The National Question

You’re always going to be the creation of where you’re from. For better and for worse, we all have our past, and it will colour your work whether you choose to let it in or not.

I’m from a small nation, among the older ones of all. We’re voting this month on whether to make it official again, for the first time in three hundred years. Ancient follies and rogues long dead led us to a union that ruled the world for much of that time since. We certainly played our full rôle and then some in that global empire. But it died a good old while ago, and so too our sense of greater unity. You’d be hard pressed to see a British flag during this campaign, one which pivots on Scottish self-interest and nothing else. We’re already independent, inside, among ourselves. We’re just choosing whether to make it final, outside, to the wider world.

As if I’ve left you in any doubt already, I’m voting yes. I never needed swaying. The current state of Britain never has made sense to me. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember all too well what the consequences can be when one partner is ten times larger than the other. Ours is no federation. Nor can we easily fake one. The glory days are done. Let’s just be ourselves.

By the kind of coincidence that I only notice now, I set my story three centuries again in the future. I guess even all those years ago, of my own, the symmetry must have appealed to me. One of the two leading families of characters is Scottish, like me, and I always assumed they would be from a nation all its own. Oddly enough, back in 2001 the potential for Scottish independence looked pretty bleak. My story’s assumption seemed more of a wishful thought than a likely projection of the future. Indeed, it may still do in a few weeks, pending fate and election day. In any case, I’m set. The good of picking your own directions, right down to your self.

But my creation isn’t really about Scotland, today or tomorrow. What about Andala?

The other leading family of this tale is none other than Andala’s own: Ayana’s children, the royal house. Like Alexander, we meet Andala the hard way, from the brutal top.

I’m from a little kingdom, nestled in with some others intertwined. So too is the way of my other world. Four peoples live there — the Ana, Azu, Aitiri and Katani — cheek by jowl, as well as out in each one’s hinterland. They’ve something around the size of the Earth to share, so lots of space compared to our own history, yet the way they are and the speed they can move makes for a different kind of relationship. We needed technology to make our globe a smaller place, so we could build our empires. Andala’s peoples did it quite by themselves. Their present is not our past, but another path that simply never could have been for us.

Perhaps someone from a bigger realm wouldn’t see the need for so complex a creation. So goes my sense that this open question of nationhood informs my work. But I shouldn’t congratulate myself on making the most detailed legendarium yet, as mine is of course far from it! Goodness me, I know just how short I am from the good stuff as yet. The languages not least! Rather, I’m wearing my influences out in the open, keen to learn from them in the creative act, as much as hone to them as though my goal. You see, what I’m really up to in Andala, all my writing, and beyond: is my own journey. Just like us all, in every place and time, only mine’s the kind that you can read.

First draft is done and I am almost ready to start the second. Alpha lies already written, awaiting its vital read. The one where less is more and I try again to earn my chops.


Des Armes

Here’s a timely one from the private archives. The first I ever wrote of Yolanda was her last appearance in Alpha: standing alone, atop her city, savouring the bitter aftermath of the night that very almost killed us all. I can tell I wrote this a while ago, I was even double spacing new sentences…

Chapter Sixteen Nocturne Apocalypse

Des armes

Des armes bleues comme la terre
Des qu’il faut se garder au chaud au fond de l’âme
Dans les yeux, dans le cœur, dans les bras d’une femme
Qu’on guarde au fond de soi comme on garde un mystère

Lèo Ferrè

Praying silently to the wind, Yolanda felt the cold of Rome’s winter’s night. From the high rooftop of her office, alone, she surveyed the skyline of the immortal city so fragile in this of all times. From her light summer coat, she pulled a small box of cigarettes and selected one for her comfort.

The clouds painted the strangest picture above and around her in the sky. The city lights lit them, and in curving fibres they lay all about the visible horizon, curling off into everywhere. A seeming ring of storms flashed sparks about the very edge of the sky scene, as far as she could see from this one precious and imperious point in the world. Tonight such forces had been laid to bear, and now like chill breathed across the sky, lived the physical repercussions.

Yolanda’s world too was in turmoil. Holding the cigarette in her mouth, she had difficulty lighting it. The wind was chaotic, and the flame weak in her unexpectedly shaking hands. The sight of her vulnerability came as an added fright. She less than anyone knew how this night had affected her. And drawing on the eventually lit fire, she felt her first relief at the noxious soothing inside her, and dared to close her eyes from the tearful wind.

From the back of her mind, hidden so far behind the layers of her will, came the image she had secretly known ever since this fateful day had started. That the marks and lightning in the sky were telling of history repeating itself, transposed simply in time and space from almost a hundred years before.

Call Rome Aria, call Earth the land to be erased, compare the living of today with the dead of yesterday and you would have made no mistake. The hands of a man beyond anyone’s ability to understand were but a proxy for the weapons of their own kind, in that moment in history before. The drives that moved the dark prince, a metaphor for those that drove a woman to speak the words “raise it to the ground”. The horror of unstoppable forces, identical with the missiles of their own making, pounding by their thousands into the city of a world of living souls. Whether the killer is from near or afar makes no difference in the long or the short of it all. Genocide is but the same thing in all places.

She saw the glowing surface of a plasma swept world. She saw the intense white glare of one nuclear impact merging with the next, their flashing rhythm that of a macabre and hysteric dance to evils not known before. She saw the fighters and their pilots, streaming bloodless effortless death to unsighted all before them. She saw the battle overwhelmed by the orchestrated chaos beneath it of a world being fully destroyed. Destroyed coldly and meticulously under the revellers’ searing madness. And she saw the faces watching from the sister moon, held in terrifying stasis, silent, still and spectating awestruck on this, the greatest fireworks show in all of human history.

Under the confused, deceived and perhaps wilfully imperfect leadership of President Yolanda Toure, four hundred thousand souls had been thrown to the fire. She winced, as she did at her most painful private memories, and now too at the thought of this deadly night. She could feel the immensity of events that had transpired, not being a woman without imagination and insight, and indeed even heart. She knew what a hole had been blown in the surviving lives now of surely more than a million, not even to speak of the calls to come once sunrise lit tomorrow. But more than even the crushing perception of that, she could feel her culpability in this act of supreme foolishness. And knew this was probably the end of her career, signed in the failing dark of this night. No matter the acts of her generals, or the total sacrifice of her pilots, man had been but a spectator in this. Chance alone had saved them.

It went to a well fit song of the same name, by the French group Noir Désir. Only now I find out this album was to be their last. Indeed, it all must have been a while ago because I recognised one of its other tracks a few times playing on the radio in Italy when I was there in 2002. Such old tales, both. But they age well, I think.

Anyway, I may include this scene yet. I like the brooding feel, and Yolanda’s thoughts rebalance Andala’s power. This scene introduces the Aria Incident, where nuclear haze annihilated millions on our daughter world, courtesy her mother. And Yolanda knows she has that power, too; if she were to ever spite herself and take it. They meld nicely to the song, but a character’s fantasy is not the sharpest of expressive tools. Well, I suppose it is just simple narration. Roll the montage!

I’m also unsure which side of the Act III / IV divide it should sit on. In fact, I’m thinking of pulling that back a bit from earlier plans and having it end sharp with Jocaster’s exit; if written acts make any sense at all. The other parts of the story have clearer boundaries than this one. Does aftermath go with the climax that preceded it, or get shunted into the next? Act IV has important content of its own, and its feel is different as most everything takes place on Andala.

Perhaps my biggest qualm of the whole “Nocturne Apocalypse” is just what Yolanda is doing up there. Reliving the events of that traumatic day, as we all do when thrown into such chaos, while smoking a cigarette. I’m about as anti-smoking as it gets, being allergic to the fumes. So I’ve no love to see the dirty old practice perpetuated into the centuries ahead. I’d rather show no such thing, not least at the heart of the world’s effective capital. I’ve been cautious about showing glasses, too, as I suspect they’ll seem as bizarre as eye patches come the time we fix sight instead of giving it a crutch. My hokey futurism is getting in the way again, as I lose touch with the fact that all fiction is about the present, no matter intent.

But I do like the vision of the scene. I may just have to hold my nose.


Just Another War

A problem I did not anticipate to have, futurism seems to be my f-word. Time was, back when I was a nerdy young ‘un dissecting Back to the Future II and such, the thought of making my own canon would have been as exciting and purely positive as the thought of making my own cannon. What could possibly be not to like? Well, turns out…

I’ll dispense with the Merlinisms. But this was, of course, another chain of thought inspired by Roderick on the Line. The two discuss their country’s continuing descent into dystopic police state, foretold by futurists for more than a generation now. And what better pinnacle than the robot soldier? For when policing requires more munitions than a human touch.

Robots are one of those things on my Do Not Touch list. Why? Because I know no end to them. Artificial intelligence is the ultimate offender. Introduce the world to Skynet, and, well, your story’s over. It’s either crippling doom or singularity's descriptionless despair. Besides, neither floats my boat in the abstract. Another big one I must avoid is biological warfare. There's something about wastelands that just doesn't appeal to me. Although I suppose the B-Bomb might be a different story entirely if it were ever honed to the sharp precision where we could actually use it.

But robots are surely within imagination’s reach. They’re so almost within practical technology’s grasp, going by the drones we use to cause our needless ruckus nowadays instead of good old fashioned heavy bombers. What happens when we have armies without the need for blood?

Something changed after the Vietnam War. A little something called the draft. Not only America, but every “western” or “advanced” nation with a pretence to project its power abroad, has failed to stake an all out war since then. Every one of our endeavours has been strictly professional. Yet the big wars that history is made of were anything but. Where would the bloody first half of the twentieth century have been if all the millions had stayed at home? It has become impractical to mobilise like we used to. Volunteers are one thing, conscripts quite another.

All this changes quite completely, though, the moment you mention robots.

When loss is out the window, as well as free will, insubordination, and downright fear, you have a very different army. Not necessarily invincible, but one with patience beyond the political horizons that so often force concession in wars. You could, all too easily, wage wars eternal and far reaching; for less cost than the supposed “pinpoint strikes” that we like to kid ourselves we launch these days. You, and your counterparts pit against you, make a very different world.

One I don’t wish to dwell on, or to find a way out of besides my own assumption. I can’t say it won’t happen. Right now, I rather think it might. But for my story’s sake, pilots fly the ships, not computers. For the sense of pathos for the fight, sympathy for the enemy, and all of the above.

That’s the trouble with time. It’s so damn creative as to prove us all wrong, and right, in the long run. There’s no way around it. You must simply embrace the fact of your shelf life. Enjoy your place in quaint futures rendered obsolete.

Just don’t tell me. I forever put up quite a fight.


The Truth of the Green

With the president out of touch, Sun seeks a fair way out his bind.

"Field Marshal, all forces are now present and ready." Said Commander Glushkova on the virtual screen. "Awaiting orders."
“Excellent, Commander.” Said Sun, stroking his chin. “Orders are forthcoming.”

Sun turned to see Zadig, looking as impatient as ever. But the marshal held out his other hand, for a general beyond.

"Hello, minister," said Sun into the handheld, "sorry to disturb you."

The midsummer evening drew near in Buenos Aires. The military command had caught the defence minister near the end of his golf. He was far from Saint Petersburg thanks to protocol. Come calamity, there should always be a chain of command. His superiors were at the concert, with Yolanda.

"Whatever is the matter, Sun?" Said Ernesto, indignant at the bother. His friend grinned back at him from the course.
“Alpha, sir.” Said Sun, with an expecting smile.
“What! Where?”
“Here, sir. Above the Earth. He is not communicating.”
“Jesus.” Said the minister, heart racing as he ran his fingers along his brow. “I don’t know what to do. What is your status?”
“We have a defensive posture.” Said Sun. “We are deploying a moderate force to monitor him, and provide tactical options.”
“Oh god.” Said Ernesto, failing to conceal his panic from his onlookers. “You know how dangerous he is. What do want from me?”
“Well sir,” said Sun, looking up to Zadig, “the president authorised this alert. But now that she is unreachable…”
“Yes Sun!”
“I am requesting authorisation for a potential counterstrike, if we must commit it.”
“That’s a hell of question.” Said the minister, as Zadig’s face lit with horror. “I’m not briefed.”
“There may not be time.” Said Sun. “We must be ready to react in an instant. With him, there is no safety margin.”
“I understand.” Said Ernesto, dropping in tone. “I understand, believe me.”
“Well sir? If we must, do I have your authority?”
“Do it.”
“Aye sir.” Said Sun, punching the air. Zadig looked like he wanted to punch him.
“Sun, be careful. We have one chance. Do it right, and commit with maximum forces.”
“Yes sir.” Grinned Sun. “Maximum attack.”
“Do the Americans know the reason for our deployment?”
“I will inform my opposite number now.”
“Yeah, you do that.”

The defence minister felt the little slate trembling against his ear. He handed it back to his assistant, and didn’t dare to look her in the eye.

"Hey, Ernesto, are we playing or what?"
“Yes, Jason, pardon my interruption.”
“Christ, you look like shit!” Joked the United States defence secretary.
“Ah, about that…”

The secretary’s phone rang, in highest priority. He didn’t need to look, to know that his friend’s problem would be shared.

For a Scotsman, I know precious little about golf. So I’ll gladly spare the details of their game. But one specific I have issues with is the name and means of their communication. I’m clearly writing about phones. In three hundred years?

Well, some things we use that long. And don’t even get me started on the cameras and broadcast angle introduced just before. I presume we’ll still have a media by then, but is there any good in my guess?

Futurism is one of those rabbit holes I’m better not to go down. So I will just ignore the implications of every device that I mention in the story in passing, for the moment. All to get it done. And then to blunder my way into the unknowable.

As long as it works.


Semiotic

Iconographer Dave Brasgalla of The Iconfactory had a flashback when he first laid eyes on the latest trend to strike his field of work:

When I first saw the iOS 7 designs, it immediately put me in mind of a system of symbols developed by artist Ron Cobb for the 1979 film Alien. Amongst the many designs and concepts Cobb contributed to the film, we find a set of icons intended for use as industrial signage onboard the film’s space-going tug Nostromo. The Nostromo spaceship sets constructed for the film are famed for their immersive and thoughtful design, and were characterized by an absolutely amazing attention to detail. Cobb’s Semiotic Standard iconography is visible throughout the film, a subtle touch of world-building that bolsters the perceived reality of the setting.

Semiotic Standard: now there’s a name! And there’s a fine piece of design to answer the problem inherent in any blank canvas: whatever to fill it with? When making worlds, be they microcosms or planets entire, that first step is the most daunting one. Just as in real life, here on our own world, the answer is design.

They’re a fine set of icons, well worth checking out.