Inventing Aliens

Inventing aliens is exceedingly difficult.

In the course of reading sci-fi over many decades, I have encountered many different varieties.

I have seen intelligent life on other planets represented as gas, slime, blobs, mechanised beings, shape changers or humanoids.

The humanoids usually have big heads, slender bodies, huge eyes and elongated tapering limbs. Some have tentacles, others hands and feet.

It is possible that through the zillions of planets in the universe that we are the only intelligent life. The Earth may be an oasis in a vast desert.

On the other hand, it is also possible that life may be a common occurrence.

As a biologist, I am intrigued.

The earth has existed for a little over 4.5 billion years. It took just short of 2 billion years for the first life to evolve. For the next 2 billion life was merely a bacterial slime. All life on the planet probably evolved from one single instance – a protein/RNA combination. DNA would probably have evolved later.

2.4 billion years ago these bacteria started forming oxygen as a bi-product and transformed the atmosphere so that aerobic respiration could occur and organisms become more efficient and more complex. 2 billion years ago the first complex cells developed.

530 million years ago the first vertebrates appeared.

4 million years ago hominids appeared on the scene.

1.8 million years ago Homo sapiens evolved.

Of course, we are not the only intelligent creatures on the planet. Intelligence is hard to define and we tend to anthropomorphise it.

If we replace intelligence with consciousness then we are inundated. It is even possible that plants have consciousness.

When I look at a human being I see this strange evolution reflected in their morphology. We are modified fish.

But what if RNA had never interacted with protein? Is it possible for some other form of life to have developed? Does it have to be based around carbon?

I have seen theories of other elements but carbon is very useful.

Even if life developed in a similar way does it have to have a four-base DNA code? Could it be six?

When it reached the multicellular stage did it have to develop into a fish? Could it have gone down another route?

If it was a fish did that have to evolve into a quadruped and then a biped?

Evolution is a blind process – which is why our bodies are stuck with so many faults. Those faults – things like our one airway, our fragile necks and exposed brain, our digestive tract confused with our airway at one end and reproductive organs at the other – all could have evolved differently to create more efficient bodies. They didn’t. But perhaps elsewhere in the universe, they did.

Perhaps aliens do not have their brains stuck out on a fragile neck? Perhaps they are not based on the pentadactyl limb – formed from fins? Perhaps their reproductive system is separate from their excretory system and they have multiple airways?

I do not believe that ‘real’ alien life would be found in amorphous clouds of particles or slime. I think it would have a body and organs. But as to whether that body would resemble human beings? That I doubt very much.

It makes it fun to design an intelligent animal that evolved in a totally different way. That allows the imagination to work on what it might look like.

Friends who are gone – extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

What’s the rudest word in the World? Could it be ‘don’t!’

26.10.01

 

And I sometimes think of Jeff who jumped into that train, and Pete on the motorbike, Jane who died of the brain tumour at the age of eighteen, and Loveridge, whose first name I’ve forgotten, who fell off the stack at the plastics factory and fractured his skull. I think of Shaun who was so full of life and would have done so much. I think of Mocy, who I only knew briefly. I think of my good friends Danny and Tony who I shared so much with. I think of how many others of my old friends have gone without me even knowing. I think of Jason who was with my sister for such a short time and was so brave and gentle, so bright and cheerful. All the ones I knew and are now gone. I talk of them to my students. I weave them into my lessons. I get them to illustrate my tales of life. They live in my stories and they live in my mind.

I think of my Dad.

I think about the universe expanding, the Big Bang, religion and politics, beauty and getting old.

I think about the pleasures and the pains.

I think about the travels and the meetings, the books and music, the doings and the things I missed doing.

The drugs and the drunks, the parties and the sex.

I think about Liz and our life together, our love, and the home and life we’ve built with all its myriad compromises.

I think about my mum and all the things she did for me. All that love that was lavished on me.

I think about my kids and I wonder about the lives and experiences they will have.

I dream about all the grandchildren. I hope I will be alive to see them grow. I hope they will know me.

I think about how life is so long, packed full of so much, and yet it is so very short.

These days I smile wistfully a lot and have great hopes for the world, the future and humanity.

I think about my stupid writing and wonder what other uses I could have put to all this time. What else could I have done? What else could any of us do?

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get civilised and leave these dark ages behind, maybe one day we’ll understand a little bit more and be better people for it.

One day!

26.10.01

Fortifications – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

After Bryce Canyon we travelled down into Arizona, to Canyon De Cheyelle and Mesa Verde. We climbed the steep paths to visit the cliff ruins. They were majestic and picturesque. You could stand on those ledges and look over the valley below with its fertile soil and clear, sparkling river snaking through. You could imagine the Anasazi Indians gazing out over that same scene 900 years before.

The pueblo buildings, made simply of mud bricks, were well preserved. They were high in the cliffs protected by overhangs.

The Anasazi had built long ladders to climb up to their houses, ladders which they had pulled up after them. They had lookout posts and a succession of well-organised warning stations. If a marauding party was spotted they lit fires. The smoke alerted the next post and the warning jumped from position to position much faster than the enemy could travel. They also used mirrors to signal. They were clever and well-organised. In the cliff dwellings, they stored grain and water and were able to withstand a lengthy siege. They were well organised and thorough.

It was a mystery as to why they all disappeared.

I immediately connected the Anasazi dwellings with the Hillforts in Wales and France that I had visited.

It was a lot of trouble to go to in order to build such fortifications and precautions. It took a lot of their time, energy and resources. They must have been pretty scared to go to that much trouble.

Human nature is horrible to behold. It seems some of us are prepared to work hard to earn a living and some simply can’t be bothered; they’d rather take it from the ones that do the work.

The more cruel and vicious they were, the easier it is to extract what you wanted.

Every country had its fortified towns, castles and fortresses because every country had its marauders.

Times don’t change much.

Human behaviour doesn’t change.

13.10.01

 

One day I will die and all my things will be divided up. Some will go to friends as mementoes. Some will be distributed to the family. Liz will keep some of them. My kids will have some. I will take pleasure in knowing that things will go to people that might get them out from time to time and think of me. I don’t know why that is? It will not matter to me. I shall be dead.

26.10.01

How to stop fascism – extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Fascism may be genetic in some people.

It may even be a basic human trait.

Perhaps we are all programmed to be heartless, selfish and cruel.

Perhaps racism and xenophobia are defence mechanisms to protect the tribe against outsiders? After all, outsiders represent competition for available space and food.

Perhaps the fascist thugs are necessary? After all, they are the ones who will go out and do the loony things to frighten the shit out of the enemy in order to keep the rest of us safe. There is never any doubt in their mind. My country right or wrong is always right. Just the type you need to charge a machine gun nest.

But then again, this brand of intolerance and arrogant nationalism might be learnt behaviour. Perhaps Woody Guthrie was right when he put that sign ‘THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS’ on his guitar. We can educate people to be more compassionate.

Perhaps you can get people to understand that people are more important than getting the trains to run on time, infuriating as late trains may be?

Perhaps you can address the problems these potential fascists have and sort them out, so that they do not become victims who are bullied and subsequently filled with twisted hatred? Maybe we can prevent them from becoming fascists?

Perhaps we can make people see that the world does not have to be winners and losers but that we can care for each other?

Perhaps we can make people see that a macho world is not a happy one?

Perhaps you can educate people out of the need for the hard swagger and brutal fist?

Perhaps we can build a new, fair world, that is not based on selfish greed, racial ignorance, and arrogant superiority?

Perhaps I am pissing into a hurricane?

13.10.01

 

I don’t know if this is the type of best my Dad was envisaging for me.

12.10.01

 

They say we all have to make our own mistakes. You can’t teach a young man full of hormones and itchy for experience, that life is so precious and short that you have to be careful.

12.10.01

The last holiday – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Left to my own devices I most probably would have killed myself long before now. Not deliberately, just by being extreme and obsessive.

12.10.01

 

My mum insists that it was god giving my dad a last good holiday before he called him back. I say nothing. What’s the point of upsetting her if it makes her happy?

They came to Los Angeles when I was teaching there, and we took them around a little in our VW microbus. We were on our way to Grand Canyon when we were stopped by a speed cop for trundling along at 70 MPH on those big old empty highways. The guy actually let us off when he discovered that we were English. Told us to take care and ‘have a nice day’.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon in a snowstorm. It was magnificent.

After a couple of days we went on to Bryce Canyon. From above it looked like fairyland. There was a coating of snow on the tops but the skies were clear and the sun shone. The red rocks of the Canyons looked like miniature red cake decorations coated with icing. The rocks glowed in the sun.

It wasn’t until we set off down into the eroded maze of canyons that the enormous scale of the place became apparent. What looked like delicate striated candy were steep walled canyons. The sides were sheer and the canyons narrow. They rose up hundreds of feet on both sides and hemmed you in. It was dark down there. Only when the sun was overhead could it penetrate to the bottom of those catacombs. Here and there were rock-falls and it was quite dangerous and claustrophobic. We didn’t go too far. I guess reality was not quite as pleasant as magic.

Dad had a great time. He had not travelled at all since the war, not even to go back to Italy. It was the money. It wasn’t until now that he could afford it. This was the first real holiday; the first of what was going to be many, but turned out not to be.

When we’d come out of the canyon we went to a diner to get something to eat. It was a lonesome place stuck out there on the highway. There was a little old lady in there sitting around, passing time. We got talking. She told us that Bryce Canyon had been used for cattle rustling. The outlaws used to steal the cattle and drive them down into Bryce Canyon where they’d remain hidden until the heat cooled down. She told us that when she was a little girl she had met Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They had been part of a gang that had rustled in that area.

I don’t know if she was bullshitting but I guess that she was old enough for it to have been true, and she sounded pretty convincing when she told us. In any case it brought it home to you. The country was that young. We were in living memory of the wild frontier.

How quickly time changes things.

13.10.01

 

We did not always agree and had some big rows but I know Dad only wanted the best for me.

12.10.01

Motivation – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Motivation. That is the word that sums up what we become. Motivation can be good or bad. What motivation do we have and where does it come from?

So what motivates someone into becoming a torturer?

Where does a torturer get their motivation to get up each day and go to work? Are they turned on by screams and burning flesh?

Is that tendency to sadism genetic? If not, where did they learn to enjoy inflicting pain?

What experiences did they go through in their developing years that make them feel happy when observing the pain of other people?

Were these torturers the type of boys and girls that drowned kittens, slowly grilled puppies or pulled the wings off insects?

Were they the bullies who enjoyed the cheap shots, the nasty tweaks and sly kicks?

Were they the ones who co-opted their mates to hold someone down while they punched them in the face or stamped on their head, maybe put cigarettes out on their nipples?

Or were they the sad whimpering abused victims, or bullied wimps, who became so full of hatred that they turned it all around on other people and gained revenge by bullying those who were weaker?

Is this enjoyment of inflicting pain on others an act of revenge?

A result of hatred?

Or do these torturers not enjoy their work at all? Do they see their job as a professional necessity in the war against whatever force is arrayed against their religion or country? For there is always a war being waged and there is never a shortage of torturers.

What makes a torturer?

13.10.01

 

When I gave my little sister away in marriage I said in my speech that it would have been my Dad’s proudest moment. That sounds a bit corny but it was true. We were his proudest possessions. He had little else. We were his reasons to live.

12.10.01

 

Left to my own devices I most probably would have killed myself long before now. Not deliberately, just by being extreme and obsessive.

12.10.01

Public caning in school – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Trevor Mills was hard but I bet he isn’t so hard now! I bet that Trevor’s children, if he has any, are hard though!

Trevor had dark ginger hair that curled up at the back. He was big and he was surly. He had a reputation for thumping people. Teachers found him exceedingly uncooperative. He’d glare at them, snarl and refuse to comply. His aim seemed to be to stand out, disrupt every lesson and create confrontation. You could say that he liked to be noticed.

Trevor made a performance out of being caned. Usually, caning was carried out in the privacy of the Head’s study but other certain staff were not adverse to caning boys in front of a class. They seemed to delight in it.

The cane was long and springy. It was usually made of willow, about half an inch thick with a curved handle at one end.

You were bent over a desk and whacked very hard on the backside. Some teachers used a standing swish but the more robust took a run at you from across the room and launched themselves at your arse with all the power they could muster. The prefects were entitled to cane students but were not allowed to apply more than three lashes. These canings were delivered at one of their Prefect Courts held, appropriately, under the school in the cellars.

Caning was very violent. When applied with full force, as a number of teachers were keen to do, the blow split the skin across your arse in a straight line. It usually didn’t bleed much but quickly formed into a hard ridge. Around this ridge, the bruise came out like a purple welt. Over the next week, this colouration slowly spread and made its way from mauve through brown to orange and then yellow (as any biologist might tell you – mapping the progress of the breakdown of haemoglobin), to finally fade away to leave you with just a faint scar. The blood trickled from the split skin but did not gush. The pain was excruciating and normally managed to elicit a cry out of even the most hardened recipient. If you had been caned you were officially given leave to stand during lessons for the rest of the day. After all, the teaching staff weren’t sadists. They knew that it was painful and made a special dispensation for those so afflicted. I know this all too well as the result of personal experience.

Trevor was a regular recipient of corporal punishment. As with a number of other hardened miscreants, it was no deterrent; to be caned was a badge of honour. He was seemingly impervious to pain. On one occasion I saw him intimidate our poetry teacher by thrusting his face into his and then smashing his hand into the door with such force that he not only transformed the thick panel into matchwood but also must have broken every bone in his hand. He then refused to go to the sick room and sat there in the English class grinning while his hand swelled up like a balloon.

On a number of occasions, he was publicly flogged. It was intended to be a warning to everyone, to deter others from following suit. Trevor made it into a show.

His name would be called in assembly. He’d stand up and look around smiling and defiant. He would swagger to the front nonchalantly, hands in pockets, taking time to sneer and mock as he went. He would slowly climb the stairs up to the stage, grin at the Headmaster, lean forward over the table, grip the sides with his hands, rest his head on the top looking towards the gathered masses and wink. It was worthy of an Oscar.

By this time the Head would be in a fury. He’d run and jump up, bringing the cane down with all his might. It would viciously swish and thwack. Trevor remained unmoved. His eyes never blinked. There was no involuntary yelp and no tears. It was repeated for the full six. Then Trevor would lazily rise, look around as if to ask ‘Is that it?’ and stroll back off the stage. He would then deliberately sit himself down without any tangible sign of discomfort. A bravura performance.

The amount of credibility Trevor gleaned from this was enormous. The last occasion they tried it he brought the house down with spontaneous cheers.

They didn’t do it again.

13.10.01

 

I sometimes dream of those simple years, full of discovery, when life was exciting.

12.10.01

Comeuppance – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

Was Trevor’s life exciting during those early years of growing up? I don’t remember meeting his family. Would you like to imagine what they were like? Perhaps kind, loving, tactile folk with refined sensitivities? You don’t suppose they beat the shit out of him, do you?

I last met Trevor on Walton High Street when we were both twenty. I was home from college and he was unemployed. All the cockiness had dissipated. He seemed sullen brooding and sad and eager to talk. He seemed pleased to see me and wanted to tell me what he’d been up to.

He told me that a while back he’d emigrated to New Zealand because he couldn’t get a job over here in the UK and he’d heard that there was plenty of work out there. He came back a few months later. He hadn’t liked it. He told me that he’d got into fight after fight and they kept locking him up. According to him, New Zealanders were all a bunch of wankers. They didn’t like the British. I rather suspected that it was more that they didn’t like arrogant and aggressive people.

Terry laughed and told me that he’d come home to where it was civilised. He seemed a lot more chastened at twenty compared to the cocky youth of fifteen that I remembered. Life did not seem to be progressing the way he had imagined it would. It was leaving him morose. His self-esteem had evaporated. He was no longer the big guy. Perhaps it was because he no longer had an audience, or perhaps that, compared to fully-grown adults, he was no longer so awfully big and fearsomely tough? He could no longer intimidate and beat the shit out of anyone who crossed him.

You don’t suppose that Trevor ever battered his kids do you? You don’t suppose that there could be a self-perpetuating cycle of violence? You don’t suppose that all those fights Trevor regularly instigated were the result of people picking on him and giving him funny looks do you? Because he was always the innocent party you know. He never started anything, honest.

Am I stereotyping or reporting? Probably a bit of both.

You don’t suppose that life trained Trevor to be violent and rewarded him with status and attention when he was, do you? Then callously took it all away.

I don’t suppose there’s any too much shit left in Trevor these days. There did not seem to be that last time I met him. He seemed like a beaten man, a balloon with a hole in it.

Life’s a game and it appeared to me that Trevor was one of life’s losers. But was it his fault?

13.10.01

 

My dad taught me to play chess. He always beat me but I kept trying until one day I beat him. From there on we were fairly evenly matched.

Chess gets the brain cells firing. Chess is a game of tactics and stylised war. It is absorbing and complex. If played properly, with the full resources of the intellect and concentration, it is the game of games

But there again, I don’t want to exaggerate its importance too much. It is no substitute for life.

26.10.01

Surrealistic Abstractions – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

My art teacher was more of an artist than a teacher. I really liked her. She was interesting. Her mind flitted to more important things than what she was doing. The creative spirit took her over. I’m in awe of people who are consumed by their creativity. She did huge mosaics out of glass. She was better at art than she was at controlling kids, that’s for sure. She was inspirational– though I let her down.

At the time we thought that she enthused about the most peculiar things.

One lesson, following a vague preliminary talk, she set us to work doing abstract paintings and went out and left us to it. That breaks the first rule of teaching – never leave any group of eleven-year-olds unattended. Their minds create mischief.

For some reason, I was in a daft mood and decided to have a bit of a laugh. I thought I’d show her what a real abstract painting was. I mixed up great pallets of powder paint into thick, gooey liquid and dolloped it on the largest piece of paper I could find to make great thick blobs and pools of colour that merged together. The others soon saw what I was doing. I soon had a few other kids mixing up paint for me and I was splashing and splattering it on this conglomeration. Before long I had built it up into a big thick splurge of paint over the entire paper. In places it was two inches thick.

All things have to come to an end, and just as we were getting completely out of control, she came back. I immediately put on my serious face and started studiously splashing more dripping paint onto the thick splurge, brushing and swirling the resulting colours and textures with a focussed deliberation and purpose that could be mistaken for expertise. She made her rounds looking at the products of the lesson. I continued to apply tiny drops of colour or tease whirls and shapes in the gooey mess, while the class looked on from afar waiting for the fireworks.

Eventually, she reached me.

I did not look up, seeming to be totally absorbed in my task, as if in some artistic reverie. Jackson Pollock would have been proud of me but I rather expected my art teacher not to be. I had certainly wasted a considerable amount of paint and produced something that a psychedelic  elephant with a gastrointestinal problem might easily have come up with. I was sure she would see straight through my feigned artistic skills and recognise the piss-take for what it was.

She studied the big gooey mess of intermingling colour.

“What do you call it?” she enquired, studying the large splurge of liquid paint as if trying to discern some meaning.

“It’s called ‘Nuclear Fission’”, I replied earnestly, dabbing more paint on my masterpiece.

All around the class were grinning. I was for it now.

“It is wonderful,” she murmured. “Wonderful!”

She toured around my artwork admiring it from all sides as if it really was a masterpiece.

“Bold and imaginative,” she murmured, “I must have this displayed in the Hall.”

At the end of the lesson my splurge of art was carefully transferred to a windowsill. It took three week to dry into a great slab of swirling colour. When it was solid she had holes drilled in each corner and nailed the thing up in the entrance to the school hall. It weighed a ton and proudly hung there in the school foyer.

I must admit that I was really proud. She made me feel that I had actually created something original and worthwhile even though I had simply been having a laugh. It was almost as if I had planned it and not been messing about at all.

It stayed up there for ages until all the paint first cracked and then lumps started falling off and it had to be taken down

Following that day my art teacher treated me as if I was gifted. That felt good but it put a weight on to me that was difficult to live up to. I knew I was a fraud. It was a situation bound to end in failure.

Later that year, three of us had misbehaved and were placed in detention. She gave us the task of smashing up coloured bottles to produce shards for her mosaics. She was very fond of making these large mosaics out of shards of coloured glass. She’d collected a number of green, brown, and blue bottles and some white porcelain. We had to wrap the bottles up carefully in a big cloth and smash them with a big lump hammer. This was meant to be a punishment! After instructing us in how to do it she disappeared.

We had a great time!

We quickly smashed up all the available bottles in no time at all, and were having such fun that we searched around for other things to smash. By the time she returned we’d smashed every one of her paintbrush jars.

She was very upset.

What else could I do? For goodness sake – I was a child! All children sometimes let you down.

26.10.01

 

My father and I were probably very alike in personality.

I am amazed by how like him I have become. It is especially strange, considering the determination I had as a teenager to be so completely different to him, in every respect. I too work too hard, come home exhausted and find that the responsibilities, and lack of freedom, that come with a family weigh heavy. But hey, this is life.

12.10.01

Farther from the Sun – the novel

A mosaic of a novel, a memoir, an homage.

My father was born in 1922. I was born in 1949.

We have different values, different lives and ideas.

How far apart are we?

How much light did he shed?

What are our legacies?

This tells the story.

My new novel – Farther from the Sun – is now available in paperback.

It is a mosaic of a novel – part anecdotes, part commentary, part homage, telling the story of two lives and a relationship. A commentary on life and values.