Posts Tagged ‘scifi’

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.
Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms. For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed. At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people? With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again. * Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea. The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing. Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision. The screen flashed and a message appeared: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design. The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams. “What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?” People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas. Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall. Next time, he would get it right. * Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him. The screen flashed: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” “No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!” Around him, people watched in shocked silence. Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine. “You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.” He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before. Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new? *** This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday. ***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution
A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies. A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst. A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him. We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories. Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.
Smashwords have a sale on their ebooks this week, and a lot of mine are included. For this week only, all my books on Smashwords are either half price or free. From Victorian adventures to space-age stories, it’s all up for grabs. If you’d like to make the most of this opportunity, head over to Smashwords now and start filling your cart.

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.

This week’s Writing Excuses was about conveying world-building information without resorting to infodumps. Intrusive explanations are one of my pet writing hates, so it was good to hear these professional writers’ tips on how to get it right.

The exercise of course fits the subject:

Take a spec gee-whiz, and have something go wrong with it. Write a scene in which the main character must deal with the problem. Communicate each of the following:

  1. How it works
  2. What it looks like
  3. The main character’s relationship to it

I’m going to try out a piece of sci-fi tech. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s one I’m planning on using in a story soon, so it’ll make a good warmup.

Casey’s Face

A twinge ran through Casey’s cheek, putting her immediately on edge. There were only two things that could have caused it. Discounting nervous ticks, to which she had never been prone, there was only one.

Another twinge, and then another. A woman passing her on the pavement gave her a curious look but kept on walking.

Putting her hand to her face, Casey felt the fake flesh of the mask sagging beneath her fingers. Trying to remain calm, to avoid drawing attention and blowing her cover, she ducked into a café, hand still pressed to her face, and hurried to the bathroom at the back. Bolting the door behind her, she stared into the mirror above the sink.

The left side of her face was still fine, showing the features of the anonymous government clerk she had been imitating for the past month. But on the right side, vat-grown muscles were sliding away, revealing their wire frame and, worse yet, parts of her own face.

Hastily, she took the slim control box from her pocket, almost dislodging the wire concealed along her neck. She hit the reset button and the left side of her face reverted to the mask’s blank-faced factory default. But the right remaining a lumpy, fallen mess.

So How Was That?

I didn’t feel like this exercise pushed me much. Because of what I write, and because I hate infodumps, I tend to write this sort of thing a lot. Of course that doesn’t mean I do it well, so let me know, how was that short scene? And if you’ve had a go at this exercise, how did you get on?

In talking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree I mentioned the use of arts within the book. It’s an area I find fascinating. The role of art in society and its power to stir emotions are often overlooked in fantasy fiction. What makes it so useful?

For me, there are two obvious points.

Firstly, showing a society’s culture adds depth. It shows that there is more to people’s lives than the struggles they currently face, the wars and intrigues that are the backbone of so many plots.

Secondly, it helps us connect to the characters. We all know what it feels like to be stirred by art that touches something within us. For me, that can be listening to Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over, watching Lost in Translation or reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’ll have your own examples, because while the feeling is universal, it’s triggers are seldom the same.

So who else makes good use of culture in their writing?

  • Tolkien uses songs and poems to explore the past.
  • Iain M Banks has games in The Player of Games.
  • John Scalzi’s Redshirts, while taking a different angle, at least shows TV as a prominent part of life.

Who else is there? Which writers do this, and especially do it well?

And what are the cultural experiences that really stir you?

Share your thoughts in the comments. I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear about yours.

Picture by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr Creative Commons

Picture by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr Creative Commons

The thermostat in the quarantine room was broken, telling Dan that it was at room temperature when he could feel himself breaking out in a sweat. He’d already shrugged off the spacesuit and sat on a metal cot in shorts and a t-shirt, waiting for someone to tell him what was wrong.

At last Jean appeared at the observation window, looking every inch the doctor in her white coat, a coffee mug in her hand.

“Hey Dan.” Her voice was crackly through the intercom. “Sorry about this.”

“It ain’t exactly a hero’s welcome.” Dan walked over to face her through the glass. She was still as stunning as she’d been on their first date, as vexing as she’d been through the divorce. “You remember I saved the other shuttle crew, right?”

“Oh yes.” She looked away, stiff with tension, sweat beading her brow. “That’s the problem. They came back with some kind of superbug. Not the first time a virus has got stronger in space, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it change so much. We’re fighting to contain it, and there’s a risk you were infected, so…”

“So here I am.” It made sense, Dan had to accept that. “How long will it be? No-one’s even brought me food yet.”

His stomach rumbled.

“I’m not sure.” Jean grimaced and bent over. “Sorry, I…”

The mug exploded in her hand as she let out a cry of pain.

“Hungry.” She looked at Dan with bloodshot eyes. “So very hungry.”

Hand pressed against the glass, looking at him with a strange longing, and then slid to the ground.

“Jean?” Fear knotted Dan’s stomach with its own pain. “Jeany, are you alright?”

There was no answer.

“Help!” Dan yelled. “Help!”

But there was no answer. The quarantine room was sound proof, and without someone standing outside the intercom would have switched off.

Jean needed his help. And he needed to see that she was OK, to hold her, to feel her warm flesh. The tension of the moment was muddling his thoughts, but he could find a way out.

He flung himself against the window and then the door, trying to break through, all the while shouting for help. But there was no response, and the door and window held.

A technician appeared on the other side of the glass.

“Thank God!” Dan’s relief turned sour as he saw that this man too was hunched over in pain, his grey overalls drenched with sweat. He stumbled to where Jean lay, then crumpled over over beside her.

“Dammit!” Dan was scared for himself as well as Jean. What if everyone in the base was infected? Would he be forgotten, left to starve in the quarantine cell, while Jean died inches away from him? His heart was pounding, his whole body quivering with tension.

Desperate, he looked around for something he could use, but there was only a toilet and the cot bolted down in the corner of the room.

The cot would have to do. He grabbed the aluminium bedframe, cold and hard beneath his hands. He’d expected it to be attached securely to the floor, but it came up surprisingly easily, metal screaming and screws popping as he wrenched it free. Then he ran at the window and swung the frame with all his strength, ready to batter the reinforced glass into submission.

It shattered with one single, explosive blow.

Leaping through the gap, he saw Jean and the technician on the floor. He could even smell them, an unexpected moment after so long alone.

The technician hadn’t collapsed as Dan had thought. The man was crouched beside Jean, blood on his lips as he chewed her arm.

In a rage, Dan grabbed the man and flung him aside. He hit the wall so hard that his head smashed open. The scent of blood was overpowering. Blood and something else.

Was that brains? Could Dan really smell brains?

He looked down at Jean, faintly aware that she needed help. But he was hungry, painfully hungry, a sensation he couldn’t even resist.

And the technician’s brains smelled so very good.

* * *

This story was inspired by an episode of PBS Space Time, which was just too good a concept not to use.

If you liked this story then please share it. And you can read more of my science fiction in my anthology Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, available as an ebook through Amazon.