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I have a problem.  I have this song stuck in my head.

When you get a song stuck in your head, what do you do?  I generally hum or sing it incessantly for a few days, annoying the people around me, until I eventually manage to get rid of it (usually by replacing it with something else, which doesn’t actually help).

But I digress.

The point of this post is to wonder whether there is a story idea in this.  An unscrupulous advertising agency comes up with a song which is guaranteed to stick in people’s heads.  Probably by using some scientific method of stimulating brain waves in specific ways.  They intend to sell the song and/or method to the highest bidder to use with their adverts, but the government hears about it and sends agents to capture the lead scientist and force him to work for them.  Much running, hiding, lying, and other such shenanigans* ensue.

 

* On a completely unrelated note, my spellchecker recognises “shenanigans”.  I didn’t know it was a real word (though I’ve been using it for years).  Apparently it means “secret or dishonest activity or maneuvering, or silly or high-spirited behaviour”.

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I came across this.  Go and read it.  I’ll wait.

The post is about whether quality trumps quantity in the blogging world, or the other way around.  If you post too often, you don’t have time to do anything else, and your post quality suffers.  If you post too infrequently, your posts go unnoticed in the plethora of other people’s words.

I fall into the posting too frequently camp, I think.

I got excited by my new toy and the idea of sharing all of the wonderful ideas I had, and got into the habit of posting every day.  The trouble is, now I feel like I have to post every day, and some days I don’t really have anything to say.  I don’t want to be held captive by my own blog.

The author suggests defining your goals a bit more clearly.  Think about why you’re blogging and decide what will help you with that.

So…

I started the blog to share ideas I’d had that I didn’t have time to do anything with, or didn’t feel strongly enough about to want to do anything with.  And to share fiction that I write.

Those are still good goals.  I just don’t have enough worthwhile ideas to post every day, and finding them is cutting into my writing time.  Which kind of defeats the point.

Here’s the new plan.

Friday Fiction will remain.  But I’m cutting back on the random-idea posts to twice a week.  I’m thinking Sunday and Wednesday.

What are your opinions on this?  Do you think I’m making the right decision?

Prologue

Too Hot

Goldie glanced at the readouts one more time.  There was nothing in the atmosphere that would cause her problems, of that she was sure.  She had checked five times already.  She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened on the previous planet, and checked again.

The planet she had just landed on was much nicer than the last one.  It even had a breathable atmosphere.  Not that she could take advantage of that, of course.  Not only did regulations state that she had to use her spacesuit for new planet falls, but it was also far too cold.  The suit would give her some protection against the weather.

Pulling on her gloves, she stepped into the airlock, the bot trundling with her.  She had strapped a box of emergency supplies to its back, and it was going with her wherever she went.  She felt a little silly, but nobody was here to mock her, and quite frankly she would take silly over dead any day.  The airlock cycled open, and she emerged onto the planet blinking in the harsh light.

The ice was blinding, a brilliant white and blue display.  There was no sign of any civilization – in fact there was no sign of life at all.  Just ice, for miles around, in some directions as far as the eye could see.  Goldie briefly considered moving the ship to another location, but the whole planet had looked pretty similar from space, and moving would take time. No, she would take samples of the ice and anything else she came across, and then leave.

Ordering the bot to keep up, she set off to walk a little.  It was important to get outside of the area affected by the fumes from her landing.

After a few hundred yards, she noticed that the bot was lagging behind.  She commed it with instructions to move faster, and for a while it seemed to be obeying.  Gradually, though, it slowed down, and eventually stopped.  Sighing in exasperation, Goldie walked back to where it was standing.

“E-560, why have you stopped?  Status report, please.”

The bot whirred and clunked.

“Sss… ssss… sst… ck.”

Great.  Not only was it not moving but it was also not making much sense.  Goldie was tempted to leave it and collect her samples, picking it up on the way back to the ship.  But the bot, irritating as it was, was her only companion out here, and if it broke she would no doubt go mad within a week.

Maybe not this week.  There were the planets to explore, after all.  But next week, when she was out in the black of space again, then she would surely lose her mind.

She opened up the panel in the back of the bot’s head and poked around a bit.  There didn’t seem to be any connectors loose.  There was a light film of something covering everything, though.  She scratched some away with a screwdriver and placed it in her mobile analyser.  A moment later the answer came back.

It’s just ice.  That shouldn’t be the problem.  Maybe it’s something to do with it’s mechanicals.  She pried loose the panel on one of the bot’s legs.  It all looked intact, but when she poked at it she knew immediately what the problem was.  The hydraulic fluids in the leg “muscles” were frozen solid.  Rated for all weather conditions, ha.  And I’m the queen of New England.  Why oh why could we not have had better bots?

There was nothing she could do for the bot out here, but at least she knew it would probably recover once she got it warmed up.  Sighing, she stood.  Patting the bot on the head, she left it behind.  It would still be here when she got back, and more cold probably wouldn’t damage it more than it already was.

A few hundred metres later she stopped and bent down.  The ice here looked pure and unblemished.  Time for some samples.  Quickly fishing her sample kit out of the bag on her back, she scraped some ice into the sample cases.  Then she dug around a little until she came up with a rock and tucked that away too.

Duty complete, she returned to her bot.  Now, how to get it back to the ship?  She checked her readouts.  There was plenty of air left, so she had no particular time pressures.  She rooted around in the pack of emergency supplies that the bot carried.  Spare air, pickaxe, laser cutter, aha!  Rope.  Quickly, a plan was formed.

She pulled the rope out and tied it around the bot.  The other end she tied around her waist.  She gave a yank, and the bot slowly toppled over.  Excellent.  If it had been stuck to the floor there’s no telling how long it would have taken to get it loose.

She began walking back towards the ship, the bot sliding easily over the ground behind her.  The ice might have caused this problem, but at least it made it easy to pull the weight.  Soon, she was back at the ship, and dragging the bot into the airlock with her.

As soon as the inner door opened she went to the environmental controls and turned up the heat.  She pushed the bot into a corner and left it, before going to get changed.  There was nothing she could do for it until it defrosted.  Then she would see what the damage was.

She just hoped it wasn’t too bad.  She might need its help on the next planet.

Sao Paulo, in Brazil, regularly has traffic jams over 100 miles long.

I’m not sure how they calculate that, since the city is not 100 miles from one side to the other.  I guess they go round in circles or something.  It can take hours to cross the city from one side to the other, there is a 24 hour traffic radio station, and the city’s helicopter taxi business is growing roughly 10% per year.  Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

But this is actually a love story.

Fabiana Crespo is a woman in love.  Every day she spends two hours in traffic to get to work, and two hours to come home in the evening.  On one of these marathon journeys, she was stuck in a queue next to a handsome man.  They rolled down the windows and started talking, and he persuaded her to give him her phone number.  She wasn’t expecting much, but he called, and thus began a romance which eventually led to marriage and two small children.

I’m wondering two things: how many other people have met their future spouse in such circumstances, and had the writers of this Doctor Who episode heard Fabiana Crespo’s story?

I never would have thought so, but there seems to be an upswelling of fighting pandas in computer games and films.  Well, two anyway.  Firstly Kung Fu Panda, a film about a panda who, through the application of Kung Fu, learns a life lesson about love and family.  Not terribly vicious, but then it is aimed at children.

Secondly, I learnt today, World of Warcraft has gained fighting pandas.  They aren’t evil monsters to defeat, though – players can be them.  It is, of course, an attempt to get more Asians playing the game, but the fact that the pandas are good at martial arts led me to wonder where else they were being depicted as violent, vicious creatures.

A quick search of the internet brought up a martial arts equipment supplier called “Panda”, a children’s martial arts class, a cute you tube animation of a panda doing kung fu, and lots of articles about Kung Fu Panda.

So it seems the reputation of the panda as a gentle beast is reasonably safe, unless you are a child.

Of course, it is always possible that the pandas are actually ninjas – they’re just very good at hiding their skills.

Philip Pullman is just about to publish a book called “Grimm Tales for Young and Old” – a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales rewritten in more modern language.  From what I can tell from the publicity, the plots and endings are exactly the same, and only the language as been updated.  The question is, is it cheating if you don’t come up with your own storylines?

I’m not talking about modern versions here – for example, Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a sci fi version of Cinderella – but it’s different enough to the original that you want to read it anyway, just to find out what’s going to happen.  (Seriously, it’s a good book – Cinder is a cyborg, people live on the moon, and there are psychic powers.  I couldn’t put it down.  The sequel isn’t out until January, and I’m already chomping at the bit.)

I’m also not talking about people who take myths and legends and twist them to almost unrecognisable perversions of themselves – like Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles, which involves the Tuatha de Daanan and Balor One-Eye, although they are actually aliens and have different names.

There are plenty of other examples of good re-imaginings.

But Mr Pullman’s book does feel, at least from the descriptions, as if there’s nothing new in it.  No reason to read it if you have read the originals.  Maybe not even if you haven’t.  If other people – you or I for example – had tried to publish this book, we would have been laughed at.  He can only do it because he’s already famous.  At least, that’s how it feels.

What do you think?

Is it a real superpower?

In a strange twist, mere days after I talked about prosopagnosia – the inability to recognise faces – I came across this article about people who have the opposite ability.  These police officers have the highest rate of recognising people from CCTV footage, by quite a long way.

Scientists investigating it had to devise harder face recognition tests, because the standard ones weren’t hard enough.  They concluded that these people are about as good at recognising faces as prosopagnosia sufferers are bad – in the top 2% of the population.

Of course, with my tendency to take things to extremes, I would like to propose something that surely must be an actual superpower.  The ability to recognise faces before you’ve seen them.

You might say that this is merely a facet of precognition, and you might be right, but it’s very specific.  So specific, in fact, that it would fit right in with Shovel Man (who can do anything, as long as it involves a shovel) and Invisible Boy (who can be invisible only when nobody is watching).

What is self-reference, and is it good, bad, or indifferent to the vagaries of moral indignation?

Self-reference is when a sentence, idea, or formula refers to itself.  It can happen when a film, novel, etc, talks about itself, such as, for example, when Bastian finds a book called “The Neverending Story” and starts reading it to discover that it is a book about a boy called Bastian who finds a book.

Also Monty Python – The Quest for the Holy Grail contains this line:

“Oh look, it’s the old man from scene 24.”

and many other similar references.

So is it a good thing?  It can definitely be used for comic effect, very effectively.

To give an example of where self-reference has been taken to the extreme (I really hope for comic effect), consider this story, by David Moser, which includes such delights as:

This is the first sentence of this story. This is the second sentence. This is the title of this story, which is also found several times in the story itself. This sentence is questioning the intrinsic value of the first two sentences. This sentence is to inform you, in case you haven’t already realized it, that this is a self-referential story, that is, a story containing sentences that refer to their own structure and function. This is a sentence that provides an ending to the first paragraph.

and

This sentence comments on the awkward nature of the self- referential narrative form while recognizing the strange and playful detachment it affords the writer.

and

This sentence raises a serious objection to the entire class of self-referential sentences that merely comment on their own function or placement within the story e.g., the preceding four sentences), on the grounds that they are monotonously predictable, unforgivably self- indulgent, and merely serve to distract the reader from the real subject of this story, which at this point seems to concern strangulation and incest and who knows what other delightful topics.

I suggest you go and read the full story for a better idea of what the story is about.

On the other hand, when it occurs in more serious work it is harder to do well.  I am probably not alone in finding that too many self-references jolt me out of the fantasy world and back into the one where I am sitting on a sofa reading.

It can work, though.  It’s just difficult.  So difficult that I can’t think of a book I’ve read that did it well.  Does anybody else have any suggestions?

I was thinking about character quirks – the things that make a character unique and interesting.  It occurred to me that there are some pretty obvious examples of those quirks being central to the story line, and also linked to brain damage.

50 First Dates

The main character in this film is a young woman who has been in an accident.  She now has anterograde amnesia, which means that she can’t form new memories.  Every night she goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning thinking it’s the morning of her accident.  It’s a romantic comedy, so as you can imagine the male lead goes to some interesting lengths in order to win her heart!

Memento

This one is anterograde amnesia again.  This time, the amnesia affects not just the story but the presentation of it, with some of the scenes not occurring in chronological order.  My personal favourite is the scene that starts with a chase through a car park.  The voice-over (from the main character) goes something like this:

“I’m running.  Why am I running?  Am I chasing that guy?”

The other man shoots at him.

“No, he’s chasing me!”

Regarding Henry

I haven’t seen this one, but the plot summaries on the interwebs look interesting.  Harrison Ford is a mean, unethical lawyer, who gets shot in the head during a robbery.  He gets retrograde amnesia, meaning he can’t remember anything that happened in his life until that point.

He has to get to know his family all over again, and realises he doesn’t like the person he used to be.  It’s a film about second chances.

Prosopagnosia

Sufferers of prosopagnosia can’t recognise people from their faces, but usually have no problem with other items.  A person suffering from this problem would not be able to tell the difference between their own children, for example, or between their best friend and a spy from a foreign nation.

The film is about a man who witnesses a murder, but can’t identify the murderer because he suffers from the condition.  To make matters worse, he is the key suspect in the murder!

Again, I’ve not seen it, but I wanted to include a film that wasn’t about memory loss, since that seems to be the main way brain damage enters into films.

Thoughts

Most films that involve brain damage seem to focus on memory loss of one kind or another.  Other types of brain damage seem to result in obscure films which I haven’t heard of… although that’s not really saying much, since I’m more of a book person.

What films can you think of to either bolster or destroy my theory?  Are there other types of brain damage which would make a good plot?

Goldie cautiously opened the outer door of the airlock.  She was well rested and well prepared.  Grudgingly, she admitted that the bot had been right.  Going out exploring in the state she was in last night would have been dumb.

Her space suit puffed around her as the outside atmosphere touched it.  She glanced at the readouts again.  Lots of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, at a balmy 130 degrees Celsius.  Lovely.  She wasn’t holding out much hope of finding anything interesting here.  Still, she had to at least look around.  Not only was it her job, it was also a lot of fun.

A few steps out onto the planet surface and she was reassessing her surroundings.  That pile of rocks over to the left looked suspiciously regular, and there, over to the right, was that a building?  She would definitely have to have a closer look at that.  She grinned under her helmet and set off for the distant structure.

As she walked she examined the surroundings.  Rocks were the main feature – red, brown, and blue the dominant colours.  She stopped by a particularly interesting one and scraped a sample into a container to examine later.  There was no vegetation, and there seemed to be no animal life either.  It was as if the entire area was abandoned.

That was what it felt like – abandoned, not dead.  Like the owners had simply upped and gone somewhere else.  It was odd, considering that there was no life.  Why shouldn’t it feel dead?  Perhaps there was life here, and she just hadn’t seen it yet.

Cautiously, she approached the structure.  Up close, she was even more convinced that it wasn’t natural.  It was made of rock, but the edges were smooth, vertical, and far taller than the rocks surrounding it.  She circled around to the left, examining it carefully as she went.  She had gone almost all of the way around when she found the opening.  There was no door, just a hole in the wall, so she stepped inside.  And then stopped, her mouth dropping open.  It was beautiful in here.  The walls glistened with reflected light, in as many colours as Goldie could imagine.  She touched the nearest one.  A slight vibration caused her to jerk her hand back slightly.  When nothing happened, she replaced her hand.  The walls were humming.  Wondering, she turned on the external microphones on her spacesuit, and listened.  The glorious sound filled her ears.

Goldie stood, entranced, and simply listened.  Eventually the humming grew dim and she became aware of her surroundings again.  The fading light was the first thing to register on her consciousness.  She glanced at her chrono.  Three hours!  She had been standing listening to the walls for three hours!  No wonder she was stiff.  She shook herself, irritated that she had wasted so much time, and glanced at her suit’s readouts.

 

What?

She should have had two hours of air left in this suit, even taking into account her… little moment of inattention.  The readout was showing 20 minutes.  Even as she watched, it dropped to 19.

It had taken 30 minutes to get out to the building she was in.

Cursing, she set off for her distant spaceship.  She glanced at her readouts again.  17.  She must be leaking air, there was no way it had been two minutes already.

She picked up the pace.  Soon she was jogging, trying to breathe steadily.  She vowed to do more exercise in the future.

12.

She wasn’t going to make it.  The rocks that she’d been so interested in on the way out passed her by.  All she could think about was getting to the ship.

6.

She was, perhaps, half way back to the ship.

The bot!  Why didn’t she think of that sooner?

“E-560, bring spacesuit-compatible emergency air canister to my location.”

She continued to run as her mind quickly did the calculations.  A minute to grab the canister and get to the airlock.  One minute thirty for the airlock cycle.  Damn it, what was the E-560’s top speed?  It was going to be tight.

3.

The bot was visible now, trundling towards her.  To her anxious brain it seemed to be in no hurry at all.  She put on a burst of speed.  The bot was closer to her than the ship, now.

1.

She skidded to a halt beside the bot and ripped the air canister from its grip.  The last of her air sputtered and leaked out into the alien atmosphere.  Without the pressure from inside, the leaks in her suit began to seep in the other direction.  A whiff of something unpleasant tickled her nose.   She held her breath.

Fumbling at the tubes, she eventually managed to connect the emergency air supply to her suit.  Immediately, the pressure stabilised.

Goldie cautiously took a breath.  There was a trace of the unpleasant smell lingering in her suit, but she could breathe.  She just hoped there was nothing toxic in the atmosphere.

Steadying her racing heart, she set out at a slightly more sedate pace.  The emergency air supply was four hours; even if she was still leaking she should make it in plenty of time.  The bot trundled by her side.

She puzzled as she walked.  Why was she losing air?  She’d checked the suit thoroughly yesterday and not found any leaks.  Was she attacked while she was listening to the walls?  Was there something in the atmosphere that was corroding her suit?  She shuddered, imagining what something like that would do to her body.

Must check the atmospherics better next time.  I’ve got complacent.

It was with a sense of relief that she allowed the airlock to swish shut behind her.  As the pumps worked, she checked her air supply.  Three hours remaining.  She’d used an hour’s air on the ten minute walk.  Unbelievable.

The inner door cycled open, and she stepped inside.  She pulled off her gloves and helmet, and her fingers brushed the outer edge.  She jerked her hand back, hissing.

“Bot, analyse helmet.  Identify unusual features.”

While the bot whirred happily, she quickly stripped off the rest of her suit, being careful not to touch the outside.  Her fingers were starting to go red.  She strode to the bathroom and washed her hands thoroughly, then fished out the first aid kit and hunted for a piece of  SkinCare the right size.  Slapping it on the red patch, she breathed a little easier as the pain faded.

The bot beeped, so she returned to the main cabin and asked for the report.

“Helmet temperature reads at 230 degrees celsius.  Foreign contaminants detected: unidentifiable compound, sulphuric acid…”

Goldie whistled.  That temperature was right on the top end of the limits of the suit.  She was surprised she hadn’t noticed the increase in temperature, although she supposed she had been a little distracted for a while there.

The unidentifiable compound worried her, but it was the sulphuric acid that she thought would have caused her problem.  The suit itself could cope with sulphuric at any temperature, according to the manufacturers.  The joints at knee and elbow, however, were more vulnerable.  The combination of acid and high temperatures would have begun eating away at the material as soon as she stepped outside.  Who knows what effect that unidentifiable would have had.

She shivered.

“Bot, place that suit in storage crate in cargo hold and get a new one ready for use.”

She made her way over to the control boards and set course for the next planet in the system.  This one was simply too hot.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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