Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Nightmare Fuel

Imagine that you're a child, too young to understand anything much. And all the older children who think they know everything tell you: the world is going to end. That you'll die. Your brother and sister will die. Your parents will die. Your friends will die. You know they're not lying because you can see it on TV too. There are programmes your parents won't let you watch because they want to to sleep without fear, but they show trailers for them. You see a town like yours burn in a firestorm and glass milkbottles melt on doorsteps.

That's my earliest memory of the Cold War. It was 1983 or 1984, and Threads was shown one night, far too late for me to see, but the trailer kept me awake. They wanted people to know how horrifying nuclear war was, but it made no difference. The Cold War ground on for the rest of the decade and didn't stop just because people knew it was pointless and suicidal to launch nukes at each other.

It turns out that this approach was tried before, in 1956. Ed Sullivan showed a short animation on his wildly popular TV show, better known for introducing the US to The Beatles. He wanted to raise people's awareness as well. A far better blog than mine has the full story, and the BFI have gone to the trouble of sharing the film with us:

It didn't work then, either. The Cold War kept getting colder. The animation just scared a lot of children in my parent's generation, as I would be scared eighteen years later. It's been near on thirty years since then...

And the nukes are still there. And I'm still scared.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


So I’m writing again. I have an idea for a novel – in fact, an idea I’ve had knocking around for several months. It came while I was idly musing on the multiverse in The Last Man on Earth Club; I recalled Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, with its hypothesis of ancestor-simulations created by advanced races, which might spawn further simulated worlds within worlds that were already simulated, something that could continue with levels of universe-nesting only limited by the processing power in the original universe.

Well, I thought to myself, a multiverse based on that idea would be an interesting setting and rather different to the usual story excuses we have for multiverses (quantums! branes! probabilities!), which are usually based on highly speculative physics. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has used this before, but still, if I can come up with the right characters and worlds and story it might be useful...

Which is to say, the idea is worth very little by itself. Ideas are only seeds that need to be watered with research, experience, hard work and more ideas. At this stage, I had no characters, no actual setting beyond the idea of a simulated multiverse, and no idea what the story was actually going to be about. All these things did eventually come after a lot of brainstorming, but the idea wasn’t enough on its own. In fact, the original idea might even end up being thrown out or just de-emphasised because some of the stuff I’ve created since then seems more interesting.

And yet without that original idea, I’d be nowhere.

So let’s take a look at ideas, and how to get them...

We’ve all been asked where our ideas come from, usually by friends, family and readers who can’t imagine how they could even start coming up with something like your finished book, and fail to realise how small and simple the first step can be. And half the time, we don’t even know where to look for ideas, or how to tell when we’ve found one that’s worth developing. And of course they can come from anywhere. Something that happened to you as a child. Something you saw out of the corner of your eye on the bus. Something you read in a newspaper. A shocking story about your family told over dinner by an elderly relative with Alzheimers who forgot they’d sworn never to mention it.

(oh wait... that last one is an idea in and of itself. Maybe not a great one, but certainly a seed from which a story could grow. See? You can get ideas while writing blog posts about trying to come up with ideas...)

Sometimes the universe just dumps an idea in your lap. The (very) recent death of a friend of the British Prime Minister in the middle of the Glastonbury Festival is of course a tragedy, but every writer of thrillers and mysteries in the UK has probably read the news this morning and been unable to avoid thinking how that could be the starting point for a story - after all, it's not a million miles away from the inciting incident of State of Play, an excellent TV series from a few years ago. Or maybe there's something that happened to you in your life that gets you started on a story. Or maybe someone tells you about a funny story from their life. Maybe you just stumble across something on he internet. But most of the time, you don't get that lucky. You have to go looking for ideas rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Of course, looking for an idea is usually the moment they dry up, because ideas are rarely the product of the more rational parts of your mind. They come more from the free-associating, pattern-recognising bits of your brain that usually go to work in your idler moments. You can call it daydreaming, if you like; when you’re not distracted by sensory input, or are doing something so routine that your attention can drift. Driving a car on the motorway, maybe. Public transport, for certain. Brainstorming works as well, because you’re deliberately not exercising judgement; just listing all kinds of crazy stuff that might possibly be of use, regardless of how much it makes sense. Somewhere in that list might be something unexpected and useful (which is what happened a few paragraphs ago as I was trying to come up with a list of potential places you could spot ideas).

Getting an idea is helped enormously by giving your brain something to free-associate with; information and knowledge it can recognise patterns within. So keep on reading, and not just within your own genre. Keep up with the news. Study history. Watch documentaries. The more you know, the more connections you’ll make when ideas come along. And pay attention to what people say: the smallest phrase overheard in a bar can lead to an idea. I got a short film script from hearing someone say he was playing eyeball tennis with someone he fancied; his phrase, but the visual metaphor immediately set my brain off thinking how you could actually show that happen, and make it funny.

Inspiration can go horribly wrong, of course. Especially when you’re young, and every idea you encounter seems new. The worst ideas I’ve ever seen are usually ones which are essentially rip-offs committed because the writer was bowled over by a film or a book and mistook that sense of amazement for an idea of their own. The major turning point of Fight Club, for example, inspired more than one script I had to read through back when I was helping people learn to make films, and they were all tedious, tedious, tedious.

So it’s important to exercise some judgement on your ideas when they come. That’s where the rational part of the brain wakes up and gets to do some work as well. So here’s some quick things to consider about any given idea:

• Are you interested in this? You probably are since you realised this was an idea in the first place. But you might still get ideas that don’t quite fit the kind of thing you write. The idea about the elderly relative spilling family secrets that hit me a few paragraphs ago is probably not one I’ll use, because I write science fiction. The idea was interesting as an individual scene, but I can’t see it going anywhere that keeps me interested. And if I’m not interested, I can’t expect anyone else to be. Maybe it'll be useful one day, but not right now. So make a note of it, and move on...

• Has it been done before? Well, pretty much everything has been done before, so you can’t rule out something just because someone else got there first. It depends on how specific your idea is; a multiverse based on Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument is very vague and will likely result in something different to other attempts at the idea. If, on the other hand, your idea is about an American adventurer who has his or her adventures while operating as an archaeologist, you’re likely to be compared to Indiana Jones no matter what you do. You’ll need to find a new angle that makes your idea sufficiently different, or make a note of the idea and move on...

• Can it be marketed? Okay, so you might think it’s a bit early to be considering this, but even so, you should be keeping an eye out for it. Some ideas just write the blurb all by themselves. The Last Man on Earth Club was one of these; the original idea is pretty much what’s in the description on Amazon, and people tend to comment that it’s the concept that motivated them to buy the book. You don’t need a marketable idea as your starting point, but if you find one – jump on it! (and bear in mind that you still have a hell of a lot of work to do)

• The most important thing of all: can it be turned into a story? If it’s just a setting, can characters be inserted who will do interesting things? If it’s a character, can you imagine interesting things happening to them? If it’s something else, can it be developed into something more than a static situation or scene? Of course, in order to figure this out, you need to know what a story is, so here’s one very quick and dirty definition: you get your characters up a tree; you throw rocks at them; you get them down again. It doesn’t have to be an adventure. But events need to happen, and characters need to go through them. If you can’t see how a story could happen... make a note of it, and move on.

And then once you’ve got an idea that makes you interested, that isn't completely unoriginal, and that you can turn into a story, and that can be marketed (maybe), all you’ve got to do is write the damn thing. Which is where it gets a lot harder. More on that some other time...

Monday, 20 June 2011

A Brief and Sarcastic History of the Apocalypse

The apocalypse has already happened. And that’s why we love it.

Humans have been on this planet for a few hundred thousand years, but it could have been a lot less than that. We’ve endured supervolcanoes that turned the sky to ash for years on end and reduced us to a miserable remnant; ice ages that exterminated us from whole continents; and plagues that swept across the globe and turned cities into cemeteries. The world has been trying to kill us for as long as we’ve been here. We shouldn’t feel victimised. It’s been doing it to every other species on the planet too. Just ask the trilobites – oh, wait you can’t. They’re all dead and they probably didn’t have ears anyway.

All that apocalypse leaves a mark on a species, in the same way that antibiotics leave a mark on bacteria – the ones that survive, anyway. We got better at living through these things, and a lot warier of the same thing happening again. And unlike most other creatures on the planet, we had language. We could tell our descendants about it, not realising how myths grow over generations. It’s typical. You tell your kids to watch out if the sky gods get angry and you don’t see the sun for a few years. Then a few generations later they think you were a prophet and they’re all worshipping statues of you shaking a fist at the sky, and telling each other that one day it’s all going to end because humans stood up to the gods and the gods decreed the sun would come back and eat the Earth one day in revenge for the sky swallowing it up all those years before.

Fast forward a bit. Leave all that prehistoric stuff behind. We’ve acquired culture and civilisation and everything, but we’re still terrified of the end of the world. It probably didn’t help that our mediaeval ancestors spent most of the time drunk. Any landmark date ended up being regarded as the definitive end of the world. But they were missing the most likely cause of apocalypse: themselves. Plague was one of the biggest killers across the world, because civilisation had moved forward so fast that we really hadn’t had time to properly adapt to living in massive colonies (i.e. cities). And like a beehive infested with varroa, cities kept getting infected and having their own mini-apocalypses that, being primarily commercial institutions, they then exported across the world. And if it didn’t go along the trade routes, it went with the armies and navies as they explored and campaigned. The Mayan apocalypse has nothing to do with their landmark date of 2012, and everything to do with measles and smallpox. Whole populations of Inuit died the same way because they traded with passing whalers. And in every war, the death toll from fighting would be miniscule compared to the mass graves they had to dig for all the people who died of dysentry along the way. And let’s not get started on prisons. There’s a reason why Typhus was once known as Gaol Fever.

And then we get into the twentieth century. We figured out sanitation. We discovered antibiotics and got most of the plagues under control. And, having eliminated the usual causes of apocalypse, we promptly set about creating some more to put in their place: nuclear weapons that could screw up the world in the same way as a supervolcano, but with radiation added just to make it that little bit more hellish. And not content with threatening ourselves with thermonuclear armageddon for a few decades, we started screwing up the whole planet just by being here. We became this world’s plague, running so far out of control that we may just turn it into either a barren baking desert or one big snowball, depending on how exactly things go bang when you drop a wrench into a set of machinery as fantastically complex as the planet’s climate.

(And I’m not even going to mention all the ways the universe can destroy us without even trying very hard. Some of them have happened before but they’re pretty rare on human timescales. See here for details)

With all of this dreadfully serious stuff going on that may just wipe us out, what do you think humanity’s greatest current response to the apocalypse would be?

We’ve turned it into entertainment!

Oh, sure, we’ve done tons of stuff to stop apocalypses happening for real. Smallpox eradicated. Nuclear weapons scaled back. CFCs eliminated. Big Brother cancelled. But what’s our true level of involvement?


When you watch the zombie hordes pouring through Atlanta; the Triffids prowling through London; the fighting in the War Room; the cyborgs stalking through Los Angeles; why do you watch?


When you fight the aliens in Half Life; the zombies in Left 4 Dead; the port authorities in Madagascar; why do you play?


When you read of the scriptorium of the monks of Leibowitz; the last voyage of the USS Scorpion; the terrible plan of Paul Raedeker; the Man and Boy trudging down the road; what do you read?


But there you go: all stories are about suffering. Preferably not yours. It’s far more fun to watch someone else go throught it, because if it were all hearts and flowers, it would be Mills & Boon boring.

A story of apocalypse shows you this suffering on a grand scale, the kind of scale your ancestors have dreaded for thousands of years, and which you flock to enjoy. You who know so much more about exactly how many things can wipe you out, but sneer at it as though it’ll never happen. Any sensible species would just get on with eradicating diseases and making peace, but somewhere deep inside, I think we remember how close we came to extinction. We are the ones whose ancestors survived the apocalypse, and the bodies and brains they bequeathed us simply won’t let us forget.

Even if they have to make us watch I Am Legend to remind us. Bastards.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Not with a whimper. With a backbeat.

This is an altogether too easy choice for a blog post - lifted wholesale from Bad Astronomy, of course - but no less fascinating for all that. And you know I'm all for blowing up planets and suns and whatnot. So just enjoy!

Ways the World will End from Dana Peters on Vimeo.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Things That Are Happening

One or two or possibly even three announcements here!

1. I'm taking part in the Coffeemugged Summer Read Indie Giveaway - they're giving away a hundred books between 15th June and 31st July, and mine's one of them! So click on the nice red coffee receptacle to find out more.

2. I'm also taking part in Cindy Borgne's wonderful Tour of SF & Fantasy Authors at Dreamer's Perch, which starts on the 13th of June. It's a focus on new and established authors of excellent indie books, and features some awesome people. There may be interviews of a lengthy and informative kind!

3. Triple Hit, the SF action movie I helped to write and produce, has a US DVD release on the 14th of June. Go to Amazon to grab a copy, or pay a visit to the website and say hi to Huw and Chris and all the crazy people who helped us get away with it get the film made!

More news as it comes, and maybe some general musing later on.

Monday, 6 June 2011

This is not the blog post I was going to write

...seriously, I was going to say something profound about starting my new novel and blank pages and the horror of filling them with intelligent science fictional craziness.

Then I got a nice shiny review of The Last Man on Earth Club on the Amazon UK site from someone I'd bumped into on the Amazon SF forums.

So now I'm just all happy and smiling to myself. The terror of filling a blank page is so much easier when you know that people are actually going to read those pages when they're filled... and some of them will even like those pages.

(even if e-books have entirely variable pages and whatnot)

Anyway. Back to: The Fear of the Blank Screen!

(definitely not the title of my next novel)