Fragment #103: The story of the world builders [1]

Pul’Mars, the home on dust, was not always as it is now: a wasteland of ruins of deserted tunnels. Neither did Lottir, which once was Venus, always run deep with oceans full of life and wild with storms of rain. Nor could plain folk, such as you or I, once walk upon the surface of Jar’Frir, the Garden of Ice, as though we stroll through a park in winter time. These were once landscapes of hell, where none could breathe and where blood in your veins would freeze or boil in an instant.

And those that changed these rough wilds into homeland were called the planet builders, and they were three.

Pul’Mars, or simply Mars as it was known then (an ancient word denoting ‘Red Planet’ or ‘The Red Dust’) was a desert of rock and ice, much like it returned to after the Catastrophe that befell those unfortunates. But for a while, for a fleeting thousand years, it teemed with life. You and I could walk upon its rich highland pastures and walk in its beautiful ravines, heavy with the scent of oak. And this was all because of one man and what he accomplished; the genius of Oba Masso.

The first settlers of Mars – men and women of my own – were spoken of having arrived in the year 1100, or thereabouts. They were sages-research and engineers, pioneers who were staking the ground for others of their kind to follow. And they came in ancient craft, fragile and pale, without the aid of the Controls and shielding of our modern landers. As we all know, the first settlement was called Ancilia, named by those folk from Pacifica, itself a name from their forgotten past. But Ancilia perished shortly afterwards, within less than a year, all its folk taken by the harsh wind and cold everlasting winter of this roughest of planets. But their sacrifice left a beacon on the red dust of Mars, a promise that more would come.

Those that followed came from the Jicktan Aggregate, with immense plans composed in the four libraries built into the mountains of the Hima. And for here it was that Ida Masso was brought, as a child, from her homeland in Africk, the third child of a poor engineer. Here she grew up among the sages of the mountains, learning all she knew of the universe. She moved between the four peaks, those ancient centres of Jicktan learning – Makalu, Makaslu, Nanga and Namcha – learning from her father and learning from those around her. Her talent was recognised and she was picked by the sages for great education. And she committed her life and her family to be part of the next great quest to Mars. 

So it came to be that she rode on the famous module, the PiercingOrchid, as it flew towards the red planet. On this flight she met Bee, a quiet man who thought only of leaves and sunlight, and they fell in love. When they landed, in the settlement they called Deyi, Ida and Bee were the first to be married in that new land. And their children helped to grow Deyi from small beginnings to the vast city that it became. 

And Ida’s second child kept her family name, and this was Goda, and he became an engineer on the red planet, and built a vast empire and built vast wealth upon the rocks and ores that he mined from his home. But still he walked upon the surface of his planet in a protective suit, unable to breathe the air. And this saddened him. But he could not see any means of changing the will of Tolos. And he sent his children to Terra to learn all they could of how he might make Pul’Mars a home for the one million that had now arrived upon its highlands and ravines.

And the first of his children was Oda Masso.

In Oda Masso, all the genius of his forebears burst into fruition, in a young man who could see all of nature as one and could manipulate it to his will. So it came to be that Oda Masso returned to his grandmother’s centres of learning in the peaks of Hima, travelling from Makalu, to Makaslu, to Nanga and to Namcha. And they taught him all that they know, but still it wasn’t enough. Then he travelled through the new cities of Ol-Bonda, of Pacifica, through the libraries of the Ropan Confederacy, even making the journey across the seas to the people of WesterIsle to be taught the secrets of Controls. And he learned more during this time than any before him, for he had his father’s will spurring him on. 

But still he had not learned how to make the air sweet to breathe on Pul’Mars and he returned to Nanga, full of sadness at his failure. So he left the confines of the steep towers of the library and took longer and longer walks. And as he walked higher and higher on the rocky slopes of the mountain, he looked out across the clouds passing beneath him, and he saw the vultures soar and he struggled to breathe in the thin air.

And then he saw how it might become right for his homeland. 

And so he returned to his dying father, where he promised him that he would remove the domes that imprisoned their cities. And his father was glad. And Oda Masso inherited the company and he used the mining company’s vast wealth and he began to build. And Masso ceased to be a company that was known for what it mined to be one that was known for what it built. And Masso built upon the dust and built in the sky, vast barrel orbiters, composed of the grit of asteroids, decades to build and decades to sail, and parked them above the green plains of their new home, Pul’Mars. 

But Masso’s best work was the Towers. And they built the North Bisect, the South Bisect and the Equatorial Ring of the towers, the vast conditioners that rose above the deserts. And when they were flooded with the power of Tolos, and they received the signal package from the sages of Terra. This was the Control called by many names but one we remember was simply Niord, the device which would control the towers, and which would make the clouds and the rains and which made the air so that you or it could breathe and could bask in the light of Tolos. 

And the weeks and months passed, and even the years, but it came to pass upon one bright morning, when Tolos’ rays warmed the assembled masses that Oda Masso stood before them and removed his helm and took the first, sweet breath of his home, the home on dust, Pul’Mars.

And these huge towers stood firm for a thousand years, letting the second planet of the human species spread their work. Until they were lost in the Catastrophe. And the winds of Tolos blew away the air from their homeland, and they left their cities and their farms and their woodlands empty, for their people had retreated to the orbiters, and to the other planets and moons, and never again would they walk in their highland pastures or their oaken ravines.

But still they remembered Oda Masso, for he was the first of planet builders.

Fragment # 221: The Three Endings of the Dolphins

A Terran leader, Primary Allaina Alphaniedes Lajpana, once lived in an archipelago of islands in the southern oceans, called the Melvief Isles. She ruled a vast oceanic empire, the Melian Empire, from the subcontinental seas to the coasts of ancient Africk and around the disentangled shores of Indonia and Oz. Her peoples’ power came from the nutrition of the red seaweed farms that floated upon these rich waters, and the ruthless drone pirates that protected them. The most exotic fish that graduates from her famous School of Water could breed swam in the artificial reefs, and lived among the fronds of the seaweed. And she herself was famous for her skills in breeding fish, and in diving the reefs and in racing her school of swordfish pets. But none were to know that she was about to commit the worst atrocity of all Terra.

Allaina was the great-granddaughter of the master reef-builder Primary Kaey Lajpana, who built up his Empire over the course of his lifetime, setting off hundreds of farming platforms onto the turquoise seas, to ride the monsoons and to return to his archipelago, swimming under their own command, when they were fully grown. But his son, Alphaneides Hutti Lajpana, was slothful and lazy, taking on the throne late in life, and letting their enemies steal the seaweed platforms, letting their wealth slip away. His fell into his dotage and the power of his people waned, until his daughter suggested calling upon the protective arm of the pirate enclaves up the shores of Oz and the tip of Africk. After much querulous argument, the old man finally agreed to these plans and they sent out ambassadors to the pirate enclaves. Most were returned to the Primary as rough parcels of meat. Of those that returned unharmed, they spoke only of indifference from the pirates. So Secondary Allaina, as she was known at that time, set out herself on her war catamaran to visit all the pirate enclaves. Over the course of two years, she spoke with eachl of them, travelling every coast and aquainting herself with the coves and lagoons of her future empire. As she travelled, her father expired, drowning in his private sea, to be picked at by frigate birds, and she inherited his crown. So strong were her words and so powerful was her will, that the pirate chiefs agreed to her conditions and they formed a bond and an alliance. They were augmented by the autoyachts of the Ol-Bondan people, bought at great expense, which arrived to usher her back to her island palace in Melvief.

And though the people of the Melvief were wary of Allaina’s plans, though they did nothing for they saw that her father had been slothful and useless and they hoped that she might carry something of her grandfather’s greatness. And they were rewarded, for the credit repaid itself a hundred times over, and the pirate enclaves and the seaweed farmers together formed the most powerful empire the southern oceans had seen, keeping their turquoise Terran paradise safe and letting their people educate and civilise themselves. And the coasts of Oz and the tip of Africk were no longer wilderlands. And they grew great observatory towers and sank deep aquariums. And the decaying Jicktan settlements on the subcontinent once more rang with the credit of their magnificent days.

But one day, Allaina heard tales that there had come into her realm a new species of sea mammal, one that had not been seen before. It was a breed of dolphin, a black creature with a blue wave upon its beak. And these dolphins spoke and sang to one another, and they could learn to understand the speech of humans. Tales were told that these were a new species, intelligent like humanity, but still growing and seeking to understand how to live in the world. None could say whether they had been engineered to this path by other intelligences or whether they had been born of nature, evolving naturally to exist in the new playgrounds of the oceans.

But though they were intelligent like humanity, they were also crude and wild and misbehaved, and they enjoyed nothing more than to play in her reefs and to steal her beautiful new breeds of fish. And she grew tired of their play and demanded answers and that they were to be brought before her. So the pod of these speaking dolphins were called to her palace in the Melvief isles and she brought interpreters and held counsel with them, demanding that they desist from their actions. But they were wayward and comical and made jokes at her expense and sprayed her and her retinue with water. She dismissed them from her sight but, a day later, she heard word that they had entered her imperial lagoon and taken all of her swordfish pets, leaving their mangled remains. And all her thoughts were bent towards revenge, for Primary Allaina, though clever like her grand-father, had also taken on his pride, and she was wroth with the dolphins and wanted them dead.

So first she sent out word to all her pirates that they were to slaughter all dolphins they came across. They asked her if she wanted these dolphins, the black dolphins with the blue wave on their beak, to be eliminated only? And she told them, no, eliminate all dolphins they could see with their eyes. But this was not enough. So she sent word that they were to chase and hunt down all dolphins they could identify on their sensors. And this came to pass and the seas of the southern oceans ran red with the blood of the mammals and their carcasses floated, rotting in the sun, until they sank beneath the waves and the crabs of the sand and the worms of the deep feasted for long weeks on fresh flesh. And this was the First Ending of the Dolphins.

But still the dolphins were there. And her people told Allaina that she had ended the life of the intelligent strain, that all that were left were the dumb creatures of before their coming. But still she wasn’t content. She was afraid that they were waiting to emerge from their hiding places, that they would evolve again, that whoever had released them upon the world was going to do the same. So she bred sharks of such savagery that they would rip the dolphins to shreds and she sent them, in secret, out to all the oceans and rivers of the world, to do her dark work for her here. And the oceans of all the world ran red with the blood of all dolphins. And this was the Second Ending of the Dolphins.

And by these deeds, she raised the ire of the Ol-Bandons and the quiet folk of WesterIsle and even the fury of their trading companions the Jicktans, who loved the sea and loved the dolphins most of all, and they sent their navies to patrol their waters and her waters. But the damage was done, for the seas of all the world fell foul of the rotting corpses of dolphinkind.

But, though she had destroyed so much, she knew all the seas and even some of the rivers of Terra still held her enemy. So, though the navies patrolled her empire and watched every act of her people, cautious of her hatred, still she pursued her wicked end. And, in secret, she used her knowledge and the knowledge of the sages in her School of Water, to breed a virus that would only pass between dolphins but that would lie dormant across all the reefs and wrecks of the world. And, on one night of full moon and raging waves, she swam out to the reef around her island palace and herself released the disease into the waters in the form of a small black, poison fish.

It took weeks, months, years before the full truth became known, but by that time the horrible deed was complete. There were no more dolphins swimming in any waters of any oceans, any seas, lakes or rivers of Terra. And none could breed more from their secret archives of code, for fear of the dormant virus re-emerging and destroying them once more. And this was the Third Ending of the Dolphins.

And the whole of Terra, never commonly united, in this age rose as one and fell upon the small empire of Primary Allaina Alphaniedes Lajpana, taking her red seaweed farms and disarming their pirates, and destroying all the poison fish from her breeder aquariums.

But they were too late, for the dolphins had perished, and could not return for the disease lived on forever in the corals, and they were saddest of all, for they were the only other animal from Terra with whom they were close to conversing with of the complexity of existence and of the beauty of abstract thought.

And the people of Terra never forgave themselves for letting this come to pass, and the three endings of the dolphins will remain forever as a warning to those who were to come after.

Fragment #445: The rise of WesterIsle

It came to pass, in years between 250 and 260 YS*, that a band of the wise and the rich of the Fifty States, together with a few from the Five Eyes and early Ropans, spent their credit lines in building an archipelago of floating devices and setting them in the waves of the the Holy Pacific. Starting as only a few hundred, then a few thousand then tens of thousands, they made their way to these floating homes. But it was not the destination of all people, for those who came to live upon these devices had to pass mighty tests of intellect and of the best values, such that they were deemed worthy to live among their elite peers.

And these islands were named WesterIsle.

Pacifica was the nation closest to the archipelago of WesterIsle and they grew rich on the trade, selling necessary food and clothing to the people of the islands, who sold them incredible technologies in return. And Pacifica became a mighty military power as a result, which made their neighbours envious and their enemies afraid. And they found means to steal the resources from the rest of the world, without their enemies knowing they were there, through silent drones and secret warfare.

And WesterIsle built their home to greater heights, extending their people onto cathedrals of learning on Luna, into beautiful orbiters and also with some of the earliest outposts on Pul’Mars. Over the course of two hundred years, this exclusive tribe of people built their own heavenly realm on Terra, living to being the most educated, the most distinguished, the most cultured.

But they became too powerful, too proud, too excluded from their fellow Terrans. They were almost a different species on their own planet. And there came a time when the Lowly Alliance formed, among nearly all the remaining nations and conglomerates of Terra and they moved on all of WesterIsle’s beautiful palaces and libraries and they threatened their destruction.

And the people of WesterIsle, though proud, were farsighted and saw their downfall, at least in their current earthly incarnation, so they dismantled their academic institutions, they sank their gardens of orchids and lilies into the Holy Pacific, they opened their doors to all on their Luna and their Pulmartian settlements, and they gave away their wealth to all, slipping away themselves to live among their fellow beings.

There were tales told of these days, where the members of Lowly Alliance, still angry and embittered, tried to make life hard and painful for the people of WesterIsle, but they found they were unable to hold their victims for long, for though they lived alongside them, they were a farsighted folk, who seemed able to predict all of their enemies’ moves before they knew it themselves. So, the resentment remained, but there was no longer a target for their rage. And the memories of WesterIsle’s magnificent gardens and cathedrals of learning passed into history and legend. But the people who once called themselves people of WesterIsle kept their memories, for the retention of their learning was their calling, and they created the first archive, spread across all of their descendents, kept secret, encrypted and secure.

And eventually, a thousand years later, they walked upon the dust of the Galilean moons, on the volcanoes of Firmellion, and they looked up at the birthing orbiters and they knew that their greatest work was about to be born.

* Years of Sol

Is there a future world where truth dies?

One of the joys of being a science fiction writer is that you have freedom to imagine multiple ‘what if’ scenarios. These tend towards the application of some nascent new scientific discovery, some technology, some theory. However, I also like to extrapolate areas such as social science and philosophy, especially within the perspective of a society operating as a system.

So, recent political events, made me re-consider the supposed sanctity of the concept of ‘truth’. This has been reflected in my series, The Lost Archive (available from all good online retailers), with the assumption that dynamic algorithms that gather news inevitably become corrupted, unless they are cultivated and calibrated by an intelligent external observer.

This lack of confidence in the news is a simple extrapolation of what we see in today’s society, where we should know better than to take newspaper headlines at face value, or to believe what we read in social media.

But what if the concept of ‘truth’ became so degraded that it was no longer seen as important?

Consider how our society works – as a system. We are individuals, that together form small units (for example, families), which form larger groups (communities) and possibly larger units (cultures), which together form a unified whole (the country, or the nation state). In order for that whole to be unified, the sub-units (that is, us individuals) need to be able to interact meaningfully. If there is no social interaction, there is no larger social entity. There are some requisite parameters required for these interactions, from the basic up to the sophisticated. At its most basic, we need to be able to communicate and share our sense of being part of a unified whole. So, we need a shared language, we need a shared set of norms and rules to govern interaction. In our society, and most others across the globe, we need to have faith in the rule of law. These rules govern our interaction, they set the parameters of the acceptable and the unacceptable. If those rules are broken, then the unified whole falls apart.

In a democratic system, we also must have shared belief in the power of democratic decisions. We have a social contract with our government to govern us, assuming they win a democratic mandate – which we have given them. This democratic mandate holds because of the collective belief in democratic rules. That is: the one with the most votes gets to rule. In a democracy, if that core belief is challenged in sufficient numbers (a critical mass or tipping point), then the unified whole break down. This phenomenon is called revolution.

How have we degraded the concept of truth?

Since the Brexit vote, with the election of Trump and the rise of populism elsewhere, there is evidence of a backlash against those who once wielded authority on truth — the ‘experts’. Ideological perspective is now shaping what is considered truth; at least, this is true in reported discourse, as we cannot truly know what individuals believe. To those raised on an early to mid twentieth-century diet of scientific absolutism, to rationalists, to those who seek evidence and logic in the beliefs and decisions, this change is horrifying.

Since the Enlightenment, we have witnessed the rise of the scientific method, which had once been seen as the pinnacle of truthseeking. This replaced the previous uneasy alliance between religion and philosophy, which had held since the Classical area.

The grey areas of science

The scientific method provides explanatory models for the what, how and why of the universe. We have little issue with the ‘what’, as this is little more than naming systems, and we can see with our own eyes most of the data. The ‘how’ is often justified with the results of application — for example, the technology works. But the ‘why’ is most problematic. As we have grown to understand that the universe is a non-linear, complex system, Enlightenment simplicity gets stuck in a new grey area; heavily-caveated hypotheses arise and are crushed with a frequency that leaves much of us bewildered. This is most apparent in the more complex end of the universe, areas such as life, the human mind, social phenomena. And politics and economics.

Some our leaders have started to grasp that this grey area is an opportunity to be exploited. They have noticed that grey areas are difficult to understand – and very difficult to defend. So they push them into black and white, according to the ideological position they want drive. For example: (a) crime is the result of lack of discipline and rules vs (b) crime is the result of poverty and lack of opportunity.

If a scientific hypothesis has been adopted by 95% of scientific community, that still leaves 5% of the cranks willing to go on television and write books about why everybody else is wrong.

And this is how truth dies … or does it?

So, let us extrapolate a little, and assume that these grey areas are stretched and stretched by continued discourse. Every time a crank goes on television and mouths off about this scientific theory or that discovery, a certain percentage of the population are taken in. Because they are on television, giving them immediate credence, and (crucially) because what they are saying aligns with their ideological worldview. Thus, truth ceases to a concept built on rational argument and evidence — shared by the unified whole — and instead becomes something shared only between individuals in smaller cultures of shared ideologies.

Truth would not die. What would die is the ability for smaller groups to meaningfully interact with each other. It would be the equivalent of a language barrier, impeding any constructive cross-border endeavour. Imagine trying to design an air-traffic system for a world inhabited by flat-earthers and those who buy into the spherical world theory?

So, truth would not die. Unified society would die.

Is there anything we can do?

We are so worried about the breakdown of law, that we spend vast energy and resources in maintaining this, through our justice and police systems. We have learned, from history and prior experience, that an absence of a legal system leads to anarchy — at least in a community over a certain size. Even simple systems of shared ownership and consensus, without agreed sets of laws, have repeatedly been shown to suffer the ‘fate of the commons’.

So, in our imaginary future society, we would need the equivalent of a justice division, a legal system, but for truth. We would need new professions, such as truth auditors. We would need to create laws to punish those who degrade truth on a massive scale. This imaginary world would need to invest energy and resources in all of these changes.

It would take a lot of hard work. But a divided social world would emerge naturally without this intervention.

Centrist-Remainers have chosen ‘Disaster Movie’ as their Story Arc: Big mistake!

General note: For everything that the follows, I’ve pinched Booker’s story arcs (see blog here) as a handy shorthand (and they’re story arcs not ‘basic plots’, see blog here).

Polls would suggest we are moving beyond the era when we sought to elect parties on the basis of their capability to manage the complexities of government. Politician’s competence in the past, which included their ability to evade difficult interview questions, to deliver slick soundbites and to appear to act as a cohesive group, always on-message, was their downfall. Their background (PPE in Oxbridge, careers in PR or law), while no doubt giving them a firm grounding in the business of Westminster and oratory, was also their downfall. These privileged few, born to be ministers, born to run our lives, have been stripped of their glamour (what little they had) and they now struggle to have anybody believe them. Or, more importantly, believe in them.

We are now at an emotionally-charged time in politics where evidence and dry rational argument has been overthrown (at least in terms of voter support) by the deployment of strong stories (not narratives, that’s the means by which the stories are deployed, see here). Two opposing stories are competing for the nation’s attention at the moment. These are (a) Return to Great (Imperial) Britain and (b) Slaying Horrid Capitalism.

Return to Great (Imperial) Britain (RGIB) is the last hurrah for a generation who were nourished in the excitement of Thatcherism and who spent childholds in the 1950s, who long to return to an era when the only language we needed worry concern ourselves with was English, when people with darker skin were OK but only if they were visibly supportive of RGIB. RGIB swirls around UKIP, Brexit and some Tories but it cannot be pinned down to one political party. The narrative is being spun by multiple politicians and is promoted by right-wing, established newspapers. It is driven by a visceral backlash against political correctness but I think has its heart less in racism and more in nostalgia. The most recent chapter is the leaked ERG Brexit plan (draft only), which talked of expeditionary forces for the Falklands, Star Wars missile defence and low taxes for all. None of this makes any rational, evidence-based economic sense. But we’re beyond economics now. Those who scoff are missing the point. It works, it works brilliantly, because it makes a huge amount of story-sense.

This is classic Rebirth story, with the country as a protagonist. Once upon a time, a long time ago, GIB dominated the world, there was no need to check ones privilege, it was fine to punch down, we had world-leading business and huge respect (not least for our part in WWII). Now, in those intervening years, the country fell into decadent decline, giving up power, even allowing grammar-school educated people to rule us (not comprehensive, thankfully!) There was a brief moment of respite, in the Thatcher years, when the country was an important player once more in war and the English-speaking world, but Blair and soft Tories (and that Europe!) have ruined everything once more.

The story’s arc sees RGIB coming out of the wilderness of political correctness and international compromise, rising majectically as a force to respected once more, replaying our glory in the skies of the English Channel and the bogs of Goose Green.

This is a powerful story. And it resonates for many.

On the other end of the scale, Slaying Horrid Capitalism (SHC) is a community-driven endeavour, driven by the energy of youth, by hope, by a boredom with complexities, all led by a group of ageing idealists, none of whom have any experience of leading much, beyond political movements. This reflects in a chaotic mess of in-fighting, bad feeling, emotion. But all this is swept aside by the fervour of a belief system and the one pervading piece of true knowledge: capitalism is horrid!

It is predominantly a Labour-party centred story, a Corbyn story, but is played out almost entirely in social media (with support from small left-wing online media sites and the occasional mainstream commentator). Brexit has added complicated nuance to the story but (thankfully) the RGIB elements fighting for a no-deal Brexit have done so with such laissez-faire dastardly glee, that SHC have latched onto them as an antagonist and avoided having to dive into tedious tariff and trade-related thinking.

This is an Overcoming the Monster story. The monster is the capitalist system, that allowed the 2008 crash, which led to huge levels of inequality in the UK and US. And, if Capitalism is the Dark Lord, then Austerity is his Witch-King, attacking the frontline of society with callous disregard for human suffering; almost revelling in the chaos and despair that it causes.

This is also a powerful story. And, given demographics of its support, it’s a story that will last into the future. My prediction is that it could lead to a socialist USA.

Neither of these stories have much Plot. Plot is a series of linked events driven by commonly-understood rules of cause-and-effect (see blog here). There is little economic evidence that we could afford expeditionary forces, missile shields and tax cuts; equally, riches for all citizens in SHC appears to be emerge from large corporations and billionaires paying more tax (what happens after we slay them?)

This leaves a group in the middle (the Centrists) who point to the evidence that a mixed economy leads to happiness and prosperity and also that Brexit is an economic disaster that will destroy people’s lives. Remainers and Centrists are therefore synonymous in this analysis and I recognise that this is simplistic (but I don’t care). Incidentally, I believe the Labour Party manifesto of 2017 and half the Tory party are also in this Centrist place, but with slightly differing versions of nudging us towards slightly-larger or slight-smaller government.

But Carry On What We Were Doing Before is not a story. And, to be fair to them, they’ve gone for something else. Centrists are writing a Disaster Movie script. This is specific variant of the Overcoming the Monster story. Disaster Movie story arcs have the following sequence: there is a threat to society; protagonist sees threat and warns society; society ignores protagonist; threat impacts; protagonist saves ‘good’ members of society; ‘bad’ members of society are destroyed by threat.

But despite this story being repeated across all forms of media, there has been little significant traction in opinion polls on the question of whether we should remain or not. And if anybody who knows the Disaster Movie story arc, and follows the sequence above, they will know it’s not having an effect on people because of this: the disaster has to impact society in order for the story to work!

We’re all sat here (with popcorn), being told planes won’t be able to fly, the value of the pound will sink and we need to get our tinned food in. Now they’ve told us about it, we want to see this shit! If we all behaved like good economic-focussed citizens (homo economicus) then we would be doing everything we could to stop the disaster. But we don’t (all) think like that. Stories are powerful, emotional; they run deep. Rational-thinkers know there aren’t ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people in society; people who respond to stories will always think, if they are in the story, they’re one of the ‘good guys’ (not the ‘baddies‘).

So, if you are a rational Centrist, who weighs evidence and makes sound, utilitarian decisions based on numbers and modelling, what should you do? Continue to bang the disaster drum? Do you let the disaster happen? Then everybody believes you? Well, it’s too late then. And evidence is telling you that the poorest will be hit hardest and you can’t make that right in one go (SHC might help you here, but only in the short-term).

My view is a better story to develop is one based on Voyage and Return (The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland). This story arc is as follows: the protagonist falls into a new world (where am I?); they enter a dream stage (this is weird); they enter a frustration stage (this is not so fun now); they enter a nightmare stage (this is horrible); they return to balance and comfort, having learned a wise lesson.

So, forget about trying to stop the horrible from happening. Accept it as a learning stage in the story of the country as a whole. The country is going to return from this dreamworld soon, you’re going to help it go home (to your evidence-based mixed economy) and the country will be a wiser character as a result.

But what about the poorest in society being hit? That’s a piece of cognitive dissonance that even I can’t reconcile (and yes, I’m a Centrist, interested in rational justification and evidence – I’m writing a blog about story arcs and politics, for pity’s sake!). Perhaps we should worry less about stopping the nightmare from happening in its entirety than trying to find ways to mitigate the impact on the poorest in society. The amount of energy being mobilised to try to stop Brexit is actually a huge risk of wasted effort: people aren’t that ready to cancel this thing. The Disaster Movie story arc doesn’t work if we decide to avoid the disaster: we NEED the disaster, in order for our emotional fulfilment when our hero saves the day!

So, perhaps we should change the story. Let’s call it We Ate the Brexit Pill. With an emphasis on the WE not they THEY. Let’s acknowledge our stages of this weird dreamworld, learn from it and prepare ourselves for the time when we return to normality (rejoin at a later date?). And whatever energy we have spare as a collective, whatever funding (Soros, SuperDry), whatever media voice, let’s try to understand, to plan for and to mitigate the impact on the poorest first and foremost.

And stop trying to tell a crap story.

Missions: Story, plot and narrative fighting for air on Mars

I’ve just been catching up on the first two episodes of the French television sci-fi series Missions, currently showing on BBC Four. The trailers made it look like a Gallic version of Solaris or Moon, so I was quite excited by the prospect. Unfortunately, having watched these first two episodes, I felt like I had been sent back in time to very early days of bad TV sci-fi.

There is a recurring model for a sci-fi novel, one which comes through in works such as H G Wells’ War of the Worlds and which Arthur C. Clarke pioneered and made his own. This model could best be described as ‘Mysterious Phenomena’; or, more succinctly, weird things are happening and the protagonists (with us, the reader, peering over their shoulder) are going to find out what they are, how they’re happening and why. And that’s pretty much it. There’s little real character development in a novel/film/series that adopts the Mysterious Phenomena model. There is little protagonist-driven action — beyond curiosity. The reader keeps turning the pages because they need answers to that key question: ‘what are all those weird phenomena and why are they happening?’ It’s worth saying that when it’s done well, it can be made awesome by the awesomeness of the Big Reveal at the end.

Often, this model gets extended into ‘Mysterious Phenomena Are Trying to Kill Me’, where your protagonists are driven by their survival as well as curiosity. Which is nice. Netflix series Stranger Things is an example from recent sci-fi that has done this with immense style together with interesting and sympathetic characters plus a good dose of irony.

Missions, unfortunately, doesn’t achieve style. Or irony. Or sympathetic characters. Or even basic coherence. In the opening episode, we were bombarded with so many plot devices I started to lose count. As I’ve said before (see here), plot is a series of causally-linked events, which obey certain rules of commonly-understood logic. This means plots have to be plausible, they have to be believable. I stopped believing in Missions as soon as Things Started To Go Wrong. Why was failing to re-boot the AI going to kill them? What happened to manual override? Look, there’s a sand storm! Oh, it’s gone now. They’re going to be dead in 48 hours. No, it’s 24 hours now. Do some mental calculations someone! No, it’s immediate, they’re going to die now, don’t let people back in the ship. Oh, it all seems to be fine.

And why is the billionaire backer slobbing about in jeans and a pottery mug of something? Why is there a psychologist on board yet it’s the doctor who checks on a crew members’ mental health? Why, why, why does a crew travelling to Mars have an actual, real-life programmer on board? Who is clearly not fit for his job? And, en route to Mars, why and how were they were overtaken by an American outfit that we’d only just heard about? Oh, they told us that: ‘… something … something … better nuclear … something’. Fine! But why did the crew know nothing until they got there?

The reason all of these events were badly crow-barred into the episode were because of two things: because of the needs of story and the decisions relating to narrative. On the story side (see here), we need to follow an interesting / sympathetic character move from imbalance to balance, via some form of journey. In bad stories, the shortcut to this ‘imbalance’ tends to be jeopardy (hence ‘… Trying to Kill Us’ mentioned above). In Missions this jeopardy was piled on and on with bewildering results and the plot was rendered implausible as a result.

On top of the artificial jeopardy, the seething, dysfunctional crew of the ship (with sixth-form level of jealousies and lust) were ready-made for conflict. But the resulting drama failed to grip you with empathy or interest. I’m not sure what any of the character’s long term desires were: two of male characters’ entire mission seems to have been to bone the female members of the crew. Nobody questioned why this lot were the most unfit (and most implausible) team ever to have crewed a spaceship since Spaceballs. So, plot sacrificed to supposedly give the story of these characters more drama. And yet it didn’t deliver. Who actually cared when the coupling device knocked the commander off into the void? Half the crew were whooping it up later on. Who cares about the MC? She spent most of the entire episode staring solemnly at other people. Story failed.

And how was plot sacrificed for narrative decisions? Decision 1: to get us up into space quickly, forcing too much truncated backstory into episode one, making it too full of facts for us to take in. Decision 2: opening up six stories in twenty minutes, namely, who is the mystery figure? Why did the Americans die? Will the vice-captain have sex with the psychologist? Will the programmer ever lose his virginity? How and when is the AI going to go ‘bad’? Are they going to survive? And I still don’t know what the MC’s story is! Too many stories started but not developed and we end up not caring about any of them. Narrative decisions that failed to deliver story. And we lose interest as a result.

I’m starting to wonder now if the show is ironic after all. And that the massive lack of plausibility is merely an elaborately postmodern wink, poking fun at tired sci-fi tropes. Did the psychology experiment about delayed gratification at the start have some deeper meaning with regards to the series as a whole? (Or was it just to introduce the the MC’s ‘superhero’ skill of being able to predict other people’s decisions before they make them)?

That said … the mysterious figure on the horizon was good and is the reason I’m going to watch a few more episodes. Arthur C Clarke did get it right: we do want to know more those damned Mysterious Phenomena. However, when it comes to the Big Reveal, it had better be damned awesome!

‘Into the valley of death’: Brexit as Story

Theresa May this week delivered a speech on her vision for Brexit. This came after other speeches by a varied cast of politicians including Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn and John Major. Everybody setting out their desires, their fears, their red lines and their pleas for compromise.

But May’s speech marked a significant moment in this ongoing drama. It was the moment she admitted that the metaphorical cake was not able to be both had and eaten. She was also unable to answer a question as to whether Brexit had been ‘worth it’. The mask of optimism had slipped.

It struck me that, deep down, she knows Brexit is the act of a fool. But that she still has to carry it out. In a similar vein, the increasingly-haggard and haunted features of David Davis suggest he knows this to. These two characters are the leads in this drama. And their story is strong.

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Story is character (see this post). Story is a character’s journey from imbalance to balance. Or a society’s journey from imbalance to balance. Our Prime Minister (and her trusty lieutenant Davis) are demonstrating a noble characteristic, one that helps make a story soar: duty in the face of assured destruction. They believe that the only means of bringing our country back to balance is to implement Brexit. Even though it will means they are destroyed as a result. And the country will suffer.

All evidence shows that the UK will be poorer as a result of Brexit, whether it’s hard or soft, Customs Union or Single Market or WTO rules. We will be poorer. There will be no extra £350m a week for the NHS. The big trade deals with the US and China will be contested with an incredibly weak hand. The value of trade outside of the EU will never match the value we have directly with the EU.

And I think the majority of people in the UK understand this. Yet opinion polls suggest we, the people of these islands, still believe we have to go through with Brexit. Because we, the people, have spoken. And this is the British character coming through. This is our duty.

And May and Davis know this. They understand that their legacy will be tainted as the pair who to carried out acts that actively harmed the economy and future prospects of their country. Their names will be spat as insults over the next few decades. The Conservative party, as its voter base and membership grows old and passes away, may even collapse to a fringe group of ideologues muttering about sovereignty and our future glory as a reborn British trading empire.

And May and Davis know this. And still they have to carry it through. Because they have been given their orders. And it is one’s duty to carry out one’s orders.

Which reminded me of another glorious (and awful) story from history: the charge of the Light Brigade. They had their orders; they knew their orders were crazy, irrational, based upon bad data and the advice of fools. Yet there was never a question of turning back. Because they had been given their orders. And it was their duty.

Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Get Out! Get Out Now! … or some unintended consequences of Brexit

Just been mulling over some possible emergent properties of the decision-making systems being constructed in UK big business at the moment. These are mainly based on risks involving Brexit, how it’s going to land and the possible contingency plans that could be put in place. The conclusion to these thoughts is rather sobering.

I need to open with the view that trying to predict the future based on the past is a waste of time (see Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Taleb’s Black Swan on why human beings are rubbish at accurately predicting the future) and so I hold no particular prophecy to whether Brexit is going to be good or going to be bad financially for the UK. I’m wistful about the more ephemeral loss of a sense of ‘belonging’ to Europe, of being a European free to move and work on the continent, but really, that’s by the by.

In short, this blog entry is not about the economic result of Brexit. However, it is attempting to predict what individual companies might do to prepare for Brexit, and if they behave rationally (not always the case, see above) then we may already be in trouble.

Let me sketch out the decision-making system involved. It all comes down to a simple formula on risk and contingency planning.

Imagine a scenario: a company doesn’t know if we’re going to get a ‘soft’ Brexit or whether we might crash out to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. A wise business will acknowledge the risk and will try to mitigate it accordingly, planning and possibly even putting in place a contingency plan. A possible contingency plan might be to move some or all of their business from London to Paris, for example.

There are some key variables in the formula:

    Ps = Drop in profit for next x years if least impact (for example, soft Brexit)
    Psc = Drop in profit for next x years if least impact but with contingency plan in place
    Pw = Drop in profit for next x years if worst outcome (for example, WTO rules)
    Pwc = Drop in profit for next x years if worst outcome but with contingency plan in place
    C = Contingency plan one-off cost
    L = Likelihood of Worst Outcome (%)
    Risk = L x P…

Let’s assume the same contingency plan for either ‘least impact’ or ‘worst impact’, and assume it’s a big expensive plan, designed to mitigate the effects of worst outcome. That means, it would be foolish to invest in it if there was a good chance of ‘least impact’ occurring. Or would it?

Let’s run a couple of scenarios:

Scenario A
Business say they don’t want to invest in contingency and just see what happens come March 2019.

    Risk of drop to profits over next x years if WTO happens = Pw x L
    Risk of drop in profits over next x years if WTO does not happen = Ps x L

Scenario B
Business says they will invest in contingency now (because it will take that much time) and then see what happens come March 2019

    Risk of drop to profits over next x years if WTO happens = (Pwc x L) + C
    Risk of drop in profits over next x years if WTO does not happen = (Psc x L) + C

I’m not going to plug numbers into these formulae (because I’m lazy) but it doesn’t take much to see that, given the right configuration of variables, the risk to profits might be considerably higher if the business decides not to implement their contingency plan and just wait and see. Put another way, though the contingency plan is eye-wateringly expensive, to not implement is too risky, no matter what the eventual outcome is to the negotiations.

As an alternative to the numbers, imagine the following conversation …

‘But moving our entire business to Paris is going to cost £200m … how can we justify that?’
‘Well, we’re going to lose £50m every year through WTO tariffs, at least until they agree trade deal, which could take years…’
‘That assumes WTO rules will apply. What if we have a soft Brexit?’
‘Even soft Brexit means we lose profit, just not as much as WTO rules, say £10m a year.’
‘So, it needs to be 20 years before we make our money back on the contingency plan?’
‘Yes, but then it’s a gamble, isn’t it? And remember, we have to implement the contingency plan now in order to get ready for March, don’t we?’
‘Wouldn’t you rather be set up in Paris as soon as possible, with everybody clear about their future and their strategy, even if it means a short-term upheaval and possible losses that come with not being in London? Even if it is a soft Brexit … or possibly even no Brexit, how much worse is Paris to London?’
‘Now that you put it like that …’

I think, taking into account the large number of businesses affected, some of their decision-making systems must already be giving them the one answer:

Get out! Get out now!

Do I need to plot? Reflections on Stephen King’s On Writing

I’ve come back from holiday and finally had time to read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. It’s a great book and I’d recommend it to everybody, whether you write or otherwise. I bought it following a friend’s recommendation a few months ago, as it must have have passed me by when it came out. Since then, of course, I’ve seen it crop up in many people’s Top 10 lists of books on writing, alongside the usual Strunk & White etc.

I enjoyed the episodes of his life as a boy, talking about his mother and brother, which were vivid and full of detail. He does a good list; a good Americana namecheck. The book ended with the episode of him being mown down by a van. Grisly medical detail, not for the squeamish, and should make everybody to walk on the verge of a main road with added caution. And not to trust anybody in charge of a tonne of moving vehicle.

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The middle of the book is focussed more on the craft of writing itself and this was what he was finishing when he was recovering from the accident. Some of it is interesting but not wholly applicable to me and my writing situation. For example, his advice to writers starting out is written very much in a particular context (both geographical and historical) so I don’t believe it holds as much validity these days. Perhaps there are dozens of magazines buying short stories and paying you good money for them these days? But I doubt it. So I read this section with curiosity but no mental notepad to hand.

The sections that really gripped my attention were the chapters on writing itself. Alongside the usual writing craft litany (no adverbs, active tense, write what you know) he dropped in a very unexpected bombshell.

Stephen King does not plot.

That is, he claims that he doesn’t work out where the story is going to go in advance of writing it, with all the usual cause-and-effect permutations (see previous blogs). This was (initially) a surprise. Across the majority of his work, King describes the act of writing as finding a situation, a ‘what if’ scenario, and then see what happens when you put a character in there. What if a car got possessed and started killing people? Where could you go with that? Assuming you have at least one strong character, with some interesting imbalances that need resolution by the end of the story, this situation and the character would take you on the journey. Therefore, he doesn’t plot.

But who doesn’t plot? It seemed crazy.

Then I realised: it’s the genre. In case you weren’t aware (you kids out there), King writes predominantly in the horror genre. The horror genre typically follows a straightforward plot: MC is threatened; MC overcomes threat (or MC tries to overcome threat but is still destroyed).

In the horror genre, the what-if scenario dictates how the plot starts, and the character themselves will take actions according to what feels most plausible. Well, at least, they ought to do what seems most plausible. Quite often they do the opposite.

Once you’ve set the scene and introduced the threat, the plot is all about the MC trying to find means to escape, or to reduce or to destroy the threat. And this is pretty much what King describes as his writing style. He lives with his characters in real time, only discovering the plot by actually writing it.

That is a liberating way of writing!

I am currently writing all five of the last chapters of the latest book in the Lost Archive series in parallel because I’m trying to get all the multiple story strands to land in … well, at least to land in style! This is a complex and stressful business. The reason it’s stressful is because, when I plotted it out in advance, it all seemed so simple. But when I came to actually write, the plot (the events in the story being dictated by specific causes) started to stray away from what I had originally planned. So I had to re-adjust and re-plan, with all the moving parts that a complicated multi-book series and a multi-character storyline brings with it.

And then I started thinking about when I had first started writing. About when I had first borrowed my parent’s typewriter, having decided I wanted to be writer, and just started putting words down on a page. I seem to remember it was some pulp nonsense involving a hotel out in the wilds of some hot country somewhere, peopled by characters with scars on their faces and loads of emotional baggage. I never got past the first chapter, of course, but then that’s not the point. The reason I started writing it – letting each sentence follow on from its predecessor without a care for where the next went – was because it was it was exciting. I was writing and reading the story at the same time. I haven’t felt like that while writing for a decades now.

Perhaps I need to let go of the reins a little and just see where the horses take me? It might be that they just stick to the well-worn ruts in the road – that I and many others before have followed, but maybe they might just strike out in the forest? And find something unexpected.

Story | Plot | Narrative | Novel | Book : Part 2 ‘The purpose of narrative’

Continuing the series of blog entries on story, plot, narrative, novel and book, this time I am going to explore the concept of ‘narrative’. However, this time I am going to focus less on its definition but rather its purpose, especially in relation to both story and plot.

First, symptomatic of the lazy blurring of boundaries between these concepts (see the previous post), Wikipedia has confused narrative with story in its first sentence. However, it has usefully pointed out that the word has its root in the Latin verb narrare ‘to tell’. And this helps give us our first clue as to the purpose of narrative: it is all about the ‘telling’ of a story.

I’ll refresh our memories and paste the definition for ‘story’ below.

A story can be defined as: the journey (events and actions) a character (or group) takes from imbalance to balance.

A story is an abstract concept; it exists only in our mind. And a story does not exist in our mind until it is told (arguably, it also does not exist until it is also heard or read).

And narrative is the mechanism through which a story is told.

Narrative is the means by which the wholly abstract entity of a story and the sequential concepts of a plot become realised. You can explain the details of a story (‘the story of Finding Nemo is about a father learning to let his child go free in the world’) but as soon as you start trying to ‘tell’ it (‘There was this barracuda…’) you have immediately created a narrative. It doesn’t matter how loosely or lightly you try to tell the story, you are still employing narrative voice.

So, to narrate a story, is to tell it. As writers, we can think mainly on this as a decision-making process. Every time we try to tell a story we are making thousands of narrative decisions.

Although it’s a little reductive, I’ll list some of them below:

Which plot events should I describe and in what detail?

‘Time passed’ is a marvellous tool in narration — we have no need to know what happened in the time that passed, as either it has no bearing on the story being told or the writer is deliberately obscuring plot for suspense or other purposes. Ellipsis can be a powerful tool for a writer. The other extreme is to add extraneous detail, for world-building purposes, or perhaps just for the jokes! You’ll find in highly machine-tooled Hollywood movies that every scene and line of dialogue has a purpose, whether it’s to reveal character, plot or story. On the other hand, a classic example of breaking these rules — the McDonalds in Paris scene from Pulp Fiction — has been loved because (a) it seemed so absurd and (b) it was funny. The narrative decision to include these scenes — or to leave them out — has an effect on the novel or film as a whole. But the decision has no impact on the story or plot you are telling.

When should I start and when should I finish the story?

Some novels start with birth and carry on through to the significant climax, some focus on a few focussed days, some a single day, some even more extreme fractions of time. The decision when to start and finish the telling of a story is a narrative decision. The story will remain the story and the plot will remain the plot no matter where you decide to start and finish your narrative. The purpose as to why you start late or early has a bearing on the effects you want on the reader.

Who is telling the story?

This area has resulted in a broad range of tedious analysis and advice. You know all about first-person, third-person, unreliable narrators etc. It would be boring to say much more.

But what is the purpose of narrative? Well, if we accept that it is the mechanism for delivery of a story, then we could argue that its purpose should be to tell a story in its most straightforward manner. However, this would be disengenuous. We all use narrative tricks (cliffhanger, anyone?) and to pretend that narrative decisions are easy would be a lie. Every time we scratch our nose and contemplate a keyboard, we are making decisions as to how we are going to approach this moment in the story, this episode in the plot, this moment. They are crucial decisions and we are writing them for one reason only: because we want somebody to start reading our story and then to continue reading to the end.

The narrative should make the story engaging, interesting, exciting, enjoyable, surprising and emotional for a reader.

My personal opinion is that the extreme end of narrative playfulness reveals nothing more than the writer’s high opinion of their own cleverness. The more extreme, the more jarring the narrative decision made, the more we lose sight of the story that the narrative is supposed to be helping be told. And it’s in the story that the reader gets their sustenance. We can be intellectually challenged by a complex bit of plotting and we can be amused at the sheer avant-garde wit of telling the story from the perspective of an earwig, but really we close a book with a forlorn sigh because we cared about the characters.

At least, this is the opinion of a writer of science fiction. It is fair to say that, across most popular genre writing, narrative follows a straightforward, traditional line. Romance, historical fiction, thrillers all eschew too much narrative trickery — because they jar the reader away from the story and remind them that they are reading a book, engaging with an artefact that somebody has constructed. We want somebody to be transported to a distant spacetime; we need that suspension of disbelief.

Well-written narrative should allow your reader to accompany your characters on their journey, wherever that may take them.

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