Wednesday 23 July 2014

Glass half what?

Glass half full: getting paid today by Daily Science Fiction for My Avatar has an Avatar - thanks.

Glass half empty: finding my book is "is currently ranked 588,894 out of over 400,000 books in the Kindle Store".  Ho hum.

Sunday 20 July 2014

I Was There. Or Was I?

I'm writing this watching cricket - anybody from beyond the colonies may wish to google that word.

One of my least favourite things about cricket - a short list - is the on-pitch advertising sheets: sizeable smeared, twisted and stretched logos that make no sense from any perspective other than as a television viewer.  And then they seem to float oddly over the grass, modern technology allowing a child in minutes to design precisely what only MC Escher could have managed previously.

My complaint is not over computers' ability to compute - such design all comes back to numbers, after all - but about how we have come to see things in a world full of screens.  For those in the stands at Lords (a five-figure number) the scene is set out for those watching on screens (a seven-? eight-? figure number).  That's just economics - and not my gripe either.

No, my point revolves around being there and watching it on a screen.

More and more of us do it, taking constant and continual images of whatever is happening before us.  But there seems to me a correlation between watching events that are happening before you via a screen instead and a sense of disconnection.

I posted a couple of weeks back about watching the Tour de France cycle past.  Of course, as soon as the leaders and the then the chasing pack came past up went my phone, the resulting photos posted below.

I have the photos, but the sudden sense of being at once removed from the action gives me a slight doubt that I was there.  The waiting, the anticipation, the build up - that's all embedded on my memory - but the race itself?  A slight blur, a vague recollection - just a couple of weeks later.  Even though I have the photos to prove I saw it whereas all I have of the build up are memories - which science has shown to be less than reliable.

Was I there?  In retrospect I'm not sure it wholly felt like it...

Thursday 17 July 2014

Why sci-fi's double whammy doesn't work

My mind drifted this morning on to an article I'd read a couple of days ago about the issues and risks thrown up by Google Glass and whether I could construct a storyline involving card counting and casinos before deciding that was all rather old hat.

From there it was a short (mental) step to the question of why science-fiction never predicted the Internet.

Of course, a quick Google reveals that, of course, science fiction did foresee both the Internet and social networking, firstly and most completely in Mark Twain's "From the 'London Times' of 1904" (1898) - which by all accounts is a brilliant story unless you try to read it.

Which then led me to ponder the really quite obvious point of why sci-fi hasn't done very well at predicting the myriad of things we use the Internet for on a prosaic, day-to-day basis: satnav, eBay, streetview, parcel tracking and so forth.  I'm no expert and will be willingly corrected (matron!) but I get the feeling sci-fi was always more eager to go down the virtual reality/mind-reading route than foreseeing fridges that would talk to the supermarket when your Parmesan got down to the rind.

My conclusion is this.  In the pre-digital age the Internet would have been a leap of faith, a deus ex machina for the writer to explain and the reader to buy into.  Mark Twain's Telectroscope, apparently, mainly let you do what you did normally (observe, converse) but geographically removed.  To then add a second invention, dependent on the detail of the first, would have stretched the credulity of the reader beyond comfort.  Virtual reality and mind-reading, whilst representing bigger asks in the real world are single step fictional inventions, whereas Internet plus kitten videos going viral is, somehow, two.

Or, maybe, the imaginations of most writers, me included, is limited so that we can only make out the next step; anything beyond being lost in the gloom.

I'm thinking out loud here.  Responses via however we'll be communicating in the year 2096, please. 

Friday 11 July 2014

A Treatise on Human Nature

I recently heard something truly brilliant about cake mixture.

No.  Stay with me on this one.

Apparently, when instant cake mix was first marketed it was a total flop.  The trouble was that it was too easy.  The early variants needed nothing added to them to make your cake, you just poured it out into the right sized tin and popped it into the oven.

It was only when you had to add eggs and milk to some dehydrated powder and mix it yourself that the stuff took off.  More work, more washing up.  How on earth can that be?

To me it’s all about ownership.  It’s human to want to put some effort in, make a mark, even if it’s just adding milk and eggs and whisking.  It’s what gives us a mental stake in whatever it is - just try handing out organisational tasks to children, they lap them up.  As regards the cake, weighing, measuring, judging the state of the mix takes (a modicum of) skill in a way that just pouring gloop into a loaf tin doesn’t.  Previously your oven, given the tricky task of actually cooking it, would have had a greater sense of ownership.

Of course, the option of just buying a cake is (and was) always open, but somehow that doesn’t carry with it the same expectation of being a stakeholder in its creation.  Ownership, sure.  But not stakeholdership, whereas buying old style cake mix gave you ownership but also a frustrating delay whilst you added effort but not a commensurate degree of finesse.

There’s probably a PhD in this, which is probably what somebody has done and I was reading about.

Whilst on the subject of human nature - and, as Harry Hill so correctly observed, you can tell a lot about a person’s character from what they’re like - I recently went to see the Tour de France as it raced across the flatlands of Cambridgeshire.  Me and, apparently, at least a million others.  On a Monday.  (And, yes, Cambridgeshire isn’t in France, but I’ve always liked the organisers’ seeming inability to do geography).

Two hours driving, two hours stood by a road watching out for red ants whilst being besieged by thunderflies, all for twenty seconds or so of racing.  It shouldn’t have worked, but, oddly, it did.


Something to do with being human in a large group of fellow humans sharing an expectation, sharing an experience.  Not a crowd of individuals, but a crowd that has magically become more than the sum of its parts.  Not just an ‘I was there’ but an ‘I was part of it’ moment.  Not quite religious, but definitely on that spectrum.

I’ve read one theory that, as Thatcher fractured society so completely, robbed of the sense of community that our predecessors would have got from, well, their community, we now seek out ‘gatherings’ and ‘events’ whether they be Glastonbury or sport to make up for it.  Maybe, maybe not.

And the relevance to science fiction? - other than the fact that waiting for the Tour as the several hundred support and sponsors’ vehicles zoomed past in the two hours prior reminded me of nothing more than the hicks standing at the roadside waiting for the lights in Close Encounters.

Well, sci-fi's read by people, humans, and as such it has to be relevant.  I don’t mean relevant as in Star Trek’s loosely disguised coverage of racial and sexual politics and other 1960s dilemmas.  I mean that as writers we have to populate our stories with humans who are recognisably human regardless of when and where our stories are set.  We're always writing for 21st century Earthlings, an audience who we're still finding out about, let alone our characters.

The lesson is, whether Dick’s paranoids or Douglas Adams pompous bumblers, none of them, absolutely none of them, should be advocates of early cake mix, but they should be happy to stand on a roadside for two hours for twenty seconds of 'I was there' humanity coming together.  No, doesn't make sense to me either...