The wonder of the Short Story


short stories science fiction ghostI’ve always preferred short stories to novels. There are two reasons I think. One is that it’s so exciting to discover the one (or sometimes two) really big ideas that a short story can present that really make you stop and think. The other is that if the story’s boring you can safely skip it and jump onto the next one.

I’ve published my first collection of short stories. My intention is to ask the question, ‘What if?’, to take a situation and give it just one or two big ideas, like an extra twist, at right angles to reality, to make characters twitch and a situation unfold. That, for me, is the essence of science fiction: to make just one or two changes to the universe we know about and see where those changes could lead.

It’s a mixture of science fiction and ghost stories. Much as I love the clichéd paraphernalia of film and television science fiction; the cheeky or dangerous robots, the spaceships, the starships and the bolt cruisers, the bug-eyed monsters and the cyborgs, and as much as I expected myself to, I found I wasn’t really including them in my stories.

It comes in part from the thing that non-science fiction fans hate the most; that the technobabble gets in the way of the story, or is a substitution for it. I know what they mean, and I agree.

Godstow nunneryFor me, in writing these stories, I had the further thought of where my imagination might be sourced. I wanted to make sure my invented worlds were as original and believable as possible and did not want to adopt or ride on the back on any pre-existing science fiction methodology. By that I mean how some authors adopt the short hand or methods of another writer. It’s easy to do, but if I’m going to write about visiting other worlds, I don’t want to rely on hyperdrives or warp drives, teleports or transporters, have evil empires or benevolent federations without good reason, independently arrived at. That’s why most of my stories have to be drawn from something I know something about, which admittedly isn’t that much. Some things are harder to avoid. If you’re writing about robots, you’re going to bump into Asimov who’s already been down that road. If you go to Mars, you’ll probably find Ray Bradbury, and if you start exploring subterranean crypts, H.P. Lovecraft will lock the door behind you.

I first started creating stories in the playground with my friend Barry. Aged eight, we became fascinated by the idea of creating a whole world-view within which to set a franchise of stories (although we’d never use or even know those words), like Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Star Trek. Barry knew about the military, so he added the workings and politics of army know-how. I was interested in spaceship and robot design and we both loved the psychological weirdness of Sapphire and Steel. Together we invented motivated villains and evil races. We concocted a reason how the Earth in the near future could engage in interstellar travel by having a ‘wormhole’ appear in the orbit of Jupiter. (We didn’t call it a wormhole, it was a ‘Time/Space Tunnel or Portal’). The playground stories became comic strips and then written down tales as we became older and the stories more sophisticated. We’d created a structure that, if published today, would seem similar to Star Trek Deep Space Nine, although our vision was created fourteen years earlier.

The WallThe stories I’ve collected in The Voice in the Light are about the thoughts that occupy my conscious and subconscious mind: the nature of dreams, of faith, of history, time, and the nature of light. They’re inspired by the kind of writers I’ve enjoyed, that some might call classic science fiction; Brian Aldiss, John Wyndam, Frank Herbert and Larry Niven, forgotten authors like Paul Capon and more recent deities like Douglas Adams and Philip Pullman.

Some of these stories were written over the last year, some a decade earlier, and a few over twenty-five years ago, although I’m not going to reveal which is which. You can try to guess.

Each story comes with an illustration I’ve done (in pen and ink).

The book is available in paperback and on Kindle at a very reasonably low price.

My only wish is that you enjoy reading the 18 stories as much as I enjoyed writing them, and perhaps one or more of them does make you stop and ponder and think, ‘that’s interesting. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…’

ink drawingHere’s a description of the kind of stories you’ll find…

• A boy seeks solace from his imaginary friend from another dimension…

• A robotic experiment goes disastrously wrong. But why is a psychic detective called in?

• Imagine being able to create extra time to spend as you wish. What would you do with it?…

• A machine that allows you to ‘see’ into the past…

• In a distant future, our cities are avoided as cursed tombs of a doomed race…

• A student joke with a ouija board unlocks a dark past and a prediction is made as to who will die first…

• A boy enters a secret world to enlist magical creatures to help him do his homework…

Get your copy in paperback or Kindle.

 

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

To listen my radio show show iTunes here. If you enjoy it, please do give us a rating.

Book Ayd to run an Innovation Ideastorm Masterclass in your organisation.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

I thought of that first!


You’ve heard the phrases, ‘Great minds think alike’ when you mention that you’d already thought of it. Someone probably mentioned to you the so-called ‘human superconscious’ (or is it ‘subconscious’). Some people say that ideas aren’t ours anyway, they’re gifts from God, the gods, or the Universe.

None of that’s any consolation when YOU had the idea first and then someone else comes up with it totally independently. You know they couldn’t have copied you, but somehow seem to have a version of it so close that they must have.

Is it that there’s nothing more potent than an idea that is now due? It’s certainly true in science and invention where, in 1669, differential calculus was invented both by Sir Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Germany.

Just one hour before Alexander Graham Bell registered his patent for the telephone in 1876, Elisha Gray patented his design. After years of litigation, the patent went to Bell. (See more famous things invented by different people at the same time here) .

We can see how that could apply to inventions computer and the television where numerous minds were, albeit independently, working on the same big problem.

But what happens when your idea surfaces for a story idea. An original, random-like idea that no-one could have possibly been working on from the same angle, surely?

Many published and famous authors have a policy of not opening mail that may contain story ideas. So don’t hand your story ideas to J.K.Rowling at a book signing. She’s had to deal with enough people who thought they’d had the idea of a boy wizard first so daren’t risk looking at anyone else’s ideas.

Russell T Davies, the writer and former executive producer of the television programme Doctor Who said that the BBC had to change its policy on unsolicited scripts and story ideas. They did this to avoid legal cases where someone may have felt their idea was stolen, even unconsciously. After all, there are only so many basic storylines and if you throw in an alien race, robots, time travel and monsters you’ve probably described a dozen Doctor Who adventures quite accurately.

It’s happened to me a number of times. I wrote a story in 1979 that featured as its premise a large ‘worm hole’ (although I called it a transdimensional black hole) at the edge of our solar system allowing the characters from Earth to visit a distant galaxy and for a fleet of aliens to invade Earth. To any science fiction fan, that’s obviously a description of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993 (and Babylon 5 I suppose, from the same time).

But I got there first!

In 1983 in anticipation of the third Star Wars film, I had a dream in which I went into a toy shop and saw in a glass case dozen of Star Wars figures of characters that I’d never seen before. When I woke, I drew them all. Not one appeared like them in Return of the Jedi, but three of them did turn up 16 years later in 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Psychic premonition or random chance?

I don’t rate either of those as that remarkable. I won’t be seeking legal advice.

Then there’s the case that caused me to write this blog.

In 1997 I wrote a short detective science fiction story based on a premise that I’d never come across before, combining physiology, the supernatural, artificial intelligence and robotics. I re-read this week hoping that perhaps it was perhaps worthy of doing something with. I’d never shown it to anyone, let alone send it to any publisher.

It was on my archive hard drive in a version of Microsoft Word from 1992. The only way to open it was Textedit and strip out all the funny codes.

My wife then read it and questioned when I’d written it. She commented that it was superficially similar to an episode the BBC’s Dirk Gently series, written and broadcast this earlier this year on BBC4.

So is there much hope for my story if everyone who reads it thinks I’m the one who copied an idea? (You decide, click here).

So what can we do about this when it happens?

Nothing.

Or rather it’s a reminder that when you have an idea, use it, do it, get it done and finished and out there in the open, protected by copyright or patent if that’s relevant. But don’t sit on it and wait as sooner or later, another great mind might well just think of it too.

You can’t protect ‘an idea’. You can only protect and claim ownership of the execution of an idea. So when you have a great idea, don’t hoard it, execute it.

Not only will you not get the credit, glory (and maybe cash) from coming up with the idea first, but if someone did beat you too it, how annoying would it be if their execution isn’t as good as yours would have been…

Would you like to read my 1997 short story? If you’ve seen the Dirk Gently episode in question you’ll then know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you’ll think it’s not the same thing at all…

Click here to read it.

“What you can do or think you can do, begin it.  For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it.”
– W. H. Murray*

(*It wasn’t Goethe who said that by the way, if that was what you were thinking. Murray got there first.)

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

Why our children need to write Science Fiction


4th Doctor Tom Baker and black Dalek SecThe starting point didn’t ever bother me. The teacher may have told us to write a story about our families, the supermarket, the past, a walk in the woods or to finish a story from his opening paragraph or anything…

Whatever it was, I’d write just two paragraphs before incorporating a brightly lit saucer landing in the woods, a visitor from the future, a portal into the past, people revealed as aliens, or robots, a curse from ancient Egypt, a primordial evil hiding in a dark lake, a creature in a zoo that turns out to be sentient, an alien invasion is really an intergalactic game of tiddlywinks…

Me aged 13: “He strained his eyes to fix on a unusual shape which was slowly lowering. It was a large saucer shaped object with a gleaming metal hull, reflecting the snow and trees.”

Teachers response: “You are a cunning devil! You managed to introduce what is obviously an interest of yours into”

I always turned the premise into Science Fiction.

And I was criticised and marked down for doing so.

I was driven by a ‘search for interesting’ (to me, a definition of creativity) and a desire to twist the mundane by a turn of the screw to see the ordinary afresh, from a different perspective, to explore the unexpected and to find rationale in the unexplained.

But my teachers didn’t agree. They felt it was childish and unsophisticated.

I think this is a shame. More than a shame. A crisis.

To an outsider, Science Fiction as a genre is still misunderstood and the tendency with poor writing (in some books, some television and films) to rely on clichéd concepts such as unimaginative spaceships, mad robots and generic aliens makes many people overlook the main purpose of Science Fiction (also referred to as SF by purists, but never Sci-Fi). This bias and misunderstanding has in the past alienated many, especially young girls from the genre. It’s interesting to note that the new production of Doctor Who set out with re-dressing this balance and have achieved it with the ratio of girls and boys watching the programme almost equal.

Science Fiction has the unique capabilities to allow a child to explore themselves and their world in non-literal ways.

Science Fiction’s alternative title is ‘Speculative Fiction’. It is stories that are driven by a ‘what if?’ question. The answer to this question is answered by the story using real-world science to extrapolate it and to drive the characters and the plot. Science Fiction keeps most things constant and has one or a few variables that can then be explored.

This is the essential difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, although the lines are often blurred.

Star Trek, the television and film series is Science Fiction. It has a number of plot devices that are beyond our current technology including teleportation and faster-than-light travel. But within the story framework these technologies are explained in scientific, believable ways with their own rules and limitations that are kept constant within the story. In fact, those two technologies are plot device conceits and not the driving force for the story, they are story enablers. In reality it would take centuries to travel to the stars, the distance between them is so great and it is a complicated and long-winded process to safely travel from orbit to land on a planet. The ‘Warp Drive’ and ‘Transporter’ fictional technologies remove the mundane to tell a much more interesting story. The story of Star Trek, the speculative ‘what if?’ is: ‘what would it be like to travel to strange new worlds and visit new civilisations?’

Harry Potter is not Science Fiction. It too has unrealistic devices, and they are consistent within the world of the story, but these are not explained in any other way other than ‘magic’ and cannot be extrapolated from our understanding of real-world technology. This makes Harry Potter Fantasy.

When it comes to examining the film series Star Wars as a genre, people tend to make an interesting mistake. They often think it is ‘futuristic’ because it features robots and spaceships and yet the opening phrase that begins the film is ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’. This is the same as the well know start to many a story, ‘once upon a time’ and frames Star Wars, like Cinderella, as a fairy tale and not Science Fiction. No serious attempt is made in Star Wars to rationalise space travel, how light sabres work, how the robots appear to be conscious and what The Force is. Star Wars is fantasy disguised as Science Fiction.

Doctor Who is yet more complicated. The premise is Science Fiction: ‘an alien who looks like a man, travels through time and space in a time machine made by a lost civilisation that resembles a 1960s Police Box that is bigger on the inside.’ But unlike other franchises, Doctor Who changes genre from story to story, some stories are straight Science Fiction, some are fantasy, some thriller or historical drama, comedy, tragedy and even romance. Doctor Who is better described as ‘Science Fantasy’.

When teaching children storytelling, I believe it is important for them to realise which overall genre their story is fitting into if it is to include what appear to be Science Fiction elements: are they creating a whole new world with its own rules and physical laws where literally anything can happen? Is so, that’s fantasy (the most solid example in Literature may well be Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Or are they keeping most of the rules of the known world and for dramatic effect or as a speculative story driver, choosing to twist, re-invent or magnify one or more real-world rules. If so, they are writing Science Fiction.

This is why Science Fiction is so enthralling, so exciting to read and to write, and so useful to us as a civilisation. It allows us to look at an aspect of ourselves from a different perspective. The stories explored in Star Trek are not really about space travel, aliens and the future, they are all about fragments of ourselves, now. In one story, Captain Kirk and his crew are bemused by a race of people who have one side of their faces black and the other white and yet are fighting each other. When asked why, a man retorts, “Isn’t it obvious! He has the white side on the left and black on the right and we have it the other way round!”. (Let That Be Your Last Battlefield). This Science Fiction allows the story to explore racism.

Children’s relationship to Science Fiction is usually based on the magical attraction of the fantastical otherness of outer space, aliens and the excitement of adventure. But it can also be the appeal of a relationship with a creature such as a robot or alien with whom the child can connect in their own way on their own terms without the trappings of their own weaknesses.

This is why Star Wars worked in the first place: children identified with the cute robots in a way that adults couldn’t and would not. (There’s more on this here). This is why children, especially boys, still love steam engines, cars and other machines which they can easily bestow consciousness into. It also connects to the most primordial of children’s secret fantasies: the imaginary friend. The mobile dustbin-like robot, R2D2, in Star Wars is really a modern variation of the teddy bear.

When children desire to use Science Fiction techniques and motifs they may already be using their writing to explore themselves and their world, without any need for guidance and literally knowledge.

On the surface they may conjure up spaceships and monsters but don’t let these fool us. They may already be using these devices in the same way as the greatest Science Fiction authors, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham or Ray Bradbury, did, as cloaked methods of exploring and explaining their own inner worlds in a way that straightforward ‘literal’ fiction cannot.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com