one aspect the original 1970s series of films tried to cover, having different simian types have different characteristics: gorillas, chimps, orangutans... The latest version touches on that, but it's too little too late. What would have been nice was to have had someone who knew about apes - who had studied them and observed them for years - advise on how they could evolve - merely having them walk a bit like apes and occasionally scratch their heads is not enough (plenty of humans do both, lol).

You could argue that because they were raised by humans they would copy their behavior and values, but since humans oppressed them in the story, it doesn't seem so likely. Not only that, but the apes ride horses, can shoot guns, try to read and speak like we do. Really?

Who to root for
Who are the bad guys in this movie? One particular human, one particular gorilla. The rest are misguided. Lots get killed on both sides. Probably this is intentional, the moral being that neither species is better than the other, they all have good and bad. But then how is this going to play out in the inevitable sequels? By the end of this film I no longer cared, and recalled that in the original series, one film (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) had the surviving (mutated) humans build the ultimate weapon and destroy the whole planet. In that series of films, you knew who to root for - a few of the humans, and the Chimps. But on a species level the Apes came out top, as the humans had treated them so badly.

Interesting SciFi
If you want to know and understand horses, or dolphins, or apes, it takes years of study. When we finally meet aliens, it will take decades. A lot of people who read and watch SciFi want to be surprised, to have their usual thoughts challenged. When writing aliens, I  try to make part of their culture and behavior unknowable, unfathomable. Occasionally they seem to be acting like humans, but then they will go and do or say something that is, as Iain Banks used to say, out of context. Some writers such as Peter F. Hamilton, David Brin, and Orson Scott Card, do this admirably. Few films manage it, however, though near the end of the film Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, there's a nice scene when the humans finally succeed in reviving one of the alien engineers, whose behavior is, well, unexpected.

I often have the feeling that SciFi films start off well (e.g. Elysium) and then they get dominated by Box Office pressure to make it more mainstream, a blockbuster, and the SciFi get's dumbed down. I never understand why. People are not that dumb, they can handle it, and the SciFi fans will lap it up if the screenwriters and producers will just take a little risk. One of my favourite directors, James Cameron (Terminator; Abyss; Avatar), is receiving a special award in a few weeks at the American Film Festival in Deauville. Maybe I'll go there and try and have a word...

© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot