Elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I’ve been watching Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) starring David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, and I’m troubled by the opening narration.  It’s a perfect example of a common problem with fantasy and science fiction.

The deep voice at the start says this:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

The problem, obviously, is that use of the word ‘element’ – they’re just not.  It ought to be:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Carbon with Iron Sulphide, Carbon, Radium, Aluminium Oxide, Silver and Iron with Carbon. Aluminium Oxide and Iron with Carbon have been assigned.

(In some of the episodes, Lead and Silver have also been assigned and they aren’t mentioned as such.)

In Ancient times, it would go like this:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements don’t exist. All other elements are available: Fire, Earth, Air and Water.  Fire and Water have been assigned.

And, if you think about it, it’s ‘forces’, so surely, “…Strong, Electromagnetic, Weak and Gravity.  Strong and Weak have been assigned.”

All very silly, I know, but there’s an important point here.  Mixing science with fantasy always destroys the suspension of disbelief.  To give another example.

The Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

Which is fine.  Even the use of the word ‘energy’ works, because it’s the non-scientific definition.  However, in the Star Wars prequels, the Force was suddenly generated by midi-chlorians, tiny living entities inside all the cells of the body.  This brought the concept under scientific scrutiny and it immediately failed.  Biology doesn’t work like that, so the suspension of disbelief – whoosh!  There it went.

The solution for Star Wars would simply be to remove those lines and pretend they never happened.  Mysticism in a space fantasy isn’t a problem, it follows its own rules and that’s part of its universe.  Pure Science Fiction occupies this universe and so its rules are those rules.  As you move towards Science Fantasy with FTL, teleportation and so on, you generate new rules and you must follow those.  Fantasy has magic and ‘can do anything’, except it has to follow the rules of its magic.

Science fiction must obey the scientific laws, and fantasy must obey its own lore.

So, finally, to fix Sapphire and Steel, it must be dragged away from the clutches of science.

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transcendental agents may not be used where there is life. Corporeal agents are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel (and maybe Lead and Silver) have been assigned.

Job done.

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Blade Runner: November, 2019

A selfie in time.

It’s the month and year Blade Runner is set.  The future is the present.  So, it seemed appropriate to re-watch this genre classic and I picked The Final Cut from the profusion of versions.  I did realise that I’ve watched this film possibly too often.  I know it.  I can even quote the dreadful voice over from the other version at the right moment and various lines from Tartan: Restrung (my skit of Blade Runner and The Matrix) kept popping into my head.

Bryant: These three wooden tops are still on the loose. I want you to gafiate them.

Deckard: Look Bryant, I was secretly quit when I walked in here, now I’m quadruply quit.

The first thing to mention is the clunky technology.  Really, in 2019, having to squint at the remote to find the play button.  DVDs are so old-fashioned.  The tech in Blade Runner is just as awkward, big computer screens full of chunky text.  There’s a video phone, but it’s a big thing attached to a wall and not a slim device permanently glued to the user’s hand.  And we don’t have flying cars yet.

But criticising a film based on its out-of-date kit, isn’t fair.  If all the passers-by in the street scenes had been staring down at a rectangle of light, then the 1982 audience wouldn’t have understood what was going on.  Although, oddly, the sequel has saved the original by making it a parallel universe.  It’s interesting that Blade Runner was set forward in time, whereas Blade Runner: 2049 is set a step sideways from now.

The voice-over wasn’t needed.  Indeed, if there’s ever a Blade Runner: David’s Cut, I’ll chop the scrolling infodump at the start and that irritating line from Gaff put over the ending.

The themes, what it means to be human, are still there.  Deckard is, and has to be, a replicant, of course.  Only Harrison Ford disagrees now.  How to make an actor play a replicant who thinks he’s human?  Tell him he’s playing a human, of course.

I did like the lack of CGI.  It seemed grounded in comparison to the recent filmic trend to show everything and anything, even if it’s not possible.  Ridley Scott did change film-making by showing a run down, aged future, so we were seeing a down-to-Earth future rather than a comic-book over-choreographed puff piece.  Deckard is injured and stays injured, things hurt, they are awkward and imperfect, i.e. it’s real.

Does it hold up?  Yes.  It deserves its status as a classic.  I hope, like Orwell’s 1984, that it will continue to influence now that it’s slipping through the present towards the past.

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Bah Humbug! – The Inspiration of the Other Christmas Carol

CarolIt’s been a cold June.  It reminds me of when I was going slowly insane.

I used to do technical stage management and had a gig running the Christmas Show at the Tamworth Snowdome.  I’d collect the cast in the dark and drive them through the dark, cold snow-covered early morning to arrive at the wonderfully warmed reception, then we’d go into the refrigerated snowdome itself.  After tramping through the snow-covered inside, we came to our ‘green room’, which was thankfully heated.  And then, like another Russian doll, inside that was a fridge to keep our milk cold.  The heat being pumped back and forth was an environmental nightmare.

We did 475 shows over 27 days.  Hearing ‘Frostie the Snowman’ made me twitch.  Father Christmas was wonderful, but incredibly blue in his anecdotes off-stage.  Goodness knows what would have happened if I’d ever forgotten to bring down his mic.  I spent the time huddled around a heater (in the snowdome) trying to keep warm and watching it all on a small TV set ready to raise the lights, hit the music cue (not ‘Frostie’ again!) or rush out to head off some disaster or other.  But mostly it was just sitting there being cold.

I had to do something to keep sane, so I took in my laptop in to write.  But I couldn’t.  I needed to be ready for the lighting and sound cues, and it was just too cold to type.

Instead, I spent ages staring at a single screen gradually working out an anti-Christmas story, slowly changing the bullet points during the none button pressing sections of the show.

When it was all over, I thought I’d see if I could type up the story within the twelve days of Christmas.  It turned out that this was no challenge at all.  I didn’t need the whole dozen, the words just poured out of me.

And it’s not that anti-Christmas either.  More a dig at the commercialism.

This was the screenplay.  Much later, I rewrote it as a novella.  And later still, Tracey Norman of Circle of Spears narrated it to make the quite wonderful audiobook.  Go and have a listen, because it’s a story that’s not just for Christmas, but also for this cold, cold June.Facebook

Star Trek versus I, Phone

81l4iversus I Phone (Front Cover Rounded Cracked)

I’m still working on decorating a room up to be my new study.

This involved making a Star Trek pocket door, as you do, and I needed to find the stud behind the wall.  My usual technique is to buy a brand-new detector, wave it about near the wall to obtain inconclusive results and become confused.  Finally, I looked it up on the internet and discovered that there’s an app for this.

Seriously?  My phone has a built-in metal detector!  I had no idea.

And, while trying to download it, I found out that I already had this as part of Smart Tools.

So, I waved my phone like a tricorder near the wall, obtained pretty good results.  It worked better than the purpose-built gadget.

That’s extraordinary.

Which makes me wonder what else it can do?  Etheric beam location?

When I was writing I, Phone, I never in a million years thought that in the future a phone would have a metal detecting function.  Thankfully, the plot of I, Phone didn’t require metal detection, so I can still say it was in the specifications of my future artificially intelligent phones.  That’s good because the book is still holding out as a predictive SF work.

Star Trek had three gadgets used by a landing party: a communicator, a tricorder and a phaser.

Already we have a communicator and a tricorder, and they’re the same thing – the mobile phone.  True, the functionality is different, the communicating part requires phone masts everywhere and there are loads of things that a phone can’t scan (life forms, etheric beams and unknown energy sources) that a tricorder can.  However, it’s also true that on Star Trek, a communicator can’t text or Skype and you can’t play Angry Birds on a Tricorder, not even on Next Generation, so swings and roundabouts.

So, we just need to up the infra-red level on the remote control function to get a phaser.

Who knew what was in our pockets and – swish – a door opens on a whole new future.Facebook

Migrating from Createspace to KDP

I suspect most indie authors have a soft spot for Createspace.  It’s the first outlet most people used to generate a paperback book.  Ebooks feel virtual and imaginary, a book is a solid thing and Createspace gave us that.

The advice was always Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for ebooks, but Createspace for paperbacks.  Each offered the other, but they weren’t very good at it.

Createspace only two issues.  One was putting your book into ‘file review’, which took 24 hours, and you always realised that there was something to change as soon as you clicked the button.  However, you couldn’t cancel the file review, so you just had to wait.  The second, and fairly unforgivable, was that proofs and author copies had to be printed in the States and shipped over the Atlantic.  (Actually, it was even worse than that, flown into Heathrow, then taken to Dusseldorf for sorting, then flown back to Heathrow to be put in a van.)  The Print-On-Demand for readers was printed locally, so why not the author copies?

Unfortunately, Createspace has been taken over by KDP.  Amazon owned both and it does make business sense.  I think Amazon might have bought Createspace to deal with the competition.   So, we all had our books shifted across.  The transfer of files went smoothly for me, but I know of a publisher who lost over a hundred titles somewhere in the ether.

It’s a shame they didn’t take the best of Createspace across as well.

Createspace had a wonderful ‘Interior Viewer’ with a shaded gutter, so you knew if your text was too close to the middle, and an animation of your book rotating, so you could check the cover, see the spine and realise that it would be a wondrous object.  None of that in KDP’s ‘Previewer’.

However, KDP was, and is, for ebooks, it’s 80% of the market, so it’s an interface you already know.  Why remember two systems?  Paperbacks are the same as ebooks in the sense that it’s just uploading files and choosing options.  Although with KDP there’s a lot of scrolling down the screen to find the buttons, text boxes and squares to tick.  KDP also doesn’t allow you to delete books that have been assigned an ISBN (which you have to do), even if it’s never been published, which means all your experiments clog up your ‘bookshelf’.

Createspace used to take a few moments to prepare your files for viewing, KDP is slow, really slow – I mean really, really slow.  The display suggests you go and make a coffee while waiting.  Later, it suggests you make a sandwich.  It’s that slow.

KDP Or make a sandwich

As I scoff my peanut butter on rye, I realise that I miss Createspace, and I miss its forum, when it used to be good.

Still, KDP do print your proofs and author copies on the continent you live in, though, so at least we’re not burning fossil fuels to fly dead trees half-way across the warming planet.Facebook

Genre Part 2 – Pandering to the fans

Part one of this defined genre as follows.

A set of conventions that shapes the telling of a story and, in so doing, produces a film that meets an audience’s expectations in a satisfying way.

But does that mean you should pander to the fans?

Star Trek and Star Wars have both been in trouble recently.

Simon Pegg, when writing the last film, Star Trek Beyond, reportedly quit a few times because executives kept asking him to remove all the Star Trek stuff.  Fans have been up in arms about Star Trek: Discovery, because of all the changes to Klingons and so on.  (My opinion of Discovery is that it’s good, but it isn’t Star Trek and STOP PRESS – Klingons have their hair back in the second series.)

During and after the filming of Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Mark Hamill kept saying to Rian Johnson “But what about the fans?” as the director went about killing the past, making a clean break (even from The Force Awakens) and doing his own thing.

This has been going on for quite a while.  To jump back in time from 2,000AD to 1995, there was Judge Dredd, the first film.  Sylvester Stallone was reported to be happy to keep his helmet on, but the director said something like “…the fans need to grow up”.

All of these were criticised for this.

Star Trek and Star Wars (and Judge Dredd and Uncle Tom Cobbley…) are sub-genres in their own right.  Gene Roddenberry wanted a show a future were diverse people got on with each other, the sort of world we’d want to live in.  Star Wars “…surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” and isn’t about midi-chlorian twaddle.  (George Lucas was not true to the expectations he himself had set up.)

So, does this mean pandering to the fans?

No.

You do need to move things forward otherwise they stagnate.

But it’s still not that.

Fans are up in arms because of the deeper misunderstanding.  Their reaction is a symptom and not the cause.  It’s the expectations again.  They should not be taken out, killed, broken, or grown out of.  They are the very elements that create the sub-genre.

To put it another way, whatever you are writing, whether it’s in an existing sub-genre or something entirely new, you must be true to the material.Facebook

Genre Part 1 – A Genre Defining Moment

I had this epiphany recently.

I gave a talk at ArmadaCon on ‘Genre’ and I was thinking about the Powerpoint slides on the drive down to Plymouth (great convention by the way) when this lightbulb pinged on.

As chance would have it, a friend and fellow author, Andy Conway, had just given a genre lesson as part of a script writing course, so I nicked some of his slides. You could easily them apart: his had an orange background and mine had unnecessary animation.

Genre

One of his defined genre.

A set of conventions that shapes the telling of a story and, in so doing, produces a film that meets an audience’s expectations in a satisfying way.

Mark Kermode in his recent, and excellent, BBC4 The Secrets of Cinema series covered exactly this. Romcoms, Coming of Age and Heist movies were all defined by their structure, their conventions and our expectations. Romcoms are a sub-genre of Romance, but with jokes. Romances are all ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again’ and anything missing from that leaves us disappointed. (There are variations, of course. As Mark Kermode pointed out, these range from Splash (boy meets fish, boy loses fish, boy gets fish back again) to The Shape of Water (girl meets fish, girl loses fish, girl gets fish back again).

Some genres that have the same expectations, the same structure, and so they translate easily. Consider all those Samurai movies that have been turned into westerns: Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, etc. A lone Samurai or Ronin or gunslinger walks or rides into town, kills the baddies and walks or rides on. It interesting to note that High Noon was remade as Outland, starring Sean Connery, and despite all the futuristic trappings, it is so obviously still very much a western.

But what about Science Fiction?

The Secrets of Cinema had an episode on ‘Science Fiction’ and it was merely an unsatisfying list of types of SF film. Some SF has spaceships, some robots, some both, some encountered aliens, some none of that… it’s like defining, say, Literary Fiction as fiction that has cars and houses, or sometimes doesn’t.

So, Science Fiction is not a genre, but rather a category. Somewhere were you collect spaceships, robots, aliens and so on. Or none of those, but other stuff.

Unless, when thinking about Science Fiction’s expectations, it is to expect the unexpected.Facebook

Colonoscopy

I’ve been having a problem with my colons.  Yes, plural.

You see, I like this: “I say.”

But my recent editor (who I shall keep nameless to avoid Andy getting embarrassed) objects to them.  Colons.  Really objects.  So much so that he removed them all and went for full stops and commas.

This is the more traditional way of punctuating dialogue.

Let me show you, I could say, “This is a second example.”

It’s that awkward comma followed by a capital.  The sentence starts with ‘Let’, but then there’s a second full sentence starting with ‘This’.

I could say.  “This and use a full stop.”

But the speech tag ends and isn’t connected to the dialogue.  In theatre, you just give the character’s name and then what they say.

David: Like this.

But that doesn’t signify the actual words spoken aloud.  Whereas:

Earnestine: “One could say this.”

Works fine, I think.  (Yes, double quotes rather than single, but then that’s another debate.)

It’s a reaction against ‘said bookism’.  This strange expression derives from when door-to-door salesman used to go around America selling books of alternative words for ‘said’.  With this volume, you could then articulate with greater eloquence and therefore sound educated.  It’s nonsense, because people don’t actually read the word ‘said’, it’s a form of punctuation.  Indeed, alternatives culled from the thesaurus stick out and break the flow.  They should be used sparingly if there’s a really good reason, say, if the character SHOUTS or whispers.

So, why not go the whole hog and use punctuation: “Like this.”

Having had a go at Americans, their method of punctuation when the speech tag follows makes more sense.

“This is how we do it,” said the Limey, “and there’s no argument.”

“Uh-uh, put the comma after the quotes”, said the Yank, “and not before.”

You see, the phrase spoken in both those examples doesn’t have a comma in the middle.  If you remove the speech tag, you also need to exorcise the comma.  Whereas, across the pond, the commas bracket the sub-clause of the speech tag.  It makes more sense.

However, I went to a posh school, so there’s no way I can do that.

So, colons then, I say: “What you do you think?”

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Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

No, it isn’t.

Like a lot of these clever phrases, it sounds good, but the truth is not stranger than fiction.

Take any true story, rewrite it as fiction and it’ll have equal strangeness, obviously, then add a dragon. (Or, if it’s a true story about discovering a real dragon, add zombies.) That has to be stranger. Even with reality’s recent importing of fiction in the form of fake news to up its quota, fiction wins.

What we’re talking about here is believability. Truth is always a trump card. (The irony of that sentence given what this blog is about.)

The first novel I published, I, Phone, was set about five years in the future. A deadline that’s now some time in the past. It’s stood up remarkably well. Google Glass has come and gone, AR and VR look poised to make their breakthrough, phones won’t be more intelligent than us for a couple of decades yet, etc. And it’s still all believable.

My latest, Crossing the Bridge, is set sort of now, but suffered from going out of date before I’d finished a draft. It’s a political novel and politics over the last year has been insane. Seriously, we have a scenario that the Russians fought a cyberwar to get a reality star into the Oval Office to destabilise the West from within and return everything to the glory days when Putin was a proper KGB spy. That’s a viable possibility.

It makes you ask, who is James Bond?

The plot isn’t Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby as their tenures were a return to basics. So, it’s a silly Roger Moore, a later Pierce Brosnan or a Connery a couple of films beyond Diamonds Are Forever. Except that somehow Putin putting Trump in power is parody, so it’s Austin Powers. (My title would be Squidfanny.)

Someone might say, “You couldn’t write it” – another clever phrase: but yes, of course you could write it. And it would be strange. And with a dragon (or zombies) it would be stranger than reality.

But would anyone believe it?Facebook

The Other Voices

Two pieces of advice.

One) A writer should write what they want to read. I mean, if you don’t want to read it, why should anyone else?

Two) A writer must develop their own ‘voice’ – whatever that means. It’s not something you can teach. How can I tell you what your voice will be when it hasn’t developed yet? It’s something someone else points out to you when you’ve written enough for it to magically appear.

Recently, my first published book, The Other Christmas Carol, became an audio book.

Carol

In addition to stage productions, a theatre company, Circle of Spears, create audio books. They wanted to do my Christmas story, The Other Christmas Carol, so it was up to me to pop over to their website, listen to their sound clips (one of which included a piece from another novel of mine) and audition.

I picked Tracey Norman, rightly thinking that her voice most matched that of the protagonist Carol. She’s done an absolutely brilliant job.

However, her voice is not that of the voices in my head (the characters I mean) and isn’t ‘my voice’. Does that make any difference? Well, yes, but only that it’s ‘different’.

I proofread it. (I use the word read, because I know from my days doing The Drabble Project to raise money for ‘Books for the Blind’ that blind people use that word for when they listen to a book.) It’s been a long time since I read it from the page or screen, and so I’d forgotten a lot of it.

I recently came across research that people enjoy a story more if the ending’s been given away. Knowing the destination means they can savour the scenery.  Apparently. Personally, I have a horror of spoilers, finding them out and giving them away. Surprise is a vital weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

So, I was walking around the block listening to my words, having some surprises, but with it coming back to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was moved, genuinely moved, happy, thrilled and upset in all the right places, feeling all those emotions I’d cunningly panned to manipulate all that time ago. You can be too: https://www.circleofspears.com/

And obviously, being English, I now feel deeply embarrassed.Facebook