Sunday, 8 May 2016

Building a world where superheros can exist

I recently saw the latest Captain America movie and it started me thinking about how strange that (and other superhero) worlds are. I thought an interesting thought exercise might be to consider exactly what rules I would require to come up with a “plausible” set of physics/laws in which such a place could exist.

The first thing I realised is that a lot of superheros have powers, but most of them are based in science. Some serum that makes you strong, or a type of robot suit, or a kind of radioactive spider. However almost universally these scientific innovations have gone nowhere aside from providing the hero with their powers and perhaps giving similar powers to one of the hero's arch enemies. That doesn't make sense, I think everybody would like the strength and resilience of Captain America or Spiderman, and I bet half of the items on Batman's utility belt have some very serious applications in general society. Making sense of that is problematic.

There is an example of this kind of technology though which I remember and love. The Warhammer 40k universe is set in the far distant future with amazing levels of technology and futuristic versions of Elves and Demons and Orcs. The problem faced by the creators had is that Orcs are historically stupid, and they wanted to preserve that, but they also needed to give them advanced enough technology that they wouldn't just get destroyed. What they came up with was Mekboyz (I'm sure they weren't called that back when I used to play) who are rare Orc mutation who have an unnatural aptitude for technology. Importantly though they don't know how it works, they can't explain it, they just hit it until it works and their hitting is guided by some greater instinct or psychic power that allows them to do it just right.

This idea works perfectly. I love the idea of a world where there is a strange kind of genius present in some humans, similar to autism, and individuals on this spectrum are like idiot savants. They are able to intuit very deeply into some form of technology (human augmentation, power shields, new elements) but they can't explain it or relate it to other technologies. As a result you could end up with situations like Spiderman being able to make enough web to provide for himself, but having no sense of exactly what goes into making it or how it might be mass produced. Also it could allow these people to advance far enough that even if a Government agency gets its hand on their technology, it would take them hundreds of years to understand and use it. Having this be a mental condition would also allow it to have a secondary effect of making these people prone to ethical extremes and to following them far further and more stubbornly than most other humans. That would allow for the stark division which exists between superheros and super villains.

One factor which this idea doesn't explain is the resilience of heroes in these worlds. For most of them all it would take is one stray bullet or explosion and they'd be dead or paralysed. In some sense this is fine, it's a conceit which has existed in almost every action story since guns became commonplace. I think it is a bit more problematic when it comes to superheros however, because they exist in a world. We don't just follow one hero, we follow many, and sometimes their paths intersect, but very rarely does one actually die. I don't know that my model can explain this, and actually I don't think I want to (I could assume that this type of person is tougher somehow, but that seems very cheap to me somehow). Honestly though, if I were to follow this idea further, I think this would lead me to an interesting conclusion, which is that within my version of this type of world, heroes would be extremely short lived and they'd constantly be appearing and dying. That doesn't make sense for a story about a hero and their exploits exactly, but perhaps it puts some interesting weight on a person who's related to a hero, or who realises that they might be becoming a hero.

If I were to push ahead with this and build the entire world around and about superheros then I think there are a number of further elements which I would want to explain. In most comic worlds there are some magical aspects and aliens or beings from other dimensions. Perhaps I leave all of that out, or there maybe a secondary explanation which provides for them. Honestly though, I like the simplicity of the idiot savantism and the fun world which it might give rise to. Thought experiments like this are what give rise to most of my writing ideas and, even if I don't take them any further, I think it is interesting to see what lines I draw. To me the idea of making being a hero linked to a form of basic difference in mental function is fun, but if it also includes a kind of physical difference which gives them more resilience then that suddenly bores me. I think that speaks to the type of stories which I, at the moment, am interested in telling *.

* - [you can see this in the X-men, who I didn't mention here because their abilities are all caused by a similar type of mutation. As a result however a lot of the early comics which they appeared in deal with issues like civil rights and discrimination. Things which are linked to their very explanation.]

Sunday, 1 May 2016

I'm the smartest, I'm the dumbest.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how intelligent I am and comparing it to those around me. I'm not sure that this is a good instinct, but it is mine. It is one of my primary motivators and as such I have taken some time to get to know it. In all things and at all times I want to be smart and to be sure that other people know that I am. I believe many people have similar such drivers, an example would be the person who was told many times how good they look when they were growing up. They may have many other valuable qualities and traits, but as a result of that original praise they will spend a lot of their time thinking about (and judging themselves) on how they look and how others think they look.

Realising this fact has been valuable for me. It means I can convince myself to pursue things further than I otherwise would because they will be evidence of my intellect. It also means that if I feel down about a failed task I can much more easily predict what it is precisely about that task that is making me feel down. I am a great believer that achieving great things requires fully understanding ones own motivations and turning them towards the task. In the case of my wanting to write, I have, through this blog, managed to convince myself that I am adding depth and cleverness to my writing by recording and expanding my thoughts*.

However in valuing an area such as this, there is an inherent danger, that I will begin to judge others around me based on what I perceive as their intelligence and begin to feel superior. My tendency is to say that such feelings of superiority are almost always unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. There are so many collaborations, friendships and good ideas which I missed out on when I was younger and more arrogant. I think there are some interesting arguments to be made along the lines of no person being smarter than any other, or at least that they are smarter in different and equally useful ways**, but that is not what I am writing about today. I wanted though to briefly mention a technique which I use to attempt to keep my own intellectual superiorities and inferiorities in check.

I call this game 'I'm the smartest, I'm the dumbest'. In it I attempt to convince myself (normally during a long meeting or conversation) that I am either the smartest or the dumbest person in the room by a decently large margin. There are times when simply finding that going in one direction or the other is easier will tell me a lot about my own confidence level. The real value of the game though comes from the effort of imagination required to move significantly in either direction. This tells me about some of the dumber things which the more classically intelligent people in the room are doing and it lets me notice and elaborate on the insights of the supposedly less intelligent. I am forced to work to put myself into other people's shoes, to either see how cleverly they might be outwitting me, or to allow myself to believe that I am out thinking them to the point that they are like a child to me. Just the evidence of that work demonstrates very ably how far I (and everyone in the room) am from being a masterful genius or a complete buffoon. It has also allowed me to think with more clarity about the different types of intelligence and smarts which exist beyond those which we might ordinarily expect.

Right, so there are lots of advantages of my thought exercise and I learn a lot, but I am sure that it has not slipped past all of you how this entire thing is simply another way of really truly proving to myself just how smart I am. After all if I can find ways to think my way around what everyone in the room is doing then I must be really very clever. The reality is that I believe that while, in the moment, I feel excessively pleased with myself, in the long term I think that it has helped me to better consider other people and to realise that how many types of intelligence there are.

* [ This is almost certainly not the case, or at least not the whole story. But just the fact that I can tell myself this helps me to bash out an extra thousand or so words every week that otherwise wouldn't happen.]
** [ My favourite analogy is to compare different types of intelligence to different artistic masters. You might think that Rembrant is the best, but almost certainly you can find it in yourself to realise that the world is also better off for having a Caravaggio in it as well.]

Sunday, 24 April 2016

My Dream House

This blog is not going to be about the ideal layout and paint colours in the place I want to live. Rather it is about a place, almost existing, which has squatted resolutely in the back of my imagination for almost as long as I can remember. I believe, though my mother has no memory of it, that I visited this place (or at least it's direct predecessor) before it took up a spot in my dreams.

The place I remember visiting was an old house in England that belonged to a friend of the family. It wasn't quite big enough to be called a manor house, but it was certainly where I think somebody posh might live. I remember it had a big hall with double doors and a large staircase in the centre leading up to the floor above. The gardens as well I remember, with several long greenhouses and more than one lawn or field. The whole place was somewhat decrepit, as there was only one rather old man living there on his own, so some of the greenhouses and much of the gardens were untended. Inside the house I remember that there were things, that honestly is the crux of this memory, a huge number of things of a marvellous variety.

It is at this point where I think the house in my head begins to diverge most definitely from the house which I actually visited. I remember paintings on the walls, I remember large fish pinned up there too, but I also have a sense of glass cases filled with items on display. Clockwork marvels and old toys, fancy jewellery and delicate models. In some of the side rooms these things, all interesting to various degrees, might be piled up high, with rocking horses in front of old chests in front of collections of antique weapons. It feels very clear to me now as I describe it, and I know that I have dreamed of being there many times, but I also know that I have never actually physically seen this place, at least not a place that was anything other than a pale shadow of what lives in my mind.

I have read various stories which make me think of this wonderful home. Hogwarts in the Harry potter novels has some elements which are reminiscent. The most striking to me was the castle in the Gormenghast books, with the huge rooms filled with old heirlooms and once beloved items, along with the whole place's general sense of decay and being past its prime. Other things occasionally bring it up, computer games (like Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness) or even things like the X-Mansion in X-men, but never to quite the same degree.

Why then, am I writing about this now? Well I have tried to put this place into novels and short stories many times (I can think of six examples off the top of my head) with various degrees of success and I find now that it looks as though my next novel takes place in this mansion. As a result I've been thinking a bit about what it is, what part of my head it is that has built this place and likes so fervently to go there. I have many theories, perhaps it is some representation of a part of my childhood wonderment which has been lost to the adult world, maybe it is a how I see the muddled mess of my heritage, perhaps it is just the method that my introverted childhood mind used to catalogue the world around him. All of these are nice, but none of them seem to fit fully.

The idea which I keep coming back to is that perhaps my liking this imaginary house is like dragons or horses. What I mean by that is that there are certain people (of which I know more than a few) who will like pretty much anything a lot more if it just happens to contain one of their favourite things (dragons or horses being particularly concise examples). I believe such favourite things are a path set in the mind very early on in our lives such that when we re-encounter them later on in the context of movies or books, those fictional things are suddenly bathed in just a touch of the warm glow of childhood, they gain some of our love for that other, older thing. As a result there is no meaning to be gleaned people liking these things, it doesn't indicate anything about their personality except that to them those things mean more. Perhaps this grand old house is touched in that way for me and I hope that will translate into an extra jolt of energy in my writing about it.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Rumi, Lincoln and Le Guin (and me?)

As with last week, I have struggled over writing this entry. There are so many things I would like to say and I want to say them all with the most elegant language possible. One revelation I have had in the last week is the use of that word elegant. I think it describes well what I think of as good writing, it encapsulates the words concise, beautiful and clear (though, perhaps it fails on the last) in a way which is less misleading than any of those words individually. I will not overuse it I hope, but this week I want to describe a few examples of what I think of as elegant language in writing.

This is the only included example of poetry and it is translated. The reason for this is that in some way I feel as though poetry is cheating. There is less context for poems and less other scaffolding hinging upon it doing its job, it makes it much easier to craft surprising and meaningful combinations of words. That in mind, I should justify this poem. What I like about it is that it provides (as poetry should) such a concise definition of some really important ideas. Actually though the main reason why I have included it and the reason why you should go and read it, is the final two lines which blow me away every time. I wont include them here because I think they are ruined out of context, but as a taster I'll include the first two lines.

Define and narrow me, you starve yourself of yourself.
Nail me down in a box of cold words, that box is your coffin.

The thing I really love about this is that it describes something which I think I know, that any time I put somebody in any sort of definitional box I am reducing them in my mind, and it gives it such a specific and clear explanation. The first line also provides something of a tease for the ending line (which, once again, I just love).

This is one of my favourite novels. It has a brilliant description of a truly anarchist society which made me imagine what that would be like far more completely than I had ever been able to before. I really got involved in thinking about both the good and the bad aspects of how that life would be. It also has some over descriptive passages which are one of the few things I like less about Le Guin. However the reason I'm bringing it up here is the following passage:

He looked up, and as he stepped off the ramp onto the level ground he stumbled and nearly fell. He thought of death, in that gap between the beginning of a step and its completion, and at the end of the step he stood on a new-earth.

Within the context of the book this works wonderfully, describing a moment where the protagonist steps from one society to another and when they leave the rocket from their planet to another. It is, in many ways, the crux on which the two halves of the novel balance. More than that though, there is something about the what it is phrased which touches me, even devoid of context. The thought of death at the beginning of a new venture is evocative, but more than that the occurrence of that thought in this briefest of moments, just a flash of the realisation of mortality, something about that is incredibly human to me.

I am sure that there have been more words written about this piece of writing than I will write in my lifetime. I doubt I have much to add except to say that in some ways it is clumsy and/or doesn't seem to scan that well. There is also an almost perverse element to the way that almost every phrase seems to be put together in a way which is unusual or not often used. Having said that, I love this, it speaks almost directly to the elegance which I so want to replicate and, in a couple of brief places, that elegance really lands for me. The first is talking about the dead soldiers they are honouring having given the “last full measure of devotion”, there is something about that line which speaks so clearly to a very keen compassion and gratitude for what the soldiers did. It chokes me up almost every time. The second line is the more obvious one (at least to Americans) “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. I think this is interesting because this represents almost the inception of a phrase which has been used rather a lot ever since. As a result I think to most modern Americans it means very little, their brains (as I talked about last week) will skip over it as though it isn't there, not really processing the meaning. However to me it speaks to clearly to this very deep aim and desire both of Lincoln and the founding fathers. It is so evocative and well rounded. There are other elements which I like a lot in the speech, but these two are the ones which stand out the most to me, both as being the main points Lincoln was getting across and as being the most emotionally weighty (perhaps then intentionally so).

It has been interesting writing this entry. It forced me to think a lot about what I appreciate in language and why and I daresay in a year or two I could revisit it and give very different answers. One thing that picking such grandiose examples has made me think about however is the fact that actually on the whole words which I might call elegant are not the most impressive. Actually I appreciate it just as much when it is only a small thing. In a fit of utter ego I wanted to finish by quoting an example of just this from a novel of mine I am currently editing. My protagonist is talking to a dragon in human form and says that she can't believe he is a dragon and he replies:

I can assure you, it should be believed,”

I don't often like my own writing, but something about that phrase jumped out at me despite it only being about a very trivial thing. I hope to create and encounter many more similar examples in the years ahead.

* - [For now I will leave this point hanging here as I think further explanation would detract from the point at hand. I do think it is defensible though.]

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Making sentences

This blog is about words, how putting them carefully in the right order can be incredibly effective, it's an entry I've been thinking about for a long time*. In fact this is a subject I will likely return to many times over the coming years. Generally when I give myself space to think about writing I tend to focus first on how to create good characters, following that comes the story. It is only once I feel those things are squared away that I give myself time to think about the craft of making sentences. There are various reasons for this. Partially I feel that putting too much thought into words can lead to an overactive pretentiousness. Probably I also feel that this is an area where I already have a certain level of competency. However when I do spare it a thought it is clear to me that I care about it an awful lot and that I should try to explain why.

I think when a lot of people think about the importance of words, the thing which comes to mind for them is flowery verbose language (Oscar Wilde describing a garden for instance). There are good reasons for using that form (though I'm personally not a fan) but honestly to me the importance of language is that with careful thought it can penetrate our defences. We have a tendency in our writing and our general speech to fall back on specific terms which are known and understood. A good example is ''From that height the people looked like ants', it is clear what this means, it is a little too clear though. What I mean is that due to repetition this phrase is already known to our brains it has a lot less impact and as a result we don't fully register the meaning. I think a good analogy is the landmarks on your journey to work. After a few years of travelling you hardly notice them (and this is nice, it can make the trip feel shorter in my experience), but if someone were to come along at your side the red brick building might jump out at them. To return to the writing example, if I were instead to say 'From that height the people were a lonely shifting sea' then that is very different. In fact as a result of breaking the phrase it also may say something about the story or the character whose perspective this is from**. The important fact though is that it forces our brains to think and process.

The result of writing like this is that it can be much more impactful and that allows a writer to better get the reader where they want them (I've talked before about how showing people unseen parts of their brain is valuable). There are many examples of this type of writing, in fact I believe I will talk about three of my favourites in next week's blog. However one of the things which I would like to finish by talking again about simplicity. A long time ago I wrote a story from the perspective of a very poorly educated woman in the 1500s. As a result I forced myself to use very simple language to express her thoughts and feelings. I was surprised to find that in describing the meaning of complex words through that lens I rediscovered a lot of the meat of what they really implied. I say this to re-emphasise the fact that saying things in a new way does not mean saying them in a fancier way. Using more unusual words can be valuable, but using only the simplest of words there are still a huge number of undiscovered and important sentences waiting out there and I want to find some of them first.

*(I suspect I have struggled because, given the subject matter I feel an extra responsibility to craft it carefully.)

**(Admittedly it does this at the cost of being somewhat more verbose. The most well known and used phrases tend to get to that position precisely because they work well on the initial reading. Honestly this paragraph went through several iterations where I set myself challenges of phrases to replace (like 'I'm sorry for your loss') and came up empty. This is an incredibly difficult job and one which many writers struggle with every day (many others simply don't bother).)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Who needs fresh air!

This weekend I didn't leave the flat at all. I didn't get any fresh air and honestly, I liked it. However it got me thinking about all of the times when I was told when I was younger to go and play outside. I always disliked this, it seemed to me as though the arguments in favour of it were rather strange and inconsistent. I am not sure that the air outside was actually any fresher, in fact considering the area of London I grew up in it may have been less so.

I looked back upon this argument, still sitting untouched and unuttered in my brain, and I had a realisation. I think my young self was right. There are more genuine arguments for being outside, getting vitamin D or getting some exercise, but those are both things I can get if I walk on a treadmill next to a window. The problem is that I could poke holes in all of these arguments and make perfectly good ones of my own about why I shouldn't go outside. Once that is done, as far as I am concerned, I win and even if (as I child) I am forced to comply, I still know that I was in the right. This then is my realisation, that I think there is an impulse which many people have, to argue against what they are told and to try to prove the teller wrong. I am built in this way certainly. Now though, I think that it may be the case that this impulse is flawed.

Going back to the argument about going outside. Perhaps every reason I was given was wrong, but that doesn't mean that it is wrong. Perhaps there is a kind of aerie freedom which being outside offers us which being inside does not, a way that having no ceiling above me might lift certain thoughts from my mind. In a less poetic direction, there is the beginnings of another argument in the fact that there are agoraphobics, but there is no equivalent (that I am aware of) who fears the inside. This suggests that the outside is fearful and in turn this implicates the outside as a place of possibility and uncertainty. We all need those things, even those of us who fear them. At this point I am throwing arguments around just for the sake of making them, a lazy exercise in proving my own 13 year old self wrong, but there's a larger point here.

I think there is a phenomena not often talked about whereby smart (or even not smart) people talk themselves into certain ways of thinking. I have talked before about how I like to force myself to take upon the beliefs of people I disagree with, to see what things would look like from their perspective. However I think that this is a problem which tends to hit closer to home. If disagreeing with a Christian is looking at a different landmass and saying it is wrong. I think this type of internal argument is looking down at your intellectual feet and saying “wherever I'm standing is correct” and only then finding justification.

This is a tough area to think about. It is thinking about thinking (and perhaps even strays into thinking about thinking about thinking) and applying this from day to day requires a strange introspection which isn't always useful. However what I will say is that, although I'm not sure I will go outside next weekend, I will certainly not look down on those who do. Even when the reason they give is that they need the fresh air, perhaps their real reason is something much deeper and more profound.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Tricking my brain to think long term

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how to start to force myself to act more concretely towards the long term. I have long felt that given a series of choices about what to do on a given Sunday afternoon, there are some things which will be nice in the short term (like eating icecream and watching a bad tv show) and there are some which will be less nice or even nasty in the short term, but very nice in the long term (like getting in shape or, in my case, practicing my writing).

Clearly this is a spectrum of benefits. For instance by my standards watching a bad tv show is much worse than watching something good which I can learn from and which might even teach me something. In some ways this is a choice, a decision which we all need to make about what is important to our long term growth. Having the desire to be a great chef will prioritise a completely different set of activities than that to be great dancer*. The important thing is that there is a choice to be made and a part of that choice is about deciding where you would like to be in some number of years.

The problem then, as far as I see it, is that making this choice is only the first step. I have said for many years that I want to be a great writer. I knew that was what I wanted to do, but for years I just wrote maybe one short story a year. That was the equivalent of someone saying they wanted to be an Olympic runner and then only training one day a year. To get to long term goals you need to make plans and then you also need to be able to act upon those plans. In some ways I think how to find the drive to act is pretty much the defining question of the 21st century**. I know that I personally have struggled with this a lot. I thought then that it might be interesting (for you and for me) to talk a little bit about what I do to motivate myself to do things.

The first one is that I get numbers involved. I have written hundreds of thousands of words every year ever since I set myself yearly targets and started tracking how much I was doing on a spreadsheet from day to day. I think that this did two things. The first was that it gave me a target to aim for, but not a target which I could fail at. What I mean by that is that it wasn't as though I said 'I will write a thousand words a day' (which my yearly target often amounted to). A target like that could be failed and then I would most likely give up. By making it a yearly target I could do nothing for an entire month and still have the potential to catch up (in fact one of the biggest numbers I track in my spreadsheet is how many words per day I need to do now to reach my target). The second big thing which this spreadsheet does is that it gives me a sense of achievement. Partially I can achieve by beating my target for the day and feeling good about that, but also I can look back on what I did manage to do in the past year and see undeniably just how many words I wrote.

The second big thing I did was that I made a concerted effort to think through my long term goals as though I was planning them for someone else. This is a process I return to every now and again and it is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it allowed me to look at my list of things I wanted to improve at and see that it was far too big and needed to be pared down. Another is that it allows me to see where I am going wrong and where I'm falling back a bit and I can re-plan to account for that. Finally it lets me find new targets and re-plan my approach based on both what works for me, but also what I have read about as good ways to learn the skills I want to acquire.

The final tactic which I have begun following a lot recently is what I do in the local time when I have that brief choice of fun thing or hard thing. I really like the approach that says you do the hard thing for just two minutes, no more, and then you make the decision. Normally what happens in that situation (as it did with this blog entry) is that I find there is no longer a choice to make, I did the hard thing for as long as I wanted anyway***.

I want to finish by saying that this is, I think, not advice you should necessarily follow. Rather I believe that this is an area where every person has to find there own way of doing what they want to do. Each brain is different and if you want to trick your brain to work in the long term then you need to find smoke and mirrors which will work on you specifically.

* (Though I am generally of the opinion that picking up a broad range of more general skills and knowledge is a good thing for you as a person. I've known too many scientists who didn't read or know anything about politics. Having said that, I think that is also a choice to be made).

** (For the first time we have access to a huge amount of education for free. If I wanted to learn chemical engineering I could probably get a very large percentage of the way there without spending a cent more than the cost of my internet subscription. That's amazing, but it's also tough, we can't hide behind barriers anymore, we just have to accept that we don't have the willpower to do things).

*** ('Do the hard thing' is actually one of my main... I suppose the word would be mottos. It is just so significant now that we have so much leisure time and entertainment at our fingertips)