Monday, 28 September 2015

We come as friends

I just watched a film of the same name (We come as friends), made by a Frenchman (Hubert Sauper), that won awards at both Berlin and Sundance film festivals. It's about Sudan, but it's also about colonialism, which is a common theme in science fiction. During the film there is even an excerpt from Star Trek, the original series, where James T Kirk says ' we come as friends', and adds, phaser in hand, 'but we are ready to defend ourselves.'

Probably the most recent science fiction blockbuster dealing with colonialism, and how it can ruin both natural and alien habitats, is Avatar. The film neatly goes to the essence of colonialism, and why it is usually bad for those at the receiving end. Those colonising are there for one of two reasons (often both): to plunder resources, and to 'help' (i.e. improve) indigenous cultures.

At first sight going somewhere to steal resources, usually trashing the environment in the process, seems like the worst part. But the second is more insidious. In Avatar, there is a blindness by the colonisers as to what  the existing culture has, its beauty, its alignment with nature rather than technology, and its strength of community. In Avatar, being a Hollywood production, the local culture triumphs, and we can all cheer as the baddies (us, by the way) get what they deserve, and the hero finds his true love.

Meanwhile, in our own backyard, Hollywood endings are few and far between. Lands are taken away from indigenous peoples time and time again, their cultures are destroyed, replaced by supposedly better ones. And they are given guns. The lands they lived off for countless generations are poisoned so the people have to work in the colonisers' factories or farms. Sound familiar?

So, when we venture out into the stars, are we going to be the good guys, as in Star Trek or Stargate (where peaceful explorers are even more heavily-armed), trying to help others without trying to improve (subjugate) their existing culture? Even in Star Trek, the film Insurrection (one of the best) acknowledges this dark corner of humanity's soul.

I've written a couple of short stories set a few hundred years in the future, where mankind has indeed gone out and colonised the stars. But we are not the good guys. We plunder resources from other worlds, and 'educate or exterminate' other races we encounter. Is this pessimistic? I'm not so sure.

My two favourite quotes from the film 'We come as friends' are as follows, the first by a local African, the second by a Brit who has been out there sometime in a local village:

'They came here and taught us how to need money'

'They're maybe two hundred years behind the rest of the world, we all know that. But maybe they don't want to catch up, maybe they don't want what we have. Did anyone stop to think that?'

Humanity is characterised by a capacity for love, but also blind fear of 'otherness'; racism and bigotry are easily learned or transmitted, leading to wars, tragedies, and ... inhumanities. If we can be so inhuman to each other, what chance are aliens going to have?

In my book, Eden's Trial, humanity is put on trial by vastly superior aliens, and its very right to exist is challenged. Imagine there was a mature, peaceful but strong alien presence out there, and imagine they took a long hard look at our achievements but also our wars and inhumanities. What would you decide in their place?

If there are superior alien races out there, maybe we can learn from them, and grow up fast. The danger for other species might be if we are actually the (technologically) advanced ones. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we come as friends could be the death-knell for civilisations we encounter. I hope I'm wrong, that it won't be that way.

But in the meantime, if one day aliens do come a-knocking to our little backwater planet, it might be safest for them if they take a leaf out of Stargate's book, and come as friends, too, but heavily-armed.

The two (free) stories referred to (Sylvian Gambit, and Executive Decision) can be found here.


Saturday, 19 September 2015

When the children come

I've been quiet for a couple of weeks since the York Writers Festival and the feedback on my diving novel Sixty-Six Metres. While I'm processing that and doing some editing, I've started a new scifi story: When the children come.

Here's the working 'blurb':
Nathan, a womanising loner, hates kids, but when children in his neighbourhood start to disappear, he realises he may be their last hope.

I had the idea back in 2011 but I was kind of busy writing the Eden Paradox series, and I thought it was never going to happen. But over the summer I kept thinking about the story, and to show myself it was a waste of time I started writing it. The writing flowed, seemed clean. Still, I wasn't convinced about it, so I took it to my writing group, assuming they would lambast me for it, ask me what I was thinking. I was wrong. They loved it.

So, it was originally going to be a short story, but I've plotted it and it should be seven chapters in total, so somewhere between a novella and a novelette. I just finished the second chapter. I hope to have it done by Xmas and released by the New Year.

It's a self-contained story, but it is also potentially the first in a series of novella-length episodes called Sphericon. On my website I have some free short stories, and two in particular (Executive Decision and The Sylvian Gambit) come from a future universe where humanity are dominant, but not the good guys anymore. When the children come is the beginning of our journey to becoming Sphericon.

So, we'll see how far this one goes.

You may be wondering why, if children are disappearing, the book is called 'When the children come'? That is a very good question...

Sunday, 6 September 2015

York Writers Festival September 2015

I've just left the annual Festival of Writing (Friday to Sunday 4-6 September, held at York University), heading back to London then Paris, which is a shame as there are blue skies and sunshine here in York, better weather than in Paris for a change. As usual the Festival was packed with useful sessions and the chance to meet a range of agents representing a diversity of publishing genres from Literary to Crime to Scifi to Children's books. Interestingly there were several sessions on self-publishing, which I don't think were available when this popular annual event led by Writers Workshop first started.

It kicked off at 2pm on Friday afternoon with a collection of mini-workshops lasting four hours. I didn't attend these as I decided this year to have all my One-to-Ones on Friday afternoon. These are ten minute meetings with an agent of your choice and genre, where they have already read the first three thousand words / short synopsis / blurb of your novel. They give feedback on the writing and its marketability, and whether they think it is ready. If they really like it, they ask for the full manuscript and, well, who knows, maybe it ends up with a contract with the agent.

This type of feedback is priceless. Having said that, reading is a subjective experience even with agents and editors, so it is best to hear from at least two if not three agents / book doctors / editors (I did two agents and one editor). One of the things authors need is honest and industry-informed feedback, even if it not what they'd hope to hear, and this is where you get it. The feedback I got was tough, but clear, so I pondered it during the weekend and now have a good idea to fix the main issues. It just goes to show that even if you are already published, swapping genres (in my case from scifi to thriller) requires learning a new set of rules.

The first evening always features Friday Night Live, where seven hopefuls are selected to read out 500 words from their novels and are judged on their merits by a small selection of agents, and then the entire crowd gathered judge them via a 'clapometer' - as compere Craig Taylor said, well, it's not precise, but it is what it is. This year however there was a clear winner (who also won the best pitch competition), about how families deal with the return of soldiers from war zones who may be physically intact but psychologically scarred. It was strong stuff, but the other six were also compelling, my personal favourite a stream-of-consciousness piece concerning an air crash (okay, I'm biased - it's my day job).

Saturday and Sunday were then packed with workshops, panel sessions and plenaries on a whole host of writing topics, from 'how to write a sentence' to 'how to get an agent', with specialist sessions on genre science fiction (e.g. crime, scifi, etc.).

Without doubt what makes the Festival so attractive is the number of agents, editors and book doctors who are present and available if an author wishes to pitch to them. But the audience, full of authors, is also what makes the event special - it is a friendly and helpful crowd, and many people have been there before and are progressing with their novels, some of them published since they first attended the Festival. As well as catching up with friends and fellow writers, I talked to a lot of new people and asked them 'what are you writing?' and have already discovered some great future books I'll want to read as soon as they are published. Writers are not a famously outgoing breed, since writing is often a solitary and absorbing process, but it is very easy to engage with new people at this event.

In terms of the lectures my three favourites this year were James Law, who did pretty much a stand-up comedy lecture on advanced dialogue, with some very interesting and fresh ideas on how to sharpen dialogue; Julie Cohen who deconstructed Pixar story-telling and showed how it could be used to structure a novel and make it compelling; and David Gaughran who took the lid off self-publishing in a no-nonsense style, providing lots of free information on how to do it and do it better without getting ripped off.

The venue is tucked away in the countryside campus of York University, very green and studded with lakes and wildfowl, and we had brilliant sunshine on the last day. The food was generally very good, and there was endless coffee tea and biscuits.

So, what did I come away with personally? I'd taken a new novel there, a thriller I've recently finished (or thought so), but all three of my one-to-ones had issues with it, in particular the heist at the beginning that takes place in Penzance and involves robbing a police van. Feedback ranged from 'why Penzance - somewhere a little more international?' to the credibility of the heist and the fact that it wasn't that exciting by its very nature, to the fact that the strength of the novel at the moment is its underwater diving scenes, so why not start with one of those?'

I pondered the feedback for a full day, and then came up with an idea for a new version of the heist. I got quite excited by it and almost skipped the Saturday evening meal and its three competitions (best pitch, best blurb, best opening chapter) so I could work on it. But common sense prevailed and I had a great evening and got to bed at 2am (by no means the last to bed). But after I left the Festival at lunchtime today I immediately started a new version of the first chapter and its 'inciting event'. Now the heist involves using a drone to down a RAF helicopter, causing it to crash in the Thames and has the female protagonist steal the device underwater, all within spitting distance of the MI6 building... Well, it sounds a lot more exciting to me at any rate. So, a good call from my three one-to-ones.

Oh, and I sold a couple of books without really meaning to, honest...

Thanks everyone, and thanks Writers Workshop! See you next year..?


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Where it all started - Episode 12

The twelfth episode from The Eden Paradox series, called Eden Approach. The crew of the Ulysses have finally made it to Eden's system, but a sinister surprise awaits them.

Eden Approach

Kat sprinted at breakneck speed but it was closing fast. She saw the hatch door open. Someone was shouting, egging her on. With a shock she realised it was her elder sister. In an instant she knew that was wrong – her sister had been dead for years – she must be in the dream again. Abruptly, her viewpoint shifted and she saw herself from above, running across Eden’s landscape towards the Lander. Eden was no longer green as she’d seen from the Prometheus vids – instead it was a sickly rust colour. For the first time she saw the creature chasing her. It was hard to make out. It ran in a strange way, in spurts, like it was jumping, or hopping even. It was long, longer than a horse. She tried to count the legs, when it jerked suddenly, left the ground, and flew upwards towards her. Its head had small mandibles, but it also had a human-like face. She recognised it, wild with anger, the face screaming at her. She shrank back as it seized her shoulders and opened its blood-red gaping maw wide.
            "Wake up! Kat, wake up, dammit!" Zack shook her hard.
Kat woke, drenched in sweat. Pierre stood behind Zack, looking at small holo-readouts emanating from her monitor. "She’s not supposed to dream in stasis," he said.
Zack huffed. "Well, she sure as hell was. Seemed like a real shitter, too. You okay, girl?"
She could see and hear them but she felt drugged, as if a transparent pillow was over her head. She didn’t know how to respond, her mouth not yet connected to her brain.
"She’s still pretty groggy," Zack said.
Although she couldn’t feel her tongue, she decided to try to speak anyway. She lifted her head.
            "Kreechhhur; Froo..." she rolled his eyes and flopped her head back down to the cushion.
            Zack squinted at her, while talking to Pierre. "You sure she ain’t brain damaged?" He winked at her.
            "Well, she just made a lot more sense than you did in the first five minutes of your revival phase yesterday." Pierre collapsed the holodata and turned to leave. "Give her a few minutes. I’ll be in the cockpit. The captain wants to give us all a briefing as soon as Kat’s capable."
            Zack grinned at Kat, ran a stubby finger down the right side of her face, and made to go, holding the end of a makeshift walking stick. "See you soon, kid."
Kat managed to find the muscle co-ordination to grip his wrist. She needed to tell him. She tried to speak, but just gurgled.
            "Hey, okay, take it easy. I’ll stay a while. Must’ve been some nightmare, eh? Deep breaths now. Try to move your tongue and jaw – loosen them up."
            Kat tried. Her throat felt baked. She was desperate to tell someone what she’d seen – the creature, the desert. It was already slipping from her mind, like sand falling through floorboards. Finally she found some words.
            "Saw it – big – fasht – aily-in... alien." Kat caught her own reflection in the stasis lid: hair matted with sweat, and the four days of stasis had brought out freckles on her cheeks.
            "Wait – you mean after all these nightmares you finally saw the thing chasing you?"
            "Yessh." Her tongue felt swollen. She coughed. Zack reached somewhere out of her line of sight, and produced a chrome mug of warm liquid, and brought it to her lips. Half of it didn’t stay in her mouth, but it was strawberry sweet, a hint of menthol, and soothed her throat. She gulped it down, then gasped for breath.
            Zack’s features sharpened, as the fuzz lifted from her brain. White noise she hadn’t even noticed phased out. Her shoulders relaxed.
            "Thanks, Zack," she sputtered, coughing.
"S’nothing. Took me fifteen minutes to come round properly." He leaned closer, a heavy hand on her shoulder. She’d never minded before that he was physical with her – he never meant anything by it, and she could tell the difference – but this time... He must have seen a small reaction, because he transferred his hand to the edge of the cot.
"So, tell me. What’d it look like?
            She’d been struggling to remember what it reminded her of most. Her first thought was of an insect – a praying mantis – but that wasn’t quite right. A grasshopper wasn’t right either. It didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen. She imagined how Pierre might describe it – objectively, matter of fact. She closed her eyes, placing her mind in free recall mode.
            "A three metre long insect; can bend in the middle; six legs, trapezoidal head like a hammerhead; black body; six wet-looking slit-eyes, dripping red, no iris or pupil; no wings… muscular, armoured like… like a rhino." She opened her eye-lids wide and stared at Zack. She shuddered. She was relieved she’d been able to remember it, but now the terror of it was more real. It was fixed in her mind, and from now on it would haunt her when awake.
Zack pursed his lips and blew out a long breath. "No wonder you were running, kid." He frowned. "And Eden? Did you see Eden this time?"
            She squeezed his eyes shut again to help remember, then opened them.
            "Yes! But it was reddish-brown, dry. Not green anymore. Withered trees scattered around. It was a desert."
            Zack snorted triumphantly. "Well, there it is then, Eden’s greener than Earth – than Earth used to be, that is. So, just a nightmare, kid. Case closed." He made a mock salute. "I’ll inform the skipper we can land there after all! That’ll teach you to eat too much cheese before going into stasis."
            Kat offered one of her crooked smiles.
            "Now, you get up in a few minutes, and take a shower, because, I’ll let you in on a little secret of my own – after stasis, you stink! Then join us up front, okay?" He turned, grinning, and shuffled off, his metallic cane clunking on the floor.
            She knew he must be right. This past month she’d been having premonitions of Eden – that some terrible alien was there, waiting to kill them all. And the fact that it was in a desert, and her dead sister – what was that all about anyway? And of course the face. She hadn’t told Zack that part, it would have upset him. In the last few seconds before the monster reached him, its face had changed into a human face: Zack’s.
Shaking her head, she attempted to sit up, but her arms were jelly, and she collapsed back down. She tried again, slower this time, and realised how sweaty she was. Definitely time for a shower. She crawled out of the cot. Her legs quivered, weakened from stasis. All that running, she thought, and laughed.
            Setting the shower-head to "Rain", she let the hot water cascade over her head and body. As she relaxed, she remembered a detail she’d forgotten – it hadn’t seemed important at the time. But she’d studied dream psych at college, and you almost never saw yourself from above – except in near-death experiences – not in dreams or even nightmares. And that top-down viewpoint – whose view was it? The creature had attacked it, no longer chasing the Kat figure on the ground. She didn’t know what that meant, but somehow the thought chilled her. She shivered. But she didn’t believe in anything metaphysical. Zack was right. Just a dream, nothing more. Dreams don’t have to make sense, and don’t have to mean anything. She set the water to very hot, adjusted the nozzle to "Needle", and turned around, leaning her head against the misted cubicle door, hoping the pinpricks of steaming water would melt the shivers from her spine.

The cockpit was more cramped than usual: they’d had to adapt Zack’s pilot chair due to his leg being in a cast. Kat’s area, directly behind Zack’s, was now squeezed. She envied Blake’s position, and Pierre’s science station looked positively spacious. Real estate was a prime commodity on a space-ship, she thought to herself, and laughed inwardly – space ship – now there was an oxymoron!
            She watched Zack rig up for decel. He operated a compound joystick and neural interface connected to an oculometer, a small device that fit like glasses, which shone an infrared beam onto his right eye. It allowed him to make rapid course changes if necessary, simply by looking in a direction he wanted to go and uttering a sub-vocal command through his throat-mike.
Kat envied his pilot skills – not many people could use this kit at all, let alone with his precision and response speed. She knew it came from his battle experience: dodging heat-seekers and blister-mines that took out half of all aircraft in the War.
            They were nearing visual sighting of Eden. Zack, his leg propped up on a non-functioning part of the console, had been making minor course adjustments for the past two hours to get them there in the fastest possible time. All the calculations and contingency plans had been prepared and triple-checked manually. She noticed more instrument lights were on than when the virus had first hit; Blake and Pierre had been busy while she’d been in stasis. They’d managed to restore thirty per cent of the software, so they’d have good sensors, and alarms would sound if they were too steep or shallow on orbit intercept. But for the rest, they were in Zack’s hands.
            It was quiet, the only sounds occasional thruster burns, Zack’s wincing noises, and the "beep" that occurred very two minutes confirming they were still on target and lined up for Eden.
            Kat felt a subdued excitement. After all they’d been through, they were finally about to reach Eden, the salvation of humanity. And they had oxygen to breathe, at least enough to get them down to the planet’s surface, where they could replenish supplies for the trip home.
            As astronauts, it was the ultimate dream: to reach a new, habitable planet. The first major step had been that of Neil Armstrong, onto the moon’s surface. Then there had been Yanni Sorensen, the first man to set foot on Mars, and Carlita Fernandes, the first woman to place a foot, or a fin as it had turned out to be, into the icy quagmire of Europa, floating around the awesome spectacle of Jupiter. But none of these worlds had been remotely habitable. They could build stations there, but the resource requirements meant they were unsustainable, and all such stations except a couple of so-called strategic bases on the Moon had long since been abandoned Post-War, due to the sheer cost, with almost nothing in return except abstract scientific data.
            Their mission was different. Everything had fed forward to this point. Over a century of space exploration had been building to this moment. The whole crew sensed it, and despite being cut off from Earth, those back home would be aware that they were nearing Eden. Better still, they were out of harm’s way, the Alicians couldn’t touch them. Despite ghosters and viruses, they were going to make it.
            She studied Blake, his eyes fixed outside the spaceship hunting for Eden, seeking it out in amongst the millions of points of light, a look of resolve welded onto his face. He’s willing us to Eden. They picked the right man for the job.
            Zack interrupted the silence and her train of thought. "Okay, folks, this is it. Time for decel. Buckle up!"
            They all fixed their harnesses including forehead straps. Kat didn’t have to be told to do it properly. The first experiments on deceleration from dark matter drives had been wildly successful and simultaneously catastrophic for the crew, who had ended up splattered all over the cockpit, their internal organs shredded by the decelerative forces before they had escaped the body’s fickle confines. The harnesses in fact were a minor part of their survival kit. Most of the work was done by the Schultz-Piccione inertial dampening system inside the ship. She was relieved when its tell-tale thrum kicked in. Her body started to tingle, then vibrate, as its pitch rose. Pierre had told them once, over dinner, that if the sound rose to roughly high C, it meant that it was failing, and they were about to explode, but that they would probably lose consciousness. Pierre wasn’t one to take along to dinner parties, she’d decided a long time ago.
            Kat shook so much she finally realized how a cocktail must feel: she felt her abdominal organs moving around, though she couldn’t tell which. Speech, and even yelling were impossible. It was advisable to keep her mouth clamped shut – the nearest dentist was a long way away. But soon enough it began to die down. Her relief was blanketed by nausea. She hit the harness release buckle, eager to see out of the cockpit, and stood up, leaning on Zack’s burly shoulders, staring forwards.
            "Welcome to Eden," Blake said, as they all gaped at the main viewscreen. It was still some way off, a medium-sized disk, a silhouette in front of its own sun, some hundred and forty million kilometers away on the other side. They were still travelling relatively fast, but decelerating at a speed that could now be handled by the inertial field. She felt a thrill run through her, even though they couldn’t see much yet.
It had been so long just seeing stars, dots of white light, that she’d forgotten what it was like to see a whole planet again. The last one they had seen had been Saturn, before the slingshot out of the Solar System. She felt a lump in her throat, and apparently Pierre also was moved, because he placed a hand briefly on her shoulder – at least she hoped that was the reason.
            Zack chimed in. "She sure is a sight for sore eyes! Hang on to something, this’ll be worth it!" He moved the joystick forward, and the ship gave a spurt of acceleration – catching Kat off-balance, so that Pierre caught her. The ship veered outward in an arc, placing the sun initially behind Eden, creating an eclipse, and then showing the sun burst out from behind, forcing them all to shade their eyes until the screen polarized. Kat regained her balance.
For the first time they could see colour on Eden. The lush forest green and Mediterranean blue, after so much black, silver and white made Kat gasp. The continents were very different to Earth’s, and two small polar caps blazed like icing on a spherical cake.
            "My God, it really is Eden!" She wanted to whoop.
Blake nodded to Zack. "Well, my friend, you’ve got us this far, take us into orbit. Kat, Pierre, take your stations."
            She felt a cautious happiness, like a small animal daring to come out of its hole into the sunshine. So much of her personal life had gone badly wrong.
Pierre jarred the mood. "That’s unusual."
She turned back round to catch what the other three were now staring at. At first she didn’t see it. But as they headed further to the sunward side of Eden, it was unmistakable. A circular orange-brown patch decorated one of Eden’s continents.
            "Looks like a desert," Pierre said, "but it wasn’t there when the Prometheus came two years ago." 
            Kat glanced at Zack’s face reflected in the screen, but he didn’t return the look. She gazed again towards Eden. It was a desert alright. No question.
Blake broke the silence. "Okay, we’ll figure it out later. First things first. We get into orbit and then prepare for descent. Stations, please."
            They all sat down and busied themselves. It proved trickier than they had thought, but they achieved a stable orbit on the first attempt. Kat glued her eyes to the console, not wanting to face Eden right now, nor Zack. She wondered if she should tell the Captain or Pierre. But it would seem ridiculous, and wouldn’t help anything. For the first time in a while, she thought of her faraway lover back in Eden Mission Control.
            A red light on her console flashed, her earpiece automatically activating. Pierre swung out of his chair and leant over her shoulder – he had obviously picked it up on the science console, too. Blake turned around. Zack was using the neural interface and oculometer, so couldn’t even deviate his eyes to see what was going on.
            "Report," Blake said.
            Kat’s stomach turned to ice when she heard the com-message.
Pierre waited for her to answer, but when she didn’t, he offered what he knew. "It’s a com signal, Sir."
She turned her right palm towards her and stared at it, in case she was in the nightmare again.
            "From Earth?" Blake asked.
            Her breath sounded raspish in her ears. She listened again, praying she’d misheard. She regained control. "It’s… from Eden."
The ship veered slightly, then recovered. Blake stood up, faced Kat, and placed a steadying hand on Zack’s shoulder, leaving it there.
            "What does it say?" His voice was quiet.
            Kat removed the earpiece and handed it to Pierre.
            Pierre cleared his throat. "It says, Captain, that is, it keeps repeating…" he looked out toward the planet below, which was now occupying most of the screen, then back at the Captain. Blake didn’t say anything, just waited for him to compose himself. None of them had ever known Pierre hesitate before. He cleared his throat again.
"It says, 'Do not land here. Eden is not safe. Eden is a trap.’ Then it repeats."
            Everyone held their breath. Kat gazed up at Blake. His face locked itself down, serious. "Where is it coming from exactly, on the planet’s surface?"
Pierre returned to his station and ran a triangulation algorithm to fix it. Kat slumped in her chair. Pierre was getting an answer from his console. But Kat already knew, and spoke, her voice uneven. "It’s from the desert, isn’t it?"
            Pierre gave her a sideways look. "How did you know?"

            She didn’t answer, just stared at her console, wanting to punch it. She remembered her dream, the running, running to save her life, running to save everything. It was all going to come true, somewhere down on the planet’s surface. And when it did, she knew this time she wasn’t going to wake up.

That's the last free episode I'm afraid, otherwise I'll get into trouble with my publisher... Hope you enjoyed it!
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