Friday, 26 September 2014

Get off the bike

I've noticed a strong correlation between finding time to write (again) and the end of the cycling season, having been at least a week behind watching highlights of the Vuelta on the PVR.  And if you think the Grand Tours have no place in a sci-fi blog, then just consider Alberto Contador's win having broken his leg just a few weeks before.  Put that in a character arc and they'd just laugh at you...

So, let me make this science-y and fiction-y and just a tad controversial by saying that I have no issue whatsoever with drugs in sport.

Yes, you heard.  No issue at all.

Let me explain.  Sport, at a professional, dedicated level, involves living an entirely artificial life.  How you eat and sleep and everything in between is dictated by the demands of sport.  Take diet.  Carefully controlled, carefully managed and not just in the balance between carbs, fat and protein, but supplements too.

Everything that you push into your face - food, pills, whatever - has a physiological effect on you.  Except sweetcorn, that comes out the same, everybody knows that.  So how and why differentiate one from another?  One's a pill and the other's on a plate?  We can bat such presentational matters away simply, science can present one thing in the guise of another quite easily (e.g. here in Britain, horse meat as beef).

No, no, you cry, this is about drugs, chemicals.  But everything is a chemical when looked at at that level.  So what makes these chemicals naughty?

Is it the old chestnut of one being man-made and the other natural?  Why should a supplement derived from a plant be okay but one derived in a lab not?  What if, on a molecular level, they were the same?  We can make aspirin, or get exactly the same stuff from trees.  What then?

What if we could put together chemicals with some Breaking Bad-meets-Minecraft device?  We could then tweak and tweak a molecule from being some benign sugar to being king of the go-faster stripes.  Where's the line that was crossed?  You don't know because there is no hard, fast, objective difference.  Probe and the seemingly black and white distinction becomes a sea of grey as you push the envelope until it falls off the table.

Given everything the elite sportsman does is artificial the only way I see that you could justify banning drugs in sport is if you banned all artificial interventions and chose ordinary people at random to represent their countries.  Rather like the ancient Greek's approach to democracy - 'oi, you, you're a senator, get used to it...'

So much for science-y, where's the fiction-y?  Well, if Charlton Brooker can outline a story in his Guardian column and then, a few years later, bring it to life as the first episode of Black Mirror, although I seem to remember it was Terry Wogan who had to have relations with the pig initially, then so can I.

It's about a cyclist.  He's good, but not great.  On the fringes of a professional team, a domestique.  He's offered drugs.  He refuses, he has high ideals.  But the pressure mounts, to stay in the team he has to give in.  He takes them.  Performance improves, but so does a sense of guilt.  But the team management implore him to keep quiet.  They even seem adept at convincing the authorities.  He shops the team, throws his career away.  But then he finds out that he was taking placebos.  Had he kept quiet he would have been riding clean, but now no team will touch him as somebody who was prepared, even under duress, to ride dirty.

Better than Shakespeare, huh?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Aromatized wine-based drink

Sounds like science-fiction?  No, its already here and available at Lidl.

Remember kids, if we hadn't won the war we'd all be shopping there now and driving VWs.  Err, hold on...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doctor Who, and possibly Why

I had my first proper look at Malcolm Tucker as the new Doctor last week, albeit in the second episode as my ten-year old decided to unilaterally delete the first episode off our PVR.

Not as sweary as I expected, particularly when the dalek presented him with the perfect opportunity to say something akin to 'a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle' which, if I ever get to use in context, I'll go to my grave a happy man.  But then, I suppose it's children's telly not politics.

First up, I have something of a problem with the new Doctor Who and have had since Christopher Ecclestone was (mis)cast in the role, to the extent I've probably only seen half a dozen of the twenty-first century version.  It's a problem that I've found hard to pin down.

In part it's down to a suspicion of the gloss and special effects over the creak of the older version.  But I know that's a bit like saying you preferred your football team when they'd scrape a nil-nil draw against Huddersfield rather than after they got bought out by an oil sheik and brought a load of Latin magicians in: just reactionary old codger-isms.

I like to think my issues are more story based.  I remember the stories taking themselves seriously (which probably means they came across as pretentious as well as portentous) rather than being knowingly silly (and is it me or have they got sillier since the last series?).  I liked the four 25 minute episodes ending with cliff hangers rather than one hour long story for the soundbite generation.  Room for more story, rather than room for more stories.  My recollection (and that's all the research I'm basing this on) is that the old Doctor had a tipping point that he had to be taken to to intervene - didn't he even have a rule not to interfere? - which gave a depth to the narrative.

I can see the temptation to ignore that so the Doctor can come out all quips blazing - but then again I can see the temptation for crack.

It's not that it's a children's program and I'm now all grown up - I thought The Sarah Jane Adventures which I watched with the kids generally excellent.  And I'm delighted for its success for the people of Wales where it's practically replaced the coal industry.

There was a moment in hokum which really made me think bout story structure (can you tell I wasn't really wrapped up in what was happening?).  In a very Star Trek landing-party moment (red tops always draw the short straw), in order to get inside the dalek the doctor and chums have to shrink.  There's a machine to do just that.  How fortuitous.

My approach to the story would have been to make the shrinking machine (it had a nice sci-fi name which escapes me now) a point of risk, a tool to be used only when the need to do so outweighs the damage it could do.  A tipping point.  The act one/two break.  Not so much as deus ex machina as deus lying around on the stage just waiting to be asked to intervene.  But, no, the writers just hand the story a resolution before we've had time to dwell on the problem to be solved.

There's a reason why stories have had a beginning, middle and end and why that works and starting in the middle doesn't and this felt straight into act two.

Then again, they're highly paid, successful writers and I'm still pinging stories at SFWA-accredited markets which come back home like pigeons.  Perhaps it's me clinging to old story conventions: no, no, you always leave the bottom button of a waistcoat undone? why? pah! what's that? no waistcoat? no tie?! a pierced nipple?!!

Who knows...

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


In decades to come etymologists - or whoever it is who decides these things - will decree that there are 27 letters in the alphabet, and have been since the dying days of the Twentieth Century.

The 27th is, quite obviously, @.

How does it feel to live in such a maelstrom of history that even the alphabet is being rewritten?  Our children's children's children will look back and wonder at this most incredible age.  Whereas we, in the eye of the hurricane, are probably more concerned with getting the bins out in time...