A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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