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.

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.


 

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?

GSME #20 :: Did it Again

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I have, for some time, lamented the lack of choice that Twitter presents for small businesses. It appears that someone in the company’s hierarchy not only agrees with me, but is working to allow more flexibility for promoting less ‘behemoth’ companies on Social media:

Right now, the invites are under Twitter’s control and are focused according to two very specific criteria: location and interests. Fortunately for me, the initial criteria does include something I’d jump at:

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Looking at locations right now, these are limited to a selection of US cities, where, presumably, Twitter use is highest. Therefore I could sign up, pay my $99 (or EU equivalent) and target a month’s worth of output to London, or Leeds… or indeed New York or Canberra, depending on where I’d like to aim my output. Ideally for me the interests option makes better financial sense than going for location initially, because although I know people like poetry in London, I’d be far better off considering a larger sample of potential readers than simply one city.

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To say this would be perfect for my niche interest/plan to use the Internet of Words as a marketing platform is something of an understatement. Right now you can’t just arrive unannounced however: it appears you need to be signed up for Twitter Ads to begin with, and as I’m not yet at that stage, it is all a bit academic. What this does push me to do however is, when I’m back to term time and the holidays are over, ensure I’m ready to go with content and associated blog posts. This means making sure I publish my Haiku and Micropoetry each week without fail, that links on the blog are kept current, and a continuous stream of content is available.

Once I can do that consistently? I reckon this closed beta will be done, and I can start throwing my money at Twitter.

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.

A Blank Page :: Haiku and Micropoetry

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This week’s poetry was a really fun thing to write, for several reasons. A lot of this has to do with the fact that as each seven days passes, I get better at doing this. I’m not going to start making assertions of expertise or competence however: there’s an awfully long way to go. The adage however that practice makes perfect is not only true for the exercise portion of my lifestyle: every new poem makes that portion of my brain a little more supple and flexible, and opens new possibilities. Picking a subject on a Sunday gives the opportunity for thoughts to percolate, and I think long term that doing that in advance and not inventing ideas on the fly will be the less stressful option, and may well produce the better rewards.

I’ll now let you decide whether the change in creation timescales produces a better result or not.


A Blank Page ::

Haiku Sequence

A blank page beckons:
Consider; possibilities
Tumble forth at will.

Will I write at once?
Perhaps: a break, moment to
Sit with pencil primed.

No, quickly write, or
Else momentum fades, let not
A moment be lost.

Exploding, I grasp
Ideas: concepts flying from
This mind ready, set.

Go and fill your page:
Let words become foundation
For story, now told.


A Blank Page ::

Micropoetry Sequence

Start with nothing:
Then, sit and wait.
Inspiration;
Out of the gate.

A sudden burst
To fill the page:
Intuition;
That comes with age.

My words will flow,
Fingers to screen:
Cerebration,
Conclusion seen.

From empty space,
An idea forms:
Fantastic thoughts,
Whilst brain still storms.

The final word,
My digits rest;
From nothing sprang
Story, progressed.


 

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.

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.

Change :: Micropoetry & Haiku

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Last week, I used one subject to act as the basis for both my scheduled morning and evening poetry Tweets on the Internet of Words account. The exercise worked pretty well, all told, and as a result I’ll be doing the same thing for next week’s sequences (subject matter to be decided over a cuppa and a low-fat brownie shortly.) What I’m finding most useful, in terms of writing, is having my mind in the same place in terms of the language I use. Knowing there is a subject matter allows me to make lists of words that act as starting points, metaphors and similes that can then be used either to build the basis of the work, or as means to act as ‘filler’ until the correct words appear.

This week, I think, is a new benchmark in terms of what I am capable of producing. These poems came off the back of a pretty fruitful period of work in both fiction and non-fiction too, and it is true what they say about productivity fuelling more of the same.

I hope you enjoy these two sequences presented complete.


Change and Growth :: Haiku Sequence

This seed inside, small
Start, so strong: germinating,
Life springs from within.

Spark explodes, massive
Detonation, point blossoms
Expanding ripples.

Self doubt evolving
Evaporates, forming vast
Mists of fertile thought.

Condensing clouds drift
Across mental plains, waiting
Ready to hold change.

I am growth, reborn:
Cycle of Fertility
Goddess of Renewal.


Change and Growth :: Micropoetry Sequence

Despite fatigue, I push
Understanding to change
Requires a mental strength
That transcends weight of life.

Whatever in my way
Tries to derail, there must
Be pause to think at length.
Grow; seek another path.

I am capable, of
Wondrous things: look beyond
Restrictions understood,
Then quietly cast aside.

My evolution, here
With pencil, pen, pixel
Transcends existing fear:
I can do this, and will.

The only limit, time
My imagination:
Catalyst, creating
Glorious change and growth.


 

Book of the Month :: The Key to Dreams

As promised, here’s the first short story based on our Book of the Month content. I look forward to heading your responses in the comments.



The Key to Dreams



I came here because there is nothing left to lose.


The callow, willow-thin doctor was very clear: your cancer’s inoperable, I’d give you probably a year at most, these monthly payments support basic treatment and palliative care. The mass in my lung, behind left shoulder blade itches within, prompting a wish I’d made better choices as a teenager. That’s not true: this life has been lived to the limit. It is ironic therefore the slide towards demise could be bitter and painful, if I decided to allow other people to dictate that course.

I’ve never stayed put long enough to suffer indignity, and that’s not about to change.


The medical study invitation is discovered on the back of the Hospital bathroom door. It is a sad state of affairs when you’re being sold to whilst throwing up, but on reflection the concept is sound. Already here because you’re sick, a miracle cure that costs nothing will undoubtedly appear more attractive. I fit the age range, am in good physical health regardless of the Stage Three tumour. What’s there to lose by phoning the number?

An overly cheerful operator asks where I saw their media, and maybe this is not the moment to state it was ruined with shock induced vomit, as that would admit a measure of sudden despair. Already the settlement being offered as incentive is enough for a beyond decent holiday, chance to spend last days in some far-flung resort, slowly drinking towards oblivion. They must be desperate too, an interview is organised in under fifteen minutes.

Perhaps these people know exactly where I grasped their lifeline, and appreciate there’s no time for delay.


The gentrified part of town’s intimidating for a man who’s spent a life living in various degrees of squalor, shanty towns and refugee camps. Everything is too clean, scrubbed magnolia bright, no litter to speak of and not a single sign of homelessness. When all you want is to survive, where to sleep rarely matters, just that you can. I had to buy a new overnight bag, replace disintegrating trainers to stay at the Clinic, aware my disregard for appearance could count as a hindrance. Presentation matters, the representative they sent to my low rent apartment complex home had reminded me, effort does not have to be expensive. She’d stared disdainfully around my recycled house, full of other people’s discarded furniture, refusing to sit or to accept any effort at hospitality.

My exemplary work ethic and record as a care worker, years spent with relief projects in War Zones, made me an excellent candidate for treatment, I was told in the Clinic’s boardroom as each legal waiver was exchanged and signed. After six hours of exhaustive tests the day before, this was undoubtedly the harder task. I understood exactly the risks involved in this treatment were not simply significant, but tangible, unavoidable and all the other terms they threw into the mix… and yet still there was disbelief at my almost cheerful willing to succumb as lab-rat.

I’m going to die in a year and can’t afford chemotherapy, which bit of I’m desperate and don’t care do you not understand?

The youngest of the lawyers stared, blonde hair almost translucent in early morning sun, expressing amazement at the lack of fear. When you’ve spent every day for thirty years living with death, watching the inhumanity of man to his brother, rationalising choice becomes surprisingly simple. She will have healthcare, a partner to look after her. If I pawned that diamond engagement ring she flaunts, it would buy food for the rest of my life with enough left over to cover funeral costs.

Everything, when you break it down, ends up a matter of perspective.


After a further week of poking and prodding, mental and physical tests seemingly without end, it is decided Max Jacobs is approved for treatment, and the black car arrives to take me away. An hour of driving in darkness brings us to the edge of the Combat Zone where it becomes apparent who my real benefactor is: fat, green military transport’s being loaded as I’m helped from my seat. Everybody else is on stretchers, making me wonder why all that time was spent addressing mental health.

It is a long, predictable flight north, across terrain inhospitable for many years, toxic forests full of beasts mutated by humanity’s stupidity. My parents had both fought in the last of the Ground Wars, scars all too obvious even as a child. They’d wanted a girl, because then she’d have avoided National Service, but instead I left them at sixteen as a conscientious deserter and never came back. Perhaps if we’d all loved each other more things could have been different. My mother died last year, lost in mental deterioration as had been the case for close to a decade.

When Dad passed in my 30’s, she’d not even asked me back for the Funeral. Instead there had come a letter, money spent in a year of excess and conspicuous consumption, before returning to work with this continent’s refugees. The faded remains of that letter shake in cold hands, words barely distinguishable. ‘Your life is what you make of it. The key to dreams is living them in every moment possible.’ My ambition, such as it was, remained simple and earnestly applied until the diagnosis: regardless of who you are, life is yours and not for others to dictate.

Grant everybody one fair chance.

It had been this ethos, the medical team stated, which sealed my participation in the project. Having spent a life allowing others opportunity to start theirs anew, it seemed only right and proper to afford that same courtesy to me. They would cure my cancer, and in exchange I would become a spokesman for this new treatment, granted to those who had worked hardest to deserve it. Except now sitting here in the belly of an aircraft, Sunday School lesson from childhood is remembered, as blood runs cold.

The Devil will tempt you with promises he cannot keep.


This mountaintop hospital is home, has been for nearly three months. Every day is the same: breakfast, exercise and thirty minutes in the Halo; bright light that surrounds, attacking disease at a molecular level. After that I am allowed to do as I wish: climbing, cycling plus countless other distractions. Anything I want is available, yet I dare not ask for a thing. Stage Three inoperable cancer was, as of this morning, downgraded to Stage Two. The facility doctors expect me to be cancer-free by the end of the year.

I knew I was cured even before the man opened his mouth.

Unseen by anyone, my mind’s transformation in the Halo spreads tentative shoots of new, unexpected awareness. Disquiet is held within: I’m beyond adept at hiding the disparity each day makes more glaring. The fatality rate here is worryingly high: the body bags in the black van leave daily, sometimes twice. I’m kept away from anyone else, distracted by an unending stream of scientists and nurses, who are clearly grateful there is no sexual desire or need to form attachments harboured within.

Being a loner was exactly what was required: I hear their thoughts, confirm belief I’m becoming insular, when nothing could be further from the truth. His body chemistry is the key my doctors whisper with glee, this unexpected set of conditions which will allow resistance to everything. The lies continue to deepen, each person living their part on cue. For a while it was body language that gave them away, a manner in speaking but today for a moment, I was able to force a doctor to utter the truth. I am being altered, cell by cell, to become Patient Zero.

Continued life expectancy, suddenly, is a hindrance.


Two weeks later, I wake to whispers: Jacobs is no longer required to remain either conscious or free, and it is time for rebellion. Testing my now quite practised skills on the nurse sent to prepare me for transfer to the Isolation Unit results in far better than expected results. Ridiculously easy to mentally manipulate, the injection meant to render me unconscious drops to the floor. If I am to escape, it will require assistance, but that is already anticipated: I send Nurse Carter away to fetch Naomi Fisher, woman in part responsible for my extraordinary recovery, who now wants this body as an experiment.

Fisher faces away, frozen solid at my bedside as I dress, mind totally blank. It takes but a moment to rearrange neurones, eliminating all ability to recall what is now being seen and heard. I’ve undergone a complete mental transformation since arrival yet crucially nobody had bothered to monitor my brain: all they cared about was resistance to cancer, which would now have been robustly tested with a range of genetically enhanced strains.

I don’t want to play God but know these people already have: control, subjugation and dominance under the flimsiest of pretexts. I’ve seen the worst the military can and have wrought, casualties of war and thoughtless arrogance. I refuse to die as so many others have been sacrificed. A real dream of peace and happiness for all could be possible with what this woman has created, but not here.

Carter has retrieved the box full of my blood samples and vaccines already crafted from a remarkable body. As each mind within the facility becomes aware of the escape in progress I shut them down, quietly calming fear in every one. My strength has always been reassurance, untroubled care: three decades of training serves me well. A hundred staff are finally silenced, happy to just stand inert as I walk out of the facility with Fisher into lengthening twilight.

She’ll return to her Military Base believing without doubt that I died in the fire.


As I instruct her to drive us away there is but brief glance back to the building, flames now consuming upper floors. There will be no fatalities: everyone lies unconscious outside, happily dreaming in the car park. When they wake it will be with no memory of what happened, or that anything was wrong. A sudden embolism ruined the project, utterly unexpected: records electronically returned to the Base Naomi calls home. I’ve been very careful not to leave a fingerprint on anything or a hair out of place. There’s still the chance they’ll come looking, but by then it will be too late.

I wonder briefly at the morality of rearranging people’s memories, controlling as I have. The engine runs as sleep instantly consumes Fisher’s consciousness, car stopped in a clearing as I make an escape. Her mind is hollow: selfish and single-minded – will remain so when she wakes. The guilt I’ve given at my death at her hands is strong enough to consume if there is a refusal to change: it will become a measure of her ability to cope. The key in her dreams has been provided, to unlock redemption in thoughts and actions. A willing mind can set a path away from evil, necessary if and when that revelation is acted upon.

I offer the possibility to be better. Grant everybody one fair chance. That was what was signed up for, and now, that is the future I will ensure takes place.


The unconscious truck driver stirs in blissful sleep as we approach the edge of the Refugee Zone, unaware he’s done a several hundred mile detour, but he’ll thank me soon enough. The undetected cancer in his pancreas is already shrinking, and when I let him go it will be to a future illness-free. He’s become Patient Zero, first recipient of the vaccine, and this isn’t a military operation any more. With me in charge, it is time to find the right people to rearrange nearly a century of civil war into something far better.

I came here, because they have nothing left to lose.