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Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Sci-Fi?

 As part of the Sci-Fi debate, as started on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and as the "Out of This World" exhibition opens at the British Library, I thought I'd reprint this article I wrote earlier this year for the Cypruswell website.

"I love Sci-Fi, reading it and writing it. Being a child of the nineteen fifties I suppose that isn’t unexpected. Sci-Fi was the standard school boy interest in those days and the very first story I had published was a story about the after effects of nuclear war in the school magazine.
The whole point about science fiction is that it provides the ultimate “what if?” literary and intellectual playground. “How would the world look if this or that scientific theory was a reality?” In science fiction one could examine the consequences of various scientific or technological discoveries. For instance Science fiction writers were examining the possible effects of global warming (and cooling) long before it became an issue with the general public. All the possible horrors of space travel, dystopian futures, alien contacts, robots gone mad, computers taking over the world, global conflict have been explored. The crucial thing is that the great works of Sci-fi explore the relationship between those possibilities and human individuals. Philip K. Dick (possibly the greatest of all sci-fi writers – certainly the architype) centred his stories on the little guy struggling against greater technologies and forces. “Blade Runner” was a great film but the original novel by Dick – “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was greater because the hero was an ordinary put upon man rather than a Hollywood superman.

The only rule for good Science Fiction, if there should be any rules at all, is that it should only posit one technological or scientific elaboration at a time. We may have faster than light travel in a story but everything else should be as we would observe it in the real world. Apart from the faster than light gizmo the science should be accurate and so should the humanity and psychology of the characters. We should be able to understand the motivations of the characters even if they are being held captive by green and purple creatures on the planet Zaargg. I mean, how would you react in those circumstances?
Fifty years ago when I was reading Sci-Fi for the first time, the year 2000 was, literally, the far distant future. So the “what if?” in my stories is the “what if the year 2000 was as we imagined it then?” I’m exploring that idea in the series of stories about ‘Jimmy –the Boy from the year 2000’ on my blogsite. As the lurid book jackets might have said back then: This week! A thrilling new two-parter titled “Quantum Entanglement”. Read and enjoy!! You will never be the same again!!!"

Are we Living in a Sci-Fi World?

The Today Programme on BBC Radio seemed to rubbish the capacity of Sci-Fi to predict the future.  It seemed to imply that while it could tell a good yarn, the things it predicts are marginal and most never have, or could have, come true.  However, that's not the point of Sci-Fi.  Its really about the world now as we live in it and the fantasy elements are meant to throw this into perspective.  The debate centres around whether technological advances that first occurred in Science Fiction and then happened in reality were cause or effect. Did scientists see things that were described in fiction and then go on to puzzle out how to make them, or does Sci-Fi offer some real prediction about how the future will shape itself.  We will probably never know unless we could invent a time machine and go back to experiment with the past and see how things work out.....  Now there's a story.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quantum Entanglement (2) The next instalment of the story of the Boy from the Year 2000

The next day Jimmy was back in his garden waiting to see if his entangled pair would turn up again and, sure enough, about three o’clock, there he was. Running cross the lawn beside him.
“Wait.” Called Jimmy.  But as soon as they got to the fence it, or he, disappeared.
Jimmy pondered for a little while and then thought what Mr. Smith had told him.  If they were both part of an entangled pair, then it stood to reason that their quantum states must be exactly similar.  Jimmy also remembered what Mr Smith had told him about Schroedinger’s cat some weeks before.  It was impossible to know two things about a quantum state at once.  You could know where it was or you could know its momentum, but not both together. That must be true for both parts of an entangled pair.  Jimmy could only be sure he would know where his pair would be if he stopped running.  

So Jimmy started running up and down the lawn at full tilt hoping to capture his entangled pair but after half an hour he was exhausted.  Jimmy’s mother opened the window.  “If you keep running up and down like that, you’ll wear the grass away.” She smiled as she said that because she knew that their genetically modified Evvagreen grass would never wear out.  Sometimes she secretly wished for the days before the year 2000 when things were simpler and grass grew if you watered it and mowing it was something you had to do as a simple pleasure.  “Would you like an afternoon pill?”  She asked.  “Its a glass of milk and a biscuit.  Its blue.”
“No thank you” said Jimmy.  He was keen to get back to his experiment.  And a glass of milk and a biscuit never seemed very attractive when it was in pill form.

It was a full fifteen minutes later that the boy appeared again.  Half way across the lawn, Jimmy stopped dead.  The boy stopped dead beside him.
“I know where you are.”  Said Jimmy firmly.  As if it was some sort of binding spell.
“Eh?”  said the boy.
“I’m in my garden.  So you must be,too.”
The boy was looking puzzled.
“You’re an entanglement.”  Said Jimmy by way of explanation.
“What?” said the boy.
“You’re my entangled pair.”
“You’re nuts, you are.” Said the boy.  “I ain’t a tangly nuffing.” And then after a pause he went on: “My name’s Bobby.”
“So what are you doing here, then?” said Jimmy.  He was feeling very proud that he knew what was going on.
“I was running up and down.  Minding my own business when, whoosh, here I am.  Wherever this is.  You’ve kidnapped me, ain’t yer?”
“No, no.  Not at all.  You see, some bad people have entangled us at the quantum level and we’re the same.  We do the same things at the same time.”   Then Jimmy ran out of explanation because he didn’t really understand any more than that himself.
“Rubbish.” Said the boy.  “You’ve kidnapped me and I’ll have the law on you.”
Jimmy felt his bottom lip trembling again.  This wasn’t the way it was meant to come out.
“Well, maybe not the law.  We don’t exactly go in for that sort of thing.  But my Dad’s a big bloke.  He’s a bruiser.  He’d sort you out.”
Jimmy had no wish to be sorted out.  He wished he hadn’t embarked on this experiment now.  Science was about hover cars and rocket ships, not about fierce boys with bruisers for dads.
“It’s all right.” The boy said.  “Don’t fret.  I don’t need my dad to fight my battles.  My name’s Bobby.”
“I’m Jimmy.”  Said Jimmy.

There was something not quite right about the boy.  Jimmy suddenly realised his hair was not smoothed down and neatly parted the way most boys were but stood up on end in a sort of tangle like a gooseberry bush, his face and hands clearly hadn’t seen an auto-scrub for some time and what’s more, he wasn’t wearing a silver suit.  Jimmy began to think that the entanglement theory may not be right.  Unless, of course that was how Jimmy looked himself.  “I think you may be an entanglement.” Said Jimmy. 
Not me, mate” said the boy “I’m just Unhappy” said the boy grinning broadly and showing his stained, uneven teeth.
“You don’t look unhappy.” Said Jimmy puzzled.
“No not unhappy,” replied Bobby grinning even more broadly.  “But Unhappy.  You know the name the governments cooked up for the like of us.”
“You?  You’re a...”
“’Sright.  I’m a dissident.”
“You mean a terrorist?”
“Right again, me old cock.  I am a terrorist.    Bobby the Terrorist.”
“Crumbs.” Said Jimmy in awe. “I’ve never met a terrorist before.”  And then he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Well, I’ll be on my way then.  Cheers, mate.” Said Bobby.
“Er, wait a minute” called Jimmy as Bobby turned to go.
“ ’Urry up.   Me tea’s on the table.   We got pizza and chips tonight and I ain’t gonna let it get cold.”
“Umm.  What do terrorists do?”  asked Jimmy.
“You know. We sort of... terrorise people.  Ain’t you ’eard?”
“How do you do that?”
Bobby came up very close to Jimmy so that he could smell his bad breath and put his face next to his.   “Boo” he said.  Jimmy jumped. 
“Boo?” Said Jimmy.
“Yep. Boo.” Replied Bobby.
“Right, I see.”
“OK, then toodle oo, old chap.”
“It’s not very terrorising.”
“Boo.  Boo hoo.  Boo hoo.  That’s why they say we’re unhappy.”
“Toodle oo.”  Said Jimmy after a moment’s thought.  But Bobby was already gone.

(Note from author:  There may have to be a third part to see what happens to Jimmy and Bobby later.  Please tell me if you're enjoying this series.)

Bones of the Land

We live among the bones of the land
Between the place where the sea has slashed
Sabre sharp through the turf
Revealing the soft chalky white flesh beneath
And where the surf has scratched and scoured at the soil
To show the naked bones of the very under-rock
And we cower among the ribs
Huddling for warmth against the scalpel wind
Among the Liver and the lights
Just as a hunter on the frozen tundra
Will slaughter her horse and, slashing its stomach,
Force her blooddrenched soul into its guts
Into the warmth for succour.
And yet, when the year and the wind turns
The skeleton dries in the sun and wind
And we can make such pretty things
Carving pieces of bone for trinkets.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Mary Anning Play - another chapter

After the first go at the 25 minute monologue we've also decided that we should aim a version for 9 to 12 year olds in school.  This is fine by me because I have written a lot for this age group in the past and I find it very enjoyable. At this age most kids are very receptive of ideas and like to be spoken to as adults so its important not to dilute or speak down too much.  I find the trick is to shorten sections so that the audience can concentrate hard until you give them a bit of breathing space to catch up.   I expect that we will be working  mostly in schools or educational areas and, frankly, these are not ideal theatre spaces.  Kids will be sat on the floor in a lot of places so its important to keep things moving forward briskly with  some sort of wriggle opportunities.

But, all in all, the piece requires exactly the same attention to character and situation that I would give to the full length play or the monologue aimed at adults.

Since the last time I posted we have visited Mary's stamping ground in Lyme Regis and followed her footsteps along the clayey, clingy beach and under the dark forbidding cliffs.  So I have a much richer sense of place and the character.

Last time I told you about "Chasing" where I'm chasing out details to enrich the piece.  Well, now I'm going through a process I call "combing" where I kep returning to the script from the beginning and combing out some of the tangles and finding hidden pieces of character that I have buried in either intentionally or unconsciously.  That leads me on to another process of reinforcing and amplifying character traits within the dialogue (or monologue as in this case).  I call this "grooming" and its where the character begins to gain real solidity and depth.

Rewriting the monologue for children has enabled me to develop all three of these processes so much that I can actually hear Mary's voice each time I read through.  Oh yes,  its a play.  Its meant to be performed so each time I go through I read it out loud.  The voice has to be right when spoken so I'm spending most of my time chattering way to myself.  Goodness only knows what the neighbours think.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Doollee Database of Plays

I have just finished uploading the detailsof most of my plays onto the Doollee database. This heroic undertaking aims to be "the free online guide to modern playwrights and theatre plays which have been written, adapted or translated, into English since the production of Look Back in Anger in 1956. doollee.com contains information on 38,219 Playwrights and 127,610 of their Plays"

Jobbing playwrights like me tend to be a bit careless with the records of their work so its been a good exercise  scrabbling though my shelves and cardboard boxes looking for copies that might otherwise have gone out with the recycling. So far I've got details of about twenty plays of all types that have been commissioned and performed since I started writing but, alas, not all of them are complete and, while I may have production details, very little of the actual script remains. 
This year I'm going to make an effort to reconstruct some of these scripts because, who knows, somebody may want them in the future. Apparently, the database is a worldwide resource and is consulted by companies and academics across the globe. So if you've got an old box of your scripts that have been performed in England in the last fifty years its a good idea to get them on the Doollee database to complete the picture if nothing else.

Click on the title at the top for the link to Doollee