From Science to Science Fiction

In my ongoing struggle to balance my day job as a scientist and my passion for science fiction it occurred to me that I could reconcile this by simply stating that:

 I write science – from fact to fiction.

 As a scientist one is typically writing about the latest results – at least that is what we would like to be doing. In reality we also spend an increasingly large amount of time writing project proposals, which is in fact writing about what we want to do in the near future, but is perhaps not even possible yet.Then, if one is really unlucky, one has to write “roadmap documents” and “vision statements”. Typically the later discuss what we can imagine to do if 5, 10, 20 years. This is very hard and requires a certain perspective over a field, or even many fields, of research. Furthermore, if we’re honest, once we get past five years, these uncertainty on these “predictions” rapidly increases. In polite company one might argue that these are educated guesses. If we were increasingly honest, we might simply say that they are a guess. Obviously, the time scales involved depend on the filed, its maturity and how fast progress is being made.Teleportation, science, scifi, mcd, Harry Tuttle

So it is that with my science fiction writing, speculative fiction if you prefer, we can see that as simply an extension of this – typically I would be looking beyond the 10-20 year time scale, certainly into guessing territory, and imaging “what if?” In science fiction, I am free from the constraint that I actually have to prove or demonstrate what I claim will be true. Nor do I have to worry about respecting the currently accepted laws of Nature but the “what if” question remains the starting point.

Let’s consider an example – Teleportation. This is a subject that fascinates the general public. The first experiments were performed back in 1997-1998 and since then many groups around the world have demonstrated this in a wide variety of physical systems. The teleportation that takes place in the lab, however, is far removed from the vision that everyone has from Star Trek. There are a couple of very important points that one needs to consider scientifically. The first thing is that matter, a person if you think of Star Trek, is not teleported, only the information pertaining to how the matter goes together is teleported – the information is then used to reconstruct the matter (or person) at the other end of the teleportation channel. The teleportation does not allow faster than light communication – some communication needs to be sent between the departure to the arrival location, so that the matter is reconstructed in the correct order.

So, if I want to now extrapolate over the next few years, I  know that in the last 15 we have gone from teleportation over a few centimetres to over 25km and that this has even been done in the normal fibre optic cables that we use for a daily communication. So I could make an educated guess that in the next 15 years that we could increase this distance in a linear way, we did 25cm then 15 years later 25km, so in another 15 years we could do 100,000km, which is over twice around the planet. Does that sound absurd? There needs to be a few things to fall into place to make that happen but the technology is all progressing. Thing is that I know that if I can already get to a few thousand km then the rest is “easy”. In any case, I keep my scientist cap on and I’m only thinking of teleporting information and not people.

Now, if I take off my scientist hat and put on my bowler – you can chose your preferred writing cap – then I can start to relax, or at least ignore, some of these annoying artefacts of reality. I could imagine that I want to teleport someone from one planet to another. I could go a step further and think about doing it in the case of an environment such that humans, as we know them, can not survive. I could imagine a life form based on Silicon instead of Carbon and I just teleport the information necessary to reconstruct a Silicon based version of myself on this new planet. Then the “what if” game starts to be really interesting. I haven’t started to think about messing with the faster than light communication but I might leave that for another time…

In the end, I can be happy that I only have one job and that’s always thinking “what if”. Sometimes I have more constraints than others but it all helps and my imagination also gets time to play.

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A French Proverb That Could Save a Writer’s Soul

Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid is a french proverb that dates back to 1835 (dictionaire de l’Académie). A more or less literal translation would be: little by little the bird makes its nest. In daily speech, the lazy things that we are, this is often shortened to “petit à petit”. As in: “How is it going?” … “Petit à petit” – little by little.  It is extremely useful in a wide variety of situations, for example, when you really don’t want to go into detail about what you’re doing. More often though, it is an admission that you’re probably struggling to make progress at all today and you just want it (the day) to end  so you can start fresh tomorrow.writer quote, de niro, modern cave dweller

So it was that this made me think of the life of a writer. We run around collecting all sorts of bits and pieces of ideas, text, pictures and weave them like threads into ideas until, eventually,  some form starts to appear.  A story. A nest. I’ll leave the metaphor there for the moment, but leave it as an exercise for the class – yes you – to run with that metaphor and see where you find yourself!

Despite my well publicised lack of time (OK, mostly whinging on my part), this year is progressing quite well – petit à petit. Which you can also take to mean that it is not going backwards. So, not going backwards is great. I am not writing everyday but I am writing more and more frequently. I’m reading more. Like an athlete, this year is about training, about getting into shape, and being mentally prepared and capable. I stalk follow so many wonderful writers on the various interwebs and am learning the ropes, finding new (to me) authors, publishers and web sites and generally getting drunk on the information overload from all of those passing before me. Building a nest is not as easy as it looks, so while I’m picking up all the pieces I still have a way to go.

With that in mind, I share with you a beautiful quote from Robert de Niro on the mind  of a writer: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine addled, riddled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” I get that. I accept that. And to a certain extent, I revel in that – it gives perspective and allows one to resonate with joy, with sorrow and see the best and worst not only in oneself but in others as well.  It is that ability to observe, engage one’s imagination, and then run off in the most unexpected direction that is a writer’s greatest responsibility. Then, we must do what we must do – writers write.

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Short and Flashy

Time is against me. Ok, it’s against all of us. I blame society … I’ve been trying to catch up on reading/living this year and have revisited or been reading some classic scifi. Which is good. But someone pulled me up on a list of books I posted on Ello the other day and asked, what about something more contemporary? My argument was that some of them were contemporary … when I read them … Anyway, the end result is that I now have a nice list of books to read and authors to discover.

Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, Scifi, Flash fiction, Short storiesThat is not to say that I haven’t been reading contemporaries. So, while I’m distracted, here are a few things that really rocked my reading world in the last few weeks. Immersion, by Aliette de Bodard (on Clarkesworld) is possibly the best thing I have read in a long time. Also on Clarkesworld, A.C. Wise’s The Children of Main Street – actually, I’m not going to say anything. It’s a short. Read it in 10 minutes and be immensely satisfied. Somewhere in between Flash and Short story is Lacarant Plainer‘s “space opera flash fiction” serial Mission Impossible. Currently up to episode 10 and cruising along wonderfully. Okay, where was I? So that’s reading, what about writing?

Writing is following much the same path – I am not finding enough time to write. Ok, that’s is a crap excuse for a writer but I have to live with the fact – for the moment – that it is not my full time job. If I was in an overly honest mood, I would also say that my writing is not so good. There! I was honest. Actually, what did you expect? That I’d start writing at level-Vonnegut? I need practice. I need to work on the tools. I need to write.

Yes! So that is why I am focusing my time, what there is of it, on short stories and flash fiction. Reading and writing. This way I am catching up with some contemporary authors, reading more widely, and learning the craft faster than I would piecing together a read through a full length novel. In writing Shorts and Flash I can also set myself more realistic goals and challenges and get more immediate feedback on what I am doing.

I would be surprised if this was an unusual approach, I’m simply admitting to it. I have the ideas, I’m just saving you the pain of reading crap and taking short, flashy, steps towards expressing that and telling you my stories. Soon.

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Is it exceptional? Is it extraordinary?

If you’re not here to make the world a better place and leave something lasting, why not?

This was the thought that hit me recently whilst on holidays. I was sitting in a boat on a canal in England with an old – in both senses – friend. We met as students at uni, I was late twenties and he was nearly 60. We would regularly meet for coffee and it was on one of those occasions that he decided to be serious and ask me THAT question – What do you want to do? I don’t recall whether I paused enigmatically, puffed on a cigarette, or finished off another espresso before responding – I was quite good at all three… I was young… relatively. I had forgotten my response but after all these years he still remembered. The response was simple: “I want to make a difference. I want to leave something behind.”

Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, Space, Earth, Moon

Simple, yet completely ambiguous. Probably quite pretentious as well. Looking back, I love the response. It screams attitude. The problem in real life is pulling that off. How does one go out and make a difference. There were no courses on making a difference at the uni – I checked. Actually, I didn’t, I just threw that in there for effect. Not sure it worked though. So this is where I put my old person hat on – it’s not mine, I borrowed it off my friend at the start of this post. Pay attention! That was directed at me, not you.

Sorry, I just realised I was writing a motivational self-help blog … shoot me!

… One thing I have always done is set outrageously high expectations. When you’re thinking of doing something you need to ask yourself - Is it exceptional? Is it extraordinary? You need to be crazy but you need to be your kind of crazy. My outrageously high expectations may be laughably low for you when it comes to baking bread, singing, golf or whatever. So I’m not going to say – find what you do and do it well – that’s bollocks! For sure, find what you want to do but make sure that you do it better than anyone else can. Effort and enthusiasm are great, try and do something that even deep down your not sure you could achieve. We all know people that have done this, and are doing this, and they’re usually – not always before their death – the people everyone else remembers.

We all have our inspirations, our idols. If only I could write, paint, sing, bake, play golf like – insert whoever you want. It never ceases to amaze me that people rarely think that they could do better. They never try. Why not? I really don’t understand. I’ll tell you, I often try. I also usually fail and that’s the ugly part. No one likes failure especially someone as competitive as me – I cannot walk behind someone in the street, I have to try and pass and be in front. Trust me, it’s worse than that at times. The point is these people we idolise were just like you and me and they pushed themselves to be better, to go further, faster or more eloquently and failed and got back up and went off in sometimes crazy directions to try and get to where they thought they wanted to be, to get to what they wanted to understand or say. Eventually they stand out.

In my little world, I stand out. I could be incredibly happy with what I have achieved – it really is quite incredibly and one day I might even tell you about it. But I’m not. I mean I might tell you about it but I’m not happy. Instead I’ve decided to write. Based on some of the authors I know about, that might not make me happy either. So who are my idols? Who do I think I can write better than? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never set out to be better than one person but the people that appear just out of reach. Just beyond what I think I could. There are so many authors that I admire but as with many things for me it is the attitude with which they wrote and it is perhaps the direction that I will at least take as I head out on this journey. First though, I need to find my voice, my style – hell, I need to learn how to write. Whatever you do don’t look at the grammar here, it will come back to haunt me.

So, while I’m still not dead, I want to make a difference. I want to leave something behind. Stories can do that so I’m going to write!

PS. I promise it will not be a self-help book. I really am the last person from whom you should take advice.

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Change of Address – Long Live Harry Tuttle

Harry Tuttle, the Modern Cave Dweller.

Harry Tuttle MCDFor those that had noticed, or had been around here before, there have been a few things changing. In particular, on my journey to being an author it was brought to my attention that it might be useful if people could easily find me… Like all people, there seems to always be a namesake out there who is more famous. And so it is that I say ciao to the Modern Cave Dweller moniker for the web site. Well mostly. Given how popular my name is, obviously the domain name that goes with it is taken – although for sale at a ludicrous price. So by way of unique-afying my site, you must now all address me as

The Modern Cave Dweller idea is something that has been with me for some time so I quite like keeping it. It has always represented my struggle with (modern) life in cities, apartments, whatever, where we are always connected and not, and trying to make sense of all of that. Actually, now that I think about it, it is like having new qualifications. Instead of a PhD, I now have an MCD… which is clearly much better anyway because no one else does. Maybe I could sell qualifications if the writing doesn’t work out…

Why am I doing this now? This year I promised myself to just write, and write, and write, without thinking too much about how perfect everything is etc – definitely no editing! So far I have a few linked flash fiction stories, one short story done and another well on the way. If we go back to where it started, I am also a third of the way into a novel. So I could berate myself that I could be doing more, but given my busy life, I prefer to think that it is going along just swimmingly. Albeit, for the moment, behind closed doors.

Writing, being an author, is a slow process but it is the one that I have chosen to work on. So, hang around, enjoy if you can, and in the new year we should start to see the fruits of my labour start to ooze into the public domain.

Harry Tuttle, MCD

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Deadline kills Creativity!

In shocking news just to hand, it appears that creativity has been killed in a senseless attack by another deadline. This is the latest casualty in a long line of deadline related incidences. Claims that it was premeditated are yet to be confirmed but if this is the case this is looking increasingly like this could be the work of a serial killer. Sources close to the creativity have indicated that there may have been previous attempts, again indicating that this is not just a random event.

Does this sound like your day? This year I set myself some challenges to ensure that my promise to myself to write, actually bears some fruit. In particular my 12 for 21 challenge. The downside is that I have often found myself running around like crazy at the last minute, or just after, trying to write something. This could be bad – I could waste your time, in which case I’m sorry. Alternatively, it could be good. Do a quick search for constraint breeds creativity and you get a huge list of responses where people scream out about how this is a good thing, a great thing, even a necessity. Jack white from The White Stripes makes a good point of it here.

Modern cave dweller, Harry Tuttle, Creativity, ConstraintsThe thing about constraining yourself is that it sometimes won’t allow you to express yourself the way you want, or as well as you want. But it often times forces you to express something you weren’t expecting, and that can be scary, but that’s when things can be really interesting. If you want to push boundaries and do something that is special, unique, you need to accept that you are the only one that can do it and you’re probably going to have to bleed to make it happen.

I’m just starting this writing lark. I have an enormous amount to learn but I won’t be happy until I write something truly exceptional, something truly extraordinary.

I will write something that no one else ever could.

So, when you’re writing don’t be afraid of deadlines or other constraints killing your creativity. In the end you’ll probably find that setting them, controlling them, will make you a better what-ever-you-want-to-be. When you do something, ask yourself – Is it exceptional? Is it extraordinary? Now, I’m going back to my other deadlines and write.

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How to stop a 4000km/h vac-train with an elephant and a rubber band

Some time ago, when I started talking about blowing things up, I made an off the cuff remark about “…  if you want to bring down a flying city with exploding pigs, or stop a 4000km/h (mph … whatever) vac-train with an elephant and a rubber band.”  As it turns out high speed vac-trains present an enormous number of safety hazards. This is excellent news for the writers but not so great for anyone on board. There was a nice article on Gizmag that made a nice bridge between the physics (not too much) of what was going on and an intuition of why we don’t have these beauties yet. But you’re a writer – why worry about these details?

Elephant, Scifi explosion, Modern Cavedweller Actually, I think that this article could provide a good guide for writers. It identifies the technical details, that your audience may not necessarily want or need, and goes straight to the intuitive understanding of the current limitations or fundamental, and potential fun-depriving, problems facing this concept. Obviously, the enormous cost is a second order problem if you’re writing, so unless capital expenditure is central to your WIP, let’s move on. Take a look at the article and keep it in mind when you are researching anything related to use in your writing. I tend to think about science and technology, as this is my background but I would say the same applies nearly all the time. A solid high school level of whatever subject you’re researching is enough to make sure that your reader doesn’t stop suspending belief.

OK. So today’s challenge is an elephant and a rubber band vs a Vac-train. Obviously, there are many things that we could do, so the first step is to put some constraints on how we want this to pan out. Do we want the character(s) to die? What about the elephant – is it expendable? Let’s go for total destruction because that’s always the most fun! Have you ever been in the back of the bus and slid back and forth as the bus goes around the hairpin bends when you’re coming down icy mountain roads? The trick is to give a little impulse to the bus’ outward momentum and see when we lose traction and fall down the mountain …

Contrary to popular belief an elephant’s skin is quite sensitive. Really! What we need then is a long clear section of the Vac-train and take the elephant to one end – some grass will help coax it along. Once there aim the elephant at the end of the carriage and wait for the next corner. Now, take out your rubber band and flick that elephant in the arse. You can shout as well but that is primarily to make you feel more like you’re actually doing something. The elephant will take off and even over a relatively short distance, 20-30 meters, it should reach a speed of over 20km/h. If you got yourself a good African elephant, you now have around 5 tonnes running through your Vac-train at a little over 5m/s – this means we have a kinetic energy of nearly 80kJ. That’s not as much as it sounds – around 20 grams of TNT – if that makes any sense, or the equivalent of driving your car into a wall at 45km/h (28mph). Also, the elephant and the train are going in the same direction. Is this enough? Probably not, and in any case, we’re already thinking about things in too much detail.

Let’s try plan B. Turn the elephant around to face the front of the train. Flick the elephant again with your rubber band. Now the elephant may not have had enough of an impact to derail the Vac-train but the chance that the driver’s cabin is solid enough to hold back your charging beast is minimal. In this instance we find a beautiful marriage between science and nature as the elephant crashes through the wall crushing the driver and initiating the emergency braking system. This has the added advantage, possibly, that your characters survive to annoy you another day. There is also a small chance for the elephant as well, which is always nice. All that remains is for you to work out how to get the elephant on the train in the first instance.

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