Review: The Long Winter by John Christopher

This book is very dated in its attitude to gender and race but incredibly relevant in its subject matter: climate change. In this novel, a drop in the sun’s radiation is causing the earth to get colder. Formerly temperate countries are becoming covered in snow and ice. Andy is living in England as this begins and the story tells of the slow start to this long winter that results in many people fleeing south to warmer countries. It covers both the situation in England and what happens to the refugees once they reach Africa.

One thing I liked about this book was how it focused mainly on the relationships between the characters. I wasn’t always sure I believed them, but it almost made the end of the world the background of the novel rather than its centre. You can some interesting dynamics between Andy, his ex-wife, the man his wife is now with and the woman Andy is beginning to care for. There are also some nice background characters, well though out and interesting, who explore some of the reactions people have to a crisis.

I just couldn’t get over the way the race issue was handled. Unfortunately, even today, there was probably still some truth in the racism portrayed but, while the rest of the book was relevant today, the way the narrative dealt with the differences between blacks and whites made the book seem incredibly old fashioned.

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Tech Tuesday: Gesture Interface

In my second year at university, I did a module on human computer interaction. I found the subject fascinating and some of the technologies we discussed during that module even made it into Child of the Hive.

One technology that we discussed was gesture recognition. The idea was that there could be a sensor on a computer that can recognise movement and gestures that humans take for granted. This is an incredibly natural way to interact because we use movement so much in interactions with people.

When we talked about this in university, it seemed like science fiction. In fact, we talked about the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise interacts with a computer by waving his hands. Only a couple of years ago, that was fiction.

It’s strange how quickly the future becomes the present.  

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Tech Tuesday: Time Travel

This week, I’m going to talk about time travel. This is a staple of science fiction. As a piece of science that’s still very much speculation, there’s a lot of freedom for writers. There are some common options to consider.

1. Time travellers can’t change history.  In this style of time travel story, anyone who goes back in time becomes part of the timeline. They might actually cause an event they travelled in time to prevent.

2. Time travellers can change history. This is the exact opposite of the previous option, where travellers’ actions could alter the timeline. The classic example of this is Back to the Future, where Marty prevents his parents meeting and starts to fade out of existence. In these sort of stories, the slightest mistake could cause a catastrophic change in history.

3. It may seem strange that I’m coming up with a third option after having two that seem to cover both sides of the situation. This third option is that time travelling creates a new universe. This theory ties with the idea of parallel universes. The act of travelling back in time causes a parallel universe to be formed. This way, travellers can cause changes but the changes happen in this new universe, not the one they came from, so they wouldn’t be able to wipe themselves out of history.

These are three common conventions. If working time-travel into a story, it’s a good idea to stick to just one.

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Unfinished works

I’ve abandoned rather a lot of writing projects over the years. Some of them, I intend to go back to. Others have slipped beneath the radar.

Firstly, there was Fortune’s Blade. This was intended to be an epic seven book fantasy adventure. I worked out the major plot points of all the books. I knew the history and myths of the country where a lot of the action look place. I knew the background of the main characters. I hadn’t gone as far as Tolkein, but I’d worked out key words and some grammatical constructs in the ancient language of one country. I’d even finished writing the first draft of the first book.

So why did this get abandoned? I realised that the first book felt like a book-long prologue. It explained how several of the main characters met and became friends. It showed the youth and training of characters who would go on to be the key players in the adventure that would follow. But the main plot of the series wouldn’t start until a good way into book two.

So my poor draft got shelved. If I do pick up this series again, I’ll probably start from book four, which introduces another character after a several-year gap in the narrative. Maybe I could write the first three books as a prequel. And hopefully do a better job than George Lucas.

Then there’s The Angel Conflict. This novel walks the border between sci-fi and fantasy. I wanted to explore the idea of having people on opposite sides of a conflict being friends. There are lots of ideas I still like about this project. The problem was that there were two generations of characters. So often, the older generation kept stopping to explain what had happened twenty-odd years earlier. After a while, I realised that maybe I ought to be telling that story properly. Doing so would involve completely restarting the book with an entirely new structure. Somehow, I never worked up the enthusiasm.

I can blame my mum for Guardians to the End. I gave her a first draft of this novel as a Christmas present and she hated it. It’s proof that you can have too much of a good thing: too complex a plot, too many characters, too many sci-fi concepts. After hearing what she had to say, that project didn’t so much get shelved as trashed.

I’ve kept the universe though. I may go back there to play sometime.

Another abandoned project is Am I Perfect Yet. This novel is very different from my usual style of writing. This is an emotional tale of depression and disordered eating as a teenaged girl tries to become perfect. The story deals with some difficult issues and was quite a difficult one to write, emotionally. I put the project to one side when I was dumped by my boyfriend of three and a half years. I was in such a fragile state that writing a book about depression was not a sensible thing to do. I plan of resurrecting this novel at some stage though.

There’s the second Technicality Man story, The Adventures of Technicality Man: The Revenge of Origami Man. This is another superhero parody of the same style as the first Technicality Man story. There are a couple of jokes I quite like, including the concept of voodoo origami, Chesty Cough Girl deciding that puppies need heroes as much as people, and Tom’s comment on the role of tech support in a superhero world: “All I do is fix your equipment, get taken hostage and hack into the guidance systems of nuclear missiles.” I’ve written a couple of thousand words but ended up writing myself into a corner. I have at least figure out how Tom gets out of the basement though…

Finally, there’s Flying the Nest, a potential sequel to Child of the Hive. I’ve written about 30000 words of this story set several years after the end of Child. This one got abandoned when I was going through the publishing process for Child. I spent two months editing Child like crazy before sending it off to publishers and then the manuscript went through stages of proof-reading and editing. At every stage, the publisher would send the manuscript back to me, telling me to read through carefully twice. When you’ve read the same book about ten times in six months, you get a little sick of the characters. I wanted to write something new.

This story will get completed though. Eventually.

So if you’re a writer sitting with a portfolio of unfinished creations, take comfort that you’re not the only one.

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Review: Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Blessed is the norm!

I’ve enjoyed most John Wyndham books I’ve read but The Chrysalids is my absolute favourite. Not only does it have an excellent plot and strong characters, the tale is a fascinating commentary on prejudice and religious extremists. It’s a brilliant coming-of-age story about a young boy having to choose his own beliefs and decide what he thinks is right.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future. Large areas are uninhabitable and mutations are common. These mutations are considered to be the work of the devil. These Blasphemies must be destroyed whenever found. In the rural community where the story is set, any plant or animal that is even slightly abnormal is slaughtered. But livestock aren’t the only ones born with mutations…

The book’s narrator, David, starts to doubt the religious fervour shown by his family when he encounters a six-toed girl. His doubts grow as it becomes apparent that he is not quite as normal as he might seem. He and a few others, including his cousin Rosalind, have the ability to communicate by sending mental images to each other. This small group realise that they will never be accepted so they must hide their abilities.

Hiding becomes a lot harder though when they discover that there is someone close to them with enormous power but little control.

There is an excellent sense of tension through the story that gradually builds towards a fantastic climax. There’s plenty of adventure in the story but also some deeply emotional aspects. A lot of the focus of the story is around the difficulty of hiding something so important from the people around them, including family, friends and even a husband. I think it’s this aspect that makes the story so powerful.

I would strongly recommend this novel.

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Tech Tuesday: Faster than Light Travel

When writing fiction, there are few rules but a lot of guidelines. With science fiction, one of those guidelines is to stick within the laws of physics as known at the time of writing. So you can write about things we can’t do yet, but it’s best to make them seem at least feasible within the bounds of known science.

One exception to this guideline is faster than light (FTL) travel.

The speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant. Einstein’s special relativity theory states that this constant is the highest speed that can be achieved. The actual theory is a lot more complex than that and there are some complications around the flow of time at light-speed. Without getting into the physics in depth, it suffices to say that no matter how powerful your spaceship is, it won’t be able to move faster than the speed of light.

This can lead to problems if your story involves travel between different planets. The problem is simply one of distance. The nearest planet that’s been discovered is 10.5 light years away. So even if you can get up to light-speed, it would take more than a decade to reach it. The planet in question is more similar to Jupiter than it is to Earth, so having humans landing or living on it would be rather difficult. If you want to have human-inhabited colonies and planets spread across the galaxy, the distances are likely to be much vaster. It’s more likely that it would take a lifetime or more to get between planets where we could survive (assuming we find any).

That could be part of your story. There are some very interesting stories written about colony ships travelling to other worlds, using either generation ships or freezing the colonists. There’s also an interesting piece of Einstein’s theory is that as you approach the speed of light, time slows down. So the ship might take years to get there, but it will feel like days or weeks to the travellers.

All of this is interesting fodder for fiction, but there is still an issue if you want your characters to be able to travel around between different worlds regularly. If you want people to be able to set out in a ship and arrive in a few days, then you hit this problem.

You can get round this issue using hyperspace, but that’s another complex theory that’s deserving of a post in its own right.

Or you can cheat. I did say that this was an exception to the guideline about obeying the laws of physics.

Just give your ships FTL engines. Travel between planets is so well-established in science fiction now that readers are willing to ignore the impossibility and enjoy the story. But if you can find a scientific way to justify it, that’s even better.

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Technicality Man: Chapter Two

The Adventures of Technicality Man: The Rise of COMPSCI

Chapter Two: Concerning Pedantry

There was no such thing as neutral territory when it came to meetings between superheroes and villains. If such a place existed, it wouldn’t stay neutral for long once arguments started over who had whose parents fed to mutant gerbils or who had whom arrested for acute megalomania. A large number of the super-powered community were gathered in Alchemisto’s lair, arguing like the average neighbours’ meeting over the superheroic equivalent of whose job it was to trim the hedge.

The arguments weren’t restricted to the humanoid members. A fair few of the cats had come along to lend a paw. While the cats, as guardians of the stories, theoretically existed above the standard conflicts, most allied themselves with either good or evil. Prudish Manx and Sexual Attraction Lynx were snarling at each other while The Cheater had a disagreement with Correct Punctuation Lion.

It was probably a good thing that quite a few of the cats weren’t there. Technicality Man wasn’t sure where most of the absentees were, except for Tangent Tiger, who was still imprisoned in Chester Zoo following his last conflict with Continuity Leopard. As it was, Alchemistress was complaining about the cat hair on the carpet. Those complaints faded to insignificance when it turned out Necromanto had brought his zombies.

“I’m not having dead bodies dropping limbs on my furniture!”

Fortunately, Necromanto’s sillier brother, Necropanto, was too busy making he’s-behind-you jokes to have brought some of his bizarre creations.

Strangely, the most swearing came from two who weren’t involved in the arguments. Good For Nothing Boy and Bemused Girl were ignoring the crisis and were using the supercomputer to play Mario Kart.

Some of those gathered were using the opportunity to do some recruiting. Colonel Stereotype was trying to convince Refractor, whose allegiance was currently split, that he should fully join the forces of evil.

“A recent study showed that 78% of villains have more fun than heroes of equivalent status. The same study showed that bad guys had up to 93% less angst and brooding. Give me your business card and I’ll send you an application form.”

When Refractor continued to hesitate, Stereotype went on, “The entrance exam for evil is a lot easier than the one for good, plus, if you’re not happy with the result, you just kill your examiner and that counts as an automatic pass.”

Geologist Man let loose a burst of his Awesome Powers of Rock (TM) to get everyone’s attention. The sudden silence was broken by the electronic music of Mario Kart and the two sidekicks swearing at each other.

“We need to solve this crisis,” Geologist Man called things to order.

There came a flurry of speech as half the room made suggestions or comments.

“Silence!” yelled Colonel Stereotype. A couple of people were slow in obeying and found themselves doing press-ups while the meeting continued.

Alchemisto took suggestions for solutions, writing them up on a whiteboard, amid murmurs of doubt as ideas got steadily more absurd.

“We can’t filter the oceans.”

“How does chopping down the rainforest help?”

“No one can build a centrifuge that big.”

“We wouldn’t be able to organise that many robot penguins.”

The bickering level rose again as people tore apart each others’ potential plans. The meeting looked set to dissolve into chaos again.

“It’s obvious what needs to be done,” said Good For Nothing Boy. The attention of everyone in the room turned to him but he failed to elaborate. Instead, he just let out a stream of obscenities as his kart was knocked off a bridge by a shell. As he provided absolutely no explanations for his remark, several people looked set to strangle him. It was only Alchemistress threatening to confiscate his Wii that made him pause his game and actually explain.

“There’s a hero here whose abilities are super-powered pedantry. It’s physically impossible to turn water into blood. Technicality Man just has to focus on the water and, because it can’t have changed, it won’t have changed.”

Suddenly, all eyes were on Technicality Man. The fate of the world was in his hands. This was what he’d dreamt of when he’d been just a mild-manner computer programmer. Somehow, it was more terrifying and less exciting than he’d imagined. He’d never saved anything larger than a small town and even that had been a while ago. He hadn’t done any serious saving since he’d managed to get his nemesis, Ultimate Licence, arrested for speeding when he went faster than the speed of light.

“Um, I can try,” he said.

Technicality Man channelled his power. His abilities, useful only for finding errors in things, now found the errors in the universe. He stood there, eyes closed, trying to undo Alchemisto’s damage. He was about to open his eyes and declare he had no idea what he was doing, when he heard someone exclaim:

“He did it!”

Technicality Man looked as everyone gathered around the supercomputer. The controls had be wrested from Good For Nothing Boy and the screens were now showing satellite images of seas and oceans returned to normal.

“Isn’t that a bit of an anti-climax?” someone asked.

“It’s only chapter two,” came the response. “You don’t want a real climax yet.”

It had worked. Technicality Man couldn’t quite believe it as so many people wanted to shake his hand or slap him on the back. He’d just saved the world.

“That was a bright idea, Good For Nothing Boy,” Alchemisto told his sidekick.

“Awesome. Does this mean I can change my name?”

“No.”

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Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. In the first book, The Hunger Games, Katniss was forced to fight other children for the entertainment of the Capitol. Her actions and strategy in the arena won her the sympathies of the audience… but meant something completely different in the districts whose children were forced into this yearly sacrifice. In her method of survival, Katniss outwitted the makers of the game. She demonstrated that it’s possible to fight the Capitol. Now there is unrest in the districts and the president will make Katniss pay for her part in it.

The previous book was largely focussed on the arena and those who were being forced to fight for the death. This book delves deeper into the surrounding world. Now we get glimpses of the other districts and the level of anger that is felt towards the Capitol.

The plot is slightly more complex than the first book but no less gripping. In fact, there are some surprising plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat as I was reading. There is a danger of sequels that they can sometimes feel like regurgitations of the same material but that was in no way the case about this book. I didn’t know what to expect from the storyline and the fact that by now I knew the characters just helped me get more engaged.

A lot of the things that drew me to the first book are obvious in this one: the exciting plot, the sinister background, the great characters. We see a little more of characters that are in the background in the first book such as Katniss’ sister Prim and her stylist Cinna. Katniss remains the strong central character that was there in the first book but now we see her when it’s not just her life in danger.

I would really recommend this book to anyone with a love of excitement but I strongly suggest reading The Hunger Games first. A lot of this book wouldn’t make sense without that one and reading this first would spoilt the surprises in the plot of The Hunger Games.

I’m now eagerly awaiting the final instalment.

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Tech Tuesday: Voice Activated Technology

In today’s Tech Tuesday post, I’m going to talk about voice-activated systems. This has been a staple of science fiction for years. People giving vocal commands to computers instead of pressing buttons. They are more common in television shows and films than in books, no doubt because it makes it easier for the audience to follow what’s going on. By speaking a command to a machine, a character’s plans are revealed to the audience without having to rely on exposition.

Voice-activated systems are a wonderful idea and something that has been worked on for years. Unfortunately, the reality of current systems can be summed up in this clip from the recent Star Trek movie:

The problem is accents. The same language can sound completely different when spoken in local accents. A Yorkshireman sounds nothing like a Cockney and someone from Birmingham sounds nothing like someone from Glasgow.

Voice-activated technology has reached the level where I can phone up a computer system and, through spoken commands, get it to play my voicemail or recite my email. Unfortunately, I work for an American company so this software only works when I fake an American accent. Our company briefly turned on a feature on our messaging servers that provided a text transcript of voicemails. It worked perfectly if the person leaving the message had an American accent. The feature was turned off when it became apparent that the main purpose was to provide us amusement as we collected the hilariously misinterpreted outputs when anyone else left a message. I think my favourite was the message that ended, “Cheese pizza buy.” Needless to say, the actual voicemail had nothing to do with ordering pizzas.

You can train voice-recognition systems. Most voice recognition systems come with some sample text to read that covers a wide enough range of words for the computer to get a handle on the speaker’s accent. There are two problems with this. One is that such training will only work on an individual. The other comes when, for example, you’re dictating an email and want to include in the text the same word that is the command to send the finished email.

Voice recognition systems have come a long way but still a long way to go before they’re ready.

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Revew: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an enthralling and sometimes disturbing book. It’s the first of a trilogy set in a dystopian future. The country of Panem is ruled from the Capitol and the citizens of twelve districts work to provide resources for the wealthy inhabitants of the Capitol. Those districts near the Capitol are fairly wealthy themselves, providing luxury goods, gems and electronic equipment. Katniss is from district twelve, a poor mining community, where she fights to keep her mother and sister from starvation.

One of the ways the Capitol maintains its brutal hold is by the Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl from each district are sent to the Capitol. There they are made celebrities and then put into an arena for a fight to the death which is broadcast across Panem. When Katniss’ little sister Prim is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is sent with Peeta, a boy who once gave her bread when she was starving, knowing that it’s unlikely either of them will make it out alive.

There are several things which made this book so good. One is the plot, which keeps you hooked. Some things are a little predictable, but that didn’t stop me from turning the pages as I desperately wanted to see how things turned out. The writing style is gripping, taking you from one exciting predicament to the next as Katniss struggles for her life.

Another thing that I thought was great about this novel was the layers. The struggle in the arena is only half of the story. The Hunger Games are a TV show in the Capitol and the subject of much speculation and betting. Players can get sponsors to buy them gifts which are delivered while they’re in the arena. In order to get sponsors, players have to appeal to the audience. This turns everything into a show. It’s a scenario where reality TV has gone insane and, in the middle of a life-or-death struggle, Katniss has to think about how things would appeal to the viewers and second-guess everything the others say.

The final, and probably most important thing, that makes this book so good is the characters. Katniss is a fine balance between a sympathetic character and a tough fighter. It’s a difficult thing to get right. As readers, we have to connect with Katniss and like her, but we also have to believe she’s strong enough to survive the fight. I think this is handled really well. Her background is rich and it’s easy to believe that she would be capable of defending herself but she’s also kind. There are some opening scenes with her sister where that really shines. Her protective nature makes her likeable and this continues through the book. There’s a really touching moment where one of the other players is dying and Katniss sings a lullaby and then decorates the body with flowers.

As well as Katniss, there is a range of characters that make the book interesting. They’re varied and believable, from the vain and silly Capitol citizens, to the kind and slightly naïve Peeta, and to Haymitch, a former victor who survives his memories of his own Hunger Games by being constantly drunk.

I would strongly recommend this book. It’s gruesome at times but it’s a vivid insight into the darker side of human nature.

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