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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Plots as tightly-coupled or loosely-coupled systems

‘Have you had a good day writing?’
‘Well … I’m not sure. I wrote a lot of words. Just not what I was expecting to write.’
‘You finished the chapter though?’
‘Um … I think so.’

When writing, have you ever felt like things were coming unstuck with your outline? Or perhaps you deliberately never plan at all and let the characters lead the way? This blog post explores how your plot can be thought of as a tightly-coupled or loosely-coupled system and what that might mean for your novel.

Although a term more commonly used in programming, the concepts of loose coupling and tight coupling can be applied very effectively to systems thinking. Some academics have used them to apply to organisational theory (one of the higher systems levels) but they can also be applied to biological or ecological systems as well.

The essence of a loosely-coupled system is one where there is a lack of interdependence between subsystems. These systems are inefficient (as there is a lot of wastage) but they are flexible and adaptable to change. To take an example, a market composed of many small businesses engaged in short-term transactions can be categorised as a loosely-coupled system.

On the other hand, a tightly-coupled system is one where the relationships between subsystems are more controlled and where there is strong interdependence. A business or institution run along old-fashioned bureaucratic lines can be conceived as a tightly-coupled system. Another example would be a factory manufacturing cars to a just-in-time model. Tight coupling reduces waste, increases efficiencies and speed of process. However, these systems do not cope well with changes in the environment and they are prone to sudden catastrophic tipping points where things can spiral out of control. Recent examples would be the extreme price movements caused by high frequency trading algorithms.

So, this is all very abstract … what does it have to do with writing? Well, if you have ever written a story, or read about the writing process, you will have come across the phenomenon when the ‘characters take over’ the story. As a writer, you had a specific path you needed your characters to follow and, for some reason, by the time you’ve got the end of the scene, things haven’t turned out as you intended.

Perhaps this doesn’t happen to you? The fact that it doesn’t could be for the following reasons:

1. You’ve already worked through all the small details of the scene in your outline or synopsis and, when you write the scene, you’re simply filling in the gaps
2. You’ve forced the characters into carrying out actions that feel a little false but, dammit, they’ve given you the outcome you needed
3. You didn’t really write a chapter outline and just let the characters take you where it felt most natural.

Taking these explanations one by one, I would suggest that number (1) is rare, especially with dialogue-heavy scenes. If you know what everybody is going to say and do, down to the smallest of details, you’ve already written the scene!

Number (2) is familiar to readers and writers and can be thought of as writing to a tightly-coupled plot. A tightly-coupled plot will drag the reader along a clear path of cause and effect. They will munch through your prose, wanting to know what’s coming up next. It will grip and take them through a series of coherent events. But if you force this too tightly, they will find the characters flat, automata designed merely to make doors open and guns get fired and wars get started. They will finish your story with an adrenalin rush but will never dream of the characters you’ve made. Because they know they were just there as a plot device.

As soon as your character does something that makes the reader wrinkle their nose in disbelief, you’ve lost your reader. You’ve broken the spell. Stories work because they suspend a reader’s disbelief. Think of the last cheesy horror film you saw when the writer contrived to have one of the characters ‘separated’ from the others.

Number (3) is a common approach and can be thought of as writing to a loosely-coupled plot. For a number of writers, it feels more in tune with letting their characters live. The justification is that until you actually start putting words down on the page, or letting lines of dialogue pop into your head, you can’t really predict where things will take you.

Plots work on cause and effect (see this blog post) and interdependencies are cause-and-effect relationships. Therefore, a loosely-coupled plot will have cause-and-effect relationships but they may be broken up by stuff that simply happens! There may be localised moments that flow in a believable fashion but they may not serve a coherent overarching story.

Loosely-coupled plots will have very believable characters but you’re going to have a very baggy story, with redundant sections, where readers may think it feels real. Without that overarching story driving things forward, they’ll drift off and lose interest (‘that chapter read just like a day at work’).

So, what’s the right approach? As with all these things, you need to get the sweet spot in the middle. That is all. Bye.

Story | Plot | Narrative | Novel | Book : Part 1 ‘Defining plot and story’

A story is not the same as a plot.
Narrative is neither a story nor a plot.
A novel is more than a story, a plot or a narrative.
A book is something completely different.

For these series of blogs I’m going to take these points and expand on them further. Today’s blog, Part 1, covers definitions for story and plot and explores some examples of their differences.

But first … why do we need to think of story and plot as entirely different things? What’s the point? We all know the difference, don’t we? Well, before I started writing seriously, I had an intuitive sense that, although they were intertwined, they meant something different but wasn’t able to articulate it clearly, especially as some of the experts in the field had differing opinions. So it’s only now, after having written a few books (and having read a few), and having thought carefully about it, that I’m able to see them as completely separate abstract concepts. Hopefully, by trying to clarify the difference, by teasing out a fuller picture, it will help you to approach your writing (and your reading) with different eyes.

Many people who have written about these things in the past have treated both plot and story as synonymous. Christopher Booker (see a previous blog entry here) wrote about seven archetypal stories (The Quest, Rebirth, Tragedy, Comedy etc) and uses the term ‘story’ throughout. Yet he still called his book the The Seven Basic Plots. My interpretation of this is that he perceives stories as specific instances of a more generic ‘basic plot’ but it is never very clear and there is a feeling of conflation between the two.

In Aspects of the Novel, E M Forster defines a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’. He then defines a plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis on causality’. He is entirely wrong about story. But he is much closer on plot; it is about causality. Our first-port-of-call online (link) explains this reasoning in detail, and also covers what other writers have done to expand on the thinking.

Unfortunately, Forster also threw in the concept ‘narrative’ and confused things somewhat. So, ignore the narrative side and consider plot as being about ‘series of events’ and about ‘causality’ and we can arrive at a definition.

A plot can be defined as: a series of linked events behaving according to commonly-understood rules of cause-and-effect.

And what about story? The reason Forster got it so wrong is that a series of linked events is that it is merely that. Wikipedia continues the same line (link), calling a story a ‘report of connected events’. We can all think about linked or connected events: On a planet far, far away a rock fell off another rock and caused a nearby rock to ricochet away approximately ten centimetres. This isn’t a story. Possibly, it could be seen as a sub-component of a story, the opening perhaps, but in its entirety it is not a story. But according to the definition from Forster and others, it passes the test.

What they failed to see is the key rule, the one that is now drummed into students of writing everywhere: ‘story is character’. Perhaps he was born too early? I’ve failed to find out who wrote or said this first but it feels like scriptwriter’s advice. Whatever its provenance, it is absolutely true. There can only be a story where there is a character (or group of characters) and that character or group has to be suffering some imbalance and that story only truly ends when that imbalance is balanced. We have to understand and emphasise and care for that character or group. Otherwise, we don’t care. And it’s just a series of linked events.

An interesting book that inspired me in this, by somebody who was trying to distil some of Booker’s and others’ thoughts on the matter, is John Yorke’s Into the Woods. Yorke’s view on a story is as follows: ‘you’re going to encounter a setting, and in that place a series of events will occur – almost certainly to an individual’. The views in this blog, and the definition given below, are strongly influenced by this book and I would urge you to read it.

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

So, now that we’ve defined story and plot, let’s examine some examples. Forster identifies two famous examples. First, Forster’s example of a story:

The king died and then the queen died.

And then Forster’s example of a plot:

The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

In the first example (the story) we can clearly see that, although we have a character and sense of imbalance, it gives no sense of journey or resolution of that imbalance. Arguably, having sneaked a look at the plot example, we could project a little of what we know about human nature (and the character arc of tragedy) and we could fill in the gaps. But it involves a lot of projection. So, it needs a little work. If I were going to expand on this example of story, applying the definitions I gave above, we would see something like this:

The queen, deeply in love with the king, sees him die and only finds peace through her own death.

It’s less snappy, isn’t it? But it’s more likely to pass muster as your elevator pitch than Forster’s example. You start to care more about about the character(s) and you feel satisfied at the resolution. Story is all about feeling satisfied as a reader.

And what about the refined example of a plot? Well, Forster’s example was pretty good so I’m not sure I can add much to it. It was a linked series of event and it demonstrated a sense of commonly-understood cause-and-effect. However, if I was going to make a somewhat inelegant attempt, the following might suffice:

The king suffers from an illness and dies. The queen discovers the king is dead. Due to her intense grief, she dies also.

There is causality and a series of linked events. At first glance, you could also intuitively recognise it as a story but what it misses entirely is clarity over who the character is we are sympathising with and whether the imbalance is resolved. It simply ends, like that pebble coming to rest on some distant planet. Why should we care?

Next time I’ll explore the concept of narrative (another abstract though more technical term) and how it relates to story and to plot.

Drafting and Editing a Manuscript : My Six Stage Approach

The following is a condensed summary of my own process for drafting and editing a full novel-length manuscript. The stages would vary a little depending on whether you’re working on a film script, a stage play or a short story but the essential features of the sequence would remain the same. I can’t promise that the six stages I follow would work for you but I thought I’d share an approach that has proved useful for me during my writing career.

Please note that there is a preceding set of stages concerning planning and plotting and world-building but these would need separate blogs (essays, books etc) in their own right to explain in more detail.

Stage 1 – First draft of individual chapters on the screen. I now habitually write the chapters for my books as separate electronic documents. I find this is easier to manage with the scrolling and the navigating around the screen. Trying to work with an electronic manuscript of over 100k words starts to slow your system down. I like to drop in key plot and story markers in square brackets, a few ‘seed’ sentences here and there that occur to me on the spur of the moment and then I’m away. Sometimes I even start at the beginning and work through to the end!

Stage 2 – Edit the first draft of each chapter on screen. This first review should be in sequential order, so that you start get a sense of the narrative flow, any plot holes and the emotional impact of the story. I tend to find at this point there is some crucial information that I’ve failed to reveal to the reader (or I’ve revealed too much) and so have to re-draft as a result. This is common for my writing style, which is fairly non-linear, and it comes from a background in writing stage plays, where I would often write the exciting scenes first and then go back and trudge through the ‘plot-filler’ moments and the critical story points. It is usually at this point that I find I have left a massive gap in the middle of a chapter that I was intending to come back to later (and then never bothered).

Stage 3 – Collate electronically, print out and edit on paper. This stage is the first time I’ve got the entire document in one place, which gives me accurate word count and makes it feel like a thing of substance. This slower-paced editing stage gives me the chance to polish the sentences, the dialogue and, crucially, identify any issues with pacing. You can instinctively feel whether you’ve rushed one scene or dumped too much exposition by the speed of your reading here. I enjoy this part because you can settle back into a comfy chair and just read and scribble. Occasionally I’ve also tried to do this stage by reading aloud to myself. It slows down the process but helps you identify your real clunky sentences and it excellent at highlighting unrealistic dialogue.

Stage 4 – The Kindle read-through. Once you’ve made your edits from Stage 3, export it as an ebook and read it through on an electronic device like a Kindle, tablet or smartphone. This adjusts the text size, the screen size and the line endings and lets you spot missing words and errors you wouldn’t ordinarily spot. Again, the pacing of the scenes and the story should really come through more now and you may start to tell yourself: ‘I need whole new chapter here’ or ‘I can just remove that entire paragraph and it wouldn’t hurt the story.’ My advice is to cut, cut, cut at this stage!

Stage 5 – Copy-editor / proof-reader. Now that you know you won’t be too embarrassed by the state the manuscript is in, get it sent off to a copy-editor or proof-reader (thank you Wanda for Book 1 and Anita for Book 2!). I had Monastery copy-edited but only went with proof-reading for Archipelago. This stage should highlight any other issues that you’ve not been able to spot because you were so close to the text. Double, double check any amendments you make during this stage. I’ve found that most of the errors I have in the final document relate to changes I made after proofing.

Stage 6 – Final Kindle Test. After you made the updates, read through again on an electronic device, to do a final, final check. Even at this stage, you’ll still be finding the odd error creeping in here and there. But, hopefully, you’ll put it down at the final page and feel pleased with what you’ve accomplished!

Trump: Oscillation or Phase Transition?

There are some observant types over at the BBC suggesting that the election of Trump has some echoes of what a Greek philosopher once told us over two thousand years ago. I’ve not returned to my Penguin classics to check it out but it certainly sounds convincing. In summary, the theory is that we are entering the next natural stage in the political cycle: what follows democracy – when democracy has entered its declining and decadent stage – is tyranny. In a similar vein, last year some other commentators started to draw comparisons between Trump and Julius Caesar. It necessarily follows that, if he is assumed to be Julius Caesar, then he should also be likened to Palpatine, though this is disputed.

So far, so depressingly familiar. Human history repeats itself, recycling similar patterns and events. Only knowledge can take us forward*.

So, let’s use some of our knowledge then. There are a couple of interpretations available to the events we are now witnessing.

Firstly, what if the election of Trump is little more than an oscillation? By that, think of the democratic political system as a complex organism, constituted of many agents all connected and affected by environmental factors. Assume a growing dissatisfaction in the US with people’s stagnant wages, rising levels of inequality, upheavals in cultural bases, too many wars fought and lost etc etc. Consider these as either internal changes in properties of the agents of the system (i.e. the people, processes and norms of the US) and external changes (e.g. the rise of ISIS following the war in Iraq). These factors have caused the normal equilibrium (Democrat v Republican, free market is good, internationalist outlook) to be disturbed. Sometimes in a system that tends towards equilibrium, things can get disturbed, and thus amplified beyond the usual levels. Trump getting elected could be seen as one of those amplified oscillations.

I’m not actually sure whether Trump represents a right-wing oscillation. Some of his policies are very left-wing, for example, he is pushing for high levels of government funding and protectionism (against the free market) and most Republicans hate him. However, let’s continue to lightly label him right-wing. Oscillations will swing back in the opposite direction. So what might represent the amplified oscillation in the other direction? We already witnessed a large number of young voters leaning towards Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Could that tell us something?

Communism might yet come to America. Just at the moment fascism descends upon Russia.

But what if this is no oscillation? What if this is something more significant? Some systems oscillate but others can re-configure themselves to such an extent that they lead to monumental change. As explained in Phillip Ball’s book Critical Mass, what we could be witnessing here is ‘phase transition’. For example, when a liquid’s temperature is sufficiently lowered, it ceases to be a liquid but becomes (surprisingly quickly) a solid. Phase transitions are not scalar events – you don’t have ‘slightly liquid’. There is a possibility that what we are witnessing is the wholescale phase transition from a democratic society into … well, something else. Something that is not merely concerned with elements of legislation and administrative decision-making but something that changes the very structures of democracy itself, that changes media, cultural norms, possibly even laws and the concept of truth and rational thinking. It might be too soon to call it tyranny. But there is a strong likelihood that it could affect a significant proportion of people’s lives for the worse. I’m thinking of those people who use science, evidence and rational argument as the foundation blocks for their worldview.

And, if this is the case, we need to start planning how we’re going to protect the knowledge.

*Until we lose that, cf some SF books by name of The Lost Archive

Further west : does the developed world need a new America?

NASA have plans for manned missions to Mars by the 2030s. There’s some guff about capturing an asteroid and dragging it about space during the 2020s. To give us space legs or something. Listen to me NASA – this is all too late!

In September, Elon Musk told Wired magazine he will take us to Mars and save humanity. He is cagey about when though and the estimate is it could take another 10 years. Even that’s too late!

There was a bit of news recently concerning a new space colony: Asgardia. As of tonight it apparently encompasses more than half a million people – it’s bigger than Cape Verde. Except that there’s nothing there. Beyond a nifty website and some pleasing sentiments regarding peace and knowledge. It’s a great concept. Is this the way we need to think?

Then there are the Seasteaders. To lift some of their blurb: “Seasteaders are a diverse global team of marine biologists, nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel, investors, environmentalists, and artists.” Could this be what we’re looking for? Is this the solution? Massive colonies on the sea? Like the idea but the list of who they are seems a little exclusive.

We need somewhere new. Where we can stake a new claim. Without having to disrupt already settled communities.

But why? What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

In essence, what I’m calling for is a new America. Not as in the land mass to the west of the Atlantic Ocean, I mean as in the concept ‘America’ (embodied by the United States but also prevalent in some of the South American countries and Canada). That is, to act as a place where dreams can be made real, where your old status should not matter, where you can actually realise your potential without barriers. Whether this was actually ever true, I’ll let somebody else decide (and we’ll not bring up the fact that the lands were already inhabited). But we cannot argue that there was never an American Dream. Or that there was a period in history where you could leave behind all your class-bound, religious, even racial baggage and make a fresh start. America used to drag in young people, energetic people, people with ideas and energy from all over the world. Particularly from Europe.

Europe, at the time, was a place stuck in class-bound stagnation. There was little chance of social mobility. Agricultural workers being replaced by machinery, small-time farmers having to move out for the big landowners, urban working-class being left high and dry by boom and bust cycles of industry.

That was then. But now, what do we have? Social mobility has stalled in the US, in the UK it’s going backwards. Across the rest of Europe, the baby-boomers have all the rest of the wealth tied up. And all the power. The downside of democracy: tyranny of the majority. Direct action and sit-ins will only do so much.

Then something weird happened. Brexit. Trump. We don’t realise it but all the young activists (distraught by recent events) and all those who have felt their wealth drain away over the last thirty years (who caused the recent events) are all in the same boat. Their future is in doubt. Their future is stalled. Brexit. Trump. Hand grenades thrown into the west. Likely to make things worse rather than better. But, unless something is done, they realise their children are likely to be poorer than they are.

Go back a couple of hundred years and those same children would know exactly what they had to do to avoid such a fate. They had to get onto a boat to New York.

But where is our new Statue of Liberty? Our new Ellis Island? Could it be on the sea? On Mars? In space? Possibly one or any or all of those places. The one thing I do know is that it will all be a little too late. We need our new America now.

I am not Galilean. I am Alim. (… or how Brexit can help provide backstory for my third book)

I am now working on plotting the third book of the Lost Archive, where our lead characters (Qira, Li and Nessum) return to their homes on and around the Galilean moons. The whole book will be framed within the history of the Galilean break up and the retraction of the ummra (or ‘influence’). How should I approach this? Can I draw on what’s been happening in the world at the current time? Can I apply some of this to the Galilean moons? Is this reflective of deeper natural systems? And if so, must these apply far into the future as well?

Beyond the loud, local noise concerning British exit from the EU there are wider convulsions in the world. Across Europe, old certainties in politics are changing. John Harris in the Guardian has written an interesting piece about the left as a political force undergoing rapid change (here). His essential argument being that the old working class foundation for left wing politics has been taken away (by technology, changes in working practices, globalisation and suchlike).

Further away from Europe, but still in the ‘West’, some of the core visions of shared nationhood are dying. Two countries whose sense of a whole has held together by a grand narrative (US and Israel) are now starting to show cracks. Warnings of splits across political and cultural heritage lines in Israel has been identified as leading to potential civil war (here), while in the US, we have started to see the long rumbling ideological divisions starting to surface (here) linked to stagnation of opportunity and expectations.

And, of course, we have Brexit. What can we learn from Brexit? Possibly, that you can’t plug an established ‘nation’ into a union of other nations, together with a complex network of rules and public-funding streams without somebody yelling ‘what about our sovereignty’ at some point. Possibly, Brexit won because there was a drip-feed of negative stories about immigrants together with localised evidence of immigration putting a strain on services together with austerity (oh, and a few racists). Possibly, it was simply that not enough people in Britain were that excited, or emotionally invested, in being a ‘European’ while those who were emotionally invested in being part of a nation, being ‘British’, outnumbered them. (And by the way, those who claim they still are ‘European’ but just don’t want Brussels to rule their life and demand cash, I say you don’t understand the question – it’s not about which continent you were born on or whether you love French wine and Italian holidays).

Let’s try and apply a little systems thinking to the problem. First off, let’s set out the general principles: properties of systems emerge when they are constituted by appropriate property-bearing sub-systems which are appropriately configured in an appropriate environment.

Let’s start by defining a ‘state’ as a population in a given territory under a given government, where the former has given the latter a mandate to lead and rule them and given up some freedoms as a result. If we conceive a ‘state’ as a system, then a state is composed of multiple sub-systems (people, institutions, laws etc) configured in an appropriate way which instantiate particular properties.

But what makes this system whole? A shared sense of being part of a given ‘state’, a Hobbesian compact that we are part of a greater Leviathan, or Rousseau’s ‘social contract’. In system terms, this means that there is an attribute shared across all populations that simply reads: ‘I am a member of State X’. If there are sufficient numbers of people with this attribute, all working together, developing and following laws and processes that support this attribute, then the state is constituted. You may still have some sub-systems who disagree but they can be managed and their feedback often acts to improve the whole. However, should there be sufficient numbers who no longer share this attribute of membership, a critical mass or a tipping point is reached and the state collapses and can no longer be conceived as a system. And all its properties fade away.

It should be possible for us to have attributes of being members of multiple ‘states’ – in Britain we have local and national government and if I lived in Scotland or Wales there is another layer. In a Federal system such as the US, you would be a Texan and an American. So, it is not as though human beings are incapable of being members of multiple states (although, I will admit, there are tensions).

I think there is something here about a shared vision, a shared emotional investment. Yugoslavia was held together by a shared communist vision (and an effective and charismatic leader) but when the leader was replaced and communist narrative turned sour, then there was little that kept those Balkan countries together. I predict that we will see similar events (although not for about 50 years) in the US. This is because the American Dream has died: that is, you can no longer easily make it from pauper to millionaire in the US. There is now an entrenched privileged class and they are passing their wealth down through family lines. America’s only solution is to ‘do a Russia’ and re-distribute the wealth across the entire population, pinned to some new grand narrative (no so far-fetched – link here about how 49% of under 30s in the US have a positive view of ‘socialism’). Or perhaps the US will split apart across ideological / cultural lines.

But back to the Galilean moons. What has all this noodling on a theme revealed? That I believe there are natural systems that can allow understanding of current events, and historic events and thus be used to predict similar patterns of human politics far into the future. Within these natural systems, there are two key areas to consider when larger states disintegrate: the critical mass of sub-systems who hold the property ‘I am a member of State X’; and a change in the wider environment.

Globalisation, technology and change in working practices reflect the environmental changes affecting today’s convulsions. And I believe that Brexit was caused by (and Scottish independence will be caused by) a tipping point being reached of individuals within the system who no longer feeling that they want to be members of the EU (or the UK). Why exactly this is the case would require a university research department (some might query whether it’s possible) but I’m going to pin my colours to the dying of a dream, the fizzling out a grand narrative that never delivered on its promises.

So, in terms of the wider environment, what contextually changed for the Galileans? It must be connected to the Lost Archive but also the corresponding loss of the Configurations, the breakdown in their systems and ideologies, the rise of competing ideologies.

And their sense of being members of a wider Galilean union? We have learned that it is possible for people to consider themselves at once Alim and Galilean. But that for somebody to state that they are one and not the other indicates that a vision, a grand coalescing narrative has gone sour. What was the grand vision that the Galileans clung to? What transcendence were they seeking? Where was their knowledge going to take them? And how did it die?

This has helped. I’ve got a few ideas now.

Reflections on The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Having completed Christopher Booker’s chunky The Seven Basic Plots, I took a few days to digest what I have read before writing this. It needs a few days to digest and even now, I feel like I might write further reflections.

My initial impressions are that of slight betrayal; I feel like I was ushered down interesting pathways of a formal garden, only to get dragged into thickets of undergrowth and then made to witness scenes of seedy nature. It has left a bad taste in the mouth.

Part One begins brilliantly, working way through the seven plots that he has identified across epic poetry, plays, novels, plays and films. I’m not going to detail them verbatim but, in summary, they are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

As it normal in any of these meta-analyses, there are inevitable issues with application of a neat abstract model to reality. The boundaries are blurred and Booker often plucks out an exemple, only to have to explain why it doesn’t quite fit the mould. However, it’s not about finding precise matches. By applying the model and identifying the gaps helps to inform one’s understanding of the story underneath, perhaps why it doesn’t quite ‘work’. And this is the real insight, for it tells us something about the mind and how stories work in the mind.

Part Two starts to focus in on the archetypal characters in stories. This is interesting and really explores that old chestnut of how-to-write classes: ‘story is character’. The idea of ‘imbalance’ in a protagonist is especially good. Booker plays with ‘light’ and ‘dark’ archetypes (the Dark Mother, the Light Father and so on). Unfortunately, this is also the point he also introduces his core thread, namely the ‘ego-consciousness’ and how it has separated itself from the Self. This is where we start to get pulled in uncertain directions.

From Part Three onwards, thing really go adrift. Booker riffs on his theme on the rise of the ego and tries to crowbar it into the twentieth-century canon. Modernism gets a going over, the kitchen-sink dramas of the sixties, the sex and violence of seventies Hollywood. It’s quite entertaining to read a closely-argued position explaining that Waiting for Godot was rubbish and Chekhov didn’t have a clue (I paraphrase). But it’s wears thin when you stop believing it.

It seems anachronistic for someone to be quoting Freud and Jung with such earnestness in 2004. I’m not a qualified student of psychology, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I do get the feeling that when people drag out concepts such as the ego and the Self and relationships to the unconsciousness, it’s not dissimilar to discussing the universal ether or vital forces. Its a little bit passe.

That said, it has always been a pet theory of mine that the best stories arise from the tension between the ancient animal we once were and the rational, self-conscious builder of civilisations we have become. When I discussed this with a friend, they suggested immediately that I read Freud, so perhaps there is something worth exploring here – I think the dogmatism with which Booker approaches it is wrong, though.

When we get to Part Four, we are promised ‘Why We Tell Stories’ but really, it descends into little more than a moan over how things went really wrong following the Romantics. He doesn’t like the Enlightenment much, he hates the 1920s and the less said about the sixties the better. Apparently it all got better in the 1980s, because we went to war with Argentina. And by this point I just wanted to put it down.

I think the end of the book is a massive confusion between disciplines: are we talking about literature or history or sociology or psychology here?  I don’t think Booker should conflate these areas. Stories are stories. Real life is real life. While you may find yourself tracing some Quest or Comedy or Rebirth plot during your lifetime, most of the 657,450 hours of your existence are going to be spent just living (you know, doing stuff). Living has no narrative art. The seven basic plots identified are powerful because they happen to work powerfully in the mind, not because they remind us of what we did last week. 

This is an important point – what we enjoy in stories is not what we (necessarily) enjoy in real life. I can enjoy Tolkien and George RR Martin and fantastical stories of the inherited power of kings regaining thrones through savagery. However, I still want to live in a democratic, peaceful society where there are laws that mitigate against all forms violence. I may have an interest in the collective formation of a more accountable state apparatus through applied technology … but I’d hate to read an (unironic) story about it!

There is a brief mention of news being edited to adopt stories but what Booker has missed (possibly due to the 2004 publishing date) is the most contemporary appropriation of the seven basic plots. You need look further than the Apprentice, the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity … (and the creepy TOWIE and its clones) in order to see the Tragedy, the Rebirth, the Quest all played out. These shows purport to ‘reality’ but they are not, again, like real life. Even Big Brother, which has a continuous live stream, cuts footage and starts to overlay narrative. The producers make stories out of the material they’re given. The stories they create are character-driven, and conform to the archetypes identified in Booker’s tome.

If you decide dip into The Seven Basic Plots, I wouldn’t advise trawling through all the chapters. And definitely stop before the last section. It has nothing to do with the seven basic plots (and I believe it has naff all to do with Jung either) and should have been heavily edited as result. 

(It is quite funny though, when he sticks the knife into Ulysses. He’s wrong, naturally. But it’s still funny).