I was teaching object-oriented programming the other day (don’t worry this isn’t a post about computers… ) when I came to the part where I say that instantiating an object is like Harry Potter casting a spell (computer part over) and I realised by the blank looks given that the wizarding world is no longer a big deal amongst students.

I’ve seen this many times over my teaching career: a cultural reference point passing.

I remember when Monty Python lost their appeal to sixth formers. Back in the 90s, a student danced before me with two plastic fish in his hands, much to the delight of the class. Come the noughties and students learning the Python programming language didn’t care it was named after a flying circus.

Was Monty Python really that good? Part of the problem is that the comedy they introduced has become mainstream. But there’s something else: people usually refer back to things they enjoyed in their childhood and just because you like something doesn’t make it good. Or to put it another way, when people talk about having good taste what they usually mean is that they have tastes in common with their audience.

Does it matter if a TV program or book is objectively good?

If you enjoy it then that’s enough. Why spoil the pleasure by analysing the life out of it?

But if you want to improve as an artist then be prepared to critically evaluate what you find. I’m looking at you, Doctor Who

Doctor My Eyes

The trouble with writing anything set in a consistent universe is the weight of what has gone on before.

I’m experiencing this with my Recursion universe. There are so many things established in previous stories that could be used in the next. Explaining them to new readers becomes a drag on the action. This is why the real world is often easier to write than the SF world: there’s no need to explain what a microwave oven is, the protagonist can just go ahead and use one.

Which is not to excuse the final episode of the thirteenth Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor.

You might have enjoyed it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a pleasure in watching all the ends of series coming together. I really enjoyed seeing the old companions, particularly spotting Ian Chesterton at the end.

But don’t pretend that was a well written episode. It was atrocious.

Not because it was a mosaic made up of fragments stolen from other stories (if I know anything about spaceship repair it’s that you take a pipe out of one socket and plug it into another socket).

It was bad writing because it was a mess. It definitely wasn’t SF. Good SF is taking an idea and extrapolating. Exploring how that idea will touch peoples lives, the big and the small things. Examining that idea from all sides and bringing forth something new, something perhaps quite unexpected but when you look at it you say, yes, that’s right.

What was the idea behind this story?

Well first it had the Doctor, who uses her time machine to help people. It also had the Daleks. The Cybermen came along for the ride, invading a space train to kidnap a powerful child. The Master was there too. He was stealing paintings. And kidnapping seismologists, which he then shrank for some reason. There were two planets fighting each other at one point. I think this was after Moriarty got himself arrested and put in Hannibal Lecter’s prison so he could then escape and trap the Doctor in a Dalek suit so she could be converted into the Master or possibly another Cyberman, just like the head of UNIT.

There was also an exploding volcano with Daleks flying out of it. I think this was in 1916, but it might have been the present day. I do know the stolen paintings turned up in the present day with beards drawn on them, because the Master was Rasputin.

If you’ve not seen the episode you might think I’m making this up. I’m not.

The point is, just one of those ideas should be enough for an exciting story. If the Daleks aren’t enough for a writer then it’s a real failure of their imagination. Don’t excuse what you saw, you’re doing the program a disservice if you do. It can and should be better than this.

Apparently some people used to be upset by the fact that Doctor Who was a woman. I can only assume the writer was one of them. This was Jodie Whittaker being put on a glass cliff and pushed.

This was the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the Rings of Power.

Edit: I’ve just got my daughter to confirm that this was all in the show and I didn’t just dream it. She also pointed out that the all powerful child was actually sentient energy in the form of a laser squid.

The Most Important Subject

Part of my day job is preparing students for Oxbridge applications.
Once they have researched their courses and written their personal statements I arrange practice interviews.

One of the questions I always ask is “Why have you chosen this subject? Why do you want to study English or History or Computer Science?”

The answer is nearly always the same: that theirs is the most important subject, it’s the only one reflected in all the different disciplines, and it’s the only subject that can explain everything. They all believe it to be true, I can see it in their faces.

And the thing is, they’re all sort of correct. This is the subject that they love, this is how they see the world, they look at everything through the lens of Maths or Politics: that’s how they understand the world.

Many adults are the same. They think that their job or their interests touch all of life (I’ve heard both writers and teachers say the same thing, and I suppose I believe it myself.)

It’s the same with stories. Stories inevitably describe the world through one point of view: that of the author.

In the golden age of SF, science was seen as the cause or solution to all problems.

In the 60s and and 70s they wrote about society and the environment.

I’ve written about robots and AIs, I’ve described the world in terms of information.

I think it interesting that in the 40s and 50s Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch enemy was an evil scientist. Later on, he became an evil businessman.

It isn’t an original thought to state that points of view tend to reflect the current times. This isn’t a problem. You can always read a range of books from different authors.

I’m going to end this post on a rare political note: I write this as the pound is crashing. I can’t help thinking our current problems are down to people who see the world solely in terms of money. They really need to read a more diverse range of books.

Guest Post: Browsing the Bookshelves

Steve Croft is a former nurse, former police officer, current grandparent, keeper of dog, cats, chickens and bees. We also collaborate musically.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way our lives brush up against each other from time to time. I wonder how these interactions ripple out beyond the moment, so I was fascinated to read Tony’s thoughts in his blog ‘Reaching for the Same Packet’

As a Police Officer the number of occasions such meetings happen was almost limitless. Doing the job I realised that a living presence has energy beyond the biochemical limitations of our bodies. Searching for a suspect in a house you can sometimes sense a presence before you actually find the person you are seeking. There’s a sort of fizz that dissipates as they realise they won’t get beaten, you realise they won’t fight you and you both become just people whose lives have collided.

Seeing someone emerge from the window of a factory office after responding to an alarm call is different again. Nobody ever shouts ‘stop police!’ because nobody ever does, but invariably the chase is on as they instinctively realise you are there. We run a short distance but I am fitter and faster so we quickly arrive at the moment when neither knows what will happen next.

‘Oh, it’s you Jason’ I say as I recognise him. He slumps, exhausted and becomes just the likeable, addicted, desperate young man I was accustomed to coming across. I reflect on our pasts remembering my own youth, hanging out smoking a sneaky joint on a deserted railway platform. But for a different decision, accepting a new tablet rather than declining, having a go at this drug or that for a dare, maybe I would be where Jason was now.

Responding to a call from someone worried about their friend you can already get a sense that life has left a house recently. There’s a sort of heavy sadness, almost a reluctance of energy to leave. You have time at an incident like this, time to consider what preceded the act that resulted in death and time to take stock of their lives from the evidence around you. Browsing the bookshelves you find yourself thinking ‘we could have been friends’. 

Reaching for the Same Packet

I’ve just finished reading Everything I know about Love by Dolly Alderton (paid link). She’s a funny and perceptive writer, who gives a remarkably honest account of her life. This is not an SF book, in fact it’s the opposite of SF. Part of the pleasure of reading a book like this is the insight into another life…

… although I occasionally thought that her struggles sometimes resembled a journey to the shops through a swamp and an artillery range when there was a perfectly good bus running from the end of the street. She never seemed to take the trouble to read the timetable. But I’m sure we all sometimes go the long way round in our lives to discover truths that are obvious to others.

What really struck me, though, was what we had in common.

We both love Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. I think we’re very different people, but we were both drawn to something in their music. It makes me think of two people on opposite aisles reaching for the same packet on a supermarket shelf.

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics exist in CD booklets and liner notes, they’re on the internet (here’s an example of a writers song if there ever was one) but, great as they are, those lyrics are dead until people read them and breathe their own lives into them.

All writing is the same.

So Much Not Said

I was surprised when my daughter told me she’d never seen 2001: A Space Oddysey, so we watched it together.

This film grows on me each time I see it. I love the length of the scenes and how slowly they develop. I love how little action there is and yet how much spectacle. I love the fact that this is a film for adults.

Most of all I love how much is left for the viewer to observe.

The three bodies in a line.

The second ring being built on the space station seen as the Blue Danube is played. 

And always, the silence in space.

This is a different sort of story telling to fantasies like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Those have deep backstories that are recounted at the appropriate times. Lineages are listed, tales are recounted.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s appropriate to the form. 

The science in 2001 is equally deeply rooted but it’s never recounted, only implied.

It’s often said that good SF writing explores the edges of ideas. This film is a model of the form.  

It’s worth noting that this way of writing isn’t exclusive to SF. The series Mad Men was constructed this way.  The story isn’t presented as one continuous sweep, but rather as series of disconnected events. It’s left to the viewer to fill in the gaps.

This is my favourite sort of writing

Incidentally, I searched for a picture of silence to accompany this post. I chose the old man as it looked different. Why are so many stock photos of young women?

Inspiration Thursday

Looking for story inspiration?

I was walking through the cellar of my school recently when I came across a trolley full of half used containers of hand sanitiser. It occurred to me that this image would have meant something very different three years ago, before Covid 19.

And that got me thinking, what might it have meant three years ago?  Why would someone be throwing away so much hand sanitiser? What would have happened in a school in, say 2012, that meant they had over ordered hand sanitiser?

And that gave me an idea for a story. Maybe the image has inspired you.  Maybe not.

But what if the trolley wasn’t in a school, but a police station? Or a football stadium? Or on board a submarine?  What if the year was 1957, or 2140? What if the containers were empty, or had never been opened?

I have files of half completed stories based on chance encounters like this one. I never know when I’m going to meet the next image or person that will collide with an existing idea and cause it to burst into life.

That’s part of the fun of being a writer.

Eyes Wide Open

I saw this statue of Justice on a recent holiday. She was standing outside the Palácio da Justiça in Porto. 

The guide on our walking tour explained that the statue was unusual in that she wasn’t blindfolded. This was because the Palace of Justice was designed for the Estado Novo, described by Wikipedia as “one of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 20th century”. The statue was a warning to the people, we were told. Justice was watching the people: she knew where they lived.

I was rather impressed by this story, until I did some searching on the internet and realised the statue of Justice on the Old Bailey isn’t blindfolded either. Apparently the idea of a blindfolded Justice was originally a joke, a suggestion that she was blind to society’s injustice. It was only later the blindfold came to represent impartiality.

Another source suggested that the sculptor of the Porto statue wanted the statue to represent the state looking to the future and not being bound by the past.

Thinking about it, I tend to believe this second story. People usually think they’re good guys, even dictators. Those in charge like to think that the people deserve their fate: because they’re lazy or stupid or they simply don’t understand. They don’t like to think it’s their policies and actions that turn people into criminals.

Or perhaps that’s just another story I’ve told myself. 

I’m not sure why the Porto Justice has folded up her scales, though. Perhaps you can think of your own story for that…

The Golden Age of Science Writing

Following on from A Visit to the Zeppelin Museum

There is a charge often levelled at the technically inclined that they can’t write. Reading the documentation on 80s and 90s software can go some way to confirming this, however there are some truly excellent technical writers out there. 

One of my favourite books  is On Lisp by Paul Graham. Admittedly, that’s not a title that’s going to get most people’s pulses racing, but if you want a concise, clear and at times witty exploration of a very specialist subject this is the book to read. You might not understand or be interested in the subject, but the writing itself is excellent.

I often think we’re in the Golden Age of science writing.

Popular science books such as The Code Book by Simon Singh; Schrodinger’s Kittens by John Gribbin and Astronomy by Dinah L. Moché to name but a few, explain complex concepts in an entertaining manner. 

The mistake many people make is to confuse the content with the writing.

SF writers have to communicate complex ideas whilst building characters and keeping the plot moving. I don’t say writing SF is necessarily harder as the ideas being communicated aren’t as complex as they ones by science writers (tip – if the idea is that complicated then the story won’t work)

But if you want to learn how to communicate science as an SF writer then these books are a model of the form.

A final note: submission guidelines for many publications note how they’re swamped with stories featuring ideas that have recently appeared in New Scientist.  Remember, don’t study these books for only for ideas: study them for how to write.

What we want them to be

I was travelling on a tram through Manchester during the recent heatwave. Two young women of about the same age were standing by the doors. I was struck by the contrast in their appearance, one wearing shorts and a crop top with long loose shirt over both, the other wearing a hijab and a loose abaya. They were both looking at their phones as they travelled through the city.

Now this is not one of those stories where someone on the tram shouted at one of the women and then someone else defended their right to dress as they pleased to general applause. If anything, the scene seemed so unremarkable that no one but me appeared to have noticed the juxtaposition: it was a great example of the unassuming diversity of modern Manchester.

No, the scene reminded me that we have a tendency to write stories as we want them to be, not as they are. 

When I start a story I default to thinking of what I want it to be, not what it is. I have characters in mind, I have places I want them to be and confrontations pencilled in for them somewhere down the line.  

The more that I write, the more I’m convinced that this is the wrong way to go about things.  I’ve written many times about the importance of following your characters. Put them in a situation and then see how they react to it. When my stories aren’t working its usually because I’ve forgotten my own advice.

The same is true in real life, of course. How often do we listen to what people are really saying and how often do we just impose our own ideas upon them?