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).

Consciousness, Chinese Rooms and the emergent property of Treyr

When I started researching for Monastery, I found myself dipping back into areas I hadn’t thought about since sixth form.  At the time I ended up choosing English Literature as a university course but, for a long time in my teens, I was intent on studying Artificial Intelligence (AI).  I was one of those indecisive A-Level students that had selected both Maths and English.  One of my teachers suggested that I look into philosophy. Taking his advice, I read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  It was short (which is good for a teenager) and I thought I could understand the questions that were being posed. Then I started reading History of Western Philosophy and didn’t last two chapters. In hindsight, I know I didn’t really ‘get’ philosophy.  I like to think I’m catching up now, mind.

I’m not worried that I never went down the path to a philosophy degree, for I wasn’t ready and I would have hated it.  There’s still a little bit of regret, though, for not following the AI track.  I chose English because I repeatedly got good marks in it. After all, we can’t find the principle of the path-of-least-resistance all the time. Plus, the real reason was that I’d always wanted to be a writer.

Researching AI for the book meant I inevitably came across the philosopher John Searle’s thought experiment: ‘‘The Chinese Room’.  Here’s a link to it, so I won’t explain it in detail but, in summary, Searle imagines a man in a sealed room, being handed words on pieces of paper and translating these into Chinese characters using a book or some other system, then pushing them back out.  From the outside the room, it looks like he can understand Chinese.  From the inside, we know that he’s just following instructions.

This thought experiment was Searle’s response to a strand of AI that believes it is possible to produce a machine that can think and understand like a human being (and could be tested using the ‘Turing Test’).  Searle calls this ‘Strong AI’, as opposed to ‘Weak AI’, which is concerned with developing useful tools for pattern recognition and suchlike and using a computational approach to better understand the human mind.  His key point regarding the impossibility of Strong AI is that computers deal in ‘syntax’ (i.e they are ‘coded’) but human understanding is all about ‘semantics’ (they get the ‘meaning’).

Of course, there have been endless responses to the Chinese Room and counter-responses and counter-counter-responses.  However, perhaps because it’s quite an elegant idea, or perhaps because of complex reasons beyond our current understanding of academic debate, it still keeps cropping up.  Having read widely concerning the Chinese Room, I do believe the thought experiment itself is flawed and not reflective of how AI might work.  However, I do believe that an AI would never have consciousness in the sense that human beings understand it.  Simply, they would not be human so they couldn’t.  You could respond (and some have) that this is the point of the ‘A’ in AI but that just takes us into Weak AI territory.

For Monastery, I was in a quandary.  I knew I wanted this to be ‘hard sci-fi’, in the sense that it doesn’t break any significant rules of physics.  So, humanity has hit the limits of the light-engines, can’t escape the solar system, hasn’t rigged up a wormhole, hasn’t developed time travel.  But they developed (or allowed to evolve?) these superior machine intelligences. And these machine intelligences need to be exciting, to send a little shiver down your spine, like a HAL or a Wintermute.

Since reading all these cognitive science, AI and philosophy articles and books, I’ve come to the one conclusion: each author will vehemently argue a position based on what they learned in their mid-twenties and their mid-twenties alone.  So, I’m going to adopt the same rule.  I was studying systems thinking at that time.  So, from a systems thinking perspective (which, incidentally, is the most coherent response to the Chinese Room), consciousness is nothing more than an emergent property of the mind system – just one of those things that occurs when you have an appropriate number of neurons, in an appropriate configuration with appropriate properties.  (You can see where I got the name from.)

So, this got me thinking about what emergent properties might a Configuration have?  And that’s where the concept of treyr came in. It’s a difficult concept to explain, in the same way that explaining human consciousness to a machine would be difficult, but we can make a broad approximation.  In essence, treyr is the phenomenon where a Configuration experiences multiple near futures (and even a few distant futures) all at the same time.  This is a result of their continually cascading models of reality. I like to think it keeps the AI element in the book still interesting, while not upsetting Searle too much (and he’s a VERY grumpy man, so I was relieved about that).

I’m still reading about AI, Philosophy of Mind and emergentism.  Keep checking back – I’ve got a few more of these posts still to write I think …

Eee PC – goodbye to a legend!


I know … look at it! Bless. It’s only a wee little thing. But I’m afraid it’s no more.  It’s finally gone to the digital graveyard in the bottom drawer of the spare room, buried amid the coiled cables of its digital ancestors.  Coiled cables that may return, like a mythic triumvirate of kings, to prove that nothing will destroy the names of Parallel, Serial and Null-Modem.

And I’ve not made the choice lightly.  It’s been a wrench.  That Eee PC had been a trusty writing tool for me for nearly six years now. I even did some coding on it – wrote my wife’s website on it, started designing an overly complicated spying game on it and started a few other (shelved) projects.  Yes, that Eee PC could run a local LAMP stack.  It did it pretty well as well. But it got too slow.  Website design outpaced that tiny 7″ screen.  You ever tried to use Google Docs on a 7″ Eee PC?  You get about an inch of workable screen.

I know there are people out there who hated the Eee. I can understand why, as well. If you’re sat at home, waiting for it to chug through a picture-heavy news site, it was quite a wearying experience. If you wanted to work with pictures or (God forbid!) video, you were struggling.  Even, if you had to run any kind of serious word processor, you had to manage your expectations.  That was why I worked with the basic text editor.

But I don’t think these Eee-haters have ever commuted by train. That’s where it came into it’s own.  It was light, it was small, it was cheap.  You could type without getting your elbows in your neighbour’s face. You could carry it in your bag without needing to bulk up on whey powder and skinless chicken. You could have it stolen safe in the knowledge that your thief was going to struggle to make any money from it.

Nearly all of Monastery was written on that little Eee.  Dozens of little txt files written on the train, all saved locally (no need for wifi).  Then I’d email them to myself later on. Backup and transfer at the same time!

However, I’ve replaced it at last with something whose battery doesn’t leak away within five minutes and where I can at least surf the internet on the sofa.  I went with ‘light’ as being the major factor (no netbook was ever as light as the the Eee) and also cheap, so it had to be a ChromeBook.  One of the cheapest ones, mind – I’m not going to push the boat out!  I know, I know, I’m a cheapskate.  But if it works, it works. Can’t justify giving up my hard earned pounds to pay for some overly-tanned Apple brand manager to pay for his fourth yacht.  And I’ve had it Windows, so never going back there again.

Writing this post on the ChromeBook, in fact … fingers crossed it lasts me another six years!!

Writing science fiction – imperial or metric units?

These are the little problems that you hit when you’re trying to write sci-fi. It’s quite often not about the epic narrative arc or the coherent vision for the future; it’s all about the mundane stuff. What do people drink when they need to wake up of a morning? Are colds now extinct? Do people still celebrate Christmas? What’s an appropriate term of endearment?

One of the ones that I battled with for a while was the ‘Metric vs Imperial’ debate. I was half tempted to give up on it totally and make up my own units but that quickly retreated from that complicated little idea. The whole point of words – especially words in fiction – is that they spark off the appropriate images and connotations in a reader’s mind (and I’d given myself enough of a headache by creating a brand new military ranking system). The more shorthand you can use, I think, to achieve this the better, hence the ubiquitous rule about chopping out any adjectives and adverbs.

In the brilliant TV Tropes site they suggest it’s most common to use metric system for science fiction and imperial units for fantasy. There’s no real rational reason for this, of course, beyond a ‘feeling’ that metric sounds more futuristic.

I thought I’d check what other classic science fiction authors have done in the past, so picked a few books at random off my book case.  Arthur C Clarke goes with ‘kilometres’ and ‘metres’, Iain M Banks has ‘kilometres’.  But Larry Niven had ‘miles’, which surprised me. Neal Stephenson (for Anathem) has gone for ‘miles’ and – I love this one – ‘paces’ for his ‘metres’ equivalent.  But then Anathem is the kind of book that needs this, I think.

There may be a UK vs US writers divide here … or it might be a ridiculously small sample size.  I’ll let you decide.

Anyway, in the end, I went with metric.  It still feels correct, more futuristic.  What I couldn’t find myself doing was denoting smaller sizes in centimetres, though. I’m not sure why … but just it just felt wrong, to describe something as ‘thirty centimetres high’. That was when I itched to be able to write ‘about a foot’ again!