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Beating the blank page: How to jumpstart your story

Have you ever sat in front of a blank page, intimidated by its pristine white emptiness? Sometimes, you want to write but you just don’t know where to start. You don’t know how to jump into the story.

I know the feeling. Sometimes I get it at the start of a new book, sometimes at the start of a chapter. The good news is, I’ve developed a little hack that gets the words flowing.

Firstly, try not to worry about despoiling the page. You’re not the first explorer in an antarctic wilderness. You can always delete everything and start again. Empty pages aren’t sacred spaces; they’re expendable. They’re ammunition. So, put away any guilt you may have about messing them up.

The second thing you must realise is that in the long run, the first words you write today don’t matter. You will come back and edit them later. You may even decide to delete this whole first chapter. But right now, the important thing is to get the story going. You can’t edit words that aren’t there.

In physics, objects at rest possess an inertia that needs to be overcome in order to move them. It takes more energy to start something moving than to keep it moving. And stories are the same. So, what we need it a jumpstart to get the ball rolling.

We aren’t going to aim for perfection here. We can’t know what the perfect opening for our story will be until we’ve written a good chunk of it and its shape becomes clearer.

Are you ready?

Okay, open your document and write a single word. Any word at all. Don’t overthink it; just write the first one that comes to mind, whatever it is.

Now, put that word in speech marks, and suddenly it’s a line of dialogue.

On the next line down, write “What?”

Now, you have the start of a conversation, keep it going. Don’t worry about writing descriptions or attributes at this stage. You can fill them in later, once this scene’s achieved the momentum it needs to keep going. Simply alternate lines of dialogue, one after the other, until the conversation starts to acquire a shape and you begin to get a feel for the identities of the speakers.

As I said, you can go back later and edit or delete all this; for now, its purpose is to start you moving. Just keep the voices talking, and see where it leads.

Do you have any hacks to get over writer’s block? Why not share them in the comments below?


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The future of wearable exo-skeletons

A recent issue of The Engineer carried a story about a tetraplegic man who has taken his first steps in a laboratory thanks to an exoskeleton suit developed by biomedical research centre Clinatec and the University of Grenoble. On the same page, it also mentioned that Birmingham University researchers have developed a new self-healing polymer-based hydrogel that can be used to print soft biomaterials to repair defects in the body.

Mention exoskeletons to any science fiction fan, and they will immediately think of Ripley’s clunky yellow power loader from the 1986 film Aliens—a kind of wearable JCB that gets repurposed in the finale as a suit of armour. But might these new developments offer us the opportunity to do something a little more radical than reinvent the fork-lift truck?

While both the US and Russia are developing military exoskeletons to improve the strength, speed and stamina of their soldiers, these essentially amount to a series of struts and motors strapped to the limbs of the individual. Add in one of the jet packs currently also under development, and we have the beginnings of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.

However, if these exoskeletons can be controlled by wireless electrodes in the brain (as they are in the case of the man who just took his first steps in the prototype mentioned at the top of this article), it begs the question: do we need the human present at all?

If we can print biomaterials and a workable skeleton, could we combine them to form synthetic bodies controlled by a living operator some distance away? It could certainly be one solution to reducing air travel. Instead of flying across the Atlantic, you would hook yourself into an artificial body designed to resemble you, and attend your business meeting, publicity junket or political summit remotely—with the advantage of being able to shake hands and physically interact with the other attendees.

Another application, assuming the haptic feedback from the synthetic fingers could be made fine enough to enable a genuine sense of touch and dexterity, could be in the construction of disposable bodies for bomb disposal experts, or clean-up crews in radioactive or otherwise toxic environments—maybe even construction crews on the seabed. Imagine being able to walk around the wreck of the Titanic or explore the depths of a deep ocean trench.

As the technology matures and the interface between the machine and the nervous system gets better, these remote bodies could be used for more intimate purposes, such as maintaining a long-distance sexual relationship.

And who says we even have to stick with making them human? Perhaps you could roam the forests of India in the body of a tiger or ride the Rocky mountain updrafts as an eagle. Maybe we could even replace the bulls at Pamplona with synthetic bulls controlled by gamers from around the globe, allowing thrill seekers to brave a trampling while sparing actual animals the stress of the event—and who wouldn’t want to remotely gore a few tourists, just for fun?

On a more serious note, might it be possible to create tiny creatures that could allow surgeons to remotely explore the inner workings of the human body in order to diagnose and combat tumours and other disorders—although the cognitive dissonance of ‘inhabiting’ such a creature might take a bit of getting used to!

William Gibson famously wrote that, “The street finds its own use for things.” The same goes for the military. Any technology allowing a doctor to enter and fix a human body could also be used to allow an assassin to infiltrate and wreck one from the inside. Snip a couple of blood vessels in the brain, the results will resemble a stroke, and your opponent will have died from apparently natural causes.

So far, all these speculations have been earthbound. As a science fiction writer, I have to look higher and think weirder. Yes, we could have remote astronauts walking barefoot across the Sea of Tranquillity, but that seems rather tame. Instead, picture jacking your consciousness into a balloon-like creature riding the winds of Jupiter, or maybe a swarm of tardigrades on the surface of Titan.

Thinking bigger still, we could print a whale-like organism, equip it with fusion motors, and set it off into interstellar space. The ‘lag’ between operator and ship would gradually grow unmanageable as distance increases—by the time it reached our nearest star, a signal from Earth would take four years to reach it, and another four years to return—it would still be theoretically possible to access the remote and experience what it experienced four years previously; ideal if you wanted to feel you were gazing on an alien star system with your own eyes!


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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The future of face recognition technology

October 2019’s issue of The Engineer featured an article discussing the controversy surrounding trials of live facial recognition (LFR) technology by South Wales Police and the Metropolitan Police.

Put simply, LFR technology enables a computer connected to a surveillance system to recognise individuals in real-time, which could allow those individuals to be tracked and behavioural profiles compiled. But while this kind of state scrutiny might set off alarm bells in those of us who have read 1984, there are implications to this technology that not even George Orwell could have foreseen.

As a science fiction writer, my job is to look not at how people will be using a piece of technology tomorrow, but to imagine what they might be doing with in it ten, fifty, even a hundred years from now.

So, what might the world look like by the end of the next decade if we assume that we’ll have LFR technology that’s sophisticated enough not to be easily fooled by sunglasses or beards, and cheap enough to be accessed by most organisations and even some individuals?

Perhaps your employer will require you to spend a certain amount of time at the gym each week in order to retain your health benefits. They will also know which shops you frequent and probably what you buy there, as well as how many times a week you visit a bar.

Investigators will be able to track the movements of cheating spouses. Self-driving taxis will recognise you and allow you to choose a destination from your ‘favourites’ list, while playing you a selection of music from your online playlists. Smart panels on the walls of shopping centres, offices and hotels will change not only the advertisements they display for you, but also the entire décor of the space you’re in.

But what happens if this technology gets abused? I’m not talking about a kind of Big Brother state panopticon, as that appears inevitable. Rather, I’m talking about more unscrupulous adaptations.

What if neighbourhoods and shopping malls refuse entry to known or suspected offenders? What if airlines deny service to customers they consider ‘high risk’ based on their ethnicity?

Journalists and stalkers could easily track the movements of celebrities using drones able to scan and recognise faces. On a more disturbing note, this technology could  be used for assassinations, allowing a drone carrying a few grams of high explosive to select and pursue a target.

Of course, the deployment of LFR technology will lead to the development of countermeasures. The most basic of these might be as simple as a large parka hood maybe paired with mirrored sunglasses or contact lenses that change the colour of the eyes, while more sophisticated methods could employ dazzle camouflage, using make-up to create optical illusions on the face, obscuring its exact proportions, or patterns that present as interference when viewed through a camera. One can also picture backstreet surgeons altering a person’s facial appearance in order to supply them with a new identity in a world where your face is your passport.

With the rise of deep-fake technology, it’s also not unreasonable to imagine the
ability for members of the public to 3-D print masks in the exact likeness of celebrities or politicians, in order to obscure their own movements or frame those individuals for crimes or infidelities. If identity theft in 2019 is a problem, imagine how much worse it would be if a criminal stole your face and used it to access your bank account, cast fraudulent votes, and maybe even place you at the scene of a murder.

Looking further into the future, we might consider the development of a self-aware artificial intelligence. What might such a creature do if it recognised the technicians who were coming to shut it down? Perhaps it might use some of the methods mentioned above to track down and eliminate those opposed to its existence, or those involved in competing projects. It might even seek out and kill its designers in order to ensure it remains one of a kind, unchallenged in its digital existence.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

Moving The Moon

The Moon is often portrayed as a dead world, but it is rich with fictional potential.

Fifty years on from Apollo, most of the discussions around returning to the Moon focus on mining or colonisation. Both could be useful and even profitable enterprises, but are there other, more off-the-wall reasons to visit our celestial companion? Could the Moon help us fight climate change?

Lots of people have suggested covering the Moon’s surface with solar cells in order to harvest a lot of clean energy and beam it back to receiving stations on Earth. But why stop there? As a science-fiction author, my job is to take inspiration from today’s headlines and add a dash of wild speculation.

So, how about we make the Moon’s shadow larger?

Imagine building a 1,000km-high mast on the Moon, at the border between its visible and hidden faces. Now imagine building another 100km away, and then another. Eventually, you get the visible Moon ringed by these huge spikes, like a grapefruit with hundreds of cocktail sticks stuck in it. Now imagine we hang mirrored material between these masts. This would make the Moon appear much larger and therefore blot out the Sun’s rays over a wider area of the Earth’s surface, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by a small but significant fraction.

Not wild enough? Okay then, how about we draw down the Moon?

Since its formation, the Moon has been gradually pulling away from the Earth at a speed of almost 4cm per year. Although that doesn’t sound like much, it is enough to subtly slow the Earth’s rotation, increasing the length of our days.

One-and-a-half billion years ago, the days on Earth lasted only 18 hours. Now, they last 24 and, in the far future, they may last even longer.

However, if we could use giant motors or near misses by large asteroids to move the Moon closer to the Earth, we could maybe reset this process, using a faster-orbiting Moon to increase the Earth’s rotation and shorten our days.

Why would we want to do that? Well, assuming we could withstand the resultant earthquakes and manage not to drop the entire Moon into the Pacific, the main effect of a shorter day would be that it would give the East and West hemispheres of the Earth less time to warm up in the glare of the Sun. The oceans would have less time to absorb heat, and winters would become colder. In addition, a faster-rotating Earth would give us faster-moving tides, which could have implications for tidal power generation – not to mention surfers.

But if we had such god-like powers of celestial engineering, why stop with simply moving the Moon? Why not find more Moons?

Manoeuvring asteroids and comets into orbits around the Earth would put their resources at our fingertips. I don’t want to start sounding like an eccentric billionaire trying to push a tech start-up, but asteroid mining would provide a cornucopia of ores and minerals, making the idea financially attractive. And if you’re mining material in orbit, it makes sense to process it on-site. You could also move heavy, polluting industries into orbit, decreasing the CO2 emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.

All those little Moons would also provide more opportunities to create Sun-blocking mirrors to shield our atmosphere from heat. Imagine looking up at the night sky and seeing a ribbon of lights stretching across from one horizon to another, each one a small town or industrial installation.

As a pragmatist, this might sound like a lot of starry-eyed foolishness; but as a writer, the idea’s almost irresistible. It would make a great setting for a story. What would the people who lived on these tiny Moons be like? What kind of societies would they have? Would they be pioneers building a life in the sky, or contracted employees doing months-long shifts in orbit? Would they owe allegiance to one nation, to the whole Earth, or to themselves?

What sort of engineers would be needed in such a world? You’d need to be able to work and thrive in freefall. Perhaps you’d have physical adaptations to help you deal with the long-term health effects of living with reduced gravity. You’d certainly need to adapt your skills and techniques to working in a whole new environment; maybe you’d even need to develop some new ones.

Too often, the Moon is portrayed as a dead world. But with the right kind of imagination, we can see it’s alive with possibilities. The schemes I’ve outlined above are crazy, but as we face the reality of global climate change, the idea of finding a way to naturally cool the planet is an attractive one and moving the Moon would make a heck of a science fiction novel.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

40 Recommended SF&F Books

The Californian bookstore Space Cowboy Books asked me to provide a reading list for their monthly newsletter, and this is the result.

When asked to provide a recommended reading list, I had to think hard. I didn’t just want to make a list of books that have meant a lot to me over the years, as many of them are now outdated. Plus, there are so many great writers and classic books that this list would need to omit many of them for the sake of brevity. I could probably have listed 500 books without too much trouble, so I have left out some of the more obvious ones, like Dune, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Bearing all that in mind, I present here—in no particular order—a list of books I’ve enjoyed, books I admire, and books I think every self-respecting modern SF author should read.

1.     Neuromancer by William Gibson

2.     A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

3.     Nova by Samuel R. Delany

4.     Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

5.     The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

6.     Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe.

7.     The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

8.     Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton

9.     Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

10.  Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

11.  Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison

12.  Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling

13.  New Worlds edited by Michael Moorcock

14.  Light by M. John Harrison

15.  Gateway by Frederik Pohl

16.  The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

17.  Gideon The Ninth by Tamsin Muir

18.  Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

19.  The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

20.  Rosewater by Tade Thompson

21.  The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

22.  End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

23.  A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

24.  Seven Devils by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam

25.  Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

26.  The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin 

27.  Star Maker by Olaf Stapeldon

28.  The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

29.  Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

30.  The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

31.  Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

32.  Planetfall by Emma Newman

33.  All Systems Red by Martha Wells

34.  Brasyl by Ian McDonald

35.  Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

36.  Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh

37.  Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

38.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

39.  Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter

40.  Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell (well, I had to include one of mine, didn’t I?)

Getting my sh*t together

I am not a very organised person. I have a chaotic creative brain that doesn’t respond well to admin or accounting. Organising a Direct Debit payment is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. But recently, I’ve felt the need to exert a little more control over my life. So, I’ve turned to technology.

I have an iMac desktop, an old iPhone and a MacBook Air. This means I can access the same files from all three devices. So, I now have a calendar and a reminder list I can refer to and update anywhere (with calendar appointments colour coded for work, social, home, birthdays, etc.).

I am also making use of the Notes app. I have various folders into which I can type story ideas, keep a list of my favourite Instagram hashtags, and generally download anything I need to remember. This is especially handy when an idea strikes while I’m out and about: I can make a note on my phone and know it will be there waiting on my desktop when I get home.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made has been downloading apps for my bank account, PayPal, and HMRC. Previously, I’ve recoiled from anything to do with money; now, I can easily keep track of what’s going in and out of my account.

And to top it off, I’ve even started using the Health app to track the number of steps I walk in a day and the amount of sleep I get.

I told you I was getting my sh*t together.

However, it’s not all a technological wonderland. For some reason, I find habit tracking easier in a paper journal than on a spreadsheet. So, I’m still tracking my daily tasks–writing, reading, alcohol consumption, housework–in an old school bullet journal. Something about colouring in the little squares by hand feels more satisfying than putting a tick in an Excel box. I don’t know why, it just does.

Are there any productivity or admin tools that you couldn’t live without? Let us know in the comments…

New Edition of The Recollection Out Today!

Today, Solaris Books publish the Tenth Anniversary Edition of my novel, The Recollection. I’m so glad to see it getting a new lease of life. I had so much fun writing it, and although I’ve written many books since, it will always have a special place in my heart. If you liked my Embers of War series, you’ll love this.

Instagram

As you probably know, I have an Instagram account. It took me a while to really “get” the platform, though. It’s a lot less interactive than Twitter (where I spend most of my time), and therefore hard to judge whether you’re doing it right or not.

After a few false starts, I’ve settled on posting a combination of writing advice, books that interest me, promotion for upcoming releases, and behind-the-scenes shots from my walks around Bristol and other places.

My Instagram feed

I try to make each post interesting, or at least pretty to look at. I’m quite enjoying using my camera to capture quirky views. I’ve never been a big photographer, but it’s a fun creative outlet that kept me going through lockdown.

This isn’t really an advice column, as there’s still so much about Insta that I don’t know. Each of my posts gets around 40-50 likes, which means over 10% of my followers respond to each one, and that’s a higher level of engagement than I see on Twitter, where I’d need 3k likes per Tweet to get an engagement rate of 10%. Twitter feels more conversational and probably reaches more people, but my followers on Instagram seem to pay more attention…

I’ve no idea how to increase my Instagram following, though. My Twitter following goes up at a pretty steady rate of 200-300 per month, but my Instagram following has stayed more-or-less static for a couple of years. Any suggestions?

If you’re interested, you can find my feed at: Instagram.com/garethlpowell

Beard Care

As a notoriously hirsute author, folk occasionally ask me to give them my top tips for taming their facial foliage. Especially now, as so many of you have grown beards during the lockdowns of the past year, and now want to return to work without looking like a Covid castaway.

Well, I don’t do anything fancy, but I’ll walk you through my routine.

The Essentials

  • A beard comb for straightening out those tangles
  • A good beard trimmer with adjustable cut lengths
  • Beard shampoo to keep your beard clean
  • Beard oil and balm to keep your beard and the skin underneath soft and conditioned

Trimming

If you want to avoid a neck beard (and you really do), take the trimmer and shave away everything below a curved line that runs from ear-to-ear via a point about an inch above your Adam’s apple.

You can experiment with longer settings to keep the rest of your beard at a uniform length–although I keep the front of my beard (the goatee area) slightly longer than the rest, to lengthen the shape of my face and stop it looking so round (a beard can hide a multitude of chins).

Daily Care

After a daily wash with the shampoo, I comb out any tangles, massage in some balm and then apply a little oil to hold in the moisture and keep things shiny.

Et voila!

I told you I didn’t do anything fancy, but I hope that’s useful to those of you who asked for advice. Just a little time and care can keep the face fuzz looking clean and tidy instead of resembling a wild briar patch teeming with scruffy badgers.

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Note: This post is in no way sponsored by or affiliated with the brands depicted; these are simply the products I currently have to hand.