Description in Science Fiction

23 07 2016

Science fiction deals with worlds that are beyond our present day experience, whether it be futuristic extrapolations of our lives on Earth, or made up worlds we will never reach, or universes that we can never possibly believe will happen but are nevertheless interesting to write about, or indeed some other variant.

They all involve the need to describe them, or at least those parts that are different from our own world. Writers cannot rely on the reader knowing what is different from every day experience. The only real exception is if the writer is dealing with a universe that has been written about before e.g. Star Trek.

What is exactly involved in description?

In any story, the description has to include the relevant facts that have an impact on the story. For instance, it is no good say Fred has a weapon. We don’t know whether it is a gun or a laser or a photon torpedo (by the way, who put torpedos in space?).  We have to know what that weapon will do or state what part of it will change the story.

Description has another function beyond saying what is in the world that changes the story. It can also give an atmosphere to a story. There is a difference between saying ‘the apple tree had a poisonous fruit’ and ‘the apple tree was laden with glowing mouth-watering fruits that should have been picked a couple of days ago.’ One states the function and the other lets you work out that there is something very wrong with the fruit. Unless the protagonist knows about the apples, the latter is the more likely description to be written.

There is one further layer to description. It can be written in such a way so as to give the protagonist’s mood. For instance, ‘Jane saw  the soft red glow of the moonlit lake’ is different to ‘Jane saw the bloodied water of the moon’s reflection in the lake.’ The first description is calm and peaceful, whereas the second is inducing fear in the reader because that is the way Jane views the lake.

So we now have three categories of description:

  • point of description that affects the story line
  • protagonist had the knowledge or had to work something from what he senses
  • producing at atmosphere for the protagonist and hence for the reader

Anything else is very likely to be padding or waffle.

This does not mean to say there can’t be tracts of description in one place in the story and its effect comes into play very later on the story. But if you do place the description away from the action or the protagonist working out something, then there has to be good reason for doing so.

If you look at descriptions in many good science fiction books, you’ll find they keep them tight. For example from Luna New Moon by Ian McDonald:

A third time Lucasinho wakes. His father stands at the foot of the bed. A short man, slight; dark and haunted as his older brother is broad and golden. Poised and polished, a pencil line of a moustache and beard, no more; perfect but always scrutinising to keep that perfection: his clothes, his hair, his nails are immaculate.

This description was on page 10 of my copy. During the rest of the novel we see the interplay between Lucasinho’s father and uncle follow the strategy outlined by the description here.



UK Science Fiction After Brexit – Further Notes

15 07 2016

Evidence is being gathered that UK researchers are no longer being invited to become a part of teams bidding for European Union research grants as a result of the Brexit vote. See here for further details.

Which is stupid… it means that the teams who would have otherwise invited British researchers are not inviting the best researchers for their projects. They are going with second best researchers. Which means the research will not be as good. Which means the real results of research will in effect take longer to be identified.

In the meantime that other powerhouse for research, USA, will forge ahead with its own research. Because their main rivals are not as quick in garnering results as before, some USA researchers will keep their work in-house. Which means they can forge ahead developing products with little or no rival and when ready, come to market, with new products. These new products will be sold at premium (business is business), which leads to more of an EU and UK trade deficit with the USA.

So what does this mean for science fiction?

  1. The overall pace of science and technology development will be slower than had been expected (as the USA can take more time to develop their products). So those nifty time lines in science fiction will have to drawn out longer.
  2. The USA can become even more powerful technology-wise. Consequences include Europe being left more behind. The standard of living difference between the USA and EU/UK will diverge. It’ll make for a different world dynamic in the longer term future, which again will affect science fiction stories. We’ll have more of tech-fortress USA against the rest of the world stories. A good example would be if USA developed fusion power. It could keep the tech to itself and sell the energy they generate by it abroad at a premium.
  3. The brain drain from EU/UK of scientists, technologists and engineers to USA will increase. This will accelerate the difference in science-savy culture. The science fiction in the EU/UK will be even less tech-based than it is now.

So all in all, the idiots in other EU countries who refuse to chose the best members of their collaborations are shooting science in the foot, detracting from the success of their future economies and pushing EU/UK science fiction towards less optimistic story lines and more dystopia (which in my opinion we already have too much of).

Depressing, isn’t it?

Well, it would be, except that I’m detecting the stirrings of some unusual politics in the UK. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s a hint here, a snippet there type touch. I’ve got a funny feeling that the UK may, just may (please excuse the pun), be heading for s society that is different from what we’ve been used to since the end of World War 2.

It’s the extrapolation of where this kind of society will lead that UK science fiction ought to be writing about.

Of course, the other EU countries won’t have this advantage on which to base new science fiction.

So this is an opportunity for UK science fiction to take a lead in European (and indeed world) science fiction.





Edit 17/07/2016 – There has been another article on this matter in the Guardian, with more facts and figures to add to picture.

Swedish Science Fiction

10 07 2016

I’ve just come back off a week’s holiday in Gothenburg in Sweden. I even got sunburnt!

Naturally I examined the state of the science fiction bookshops….

The main Swedish bookshop chain, which deals with amongst other things, selling books for children to use at school, consistently had shelves for what they called ‘Fantasy’. This included some science fiction books. I checked two of the chain’s bookshops – apart from size and outlay, not much different. Kind of meh!

I did come across another bookshop dedicated to science fiction – including full size mannequins of star wars characters. [I can never get over how Darth Vader’s shoes are so plain and ordinary compared to the rest of his costume – but maybe it’s me.] It really is an Aladdin’s Cave for SFers…

It’s at Kungsgatan 19, not very far from the Cathedral (not to be confused with the German Church that is close  by). It’s website is here.


Looks to me as if Swedish Science Fiction is rather healthy bookshop-wise! Yay!


British Science FIction after Brexit

29 06 2016

Phew! What a tumultuous couple of weeks! Britain voted to leave the European Union. There will a period of reflection and once Article 50 is invoked a maximum of two years before Britain formally leaves the European Union. As to what terms that happens on is another matter.

At the moment the European Leaders are saying no free market access without the free movement of people. However, the leave vote was predominantly won on the issue of the migrants. So I don’t see how Britain’s government can accept the free market. To me, this confirms my suspicion that the European Union wanted to see Britain leave.

So what are the prospects for Britain outside the EU? Well economically speaking there will have to be belt-tightening, with higher taxes and government spending cuts, to pay for the increased interest on the loans to the UK. The weaker pound will mean higher prices for imported goods, while exports  and tourism to this country will increase. Scotland are again seriously contemplating independence (but are in a weaker position financially now than in 2014 when the oil price and hence hence revenues were higher). So that is a big question mark. There are similar big questions hanging over Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. If this was not so serious and sad, I would say we have had better entertainment than the Game of Thrones.

But what impact will Brexit have on British Science Fiction?

Well with the financial belt-tightening, it means there will be less science fiction book sales. This in turn will mean less books published by the publishers. And of course the publishers will be less willing to take risks on new authors.

Of course this trend will go across most of the book trade, and the entertainment business for that matter.

Those of you who know me, know there’s a but coming… well here it is… I have felt for some time that the traditional economic models are being slowly diverged away from. I can’t put my finger on it… but an example is that the FTSE 100 should not have closed above the level on Thursday evening when is was rising on the assumption that Bremain would win.

It’s time for science fiction to consider a different economic world order and what the impact would be. For instance if I was Prime Minister facing this situation, here’s some of the things I would do:

  1. I would look at the car industry and ‘do a Norway’ i.e. promise to have all new cars being electric cars from say 2025 onwards. That means getting the likes of whoever builds electric cars to set up a factory in this country for home produced electric cars.
  2. I would start to build some of the Severn tidal wave schemes to make us less dependent on energy sources from outside the UK. It would improve our balance of payments in the longer term (short term it would be negative, but I’m sure loans can be obtained for such capital projects). I’m sure there are similar schemes that can be set up elsewhere around the country. In the end I would like to see something like 20% of our energy come from this area of renewables. (This has the added advantage of giving the construction workers some work that would be lost to the reduced house-building that will come as a result of Brexit.)
  3. The smart cities will be given a boost as most of the measures boil down to saving on money – we will start entering the modern era and it will be quicker than our European Union chums because we have more incentive.
  4. 3-D printing will become more prevalent because it will mean we will not have to wait for the spare parts coming from manufacturers around the world, including Europe. We can do interesting stuff now, but with the improvement in what the printers can do…
  5. There is more…

The point I’m making is that science and technology are going to help Britain’s economy. By forcing Britain out of the EU, it means the manufacturers and industry will have even more impetus to go down this road than the EU. So in the longer term I see Britain accelerating past the EU in economic terms.

Science fiction has an important role to play here. It gives people a better understanding of what is around the corner and how they can help themselves. Also it explores how our lives will change and this will help people understand their options much better.

So what I’m saying is that science fiction of the near future variety is needed now more than ever in this country. But don’t expect it to come from the big publishers in the short term as they are worried about profits. Now is the time for the small independent presses who are willing to to a risk on new authors.



Science Fiction Bits and Bobs

12 06 2016

I’ve been quieter than usual due to various commitments and looming deadlines…

One of them is:


Last night I also had a chance to hear Holst’s The Planets played by The Royal Philamonic Orchestra in Bristol – it sure is different from listening to it on any player or radio. I was delighted they also played the accompanying film of the planets. The timing of the orchestra playing the music aligned with the HD perfectly. I’d love to know how the Conductor did that! But some of the images they came up with are inspirational for science fiction writing.


I did manage to sneak into Waterstones before the concert and buy a science fiction book – The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen.9781408858431

Emma was on the MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa as me and I’ve been waiting for her novel to come out. I’ve only had chance to read a few chapters in, but so far it is fulfilling the promise of the early draft excerpts I had chance to see on the course. It’s a brave experience with a really new idea.

Finally one bit of science news – they boffins (what a lovely old fashioned term – maybe I should say scientists and engineers) have been able to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into limestone by getting the carbon dioxide to react with volcanic basalts. See here. They managed to solidify 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide in an unexpectedly quick time (i.e. within two years) instead to the predicted hundreds or thousands of years. There are several points to this:

  • Only certain rocks can do this and they are located in a limited number of countries – we are into global politics – just like I suggested in my short story Ripple Effect – so who pays for the removal?
  • They have upped the removal rate to 10,000 tonnes per year, but what is needed to bring the climate change back into the comfortable bracket is the removal of thousands millions of tonnes of year. It’s a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.
  • If we do end up with the capability of controlling the climate globally, what is to be defined as the comfortable bracket for the global climate? Can you just imagine the arguments? I want sunshine – why should you have the sunshine – I need the rain for the crops – but I need the rain for the water supplies – and these are just examples. There are many many more issues.
  • The last point is dependent on being able to predict what will happen to the climate as a result of our interventions. The science has come a very long in understanding the issues and contributing factors. But as you can see from this article we are still learning – or putting it another way, we don’t know enough to be absolutely certain of the results of our interventions. The scale of these experiments are but a drop in the ocean of what could be done, so their impact is not yet noticeable. But if we scale up, what then?


Cyber Control and More Celestial News

2 06 2016

I am absolutely delighted that Kraxon magazine have published my latest story – Cyber ControlThey’ve chosen a very apt picture to go with the story…:):) :)… and much to my delight they’ve chosen a picture banner that makes me and even C.A.T. purr with delight…. it’s so purrfect….

My thanks go to the editor and his team for accepting the story.

In other news – a whole host of news has been announced about Rosetta comet 

  1. The comet contains the building blocks of life i.e. amino acids
  2. The comet also creates its own weather
  3. The two distinct lobes that make are look like a misshapen dumbbell are in fact two comets that break apart, orbit each other and then merge


(C.A.T. here – that’s no surprise to me… my author predicted similar processes for 2 and 3 in one of my stories – the one that got the honourable mention from the Writers of the future contest – purr…)

And finally New Horizons results about Pluto continue to come in – the latest is that the heart of Pluto is nitrogen ice (with the odd splash of methane and carbon dioxide) is being turned by heat generated by radioactive materials at the heart of the dwarf planet.

As for planet X – the one that’s suspected of existing beyond the orbit of Neptune – the wise and the good suspect it might have been stolen from another star – see here for details.

High Resolution Pictures

27 05 2016

There has been a little flurry of publishing high resolution pictures lately.

The eccentric orbits of Mars and Earth means that the distance between at the point of closest approach between the planets varies over roughly a twenty year cycle. Here is the latest picture from the Hubble telescope as the planet neared opposition with Earth. As for the detail – take a look at the clouds… Wow!


Second up is the the latest video NASA has published of Pluto – it is a montage of high resolution pictures put together. See here.

Talking of Mars – there’s an article here about the climate change cycles the planet suffers from. It has been based the discoveries of ice deposits by ground penetrating radar. It suggests that Mars is still coming out of its latest ice age.

In the grand scheme of things, these are all about details. But details matter, especially if they lead to a science fiction story being based on a situation that could never happen. More importantly, they are a source of inspiration for stories… go write…


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