Category Archives: Craft Tips

Gollancz Lit Fest: Words of Wisdom

Standard

Last weekend was Gollancz’s annual Literary Festival, celebrating all things SF&F. For the first time I splashed out on a ticket and went along to a couple of panels by such giants as Joanne Harris, Joe Hill, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Boudard, Adam Ross and Pat Cadigan. From them, I learned three important lessons:

  1. Joanne Harris is exactly as much of a geek as I always hoped she’d be.
  2. Pat Cadigan’s comic timing is absolutely perfect.
  3. They are people just like me, with the same writing challenges and struggles. If they can do it, so can I.

That said, there were a few pearls of more specific wisdom that came out of the panels. I’ll do my best to assemble them into a coherent post, but the conversations veered quite abruptly so there may be some jumping around.

Publishing & Medium

Harris: You have to be rejected. You have to be rubbish for a while before you’re good. None of your time spent writing is ever wasted. It’s all experience that gets you to the next level. Self publishing is a great option which I’m glad I didn’t have.

Hill: With self-publishing, the readers have become the gatekeepers. They will tell you if you’re any good in the Amazon reviews. But your crappy stuff will still be out there.

Cadigan: Editors are your best friends. They stop you going out with spinach between your teeth. I woke up one morning knowing how to turn my current project into a trilogy, and I had to take a tranquilliser.

Harris: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lemony Snickett – they were all game changers in publishing trends. Before them, lots of rejections were based on the belief that such books were too adult for kids and too childish for adults.

Hill: In the 19th Century illustration was understood to be part of the publishing package. Illustrations perfectly captured the character on the page. When Modernism came along, illustrations became viewed as for kids, or very middle class and not high art with a plot. So illustration fell by the wayside. Now so much of our media is digital so it’s great to use it to enrich the analogue page. Illustrations are poised to come back.

Harris: As soon as you send the book out to the public, you’ve released control. That’s how it should be. Everyone will take out of a book what they need, and it’s not necessarily what you put in there but that’s good.

Even when all of us speak the same language, none of us speak the same language.

Harris: I write stories live on Twitter and see how the audience responds as we go. It forces you to think differently about structure, both overall and at a sentence level. Every sentence has to be formed in a different way. A story on the page is different to a story read aloud.

Writing Emotionally

Harris: ‘Write what you know’ is rubbish. There’d be no fantasy, and all crime writers would be in jail, if we did that. But it has to be emotionally true to you. Don’t write love if you’ve never been in love.

Hill: Find a writer you love and try writing them. Go through a page and work out why they did stuff. Can you do it differently? Can you do it better? Write dialogue trees – just dialogue alone, no descriptions or directions. It helps clarify the voices of different characters.

I want to know how a guy dresses from the way he talks. – Steinbeck

Harris: I give my characters D&D stats – Intelligence, Charisma and Constitution. It makes you think of them differently. How are they able to react to different situations, if they have low Cha or low Con? You need to know everything about them, even if you don’t put it on the page. How would they answer internet memes? Or choose from a menu? Go for a walk as your character – what would they notice? Stanislavski’s Method Acting books are my most valuable writing resource.

Planning & Plotting

Ross: If I plan in too much detail, it becomes a chore to write the book and boredom communicates to the reader. First you get it written, then you get it right.

Cadigan: You’re always a bit smarter than you think you are, and you know more about human behaviour than you think you do. Leave enough wiggle room to let that happen.

Reynolds: I always have a skeleton as a reference point, to navigate back from a tangent, but generally I like to be surprised. The downside is you end up throwing a lot of material away.

Cadigan: The dishes are in the sink but I’m too lazy to wash them, so I might as well write a book.

no-dirty-dishes-day1-e1431955643147

Thank you, Pat, for that inspiring call to action!

Advertisements

Kishōtenketsu: Japanese 4-Act Structure

Standard

A friend sent me a link to this article last week, which talks about the structure of Japanese horror. It’s quite lengthy but well worth a read. Among other things, it talks about kishōtenketsu – a style of telling stories in four acts, rather than the Western three, without using conflict as the primary plot driver.

At first glance, this really does go against all Western storytelling traditions. Everything we’re taught, and all the media we consume, revolves around creating and resolving conflict. In many ways, it’s how we’re taught to communicate (I’m thinking of debate teams, basically all politics, a good 70% of Twitter, and the badge my mum used to carry on her handbag which said “Because I’m your mother, that’s why”). And certainly the three-act structure is so heavily ingrained that we barely recognise something as a story if it doesn’t follow that pattern. So how does kishōtenketsu work, and how well does it translate to Western audiences?

The Extra Act

We’re used to story patterns that look like this:

Freytags_pyramid

Where the action rises due to conflict, which comes to a head, and is then resolved

The Japanese approach looks like this:

4304739._SX540_

The extra act, then, is the Twist. In this context, it’s essentially a chance in perspective which makes you reevaluate the events that have preceded it and thus creates tension. It’s best illustrated in horror, with stories like The Licked Hand:

  • Introduction (ki): A young girl is home alone with only her pet dog for comfort.
  • Development (shō): She hears on the news of an escaped convict and becomes frightened. She is too scared to go to sleep without letting the dog lick her hand from beneath her bed.
  • Twist (ten): When she awakes she discovers that her dog is dead and has been the entire night.
  • Conclusion (ketsu): She finds the words “HUMANS CAN LICK TOO” written in blood.

There’s no direct conflict in the story, no goal or motivation, and very little action. The entire tension of the story comes from realising that what you thought happened is not what actually happened.

Causality, rather than conflict, is the vehicle in this type of storytelling. ~ Rudy Barrett

This approach is common across multiple genres in Japanese writing. The scholar Utako Matsuyama attributes it to a fundamental difference in cultural attitude. Unlike the goal-driven capitalism of the West, traditional Buddhist values in Japan focus on eliminating worldly desires. That tends to leave protagonists without a goal – and therefore without opposition to it – which necessarily changes the way stories are told. Conflict is replaced with shifting perceptions of the world. Characters aren’t driven or called to action – things just happen to them. And there’s often no resolution, as we would understand it, but instead just an emphasis of the idea or moral shown in the story.

Same, Same, But Different?

It’s this last point that makes the cultural crossover most challenging. We demand a lot from our endings – a satisfying fate for all concerned, neatly tying up every sub-plot, providing a sense of closure and impact – and if they fail to deliver we judge the entire story by that failure.

Twists, however, are very familiar to Western stories. They’re a staple of our psychological horror genre and a common technique employed by unreliable narrators. They go in and out of style a bit, but we always enjoy a good one and it seriously increases the memorability of a story. We like to be conned, provided it’s done well.

Signs-Film-1108x0-c-default

Signs let me down, it let Joaquin Phoenix down, but most of all it let itself down.

There’s also a number of people who’ve written articles about how conflict is purely a matter of perspective. I read one example (which I now can’t find again, sorry) which framed the story of Star Wars: A New Hope as a kishōtenketsu by focusing on Han Solo’s character development rather than the intergalactic struggle for dominance. Another, unrelated, gave an example of a kishōtenketsu as a fisherman going out to sea (1), catching his dinner (2), his wife and kids hiding from bandits at home (3), and them all being reunited (4). I’d argue that hiding from bandits automatically implies conflict. With the example of The Licked Hand above, again the presence of an escaped convict writing in blood strongly suggests conflict (or at the very least, its looming potential). So there seems to be some fuzziness on the definition of the presence of conflict. Is the hovering possibility of conflict distant enough from the page to count? In which case, I’d argue that Bronte’s Jane Eyre fits fairly neatly into the kishōtenketsu structure:

  1. Jane leaves Lowood School to work for Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall.
  2. Jane falls in love with Mr. Rochester but discovers he has a wife.
  3. Jane runs away and inherits a fortune from a (very) distant relative, whilst Thornfield burns down in her absence.
  4. Jane and Mr. Rochester are reunited, with both wife and class distinctions removed.

Compare this with a 3 Act structure breakdown:

  1. Jane leaves Lowood School to work for Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall, with whom she falls in love.
  2. Jane discovers Mr. Rochester has a wife and runs away.
  3. Jane inherits a fortune and returns to a conveniently widowed Mr. Rochester.

Same story, right? Same amount of conflict, just viewing things from a slightly different perspective.

Which, I think, is actually the point in the end. You can tell the same story from multiple angles, simply by deciding what to focus on. The question is what do you, as the writer, think are the important aspects of your story? And remember – it doesn’t have to be conflict. Whatever ‘conflict’ means.

file-2711926199-jpg

Writing Good Girls: The Princess Industrial Complex

Standard

This week some friends and I have been posting about badass historical women on social media, because women are often overshadowed despite the fact there’s some seriously awesome role-models out there. So, on that theme, I am delighted to present a guest blog from Lorraine – one of my collaborators on the Read This First anthology – who has a few words to say about writing female role-models.


I spend a great deal of my time driving, which gives me quite a bit of time to think, sing tunelessly in the car and listen to audiobooks. I’m 36, intelligent but have been known to make bad life choices with respect to partners or potential partners. I have good levels of self-confidence and yet I don’t expect men to find me attractive. Last Sunday, I was driving down the A500 and had an epiphany which caused myself to question my life: Am I Cinderella?! I work outside and as a result I am often muddy and feel like I’ve been through a hedge backwards because I actually have been. This means I forego pretty clothes, my nails are a mess, and make-up is for special occasions. Cinderella is only noticed by the prince once she puts on the beautiful dress and the impractical shoes; once she has shed her grubby clothing. So perhaps it is not too far a reach for me to feel a little unattractive in my own practical clothing and to feel surprised when I am noticed by chaps with even one redeeming feature. The fairy tales I grew up with tell me that a beautiful woman won’t be noticed until she dresses and acts like a princess. Why should I be any different?

ceef27ec-21e6-4c7e-9c92-afbfc72c07c4

Be honest, how often do you properly look at the cleaner?

Last February, I was listening to the audiobook Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. She touched upon the phrase “Princess Industrial Complex”, a concept that I had been previously aware of but hadn’t ever put words to. The Princess Industrial Complex most often refers to Disney’s lucrative business of selling all things princess. It started in 2000 after a Disney executive went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls wearing home-made outfits. He saw a money-making opportunity and, with very little market research, Disney began selling princess outfits along with whatever else a little princess could hope to have: princess bedding, princess toothpaste, princess lunchboxes. The works. Over 26,000 items that are princess, all pristine and all perfect – and all objects for attainment.

But there’s the rub. Princesses are just that to the princes in their stories: objects of attainment. The core Disney Princesses are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, with Jasmine and Snow White trailing. “Ah!” I hear you say. “But what about Mulan?” Sure. Mulan is definitely a Disney princess but her dolls are sold dressed in the clothes of the femininity that she hated. Each of these iconic princesses are portrayed commercially as being wholly feminine and, once their stories are taken into account, sometimes they are also portrayed as being extremely vulnerable. In this context, the beautiful dresses, the impractical shoes and the immaculate make-up become symbols of vulnerability and weakness. The princess’ own hyper-femininity is used against her and, from her point of view, she needs to be rescued. From the prince’s point of view, she can’t rescue herself so he must go and acquire her.

Of course, the word “princess” comes with its own negative connotations. In a modern context, it means a high-maintenance woman who expects to be saved by a man who foots the bill for her princess beauty products. Not that this type of consumer fetishism has ever been pushed as a good thing from a young age. Nope. Not at all. *cough cough* PrincessIndustrialComplex *cough*

Desktop2

Little Miss Vanity Case, sold by French toy maker Janod to girls of 3+ years old

But I digress.

In storytelling, a princess can be a character that is locked away and requires rescue. This is where storytellers, game writers, and even GMs should attempt awareness. If that story is about the rescue of a princess, does that princess have to be female and utterly useless? I find myself often wondering why the princess hasn’t damn well rescued herself; sometimes it’s not possible, but shouldn’t she at least try? Even if that means suffering consequences or doing something terrible? Little rebellions go a long way and when these are not present it’s frustrating and, frankly, a little unbelievable. It removes the princess character from being just a quest item maguffin. It gives her personality and it grants a level of strength to the character.

For all that console games tend to be aimed at a more male audience, some of the best examples I can think of where princessified characters are strong and femininity does not equate to weakness are from the game Borderlands 2. The first princessified character to be saved is male, for a start. Roland is never treated as an object for attainment, is demonstrably badass, and removes himself from being a useless princess by fighting back against his former captors. This sets the tone for equality within the game. There are no princesses here. Characters may need rescue, but they are in no way princesses.

ss_dlc_bl2_scarlett1

Borderlands 2: no princesses, just pirates

The next character requiring rescue in the story is Angel. Angel may easily be read as a princess as she is helpless against her father, who all but puts her in a tower, and yet she is one of the most powerful characters in the game. This is the perfect princess set-up and it is completely nullified by the gameplay. She continually rebels against her father and she has no save/acquisition option. The players must kill her in order to remove the threat she poses to the planet of Pandora. She is removed from being a princess by the storyteller because princesses are to be saved, not destroyed because they are too powerful. Princesses are weak, after all.

After Angel is killed by the players, Roland is shot by Jack – Angel’s father and all-round baddie. Lilith flies into a physical fury at him but Jack slaps a control collar on her. Even whilst she is collared, she rebels. At the end of the story arc Jack is dying and Lilith gives the players a choice: “You kill him, or I will.” If the players allow her to kill him, she does so using her special abilities, stating “That’s for Roland.” Princesses do not seek revenge. They don’t kill. And they don’t give ultimatums. In this story, the writers rescued the audience from princesses.

The various female characters in Borderlands 2 are written as the equals of any male character in this gameworld. Some may be alluring or play with fluffy bunnies, but under that allure is dangerous wit and business acumen; under those fluffy bunnies lie rigged explosives. Femininity isn’t being weak or helpless. It’s part of being badass.

6c928820438da77bb45abe60b35ca2a83ceefc5f

Tell me she’s not badass. I dare you.

That’s what is galling about the Princess Industrial Complex. It encourages young girls to view their femininity as what makes them beautiful, and as a form of weakness since they can’t possibly save themselves, thereby implying that beauty is weakness. It encourages the thought that they are pretty objects of attainment that shouldn’t get grubby playing in the mud or they won’t be attractive to the opposite sex. And whilst a good flounce in a beautiful dress is fun, why should the wearing of the dress signal the need to be rescued?

There is hope, however. A friend’s daughter is fixated on princess dresses, but this three year old gets it. She is The Princess Jane. She dons her dress and then picks up her sword and runs off to fight the baddies. This is a girl who does not equate femininity with weakness, who recognises that it is more fun and more interesting to be the active player than the passive princess.

These are the women and girls that we need to write about, and now, before the doubt creeps in. Sadly, Princess Jane recently stated that she needed a prince to rescue her. She is learning via the social osmosis of her peers. She still dons that dress and picks up her sword, but with a bit more doubt these days.

Let’s remove that doubt, shall we? Let’s not write princesses. Let’s write people.

stuffmomnevertoldyou-86-2014-08-badass-600x350


Lorraine is an Anglo-American ex-lecturer in Multimedia Technologies who fell off a train platform one day, causing her to have an epiphany. She hated her job. This epiphany then caused her to run away to a field to be an ecologist and she now spends her time in and around sites of infrastructure and construction, looking for amphibians, mammals, noxious plants and interesting fungi, which she then writes technical reports about. When not bothering nature, she engages in playing and running Live Action Role Play events and has an unhealthy interest in folklore.

Nine Worlds: Making Horror

Standard

In this talk, Ian will dive into what’s really going on when you’re trying to create strong emotions such as horror in computer games, LARP, and other media, drawing on examples from recent titles he’s worked on. He’ll discuss strategies you can use to elicit specific responses from your players through design, writing, art, sound and gameplay.
Speaker: Ian Thomas

This presentation was fascinating, but primarily aimed at the gaming and LARP communities. I only really took notes on the bits that can be applied to writing, so this is NOT a write-up of the whole presentation. If that’s something you particularly want to read, say so in the comments and I’ll see if Ian is willing to do a more comprehensive write-up.

All In Your Head

To start with, this is about making your audience viscerally feel whatever emotion it is you’re trying to engender. It’s a step beyond show or tell – you need to put the emotion (be it horror or anything else) in people’s heads, not in the medium. Writing down an emotion like horror or joy in detail is exactly how not to do it. Too much of a reveal and your reader will react intellectually, rather than emotionally. Seeing things often robs them of their power, especially in a horror setting. Don’t tell people how they’re feeling – construct scaffolding for them to attach their own feelings.

TheBoy-e1481771656875

The Uncanny Valley effect is a good one to tap into – the hypothesis that replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like the real thing elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion

We’re programmed to take scant pieces of information and build stories out of them, even when it’s not good for us (making us scared, sad, etc). The trick is getting your audience into a receptive state so they tell those stories to themselves without you needing to fill in the blanks. The stories they build will be far more emotive to them than anything you can write, because they’ll create building blocks out of their own experiences. Leave gaps for those building blocks, and Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Ian drew a comparison with comic books and graphic novels. The panels only provide flash-frames of action – the gaps between them, the white spaces, are everything else which the reader instinctively fills in. Allowing your audience that autonomy makes them complicit in telling the story and therefore more involved in it. The gaps build empathy between your audience and the character, which allows you to collapse the audience and the character into the same space. Things that impact the character will then impact the audience on an emotional level.

Engaging the Senses

Drown the audience in your world. It’s not just about the story on the page (or screen, or whatever). Disframe it, take it out into their lives. Hitchcock’s Psycho announced during the marketing campaign that they’d have paramedics on hand at every cinema in case of heart attacks among the viewers. This was nonsense, but it meant the audience was already on edge before the screen was even turned on. It made the story tangible outside the imagination. In written examples, S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams uses inserts like postcards and passed notes to bring the story off the page and fundamentally more tangible.

10814358._SX540_

S. has multiple story levels, one of which is about people passing the main text between each other with notes and postcards inserted. I believe in that story because I can touch the postcards myself.

Fear (or love, or hatred) of certain things isn’t universal, and therefore universally relatable. [Jeanette Ng has a great Twitter thread on the laziness of cut-and-paste cultures in general.] It’s much more reliable to tap into more primal instincts, rather than things which have a certain anchoring in culture or experience. To do that, to properly involve your audience in the story, you need to scare them as well as the character. This is rather more applicable in gaming but definitely worth bearing in mind in books. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski apparently does it very well indeed (I confess I’ve not read it but it sounds awesome).

When it comes to using cultural taboos to shock or horrify, be really careful. It’s very easy to make your audience angry or disengaged at you, rather than drawn deeper into the story. You can ease the way by having your character react in the same way as the reader likely would, but seriously… delicate touch and common sense required.


And that’s all from Nine Worlds, folks! Lots of food for thought, and a couple of follow-up blogs incoming. Hope you enjoyed it!

Nine Worlds: Space is an Ocean

Standard

If you’re writing the kind of story where spacecraft are a central feature then you probably want to put some thought into their design. But even if they’re just serving as a location or backdrop, you can jar your readers’ immersion with a spaceship that contradicts their expectations too badly.

Space travel in science fiction often draws parallels with the sea; fictional spacecraft often feel a lot like ships; to the point where that’s entered the popular consciousness. We’ll talk about some of the aspects naval architects consider when designing oceangoing ships, and how you can use them to invent spaceships that feel like they match the feel of your setting.
Speaker: Dr. Nick Bradbeer

This talk was given by my dear friend Dr. Nick, who was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be much of an audience as it was the first session on Sunday morning after the late-night disco. There was, of course, standing room only. Silly Dr. Nick. 🙂

Is Space An Ocean?

The developing design of spaceships in fiction can be directly linked to our changing perspective of space. We originally thought of space as being basically a bit like air, and all the spaceships looked a little like planes or rockets. That changed in the 60s with the advent of Star Trek (correlation, probably not causation), when we started to think of space as more equivalent to water. (Disclaimer: this is purely in literary terms. The scientists continued to be factual about it.) That shift in thinking fundamentally changed the way we talk about spaceships in our stories. For a start, they became ships. They gained large crews, decks, command centres on the bridge, and cannons. Laser cannons, sure, but still.

This was, I think, the underlying point of the talk. Spaceships of the kind we write about in SFF aren’t possible – at least, not yet – so you as the writer get to decide the medium you’re designing them for. You build your own rules, however close to actual physics they end up being, and follow them. 

Designing Your Rules

Technology has four distinct phases, and you need to decide which phase your spaceships are in:

  1. Experimental: ridiculously expensive. The world can afford to build one of these. (e.g. International Space Station)
  2. Governmental: very expensive, affordable only by governments and mega-corporations. (e.g. space programmes)
  3. Commercial: expensive, but within the price range of most corporations. (e.g. planes)
  4. Personal: affordable by the average individual. (e.g. cars)

Your setting should have some form of technology at every phase of development, otherwise the setting won’t feel developed or developing.

You also need to consider the Mohs Scale of SciFi Hardness. How far do you want to bend physics? If you’re ignoring real physics, it’s still good to have consistent rules of fake-physics within which your technology operates. (Otherwise, just call it magic and be done with it.) Dr. Nick is a fan of the One Big Lie approach, wherein most physics is normal but one law is breakable or one piece of technology is impossible, such as the FTL (Faster Than Light) drive which makes it actually possible to travel between star systems.

Related image

Physics, schmysics

Form & Function

Generally speaking, the more mature your technology, the more aesthetic freedom you have in design. When the tech is experimental, the aesthetic tends to be quite function-driven and practical. As it moves towards the personal, freedom of design creeps in. There’s also a correlation in Sci Fi between aesthetic freedom and soft science: the less applicable real-world physics is to the setting, the more freeform the spaceship design tends to be.

There are, however, several aspects of function which will impact design:

  • Role: what is the payload and performance of the ship? Does it need to be fast, durable, stealthy, carry cargo, carry crew, etc? Is it offensive or defensive? Does it carry smaller fighters? (More on that below.)
  • Sizing: this is the balance of weight, space and power. Again, more on this below.
  • Layout: does it take off vertically or laterally? Are there lots of internal subdivisions (the ability to compartmentalize air is often useful)? Does it need to be cramped into as little space as possible, or is this completely irrelevant (like Star Wars Star Destroyers)? Do you want to separate your living areas from your engine areas, or not? What is the traffic flow of people like?

A note on fighter carriers: these only work if the fighters are actually useful, otherwise you’re putting a lot of resources into something unnecessary. Fighters are useful if they carry out a function the carrier can’t, like operating in a different element such as a carrier ship with fighter planes. In space that isn’t applicable, so the fighters need to have a different difference to the real world. For example, as long-range scouts if the technology for scanners is only short-range, or for torpedo delivery if weapon tech is at a level where torpedoes are a sensible battle option.

tardis-theme-im2

Magic tech: where form and function completely ignore each other

Size Does Matter

When working out the balance between weight, space and power, there are certain weight groups that need to be considered. These include structure, drives, personnel, power and heat, and payload.

Structure refers to both the external hull and the internal integrity. Is it shaped like a ship or a rocket? Does it need reinforcing ribs internally? Ribs make things look solid – they’re often used in spaceship design where they aren’t strictly needed because it’s such a strong aesthetic.

Drives refers to the method and speed of propulsion. Does your ship have a small thrust and build up speed slowly (microthrust), or lots of thrust which builds up speed very quickly but is far more fuel-intensive and potentially painful for your crew (torch ship)? The speed of travel is really important for your wider setting – it impacts politics, interplanetary communications, warfare, cultural spread, and a host of other things. In the RPG Traveller, for example, radio waves can’t travel any faster than ships, so everything works in the same way as it did in Earth’s Age of Sail. Ships are relied on to carry messages, and no communication can outrun the fastest ship.

Personnel refers to the number of crew on a ship and therefore the amount of space they take up. Technology miniaturizes but people don’t. They need places to eat, sleep, wash, exercise and breathe (yay, life support). They also need to be shielded from the radiation typically found in space.

Power and heat refers to the amount of heat given off by the engines and various other systems, which will vary depending on the ship’s function. Venting heat into space is super-important if you don’t want your ship to explode, so external radiators are an important and often-overlooked feature.

Payload refers to the weaponry. Does it need fuel of some kind? Does it need ammunition? Does it need recoil space? How big is it, how many people are required to operate it, what is the range capability?

Defying Gravity

How are you creating artificial gravity? It isn’t something you can just turn on with the flick of a switch – it depends on your ship’s drives and style of propulsion. If you have low-thrust drives, they will only create a weak gravity. If you have really high-thrust drives, they run the risk of flattening your crew.

images

Most sci fi ships create gravity by spinning in some way. Either the whole ship spins on it’s lateral axis (or, more excitingly, the vertical one, known as the Tumbling Pigeon), or the habitation part of it does in a ring or compartments around the ship’s core. If none of your ship spins at all, the creation of artificial gravity might be the One Big Lie in your setting.

And Finally, Air Ships

Ships are dense. Air is not. It requires a LOT of air to lift a very very small, very very light ship. Get the proportions right. The airships in the 2011 Three Musketeers movie need not apply.

Dr. Nick has kindly shared his slides here, and is on Twitter here.

Next week: how to horrify your audience.

Nine Worlds: The Mathematics of Zombie Epidemics

Standard

The flesh-hungry shambling horrors of George Romero and beyond are clearly no simple virus. That said, there are many ways in which a zombie outbreak behaves much like a disease outbreak, and epidemiologists and statisticians have spent more than a century modelling such incidents to better understand how infections spread.

In this talk, I shall outline in layperson’s language some of the foundational concepts of these mathematical models for the spread of infection, and explore how they operate when the specific properties of a zombie-virus are assumed. How long can humanity survive? Can we actually fight back and defeat the horde? And how exactly can we mathematically account for Rick Grimes?
Speaker: Dr. Ric Crossman

I attended this talk in the excellent company of Andrew Knighton, and we two historians hid at the back whilst the mathematically inclined got their undead equation-groove on. Honestly, whilst I found the talk absolutely fascinating I got lost in the algebra about halfway through. Dr. Crossman very kindly sent me his slides though, so hopefully where my notes stop making sense, his original content will see you through.

The SIR Model

There are, unsurprisingly, existing models for measuring the spread of transmissible diseases. They were first developed in 1915-17 by Sir Ronald Ross (who discovered that malaria was carried by mosquitos) and Hilda Hudson (who used maths to revolutionise aircraft design during WW1). The theory was named Kermack-McKendrick after some chaps who came along in the 1920s and formalised it, because history’s like that. It’s also called the SIR model, after the three values involved in the equation:

  • S – number of Susceptible people who could become infected but aren’t yet
  • I – number of Infective people who could pass on the disease (carriers, but not necessarily infected)
  • R – number of Removed people who aren’t infected and cannot pass on the disease (immune, recovered and developed resistance, dead of disease, dead of other factors)

At any give point in time, S + I + R = N where N is the total number of population. In short-term models (which is usually the assumption for zombieism) the value of N doesn’t change because the spread of disease is too fast to allow for reproduction.

b38cce77-31c7-4113-851f-146716fb5b3f

Move slow, spread fast

Rates of Infection

There’s a number of speed factors to take into account. The first is rate of contact, which measures the proportion of total population encountered by one person in a set unit of time. In other words, how many people in your village do you bump into per week? To spread the infection, you need both a Susceptible and an Infective person at the meeting. You also need to know what percentage of the population is Susceptible. If you give the rate of contact the value of ß, the equation looks like this:

ß x N x I x S/N = ß x S x I

The second speed factor is the rate of removal – the proportion of infected people who stop being Infective per unit of time. Let’s call that ∝. The higher the value of ∝, the faster the disease runs its course.

The Bubonic Plague

In 1666, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire totally quarantined itself during the Black Death, hoping that would spare its population of 350. Since the plague was carried by fleas on rats, that didn’t work out so well for them but it did provide statisticians with a useful self-contained example of epidemic spread. The records of disease progression look like this:

Date (1666) Susceptibles Infectives Removed
Mid-May 254 7 89
July 4th 235 14 101
July 19th 201 22 127
August 4th 153 29 168
August 19th 121 22 207
September 4th 108 8 234
October 20th 83 0 267

Data therefore puts the infective period at 11 days. So ∝ = 1/0.3667 = 2.73, and we can work out from the table that the rate of contact was ß = 0.0178. (Honestly, this is where I got lost and I’m taking those calculations entirely on faith since I don’t understand how they were reached. If you do, feel free to explain in the comments!)

The Rick Grimes Effect

Let’s now apply the equation to zombies. For that, we need to swap I(nfectives) for Z(ombies). They don’t recover or die – they have to be destroyed. That means the rate of Zombies becoming Removed is heavily dependent on the number of S(urvivors).

You also have a spike in death rates from non-zombie factors, due to apocalypse chaos. There’s a lack of access to medical facilities and supplies, food shortages, and an increase in human-on-human violence over contested resources. So you can go straight from S ⇒ R without passing Z. And, of course, the Removed can come back. So the movement of population looks like this:

SIR

Reproduced with kind permission from Ric Crossman

We also need to add a factor for the proportion of Susceptibles who die of natural causes (∂) and a factor for the proportion of Removed who rise from the grave (µ). We also need to change the rate of removal (∝) to just account for zombie elimination rather than recovery. To calculate the rate of removal (aka zombie slaying, which as previously mentioned is determined by the number of survivors), the equation is as follows:

ß x N x S x Z/N = ß x Z x S

 

This assumes that ß always results in the elimination of either the Zombie or the Susceptible.

Achieving Equilibrium

Equilibrium is when all forces are in balance and the rates continue at a constant pace. There’s two kinds of equilibrium environment:

  1. Stable: when the system is moved (i.e. a factor is changed temporarily or the environment changes), equilibrium restores itself at roughly the same place
  2. Unstable: when the system is moved, equilibrium completely collapses

The only stable equilibrium achievable in a zombie apocalypse is the removal of all Susceptibles. In other words, humans die and zombies inherit the earth. Quarantine is just delaying the inevitable because the moment it fails – and many many media have proven that it will – the environment becomes unstable.

What about regular zombie culls that become increasingly effective with experience? Well, there’s maths for that too. The trouble is that the rate of infection gets the zombie population back up to the same or a higher level between each cull, so again you’re just delaying the inevitable.

culls

Thank you, Dr. Crossman, for this graph of hopelessness

As Crossman said, if Rick Grimes can’t take out all the zombies in one cull he’s just wasting everyone’s time.

So there you have it, folks – when the zombie apocalypse happens, there’s only one possible way for the human race to survive, and that’s to have babies faster than zombies.

Next week: the principles of designing spaceships

Nine Worlds: The City in SFF

Standard

Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.
Panellists: Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway

Welcome to my favourite session of Nine Worlds 2017, by some considerable margin. I wrote twice the amount of notes for this panel that I did for any other, and came away buzzing with ideas.

It’s worth citing credentials for this one. Amy Butt is a practicing architect and architectural design tutor at Brighton University; Jared Shurin works for a creative agency and has been involved in marketing projects ranging from book launches to the renovation of Battersea Power Station; Al Robertson and Verity Holloway are writers whose books are focused around cities. The question they started with was how do the spaces we occupy help to inspire and engage, but the conversation got considerably deeper straight off the bat. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go on a bit. 🙂

The Metaphorical City

First off, the panel used the term ‘psychogeography’ which I hadn’t heard before. Apparently it means the impact of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. This is something that played heavily into the whole discussion. There are power dynamics to how you move through complex contested spaces, which we’ll go into in more depth below. The panel took psychogeography a little further, though, to talk about how built spaces have rights to us (not just a behavioural impact) – something which can be overlooked. Environmentalism is a prime example. Parks and rivers have a claim on our duty of care, which we often fail to live up to. How does this then feed back into the psychogeographical impact those spaces continue to have on us? It’s a slow downwards spiral.

This suggests the city is a spiritual entity – something William Blake strongly bought into. He wrote a considerable amount of poetry about the spiritual version of London (which he called Golgonooza), essentially saying it had a soul. This has been an enduring idea throughout history, actually. The Romans believed every place had a guardian spirit called a lares; the Ancient Greeks believed the physical and spiritual aspects of a place had different names (the river at Troy, for example was called Scamander for the water and Xanthos for the spirit); both Old and New Testaments talk about territorial spirits (possibly fallen angels) with responsibilities over certain geographical areas. There’s tons of polytheistic religions that assign individual spirits to physical areas. If you think of the city as a living entity, something with a soul, how does that impact design, usage and atmosphere? Does that change how people live in it, or how you write it? Does it change how the city itself evolves? As one of the panellists said, “a place doesn’t exist purely in the present. There’s also what it wants to be, and what it used to be.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that because there’s not just one version of the city. There’s the version we see, and the version other lifestyles see. There’s always someone serving coffee at 5 a.m. at Heathrow Airport, for example. What is their city like? How do they get to work before public transport is running? Where do they get their breakfast before the cafes are open? Cities never sleep because there’s always part of the population awake. That means the city is multiple places simultaneously, all of which feel and operate very differently.

2F21D56E00000578-3349502-image-m-6_1449501376041

This makes them challenging to write. We consume books and stories in an orderly, linear way – utterly unlike living in a city. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling on the page. This is a very similar sentiment to the one made in the ‘realistic characters’ podcast two weeks ago, which lends weight to the idea of a city being alive. So perhaps the best way is to let the two entities explore each other, and thus throw light on both complex creations. It’s therefore just as important to write convincing spaces as it is to write realistic characters.

We can use the built environment as a metaphor for the cultural setting. Walls and doors, for example, can tell us a lot about local attitudes towards privacy, security, politics, economics, class structure and relationships. A single constructed geographical feature is able to demonstrate multiple cultural layers. Genre fiction can also use the built environment to socially critique the real world in this manner. Culture generates architecture, after all, and fictional architecture can be used to explore non-fictional uses.

The panel broke this down in an interesting fashion for the different genres:

  • Fantasy is things that will never happen – cities that can be extreme metaphors and social critique
  • SciFi is things that might happen – cities that explore what would be necessary to bring that future into being, or avoid it
  • Horror is things we don’t want to happen – cities that showcase the dark spaces where things don’t work or aren’t safe

Certain areas of the city have acquired tropes as a result, particularly in the horror genre. Suburbs are frequently shown as psychologically evil, for example, where everyone is watching all the time but no one speaks out. High rises are the modern castle, impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with the space. That makes them perfect places for illicit activities, safe from surveillance.

Victorian mental asylums are a particularly interesting example. They were originally intended to be wonderful spaces that solved the mistakes of past hospitals. Verity Holloway’s ancestor was heavily involved in their design and she’s seen letters that he wrote in which the importance of soft towels and large windows was heavily emphasised. They used concrete because it was the cutting edge of construction technology, not knowing that it retained smells and damp. Despite all their good intentions and efforts, they failed – they failed so badly, in fact, that the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ itself was changed.

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Southgate, London – designed more like a spa than a prison

The Evolution of Architecture

In contrast to Blake’s approach, the architect Le Corbusier considered the city to be more of a machine with every individual house operating as a single cell or cog within it. He designed his buildings to be almost uniform – lots of white walls and no decoration – to encourage uniformity in living. “You became a more useful human being because of the way you slotted into the city.” His fascist politics were a key driver to how he designed buildings.

Political intent has always had an impact on urban development. It dictates patterns of behaviour and styles of living. If houses are designed with limited storage, it encourages minimalism; if they are designed with small kitchens, it increases the chances of people eating out a lot. Similarly, structures and areas getting run down is a political statement, whether deliberate or through neglect. It tells the occupants that nobody cares about those areas, which suggests the residents and the things that happen there are equally unimportant.

Cities are constantly renewing and rebuilding. They are inherently environments where things get broken down and changed. Sometimes this is a deliberate attempt to obliterate the past; sometimes it’s done to prepare for the future, and those preparations give a strong insight into what the future is believed to involve. This de/reconstruction isn’t just on the physical environment, either. Human relationships and interactions are equally disrupted as a result. The Grenfell Tower disaster of June this year left over 100 families homeless, and plans were made to rehouse them in various locations around London. The survivors were dismayed by the prospect of having their community broken apart. Many of their living styles were dependent on remaining in that area. They had children at local schools, for example, or family carers living nearby.

One of the problems with Grenfell Tower was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and that’s a common issue with built environments. There’s an increasing trend amongst contemporary architects to try and tackle this problem by using Virtual and Augmented Reality whilst designing. It enables them to explore the space and how it might be used, looking at evolving society requirements. It also allows them to take influence from fictional architecture – there’s a fascinating article on DesignBoom about fairytale urban designs, and what they tell us about the interplay between people and space. This includes some serious questions about identity, privacy and access.

g3

The Great Wall of America by Carly Dean & Richard Nelson-Chow

Urban Identity & Privacy

Let’s start with access. The high rise castles mentioned above are a great example of how public access to private areas can be controlled. There was discussion about police access to trouble-spots in high-rises, and how in certain places they just don’t bother because they can’t control the ground. That’s individuals limiting access by public entities. On the corporate side, it gets a bit more Huxley-an.

There’s a large number of pseudo-public spaces – areas that appear to be public until you transgress the invisible rules and are excluded. These are mostly controlled by corporate entities, and you are incentivized into certain lifestyles or jobs in return for access. This isn’t new – gentlemen’s clubs are the classic Regency-era example. Now we have semi-private gardens and member’s bars. There’s no particular basis for reason in these invisible rules, they are simply put in place by the controlling entity. There’s no essential modern difference between ‘you can’t eat meat on Fridays’ and ‘you can’t eat sandwiches here’. Corporations become the arbiters of behaviour and morality, allowing us only the illusion of choice. We are managed into a position where spaces push us into the role of either spectators or consumers, because the corporate architecture funnels us into that behaviour. Even our social lives are corporately owned and data-mined by social media corporations like Facebook.

Jared Shurin, who is a self-styled American immigrant, observed that he can clearly see places where the class system wields even more power over space. Fox hunts, for example, go wherever they like with scant regard for the occupation of public or private spaces.

As an individual, your experience of the city depends on routine and other people. If either of those things change, your city changes. On a personal note I recently changed dance studios, moving from Liverpool Street to Borough. That means I now take a meandering walk through side-alleys that (when it gets dark earlier) will feel distinctly less safe than the bright lights and busy streets of Liverpool Street. The atmosphere of my routine has changed as the bits of city I visit changed.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. The UK has a higher percentage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. How does that impact our patterns of behaviour, our psychology, just knowing we’re being watched? Al Robertson conjectured that it was a major contributor to urban paranoia: “Everyone’s watching everyone else but no one’s talking to each other.” Yet, despite this constant scrutiny, cities remain places where you can get lost. There’s a weird dichotomy between surveillance and invisibility, and the gaps allow people to reinvent their identity or become completely anonymous.

The spaces of a city, and the life within it, is created by people constantly moving through – either from one place to another, or from an old state to a new one. The population is often transitory but the city endures. As (I think) Robertson said, the measure of London citizenship isn’t where you’re from because everyone’s from somewhere else. What makes you a citizen is what you contribute, which brings us back to Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘useful human beings’. This is a very different dynamic to old villages inhabited constantly by the same families, who belong to the place by dint of occupation rather than contribution.

So how do we make these transitory, changing, controlling places our own? We write about them.

d7b16b411722946b202f3789f0f3766e

Or draw them, of course

Next week: the mathematics of zombie epidemics