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I found an old notebook on the shelf.

It’s not dated, but judging from the handwriting and some of the things that are referenced, I’d say it starts around sixth form (that’s age 17) and goes up to some time after I went to university.

It’s a fun read – it begins with what I think was my first real attempt at properly planning a story – character maps and notes on the world government and all.  There are even some notes on architecture and little drawings – to scale – of some of the physics involved.

The story plan concerns the (highly probable) situation in which the moon’s orbit has started to decay.  Scientists managed to find a way to prop it up on giant struts, but clearly in the process some damage was done to the Earth’s atmosphere.  Now, everyone has to live in the shadow of the moon, otherwise they die of radiation poisoning.

Shadowland plot

The radiation has caused strange mutations in the twilight lands, where people get a reduced dose of the sun’s rays.  They don’t die outright, but they have mutations in the genes which cause features such as white fur to reflect the rays, dampeners in their eyes to reduce glare, etc.  These twilight people feel bitter because they are thought of as freaks, when in fact they are better suited to life now.  They grow crops which have also mutated, and try to sell them to the shadowlanders.

My main character was called Tim, and he was an “ordinary person” in his late teens/early twenties, who was claustrophobic – a problem since the moon hangs so low in the sky and everyone lives in a tightly packed space with lots of tunnels.  Apparently his parents were accountants!

For entertainment’s sake, I thought it would be interesting to take some of what I wrote then and compare it with what I would do now.  I reproduce it complete with spelling errors, amendments and so on.

Then:

Tim stepped out into the clear night air.  A slight breeze stirred his short brown hair.  Involuntarily, he glanced upwards, and shuddered.  His sad blue eyes closed, and he swallowed.  He could see the moon’s craters with his naked eyes.  It was too close, too close.

He looked out across the city, taking in the skyscrapers which rose tall as far as he could see.  Some of them were so tall you could almost reach out and touch the moon from the top of them.

Walking briskly down through the concrete jungle, Tim wrinkled his nose at the all-pervading stench of moon dust.

I bet they first men on the moon didn’t realise how bad it smells when the first put man on the moon, 2 centuaries ago, he thought bitterly.

And now:

Tim stepped out of the airlock and listened to the door swish closed behind him.  Within moments he was covered in a fine layer of moon-dust.  He cast a glance over his shoulder to check that the green ‘ready’ light had come on, confirming that he could re-enter the complex whenever he wanted.  It shone brightly, cutting through the gloom like a beacon welcoming him home.  With a slight pang he thought of his sister, left behind for now.  I will come back for her, he vowed, once I’ve found them.  We will be together again.

He settled his dust-mask more firmly on his face and squinted at the world.  Around him, towers rose high into the sky, packed tightly together.  Windows were few and far between, especially at ground level.  There was nothing to look at, after all, apart from dust and more towers.  He deliberately didn’t look up.  Tim had heard that from the highest towers you could see amazing views, even as far as the edge of the Shadow.  He’d heard that from the very tallest towers you could reach out and touch the moon.  He’d never been that high, of course.  Only the richest citizens were able to afford to live above the dust.

The gully he was in now was one of several that ran throughout the complex.  They were designed to give access to the outside of the massive building, for the maintenance crews.  In reality they were hardly used.  The complex was given the minimum maintenance possible to keep it standing.  There was no money for anything else, and no spare materials to do it with.  All of the dwindling resources of the planet were focused on one thing: the Struts.

He moved forward to the first cross-gully and looked to the left.  In the distance he could just make out Strut Three.  There were eight Struts in all, spaced evenly around the edge of the complex.  Each one was a couple of miles wide at the base, able to support massive weights on its own.  It still took eight of them to hold up the moon.  He shuddered as he considered what would happen if (when!) the Struts failed.  With the ozone layer and most of the upper atmosphere stripped away when the moon descended, the entire human race was packed tightly in the shadow lands.  If even one Strut gave way they would all be destroyed.

Tim smiled grimly.  Not all, not if the stories were true.  He hoped, needed the stories to be true.

Making sure his rucksack was firmly settled on his back, he set out towards the distant structure.  Soon he was breathing heavily.  Each breath in caused more dust to settle on his mask, clogging the filter.  Every time he breathed out he tried to dislodge some of it, only to have it settle again moments later.  He forced himself to carry on.  There would be less dust further out.  Everyone said so.  He tried not to think about how “everyone” knew such a fact when “no-one” went outside.

He wished he could have made this part of the journey inside.  The complex was interconnected all the way to the twilight lands, and even the broken-down air conditioning units and recycled oxygen would be better than this.  Ever since the corn riots last year the towers had been segregated, though, and coming up with good enough reasons to cross further and further from his home would be difficult.  He did not want to get arrested for travelling without permits or whatever made-up crime the government had come up with this month.

He plodded on, trying not to think.  After what seemed like hours he was jolted out of his half-doze by a sudden increase in the light.  He flinched, cowering towards the walls.  How had they found him so quickly?  He thought he had hidden his departure well enough that nobody would even be looking yet.

When nothing happened he looked around and laughed.  Along the walls of the gully lights were flickering on, illuminating everything.  It was night, and the lights were on a timer.  Almost every other bulb had blown, but the light was still brighter than the dust-filtered sunlight available during the day.  Why the outside lights were on when nobody worked out here he didn’t know.

Now that he had stopped he realised how tired he was.  Sinking down against the side wall he leant his arms on his knees and rested his head on them.  The movement knocked his dust mask sideways, and he breathed in a face full of moon-dust.

So there we go!  Leaving aside the totally plausible science behind the situation, I think my writing has improved. What do you think?

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The daily prompt a few days ago asked us to look at our stats – which posts are our most popular?  What connects those posts?

My top three posts of all time are:

The first one, technically, is a page, not a post.  I’ll ignore that.  The link between the second two is clear – posts which link to other people’s blogs, so that their followers come to see who is giving them an award.  There’s only so many times you can do that before other bloggers start getting annoyed at you, so I chose to look a little further down the list.

Again, the link here is clear.  I obviously need to talk about superheroes more!

I have no problem with that.  I’m a pretty big fan of superheroes.  Especially ones with secret identities, and today I’m going to talk a little about why.

Growing Up Super

I was brought up on a diet of Superman – specifically, Lois and Clark, the New Adventures of Superman.  That’s the one with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, for those of you who don’t know all of the incarnations off the top of your head. I admit I became a little obsessed by it – I recorded every episode so that I could watch them again and again, and I was heavily into fanfiction from quite an early age.

Of course, there was also the fact that he was… quite pleasant on the eyes.

Later in life I discovered that Dean Cain caused a lot of controversy with the hard-core Super-fans, because (Shock! Horror!) he has brown eyes.  But growing up I have to admit that I didn’t even notice.  In fact, since it was the first version of the hero I had encountered, it seemed odd to me when I found out that all of the others have blue eyes.

What I loved about Dean Cain’s portrayal of Superman was that, primarily, he wasn’t Superman.  He was Clark Kent.  In fact, at the start of the first episode, Superman didn’t even exist.  He only came into existence because Lois spotted Clark just after he had rescued someone and told him he was dirty and should bring a change of clothes to work.

The show focused more on his daily life and his struggle to be both halves of his personality than it did on fighting super-villains (although there were a fair few of those).  Hiding often creates as many problems as it solves.

The point here, if I can drag myself back to it, is that Clark invented Superman as a way to hide who he was.  However, even before that he was hiding behind a pair of glasses and a loud tie, trying to pretend that he was normal.

It’s a great relief to a young girl to realise that even people who have the power to lift spaceships into orbit sometimes feel the need to hide.

Masks vs Hiding in Plain Sight

Later, I discovered other heroes.  Batman (Adam West version, of course!) was, in some ways, the complete opposite of Superman.  He spent more time as Batman than as Bruce Wayne – indeed it sometimes seemed that Bruce only existed to fund the fancy toys, and occasionally to be kidnapped.

Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

And he hid behind a mask.  The mask made it obvious that he was someone else.  He had something to hide.

Clark got away with a simple pair of glasses because everyone thought “hey, he’s not hiding his face, he clearly isn’t hiding anything else; he must spend all of his time as Superman.”  Everyone knew that Batman was really someone else, and some of the best plots revolved around people who were determined to discover who he was.

Is it somehow more honest to hide behind a mask?

If people think they are getting to know the real you, when in fact they are learning the mask, is that more deceitful than openly acknowledging that you are holding people at arms’ length?

What would the first human on Mars say?  The words chosen will echo through history in the same way that Neil Armstrong’s famous line has.  That’s a lot of pressure for whomever is chosen to be the first person on the planet.  They’d better pick something profound!

The BBC has been asking people to contribute on Twitter, using the hashtag #BBCMARS, and in the comments of this article.  Here are some of the best (serious and otherwise):

hum “Mars, the Bringer of War” by Gustav Holst (@oz_penguin)

It was once said ‘a small step for man’ but today we make that giant leap 4 mankind (@welsh_steve25)

once again my dear friends we take a step into the unknown (@SirPhil1983)

‘Well, for this night we will repose us here: /To-morrow toward London back again’ Shakespeare 2H6 II.i. (@Shakes_Today)

Where’s the Mars bar? (@JohnnyReaction)

‘we step beyond the capability of man kind, yet again.’ (@caitlin_ent)

“It’s land, Jim, but not as we know it.” (@eridanus)

Here are my suggestions.  Bonus points for people who recognise the source of inspiration for the first few.

“Quick!  Get the Easy Listening music!”

“Dark is the suede that mows like the harvest.”

“Yesterday, the moon.  Today, Mars.  Tomorrow, the universe!  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”

“Hey, what are all these dead cats doing here?”

And, more seriously,

“That’s just one more step in mankind’s journey to the stars.”

What would you like the first person on Mars to say?  What would you say if it were you?

I’m particularly amused by the fact that you also need a pair of glasses to make it work.

Anyone who has spent any time on the internet will have come across the acronym “FAQ”.

Almost all websites (ones for companies anyway) have a FAQ section.  In theory, they list questions which have been (as the title suggests) frequently asked – so that people can easily find the answer to their question without bothering the admin staff with the same question as a hundred other people.

Fair enough so far.

However, I recently received a notification from a service I use that their process has been redesigned.  This is a new change, no public person has seen it – and yet I was provided with a list of FAQs.  My question is not answered in them, and is simply this:

Who has frequently been asking these questions?

A female of the species, going about her business.  All is fine, until suddenly, attack!  An ugly, insectoid creature leaps upon her.  It injects its eggs into her body, where the developing larvae happily eat the internal tissues and then burst out through the abdomen.

Sound familiar?

You think I’m describing the plot of a film, don’t you?

This is real.

The wasp Dinocampus coccinellae injects its eggs into the body of a ladybird, which plays unwilling host to them.  After bursting out of its hiding place, the larva builds a cocoon under the ladybird, which remains in place to protect it while it develops.  When exposed to lacewings, unprotected cocoons were devoured utterly, but so were 85% of cocoons protected by dead ladybirds.

Because this isn’t just a space-alien horror film.  This is a zombie space-alien horror film.

The ladybird usually remains alive – in fact around 25% of affected ladybirds survive the ordeal and completely recover – but is partially paralysed.  Venom released by the larva causes it to twitch and grasp, warding off predators.  In this state, only a third of cocoons get eaten by lacewings.

What’s your favourite nature-zombie story?

There was an article on the BBC today about serious computer games.

No longer the preserve of teenage boys sitting in darkened rooms, games have been designed to give people insight into the middle east conflict (you can play either side), how to cope with dwindling oil reserves, sex education and what constitutes undue pressure, and many others.  The theory is that if you make it fun people will be more engaged with it and will learn better.

As an aside, it works with fiction (both books and TV), too.  I’ve learnt more history from fiction than I ever did at school, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one.  I was particularly entertained when I discovered that the writers of Stargate SG-1 had chosen to name their alien mineral naqada after a period in Egypt’s pre-dynastic history famous for its pots.

Staying with Stargate – Universe this time – the serious computer game concept was used to farm out processing power to people without security clearance.  That’s how they recruited Eli in the first episode.  He solved the puzzle in the game and then discovered high-ranking members of the Air Force on his doorstep to congratulate him.

And I won’t even mention The Last Starfighter.

But back to saving the world.

Does it work?  Could playing games solve the middle east crisis?  It’s hard to tell.  You can measure how many people play the games, but how would you measure the effect it was having on the real world?

What do you think?

I received a letter today. This is not entirely unusual, but it happens infrequently enough that I was mildly excited interested.

The blood donation service have, or rather had, a wonderful system whereby they would bring a van to your workplace, and you could duck out of work for a hour to visit the vampires. This had a couple of good effects. Firstly, you got out of work for an hour. Secondly (and more importantly) you could help save people’s lives without having to find time in a busy after-work schedule.

This service is being withdrawn. Apparently it is not “cost effective”. This I knew, since I was told the last time I made use of it.

What price a person’s life?

But back to the letter. When I last gave blood I was told that they were decommissioning the bloodmobiles, and that I would be written to later in the year to tell me of the alternatives. Hooray, I thought, here is the promised information!

No.

This was a letter whose only purpose, it seems, was to tell me that I would receive a letter later in the year. Really? A letter to tell me I would be getting a letter?

Perhaps if they spent less on letters they would be able to afford to keep running the bloodmobiles.

Deep philosophical thoughts sometimes creep up on you from the strangest places. Like questions about the eating habits of zombies.

Miriam Joy Writes

My mind not only wanders: sometimes it leaves completely.

This is a fact (as well as something written on one of father person’s t-shirts). My mind is apt to wandering so completely that when I opened my school planner to write a reminder to the effect of read Pliny introduction, what I actually wrote was why do zombies want brains? 

After staring at it for a few seconds trying to work out why it looked wrong, it occurred to me that that hadn’t been what I intended to write. Nor was I sure what I’d been thinking about to bring that to mind. Nevertheless, being ready to improvise and try and explain myself, I started to consider the question.

Why do zombies want brains?

I wasn’t really sure what I was asking myself. I mean, did I want to know why actual zombies wanted actual brains, assuming that they…

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A plane (an Airbus A320 to be precise, although I doubt it matters) coming in to land at Glasgow airport has seen a UFO.  Usually, when people talk about UFOs, they mean aliens, however in this case I’m using it in the literal sense.  It was an object, it was flying, and it was unidentified.

The UFO passed around 300 feet below the plane, seen by the pilots mere seconds before.  Visibility was good, nothing was showing on the radar, and the pilots were wide awake.  They described it as

blue and yellow or silver in colour with a small frontal area, but […] bigger than a balloon

They reported the near miss immediately, and the flight controller said he wasn’t talking to anyone else in the area, and there was nothing on his radar.  The radar at Prestwick (which is about 30 miles from Glasgow) reported an “unidentified track history” just over a nautical mile away 28 seconds earlier.  If it was the same object it was moving pretty fast.

Other aircraft, including small planes, helicopters, and weather balloons, would show up on radar.  The weather conditions were wrong for gliders and parascenders, and they shouldn’t have been in restricted airspace anyway.  So what was it?  Members of the committee investigating the near-miss were unable to decide.

Was it aliens?  Or a secret military experiment?

I have a different suggestion.  What is blue and yellow, can fly fast, and is bigger than a balloon?

I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t a bird, or a plane.

And I may have been lying about it not being an alien.

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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