Me and My Implant

On-X Aortic Valve I have one of these inside me. I can assure you that I didn't do it for fun. I did it because the alternative would have been a long, slow death. This was referred to as 'elective' surgery: I could elect to live or I could elect to die. I elected to live.

So why exactly did I need it? Well, my aortic valve wasn't working very well. You know what the aortic valve is, right? No, okay, but you've heard of the aorta?

(sigh)

If you're a human being, then you almost certainly have one, because you have a heart which pumps blood round your body. That journey starts with a single tube leading up from the heart: the aorta. It heads up because the hardest place to get blood to is the head, but that (and blood pressure) creates a problem: as soon as it's been pumped up, it wants to come back down again. That's why you also need a valve. Otherwise, blood rushes back, which makes pumping it out in the first place rather pointless.

So the aortic valve closes after every heartbeat to make sure that when the heart gets the blood on its way, it stays on its way. Some people develop problems with the valve. Sometimes it stops being able to close completely, so that blood squirts back into the heart. As time goes by, this gets worse.  You get out of breath. You don't have the energy you used to. You have dull aches in your chest and then sharp stabbing pains. You become more and more limited in everything you do. Eventually the heart fails.

So you need a new valve. And that's exactly what I have! But enough of all this medical science: what does it feel like?

Painful: because I only had the surgery a week and a half ago. This is open heart surgery, so the sternum has to be cracked open. Right now that's healing up and it both hurts and itches. There's a pill for the former. Not so much for the latter. (argh, mustn't scratch, mustn't scratch...) The wound will heal in time, and the chest pains are already receding. It's not an instant fix; the heart takes time to get back to normal. But I should be completely free of symptoms in a few months.

Big: because the tissue around it is still swollen. There's a lump at the base of my throat that's rather tender, and the implant is in there somewhere. It's pressing on my oesophagus and making it a little difficult to swallow some foods. Either that or my throat is still sore from the tube they put down it during surgery. Anyway, I've been eating a lot of soft, gloopy things recently. But the swelling will go down in time.

Noisy: because it ticks.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

The valve is made of a special smooth carbon rather than cartilage or flesh. So it clicks when it shuts. It does this with every heartbeat. It doesn't sound like something high tech: it sounds like an old wristwatch, ticking away inside me with every heartbeat.

It's not just me that hears it. Anyone with good enough hearing can detect it if the room is quiet enough. This is what it sounds like from the outside:

For me, it's a much brighter sound, like a tiny clockwork escapement ticking away at the base of my throat. It makes it hard to sleep. You can ignore it during the day, but there's no escaping it in the dead of night. I've been playing woodland relaxation sounds in my earbuds to give me some white noise as a distraction; that seems to work. As time goes by, my brain will probably get better and better at ignoring the noise; I'm told that some people find it to be very reassuring.

Because after all, it means your heart is still beating. And I'd like to keep that happening for a good long while yet.

Many thanks to the NHS and University Hospital Coventry for the diagnosis, surgery and care. Valve by On-X Life Technologies of Austin, TX.

 

Guy Fawkes' Queen

On November 4th 1605, a suspicious individual was apprehended in an undercroft beneath the House of Lords. He was found to be guarding barrels of gunpowder intended to kill the King and his Parliament during its state opening on the following day – all because of the King’s failure to lift the discriminatory laws then in force against Catholics. But the plotters were not terrorists. They did not strike simply to put pressure on the government. The planned detonation on November the 5th would have been accompanied by a revolt in the Midlands, and the placing of a new monarch on the throne: a queen who would not have a will of her own.

Elizabeth aged 7

Because she was only nine years old.

Princess Elizabeth was chosen for this role partly because she wouldn’t be at the state opening of parliament like her older brother Henry, the heir to the throne. She would be at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire instead – close to the heart of the plot and an easy target for kidnapping to make sure she complied.

She was also mature for her years, which meant that she would be able to fulfil the ceremonial roles required of her, something she had already begun to do in her legitimate role. Her brother Charles (later King Charles I) was ruled out as a candidate because he failed to fulfil this criteria – he was seen as weak-willed and hopeless, unable to be the figurehead the plotters needed.

Once she was secured, she could be educated as a Catholic, married to a Catholic, and rekindle the Catholic cause. There’s no indication that the plotters would have started a new wave of repression, but then there’s not much evidence that they’d thought that far ahead (and not much evidence of sufficient competence to carry through the plan in any case).

And now, here’s the irony:

She was not a woman who was destined to be a queen. She did not become a monarch at the hands of the plotters; and her later role as Queen of Bohemia was so brief that she was known as ‘The Winter Queen’, because she reigned for only a season.

Yet from her descendants come every monarch of the United Kingdom from George I onwards.

You see, it comes down to the repression of Catholicism again – the very thing the plotters were fighting against. A century after they had failed, the line of royal succession came to an end with the childless queens Mary and Anne, forcing the government to hunt through the Stuart family for a successor. But virtually all of them had converted to Catholicism along the way. There was only one left who was a staunch Protestant: Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia of Hanover. And so the Act of Settlement was passed to ensure that the throne could pass only to descendants of Sophia.

Kurfuerstin_Sophie

And that’s why the royal family is German: because the British government was terrified of Catholics getting power, a terror justified by the legacy of a group of semi-competent plotters who planned to forcibly enthrone the ancestor of all the German royals.

History likes to go around in circles sometimes…

(Sadly, Elizabeth had a progressively miserable later life: after being kicked out of Bohemia during events that kickstarted the Thirty Years War, she outlived her beloved husband Frederick by thirty years while living in exile in the Netherlands. She also had to endure the execution of her brother Charles in 1649, not to mention the deaths of several of her thirteen children. She only returned to England after the restoration of her nephew Charles II, just in time to die a few months later).

Halloween

Ah, Halloween. The season of sugar and screams. The hour of dread as you bar the door against any costumed moppet that happens to come along with the purpose of demanding chocolate with menaces. Also known in my house as “oh god, not that American rubbish again.” Of course, I’m far from alone in being annoyed by this egregious import from our colonial cousins. Here’s what Fry and Laurie had to say about the tradition of trick-or-treating back in 1989, when the horror was fresh and new:

It’s annoying. It’s irritating. It’s just not British!

And yet…

It actually is British.

You see, this is not really an American tradition. Not to begin with. I could be cruel and say this is because Americans have no traditions of their own, but this would be untrue (after all, they clearly observe ceremonial shutdowns of their government every twenty years or so).

No, this is a British custom, through and through. Back in mediaeval times, when Halloween was just the eve of Hallowmas, the poor would go from house to house on November the 1st, begging for the soul cakes that were made specially for this festival. In return, they would pray for the souls of the dead and help to get them through purgatory a bit faster. Well, that’s what they said, anyway.

In Scotland and Ireland, though, they had other traditions that went along with this. The old Celtic festival of Samhain, held on very nearly the same day, was all about appeasing the dead at a time when the otherworld came close to reality. People would go house to house, dressed in costumes and pretending to be evil spirits while carrying jack o’lanterns – carved-out turnips with lights in them that were supposed to frighten off evil spirits. If you put these traditions together, you get a practise called guising, in which people wear costumes as well as going house to house demanding cakes.

Guising is known to have been common during the 19th century in Scotland and Ireland. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find that the numerous emigrants to the US during that century carried on the tradition, substituting the turnip with a North American vegetable – the pumpkin. Somewhere along the way, it lost all pretence at religious purpose and became more to do with treating children to a vast communal game. By the time the prosperous 1950s rolled around, all the old traditions about appeasing the dead were mixed up with horror films, and the soul cakes were replaced by the candy that had become available again after wartime rationing had ended.

It crept into American culture like a zombie plague, and was at last exported back to us in TV and films (remember E.T.?) – our own forgotten traditions, garnished with enough tweeness and orange vegetable matter that it seemed alien and weird.

So when the kids come trick or treating this year, don’t slam the door in their faces. Explain to them the resolutely British history of going around the neighbourhood begging for sweeties, and why they should be proud of their heritage of centuries ago.

Because there’s nothing like a history lesson to get the little buggers to run away and stop bothering you.

Things I Learned While Researching: Tudor Houses Aren't Tudor

The past is a funny place. Especially when you consider that most of it isn't real. ...but it's probably not as Tudor as it wants to be.

Here's an example: I was brought up to think that houses with visible timber beams and panels between them that were painted in a black-and-white style were survivors from an earlier, bygone age when jolly old Henry VIII sat on the throne with a revolving cast of wives, or perhaps when Elizabeth was smashing the Spanish Armada and getting serious about making Britain Great.

Only none of the above is true. Henry VIII was driven half mad by the pain from a jousting injury and much of his life was far from jolly (any man who changes a country's religion and laws just to have a wife executed when she can't bear sons is a long way from being a happy chappie). Elizabeth wasn't trying to make Britain great because Britain wasn't a country in her day. She was an English queen who was sometimes barely keeping the country together through massive religious and economic upheaval, and the most successful aspect of her reign was probably the propaganda. And those lovely old houses aren't Tudor at all. They're Victorian.

Firstly, real Tudor houses weren't usually black and white. They often weren't painted at all. The wooden beams were left as they were, often silvered as they aged, and the panels between them were made of plaster or wattle-and-daub, coloured with only the ingredients that went into the mix. Which sometimes included ox blood. Nice.

The colour is only the half of it. Any 'Tudor' house you see with straight beams that stands upright in a nice geometrical way was almost certainly built much later, because building techniques had changed since the sixteenth century. A truly old timber-framed house will look warped and twisted, as though it's about to fall over. This is because house builders in those days usually worked with green wood that was still wet, and which dried out only after the house was built, causing it to bend in place. Properly seasoned dried-out wood was much harder to work with in the days before machine tools, so it was rarely used.

The style we see so much of today is called 'Mock Tudor' or 'Tudor Revival', and comes from a Victorian reaction against the advancing mechanisation of the nineteenth century. Proponents of painting houses black and white sought to recreate a fantasy England where peasants were happy and free, everyone had enough to eat and a man could call his home a castle. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history will likely know that this kind of rural idyll never existed outside the imagination of people who never had to contend with the plagues, famines, serfdom, religious insanity, civil wars and feudal overlords of the middle ages.

So remember: just because something is old doesn't mean it's historically accurate. People have been lying to themselves about the past all through history. And who's to say how many of those lies have been accepted as fact by later generations only too happy to swallow the propaganda of their ancestors?

Kneel Before Zed

[one_third_first]World_War_Z_poster[/one_third_first][one_third]Once again, I have abused the hospitality of the local screen/sugar merchants in an attempt to experience the finest entertainment that humanity has to offer. And once again, it sparked my brain into thinkings. But possibly not the ones you might expect.

(spoilers for World War Z and Man of Steel after the jump!)[/one_third][one_third_last]ManofSteelFinalPoster[/one_third_last]

There’s been enough said about the success and failure of both films to fill untold petabytes of storage, so I won’t debate the overall merits of the films here. Rob Bricken’s takedown of Man of Steel is hilarious and completely accurate, while World War Z has been scrutinised with a level of detail that we really ought to apply to our governments – this piece in The Guardian deals with the slavering anticipation of failure in a mildly amusing manner.

No, I’m more interested in what the two of them share, and the differing ways both have approached a similar problem: that of medium.

Neither of these films is an original piece. Both are adaptations from a different medium. And while most people’s understanding of adaptation boils down to “the book is always better”, I think there’s more to be said on the subject of how we transfer stories from one medium to another.

And here’s the contradiction, I think: while World War Z the film cannot even hope to match the quality of the book, it nevertheless succeeds as a film. And meanwhile, Man of Steel is superior to the original comic book version of the same story – yet in the end it fails.

In both cases, the problem comes down to how they decided to make the jump between different media – and which of them best navigated the limitations of the feature film.

Understanding Comics

First off: Man of Steel. As a comic book, Superman’s story can never look entirely photorealistic. Sure, you can substitute photos for the artwork if you like, but this is almost never done, and it works better that way. Anyone who’s read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics should be able to recall the reason: by abstracting the visuals into a less realistic form, the greater absurdity of the events on display comes to seem normal and acceptable. Or to put it another way: you can get away with the most ridiculous levels of violence if it looks cartoony.

Daffy's beak

Animated cartoons have been doing this kind of thing for as long as they’ve existed – Daffy Duck is repeatedly shot in the face during Rabbit Seasoning, but never has to do much more than realign his beak and take a moment’s rest before he’s back to being infuriated with everything. Can you imagine this cartoon being remade as live action? It wouldn’t get a U certificate, that’s for sure…

Kingdom Come

Superman is a less extreme example of the same effect, but nevertheless benefits from it a great deal. That’s not to say that it sticks to the same level of ‘cartoonishness’ at all times – there have been far too many Superman stories for that. The level of realism in the various stories can be raised or lowered according to how ‘serious’ the story is. For example, Kingdom Come examines the sociological effects of a world of superhumans, and therefore the painted artwork (by Alex Ross) is a far cry from Siegel and Schuster’s original cartoonish vision. Meanwhile, Frank Quitely’s work in All-Star Superman (a story which, while still being very thoughtful, nevertheless chooses to revel in the absurdity of Superman and his world), goes for bright colours and faces defined by relatively simple lines. In each new story, a choice is made that reflects the kind of tale being told.

All Star Superman

Man of Steel makes its choice as well: and where it can, it chooses reality. It’s been commended for making superhuman fights look more realistic than they ever have, and showing the destruction that accompanies such combat. But the filmmakers seem to have forgotten the way in which the medium of film influences how the images are perceived. The show the same scale of events as can be seen in the comics; but without the cushioning effect of the artwork, the devastation that results cannot be as lightly dismissed. The truth of violence in a realistic world is that people die. And when people die in their hundreds of thousands (as estimated by some clever people), that has an impact that goes far beyond the fight itself.

In a comic, the survivors of the devastion in Metropolis could be forgiven for being grateful for their survival and getting on with rebuilding with an almost cheerful air. In a photorealistic world, this reaction makes little sense. They’d be terrified. They’d want revenge. I doubt it would matter much that Superman was instrumental in defeating Zod, or that he had lived as an American for more than thirty years. Hell, no. They’d be tearing the country apart to find other such infiltrators, and accepting whatever restriction of their liberties was necessary. Sooner or later, they would hunt Superman down, to kill him or subject him to experimentation.

Would you trust a man whose adventures did this to your city?

But in the film, they lightly come to terms with the alien in their midst and accept that he is now their protector against a hostile universe. It would work if this were an animated film. Not in live action cinema.

And the annoying thing here is that Man of Steel is otherwise so much better than the original material: it takes a 1940-vintage comic written entirely for children and does all it can to make the characters psychologically interesting. Many people have complained that Pa Kent’s desperation to conceal Clark’s abilities at all costs is untrue to the spirit of the original. They’re right. But it works in a photorealistic world where people can actually be hurt (or subjected to medical experiments in the name of National Defence). It’s only when the visual story follows through on the realistic results of superhuman violence that the character story suddenly fails to match what we see on the screen.

WWZ Book Cover

World War Z takes a different path, and one which shows that the filmmakers knew what the medium could cope with (even if they may have had to reshoot a third of the film to achieve this).

Really, there was never much chance that the story and characters of World War Z could have made it to the cinema screen. To a large extent, this is because the book uses its medium so well. In adopting a documentary style, it’s able to do things like abandon the need for a central protagonist and linger over characters who make little or no contribution to defeating the zombie horde, but whose perspectives are nevertheless interesting. For example, there’s the story of the pilot who has to bail out over zombie-infested territory and survive a gruelling trek to safety, while possibly hallucinating a voice on the radio telling her how to survive. This moves the story forward not at all – it only helps to illuminate some side details of how people might get through the war. In an adaptation, the pilot would have to be given some crucial macguffin that links her into the rest of the story; without that, she would be cut altogether (as I think she was in the audiobook version, which did its best to slimline the story).

Max Brooks’ novel is good because it avoids using a straightforward narrative to tell its tale, and therefore creates a much more interesting story about a whole world struggling to survive a zombie epidemic. But in a cinema film, this kind of narrative is much more difficult to get away with, for reasons which come down to one real issue: scale.

If this were the book, each one of these people would have a story.

On the one hand, the breadth of World War Z is just too vast for cinema to cope with. There are too many characters and too many events for a film to be able to show. It’s only got about 120 minutes or so to work with, every single one of which has to contribute towards the eventual goal of getting the main character to the conclusion of the narrative. So pretty much every character in the book is cut from the film, with the exception of the only one that ties the whole thing together: the man from the UN who’s figuring out what happened. The story itself largely jettisoned in favour of a classical narrative that takes place during the early stages of the Zombie War. Therefore the UN historian becomes a UN investigator trying to figure out not what happened in the past, but what’s happening right now. There’s simply no time for reflection. The clock is ticking towards the end of the film, and it absolutely has to keep moving, or it’ll die.

Remember when anyone could afford their own zombie?

But the issue of scale brings a scalpel to the book in a different way as well, because of the sheer immensity of the events it depicts. Zombie films are known for being low-budget and small-scale, but World War Z could never be that – even though they got rid of much of the story, the title alone implies something massive. The book used the freedom of its medium to do what zombie films had never done before: show the global impact of a zombie outbreak. The film had to do that too, but this commitment to scale comes with a cost. A literal cost. About $200m, or possibly even $400m (if the most lurid estimates are to be believed).

Read this and you'll never have to watch another blockbuster again. Because this is the template for all of them.

The scale of the budget has implications for what kind of story can be told. A film this expensive absolutely has to be a blockbuster. Tickets must be sold. DVDs and Blu-rays must be bought. TV rights must be paid for. Increasingly, downloads and streaming services must also contribute. A blockbuster needs to be seen by the widest possible audience, and therefore it has little choice but to be more conservative in its storytelling. There has to be a protagonist. There has to be a problem that can be solved in a couple of hours of screen time. It has to have a 15 certificate to increase the number of people that can see it, meaning that it has to limit the violence. The narrative has to be structured as a Hero’s Journey (which it is, right down to the rather unnecessary moment where the protagonist Refuses the Call to Adventure).

(Of course, it’s always possible to make a fantastic movie without these strictures, but you won’t have much luck convincing a studio to give you $200m unless it meets these criteria. They’re not financing a piece of art; they’re making an investment. And this is what they know about making these investments pay off).

Nothing to do with the book but awesome anyway.

And so here’s what the makers of World War Z have done: they’ve realised that the book cannot be made into a film, let alone one with a massive budget. So they’ve abandoned that goal entirely and written something else that uses the book as a reservoir of source material, but which otherwise ignores it completely. And when they screwed it up the first time, they had the nerve to reshoot the final act of the film to create a narrative that completes the protagonist’s journey, rather than have him leading a fightback in Russia which left the family-man story unfinished.

It’s not a great movie, by anyone’s standards. The 15 rating is ridiculous for a zombie film. The macguffin only makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard. The Hero’s Journey template is deeply irritating. The characters are dull, the plot is thin and there are ridiculous holes in the story.

(If you want to keep in contact with an agent in the field, DO NOT give him a satellite phone that only allows him to call his wife…)

But World War Z plays to the strengths of the medium wherever it can. The zombie attacks are on a scale that no other film has attempted, and they absolutely work. A big audience wants action, and they damn well get it. A lot of the budget may have been wasted – but you can still see a pretty massive slice of it on the screen. The mistake it made was in even trying to use this particular medium in the first place – but, having made that mistake, it makes the best of a bad situation. It knows what it can do inside its medium, and sticks to it well enough to avoid being the disaster everyone predicted. It’ll probably make its money back.

DO IT LIKE THIS YOU FOOLS

So here’s what it all boils down to: Superman works best as a comic, and probably always will, because a photorealistic world of superheroes would be too awful and violent for family-friendly adventures. Just read All-Star Superman instead. It's much better.

And in a decade or two, once the film has been forgotten, somebody really needs to adapt World War Z again – this time using the right medium. There are suggestions online that it should be done like Ken Burns’ The Civil War. These suggestions are wrong, if only because it pulls its punches too much with sepia-tinted nostalgia. It needs to be done like The World at War, a documentary series that covers a world-wide conflict of unprecedented scale and horror. You'd be able to have interviews with actors playing veterans. And see surviving zombies being killed. And video footage made to look as though it was shot during the zombie war. And... ah, crap, this is getting too expensive again, isn't it?

Just use this guy to remember.

Oh, and the letter Z is pronounced Zed. Partly because it’s derived from the Greek letter zeta, but also because it’s the last letter of the alphabet and ZED ACTUALLY SOUNDS LIKE IT’S THE END OF SOMETHING. Got it? Good.

(Just try saying it to yourself. World War Zed sounds so much better than World War Zee)

How to Change History with Sex

So let’s say you have a time machine. You don’t have one and you never will, but let’s say you do. I’d like to convince you that using it is extremely dangerous to your existence, and that of everyone you’ve ever known. Because history is a lot more delicate than you think.

It really doesn’t take much effort to disrupt the past. If you want to remove Hitler from history (as so many do), you don’t need to lend Von Stauffenberg a hand at the Wolf’s Lair in 1944, nor do you need to correct Hitler’s itinerary in Munich in 1938, when he narrowly avoided Johann Georg Elser’s bomb. You don’t need to become any one of his would be assassins (a list that’s already suspiciously long).

obersalzberg

Instead, you need to know one thing: the time and place that he was conceived. For Adolf Hitler, this is sometime early in August 1888, in an Austrian town called Branau am Inn. At some point in those weeks, Alois and Klara Hitler found some private time and made an embryo that would one day be responsible for the deaths of millions.

Yet long before any of those millions of people heard the name of Hitler, millions more were denied the chance to exist.

Spermegg

The ejaculate of the human male contains hundreds of millions of sperm. From the moment they enter the vagina, they’re in a race to see who will reach the egg first. Most of them die before they even get that far, because the vagina is too acidic for them to last long. A few hundred struggle through, but only one will deliver a package of 23 chromosomes to be matched with the 23 chromosomes of the egg, and create the blueprint for a new human being – just one out of hundreds of millions that could have been created.

All we need do to kill Hitler before he’s born is to make sure the sperm that represents him is replaced by another one. How do you do this?

Knock on the door of Alois and Klara’s bedroom at the right moment.

This will annoy the hell out of them. You should probably run away before they come to the door. But if you can get them to do that, then you’ve won. Because the choice of which sperm fertilises the egg is random enough that the slightest change in events surrounding the conception will result in the creation of another human being entirely. Plus, there’s a nearly 50% chance that the new child will be female, which will most likely put her out of the running to become a fascist dictator.

(sure, a woman could get the job now, but not in early 20th century Germany…)

And so you return home to the 21st Century, secure in the knowledge that the lives of millions have been saved. And what do you find?

Every single person you ever knew is gone. So are their parents. And in many cases, so are their grandparents. But then you think: okay, well, that isn’t surprise. Events have changed, and people have been swept around a bit. Maybe your parents moved to a different town. Maybe whole populations are in different places.

But no. It’s worse than that. They’re gone. They never existed. They were never born. They’ve not even been replaced with people who look like their brothers and sisters. The whole world has a completely different population, all because you stood outside a door in 1888 and yelled loudly. Why?

Well, it’s pretty simple. And you should have realised. Or did you think that one rejigged act of conception would be the end of it? Remember, all it takes is a tiny change in the timing of the sexual act, and a different child is born. And once you have a different person in the world who takes different actions, then other moments of conception begin to happen differently.

Alois_Hitler_last_years

It could start immediately. Perhaps Alois Hitler is so annoyed by being interrupted in the act of love that he’s irritable at the customs office the next day. His short temper winds up everyone in the office, and one of the men there moans about it to his wife later on. This annoys her, and she decides to shut him up by dragging him to bed, leading to the conception of their next child several hours earlier than originally scheduled. Thus a different sperm fertilises the egg and a different child is born.

And it’s not just about sperm, either. The egg that emerges from the ovary every month or so isn’t predetermined, and changes in life situation or hormonal balance could well influence the choice. As time goes by, the female contribution to the embryo will change just as much as that of the male.

And so it goes on, with the changes growing greater and greater once the new Hitler child is born and starts to have a more active influence upon the world. What if little Adolf cried loudly, but his replacement doesn’t? This could have a profound effect on any conceptions that might happen with earshot.

August_Kubizek_1907

It builds up much faster than you’d expect. People that Adolf met and influenced in his life will lead slightly different lives because of his absence. They may end up living in different places and marrying different people; this would certainly happen to August Kubizek, who only moved to Vienna and pursued his musical career at Adolf’s insistence. His children would end up being completely different people, born at different times in a different town, meeting different people and having different children.

The ripples of change spread outward from Branau am Inn as the years pass, and by the time you reach the First World War, it’s likely that a significant percentage of the armed forces of both Austria and Germany aren’t the same people. It’s possible that many of the future Nazi leaders will also be gone, if they were born later than Hitler. Goering, for example, was born in 1893 in a Bavarian town not a million miles away from the Austrian border – close enough to be affected by all the tiny changes.

(it’s impossible to say whether the first world war would still happen. It probably would, given that the people in charge were born well before 1888, although it may start in a different way – especially if the life of Gavrilo Princip (b. 1894) is affected)

So by the time people of Hitler’s generation are reaching an age where they can start to have an influence on politics, the cast of players is fundamentally different. Would the Nazi Party have arisen? Quite possibly. But they wouldn’t have had the oratorical talent of Hitler to wrench them out of obscurity. The underlying course of history in the 20s and 30s might have remained broadly the same, but the people who could change the course of history would be increasingly different – and thus history would change. By the 1940s, the vast majority of people in our world were being influenced by the megalomania of Adolf Hitler, if only in the sense that it disrupted their lives and thus affected the timing of the next generation’s conception. Without him, there would either be no Second World War, or it would have been profoundly different.

And thus the world you know would cease to be. And so would you.

Your parents wouldn’t meet and produce you, because they never existed. Your grandparents might, if they were born early enough and managed not to be affected by all the changes emanating from Austria; but a lot of them would be gone too. Different children are born, grow up, meet different people, form different families, and give rise to a world of strangers.

blank family tree

Even if you knocked on a different door in a different town back in 1888, you would still end up with a changed world in which many, if not all of the people you know are gone. The course of history might be closer to what we know now, but there’s no escaping the change in population. It would still spread outwards from the initial instance to the entire globe, given enough time.

The act of conception is one that is so utterly delicate and random that any change will have the profoundest effect upon history. All it takes is the slightest change of time and place, and a different human being is created – erasing the original descendants from history and replacing them with another set of people.

So when someone invents time travel and decides to go back in time to eliminate Hitler, stop them at once. They may save millions of lives. But they will destroy billions of others. Including yours. Even if all they do is go back and knock on a door…

Things I Learned While Researching: Kriegsspiel

Georg Leopold von Reisswitz was not your typical wargamer.

He never applied paint to an orc or a space marine. He never spent pizza-fuelled weekends conquering distant parts of the universe. Nor did he ever step foot inside Games Workshop. But he laid the groundwork for all these pastimes, because he designed one of the first wargames in history, if not the first.

And he wasn't doing it because he wanted to escape from reality, or prove that he was a military genius despite never having been anywhere near a serviceable firearm. He knew how to fight, and how to lead men in battle. He was a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.

(Anyone who doesn't know where or what Prussia was is in sore need of a history lesson. It was in eastern Germany, had Berlin as its capital, and held a lot of very bad farming country in what is now Poland. Their aristocracy, known as 'Junkers', lived in constant fear of a peasant uprising and developed their military to a frightening degree in order to defend themselves against it. That military made them big players in 19th century Europe - and eventually the core of the German state that Bismarck created. The downside is that the military culture became way too important, helping set the stage for all the horrible things that happened in the 20th century. But I digress...)

Kriegsspiel - literally 'wargame' - was intended not as a harmless diversion but as a tool to train officers. In peacetime, it's really rather difficult to give officers a way to learn how battles actually work, because it's hard to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of combat.

Firstly, Reisswitz designed maps without hexes or squares, so that units could move much as they would in real life. This was no stylised game like chess: if you order a unit of dragoons to advance 50 paces NNE, then that's what they'll do.

Secondly, Reisswitz removed the random element. Kriegsspiel does not use dice. Instead, there is an umpire who is independent from the players and adjudicates the results, with the aid of various tables provided with the rules.

Thirdly - and here's where it gets really interesting - there isn't a single board. There are at least three.

Each player gets their own map/board, on which they have to keep track of troop movements themselves. The umpire holds the correct, accurate board - and only tells the players of troop movements they would be aware of if they were a commander in the field. They have to figure out how to interpret reports from their subordinates. If they want to find out more, they have to send out scouts - but if a scout is captured by the enemy, the players may never know what's over the next hill until it's too late. This restriction of perspective is really the most important aspect when it comes to training: the players have to learn how to deal with the limitations that a commander would face in reality.

By a combination of good networking and even better luck, Reisswitz managed to get the game in front of the Prussian king, who played it along with some of his generals. They spotted the potential straight away. You'd think Reisswitz would be made for life - but while he may have been entirely unlike most wargamers, he did live up to the stereotype in one way. His social skills were... not that great. Which meant there was one aspect of military prowess he couldn't train for with Kriegsspiel. The one most important to a peacetime staff officer: politics.

Jealousy and resistance within the army meant that Kriegsspiel was not used as much as it could have been, and Reisswitz eventually committed suicide in despair. His son picked up where he left off, and kept it alive until it was discovered by Bismarck-era strategists, before eventually being forgotten until the 1980s. While it can't compare in popularity to anything from Games Workshop, it enjoys a keen fanbase, and can be bought from a company with an amusing name.

For more information, check out kriegsspiel.org.uk.

(Note: there are other games with similar names, but they aren't Kriegsspiel. If in doubt, remember that Kriegssiel has two s's)

(and if anyone ever finds or makes an online version, let me know. Also if Sid Meier ever updates Gettysburg!, which I've just realised was a pretty good RTS implementation of many of the basic ideas)

(later note: never mind. Empire: Total War covers the general tactical game just as well - though it fails utterly in representing the restriction of information a commander of the day would have faced)

Building an Alien Invasion

It’s the most basic terror that science fiction can provide – not only are there aliens out there, but they want what’s ours and will stop at nothing to get it. Alien Invasion stories are a staple of the genre, but they’re often undermined by the failure of the writers to do some basic preparation before they begin – such as understanding the laws of physics. Or biology. Or economics. Or common sense…

So I’m going to go over a few of the major problems and suggest solutions writers could use when building an invasion – solutions that are less about an excuse for cool CGI, and more about writing a compelling and surprising story.

PROBLEM ONE: THE DISTANCE

The first major problem is that it’s an unimaginable distance to even the nearest stars. At our present level of technology, it’s taken us 34 years just to get a probe out to the edge of our solar system – 0.18% of a light year. The nearest star is 4.2 light years away. It’s not a journey we’re likely to be making soon. Alien invaders will have to overcome exactly the same problem, probably magnified because they’re unlikely to come from the very nearest star. So here’s some solutions…

SCIENCE-Y SOLUTIONS

FICTION-Y SOLUTIONS


SCIENCE-Y SOLUTIONS

Very Fast Ships

Travel time to the nearby stars would take many thousands of years at present speeds, but a decent amount of technological advance might bring that down to a hundred years or less – something doable in a human (or alien) lifetime. It’s still a very long journey if you’re launching an invasion, though – if you assume that an invasion has to have some kind of political support back home, is that going to last for decades? Would radio signals reach the invasion fleet halfway to their goal, recalling them because their homeworld has had a massive social revolution? And of course, we’re still only talking about the nearest stars, a mere handful of light years away and unlikely to be inhabited, so longer journeys from the vast bulk of the galaxy might not be worth considering.

Once you reach truly fast speeds, though, another factor comes into play which makes the journey a little more possible: relativistic time dilation. As anyone who’s read Einstein’s papers (or, more likely, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War) will know, time travels differently depending on how fast you’re moving. A ship travelling at a significant percentage of lightspeed might take five hundred years to make a journey, but the people on board might only perceive it as five years. The invaders might be fresh and ready for the fight, but everyone they ever knew at home will probably be dead. Maybe they've had to abandon their own world – which actually works quite well if they’re coming to stay and have no interest in returning home.

Generation ships/Hibernation

On a really long journey (far beyond human or alien lifespans), there are two obvious ways to keep the inhabitants going: either they don’t age in some kind of suspended animation, or they do grow old and die, but their descendants keep running the ship and will be the ones to conduct the invasion at the end of the journey. If they’re in suspended animation, then they’ll likely be up and ready for the invasion, unless there have been some problems along the way like losing all their personalities in a computer failure, which could create extremely confused and unpredictable invaders (as in Douglas Adam’s Mostly Harmless). If the invaders have come on a generation ship, they may have tired of the whole purpose of the journey somewhere along the way – or they may have become religious fanatics even more insanely dedicated to wiping us out. Indeed, they might not even have started out as invaders in the first place.

Essentially, the point is: no matter what you do to alleviate the effects of a long journey, humans (and aliens) might not be the same once they reach their destination, leading to a certain unpredictability that can make things interesting.

Time Perception

But why restrict ourselves to invasions from beings quite so similar to us? Humans have evolved (and are still evolving) to meet the demands of our environment. Might not space travelling aliens adapt to the requirements of a spacefaring life? Including, most importantly, the vast gulfs of time that space journeys require?

These kinds of aliens are likely to be vastly more advanced than us, and may not be biological at all, meaning they may have vastly greater control of not only their bodies but their minds. If there’s any kind of life to be had in space, then adjusting time perception so that they can experience long journeys in the blink of an eye will be a vital adaptation. Or maybe they are simply capable of enduring the boredom without going mad or changing into something completely different along the way.

Of course, this level of advancement will put them so far beyond us that they might not have any interest in planets, let alone the antlike beings on the surface of a little blue-green world. Or they may see us much as we look at a farm on our world: something to be managed lest some dangerous growth gets out of control. They might decide that our whole biosphere needs pruning, or that we simply need to be removed and placed somewhere else. It all depends on their perspective, and the trick here is figuring out exactly how a vast alien intelligence will think. A difficult choice, but perhaps a refreshing one.

Long Distance Communications

Of course, there’s one thing we do that already travels at the maximum speed of the universe: radio. Our signals have travelled more than 100 lightyears out into the galaxy, and (though very faint) will continue to travel on, possibly alerting aliens to our presence, and, as time goes on, providing a vast wealth of information about us.

What if their ‘invasion’ is one not of military might, but of information? We can’t expect them to link to the internet and hack our systems directly if they’re transmitting at the same speed as us, but human systems can be hacked in other ways: by ideas. Carl Sagan’s Contact shows what happens when a benevolent elder race sends us a package of information to give us a technological boost. Sagan, however, was an optimist; what might a malevolent alien race send us?

The first temptation is to say reality TV, but (if I’m serious for a moment), the aliens wouldn’t be able to respond adequately to our own culture without being laughed at – they’d be years, decades or even centuries out of date. So they have to send something that can destabilise our world without much reference to our own transmissions. But that can be surprisingly easy; on our own world, we’ve seen stone age societies disrupted by the cargoes transported to distant Pacific islands during World War 2. If similarly advanced cargoes of information were dumped on us, these too could disrupt our world – maybe causing wars, maybe making us dependent on their transmissions for continued survival, maybe lying to us about what to expect from galactic society so we’re unprepared for the real invasion. Ideas themselves can be very dangerous sometimes…


FICTION-Y SOLUTIONS

Faster Than Light Travel

The main purpose of FTL in fiction is to turn interstellar travel into an analogue of either sea or air travel on Earth – something we can understand and cope with. Planets then become distant lands across the sea rather than strange unknown worlds, and it seems possible to walk around on any of them without instantly dying from the lack of breathable atmosphere. In other words, it gives us a way to ignore how different alien worlds, species and cultures are likely to be; alien invaders become more like foreigners from our own world - weird but understandable.

That’s fine if you just want a way to get the aliens from A to B and don’t much care how they do it. But it can be a bit dull just to wave a wand and say ‘hyperspace’ or ‘warp drive’ or whatever: that's essentially magic. FTL should have a cost, and it's the cost that can make it interesting. One obvious example is the folding of space in Dune, where interstellar travel is accomplished with the help of the drug Spice, which makes the navigator prescient and thus able to operate the hideously complex systems that actually fold space; the enormous value of Spice then drives interstellar conflict. Or another example, from Iain M Banks' Culture series: FTL travel has long become routine to the point where no-one particularly thinks about it, but there's still a basic rule: the size of the engine you use has a direct effect on the speed a ship can travel. This then becomes a critical point in the plot of Excession as one particular ship races to prevent two invasions threatening the Culture at the same time. Or what if the systems that travel between the stars are somehow biological, and the invaders have either harnessed them somehow, or perhaps are living within them? Maybe such a lifeform would want to pause in our solar system to feed – most likely on something manageable like an asteroid or a comet, but this could then present an opportunity for the aliens living on them to make forays against us.

So when you're building an FTL system, bear in mind a simple principle: nothing in this universe comes for free. Sometimes it might seem as though it does, but there are always hidden costs somewhere...

Instantaneous Travel

Another way to avoid the problem of distance altogether is literally to avoid the problem of distance altogether - by connecting two parts of the universe with a portal that lets you travel from one to another with minimal effort. Maybe you're piloting a ship through a wormhole, or perhaps simply walking between two rooms that actually exist in different star systems - either way, you're making life easy for the aliens.

Much of how an invasion using this system would go really depends on how you set up the rules of how the system works. Can invaders just turn up in the middle of London with no warning, or must they engineer a wormhole that manifests somewhere in the solar system and forces them to use some kind of basic space travel as well? If the former, then some of the reasons for invasion that are usually absurd suddenly become viable – a need for planets to colonise, for example. Because if you can travel from planet to planet without the trouble of going into space, then you’d probably wouldn’t bother with space travel at all.

And this leads to more interesting possibilities. It could mean a vastly skewed technological approach, especially if these portals turn out to be somehow natural in origin and societies using them have been able to develop with no concern for actual space travel; we could see steampunk-style invaders, or ones whose technology relies exclusively on genetically altered creatures, or any kind of strangeness (or maybe just cheap copies of Egyptian warriors).

And, of course, this kind of interstellar travel should still have a cost. If not an economic cost, then maybe a social one; for example, when two societies on Earth get to know each other, their cultures soon start to leak across the divide, and a good deal is often lost. In the end, maybe an alien race could turn us into copies of them simply by having a more advanced culture and being willing to share. Not your typical alien invasion, but a very effective one in the long run.

Invaders from Another Dimension

But why should the invaders come from another star? There’s another situation that could lead to alien invasion – an incursion from another universe entirely. Parallel universes are a common enough trope in science fiction, usually intended as a way of exploring an alternative version of our own world. But if the technology exists, and those worlds aren’t able to travel to distant stars, then the temptation for an invasion in search of living space, minerals, water, and maybe even slaves becomes very possible. An interesting idea would be to show a culture similar to ancient Rome stumbling across portals to our world, then launching raids against us for all the things ancient peoples would have wanted: loot, people to enslave, and then weapons and technology once they realised we were more advanced.

Or, of course, there’s nothing to stop this other world being rather more alien than that. Nor is it necessary to make it an actual alternate earth; it could be another kind of universe altogether – maybe some kind of hell dimension where the demons have decided it’s time to spread their empire of pain to our world. Or maybe even an invasion from heaven because God decided we needed to be taught a lesson.

And all this is only for universes that are side by side and equally real. You might also consider invasions from universes that are created within ours as simulations, where the inhabitants we created break loose and try to claim some kind of place in a more real world. The opposite is also possible: if it turns out that our universe is only a simulation within some greater universe, the what’s to stop people from the world above just simulating an invasion happening to us, from any direction they care to imagine? Or entering our world themselves and playing with us as though we were toys?

Once you start playing with other realities, virtually anything becomes possible – the main trick is to find something interesting and then follow through on the implications without just using it as a gimmick.

Invaders from Another Time

It gets even stranger once you allow for time travel, because then you could have invaders coming from the past or future of our own world – our ancestors or descendants. The first thing you have to decide is how time travel works: can time be rewritten, or can’t it? If it can, then that offers an instant reason for travelling back into time: the invaders are from the future and want to make some change in the history of the world. Most of the time we see stories about individual travellers or small groups trying to accomplish a change, but why not have an entire civilisation facing extinction in some future time come back to try and make it right – at our expense? And what if they make mistakes and found reinforcements coming back in time, each from a different, changed future, leaving to another conflict among the various groups of time travellers? This could get very messy, and very interesting.

If time cannot be rewritten, then time travel can still be useful. Firstly because you could always be going forwards in time – maybe we’re being invaded by beings who existed here millions of years ago, or maybe it’s an enemy from our own past coming forwards in time, with no way of returning home and a desperate need to conquer us in order to survive. Secondly, you can always invoke the many worlds hypothesis, in which a journey to another time means you end up in a parallel universe that’s exactly the same as ours was at that moment, allowing access to the past without any way of affecting the present. But why they would come to our time when they could skip back a few thousand years and find a world much easier to conquer? Why not hop back to the Dark Ages and rebuild Rome, or supplant the ruling dynasty of China (as so many invaders did)? There’s nothing to stop this being a historical story as well as a science fiction one, and that could make it even more interesting.

Energy Lifeforms

Finally, here’s a pretty weird idea for a way to get between the stars: become the only thing we know of that makes this journey on a constant basis – light itself. If we have aliens that are composed entirely of energy, and especially if they can transform themselves from one kind of energy to another, then they could take advantage not only of lightspeed, but also a time dilation effect that would make the journey seem almost instantaneous. Quite why they’d bother invading is another question entirely, but they’d certainly be a bugger to fight.

(I did actually find a reason why such a race might invade and exterminate humanity in The Last Man on Earth Club, but I won’t spoil it here).

IN PART TWO...

We'll look at some reasons for alien invasion that make sense. Unless the invasion starts first. In which case it's already making sense.

Why Would Anyone Want to Invade Earth?

Argh. I left this blog post half done for a bit, and then Phil Plait went and did a similarly themed one, which is doubtless much better. I almost threw this away, but what the hell. My next post on this subject, though, will attempt to answer the question he didn't: ways to make an alien invasion actually plausible. So stay tuned!

'Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.'

HG Wells, The War of the Worlds

There’s one thing that makes HG Wells’ War of the Worlds make sense, and it’s the thing that no longer makes any sense at all: the invaders come from Mars. In the closing years of the 19th century, it was still possible to imagine that there were aliens on the red planet, even if it looked rather arid. These days, we know that ‘arid’ doesn’t even begin to describe the Martian environment. Words like ‘freezing bloody cold’, ‘absence of oxygen’ and ‘no fun whatsoever’ give you a much fuller picture. Unless the little green men have been hiding really well, there’s no chance of alien invasion from anywhere nearby.

Which doesn’t stop us imagining it even for a second. Because, after all, alien invasions sell books, discs, downloads and cinema tickets in their millions. So we've jumped to assuming that invasions come from other star systems, even though there's a major problem with that: it's one hell of a long journey. A trip from Mars might take a few months, but getting between the stars can take much longer. We regard our 'stellar neighbourhood' as a sphere about 50 light years in radius - that's fifty years of travel at actual lightspeed. Which may not even be possible. And 50 LY is a piddling distance compared to the rest of the galaxy, which is 100,000 LY in diameter. It could take thousands of years to get here. Even if the aliens have amazingly fast FTL that gets them from A to B in only a few years, it's still a long journey in extremely harsh conditions.

So the end goal had better be worth it. There has to be something here that's worth mounting an invasion. I wonder what that might be...?

Resources

Water

Life needs water – or at least, all the life we’ve seen so far needs it. Virtually everywhere that water exists on Earth, life does too. It’s both the easiest medium to live in, and the perfect solvent in which the chemistry of life can happen. It’s no coincidence that life on Earth began in puddles and seas and oceans; and just because we live on dry land, it doesn’t mean we really escaped the sea. We just brought it with us. Most land creatures are just bags of water that have to keep their H20 supply constantly topped up in order to survive, making water a precious, finite resource for life, a resource that’s rapidly running out in some areas.

But that’s just on Earth. If you’re able to travel through space, water suddenly becomes less of a problem, because it turns out to be extremely common. In fact, we got most of our water from space in the first place, during the early days of the solar system, when the Earth was constantly bombarded not only by asteroids, but by comets. You see, comets are mostly made of water ice. And there’s a lot of them out there. There may well also be a thing called the Oort cloud on the edge of the solar system that consists of untold numbers of the things – and if that exists for our system, it may do for others as well.

If you can fly through space as far as Earth, you can easily process some comets for your water needs. Unless, of course, you didn’t fly through space to get here, but that’s another issue entirely.

Minerals

Minerals have the same issue as water, because they also come in handy clumps floating around in space. This time we call them asteroids. And they’re easier to get at than minerals on Earth, because they aren’t at the bottom of an annoying gravity well that forces you to use lots of energy to escape.

And there really shouldn’t be any difficulty in finding the specific minerals you need. Everything in the solar system was formed from the same cloud of gas and dust, which clumped together over many millions of years to form asteroids, comets, moons and planets. The Earth is the result of many of these ‘planetesimals’ falling in on each other; so anything useful you can find in the rocks on Earth should be present in the asteroid belt, which is really just a collection of debris that managed to escape becoming a planet. In fact, some things may be even easier to get hold of. The Earth was molten for a long time after it formed, and the heaviest stuff (mostly iron) sank to the centre. In an asteroid, this won’t be the case – they should be even richer in heavy elements than the outer shell of the Earth (which is all we have access to).

And if it’s like this in our solar system, it’s going to be like this elsewhere – oh, maybe the ratio of gas giants to rocky planets will be different, or they’ll be in different places, or there’s a different balance of minerals – but there should still be more than enough floating around out there to satisfy the needs of resource-hungry aliens.

The exception to this would be the ‘hegemonising swarm’, as Iain M Banks puts it, AKA Von Neumann devices. Self-replicating machines that exist only to make copies of themselves wouldn’t target us specifically, but if we happen to be in their path, they won’t say no to gobbling up everything they can get their manipulators on. The main objection to the possibility of our planet being disassembled by hordes of robots is a variation on the simple question posed by Enrico Fermi: given the age of the galaxy and the number of times such waves of invasions could have been launched, why hasn't this happened already?

The Inhabitants

Now it gets a bit trickier, because while raw materials are pretty easy to find and likely to be generic in every solar system, life might not be. Evolution throws up all kinds of weirdness, and the plants and animals we see on Earth are just the tip of the iceberg for what’s possible. And maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the terran biota they want. For example…

Food

There are problems for any alien species looking to live off the land: their digestive systems would have to be able to cope. There’s all kinds of ways they could be poisoned or given terrible indigestion or just find that our flesh passes right through them virtually untouched. For example: amino acids. These are the building blocks of proteins, which are in turn the building blocks for much of our bodies. Amino acids come in two types: ‘left-handed’ and ‘right handed’, essentially mirror images of each other. Every lifeform on our planet uses left-handed amino acids, and onlyleft-handed amino acids. There’s no particular reason why this should be the case – right-handed ones can do exactly the same things – it’s just that our earliest ancestors randomly decided to be lefties. If our invaders are built of the right-handed versions, they'd be unable to get much sustenance out of us because their whole body chemistry is based on dealing with the wrong kind of amino acid. And that’s just one of many potential problems. They’d better hope they grabbed some lunch before they set out.

Reproduction

The notion that aliens have come all the way here to make babies is patently absurd. They almost certainly won't be able to mate with us. They probably haven't even got the right, um, equipment. And even if they did, there are all the other problems of having a completely alien biological heritage to worry about. The fact that this concept keeps rearing it's nasty little head in science fiction is probably more to do with our own psychological makeup; we have an unpleasant history of kidnapping women from other tribes.

But maybe they're not bothered by reproduction itself. Maybe they're just perverts who want to do horrible things to alien species because they get turned on by the fact that we're ugly and weird and strange. To them, mating with us might be seen as a form of bestiality: disgusting to the vast majority, but compelling to a few people. This, oddly enough, makes more sense than most reasons for invasion, simply because it's irrational; an irrational desire could override the common sense objections to hurtling halfway across the galaxy and doing something incredibly stupid and destructive. But it's hard to see this being a very common desire, so it's (hopefully) very unlikely. After all, they're just as likely to be turned on by sea urchins as us.

Drugs

Drugs have the same problems of physiology as anything else an alien might want to ingest. But many of the drugs we use on a regular basis happened by accident. Caffeine, for example, was evolved as a defence against insect pests, who tend to find it poisonous. We, being somewhat larger, only experience milder effects which we consider pleasurable (most of the time). There’s a whole heap of compounds being produced in nature which might turn out to have unexpected effects on alien life. Of course, you’d think that a civilisation advanced enough to travel between the stars would be able to synthesise their own drugs, but still…

Slaves

Another historically vital resource for which humans launched invasions of foreign lands. In fact, slaves were a prime spoil of war all the way into recent centuries; it’s only very recently that we’ve stopped mounting raids on each other to steal people. Because, after all, much of the brute labour that humans used to do is now done by machines. Which brings up the main problem for this as a reason for alien invasion: if they’re technically advanced, manual labour shouldn’t be an issue. Or mental labour, for that matter. If the aliens need us as slaves, then there's something very, very wrong with their technology and/or society.

Study

This makes perhaps the most sense of all – maybe the aliens just want to learn about us for the sake of learning itself. Ethical ones would keep themselves secret and just observe, but unethical ones might well consider it interesting to either use our planet as a resource for lab animals to harvest, or just conquer the place and breed us as required. It’s a long way to travel just to get some test subjects, but this is a more likely – and terrifying – scenario than many of the others, mainly because the difference between us and them is no longer a barrier to them interacting with us. Instead, the differences between our species becomes the reason why they take an interest in the first place.But before you panic, make some note of why such a species would come to us in the first place. If they want to learn about us, they're more likely to study us in our own environment than they are to take us out of it and conduct pointless acts of vivisection. The more we learn how to do science, the more we realise that we have to be careful to prevent our own presence contaminating the data we gather; there's no point in studying the feeding patterns of ants if those ants pick up a new diet because the researchers keep leaving rubbish in the forest. If aliens have to conquer us before they start studying us, there's vastly less that they can learn, and vastly less chance that they'd make the journey in the first place.

Colonisation

Maybe the aliens don’t have enough room at home. Maybe they just need more living space, and all that stands in their way are some pesky natives who aren’t using the planet properly anyway. In fact, they’re overusing it and they’ll kill it off before long. Surely it’s the aliens’ manifest destiny to take the planet and colonise it properly?

This, of course, presupposes that travel between the stars is easier than just building somewhere else to live. There’s a lot of asteroids in any given solar system, and if you have the technology it shouldn’t be too difficult to throw together a habitat that biological lifeforms could thrive in. Maybe you're just hollowing out the asteroid to form a glorified but comfortable cave, or maybe you're getting a bit more ambitious (see image).Of course, this presupposes that the aliens are actually biological, and aren’t already adapted to living in space – sure, it’s a harsh environment, but solar energy is free and all the necessary minerals are readily accessible, if you happen to be a machine with the right equipment. And if you’re capable of getting between the stars, that’s one of the things you may well be.

Of course, there’s an easy argument to take it the other way: if space is crowded and living space is jealously guarded, then there’s a good reason to come here, get rid of the natives and set up shop. But if there were such enormous pressures on aliens to find new spaces to live, you’d think they’d have done it already. It’s not impossible that colonists should come calling one day; just very unlikely.

Extermination

There’s no reason why aliens should like us, and many reasons why they shouldn’t. We pollute our environment, we drive other species to extinction, and we fill the cosmos with broadcasts of reality TV shows. Surely we deserve euthanasia for that crime alone.

Pre-emptive Strike

As well as killing us off for the crimes we’ve already committed, aliens may also decide to just wipe us out to prevent us ever challenging them in the future. A pre-emptive strike to stop us polluting the spaceways might be justified by projections of our likely behaviour once we get hold of FTL technology. Even a quick glance at human history will show that we’re liable to go invading other worlds if given half a chance, so why give us that chance?

Religion

If aliens believe they were made in the image of god, they may take exception to us running around, pretending to be intelligent while looking like anything but their conception of a decent, god-fearing species. Or they might simply consider that we have no souls and are therefore animal pests that need to be exterminated. Or if they think we do have souls, they might come here with the express intent of converting us to their religion, whatever that might be. You might think that aliens capable of travelling to distant stars would be more rational, but there’s no guarantee of that. And the more irrational they are, the more likely they are to do something that has no material benefit to them (or us).

Fun

Or maybe they just like killing and genocide. The life of a spacefaring species would be long, and eventually they’re likely to get bored. If you’ve tried everything else that life has to offer, maybe you’ll turn to killing and destruction just to get a thrill. Or maybe it's the aliens' children who are looking to waste time in a particularly nasty way. Of course, that's pretty much what's happening on our planet - except that we're turning more and more to virtual thrills that have little or no impact upon reality. Aliens would likely have even better ways to distract themselves, making this a little less likely than it first appears. Hopefully.

Accidental

Maybe they blunder into our solar system without checking it first to see if anything’s there, and there’s some awful misunderstanding when they interpret our radar signals as a precursor to an attack. Or maybe they deposit some kind of highly virulent plague without meaning to. Or maybe they don’t even notice us at all and kill us off on their way through via excessive radiation from their interspace drive wotsits. Or maybe they're planet sized and wreck our solar system by shifting all the orbits so that the Earth either freezes, drifts into the sun, or gets whacked by Mars.

Conclusions

Any alien invasion has to get past the biggest barrier between them and us: space. So far as we know, doing that would present a vast, possibly insurmountable cost that makes any invasion very unlikely.

And even if they could get here, why would they bother? Their technology is likely superior to ours. Their biology is almost certainly incompatible with ours. There's little or no resources here that they can't get elsewhere, and much more easily. Pretty much any sensible reason to invade is incredibly unlikely, leaving only the irrational, random, unethical and accidental reasons, which would be rare in the first place, and even rarer given the vast gulfs of space that lie between stars. You can overcome this problem by assuming that the galaxy is crowded with life and therefore the distance to the nearest civilisations are small enough that they could actually get here - but if that's the case, you still have to answer to Enrico Fermi and his paradox.

So based upon what we know now, the probability is low. The next time I look at this, I'll go through all the things that could make alien invasion a real possibility, which means we may have to move beyond what we know. Realism and the laws of physics might have to be abandoned, but then, after all, science is a work in progress, and it's still possible that we've been very, very wrong about the universe...

The Superhero Apocalypse Problem

Superheroes are a problem.

Well, actually, they cause lots of problems (the biggest complaint being that they’re inherently silly), but the one that concerns me most is their intersection with the Post-Apocalyptic genre.

These two genres don’t mix. They can’t mix. The whole purpose of a superhero is to save the world, or at least some part of it. By their very nature, they mitigate against an End of the World scenario.

But at the same time, the genre invites the apocalypse to its door, again and again. Superheroes who save the world need to save the world from something. And therefore every superhero universe is constantly flirting with disaster. The apocalypse is permanently looming just over the horizon, far closer than in a sane and sensible world like ours (well, okay, a relatively sane and sensible world like ours).

But it never actually happens. At least, not for long. This is not to say that dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories haven’t been told in the superhero genre, it’s just that there’s always a way to hit the reset button, and it always gets used. The basic structure of some of these stories have been used so many times that they’re instantly recognisable. Here’s a classic example:

The hero or heroes are propelled forward into the future, and discover that something went horribly wrong at about the time they left, and now their world is a horrible wasteland/dictatorship/playground for alien invaders/whatever. They fight the enemies in the future, ally themselves with the last surviving heroes who didn’t get zapped into the future, convince them to help them get back to the past, and then make sure the problem never happens when they get home.

Every now and then someone tries to buck the trend – for example, the Wildstorm Universe had the above happening and then showed what happened when the superheroes failed to solve the problem, but even that’s about to be wiped away as the last bits and pieces of the cancelled Wildstorm imprint are folded into the DC Universe. On those rare occasions when an apocalypse does last, it’s always off on the side somewhere, like the Marvel Zombie world, or “Angor”, a world that suffered nuclear destruction mainly so that various survivors could cause problems for the Justice League. And even that one was rebooted a few years ago.

The superhero genre flirts with the apocalypse, but never marries it. Which is strange, given the attitude of the superhero genre to most others: one of utter inclusivity. It grabs bits and pieces from fantasy, science fiction and horror as and when it needs to, and is flexible enough to plunder almost anything else. Perhaps most delightfully, the Justice League was once turned into a situation comedy for a few years, both acknowledging the inherent silliness of superheroes and revelling in it (who can’t love the idea behind the one-shot Justice League Antarctica: getting rid of some annoying incompetent supervillains by placing them in a position where they can do no harm – protecting a virtually empty continent. Until they get attacked by penguin-piranha hybrids, of course...)

There’s one thing most superhero stories can’t do: come to an end. They go on, month after month, year after year, changing and modifying and telling the same basic stories to each generation as it comes, rebooting whenever things get too complicated. And because they never end, there’s one genre they can never really get hold of: Post-Apocalyptic. This is a strange paradox, because a superhero universe is, as I said above, constantly on the brink of apocalypse. Aliens are always ready to invade. Other universes hold worlds full of potential genocidal maniacs. Mad scientists are always inventing ways to end the world, even if only by accident. Brooding villains plot against the world. Disillusioned heroes can go off the rails at any moment. And let’s not forget how horrifying normal people can be when confronted with a wave of superhumans in their midst: the parallels between the Holocaust and treatment of “mutants” in Marvel comics are intentional and deliberate.

There are more than enough ways to achieve an apocalypse even in our world: how on earth do they manage it in a superhero universe when there are so many more, even given all the people trying to prevent it?

The short answer is: because the story must go on and must keep selling, or else all those people who work for Marvel and DC will be out of a job, and the shareholders of their parent companies won’t get the benefit of the constant reselling of these properties into other media. On the level of the story itself, there’s a strong impetus to show the good guy beating the bad guy, and morality winning out, however tenuously. Because, y’know, kids read these things.

This leaves an uncomfortable status quo for the superhero genre, at least for those of us whose interest has outgrown the youthful fascination with people in costumes hitting each other. Many of us are driven to look at stories outside the mainstream universes, which have the opportunity to come to a conclusion. But even then, they have a tendency towards a hopefulness that I don’t think reflects the true nature of a world that must suffer the presence of superhuman beings. Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman are probably the most obvious of these, both of which end up showing streets washed with blood and spattered with corpses. Despite this, both stories end on a more or less hopeful note as the terrible massacres provoke a response of rebuilding and co-operation. Both stories are, in different ways, inversions of the superhero-saving-the world story, but nevertheless, the world is saved. I think the fact that the number of superhumans in these stories is relatively small helps bring this about; a world with a wider flowering of superhumanity – such as in the mainstream superhero universes – would be in a lot more trouble.

So what might a world constructed upon the basic premise of a superhero universe be like if it actually happened? What is that premise, anyway? I think it’s this: A world roughly like ours begins to see superhumans created on a large scale, by some uncontrollable and random means; some superhumans use their powers to help people, and some use them for more selfish ends.

(note that this isn’t the premise of a superhero story; it’s the premise of a superhero universe. Also, there will be variation depending on how long ago this started happening, but I’ll leave that to one side for now as it complicates things unnecessarily)

I think that if you have enough superhumans in the world, it ends up being doomed, simply because the kind of power to destroy that we normally reserve for parliaments and presidents is given quite randomly to ordinary human beings to use and abuse at will. Of course, the world will do its best to prevent this – I expect there would be pogroms and genocides in some places, intensely strict legislation in others, and at the very minimum a registration process for anyone with a superhuman ability – but in the end, it’ll be like trying to hold back the tide.

I doubt that it would necessarily be some massive cataclysm that ends it all in some sudden way, but rather a series of smaller disasters that erode the capability of the world to sustain life. Say, for example, a melting of the icecaps. Or a disease that wipes out a huge part of humanity, or makes them sterile. Or something that wipes out the crops that feed millions. Or disperses the ozone layer, letting in a UV flood. Or wipes out a nation with grey goo. Or the destruction of the moon, wrecking the normal tidal cycle, destabilising the earth’s spin and causing multiple asteroid strikes from bits and pieces of the smashed moon. All of these things can probably be moderated or contained, and maybe even reversed in the long term, given the power available to those trying to save the wold. But it’s easier to destroy than create, and with enough people carrying these kinds of powers, I don’t hold out much hope for a world suffering the affliction of superhumanity as it's usually depicted in a superhero universe.

As much as I still love the genre, this is one reason why I haven’t read a lot of it lately. Like most people who were alive at the time, I survived the Cold War, although I had a residual and constant fear of apocalypse. Living in a superhero universe would be like this, but vastly magnified: you wouldn’t know where or how the end of the world might happen, let alone by what method. A world that could kill itself in so many ways would be a world of constant nervous terror, even among the wonders that superhumanity could bring about. Plus you’d be witnessing the constant erosion of the life you knew as more and more of it was destroyed by calamity after calamity. Definitely not somewhere you would want to live.

Which would make it an excellent place to tell a story. If I ever get round to doing it properly...

(astute readers of my work have doubtless already recognised such a world. Astute readers of the reviews of my work will likely realise this is an oblique response to some (perfectly valid) criticisms of the work. I suspect that the above is something I did not make entirely clear in my novel. Either that or a) I'm completely wrong, or b) some people don’t like superheroes at all. Oh, well...)

Ideas

So I’m writing again. I have an idea for a novel – in fact, an idea I’ve had knocking around for several months. It came while I was idly musing on the multiverse in The Last Man on Earth Club; I recalled Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, with its hypothesis of ancestor-simulations created by advanced races, which might spawn further simulated worlds within worlds that were already simulated, something that could continue with levels of universe-nesting only limited by the processing power in the original universe.

Well, I thought to myself, a multiverse based on that idea would be an interesting setting and rather different to the usual story excuses we have for multiverses (quantums! branes! probabilities!), which are usually based on highly speculative physics. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has used this before, but still, if I can come up with the right characters and worlds and story it might be useful...

Which is to say, the idea is worth very little by itself. Ideas are only seeds that need to be watered with research, experience, hard work and more ideas. At this stage, I had no characters, no actual setting beyond the idea of a simulated multiverse, and no idea what the story was actually going to be about. All these things did eventually come after a lot of brainstorming, but the idea wasn’t enough on its own. In fact, the original idea might even end up being thrown out or just de-emphasised because some of the stuff I’ve created since then seems more interesting.

And yet without that original idea, I’d be nowhere.

So let’s take a look at ideas, and how to get them...

We’ve all been asked where our ideas come from, usually by friends, family and readers who can’t imagine how they could even start coming up with something like your finished book, and fail to realise how small and simple the first step can be. And half the time, we don’t even know where to look for ideas, or how to tell when we’ve found one that’s worth developing. And of course they can come from anywhere. Something that happened to you as a child. Something you saw out of the corner of your eye on the bus. Something you read in a newspaper. A shocking story about your family told over dinner by an elderly relative with Alzheimers who forgot they’d sworn never to mention it.

(oh wait... that last one is an idea in and of itself. Maybe not a great one, but certainly a seed from which a story could grow. See? You can get ideas while writing blog posts about trying to come up with ideas...)

Sometimes the universe just dumps an idea in your lap. The (very) recent death of a friend of the British Prime Minister in the middle of the Glastonbury Festival is of course a tragedy, but every writer of thrillers and mysteries in the UK has probably read the news this morning and been unable to avoid thinking how that could be the starting point for a story - after all, it's not a million miles away from the inciting incident of State of Play, an excellent TV series from a few years ago. Or maybe there's something that happened to you in your life that gets you started on a story. Or maybe someone tells you about a funny story from their life. Maybe you just stumble across something on he internet. But most of the time, you don't get that lucky. You have to go looking for ideas rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Of course, looking for an idea is usually the moment they dry up, because ideas are rarely the product of the more rational parts of your mind. They come more from the free-associating, pattern-recognising bits of your brain that usually go to work in your idler moments. You can call it daydreaming, if you like; when you’re not distracted by sensory input, or are doing something so routine that your attention can drift. Driving a car on the motorway, maybe. Public transport, for certain. Brainstorming works as well, because you’re deliberately not exercising judgement; just listing all kinds of crazy stuff that might possibly be of use, regardless of how much it makes sense. Somewhere in that list might be something unexpected and useful (which is what happened a few paragraphs ago as I was trying to come up with a list of potential places you could spot ideas).

Getting an idea is helped enormously by giving your brain something to free-associate with; information and knowledge it can recognise patterns within. So keep on reading, and not just within your own genre. Keep up with the news. Study history. Watch documentaries. The more you know, the more connections you’ll make when ideas come along. And pay attention to what people say: the smallest phrase overheard in a bar can lead to an idea. I got a short film script from hearing someone say he was playing eyeball tennis with someone he fancied; his phrase, but the visual metaphor immediately set my brain off thinking how you could actually show that happen, and make it funny.

Inspiration can go horribly wrong, of course. Especially when you’re young, and every idea you encounter seems new. The worst ideas I’ve ever seen are usually ones which are essentially rip-offs committed because the writer was bowled over by a film or a book and mistook that sense of amazement for an idea of their own. The major turning point of Fight Club, for example, inspired more than one script I had to read through back when I was helping people learn to make films, and they were all tedious, tedious, tedious.

So it’s important to exercise some judgement on your ideas when they come. That’s where the rational part of the brain wakes up and gets to do some work as well. So here’s some quick things to consider about any given idea:

• Are you interested in this? You probably are since you realised this was an idea in the first place. But you might still get ideas that don’t quite fit the kind of thing you write. The idea about the elderly relative spilling family secrets that hit me a few paragraphs ago is probably not one I’ll use, because I write science fiction. The idea was interesting as an individual scene, but I can’t see it going anywhere that keeps me interested. And if I’m not interested, I can’t expect anyone else to be. Maybe it'll be useful one day, but not right now. So make a note of it, and move on...

• Has it been done before? Well, pretty much everything has been done before, so you can’t rule out something just because someone else got there first. It depends on how specific your idea is; a multiverse based on Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument is very vague and will likely result in something different to other attempts at the idea. If, on the other hand, your idea is about an American adventurer who has his or her adventures while operating as an archaeologist, you’re likely to be compared to Indiana Jones no matter what you do. You’ll need to find a new angle that makes your idea sufficiently different, or make a note of the idea and move on...

• Can it be marketed? Okay, so you might think it’s a bit early to be considering this, but even so, you should be keeping an eye out for it. Some ideas just write the blurb all by themselves. The Last Man on Earth Club was one of these; the original idea is pretty much what’s in the description on Amazon, and people tend to comment that it’s the concept that motivated them to buy the book. You don’t need a marketable idea as your starting point, but if you find one – jump on it! (and bear in mind that you still have a hell of a lot of work to do)

• The most important thing of all: can it be turned into a story? If it’s just a setting, can characters be inserted who will do interesting things? If it’s a character, can you imagine interesting things happening to them? If it’s something else, can it be developed into something more than a static situation or scene? Of course, in order to figure this out, you need to know what a story is, so here’s one very quick and dirty definition: you get your characters up a tree; you throw rocks at them; you get them down again. It doesn’t have to be an adventure. But events need to happen, and characters need to go through them. If you can’t see how a story could happen... make a note of it, and move on.

And then once you’ve got an idea that makes you interested, that isn't completely unoriginal, and that you can turn into a story, and that can be marketed (maybe), all you’ve got to do is write the damn thing. Which is where it gets a lot harder. More on that some other time...

A Brief and Sarcastic History of the Apocalypse

The apocalypse has already happened. And that’s why we love it.

Humans have been on this planet for a few hundred thousand years, but it could have been a lot less than that. We’ve endured supervolcanoes that turned the sky to ash for years on end and reduced us to a miserable remnant; ice ages that exterminated us from whole continents; and plagues that swept across the globe and turned cities into cemeteries. The world has been trying to kill us for as long as we’ve been here. We shouldn’t feel victimised. It’s been doing it to every other species on the planet too. Just ask the trilobites – oh, wait you can’t. They’re all dead and they probably didn’t have ears anyway.

All that apocalypse leaves a mark on a species, in the same way that antibiotics leave a mark on bacteria – the ones that survive, anyway. We got better at living through these things, and a lot warier of the same thing happening again. And unlike most other creatures on the planet, we had language. We could tell our descendants about it, not realising how myths grow over generations. It’s typical. You tell your kids to watch out if the sky gods get angry and you don’t see the sun for a few years. Then a few generations later they think you were a prophet and they’re all worshipping statues of you shaking a fist at the sky, and telling each other that one day it’s all going to end because humans stood up to the gods and the gods decreed the sun would come back and eat the Earth one day in revenge for the sky swallowing it up all those years before.

Fast forward a bit. Leave all that prehistoric stuff behind. We’ve acquired culture and civilisation and everything, but we’re still terrified of the end of the world. It probably didn’t help that our mediaeval ancestors spent most of the time drunk. Any landmark date ended up being regarded as the definitive end of the world. But they were missing the most likely cause of apocalypse: themselves. Plague was one of the biggest killers across the world, because civilisation had moved forward so fast that we really hadn’t had time to properly adapt to living in massive colonies (i.e. cities). And like a beehive infested with varroa, cities kept getting infected and having their own mini-apocalypses that, being primarily commercial institutions, they then exported across the world. And if it didn’t go along the trade routes, it went with the armies and navies as they explored and campaigned. The Mayan apocalypse has nothing to do with their landmark date of 2012, and everything to do with measles and smallpox. Whole populations of Inuit died the same way because they traded with passing whalers. And in every war, the death toll from fighting would be miniscule compared to the mass graves they had to dig for all the people who died of dysentry along the way. And let’s not get started on prisons. There’s a reason why Typhus was once known as Gaol Fever.

And then we get into the twentieth century. We figured out sanitation. We discovered antibiotics and got most of the plagues under control. And, having eliminated the usual causes of apocalypse, we promptly set about creating some more to put in their place: nuclear weapons that could screw up the world in the same way as a supervolcano, but with radiation added just to make it that little bit more hellish. And not content with threatening ourselves with thermonuclear armageddon for a few decades, we started screwing up the whole planet just by being here. We became this world’s plague, running so far out of control that we may just turn it into either a barren baking desert or one big snowball, depending on how exactly things go bang when you drop a wrench into a set of machinery as fantastically complex as the planet’s climate.

(And I’m not even going to mention all the ways the universe can destroy us without even trying very hard. Some of them have happened before but they’re pretty rare on human timescales. See here for details)

With all of this dreadfully serious stuff going on that may just wipe us out, what do you think humanity’s greatest current response to the apocalypse would be?

We’ve turned it into entertainment!

Oh, sure, we’ve done tons of stuff to stop apocalypses happening for real. Smallpox eradicated. Nuclear weapons scaled back. CFCs eliminated. Big Brother cancelled. But what’s our true level of involvement?

Entertainment!

When you watch the zombie hordes pouring through Atlanta; the Triffids prowling through London; the fighting in the War Room; the cyborgs stalking through Los Angeles; why do you watch?

Entertainment!

When you fight the aliens in Half Life; the zombies in Left 4 Dead; the port authorities in Madagascar; why do you play?

Entertainment!

When you read of the scriptorium of the monks of Leibowitz; the last voyage of the USS Scorpion; the terrible plan of Paul Raedeker; the Man and Boy trudging down the road; what do you read?

Entertainment!

But there you go: all stories are about suffering. Preferably not yours. It’s far more fun to watch someone else go throught it, because if it were all hearts and flowers, it would be Mills & Boon boring.

A story of apocalypse shows you this suffering on a grand scale, the kind of scale your ancestors have dreaded for thousands of years, and which you flock to enjoy. You who know so much more about exactly how many things can wipe you out, but sneer at it as though it’ll never happen. Any sensible species would just get on with eradicating diseases and making peace, but somewhere deep inside, I think we remember how close we came to extinction. We are the ones whose ancestors survived the apocalypse, and the bodies and brains they bequeathed us simply won’t let us forget.

Even if they have to make us watch I Am Legend to remind us. Bastards.

Zombie Ants

So there's a fungus in Brazil that really likes to grow in ants. Carpenter ants, apparently. A spore will land upon them, and mushroomy tendrils grow into the brain of the poor ant, changing its behaviour. Turning it into a zombie. Making it wander away or climb, even as the fungus continues to grow. And then, just as it's about to die, it bites. It gets a hold on some kind of vegetation and locks itself into place.

Before that happens, other ants (having evolved alongside this thing), will desperately try to push the ant as far away as possible, because they really don't want the zombie ant to lock itself into place anywhere near their colony. There's a very good reason for this. You see, the fungus is maturing. A fruiting body is growing out of the head of the ant. And then it bursts, scattering spores far and wide, ready to infect more ants. Some spores that miss and hit the ground will grow a secondary spore like a spike, sticking up so it can infect any ants that happen to pass by.

Now you'd think that anyone who's heard of this, and who's even remotely interested in zombies, would have put two and two together and designed some shambling monstrosities based on this. But strangely, no one has (not even the Half-Life headcrabs, which don't seem to use the zombie stage to reproduce as such). And this despite the scientists doing their best to alert the world by actually calling this the "zombie ant fungus", I don't see a lot of zombies that use the concept of the walking dead being part of the life cycle of a perfectly natural (if somewhat overachieving) organism. And since I needed to create some new zombies (or revenants) for my book, and wanted them to be something that was ultimately explicable to science, I went and put two and two together all by myself.

None of which explains why this is so much fun:

A Game Where You Can Stomp Zombies Like Ants!

Crush them! Squish them! Annihilate them! Heheheheh....

The Apocalypse Problem

There are many reasons why I wrote The Last Man on Earth Club rather than just spend the time drinking, but one of the main ones was to try and solve the basic problem of apocalypse stories:

They’re boring.

Well, not always, of course, but there’s a fundamental built-in structural problem when telling a story about the end of the world: it tends to end. And it gets a bit dull after that.

Robert Rankin’s alien TV executives in Armageddon: The Musical noticed the same thing: after winning enormous viewing figures for their TV show about humans by manipulating them into a nuclear war, their show turned into a very grim soap opera about grubby people surviving in mouldy bunkers. Very tedious, until Elvis Presley shows up for no easily explainable reason (it’s just that kind of book, and represents one very comical way of solving the problem of apocalypse narratives).

Most of the narrative tension in an apocalypse story is resolved by the apocalypse itself. All too many of these stories deflate once the big bang goes off. Woe betide you if your story starts with an apocalypse: chances are no-one will care what happens next. It’s insanely difficult to have a small character drama follow on from the kind of pyrotechnics the end of the world usually entails. The change of subject is just too much for most stories. The best thing to do is to start after the apocalypse – as in The Road – and deal with it only in flashback (if that).

Mind you, it does work sometimes. Threads – which you must absolutely watch if you haven’t already – is an absolutely devastating story about the effects of nuclear war, and will leave you in a state of suicidal depression if you watch it in the wrong frame of mind (I’m really selling it well, aren’t I?) It takes you through the buildup, the war, and then the aftermath – just what I’m saying you shouldn’t do. Threads gets away with it because of the meticulous documentary-style approach which reveals the details of what happens after a nuclear war, and then uses that to show the slow deterioration of the survivors and their society. The final moment is more terrifying than anything that happens during the war, and that’s the key: the horror actually builds after the nuclear holocaust. This is no mean trick, and not one I could use without the same kind of documentary approach.

I wanted to tell a story about apocalypses, but without the attendant deterioration of the story after things go bang. The temptation to use the tension and excitement that comes before the apocalypse is intense, but I chose to step back instead. My idea (for what it’s worth) is that apocalypses would be interesting to see as a problem from the outside, from the people who are charged with picking up the pieces and saving as many as they can. This makes no sense, of course, unless you have worlds outside the one threatened by apocalypse, so it has to be a story set in a multiverse. Which really means that there’s no true apocalypse in the story: the entire ‘world’ in which it’s set will not be destroyed. The opportunity to have your world evacuated if an asteroid strike threatens might sound like a devaluing of the narrative impact of the oncoming apocalypse – until you consider that evacuating billions of people is not an easy task, and creates all kinds of room for interesting stories by itself. And, of course, many of the characters in the novel have lived through situations where such help came all too late, which is why they became the last survivor of their world.

Anyway. I think I’ve rambled on enough for the moment. Time to go to work and earn my subsistence.

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