The unfamiliar familiar


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

“…he drew forth an evil weapon, a long yellowish tube ending in a bellows and a trigger. He turned, and upon his face was a mask, hammered from silver metal… The mask glinted, and he held the evil weapon in his hands, considering it. It hummed constantly, an insect hum. From it hordes of golden bees could be flung out with a high shriek. Golden, horrid bees that stung, poisoned, and fell lifeless, like seeds on the sand.”

I love that description. It’s so evocative. It builds a mental image that hasn’t been seen before and raises questions that haven’t been asked before. And yet what it describes is perhaps simply a gun and bullets. But it’s done so powerfully and emotively that the purpose of the weapon is built into the description. An ordinary thing, well understood by us all has been described anew. This is what poetry is. To evoke an image or feelings with such few words.

That extract is from The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury who died in June 2012.  He was probably my favourite author. His writings shaped how I chose to write and his way of writing coloured how I thought about writing.

There’s a magic in the unfamiliar familiar – viewing something from a different perspective.

Bradbury was the master of evocative descriptions that made you think and see in a different way and ask questions that had never been asked. He was the master of the ‘what if?’, many of his stories explored a speculative idea and took us on a journey to it’s startling conclusion. Going on that journey stretched the mind and exercise our creativity. Which is why everyone should read good science fiction, and good poetry.

Many years ago I wrote a short story, inspired by Bradbury, based on two ‘What if?’ questions. They were ‘What if our civilisation wasn’t the first to rise to our current level of technology?’ and ‘What if all the iron on Earth oxidized (i.e. rusted) instantaneously?’ (Read it here.)

I later found out that Bradbury himself had already tackled the rust question in a story called A Piece of Wood. He’s paired it up with a different primary agenda, ‘is war inevitable?’. You can read that story in his collection, Long After Midnight.

Here are two creativity exercises for you.

1. Choose an ordinary object (for example a coffee mug) and describe it without using familiar or mundane short cuts or cliches. Try to invoke the purpose of the object in your description (for example the coffee mug is yearning to be filled with a hot dark liquid as only then does it become complete).

This exercise not only teaches us about poetry but joins up neural pathways in our brains, enhancing our thinking and problem solving capabilities.

2. Choose a ‘What If?’ question such as ‘What if we could no longer use iron and steel’ and list out what the far-reaching consequences could be.

This too, stretches the mind and enhances our possibility thinking ability, helping us to make bigger and better intuitive leaps, the secret unconscious method of being more creative.

And if you want to read my short story, New Age of Darknessclick here.

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

The Power of ‘What If?’


The Power of What if? Ayd Instone innovation creativity conference keynoteHow can we trigger innovative thought, consistently, deliberately and when we need it?

One way is to use the power of a simple question. It’s a question at the heart of creativity, invention and imagination. It’s the force behind all creative storytelling, especially Science Fiction which can be defined as ‘What If?’ extrapolated into a story).

The question ‘What If?’ can be thought of as an energy field that can power our creativity. Just like most energies, it can be used to manifest both positive and negative effects with very different results. The qualifying factor to the question is how we relate it to time.

If we ask ‘what if?’ about the past, which we have no control over, it can easily lead to feelings of regret. E.g. “What if that had never happened?”, “What if I’d worked harder?”

But if we apply it to the future it fires our possibility thinking and leads, either directly or indirectly, to hope.

“What if there was a better way to do this?”

If we imagine an undesired outcome in the future, our brains begin to work on methods to prevent that future coming to past, or at least find the path of least damage. Imagining even our worst fears of the future gives us hope because we are still in the present with some chance, however small, to shape and even change the future.

If we imagine a desired outcome, our brains begin to fill in the gaps to speed the passage of the present into the desired future by directing our subconscious to incubate the problem until solutions or opportunities present themselves.

The application of ‘what if?’ fires the imagination and problem solving capacities of the brain and that imagination begins to manifest the emotions of the outcome.

This isn’t an application of the supernatural, so-called ‘law of attraction’. This isn’t about asking the universe, or God, or wishful thinking. This is the relatively simple neuroscience of the imagination.

Negative emotions based on regret will slow us down, but positive emotions based on desired outcomes, hope and wonder, will drive us and motivate us to seek out and manifest the desired outcome.

Wondering ‘what if?’ defines us as scientists, exploring the universe of possibilities. Taking action on those possibilities to manifest an outcomes makes us artists. It’s this blend of being both artist and scientist is what it means to be a creative mind.

Asking the question and seeking the answer is the start of creative innovation. That’s the power of ‘what if?’

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


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