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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.


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?

The BBC has a couple of articles today about designing cities from scratch.  If you had no restrictions caused by existing buildings, what would you do?  Many opinions are expressed in this article, from “build it with all possible technology integrated fully” to “don’t do it at all”.  Personally I like the ideas in the last segment.  This one has pictures that some artist’s impressions.

So what would I do?

The things that spring immediately to mind (in no particular order) are:

  • Wide streets, with separate cycle lanes, bus lanes, and car lanes.  The car lanes would only exist on the outskirts.  In the city centre everyone needs to walk or use public transport.
  • All car parks would be underground, with parks built on top.  They would have good bus links.
  • It should never be more than a ten minute walk to the nearest park.
  • There should be trees everywhere.
  • Free wi-fi throughout the whole of the city.
  • Residential buildings and offices would be in separate areas (who wants to live right next to the office?) but would be very closely interlinked, perhaps in some kind of chess-board pattern.
  • Residential areas would have different characters – there would be a Georgian area, with large terraced houses and sweeping parks, and a more modern area with little detatched red-brick houses with nice gardens, and many others.  This would ensure that the city had some soul.
  • There would be plenty of buildings which could be used for many things, so that people can decide that that street needs a hairdresser, or a butcher, or a bookshop, and make it happen.
  • Rivers and parks.
  • Streets which are mostly-pedestrianised, so children can play.
  • The streets wouldn’t necessarily all be straight or form squares (how dull) but definitely no triangles.  Triangles are very confusing!
  • Solar panels on all roof space would be compulsory.  Perhaps those clever ones that look like roof tiles.
  • All buildings would be built in an eco-friendly way.
A (bad) artist's impression.

A (bad) artist’s impression.

What else would you add?  Is there anything in my list that you disagree with?


What will the office of the future look like?

Paperless or Wallpapered?

The phrase “office of the future” dates back to the 1940s.  It used to refer to the paperless office (and anyone who works in an office these days can tell you how that one turned out).  This article from 1975 makes for an interesting read, balancing optimism with realism in such a way as to actually get pretty close to the truth.

Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. “I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he says. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

 The question that amused me was this, though: “Can desk-top terminals be made “friendly” enough so that executives will use them?”.  A good question indeed!

Missing in Action or confusingly omnipresent?

Some people are suggesting that it won’t exist at all – everyone will work from home.  I don’t think that will catch on.  Sure, a lot of people will be more mobile, but humans are social creatures.  If we all stayed at home and only interacted through the internet I for one would go stir crazy!

And some people’s offices travel with them wherever they go – a bunch of fully staffed offices are already scattered around the world, ready to be hired by the hour, day, week, or year.

Another vision

So if we go to the office, will it be the same as it is now?  Better technology is pretty much a given.  Personalised lighting and temperature control, computers which actually work at a decent speed (unlike the ones in my office, which suck).  Some people, however, are suggesting that offices will be slightly… greener.

Roots instead of foundations, walls covered in pipes of algae which absorb any nasties from the building (and then get recycled into bio fuel), canteens serving food grown on the walls and roof.  Apparently the possibilities are endless.  Will the office of the future be not just carbon-neutral, but actually generate power?

What will we be eating in 20 years time?  That is the question answered by this BBC article.  Rising food prices, environmental concerns, the growing population – these are all things which are making governments think about the subject.

Some experts think that UK meat prices will double in the next five to seven years.  Will meat become a luxury item?  Some of them are suggesting that insects like crickets and grasshoppers will be ground down and added to burgers and sausages.  I think the squeamish westerners will take a while to get used to that one.  But there are advantages – they are just as nutritious as meat, a good source of protein, and they are easier to raise, with a lower carbon footprint.  There might even be fewer animal rights protesters around farms, depending on the proportion of them who are only doing it because animals are cute!

Growing meat in a lab might be another way to go.  Like insects, it would reduce environmental impact and require less space.  Unlike insects, it’s not currently possible, although scientists at Maastricht University are hoping to produce the first “test-tube burger” by the end of the year.

Algae farms were also given a mention, with seaweed being snuck into our diets without us noticing.

Slightly more on the whacky end of the spectrum, it turns out that food tastes different depending on what you listen to while eating it.  So it’s possible that we could remove most of the sugar from something and then listen to sweetening music while eating it.

One solution that wasn’t mentioned by the BBC is the Soylent Green solution.  On that I shall say no more.

From the New Scientist:

Forty years ago this spring, three idealistic young computer modellers wrote The Limits to Growth, a book that detailed the first effort to use computers to project possible global futures. … In this follow-up book, 2052: A global forecast for the next 40 years Randers makes predictions based on current data, simpler calculations and a lifetime’s experience analysing global systems.

In The Limits of Growth, the modellers used the ways that global population, food, health, and so on interact to simulate what would happen for the next 130 years under various scenarios.  The result?  Complete collapse of society.  We used up all of the resources and nothing could save us except giving up material concerns entirely.

It has never been disproved.

The follow-up book focuses on the next forty years and, from a brief glimpse at the Amazon Look-Inside, seems to be well written, interesting and informative.  I shall be adding it to my reading list (but that’s quite long, so expect a review in a few months time).

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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