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Rossiters Bookshop Synthesis:Weave book launch

This is a video of the Synthesis:Weave book launch talk held at Rossiters Bookshop in Ross-on-Wye on the 11th February 2015

Launch talk notes:

Thank you all very much for coming and supporting my book release.
This evening I am going to tell you a little about the background of the book and what inspired me to write, along with reading a couple of excerpts, followed by a question and answer session. Firstly I’d like to tell you a little about myself.

[Where I grew up, a little about parents.]

Kris and I sat talking one day, and we wondered what the physics implications of magic would be if it were real. Why don’t people ever mix science fiction and magic sensibly, I wondered. It’s always outlandish and weird … what if there was a way of blending the two sensibly? What would actually happen if someone turned invisible? Would they slowly turn back? It sounded like a great idea for a character in a book.

Kris often talked about getting his legs amputated because of the pain in his knees. I started thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of prosthetics. What if he could have replacement limbs that used forcefields, or something? A technology that could have big implications, but also big drawbacks. Legs made from frictionless forcefields: Ideal novel material.

Until I worked at TIOS, I wouldn’t have contemplated writing a novel. TIOS’s founder, Doug showed me that the subconscious drives everything that goes on in a person. He showed me that behaviour, whilst seemingly random on the surface, is entirely predictable given enough information. He showed that the subconscious can be tamed, by giving it information about the task at hand and working logically through a process.

Learning any skill is a process rooted in the subconscious. Writing is just a skill.

Without having a clue how, I thought “I can do it. I can do anything if I set my mind to it.” It’s all down to what motivates and drives you. The ability to use words to put thoughts and feelings in someone’s head, to conjure imagery and sensation, is a marvellous thing. I wanted to do that. I admire my friends that run the D&D games I play. They are able to describe the action in such a way that you feel you’re there. I don’t quite have the power to multitask like that, doing all the dice rolling and maths, tracking characters and action, but I wanted a long-term project like that, a complex object, or model to build. But a model wasn’t enough. Maybe a book was.

I wasn’t sure where to start. I began reading several websites about writing, and later, after I started, bought books on the topic. Books on writing say there are ultimately no hard and fast rules on how to work, but bearing in mind what Doug had said, I set about listening to every idea thrown up by my subconscious.
Driving to work, I’d have strange, random ideas. I had to remember to write them down. My subconscious mind was focused on driving, allowing the conscious the creative freedom it needed to direct it. But, creativity being this fragile and diaphanous thing, I found that if I didn’t write an idea down, I’d end up having no further ideas until I’d done so – so I made the effort. I started noting down every weird little idea or snapshot of a scene that popped into my head, with no idea how they fitted into the bigger picture of a book.

Partly following what Doug had taught me about planning – objective, information, plan, process, action – I wrote down a rough idea for an outline. I chose a vague beginning, middle and ending as the objective. The information came from the random snippets of backstory that I’d been making notes on.
Planning was a little harder. Using something writers call the ‘snowflake method’ which many writers use, I began arranging a list of events that I thought might happen in the book. At every step I put some kind of obstruction in-between, based on a piece of backstory. In between each obstruction came another, and this began to form the map.

The thing is, you can’t just have problems or plot in a vacuum. I needed a character; almost all authors start off by writing themselves and what they know. How can you do anything else?

I didn’t think I’d be any good at writing dialogue or creating personalities – I wouldn’t know how people would interact or what they’d say, so I left it for the time being. Then my mind went back to what Kris had said about his legs. What if I based a character on his observations? They’d have challenges to overcome, and I know how Kris reacts to certain situations – I could use that as a basis.

I then thought about how the technologies I’d made notes on could help the characters to overcome the obstructions thrown up during planning, and then finally sat down to write.

I let the characters interactions drive the story for a while, carefully nudging them back towards the plot when they threatened to go off-course. Sometimes, however, something different to what I’d planned would happen, and was often more interesting. Not to worry, I’d just see whether it could form a detour, or an entirely different plot thread. If what the character wanted to do was different to the plot, that only added to the tension – perfect!
The strangest thing I found about writing was that anecdotes about characters running away with the story is true. People who haven’t written a book or short story might think you are insane if you say the characters took control of the plot, or did something unexpected, but it’s completely true. True that they sometimes take control – not that you’re insane. When you get into the heads of your characters, you find that they’ll react in different ways to the things that happen, and those reactions sometimes cause unforseen consequences – hence the tension I just mentioned.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know such a wide range of people that I could slot bits of their personalities in as characters all over the place – even in something as strange as a space-based novel. They also provided the perfect way to explain some of the more cliche behaviours of characters in other fiction without making that behaviour cliche, though I’ll not go into that or it’ll spoil the story.

On theme inspiration:

I love games like Tomb Raider, and films such as Indiana Jones – things that involve ancient history and high technology. I used to have fantasies about developing strange powers and being recruited by some super-secret military or government agency. I suppose that kind of set the scene, really.

Something that crops up at work a lot, and also through different things I’ve studied over the years – Mathematics, Genetics, behaviour, computer programs – everything is based on rules, which means that systems based on rules can exhibit complex behaviour. Maybe a computer could act like a person?
Religion and spirutuality were also big influences. Carl Sagan’s Contact touches on the issues of God and Nature, and even at the end of the book, the story delves into investigating the nature of PI, and implies that maybe mathematics is some kind of expression of divinity. With how maths can explain virtually everything that happens in phyisics (there are still things we don’t know), and Doug’s morphogenic model of how things are connected, perhaps the issues raised in Contact were correct? The universe is a living, breathing thing, driven by a set of mechanical rules. Those rules are divinity, maybe.
The mathematician Stephen Wolfram wrote an enormous book titled A New Kind of Science, in which he explores cellular automata – a kind of mathematical or computer program model that uses basic rules to generate complex patterns. Alan Turing invented a hypothetical machine in the 50’s that processed basic rules to emulate complex behaviour and cellular automata does this. Wolfram’s book examines how these programming rules are reflected in natural processes, especially in the growth of shells. The rules, while repetitive, often generate seemingly random patterns – not something you’d expect.
I was lucky with a few news articles that had come out recently about AI. About two years ago, a program about robots talked about cybernetic learning and how artificial intelligence will probably never be recognised as intelligent unless it took the same developmental route as an organic intelligence. This was something posited by numerous sci-fi writers over the years, and an issue I wanted to explore. Less than six months ago an article came out about neuromorphic chips that mimic the arrangement of neurons in the brain. Perfect.

Finally, I had a logical reason for connecting all of the events in the series of books. You normally expect the events in a novel to be connected, because that’s the nature of a novel – but it was a reason beyond mere ‘coincidence’. I could do what I’ve wanted to for years, which was connect religion, psychology, spirituality, technology, programming, maths, fractals and physics. To the casual reader, many of these issues will probably be transparent, but I hope that those who are looking for a particular depth will find it. There should be enough to satisfy those looking for an intellectual experience with reasoning to support the plot, enough for those wanting to raise some big questions about life, and enough for those who just want some tense action scenes.

Inspiration for setting:

I don’t like stories that sit still in one place. My favourite films are those with diverse locations, and I love animated sci-fi with a lot of travel. I’d spotted a few locations around Herefordshire that I could to use for place names, and many of them inspired ideas of strange planets and environments. Sollers Hope was one of them, so it became a colony in the back of beyond that the protagonists visit.
Space travel is horrible to work with in fiction, especially if it’s in a new universe. I didn’t want to copy what everyone else had done, so I spent weeks agonising over how to work out an entire system of travel. I wanted to get my characters from A to B in a decent timeframe without using things like hyperspace – otherwise it would open my universe up too much and make travel relatively safe. I don’t think travel should be safe. It’s not even safe on Earth!

Of course, space travel still has to be limited by relativity in places, otherwise it loses its realism, and therefore any sense of tension. In my universe, fast space travel isn’t discovered until a few decades from now – note that I say discovered, not invented. Colonists set out to explore the galaxy before this point, limited to lightspeed travel. The fact that I’ve assumed that light-speed travel leads to time dilation gives some great issues with people travelling long distances and eventually being caught up by the advances in space travel. Caught up by, and overtaken. A rude awakening is in order for those left behind by technology when the past and present collide in the most unlikely of places.
For some reason, there’s a common perception (which seems incredibly 1970’s) that as technology advances, the entire world will move along with it, with technology in all arenas being replaced simultaneously. That just isn’t so, and isn’t likely to be so in future. We still have incredibly old cars in use on the roads today, alongside those that almost drive themselves. We have houses stuffed with antique furniture, upon which rests the latest computer technology. High tech-offices with computer controlled heating, networks running throughout, housed in a shell built in the 1700’s.
This is the essence of people. We like the promise that the future brings, but cling on to the past – and we need to. Advances in technology mean that information about our lives are stored in an ever increasinly tenuous state that can be eradicated with a well-placed burst of electromagnetic radiation. Books and CDs will survive, but the technology and software to read those CDs might get destroyed, leaving them inert and useless for future civilisations to find and wonder why we kept so many drinks coasters.

In my book, I’ve tried to hang on to this feeling. Partly to draw contrast and conflict from the collision of people from different times and worlds, partly to keep the reader feeling at home in the future. Earth is recovering from the environmental damage that we’ve inflicted upon it, so the reader doesn’t need to concern themselves with the impending doom that may or may not face us. Instead, the problems faced by the characters in the book come from below the surface. The seemingly perfect society – at least as perfect as a society can be whilst remaining interesting – has its flaws, and the problems that occur are from insidious, ancient sources. Great stuff for a complex backstory.

An even more ancient piece of history is brought into focus upon the discovery of a material that had been mentioned in historical texts. Unknown to many, this material has been in use right up until the book’s present day. Digging for information, both figuratively and literally, is what this book’s about.

Shoving the past and future together isn’t enough for me. Lets put religion and science in a head-to-head.
I fall on the knife edge between religion and science, and I wanted to explore that.
My friend Michael once said to me that religions that perform ancestor worship are perfectly right to do so and, strangely, this comes back to the morphogenic model. The whole confluence of circumstances that leads to your ancestors surviving their trials and tribulations to reproduce for generation to generation is astounding. Your family tree branches out as bloodlines split and merge, yet your entire ancestry is traceable back through individuals in a very narrow path that has connections branching forth and back. But it is still that amazing set of coincidences, chances, actions, cause and effect that leads to your very existence. That is something worth basing a religion on. Maybe not one in which you’d expect your ancestor spirits to solve your problems, but at least one where you owe them a great deal of respect. This is one of the issues I want to touch on in a future book, but is also hinted at in this one. It may not be visible to some but, like an undercurrent, it’s there.

Local places:

In press releases I’ve mentioned Sollers Hope and Yazor as the inspiration for locations. One of the strangest things about writing is that bits of information creep into your work without you realising. I’d decided on what I wanted Sollers Hope to be, and when I wrote it I set up the geography with quite a lot of detail. It wasn’t until after I’d written the scenes describing it that I realised the geology actually matched what is shown on google maps. My subconscious had obviously spotted it and stored that information without me realising it. There are several notable features in the book that are visible in the area.

Yazor is less recognisable, and you’ll see why when you read the book. However, there is a church in Yazor that conjured up certain imagery which I was able to inject. The name was just too strange to leave out.

Hereford crown court building made it in completely by accident. I’d described a building (albeit somewhat twisted) and a few months later realised that it was the crown court. Another detail that had slipped in under the radar.

[Followed with Q&A session]