World building: Reality vs Fiction

There are times in life when it all hangs in the balance. Now, is one of them, at least for me. As the blurb says, I write science fact to science fiction, however, these two worlds do not always find a peaceful way to coexist. In life we always have choices even if some of them don’t seem like it at the time. And so it is that I find myself here, at one of those decisive moments. Concentrate on the scientist, or concentrate on the writer. Let’s be clear, science is what puts food on the table, while writing is a passionate pastime that is very much in its infancy.

Balance, Science, Writer, Harry Tuttle, MCD, Modern Cave Dweller

So on the science fact front I face an uncertain future. In six months time I might be out of a job OR I might be spearheading an initiative that will take most of my time for the next 15 years. There are a lot of “ifs” to fall into place for the latter. So it appears, at least for the next 6-12 months, that the “decision” is not so hard, or at least not so complicated – I need to concentrate on the science. My apologies but this will have to remain cryptically anonymous for the moment.

Why am I telling you this, then? I’m arguing with myself again about how much time I have for writing scifi. The last couple of years I’d tried to ease off on the 60-70 hour working week to make more time for writing, amongst other things. This has worked well and I’ve been writing a lot. And learning a lot! Recently, I sent off a bunch of flash and short fiction to some people for feedback while I concentrated on a full length novel. This has been an incredibly satisfying time as I brainstorm, compost, build worlds and twist plot lines, before I start writing in earnest. But this is too much to ask.

I cannot do it!
There, I said it.
Perhaps what I should say is – I can’t do it justice.

Which is why you find me this weekend in front of two computers, one for the writer and one for the scientist. The writer is madly writing down as much of the world building and plots of a future science fiction masterpiece ;-) … while the scientist is madly writing down the world building and plots of future science facts. I told you the two aren’t really that different. This weekend, in a sense, is where it all pivots.

The plan then is, as always perhaps, to be a better writer. However, I am going to have to take a long view (should that be longer view?) of this and for the near term at least, I will concentrate on short stories, when and where I find the time. I will not go away completely, perhaps not at all. It could be that my appearances become even more sporadic than they are now, or there’ll be no visible difference. Once I get things rolling on the science side, assuming it doesn’t all fall to pieces, it will become more clear to me and to you.

Maybe all of this is for naught. Maybe in six months I’ll have a job that puts food on the table and leaves me time for writing. Then I can continue to improve my craft. Writing is a long game in any case, so it seems that for me it might be a little longer. This is the decision I have to make if I am to indeed live!

I want to live. I want to write. I want to change the world, but I can’t do everything at once.

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A Question of Scale

What do I even mean by that? I am coming at that question from two perspectives.

  1. As a science fiction writer, one often needs to build worlds, political systems, industries and infrastructure … usually so that we have something to pull back down again. So how do these things grow, evolve, come into existence even? Usually, it is a question of scale – and all the pieces of the puzzle being there, being ready, big enough, and open to working towards a bigger goal. But is it evolution or revolution? Is there a tipping point?
  2. The other is real world – how do whole industries appear? We can also think about things like the industrial revolution, the space race, and perhaps what we call the information revolution, why not Google itself. In all of these cases, they didn’t just happen. Again it was a question of scale – and, like for my first point, all the pieces of the puzzle being there, being ready, big enough, and open to work towards a bigger goal. Where is the tipping point here?

Buzz Aldrin, Space race, Moon landing, Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, MCD

Now, here is a question for you. Do you think anyone saw these revolutions coming? Or, did someone just decide to invest massive amounts of money and presto-magic, revolution?

Clearly, people knew. Let’s consider the space race. On May 25, 1961, President J. F. K. announced the mind blowing goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. It is clearly not a question of going out to the industrial park and asking the guys to stop making cars and build a space ship. They knew all of the necessary industries were there, albeit in varying degrees of readiness, they “just” needed a push.

War had given rise to missiles, which would give rise to rockets that would get people off this rock. Electronics were certainly primitive by today’s standards but the diode had been invented for over a decade and already by the mid 60s Moore, of the Moore’s law fame, was seeing a pattern developing for this technology. Moore initially thought that the number of components (like diodes) per integrated circuit was doubling every year, this was later revised to every two years. Progress was fast, and indeed, Cray was already building solid state computers by the 60s, and these were already quite powerful (relatively speaking). Not completely unrelated to these efforts was progress in materials science – amongst other things the computing “industry” needed more complicated material structures and cleaner materials – they’d been working on this for a while as well.

Anyway, that’s all getting very technical, but the point is that there were myriad fields of science and diverse technologies powering ahead, happily, quite probably, except maybe for those making the bombs. So how did we bring these all together and get to the moon? For sure, the massive amounts of money thrown at the problem helped, but that is not really enough, or is it? Was it the focus of such a massively optimistic challenge of going to the moon that brought everyone together in such a coherent way? My personal opinion is that the money was more or less already there and these different fields would have progressed nicely in any case. The real difference was identifying a challenge that was bigger than any of them. That is the only way to achieve extraordinary things.

So that’s sort of OK for how industries arise, and I would add, we are still profiting rather nicely from the space race. What about science fiction and world building – what can we take away from this? Firstly, your world needs to be multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary. It is no good only ever seeing what is happening in the warp-drive factory, the teleportation station or the galactic parliament. You need to think about why they needed them. How did they get to have warp-drives? Was it just an evolution from the war machine department, or was there a revolution? And if it was revolution, what triggered it? Do you copy the cold war scenario of our amusing little planet, or do you think outside the box/universe? Maybe a wizard did it… In any case, if YOU know, then your story will be better for it; it will have greater depth. At the same time, you don’t need to tell everyone, like a good character, the reader will simply be more convinced by the depth and reality of your world.

I think that I have now asked far more questions than I’ve answered … which sounds about right to me. I will certainly be coming back to this subject as I find it quite fascinating, both as a writer and a human. In particular,Elon Musk is probably an excellent example of someone dealing with scale, so it could be that I might look a little into how he is changing the world. If you have any thoughts on the matter then don’t hesitate to chime in! Do you know of any good examples of how companies have “scaled up” or worlds have been born?

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I’m Always Angry

You often see people/memes saying that anger is a bad thing. Anger is negative. Nothing good ever comes from anger. Bollocks! If you replace “anger” with the word “violence” then I agree, but most of the time people seem to confuse the two. Perhaps you could replace “anger” with “frustration” but only up to a point.

The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, MCD

So, what am I angry about? Well, not everything – I think – but a lot. I’m angry at me, at the world, at people, sometime, maybe, possibly, even you. I am angry that we are not doing more to stop destroying the planet. I’m angry about equality. I am angry with organised religion for exploiting people. I’m angry at banks and governments … for exploiting people. OK, I’m angry at anyone exploiting people. I also get angry at people driving cars with headphones on, or who change the settings on the toaster. Mostly, I’m angry about people accepting this as the way it has to be. I’m angry with people for not being angry enough!

If you care about the world and the people around you, you should be angry. If your not angry, I’ll assume that you don’t care.

As an artist there is nothing worse than hearing someone say your work is “nice” or something equally bland. You want to evoke an emotional response, and preferably a strong one. You want them to either love it or hate it. These are passionate, heart-felt responses. And so it should be for the important things in life. As a human, I don’t see why such passionate responses should be derided and avoided. I also love a great many things – as you can probably imagine they are somewhat the opposite of my previous list of things that make me angry. If I see someone or some organisation-thing going in a direction that I don’t like, then I will rail against them. If I don’t, I’ll be angry with myself!

I’ve been angry for a long time, certainly more than 30 years. I can still sleep at night. Well, not so well, if I’m angry with myself. Despite this, perhaps because of it, I am also an incredibly calm person. When I rail against you, it will be done in a polite manner and with as much respect as can be mustered. It doesn’t have to end in violence, physical, verbal, or other. It never does.

So if someone tells you to stop being angry, certainly given the current state of the world we live in, perhaps the most appropriate response should be – Why aren’t you angry?

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Too much Science in your Fiction: A distraction waiting to happen

I was recently reading a book – a debut science fiction novel released a few years ago. The title and author shall remain nameless for the purposes here, as they are not of importance. Black hole, Interstellar, MCD, Harry Tutle

What I am curious about is how we perceive technology, or science in general, in a story. In particular, when does science and technology take over a story? And how much does it depend on the reader?

We can consider films as well as books if you like. Indeed, if we take a couple of recent and popular films, then we don’t have to worry about ruining the career of a new author. Two recent movies have generated a lot of discussion; Gravity and Interstellar. “Experts” came out and told everyone in great detail, how the films had got it wrong, i.e. the basic science was flawed. I love science fiction and have been enjoying the resurgence in popularity for film and tv as well as books.

So I ask you, what is wrong with suspension of disbelief?

Let’s focus on Interstellar for a moment. Black holes have been popular fodder in science fiction as mechanisms of destruction as well as time travel. In Interstellar they worked hard to get the science right, having one of the worlds leading experts (Kip Thorne) involved all the way. One of the problems that created quite a bit of discussion were the special effects used for the black hole – the details of which are even less important here than in the film. Apparently the film decided to ignore certain aspects of the scientific modelling to make something that they thought the audience would find more believable. I am not a specialist/expert in astrophysics, so for me, this is simply the most intelligent thing that they could have done and any experts complaining about this should just go back and read another text book. Sometimes we perhaps need to be reminded that they are telling a story, not reporting on scientific progress.

Like black holes, quantum physics and things like entanglement, teleportation and Schrödinger cats are difficult to understand. Nonetheless, most people that have heard about them have usually also picked up some intuition about how they work – in most cases through some over-sold, over-simplified, anecdote that scientists are forced to produce and put into a press release that is later poorly presented in popular science news blogs and journals… (/rant sorry about that). Now, the person telling the story has to adapt how they represent these and make sure that it will be close to what the audience will expect. We do not want to jolt the audience out of their suspension of disbelief.

It is not the role of the story teller to be scientifically accurate and I find it one of the most absurd demands that the “expert audience” places on writers.

Having said that, if, as a writer, you choose to go into the details, you really need to make sure that your research is up to it. You should probably also try and get a beta reader that is an actual qualified expert in the area you are writing.

Why do I say this? Let’s go back to the book that I don’t want to talk about. There are a lot of references to ideas, technologies and concepts, from modern quantum physics. Now, here is my concern. I have a PhD in quantum physics – I think I’m probably too close to the concepts to casually suspend disbelief. I was too busy talking to myself about how absurd things were and how the author had got something wrong, to actually focus on the story. I kept losing track of the story. Admittedly, the start was rather dense and there were a lot of characters and concepts to introduce, but I was distracted by the technology, by the science.

I know that this sounds like I might be contradicting myself here, but unlike the interstellar produces, rather than remove detail and simplify, the author here, chose to go into a lot details that were perhaps not necessary. For the expert, the attempts were awkward and it felt forced. For the non-expert they failed to leverage the knowledge, (popular) intuition and expectation of the reader, and I suspect most would have also been jolted out of their suspension of disbelief.

There is a nice quote from Paul Franklin (special effects god) in a Wired article about this how they visualised the black hole in Intersellar

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of breaking the rules of reality, … And those rules are actually quite strict.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you have to not read books that are too close to your expertise?

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A Library, but not a book in sight

I have (almost) no books in my house. That doesn’t sound right, I hear you say, especially for someone proclaiming to be a writer. But I had to say it because it’s mostly true. Don’t go away, there is a happy ending. OK, if you can’t wait, I have a lot of e-books. Anyway, for the less impatient… There are actually some books in our house but I have for most of my adult life led a rather transient existence. The consequence of which is that with all the packing and moving and lugging from town to town, I’ve often been obliged to lighten my load. Many a friend has benefited, along with various local libraries – those people really love free books.

Trinity College Library, Modern Cave Dweller, Harry Tuttle

For those of you that are concerned, you’re so sweet, I really do have quite an extensive e-library. Library is perhaps somewhat of an exaggeration. Until recently these were scattered over myriad devices and in more formats than I thought existed. So what do I do? I seem to have settled down over the last few years and might even let myself imagine that I won’t move again for a while, so do I start building up a paper library again? To be honest, I’m not sure that it won’t go all pear shaped and I find I have to move again. Also, for some time now I have been moving towards a paperless existence – partly enforced by the aforementioned inability to stay in one place. That and my apartment is only so big.

Recently – longer than I care to admit – I have been trying to gather all of this together and get it all organised, you know, like a proper library. No, I’m not finished! To achieve this noble goal, I have chosen to use Calibre. I tried it years ago, but as I said nothing was particularly organised, so I just left it in a corner as another unfinished project. Yes, I regret that. Why? because now I have thousands of books to go through. Some of them are easy. Some need reformatting – I’d like as much as I can in epub. Do I have a good reason for that? No, not really. Most importantly, in terms of time, is that the tags for these books are nightmare. And by nightmare, I mean something really scary, not something written by a teenager that’s afraid of the dark.

Let me give you an example of the tag-madness. What in the world of tags does “FIC028000″ mean? Don’t answer that. Another favourite is “book”. It worries me what sort of person thought that this was a helpful identifier. Why are the tags a mess? My collection has accumulated over some time: some of it is free; some of it is from Project Gutenberg; some of it is from friends and I probably should have paid but I haven’t yet worked out how I feel about buying the same book multiple times, and of course there are those that I’ve just bought over the years – because that’s the right thing to do. Even after all that, when you find sensible, credible tags, there is a question of taste, or education and I don’t always agree with how a book has been labelled. Did I mention that I can be a little OCD, which is both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as Occasionally Considered Dangerous.

In any case, I am enjoying having all of my books in one place – two if you count the backup. However there are a couple of thing that I do miss about having “real” books around. Books smell wonderful! There is something special about that and I’m not talking about the hallucinogens caused by the little bugs eating them – they’re not that old. Hallucinogenic books are a real thing.  The other thing I miss, is browsing the book shelf and the covers. It’s a stupid thing, and of course we never judge books by their covers, although I saw someone remark recently that a good cover can make you a lots of sales…

Anyway, this has been my choice, my compromise. I have given up the smell and the pretty covers for a virtual library. My take home advice then, for the young and old alike – Start to organise your e-library today. Even if you are lucky enough to have a real one. And please please please, for your own sanity in later life, tag everything.

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Phase One Complete – Bring on 2015!

I claim to write science facts to science fiction and beyond. I have been, for some time now, more focused on the facts than the fiction. This remains the case – this year I have published or submitted around 10 scientific papers, which is an incredibly good year no matter how you look at it. So if we look at the fiction side of things, I’m still taking baby steps, but this is a long game and this was always the plan.

Tazio Bettin, Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, Writing, ScifiThis year the goal was to read and write as much as I could, without worrying too much about what it was. In a sense, it was a quest to find my style, and more importantly, improve how I write. The only way to do that is to write. I now have first or second drafts of a handful of flash fiction, two and half shorts as well as two novels – one about the third done and the other a bit less, but both are fully planned.

What have I been writing? I would say SciFi, but if you’re after space cruisers and alien battles, there is not much here for you yet. Trust me, this to will come. Currently, there is a heavy dystopian influence in a lot of the work – possibly too much, but it is what it is and it is more symptomatic of where I have been coming from lately and where I am heading.

I am not of the opinion that just because it is dystopian, it should be be dark and depressing – I prefer to see the positives.

In any case, I am trying to avoid a lot of the clichés for dystopian novels, but eventually, I’ll have to let you be the judge of that. In the end I am interested in the story underneath.

In the coming year the scariest part of the process will begin – I will start to share my works. If all goes well, these will slowly start to appear either directly here, or, if I’m in a super optimistic mood, published somewhere. If I could get a short story published next year that would be absolutely fantastic. There, I said it.

So, this is the last in my promised “12 for 21” series of posts. The web site is in transition at the moment. There will be a some major changes to how things are done around here in the new year – hopefully you will enjoy them, or at least find them interesting. There should be some new pages and hopefully some of my stories will start to make their appearance as well. Exciting times, if only for me!

The goal this year was to be a writer, the goal for next year is to be an author. Let’s see how that goes. Wish me luck!

Artwork by Tazio Bettin webpage:

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The Harry Tuttle | MCD: Mailing list

In an attempt to take myself too seriously, I decided to start developing a mailing list. Every author is told to do this and nearly every author starts it too late – or at least it would have been better if they’d started before. So, in an outrageous whim of ambitiousness, before I publish anything at all, you now have the chance to sign up and follow me on this crazy adventure.

I am just starting out and everything, from my writing, to how I want to publish, what sort of author/writer I want to be, is rapidly evolving. My goal is not to saturate you with a weekly newsletter telling you how great I am. The plan is primarily to email you when my stories are, or are about to be, published. As time goes on, there may be other noteworthy events, but let’s not get even further ahead of ourselves.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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