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’. 

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?

A Visit to The Zeppelin Museum

(This article was first posted in 2011 – I’ve reposted it following something I heard this week on the radio…)

Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany.  The museum was small but well laid out.  I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums.  Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:

Why is there an art exhibition?

Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me?  Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion.  No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.

Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand.  This annoys me for two reasons.  Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link:  the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works?  Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?

I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art.  Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two.  Is this supposed to be news?  I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.

Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?

Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers

As it says on Wikipedia: Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers is a documentary television programme series exploring the world of the Eddie Stobart haulage company.

My father in law used to watch this program, and I would occasionally watch an episode with him. 

If you want to know about story telling, watch this program. The writers were experts at making a drama out of very little. When you’re writing SF it’s easy to create conflict. Destroy a spaceship, a city, an entire planet and let the other side retaliate.

This programme didn’t have the luxury of such exotic material, and yet it somehow contrived to keep viewers on the edge of the seat as we watched a driver attempting to move a load from Leicester to Milton Keynes! A distance of 55 miles! In under 2 hours!

The commentators breathless delivery was such that  you could easily forget that 55 miles in 2 hours is an average speed of just under 30 miles an hour.  Not that it mattered when a red traffic light could take on the aspect of a major catastrophe.

When storytelling is this effective you might ask yourself Who needs robots?  And there is a certain truth that some SF stories get so caught up in the sound and fury they end up signifying nothing. But it’s equally true that I was never moved by an episode of Trucks and Trailers in the same way I was moved by say Slaughterhouse 5...

Picture this:

There’s a post that occasionally does the rounds on the internet challenging beginner writers to describe a woman in a picture. The woman in question would generally perceived to be attractive, the assumption behind the task is that some writers will concentrate on her physical appearance. The challenge is seen by some as a test or a trap.

The post is a good test for beginner writers, though not for the reason some think it is. The reason is that no writer worth their salt would describe a character solely as a list of physical characteristics. No fiction writer, I should say. Fiction writing is about communicating emotion, not recounting facts.

You might be surprised how little physical description is included on books.

Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, one of the most eligible men in fiction is famously described as tall and dark. That’s it. It’s his character, his actions, that make him attractive.

When asked to describe someone in their story, a writer would think about the character first. Are they clever, shy, mean, manipulative, generous?  Does anything about their appearance suggest this?

Beauty is subjective, how are you going to make your character attractive to the reader?

Enjoy the Ride

A friend of mine – he reads this blog so he’ll know this post is partly about him – always wanted to play the guitar. When it came to his fortieth birthday he decided it was now or never and he bought himself his first instrument. 

Fast forward six months and he sat down before us, his work colleagues, and gave a very credible performance of three songs. 

He received our compliments and applause with quiet satisfaction.

“See?” he said, “And you all laughed when I said I would learn guitar. You all thought I couldn’t do it!”

It’s a great story, but actually, that wasn’t what happened.

One of our circle is an expert guitarist: he offered a lot of initial advice. We’d all clubbed together to buy a set of guitar lessons as a birthday present and we’d offered nothing but support and encouragement as he learned.

That’s not as good a story, that’s just real life.

I recently watched and enjoyed Only Murders in the Building. Only Murders is a good old fashioned whodunnit. Interestingly – in fact it’s the point of this post – I spotted the murderer right at the beginning.

Not through my detective skills: I have none. Rather, through my writerly skills. I can usually spot the murderer in a whodunit. I recognize the form of the story, the misdirections the writer is using and so on.  (In the interests of full disclosure I should admit  that I had an advantage as I actually own the obscure item that was a vital clue).

The thing is, I didn’t enjoy the story any less for knowing the answer in advance.  When I was a kid I always knew that James Bond was going to defeat the baddies, I still enjoyed the ride.

I enjoyed the ride.

Enjoying the ride is a what a story is all about. It’s very easy when writing stories to get caught up with the making sure the plot is unfolding properly.  This especially true in SF when the central idea can be very impressive. One of my favourite SF inventions is Ice 9, in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. However, Ice 9 is a conceit, not a story. What makes Cat’s Cradle such a great book is the ride. The cast of characters; the bizarre situations; Vonnegut’s pithy observations and turn of phrase; his compassion and understanding.

It’s been said many times but it’s worth repeating: a story is a journey, not a destination.