Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

I discovered today that there are around 3.4 million different titles for sale on Amazon. The number is rising by one book every five minutes.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A proportion of these are written by bots – compilations of data, really, rather than books. But still, these figures underscore the democratisation of publishing. And the difficulty of discovery.

It also underscores a sea change in the publishing world. That’s been particularly evident here in New Zealand a 25 percent compound drop in sales has done for many of the major houses, who have been pulling out of Auckland in droves. And the old days when deals were done over a publisher-funded dinner and spouses came along for the ride are long over.

Actually, the money was never there anyway. Writers – even famous writers – haven’t had anything like the average income of their rock musician equivalents. Ray Bradbury’s house was up for sale recently. An old-ish house, large but not mansion-like, asking price $1.49 million. That’s just over double the average asking price in the area, Culver City. Not bad. But remember that Bradbury was a writer of world stature not just in SF but also literature generally. The house has also been described as out of the reach of many authors, but reasonable by US standards.

The Bradbury experience underscores a point. For every Dan Brown there were 10,000 other authors who didn’t make it big – but who got publishing contracts. Publishers worked by averages – they’d run a dozen titles that might break even or generate a loss, knowing a single winner would make all good. They had to run that way because nobody knew which book would work. And they also needed a range of books to be viable in the marketplace.

The advent of self-publishing hasn’t changed that, because – setting aside discovery of individual authors and looking at the industry as a whole – the limiting factor is the disposable income of potential readers. But it has spread the available money over a wider area. Publisher responses have involved classic big-business downturn tactics – becoming risk-averse and re-trenching.

To find an answer – laterally and creatively – we have to re-conceptualise the problem.

The problem isn’t the shift of readership from print to e-book or the democratisation of publishing. It’s getting the disposable income that anybody – not just book readers – has to spend from their pocket into yours. A point underscored by where the readership for Dan Brown best-sellers, Harry Potter and (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It wasn’t traditional book readers. These titles broke into the pockets of a wider slice of populace.

Next challenge – how to make that happen reliably. And yes, I know that’s about as practical as dividing one by zero (I double dog dare you to try that bit of math…) But hey – we’re into re-conceptualising here. Playing with ideas. And until you’ve explored the impossible, you can’t find out the limits of the possible – can you?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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