Two decades of great science-fiction movies

I think it was so much better in the olden days… No! That's not true! I do not want to be an old, boring moaner with rose-tinted spectacles! (At least not all the time) That being said, I do want to say that there really was a brilliant twenty-year period in U.K. and North American science-fiction cinema that started in 1962 and ended in 1982. For various cultural and historical reasons, it just seemed to be a time when film-makers had the freedom, opportunity, motivation and inspiration to create a lot of clever, inventive, disturbing and memorable science-fiction ideas and scenarios. It really was a golden age. I was going to waffle about each film, but that would take a lot of time, so I thought I'd just show the posters in rough date order, one for every year. Here goes:
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We're in a holo-deck reality

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Yes, I know the title of this article sounds nuts, or at least pointlessly nerdy, but actually, it might be true (or at least, sort of true). In this article, I'm going to show scientifically how the idea that 'our reality is a holo-deck construction' is a strong, scientific and logical theory for our existence. My explanation will be comprehensive, in-depth and not at all bonkers.
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Clearly, such an outlandish idea does need a lot of evidence to back it up, so I'll pose a series of sensible questions and answer each in turn. If I can answer all the questions with a 'yes', then I hope that'll show the validity of the theory. Here goes…
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Travel to the stars by exploding atomic bombs

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I discovered this fascinating programme on youtube yesterday. It's an old BBC4 documentary about Freeman Dyson and his project to design a spaceship that travels into space, propelled by detonating a series of nuclear explosions.


I found the documentary both engrossing and bizarre. Throughout the program, the people involved in the project were convinced that it was a viable and brilliant way to send humans into space and the other planets in our solar system. They pointed out, sensibly, that rocket motors did not produce enough power to effectively fling humans to the edges of our solar system, or our nearby astral neighbours. Chemical rockets were good enough to go to the moon, but that's about it.

This all made sense, but at no point in the documentary did anyone say 'wait a second, how on Earth are you going to accurately steer this craft as you explode nuclear weapons under its 'spring plate'? Also, how are you going to safely detonate a whole series of nuclear bombs under this 'spring plate' without them frying the crew with radiation or running the risk of one of them blowing up while it's still inside the bomb bay? The practical problems seem endless, and yet they carried on with idealistic zeal. Fascinating stuff.

Our science fiction future

As promised in the previous blog entry earlier this week, here's my prediction of our science fiction future

1) We're all going to die.

This isn't much of a prediction, as no one lives forever. I'll try and be a bit more specific.

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2) Climate change is going to wreck the environment of our planet and the global population will be reduced from seven thousand bazillion people to a bus queue by the end of 2200 AD

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Science Fiction Future at the BFI in London

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At the end of this month (Sunday May 30th), Simon Ings from the New Scientist magazine is hosting an afternoon of talks and short films on the subject of our ‘science fiction future’ and ‘why stories, games and falsehoods may be our best guide to tomorrow'. This event is part of the 'Sci-Fi-London' festival. The highly successful science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds will be giving the keynote talk and that’ll be followed by short films and panel discussions. The event is taking place on the South Bank in London at the British Film Institute.

The title and strap-line for the event has got me thinking; what is our science-fiction future? More broadly, since a lot of people think science-fiction is about the future, with special emphasis on techie stuff, the question really becomes: What is our future? (note: remember to talk about techie stuff).

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SETI and sci-fi expectations

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The New Scientist magazine's letters page this week includes some more discussions about SETI and alien contact. This topic was discussed a while back and I wrote in about it, but there's always something new to add. This week's discussion includes my response to an earlier letter on the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences:

In your letters page (21st Feb 2015) John Bailey concludes that since we haven’t been bombarded with self-replicating alien robots or seen huge heat signatures in space, there probably aren’t any advanced civilisations in our galaxy. He seems to think that advanced races will have a ‘more is better’ philosophy, but climate change is showing us that a ‘less is better’ philosophy is the only intelligent long-term strategy. If this is correct, then the more advanced a race is in the galaxy, the less visible they’ll be. It’s the quiet ones that are clever, not the shouters.


John Bailey's expectation that advanced alien civilisations will be huge, star-spanning confederations with big, powerful ships and zillions of self-replicating robots is, I think, because of how they're currently depicted in mainstream fiction. We pick whatever seems cutting-edge and exciting at the moment - nano-technology, robotics, ion-drives - and multiply them by a thousand or a thousand million and, voila, that's your advanced alien civilisation. A century-or-so ago, H.G.Wells came up with the idea of Cavorite, a substance that could negate gravity. Using this discovery, two Englishmen travelled to the moon. From a scientific point of view, Cavorite is just as believable as a warp drive or a hyperdrive but it's now seen as quaint, silly and unscientific. I'd bet that self-replicating robots will be seen as just as daft in a century's time.
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'The Lost Emotion' sci-fi short story

As it's been at least six months since 'The Lost Emotion' won the Arc Science Fiction magazine short story competition and was published in their magazine, I can pop it on my website for people to read. It's now available here.

Science fiction predictions

In my last blog post, I talked about science fiction ideas and how they can come about. As a follow-on, here's a video on the same topic from PBS digital studios project called 'It's Okay to be Smart'. I found out about it from a recent Brainpickings article:



The video is lots of fun and it does a good job of celebrating how many predictions such science-fiction authors as H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams got right about our modern world. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." :-)

'The Lost Emotion' is in the latest issue of Arc Science-Fiction magazine

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Good news! After a long break, Arc science-fiction magazine is back and my short story - 'The Lost Emotion' - is in its new issue, 'Exit Strategies'. This story won their last short-story competition, back in the winter of 2012-2013, for which I am very grateful. Arc science-fiction magazine is a digital publication, developed by the staff at New Scientist magazine. You won't see it on the shelves of WH Smiths, but you can buy a copy at zinio.com and download it to your computer or tablet device. It's also available for Kindle at Amazon.

'The Lost Emotion' is about the discovery of a lost emotion by a corporate researcher. In a future world where corporations can patent emotions, a gifted employee decides to seek out emotions lost to humanity. After finding what he can amongst the primitive tribes remote from civilisation, he stumbles upon an obscure piece of research. The science paper states that stimulating the muscles of a person's face can trigger an associated emotion for that person. For example, if someone makes a smiling face, they will actually feel happier as a result [this is perfectly true!]. To take advantage of this strange phenomenon, the researcher constructs a device that can stimulate any combination of a person's facial muscles. By systematically testing every combination of muscles on a test subject's face, he hopes to discover a muscle combination that will trigger, in that subject, a hitherto lost emotion. The researcher tests it on a young man, the narrator of the story. After many days fruitless testing, they discover a new emotion, one that profoundly changes the young man's viewpoint. Initially, the young man is overwhelmed by what he feels but, like Pandora's Box, this new knowledge brings all sorts of problems.

As ever, any and all feedback is most appreciated (but please don't swear too much… :-).

Illustration for 'The Lost Emotion'

John Prindle has kindly sent me a copy of the illustration he recently made for my science fiction short story ‘The Lost Emotion’. This won’t be the illustration that appears in the Arc magazine issue but it’s a fine piece of work and I’m happy to show it here. John is primarily a writer and is currently contributing to the juke pop serials website with his story The Art of Disposal. Read More...

The novel is complete!

I’ve finished the novel. Hooray! It’s called ‘Simon’s Brain’, is 82,000 words long and is a comedy thriller about one young man who is the sole person on the Earth who notices that the entire human race has been infected by an alien parasite, due to his unique property of having almost no brain whatsoever. I’ve submitted it to the Terry Pratchett / Transworld ‘Anywhere but here, anywhen but now’ competition and my fingers are crossed until Spring next year, or at least until cramp sets in. The novel is very much in the style of the science fiction short stories I wrote this Spring.

Unlike earlier novel-length work I’ve done, I made a special effort to write a comprehensive synopsis - 8,000 words long - for ‘Simon’s Brain’ before I started writing the novel itself. This has been a life-saver. In the past, I often tried to make the story up as I wrote the novel and I soon got into terrible difficulties, having to re-write entire chapters because I’d strayed so far from my original idea. This time, with a detailed synopsis on the desk, so to speak, I never strayed very far and therefore had to do very little re-writing, which kept the prose fresh and kept me away from the ‘tearing the hair out’ situations.

I’m very pleased with ‘
Simon’s Brain’. I think it’s the first truly professional novel I’ve written.

That’s it for now, enjoy the rest of November!

New science fiction project

Apologies for not posting anything for a while but I’m working furiously on a new project. After the success of winning a runners-up prize in the first Arc magazine short story competition, I’ve focussed on writing some more science fiction short stories. Unfortunately, I can’t post them on this website yet as it makes them ineligible for submission to many short-story science fiction magazines; if you’ve put it on-line in any form, they don’t want it in their magazine. Because of that, I’ll only be posting the stories when they’ve already been published elsewhere.

On a more positive note, several of these new short-stories should be available soon (fingers crossed) in a new science-fiction magazine. I’ll post information on that when things have proceeded to the next step.

Enjoy the week!

'18% happier' wins a prize in the 'Arc' magazine short story competition

Good news! My short story ’18% happier’ has won a runners-up prize in the recent ‘Arc’ magazine short story competition. £200 should be wending its way to me soon but more importantly, it’s a great endorsement. For anyone interested in the science fiction genre, Arc magazine is a new digital quarterly magazine created by the people at NewScientist magazine, focussing on science fiction stories and non-fiction articles. You can download a copy of it to your computer/tablet/phone etc through the Zinio service.

Here’s the announcement of the competition results from Simon Ings, the editor:

Today we are delighted to announce the results of the first Arc/Tomorrow Project short story competition. While we are a quarterly we have virtually no room in Arc for writing that comes at us from odd angles. The competition is the one chance we have at the moment of developing new talent. So how did it go? Pretty impressive, I'd say: we received around a hundred proper stories (none of your "flash fiction" here), representing thousands of hours of effort and struggle (and, I hope, at least some fleeting pleasure).

Was choosing the shortlist difficult? No. The first rule of judging and reading fiction (and saying this puts the fear of God into new writers - but it's true) is that you can tell within seconds if a story is alive. It's something to do with the way the prose and the ideas lock together. It's a rhythm, a cadence, something you only pick up by constant practice - and it's unmistakable. If the competition hadn't gone well, we'd have been wading through passable stories for days. As it is, our shortlist is made up entirely of stories that sing.

And while we were reading, half a world away in San Francisco,
the Tomorrow Project was building our new website. Together, Arc and the Tomorrow Project will be generating conversations around our winning fiction, giving writers an exciting, inspirational platform and valuable feedback on their work. All Arc's shortlisted stories are here.

I thought that was a very encouraging comment from Simon. Insightful criticism is probably the most important feedback - so a writer can improve their work - but I never say no to a whopping big compliment.

The story is available to read as a pdf from their website. You can also read it on my webpage.

I’ll let everyone know about any more related news when it comes out.

Enjoy your day!

Ten sci-fi and fantasy novels that aren't really about sci-fi and fantasy.



Science fiction and fantasy novels; aren't they lame? Well, not necessarily, although the genre is often seen as the domain of nerds and fans of mediocre literature. In some cases that view's probably understandable. When a novel is a piece of escapism, when the story is purely designed to give the reader fun and thrills with little in the way of thoughtful insight, such literature can be seen as little more than pulp fiction. The problems for sci-fi don't end there. Many readers are reluctant to read any story that has lots of technical references and descriptions and are worried such content will make the novel incomprehensible, confusing or just plain boring. As a result, large sections of the reading public avoid sci-fi and fantasy like the plague with the more high-brow dismissing it as shallow and the rest dismissing it as nerdy tech-fetishistic junk or social-inadequacy-fuelled escapism.

But there are science fiction and fantasy books out there that defy such categorisations. They do this because their purpose is not escapism or a glorification of technology but a piercing and insightful analysis of the human condition and our place in the world. This, essentially is what all great literature is about. The stories that linger in our thoughts, that we treasure, are the ones that give us a moment in time where we look at ourselves with clear eyes; sometime with a heavy heart, sometimes with a spark of joy.

Here's a list of ten science fiction and fantasy novels that, I think, do just that. They are all still clearly science fiction and fantasy novels, containing technology and mythical characters respectively, but those genre elements are vehicles, tools that are used by the author to talk about subjects all great literature is concerned with; love, loss, identity, morality, fear and hope.

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Short story submission for the new 'Arc' magazine

The staff at New Scientist have brought out a new digital magazine called Arc. It's a mix of articles about the future and short stories and is available on the iPad (which I don't have), Kindle (nope, don't have that either) and Mac (hooray! I have one of those).

They've also asked for short story submissions for the next issue. The theme of submissions is 'The Future always wins'. Being a big fan of science fiction, I've put together my own contribution. Initially, I thought about writing a serious narrative story describing loss of identity, invasive technology, the sort of stuff elegantly described in books by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Philip K. Dick, but I didn't really come up with much.

Instead, I decided that it would be fun to write a dialogue exposing the banality of peoples' use of technology and how it still can't help them understand their partner. We have incredible kit at our disposal, such as the modern smartphone, but most of us have no understanding of how it works and we use smartphones for the dumbest of reasons. It's a strange world where a GPS satellite network, thousands of gigabit processors, clocks that lose a second every billion years and other marvels are employed so someone can pass around a video of their mate throwing up. The future, I think, is highly unlikely to be like Star Trek. As Scott Adams perceptively pointed out in 'The Dilbert Future' and Terry Pratchett has stated in various articles, it'll probably be a lot more cringeworthy.

If you'd like to read my short story, ''18% happier' then click on the link.

Share and Enjoy.... share and enjoy...

Doctor Who: Season six and my Tarditis

I've written another article for a Sci-Fi Now competition (I am doing proper writing projects too but I think it's good practice!). This one is a review of Doctor Who: Season 6. Here it is:

It was near the end of Doctor Who season six that I knew I'd developed Tarditis.  Read More...