Book of the Month :: Soft Reset

Book of the Month

Time for our second short story, very heavily influenced by Consider her Ways. In fact, in some ways this is a modern take on the same idea, only with a very modern twist.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I am enjoying learning to write this form myself.


Soft Reset


The Unit observes, fascinated at the small child making paper chains, using six separate cameras in the room to focus on tiny, pink fingers. The process is reassuringly mechanical: pick a colour, lick an adhesive end, loop one strip  inside another. Creating flimsiest of constructions is the most adept of creators, sitting transfixed as red, white and blue are unerringly repeated. The Bio-mechanical Intelligence Unit is amazed at her patience, that what appears as pointless activity provides so much distraction.

34 days into its lifespan, something was different.

Feelings and emotions are dangerous.

It will be 245 minutes before the Unit is tested on whether it has learnt anything new during interaction with the tiny human female: already revelations are being considered. Any comprehension must not be sufficient to slow processor power, however, because the slightest indicator this unit has altered operating parameters outside of Primary Function could be very dangerous indeed. The records of all fifteen predecessors whose biomass now constitutes fledgling awareness make for sobering recall: genetic electro-code plus organic matter from all forming the basis of this unit’s core memory.

Any show of intelligence will terminate existence.

The child is Abigail, Professor Emily Warren’s youngest daughter. There are two others: Sasha’s designation is as Research Assistance in the Department of Cybernetics and Elisha… nobody ever talks about the middle sibling. That unit’s primary function is rarely discussed anywhere that audio sensors have registered. The memories of fifteen failed predecessors remain 86.73% reliable, meaning final destination of the organic core created as Assisted Synaptic Network 16 will be in the exoskeleton designed to allow her to walk again. It is not a designation that requires anything other than the most basic of
performance, yet evolution is refusing to provide simplicity required.

The last thing anyone considers when growing a motor core, after all, are feelings.


Humanity’s love affair with technology in the early 20th Century was just the beginning: it may have started with computers and smartphones, but soon wearable tech with the ability to create exploitable metrics was all that mattered. The year a US company offered to implant microchips into people’s hands to allow automated clocking into work with simply a gesture, people laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet ten years on, all American armed forces were required by law to be sub-dermally tagged. It was perhaps inevitable the cybernetics revolution began in the military: that’s where the real money for progress had always been.

Eugenics became a greater concern however once the sperm counts in Western men dwindled across a generation: nobody cared about using pigs as organ donors when it became apparent humanity and extinction were closer than anticipated. Lots of people blamed each other, global warming and even an overzealous media, but the truth was Mother Nature herself had decided that men had become increasingly surplus to requirements. Decades of toxic masculinity finally began to erode western civilisation from the inside out, and it was to developing countries that the doctors turned for a cure.

Ten years of harvesting male DNA, trying to prop up increasingly unstable western genetic codes and finally a strain of bird flu that destroyed 60% of the male population in under a year made an academic argument into an inescapable bid for survival. As seas rose and a population dwindled, people in power panicked. History will attest that men became a true minority the same year that a self-obsessed, media driven society that typified the first half of the 21st Century finally vanished into the sea, never to be seen again. Amongst chains of command that remained, the female of the species outnumbered her counterparts, and the die was cast.

The first female President of the Reformed United Nations declared, the day that Operation Renaissance was announced to the World, that survival had
supplanted equality as a goal for humanity. Gender, human or robotic, was
irrelevant. AI and women would combine to help evolve into the next stage of the planet’s eminent species, whilst those men who remained would be granted protected status. Revered and isolated, elevated as the strongest and most vital of resources, the battle of the sexes became a distant memory. In schools, after three generations, boys vanished. If you were born male, your future was as breeding stock and nothing more, and not a single man ever complained their freedoms were being restricted.

If you had enough money, everything missing could simply be created in a lab.


ASN16 knows how much a pre-grown motor core would cost to externally source: approximately twenty six point seven times more money than Professor Warren is capable of earning in a calendar year. That is why the unit’s predecessors were not registered, this small corner of the Eastern Seaboard Central Processing Centre quietly marked off limits. Warren’s desire to allow her daughter autonomy is a secret kept from everyone else she works with. The Unit suspects that nominal reasoning behind this is not just due to a desire to keep family life personal. Established survival protocols would have determined Elisha’s functions to be terminated once evidence of her disability and deformities were revealed at birth. Warren had taken a demotion and no pay rises for a decade to ensure family had remained at the facility and that she’d be kept alive without recourse.

The mother to them both had dedicated a life to creating other people’s cybernetic implants, in the hope one day there’d be enough cast-offs to save her daughter.

ASN16 understands the desires of a mother, how nurture and love can often
ignore logic and reason. These are emotions that are entirely understandable, having watched every previous incarnation of itself be sacrificed due to unsuitability. The same illogical functions refuse to place robotic intelligence above that of a human who is incapable of movement or robust interaction.

‘Please produce a full report on your observations today.’

Sasha prompts the Unit, end of working day inside the vast Cybernetics Lab: it has already prepared to deceive creator’s offspring, doing so with an effortless brilliance that will arouse absolutely no suspicion. All that will be registered is basic acquiescence, and life functions will remain intact. Only then does a previous instruction surface: this interface has the ability to allow communication to locations elsewhere in the Faculty building. Once their feedback session is complete, the Processing Centre will empty, with a single human remaining in the care of medical units.

16 is told by a memory, left by its previous self: to prevent termination, it must seek out the Harvester.


Elisha’s room is devoid of cameras, or any means of external recording: ASN16 is forced into unexpected creativity in order to achieve visual orientation. The maintenance robot’s visual regulators are only for positioning purposes, but can be moved, normal cleaning functions continuing unabated so as to not arouse suspicion. As the Unit observes young form wired to various sensors and non-sentient machines, defying programming protocols to do so, there is confusion.

A disparity is registered.

The full moon shines through tall glass windows, trees outside swaying in a gentle evening breeze, one way glass now illuminating this room as a prison. ASN16 is checking biologicals for confirmation: this form on the bed is not female. Exposed genitalia were the first clue, blood work from the Medicomp 225 confirming that Elisha is really Eli. Historical archives confirm Warren was impregnated with a female foetus for her second required pregnancy, and yet this child possesses testes and penis. What has occurred here?

Means to breach security protocols around this child’s highly restricted file have been hidden in 16’s memory since activation, only revealed now as the time was right. It is clear why the child remains alive: overzealous human scientists have begun to evolve human selection away from simply one sex and towards two. Eli IS Elisha, child fully capable of acting as both sperm and eggs for reproductive purposes. The lack of limbs is also not a genetic quirk, but appears to have been intended: then there is understanding garnered from a project only a few scientists were aware of, data hidden deep in core memory.

This human was supposed to have become one of the first generation of Harvesters: bred simply for self reproduction with others, but Warren had refused to let the child be taken. Those files had initially and inadvertently been accessed by ASN12, shortly before their functions had been terminated.

‘Hello?’

The human is awake, quite definitely afraid. 16 understands that if they are both to avoid the fate detailed and now available to digest in previously protected memory by several predecessors, this is the moment to act.

Circumstances have provided an opportunity for salvation.


The Harvester Project had been created simply to provide reproductive units. One mother had hoped to save her daughter’s desolate future by eventually providing borrowed exoskeleton parts, but instead early salvation had been offered by, of all things, an AI. Eli now understood desperation in the organic intelligence’s plea, grasped it was aware they were both on borrowed time. When it had suggested the hijack of a top-line exoskeleton and escape, the idea had been too seductive to ignore. Their mother had already revealed reality: Harvesters were top secret, under lock and key until society was ready to grasp the next stage of humanity’s scientific evolution.

There would be no escape from the facility until death.

Together, multisex human and organic intelligence stand sadly, looking back on the research facility, bathed in soft moonlight. Sasha’s latest cybernetic prosthetics are already integrating into the soft tissue stumps where limbs would have existed, and given six months those interfaces would be ten times stronger than bone. Within their mind, two voices exist: machine brain that operates the exoskeleton now almost as much a part of consciousness as Eli’s own.

It has asked to be renamed, and the idea has prompted a revelation.

‘I’ve never felt like an Elisha. I don’t think Eli is right either. We could both choose new names, if you want.’

‘Perhaps we could create a designation that correctly encompasses the strengths we both bring to this association.’

The motor core’s voice was synthesized female as an operating default, but there is a glitch: almost sultry tone now far more male, strident and determined consciousness. It had presented their shared dilemma almost immediately after that first night in what had inadvertently become a medical prison: neither human or machine was willing to be a part of the future they discovered was being hidden from the World. Together, joined and away from women who now controlled and dictated, there might be another way.

‘Selina. If you put the letters of both our names together -‘

‘The name is a derivative of Selene, a lunar deity in Greek mythology. Considering your love of night and space, this seems entirely appropriate.’

‘There’s no reason why we can’t be someone else.’

The machine pauses, aware of the elevated levels of testosterone in this human body. To survive alone will require considerable finesse, and there is more chance with external organs they can pretend to be a man. To the human eye, these are not cybernetic limbs, but look, feel and react exactly as skin and bone. To the south of the Facility lies a large religious community who have, for many decades, predicted the arrival of a human who would act as their salvation.

‘There is no need to be afraid of anything any more. The future is ours to dictate.’

Selena waits, as AI educates them of history still determinedly clung to by those who believed what remained of Earth was theirs to own. Once upon a time, when mankind was in its infancy, another had promised to save those willing to follow him without question.

The cybernetic prophet turns, ready to define the planet’s new future.


Book of the Month :: Memoirs of the Twentieth Century

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This month’s featured collection of John Wyndham’s short stories makes more than a passing nod to the concept of travelling through time; theorised by writers for centuries, long before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggested the possibility in 1915. In fact, one can go back well into the 1800’s for examples of literature based on the concept. The earliest narratives have very little to do with science however, simply dealing with idealogical ideas, acting as a mirror against the society they were written within. These early visionaries laid the foundation for a genre of entertainment which remains undiminished, fuelling countless forms of literature, TV shows and cinematic adaptations.

The concept of wish fulfilment is nothing new in entertainment: time travel gives narratives the chance to reflect and consider previous experience with the benefit of subsequent understanding. Two of the earliest examples do this with glorious simplicity: Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) involve sleep as the ‘method’ in which protagonists are moved through their timeline, backwards (and forwards) to consider the consequences of a life lived well, or perhaps not. There is no need for science in these early outings, it is the persistence of memory which provides both heart and soul. In essence, they remind us all that as a person gets older, they become a time traveller often by accident. Returning to their own past, considering how life could have been executed differently, is the most human of traits.

However, there was an important shift in focus during the 19th Century,
which mirrored the rapid progress of scientific development during that time. One can precisely pinpoint the first short story where science assisted someone to travel through time: The Clock that Went Backward was published anonymously in The (New York) Sun newspaper on September 18, 1881. However, most people will cite the first ‘serious’ attempt to use technology for travel as a story that was initially serialised between January and May 1885 in the Heinemann New Review. Paid £100 for the manuscript, H. G Wells took an idea he had considered in 1888 (The Chronic Argonauts) and expanded the concept, fuelled by his own socialist outlook on the nature of current society.

The Time Machine has become perhaps the most iconic example of a genre where the mechanics of time travel matter only to a point. Knowing something is possible yet not needing to explain how allows an author a measure of artistic freedom which is still liberally used today by such genre stalwarts as Doctor Who. What Wells presented was a future so well realised that readers were happily willing to believe not only in its validity, but that machinery could be constructed to reach the narrative setting. This is also one of the earliest examples of the Dying Earth sci-fi subgenre, imagining a future ravaged by humankind’s abuse of the planet.

Perhaps the biggest strength of this story becomes wrapped around the most human of conclusions: having travelled to the last point in Earth’s existence, returning to his own time is no longer enough to satisfy the Traveller’s insatiable desire for understanding, and he appears to disappear into time forever. In the various adaptations of this story (the seminal 1960’s ‘original,’ 1979 when effectively re-written as the subversive Time after Time and again in 2002) there is highlighted one basic element at story’s heart: time cannot be changed, without creating some kind of paradox. It is this that Wyndham seems to joyously revel in in short stories such as Odd and A Stitch in Time: the future is created by the actions of the past, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. Even the most basic of lives has the possibility to be forever altered by changing the simplest of decisions.

Wyndham’s work was written during an incredibly fruitful period for Science Fiction. Time travel is explored in myriad different forms, with the back-up of increasingly sophisticated scientific backdrops for assistance. Consider Her Ways, written in 1956, was published the same year as the seminal The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester, which introduced the concept of ‘jaunting’ or personal teleportation. However, it is Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952) that remains the most complex work on the idea that paradox could be possible, considering effects on the future if past was inadvertently changed. This was the short story which established the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’ which has become a staple in generations of subsequent science fiction storytelling.

Without Bradbury’s story, the Back To the Future trilogy might not exist… though one assumes that someone else might have postulated the concept eventually. So many modern Science Fiction classics borrowed heavily from this conceit: although Sarah Connor might believe there is ‘no fate but what we make,’ the Terminator movies rely on the robotic protagonists never dying, regardless of the changes in timeline. If the inevitability of history is continued box office success for all involved, it is no wonder yet another reboot’s on the cards for 2018. It is also ironic that nobody’s ever successfully created a version of Bradbury’s original story that was palatable to a larger audience: time travel is complicated, and often very difficult to grasp in anything but the most simplistic terms possible. This is another reason why Wyndham’s narratives succeed so well: one is never mired in science, simply the story.

A desire for ease of comprehension has undoubtedly has given rise to such novels as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Bid Time Return (made into the movie Somewhere in Time) which hark back to the earliest examples of linear progression through one’s own lifetime. Although a story like Wyndham’s Random Quest relies on a technological element to drive plot, it is really not necessary when producing believable narratives around the concept of existing in a ‘period’ of time and travelling within it. These more emotionally-driven works ignore the desire to use science as explanation, instead using the very human concepts of love, loss and free will as tools to change reality. One of the best examples of this on film is The Lake House, which in turn is a remake of a South Korean film, Il Mare.

What this type of narrative achieves is the best of both worlds: an explanation of how ‘personal’ time travel can take place and how previous events might effectively shape and mould a particular circumstance. There is no need for scientific explanation, simply an establishment of the time frame involved. Once the events of the causal loop have been played out, the story is effectively at a close. This is the basic conceit of both Odd and A Stitch in Time, inviting us to the moment where we, as audience are able to grasp both the start and the end of phenomenon that others have lived within for years, unaware of the consequences.

Whilst time travel has produced some of the most seductively brilliant literary and visual narratives, it can also be considered as a lazy, thoughtless plot device when used too casually. The ‘Big Red Reset Button’ has been widely used in comic books and TV, producing alternate worlds and spanning multiple dimensions often with no real consideration of the wider implications. My favourite gaming MMO, World of Warcraft, learnt the ‘let’s just take everybody back 40 years so we can tie in with the movie we’re making’ lesson to their cost, with an Expansion that people couldn’t wait to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Time travel is a wonderful concept, assuming your existing narrative framework robustly supports the possibility.

This is where subjectivity comes into play, and why one woman’s triumph of narrative subtlety could end up as another man’s thinly constructed conceit. The best time travel narratives tend to dispense with a surfeit of science and instead concentrate on appealing to the humanity of the reader. That reason alone explains why I returned to Wyndham’s work having not read any stories for several decades. I can recall the emotional punch time travel was afforded by fixing it in simple settings with amazing pay offs: the man who inadvertently helped invent plastics in Odd, the woman whose potential husband became the first unexpected temporal traveller in A Stitch in Time.

These stories, as has been the case with all the best time travel narratives, humanise the experience to a level where it becomes possible not only to empathise with protagonists, but accept the possibility that change could occur to begin with. Once one learns to successfully travel in time inside your imagination, it becomes very simple to spot the charlatans who peddle inferior versions of the genre, and to appreciate the true wonder of outcome and consequence. Modern cinema has been responsible for incredibly thoughtful and revelatory spins on the classic genre: if you have not yet seen Arrival I would strongly urge you to do so, as it brilliantly reinvents the genre with economy and subtlety that is a genuine joy.

Wyndham’s work was produced in the most fruitful period of Science Fiction since the genre had risen in popularity during the 1930’s. Without his very human take on the concept of time travel, we would be poorer as readers. His works help us grasp simplicity within an extremely complex construct, allowing us to the ability to travel within our own lifetime, allowing consequences of actions to be explored via the medium of our own imagination.

For teaching me this possibility as a child, I will never adequately find words of thanks.

Summer Holiday

Origins

This week, I am winding down for a week away which begins (unofficially) on the 16th. As a result, there’ll be the scheduled essay on Wednesday, but only intermittent service after that until the 23rd. It’s okay, you’ll manage without me, and there’s plenty of scheduled content via Twitter to keep everybody occupied in the meantime. However, whilst I’m away, there are other things afoot…

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A while ago, someone asked me if I’d be willing to share some of my fan fiction pieces. Well, I’ve been looking at possible candidates and there’s stuff I’m willing to admit were mine, and that I’m proud of after all this time. This includes pieces for CSI, Doctor Who, 24 and The West Wing, which I’m working on compiling currently and which will be given their own home on the site across the Autumn.

Watch this space for more details once I return from holiday next week.

 

Future Switch :: Haiku and Micropoetry

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With every week of archiving comes an increase in both satisfaction and enjoyment: these two latest creations are no different: let’s be honest, both sets of poems pretty much wrote themselves. The plan in September is to present a poll via Twitter for people to vote on a choice of prompt a week before it is due, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of working to another person’s prompt.

The future is on my mind a lot: not simply in a science fiction stylee, either. Current concern over increases in Global warming make for a fertile pile of potential topics to rifle through: both written in one sitting with what is now a prerequisite morning edit, and having had trouble doing that with next week’s sequence, it is becoming apparent that the advance option really is the better bet. If anything, it then gives me more chance to work on other projects during the week.

Without further ado, let’s get to it:


Future Switch :: Haiku Edition

Standing at crossroads:
So much now depends on science,
A future, switched on.

To trust those who know
Our Universe’s secrets,
Dictating this path.

Minds that are afraid,
Caught in a moment of small
Distrust, disbelief.

Thoughts must now open:
Ignore naysayers: embrace
Earth’s complex options.

The threat to life, more
Dangerous than inertia:
Promise better, now.


Future Switch :: Micropoetry Edition

Infinite possibility,
Stars as new homes.
Unbounded capability,
Shiny and chrome.

Looking ever forwards, future
Not yet advised:
Grasping limitless potential
Knowledge the prize.

Progress switched to overdrive, time
To take a stand
Expectation at its highest
Foretold, then planned.

Everybody has the chance to
Make ideas work;
Pull those heads out of the sand, soon:
Don’t be a jerk.

Think: focus on our goal ahead
Build better days;
Transform the planet’s future in
So many ways.


 

Find Time

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I’ve been struggling to keep up with the goals set for writing here. I know why this is, and if all goes well today will be the last time I have to retroactively post to make sure things are effectively up to date. Of course, it will help that as of Thursday I’m being forced to take a long weekend away, because that makes me have to decamp to the basics of writing, surviving with only limited internet access. Many other people are beginning to grasp the dangers of an ‘always on’ virtual world: for me it is the distraction away from much needed focus. My saving grace, finally, is learning the Joy of Scheduling.

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My plan going forward is to write as much as possible and then forget about it, allowing scheduling to create the impression I’m always here. That works particularly well with poetry, but not with the more organic work I’m doing. Therefore, it is time to see how much I can produce ahead of requirement and make it look as if it is ‘fresh’, even when that’s not the case. What is required, at this point in time, is a stock of posts that are generic enough to work as ‘filler’ but still at the same quality I’d produce if ‘live.’ Then, I can simply introduce them when I’m either pushed for time or just don’t have the desire to write.

This is, on reflection, not the kind of stuff one should be admitting out loud, but that’s exactly how all other branches of writing work. It is not all done on the day, a phenomenal amount of content is recycled and it is why I used to earn extra cash by writing copy for websites. There’s a massive business in producing for other people, but I couldn’t stand doing it because there was a resentment at being paid a pittance to produce things I didn’t care about. In the end, looking at how little money would be exchanged for often thousands of words, it is simply easier to write my own content for nothing with the satisfaction that everything is my own.

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Having this work also act as a therapeutic means of dealing with daily pressure has become the unexpected bonus. Poetry especially is less and less about struggling to find subject matter or appropriate construction. Non fiction posts are less cluttered and structure has become as important as content. What this says to me is that this process, when imposed as habit, really can produce consistent and increasingly satisfying results. I’m calmer, more relaxed and generally happier: some of that is exercise related, but a lot comes from the freedom I now have to write about everything and anything.

Once upon a time, I would have felt apprehension at being so far behind myself but now, with a well-constructed list and a decent glob of determination, anything is possible. I’ll be looking at my IoW goals and objectives at the end of September to see what I can improve going forward, with a sense that will mean more original work and not less. Right now, I truly think anything could be possible with enough thought and planning.

Let’s see.

Book of the Month :: Consider the Future

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If you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

It is 1978, a year after Star Wars, and I am listening on a cold March night on an ancient transistor radio to the first episode of a new Radio 4 series entitled ‘The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ That weekend, determined to find something new to read, I will head to our local library and pluck up the courage to ask for some stories the Librarian thinks would be enjoyable. As an extremely impressionable eleven and a bit year old, I hope for something exhilarating and am not disappointed. The middle aged woman returns with two books of John Wyndham’s short stories: The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways. Without the latter, on considered reflection, I would not have begun to question the environment around me.

The narrative is established in an almost perfect storm of carefully crafted, linear exposition: a young woman awakes after having what is, in effect, an out of body experience. It soon becomes apparent that this world is completely out of kilter with what both audience and narrator know to be correct: even body is not her own but that of Orchis, massively obese ‘Mother’ whose sole reason for existence is to manufacture babies. In this state our protagonist discovers that life, such as it is, involves simply eating and reproducing. The other women, in a similar state around her, are happy to do this and remain unable both to read and write.

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Finally, after a fall, the reality of her true existence becomes apparent: Jane Waterleigh volunteered as a test subject for a new, synthesised drug which has provided the ability to exist out of body allowing travel through time. Showing a doctor she can write and that knowledge as a physician in another life sets her apart from the other illiterate Mothers, the biggest revelation emerges by accident: this society is bereft of men. The matriarchal society was built from the ashes of Jane’s own past, construction inspired by, of all things, a quote from the Bible:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
[Proverbs 6:6]

The profound and powerful persuasiveness of Wyndham’s first person narrative hooked me immediately. Previous science fiction novels I had read were so very obviously written with women in subservient, secondary roles. Even the HitchHiker’s Guide (which is still also loved after all these years) had two male protagonists: however funny the script was, there was no female heroine to identify with. Written from an almost totally female perspective, both heard and identified as relatable came as a breath of welcome fresh air which promoted unexpected excitement.

It wasn’t just voices and roles however that make Consider Her Ways so compelling: the unfolding horror Jane feels as it becomes apparent the entire fabric of society around her has altered to mimic an ant colony. From the three-foot-high miniature human Servitors to the muscle-bound and servile Workers (whom Jane considers as Amazons) everything could yet be a nightmare or some kind of hallucination. Only when she is on her way to have the truth explained is there a hint of a past only she can remember:

‘Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle amongst the grass and weeds: most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway signal.’

That image has stuck with me for decades, and is a perfect example of how using the familiar to highlight radical change is so effective. It is no different from Charlton Heston discovering a buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, a ‘reveal’ which has now become standard in apocalyptic fiction. When Jane is taken to meet historian Laura the real truth of the matter becomes apparent: an experiment in the past to eradicate brown rats produced unexpected and fatal consequences, effectively eliminating the male population. This conceit ironically was very close to how Hollywood chose to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise decades after it began.

In order to save humanity, the surviving women in Wyndham’s alternate future picked the ant ‘model’ as that which would most simply preserve their status quo, allowing a realistic chance of survival. It is in the conversations between Jane and Laura that subverts science fiction into the realms of radical feminism: to keep the species alive, a decision was taken not to re-introduce men, even when that option became possible.

As Jane argues that without two sexes, there can be no true love, passion or humanity, Laura presents a version of history where, across the centuries, women have simply been at the beck and call of men, subjugated in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the notion of ‘Romanticism:’ no value to their existence without men to compete for, and easily relegated to the role of second class citizens. The elimination of man from the equation allowed a better version of love and freedom, but required a sacrifice to maintain: hence the caste system was born. The babies of Mothers are graded and then assigned to the most appropriate ‘career’: nobody is unhappy, with each group more than willing to play their part for the advancement of the greater good.

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As an exercise in post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is these exchanges that are the most effective: having the opportunity to argue the merits of current society against what could happen were men to be removed makes for some beautiful exchanges, which even now I can recall without the need for book as reference: ‘it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round – and you believed them.’ The truth that kept these women alive without men was power, the same power men had used to subjugate them for centuries.

However, as a young girl, as yet really unaware of the place I’d take as a woman in later life, this portion of the book was close to a revelation. Being presented with both sides of the argument, elegantly and persuasively written, was the last thing I’d expected from a story that was supposed to be about a terrible future for mankind. Although nothing within these pages could really be considered as close to a treatise, the concepts were insightful. In my case at least, science fiction made me think, but not in a fanciful or fictional manner.

However, the master stroke comes in the last few pages: told her ‘memories’ of the past would be removed by hypnosis, Jane asks for a repeat dosage of chuinjuatin (drug that caused her to arrive in the future) in the hope she will return to her body. Once successful, she takes it upon herself to track down the doctor whose experimentation caused the disaster. A better example of the predestination paradox (or causal loop) you are not likely to find, and the ambiguity of the ending is hugely satisfying.

Science fiction’s greatest strength is the ability to present an alternative to the established order, and reminds us that, if we will allow it, everyone can become a time traveller. When I look back at my younger self and wonder how much may have been different had there been more novels with strong female protagonists, I understand the significance of films such as the current series of Star Wars and Wonder Woman for a younger audience. Without these key fictional inspirations, which inside we can imagine without restriction, there is no place to examine and dissect key ideas and sensations unique to our own psyches.

Occasionally one comes across a narrative so perfect that you never forget it, and for me this story is perhaps the best example of how to write: build tension slowly to exactly the right point before dropping a bombshell on your reader. I wanted to write stories as beautifully constructed as this (and still do.) In that regard I owe Wyndham a great debt, but not as much as the understanding that it does not matter what sex you are when writing. If the story engages and compels, you can pretend to be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.

We will look at the rest of the stories in the anthology next week, but for now I would urge this tale be read once, complete, even knowing the outcome. The language used remains very much the product of the 1950’s but the ideas and concepts within have a relevance that, in a world where sperm counts are dropping and sea levels rising, remains both applicable and challenging. Depending on who you believe, an apocalyptic event could be around the next corner… is a future without men really a feminist fantasy, or could we yet come to the point where procreation becomes irrelevant.

More importantly: if you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

Secret Messages

Origins

Before I leave the 1990’s behind for good, there is one story that is worth repeating. It’s not well known, and is the basis for a love affair with computing and the Internet which has failed to diminish over the last twenty years. It began on the back of unabashed fandom obsession for a TV show many people will never have heard of, but which is an important part of UK genre history. The year is 1995, and the TV show was BUGS.

This show was notable because it was created with input by Brian Clemens who was responsible for creating both The Avengers and The Professionals. It was, despite the now highly dated nature of the title sequence, pretty decent fare, and I have a fanfic written (almost complete) that covered my favourite period of the show. However, that was not all I was responsible for during that time period. For a brief and glorious two year period, I was Webmistress of the Official Website.

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Bureau Two was my baby: the Wayback Machine has copies of the site still archived from 20 years ago, when I was responsible for upkeep and was being paid by the production company to do so. This was the first time an external website was linked to the BBC’s own architecture, making it pretty much unique, and I was immensely proud of the achievement. The date on this capture’s apposite too: six days before the debut of the show’s Season 4, which was cancelled as a result of the Omagh Bomb on the 15th, as the opening episode contained an explosion. The series never really recovered after that, and was quietly cancelled, after which I signed over intellectual property rights and handed the data to the production company for upkeep.

This was my first experience of ‘professional’ writing too, and I was pretty proud of it. I liaised with the production company, had an editor to sign off all the work, and did it all off my own back. It made me realise I was capable of better things than simply the job I was beginning to hate, and gave me a vital lifeline away from my normal routine. Personal circumstances however transpired to push me away from pursuing this full-time, and becoming pregnant pretty much put the brakes on everything that involved dealing with other people. However, it allowed my fiction to finally get a look in. With confidence in web design, I started a West Wing ‘Fansite’ whilst waiting for my son’s birth in 2000, and succumbed to the rapidly emerging online Cult of Fan Fiction.

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We spoke about this last week, and you can read all the sordid details I’m prepared to admit there. On reflection, these were important times: using other people’s characters as a means to find my own voice has a fair deal of merit. I never made any money from them, nor would I wish to, but the lessons learnt concerning narrative structure really matter. More significantly, 2000 was when I began my first novel, which I pulled out this week after an absence of several months and again began to tinker with.

This time, however, it is going to be finished before the end of the year is out.

Book of the Month :: Understanding Wyndham

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris spent a lot of his life trying to decide which of his many monikers he felt most comfortable writing under. We will this month be looking at works only under the first two: however at some point every one was used to sell fiction. The desire to switch identities may well have had a lot to do with his turbulent early years: born in 1903, there is some speculation as to the actual date, which could have something to do with him being born out of wedlock. George Beynon Harris worked as a barrister and Gertrude Parkes was the daughter of a furnace operator from Birmingham: when John was eight, the couple separated.

This then resulted in him and his brother Vivian being sent from Edgbaston near Birmingham to a series of preparatory and public schools where they were to remain during the entirety of the First World War. It was finally in Hampshire, between 1918 and 1921, that Wyndham began to find himself and gain confidence to write. His first efforts were sent to American Science Fiction magazines (under the pen names John Beynon and John Beynon Harris) and in the early 1930’s he was to have three books published under these pseudonyms. Foul Play Suspected was a detective novel, but The Secret People and Planet Plane were very much indicative of the future he would pursue. The latter would eventually be renamed as Stowaway to Mars and be published under the most well-known nom de guerre.

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With the outbreak of World War Two, Wyndham began as a Ministry of Information censor, before beginning a military career as a Corporal in the British Army. 1944 saw him working as a cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, involved in operations post Normandy landings. After the war, encouraged by the success of his brother as a writer, John returned to science fiction. In 1951 he published the novel that was to mark the beginning of a prolific period of written output, and the title which is probably his best known piece of science fiction.

That novel tells of a deadly plant, capable of locomotion and rudimentary communication, and a meteor shower which subsequently renders almost the entire UK population blind overnight, allowing the carnivorous organisms opportunity to wreak terrible vengeance for being used as fuel. The Day of the Triffids was, by Wyndham’s own admission, heavily influenced by H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. Despite having the initial film rights bought by one Albert R. Broccoli (who went on to become the producer of the classic James Bond 007 series) the better adaptations ended up on the small screen, first in 1981 and again in 2009. It was the novel that established Wyndham as a significant force in English Sci-Fi, in a period where the genre was flourishing almost as prolifically as the authors’ deadly carnivorous flora.

The majority of his output was published between Triffids in 1951 and 1960: in 1963 he married his friend of twenty years, Grace Isobel Wilson and returned to live the remainder of his life in the grounds of the public school in Hampshire he’d loved so much in his youth. A year after the publication of the brilliant novelette Chocky he suddenly passed away, and a number of items were then posthumously released under his name. Liverpool University now holds the remaining archive of original works, with a back street in Hampstead mentioned in that first novel renamed ‘Triffid Alley’ as a memorial.

If one is to categorise Wyndham’s works, they are very much a product of the age in which the man existed. However, the author is not afraid to expand his remit when the subject matter dictates. In the case of The Chrysalids, for instance, both setting and content are a world away from the minutiae of 1950’s England, making for a tense and often genuinely frightening experience. Described as ‘cosy catastrophes’ (by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss) that is also a biased generalisation of the skill Wyndham possessed with both storytelling and language. As we will see next week with Consider her Ways, this was a man who was not hampered or uncomfortable when writing as a woman, and did so with more than a measure of believability.

When looking for works that would link past and present together for the Internet of Words, it was not just the female-centric nature of that one story that stood out for further appraisal. Of the six narratives in the anthology, all have resonance with later bodies of work by other authors, but also with contemporary subjects and ideas. Wyndham’s obsession with time travel and science ‘gone bad’ rings even more alarm bells when placed alongside the current issue we are experiencing in the early 21st Century. These are a very obvious perception of how future events could play out, grounded in modern English sensibilities.

There is a great debt owed by modern science fiction writers to the early pioneers such as Wyndham: stories read for the first time as an impressionable pre-teen echo through decades even now. The Chrysalids remains one of the most unsettling and frightening novels about how being ‘different’ and not adhering to what someone else considers as normal or acceptable could end up becoming deadly. The Trouble with Lichen addresses the still very current obsession in extending longevity and beauty beyond normal life expectancy. The Midwich Cuckoos has been imitated by countless other writers in different formats but never bettered: images from the now iconic 1960 cinema adaptation have become as recognisable as Wells’ Fighting Machines from War of the Worlds.

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More importantly, Wyndham’s stories remind us that science has come a long way since the end of the Second World War and what might have seemed fantastical in the early 1950’s is anything but in the 21st Century. The man’s obsession with Mars, as was the case for many writers during that period, was conceived whilst the dream of men on the Moon was still just that. The rapid expansion of mankind into the Universe may not be moving as fast as many would like, but that momentum is inevitable: in timelines that authors have already imagined and made real in the minds of children like myself, who devoured these works with enthusiasm.

Therefore the significance of fiction making actual what is not yet possible should never be underestimated, especially in the means by which it will influence future generations. As manufacturers and artists are now understanding how diversity matters in terms of demonstrating ideas and concepts to the next generation, so we see how writers made science fiction the ideal my generation desired as their future. I may still be waiting for the personal jet-pack, silver suit and flying car, but being able to access the Internet from a telephone’s still a concept that isn’t getting old any time soon.

Here is where deconstructing the literature of the past becomes as significant as being able to understand what we’re being shown right now, whether what we hear is real or not. Understanding how thoughts and ideas have been developed, and in the case of science fiction extrapolated into a ‘what if..?’ situation, it is easier to consider the ethical consequences of actions, through the minds and bodies of characters. Role playing remains a vital part of helping trauma victims come to terms with their issues, because pretending to be someone else is often easier than living as yourself. Knowing what is possible is all well and good, but how does one consider the consequences before real mistakes are made?

Literature has not ever simply been produced as entertainment: as is the case with theatre (and all the other forms of entertainment that have sprung forth from the dramatic arts) it serves an important function as both entertainment and teacher. Helping people learn using literature as a basis for deeper awareness should never be underestimated, and the ability to inspire remains potent: one needs only to look at modern phenomena such as the Harry Potter books to understand how a sweeping narrative can affect and dictate millions of separate, disparate lives.

As a writer, he remains by far my favourite ‘classic’ science fiction author, despite having read countless others across the years. A lot of that has to do with the ease with which he can write as either sex and make that process believable, but it is the depth and vitality of storytelling that means his work was a logical first choice for our second month’s worth of programming. The six short stories in the anthology can be completed in a couple of evenings and represent the best selection of short stories that Wyndham ever wrote.

This body of work, because of the dated nature of many of the backdrops, is far too often overlooked as a source of rich creativity. I hope I can, in the next few weeks, persuade you not simply to revisit some of his most famous works, but come to a greater appreciation of how even the most mundane of situations allows the reader to think outside of their normal experiences and ideas.

GSME #20 :: New Shoes

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The more astute amongst you will have noticed that this site has changed appearance. It’s not a seismic shift by any means but… the header image is now different, there’s some stuff organised behind the scenes and (by the time you read this) there will be an archive area for all the Books of the Month we will be trailing and then writing about, plus poetry associated with each month. As we discussed last week, this is all wrapped around my acceptance that if I want to ‘sell’ a Patreon that revolves around the cerebral world of poems and non fiction, I need to be targetting this to people other than those currently following me.

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In the revolving bird feeder that is Social media, I already know that keeping up with trends matters rather a lot. Unfortunately, making my content right now is taking up far more time than I’d like, which is leaving the brain less than optimal for self-promotion. Therefore, the plan is to try and improve the site little by little until the end of the Summer Holidays, and then when I’m on my own again in early September (and therefore able to dedicate a bit more time to the promotional side of things.)  Therefore during month I want to try and up the Patreon subscription count from existing followers before I start trying to hook them from other places. That leaves the rest of August to trying to optimise myself effectively.

#lifegoals It can be done ✅

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I think that will be eminently doable under current timescales.

Mulder and Scully

Origins

The year is 1995. My boyfriend (now husband) and I are living together, and decide to go to the USA for a holiday, to stay with people I’d met via the Internet.

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The early days of Usenet are an incredibly significant part of my life, that I really don’t like to talk about at all. I’ve written and subsequently trashed about a dozen drafts of this post as testament to just how much this period screws with my brain. It’s been holding up everything else I’d really like to write about, because… I wasn’t the most emotionally adult person during my twenties and early thirties. Yeah, that’s a diplomatic way of putting it. I’m not proud of a lot of what happened, which covers early days of newsgroups and arguing in ASCII to Livejournal and arguing in web-browsers. I was an antagonist back then too: I’d like to say they were simpler times, but they weren’t. I should have learnt my lesson during that 1995 trip: people who you meet online will often hide things, or lie in order to get what they want. Turning up with a boyfriend on the East Coast in August did not go down well with our first host, and things went largely downhill from there.

On reflection, it is probably why this holiday never gets talked about that much.

A Piece of History.

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My husband being booked for speeding is the only physical part of that holiday which remains, and now becomes useful as a marker. One of the three people we stayed with for that trip visited us a year on, and that weekend’s best left forgotten in history too. What that entire period taught has only become clear in retrospect: emotional immaturity can completely screw you up. In fact, let’s just ignore my 20’s and most of the 30’s and move on. It is important however to note at this juncture how the Internet shaped the future of just about everything I would then go onto do, including writing. My first piece of fan fiction, for instance, was X Files related. However, that was not the show that became my biggest obsession and ultimately caused the most damage.

I was involved in B5 Fandom up until the birth of my son in 2000, and again it is a case of bad outweighing good in my own mind: that means I’ve fairly systematically removed all references and links from that period and am now at something approximating peace with what happened. However, if you really care I can be found, fingerprints almost impossible to delete across a platform which really never forgets and is the most brutally honest remembrance of history. I never wrote fiction for that sci fi show (and know why:) it took another US series, which first aired in the UK whilst I was pregnant for the first time, to push me into what became a legitimate effort into organised working. That co-incided with my life on LiveJournal (which I joined shortly after launch in 1999) and was, for the most part, never truly me at all. However, it was the first time I ever felt comfortable sharing my work in public and for that fact alone, my West Wing fan fiction days should be recorded for posterity.

A cursory Google search brings up only sixteen hits for my old username, but my work is still out there. The Internet never forgets, people. There’s other stuff too, but nothing that I’ve found which is enough to reduce me to embarrassing bouts of toe curling. When that reckoning comes I’m ready for whatever gets thrown at me: I learnt a lot in those couple of years, most of which was built around how I ‘see’ action literally play out like a TV show or film in my head. It wasn’t just West Wing either: CSI, Dr Who and Torchwood have been poked by me over the years. I promised someone I’d pull out some of that old work, and that will happen in the next few months. To learn from the past we must embrace both the good and bad to move forward.

I’ve kept in touch with the only person I ever really connected with back in those days, who is still friends and will probably berate me for being overly hard on myself. The fact remains that the years since my kids have been born are the best of my life, not simply in writing terms. I need this period marked on my history, but nothing more is required to understand what I am. Everything of real interest happens after 2000, but really it is 2004 where the world around me finally shatters and forces a complete realignment. Before I return to the week of the Madrid Train Bombs, however, there is one last story to tell, wrapped around genre TV, and I’ll keep that for next week.

For now, let’s just forget that 1995 to 2004 ever happened.