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.

Writing a Book takes a Team!!

Writing a Book takes a Team!!

What is quite apparent is that writing a book requires a team of people. Rarely does one person have a complete skill set to handle the task.

Writing a book entails:

Having the imagination to envisage the novel.

Having the ability to create a plot.

Having the writing ability to create interest in a reader.

Being able to invent characters.

Being perceptive to see flaws in the plot.

Having the knowledge of grammar, punctuation and spelling to be able to correct mistakes.

Possessing the ability to make the language flow and create pace.

Being able to describe the novel in such a way as to create interest without introducing spoilers.

To possess the artistic skills to design a cover.

To build up the social media connections and other media connections to market the book.

Creative people rarely have the objectivity or skills to redraft, edit or see the flaws in their writing. They require a methodical editor to point out necessary improvements and corrections.

A person skilled at writing may not be at all skilled at design or even able to create an enticing and succinct back cover blurb.

Building up social networks, writing press releases, doing book signings and developing contacts, takes time. Most writers would rather be writing and might well be hopeless at communicating in other ways.

A team can hone and present a book to optimise its potential.

Writing a good book and selling it requires a good team. That’s why writers form relationships with publishers and Literary Agents.

The wonders of Editing.

The wonders of Editing.

Having written the book, restructured and rewritten/redrafted the text, it is time to start the editing.

Having now achieved a book whose ‘shape’ and story you are happy with, it is time to make sure it works for readers. The writing has to flow so that a reader becomes absorbed in the story and not the words. If a piece of writing works, it creates pictures in the readers head, it conveys emotions, the characters come to life and the world inside the story becomes real.

Part of the success of a story is the sentence structure, the grammar and the spelling. Clumsy sentences, spellos and bad grammar break the spell. Once the spell has been broken, the whole of the magic you have worked hard to create dissolves.

Editing requires objectivity. Objectivity is almost impossible because, having created your ‘baby’, you are emotionally connected. When you read back through your work you are subjective, you know exactly what you meant. Your brain reads it as it imagines it is, not as it is. Your bad habits, failings and wrongly learnt language are glossed over. But to a reader these faults stand out.

I have discovered that if I read a piece of my writing over the shoulder of somebody who is reading it, all the faults jump out at me. It is as if I am seeing it through their eyes. Unfortunately, I do not have an editor hidden away in the cupboard to bring out as required so, initially, I have to do it on my own.

Unlike with redrafting, I have to leave the novel for a period of time before starting to edit.

When the time is right I start. I need to summon my full concentration and focus on the work word by word. The task is to analyse each sentence in order to make it flow, to create a variety of length and complexity so that it reads easily and the language has interest for the reader. I have to avoid repetition, correct spelling and grammar and ensure that the correct words have been selected, the ones that contain all the subtlety and nuance required.

A novel is a long piece of writing. Editing can be daunting. It can be tedious and frustrating. When I am editing I will often work eight to ten hours a day. I am focussed on completing the task. I tend to work fast.

I usually edit a book twice. It is amazing how many glaring errors make it through the first time.

Then I send it off to one of my editors. They bring a totally objective eye to bear.

When the document comes back to me I am always surprised by the amount of work that still needs to take place. My editor will have noted lots of repetition (of words and ideas – I have a habit of putting things in twice, often reworking the same idea with different words), grammatical errors, sentences that do not work and the odd spelling mistake. Once these mistakes/improvements have been pointed out they are obvious.

Every writer needs a good editor. Being objective with ones own writing is almost impossible.

Redrafting is looking at the big picture; editing is looking at the minutiae.

When fully edited the book is now ready – but that is not the end of the story!

The way the writing process works with me.

The way the writing process works with me.

I am an obsessive writer. I find writing compulsive.

The first thing that happens is an idea or inspiration will trigger a process in my brain. That might result in a compulsion to write something down immediately in order to capture that idea.

Once the seed is planted the idea may lie dormant in my head for a while. It will require other ideas. It will have created problems that need solving. It will need a setting. It will require characters. It has to have a plot.

On occasion, this all happens at once. I start writing the original idea and the other ideas, characters and plot pile in and I find myself desperately writing to keep up. I am a one-finger typist.

Some of my ideas have lain dormant for years, waiting. I find myself mulling them over; searching for a way in. It’s similar to looking for a crossword puzzle answer.

Some of my novels are closely plotted. Each chapter laid out complete with pen pictures of characters and settings. Other books flow organically. The characters appear fully formed; I have a picture in my head of the story and the ending; I merely allow it to flow.

Writing like this is the easy part. I find it joyful and fulfilling. The novel consumes me. Nothing else is of importance. I wake up in the night with my head buzzing with ideas, developments and solutions. I cannot wait to get writing. Often minor characters grow into major ones. Characters change and develop. Plots change. A novel takes on a life of its own.

Left completely to my own devices (which is rare) I will write from morning into the night until exhausted with just short breaks for coffee or a snatched snack.

A day’s work would result in between thirty and fifty pages.

I do not reread or edit as I write. I allow the novel to flow out of my mind on to the paper.

I find the process very satisfying.

The day starts with a blank screen. By the end of the day, I have created the start of a world. By the end of a few weeks, I have created a whole world.

But that is the beginning, that is the pleasure. It is what happens next where the real work begins.

Ron Forsythe on Science Fiction.

Ron Forsythe on Science Fiction

I started reading Science Fiction novels when I was in school. At the age of fourteen, I was a bit of a rebel. We had compulsory Religious Education and I had no belief in God and regarded the R.E. classes as brainwashing. For some reason, my parents would not write me a letter withdrawing me from the class so I went and saw the teacher and explained my views. I told him that I had no intention of doing any work. I was adamant and dug my heels in. We came to an arrangement. I would give out the bibles at the beginning of the lesson and then sit quietly at the front and read. So it was that in R.E. I worked my way through the entire works of John Wyndham. In my view, a much better use of my time.

From that time on, Science Fiction became my preferred reading.

As a youth I read avidly, consuming three to four novels a week. My favourite writers were the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, James White, Arthur C Clarke, James Blish, Robert Sheckley, Philip K Dick, J.G Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance, C. L.Moore, A.E. Van Vogt, Fred Saberhagen. Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut jnr, and Larry Niven, though in practice I read any Sci-Fi I could get my hands on.

Every Saturday I used to browse the second-hand book shops and buy up any Sci-Fi books I didn’t have. They were dirt cheap and I soon amassed a sizeable library.

I still love those old books and that library has followed me around through move after move.

I suppose my favourite Sci-Fi writer is Iain M. Banks. It was so sad that he died young.

Looking back I realise that this love of Sci-Fi probably started as a boy when I was an avid reader of comics such as Wizard, Adventure and Eagle. I was drawn to the Sci-Fi.

What drew me in was a combination of the science and the world of all possibility. It unfettered the imagination. While retaining a grounding in the laws of science we were free to explore human nature in the future, the past, any part of the universe, and solve all the problems that held us back. On top of that one had adventure, intrigue, love, philosophy and the full gamut of human experience. It took writing into a new dimension.

It certainly stimulated my mind. I had a head full of ideas and, at the age of twenty, began to realise that I too could write novels. I had the ideas, I could invent the characters and settings. I could devise the plots. So I started writing.

I would say, to use a cliché, that I never looked back; but in truth, I looked back, forward, up, down and sideways. I became a Sci-Fi writer. There were no limits.

Welcome to my world

New Eden – Who survives a pandemic?

New Eden – Who survives a pandemic?

We are very fortunate with the current Coronavirus pandemic; it only kills around 2% of the population, and they tend to be (though not always) the elderly or weaker members. Many pandemics are far more deadly. Bubonic plague killed off between 50% and 70% of the population, and Smallpox at least 20%. It is not inconceivable to have a new virus that kills 99.9% of the population.

In my story, New Eden, a government creates a deadly virus to wipe out the excess population.

The theory of evolution is widely misunderstood. It revolves around the selection of the fittest. The fittest are not always the strongest, most intelligent, the fastest or those with skills; they could be the slowest, most stupid, or the weakest. For example – faced with a terrible predator the one who faints might be left alone while those who fight or run away might be killed. The survivor selected might be the weakest member of the group.

Surviving a virus is mostly a question of luck. It is not whether you are clever, fit or healthy; it is merely whether you have the right antibodies to neutralise the disease. This is a quirk of fate.

So, evolution does not always produce bigger, stronger, fitter and more intelligent offspring. It produces offspring more suited to survive.

If a fatal virus was to wipe out most people on the planet the survivors would be the ones with natural immunity. They could be a group of people with a particular genetic ‘disorder’.

In 1986 I took this basic premise and wove it into a story. It is the story of courage, bravery, intrigue, misuse of power and hope. It has redemption, joy and tragedy.

It is also a story that could easily come true.

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Conexion – One of the major themes – Lust for power.

Conexion – One of the major themes – Lust for power.

A novel consists of many themes. Conexion had a number of these. One was the theme concerning the drug connexion. Another was the detection of three objects/asteroids heading on a collision course with Earth. The third theme was concerning power.

We see that playing out all around us. Leaders such as Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro are consumed by gaining and exerting power. Everything is about votes. But behind these figureheads are the real, unseen powerbrokers. They are the seat of power and have, through generation after generation, exerted their influence to create the world how they want it to be. Their wealth and influence are used to bolster the leaders and parties they want in power as well as to manipulate the policies of their chosen people.

It was interesting for me to illustrate this element of politics.

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The Gordian Fetish – Designing an Alien.

The Gordian Fetish – Designing an Alien.

I usually use aliens as surrogate humans; to throw light on various aspects of human behaviour or psychology. Thus it was with the Gordian Fetish. My aliens had board meetings, incompetent managers, shady dealers and inspections.

Designing a credible alien is extremely difficult. One can easily fall into the trap of the stereotypical portrayal or the creation of something that is ridiculous.

As a biologist it is easy for me to look at the human body and make improvements to create an idealised humanoid. The human body is the result of billions of years of evolution. It is riddled with imperfections that are the result of that evolution. I could list a number that would be easy to modify:

1. Having the brain restricted in a vulnerable bony casing.

2. Have a neck so easily broken.

3. Having a respiratory system with only one opening.

4. Having a respiratory system interconnected with the digestive tract so we easily choke.

5. Having an excretion, egestion and reproduction all having their openings close together thus inviting contamination and infection.

6. Having the birth canal opening through the pelvic girdle so creating hugely difficult births.

7. Articulation of limbs.

8. Prostate glands surrounding the urethra.

I could go on and on with this one. Evolution is not design and we are the result of random mutations from fishes common cloaca’s, cephalisation and such things as the adaptation of swim bladders into lungs. Far from ideal.

So, as a Science Fiction writer, it would be easy to create an idealised alien without all these inherent ‘design’ faults. But then aliens will have evolved too and be the result of their own sets of random mutations and selection. They too would be riddled with absurdities.

With humans one has a range of features and emotional reactions, revealing gestures, signs, that are common to all and are useful to use in one’s writing. With aliens, you have to create the equivalent of a smile, a shrug, a frown, a hand gesture, and assume that these simian characteristics might exist in an alien race who might not have evolved from monkeys.

Fortunately, with the Gordian Fetish, I was introducing an element of humour, so I was free to create aliens that were rather absurd, with shape-changing, colourations, changeable appendages and the like.

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Schizoid – A few words of explanation.

Schizoid – A few words of explanation.

The idea of producing a series of books based around a set of characters has never inspired me. I tend to be intrigued by ideas. For me the ideas come first and then I invent the characters to tell the story.

Only twice have I produced a sequel. The first was with God’s Bolt, which spawned the novel Reawakening. This is the second occasion.

The initial book, Quantum Fever, told the story of a Quship Captain, the discovery of a dead planet (which happened to be Earth) and a rebellion against the extreme capitalist regime.

After I had completed the novel I kept wondering how the three scenarios I had created would actually develop. I had the System (hundreds of planets), with its corrupt politicians and Big Business and tight control of a narcotised population, a planet of aliens (us) and a planet of dissidents. I wondered how they might all interact, and gradually a story formed in my head.

Although it is a sequel it is set three hundred years after Quantum Fever, consequently, none of the original characters were still alive, so I created some of the new ones as descendants of those in QF. They had similar traits.

Schizoid enabled me to develop the ideas of how life might be in the three totally different scenarios and how they would impact on each other. It provided a dynamic so that I could create tension and intrigue that made the plot interesting.

Once again I was able to indulge in my interest in the environment, psychology, sociology and greed and apply the ideas in novel situations.

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God’s Bolt and Reawakening – the Character Helen Southcote.

The initial idea was to attempt to write a novel with just one character. The character, my heroine, was Helen Southcote.

I had to have a setting for her to be stranded on her own and so I chose the Space Station. This was the future and the world had been brought back from the brink of environmental disaster. The population had been reduced to four billion and nature, conserved in huge swathes of pristine habitat, now thrived.

Helen was raised in the countryside is what had been England. She ran wild with her two brothers and developed a love of nature. Her parents were extremely gifted. Her father being a biologist working for the food agency and her mother a biochemist who worked from her laboratory at home legally creating recreational drugs.

Helen was a vibrant, inquisitive girl. I based a lot of her early experiences on my own childhood. The caterpillars, snakes and wildlife were my experiences. The competition with her brothers and her dare-devil tree-climbing was my daughter.

I made her compassionate, highly intelligent, studious, a completer-finisher and problem-solver, but with a reckless, fun-loving nature. She was very able and obsessively hard-working but also knew how to party. She was sexually active (necessary as part of the plot) and indulged in the psychoactive drugs her mother produced (all safe and legal). Her personality was warm and extrovert. She fell in love easily and developed close relationships with all sexes and ages. She was very gregarious.

Helen was a communicator, exceedingly self-confident and charismatic, able to charm a large audience in a symposium or perform successfully within a small team.

Instead of becoming a biologist, as might have been predicted from her early life, she was turned on to Physics by one of those inspiring teachers that turn up to change the course of one’s life. She became interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Carl Sagan became her hero. It was through this that she entered into a career in SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. That is what had taken her to the Space Station.

At the time of the destruction of the Earth Helen was still a young girl. She found herself alone, the last surviving human being. I wanted to examine how such a terrible event and horrendous future, with its certainty of being completely alone, with no purpose in sight, might impact on the psychology of such a person.

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