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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?

This article, from the BBC, is about this year’s TED prize, which has been split between ten projects that are improving city life.

Some of them look interesting, but that’s not the point.

One of the winners, Ruganzu Bruno, will be using his share of the money to build a play centre in the slums of Uganda.  It will be made entirely from plastic bottles.

A play centre made from plastic bottles?  That is a proper innovative use of rubbish.  I wonder if we might have towns in the future which are made from recycled waste?  Could be some interesting architecture coming our way.

How do you become smarter?

For some (birds, at least) it seems the answer is “move higher“.  Researchers at the University of Nevada have studied chickadees on mountains and came to the conclusion that those at higher altitudes – even 600 metres – had larger brains and better spatial recall than those at lower altitudes.

Another reason for those super-cities of the future to be arranged with the high class rulers at the top and the lower classes below perhaps?

GCSEs and A-levels in geography and science are easier than they were 10 years ago, the exams watchdog warns.

Ofqual says standards have slipped, with pupils often facing more multiple-choice or short-structured questions, with less scientific content.

It reviewed biology and chemistry GCSEs and A-levels between 2003 and 2008, A-level geography between 2001 and 2010.

If standards continue to slip, how long will it be before there aren’t enough scientists to do further research?  How long before there aren’t enough people who understand the things we already have?  I can see a future in which items are made, because we have the blue-prints, but nobody really understands why the red wire goes in the left hole and the blue wire goes in the right hole.

What would happen if everything started breaking down?  Nobody would be able to fix it.  How would that affect society?

In honour of Google’s new driving licence, I thought I would review a few self-driving cars from scifi films.  And there are quite a few of them.  Does it say something about how lazy humans are that we dream of a world in which we don’t even have to drive ourselves around?

First up: Johnny Cabs, from Total Recall 

Everyone loves a good Arnie film, and this one has enough chase scenes and bulging muscles to satisfy anyone.  Also explosions.  But what we’re interested in here is the Johnny Cab.  These ubiquitous cabs are the taxi service on Earth – complete with the talking head of “Johnny”, who asks you where you’re going, reminds you to fasten your seatbelt, and talks about random things.  Interestingly, the Johnny Cabs also come equipped with a joystick driving control, although in order to use it poor Arnie had to rip out the talking head.  Which continued to talk when not connected to the car.  It’s true what they say – some taxi drivers just won’t shut up!

Holy Self-Driving Cars, Batman!

The Batmobile has an autopilot.   Batman’s primary mode of transport has been through so many iterations I’m not even going to try to expound on its virtues.  Suffice it to say, it’s a very useful vehicle to have around.

Minority Report

The cars in Minority Report are different to the other cars here.  They were designed in concert with a whole bunch of car and futurist experts, with the aim of actually being realistic.  Washington DC, 2054, will apparently be full of computer-controlled, magnetically levitated, speeding cars, which can travel up the sides of buildings and dock on the outside of apartments rather than parking on the street.

Even the cars that travel outside of the city will be self-driving, able to wander off and park themselves, then come back for you later.

Knight Industries Two Thousand

Gotta love KITT.  Practically indestructible, highly intelligent, and capable of hacking into whatever database you like while chasing down criminals.  Poor Michael Knight seemed a little… superfluous.  The Pontiac Trans Am had more advanced programming than its predecessor, KARR, meaning that it could be relied on to be at least usually helpful.

There are so many I haven’t mentioned.  What’s your favourite self-driving car?

From the BBC:

GCSEs and A-levels in geography and science are easier than they were 10 years ago, the exams watchdog warns.  Ofqual says standards have slipped, with pupils often facing more multiple-choice or short-structured questions, with less scientific content.  It reviewed biology and chemistry GCSEs and A-levels between 2003 and 2008, A-level geography between 2001 and 2010.

If standards continue to slip, how long will it be before there aren’t enough scientists to further research?  How long before there aren’t enough people who understand the things we already have?

I can see a future in which items are made, because we have the blue-prints, but nobody really understands why the red wire goes in the left hole and the blue wire goes in the right hole.  What would happen if everything started breaking down?  Nobody would be able to fix it.  How would that affect society?

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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