Category Archives: science fiction
So, about a month later than usual, I’ve finally gotten around to starting my taxes for 2017. Which gives an opportunity to reflect on my situation as it pertains to my writing.
2017 was the year I released my most recent book, namely this one:
It was also the first year since 2011 – when I first started publishing – in which I have not made money from my writing, in fact I racked up a financial loss large enough to be uncomfortable if bearable. The reason for the loss is on the face of it simple, Out of Era flopped. Completely and utterly. A bit of a pisser but there we are; it reviewed well but it didn’t sell beyond a handful. You hope that somewhere down the line it will pick up but really that’s grasping at straws, if it doesn’t kick off pretty much straight away it’s not going to.
So where did it go wrong?
So from here on we’re going firmly into the realm of anecdotal evidence. The last of my successful Nameless War series was released in September 2014, Out of Era came out in October 2017. That’s a big gap. In fact to be brutally honest it was probably too big a gap. I never stopped writing during that time but there were other priorities – I started dating a woman who I’m please to say has recently become my wife, I moved house into what was a bit of a fixer-upper and changed the day job for the first time in over fourteen years. The time slot for writing and its attendant activities basically took one hit after another. Meanwhile the world moved on and I suspect, most of the people that read and enjoyed the Nameless War forgot me enough that the name Edmond Barrett, stopped triggering any kind of mental response when looking at Amazon for something to read. Years ago, before I started publishing I heard another writer claim that to make a living at it you needed to put out at least one book a year. I always found that extremely believable but I never came even close. To manage it I would have had to give up the day job, which when you have a mortgage and are the sole source of income to your household, isn’t really a runner unless you’re prepared to really live up to the starving artist cliche.
The next factor which compounded the first was that I changed genre. My name and reputation as a writer was made in military science fiction; Out of Era is time travel. If you aren’t into science fiction that distinction might sound wafer thin but in fact is a significant gap. I’m not a known name in time travel stories so Out of Era had to go it alone. Had there been less of a gap between books, meaning had it come out while the final book of the Nameless War – the Last Charge was still selling in significant numbers there would have been a better chance of readers following me into the new genre. Which in turn would have boosted my visibility to potential readers who never heard tell of me. So Out of Era just got lost in the crowd. I did try some advertising but the problem there is you can burn a lot of money very quickly for very little return.
Another fact is that to my mind self publishing in 2017 isn’t what it was back in 2011. I know e-readers have been around since well before then but in 2011 they were the new must have gadget. Since there is nothing as useless as a e-reader with no books, people were looking for content and when Amazon opened its system to the self publishers there was suddenly a lot of cheap content. There’s no doubt a lot of it was bad but there was also some real gold and I had the good fortune to be a part of the first wave of e-book self publishers. There were a lot predictions that self publishing and e-books were going to kill publishing and paper books stone dead. That hasn’t worked out. What I think has happened is that e-books found their level. They aren’t going to go away but equally that first great rush came to an end.
My run with writing has been a pretty privileged one. I got to make money in reasonably significant amounts straight off the bat which certainly did a lot to justify the time spent on it. I knew the figure weren’t going to be good but it’s another to look at the cold hard numbers. I’m still going to write, it is and always has been as much a pass time as a profession but have had to re-think my expectations.
This post is going talking a bit about Rogue One and will be veering a bit into spoiler territory but since it has now been out for a few weeks I’m assuming you’ve either seen it or aren’t interested in seeing it.
What I’m going to be talking about is the appearance of dead actors in new films, something that has become topical with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher. As well as appearing in 2015s The Force Awakens, Fisher had apparently signed up to appear in two more Star Wars films, I’ve heard that her filming for the next film was already done but according to media reports Disney – the owner of the franchise – is now in line to receive an insurance payout of perhaps $50 million. Which rather hints that she was due to have at least a reasonably significant presence in the third of this series. The question is will Disney write her character out or will Fisher appear anyway because recently we’ve seen there are options. Now those of you who have seen Rogue One will be aware that the film has seen the return of the character of a young Princess Leia and much more significantly Grand Moff Tarkin, as originally played by Peter Cushing. Since Cushing passed away more than twenty years ago and Fisher was no longer a teenager, these roles were fill by CGI ‘actors’, which has raised a few eyebrows.
Now in some respects Rogue One brings nothing new, in others it breaks very new ground. There is a long record of deceased actors appearing in new works via clever editing, smoke, mirrors and body doubles. If an actor dies during the course of a shoot – like say Oliver Reed during Gladiator – it is pretty reasonable that directors use what they have to fill in the blanks. Equally it doesn’t seem wrong reuse and modify clips of older work to do something new with an older actor/character combination – an example of this was a Doctor Who episode of a couple of years ago where with some careful editing the then current Companion was shown interacting with the Doctor’s various incarnations, the actors being in many cases being long dead.
Where Rogue One breaks new ground is with Grand Moff Tarkin, who supporting character with a significant speaking role. This is not old material being reused or a double being used to fill in few seconds of film, but instead new material wearing the mask of a diseased actor. Now in my opinion the digital Tarkin did not look entirely convincing but that’s just a question of technology and sooner or later we are going to get CGI character indistinguishable from flesh and blood. What will happen then. Will we see old favorites digitally rise from the grave to act again? In the case of Tarkin, I would imagine Cushing’s original contract allowed for his image to be used (pretty much the reason all those thousands of Star Wars toys could be produced) although I doubt anyone in the late seventies was thinking terms of digital actors.
I’d be really curious to know what the legalities of using someone’s appearance actually are. I know there have been court cases in regards merchandising, so I assume that if someone decided to make a new John Wayne film, agreement with his estate would have to be reached. As I write this the thought crosses my mind that I’ve been focused on actors and actresses but there are biopic films – there’s one on Jackie Kennedy this year – could movie studios choose to not to use an actor at all and instead have the image of the actual historical personage? Could we see digital actors that were never real people star in what are at least nominally live action films – an idea which know films have at least brushed against already.
The answer I suspect will, as if is so often the case boil down to this stuff:
Certain actors are inherently ‘bankable’, their appearance in a film guarantees a certain return. There is an entire secondary industry revolving around the private(ish) lives of celebrities. Would audiences be as attached to a collection ones and zeroes? Ultimately the entertainment industry will follow the money. If it makes sense on the profit and loss account it will happen. If it does not, then no matter how good the technology gets it will not. In end it will be tastes of the majority that make the decision.
So the US election – wow, what a long drawn out painful affair that’s been, one that we sincerely need a break from. Okay so let’s talk about democracy in science fiction and fantasy.
Democracy isn’t actually all that well represented in SF&F, instead it’s fair to say that empires and other non-democratic governments are staple of both, sure there are exceptions but that’s what they are – exceptions. Where they do appear it’s particularly noticeable in SF they appear on the heroes side, although often poorly defined, while the opposition will be often described as as an empire or some other less than benign term. In fantasy the difference between the heroes and villains tends to be even more wafer thin, with the goods guys getting the wise and fair king, the bad the blood thirsty despot. Either way they’re usually the absolute ruler.
Fantasy’s default setting is a version of Medieval Western Europe. Now I’m not a scholar of medieval history but I do know a reasonable bit about English history of the period. In the case of the English kings of the medieval period, even the strongest of them were not absolute rulers. In theory they were but in practice below the monarch were the various nobles, these were people that had to be kept on side. Kings who failed to do so found themselves coping with either a lack of cooperation or outright rebellion – King John of England 1199 – 1216 being a case in point. Certainly it isn’t a democracy as we would recognise it but is still well removed from the idea of one-guy-calls-all-the-shots. The medieval or ancient period did see more formalised democracies, notably in ancient Greece. These would be more recognisable for us although the franchise would still be limited to people who were: male, free, wealthy, middle aged and landing owning – a franchise that was only exceeded in Britain in the late nineteenth century.
So if fantasy often takes its cues from a perceived version of history what about the future? Well if science fiction is a guide, empires and other non democratic forms of government have a fine future ahead of them. Obviously there are a few science fiction democracies, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is probably the best known although is pretty weakly defined in the films and television episodes. It also has the very underused Romulan Star Empire, which despite the name was also described as having a ruling senate (which was wiped out in a virtual after thought in the underwhelming Star Trek Nemesis). There is also the Expanse Book/TV series that does portray both Earth and Mars as being democratic governments – at least on the face of it. Earth in particular elected officials appear to be borderline figureheads with the real power wielded by a tiny number of un-elected officials.
So why does SF&F have a problem with democracy? Three reasons I think 1) due process, 2) personalities 3) removal of ambiguity.
Even allowing for the excitement of 2016, politics is often a dry affair of committees, budgets and the various checks and balances, the more robust that democracy is, the more road blocks there will be between intention and action. Possibly this explains why in the Star Wars universe the first Death Star seems to have taken twenty odd years to build but the second, once the imperial senate was ‘swept away’, was banged out in a couple of years – no funding committees for the project to bog down in. Score one for for the totalitarian regime, yeah sh*t gets done!
Only problem is if we take a look at one of the most famous regimes – Nazi Germany – what you find is one that was horribly inefficient. Hitler had the final say so everything revolved around getting his ear, if you could manage it, then all kinds of pet projects could be authorised. Projects that ranged from mere duplication of effort to full on droolingly crazy. The same has proven true of various other despots, the top guy has a notion and there’s no one there to stop them. The really is that a lot of that due process, committees, going to tender and all the rest of it are in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. True out in the real world democratic governments have managed some massive screw ups but non-democratic governments have done the same and more. Where they manage to match democratic nations it has usually only been because standards of living being massively lower.
The other thing about democracies is elections, constant bloody elections, one that can see the sudden removal of leaders for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual performance. Take for example President Barack Obama, he has apparently a high approval rating but he will gone within weeks because that is the process within the USA. From a story telling view though it would be a pretty horrible way to deal with things if half way through, the established character disappeared to be replaced with one the writer and reader would have to get to know. Which brings us to our next area.
Now I write military science fiction, many years ago I remember reading someones comment that if you wanted to do a scientifically accurate space war, then your story would be about the life and times of Z-571 the nuclear tipped interplanetary missile. While you could certainly write it, finding someone to read it would be tricky. So by extension a realistic democratic political system will see political figures removed with resulting changes in policy. Imagine Return of the Jedi, with the Alliance about to launch their attack on the second Death Star, only to hear that the Emperor has lost a vote of confidence and the new administration is proposing peace talks. That would be the point where you’d either walk out of the cinema or wing the DVD out the window.
Stories are about people. Writers create and develop characters then tell stories via them; generally there is limit to how many major characters a story can successfully support. In reality democracies tend to have a lot of people involved in the decision making process – even one like America where there’s a strong single executive officer. Trying to realistically portray this is likely to burn a lot of word count on an area that the reader might regard as secondary to the alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie apocalypse or whatever is the main point of the story.
If having a portraying functional democracy is tricky then doing two steepens the difficulty curve significantly. It is probably no wonder that the opposition side so often is described as an empire, if they’re a empire and the side the protagonists are on isn’t, then the implications are clear who are the good guys.* Sometimes this is the right decision – for the like of Star Wars (the originals) this worked because it went for the tropes. It needed the lack of ambiguity. For others it can be a missed opportunity for some real grey morality and added depth. Personally I’ve always felt that an author has to decide where the core story is going to be and to this the majority of the word count is dedicated, still that doesn’t mean the subordinate sections need default to cliché. I’ve only really touched on the various forms of government but history provides plenty of possibilities for those who go looking for them.
* I wonder a bit whether the preponderance of fictional empires can be traced back to the dominant role in entertainment that the USA has – a country formed when it successfully fought and broke away from an empire?
History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?
First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful
and these lines if we’re not
Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source. So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.
Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?
Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?
For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.
The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.
However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.
Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.
It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.
So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.
Thoughts, comments or observations?
Finally, finally got around to watching Star Trek Beyond, on the whole Meh. Still I was left thinking that with the sad death of Anton Yelchin, the Chekov character has to be either written out or re-cast. No matter what they choose there will be people shouting that they were wrong so with that in mind what about going forwards with confidence and putting in a new (ish) character? Say Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah from Beyond – if she’s willing – who would also increase the female main character count by 100%.
Either that or take New Trek out back and like Old Yeller, put it out of its misery.