A countdown of improbabilities

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was at my physical prime. Today I lose prime number status as I turn 48. Birthdays aren’t what they used to be, which is somewhat stating the obvious, but there’s not so much to celebrate as you get older. It becomes less an achievement of making another year and of progress, and more a countdown of improbability.

landscape-1463492454-countdown-bumhole

I’m resolutely single (for many reasons, but I don’t see how anyone could live with me when I find it so difficult myself sometimes) and don’t go out much (no-one to go out with), so my opportunities to celebrate are limited, even if anyone else wanted to. Instead, this is one day of the year when I call the shots, when most days I’m dealing with the affairs of others (mainly the young people who still visit, and chiefly the adopted kid sister, Courtney). It’s my chance to be as selfish as all those people, but just for one day.

In my virtual life, I’ve been quite touched by the number of people sending birthday greetings on Facebook, a place which – despite its many faults – still kindles, ignites and stokes friendships with individuals I didn’t in real life. Some types seem to feel more at ease discussing things in a public forum, and I’m one of them. It’s because it’s less personal than a real world physical conversation, which eases my social anxiety. The virtual world has brought me closer to some people than the real world could, through mutual empathy with matters of the mind.

Anyone who visits my real world on any other day, knows to keep a distance on my birthday. There’s sometimes an exception, but that will only be someone who might be passing and whom I’ve chosen to spend time with if they’ve said they need mine. I don’t expect anyone to turn up and I’ll just get on with my day, but knowing someone might show adds a level of jeopardy (improbable though it is).

I’ll probably spend the rest of the day writing, like I should so many other days but for distractions. During my recent hiatus, while my dad was sick and I couldn’t think of much else, I filled several journals as I watched TV (mainly documentaries) and carried them around with me. My life will continue to be fractured as the lives of others progress in my real world, so my next book will most likely be a third collection of short stories, many of which are plotted and scribbled in longhand in those notebooks. Today gives me a chance to set out for myself, everything I want to do next.

My family history book is on hold, mainly through paranoid superstition, as my dad seemed to be in perpetual decline most of the time I was writing it. I’ve stopped, so as not to tempt fate (and he’s got better). I’ll start writing another novel once I’ve got a few new short stories finished, maybe the planned (and imaginatively titled) Cyrus Song II, or perhaps something completely different, from the many notes I made in those journals.

This one day a year reserved as mine, to collect my thoughts, think ahead, and in the company (if any) of my choosing, helps me get through the next year. I’ll be a prime number again in 2023 and a lot could happen between now and then. I only have to look at the last five years to know that’s true.

It’s improbable, but I might yet pen a best-seller (I may have done so already, and people just need to pick up the book). But I’ll keep writing anyway, probably into the night and probably in solitude.

I found myself in a place I never realised I wanted to be, around an imaginary birthday cake. Even if I hadn’t done everything I was supposed to with my own life, I could have another go. I felt like the living memory of my future self. Thoughts can be remembered or forgotten, so I wrote mine down.

(Simon Fry, Cyrus Song)

Physics makes the world go round

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Love makes the world go round,” someone said to me once. Which was funny, because I always thought it was physics which did that. But it’s true that love and laughter are the two most potent ingredients in the cocktail of the human spirit. For a minority, the world spins on money, which is unfortunate for the rest of humanity…

PicardEarthSpinHymn of the Big Wheel, Massive Attack

This post started on Saturday, when a young friend posted a quote meme on Facebook (a static image, posted as a video: why is that?): “Can a boy and a girl be best friends?” Aside from most of my closest friends being female (and many of them LGBTQ), I posted a comment:

If only humanity were evolved enough that we no longer needed to use gender-specific terms. Why can’t two people just be best friends? Because humans are fundamentally flawed, and the only problem with the human mind is that it’s conditioned by humanity. We need to start thinking differently.

Later that prompted me to comment on this video, posted by another acquaintance:

Frankly I found it disturbing (even without the ‘Get close to lovely women’ banner ad). It deals with a very real issue but one which is human-made, and which we ought to be able to transcend, like so many others we made. Instead, someone scared us and invented a weapon to sell to us.

We have the ability to leave or destroy the planet we share with those who were here first. Yet instead of realising the futility of conflict in a confined space, we continue to fight. Against whom? Opposing sexual identities, religious beliefs, skin colour… Differences.

We’re at war with ourselves, yet all members of one race: The Human Race.

And so commerce continues to profit from the barriers it erected, way back at the beginning of religion, driving apart the two main factors likely to oppose in a shared environment: Not faith vs. atheism, but male vs. female. But only if they’re stirred up. It’s terrorism by any other name.

Can you see why our world is broken?

Our sense of entitlement means there are always capitalists to mould our needs. The only thing we truly own is ourselves, and we can think bigger…

Matt Haig
From Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig

While I prefer Twitter to Facebook, the latter is always a dark window into the human condition and onto the state of the contemporary world around us.

The worlds I imagine – free of conflict and full of love and laughter – are idealised, but within reach. Physics makes the world go round and in an ideal world, that’s the physical, self-determining beings who live there together. We can all afford to be more human.

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one which had seen an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted a local group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.

Under-floor heating in the kitchen

HORROR FICTION

On the odd occasion that recipes crop up on this site, I’m usually posting for someone else’s convenience: It saves them from me having to cook for them. A writer has to eat more than their words, so I do cook for myself, but I’d rather be known as the writer who can cook, than the chef who can write. While readers follow my recipes, I like to think they read my stories too. So tonight I have an open kitchen, so that prospective diners can look around before trying the food…

cannibal2014-10-14-20h59m25s71-660x349Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.

August Underground’s chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FOOD & DRINK

As someone who doesn’t go out much, I have to be inventive if I want to. Having few people to socialise with, I sometimes take real life visitors out in my virtual worlds. So when my kid sister needed some menu ideas, I took her to August Underground’s Diner, a place I invented in Islington…

A-Freaky-Dinner-Party-horror-movies-2921847-800-600

Mine is a themed restaurant, a tribute to cult, horror and sci-fi movies. Various film memorabilia, props and costumes are dotted around, and the place is staffed by cosplay actors.

It’s a subterranean affair on a small industrial park, a short walk from my Unfinished Literary Agency above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Upper Street, N1. Originally a venue I created to address some personal issues, I’ve adapted it since to help others. I cook a lot for myself back home, and for my sister (Courtney), so when she asked me for some of my recipes, the easiest place to bring her was here, for when she can’t come round to my place, and has to cook for herself.

I’ve had my favourite booth converted, so that I can demonstrate my recipes by cooking them at the table. Although we won’t be requiring the chefs tonight, we’re nonetheless shown to our table by chief hellraiser, Pinhead. I write down the ingredients I need for this recipe, he sticks it on a pin and heads for the kitchen.

PAN-SEARED POACHED CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI

Seared poached chicken2

Ingredients:
Chicken breast fillet (skinless)
Purple sprouting stem broccoli
Cooking oil
Butter (salted)
Salt and pepper

Originally a carnivorous establishment, as my dining habits have changed, so have the menus at August Underground. Most of the food now is vegetarian, and the fewer meat dishes are free-range. I usually cook this for myself, and Courtney needs to learn to do the same, so this is a recipe for one.

Once Pinhead returns with my ingredients, I fire up a pan over a medium-high heat and pre-heat the oven to 190c. I also lay out a sheet of foil (about A4 size) ready for the second stage of cooking. The two-cook method first seals the meat in the pan, locking in the juices, which then steam the meat at the poaching stage. So there’s less to do, I season the pan with a good grind of salt and pepper at this point.

I heat a teaspoon of vegetable or sunflower oil in the pan, and fry the chicken for about 5 minutes either side. Half way through I add a knob of butter to the pan and fry 3 or 4 broccoli stems, shaking the pan to coat them with butter. I end up with chicken which is sealed and browned on the outside, and broccoli which is charred.

I tip the contents of the pan (cooking juices too) onto the foil and close it loosely (like a purse, or a pasty), leaving a small gap at the end for excess steam to escape. The parcel then goes into the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes to poach.

I serve this dish with either gravy (sometimes adding a Yorkshire pudding) or cheese sauce (pictured above). For the cheese option, I use shop-bought stuff: Plonk some chunks of strong Cheddar in for more cheesiness, and heat it in the microwave.

People would pay a tenner for that in a gastro pub but my diner is virtual, so Courtney pays and now knows how to cook this for herself.

The original August Underground’s Diner review is in my second collection of short stories, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

My friends’ (not Friends) wedding

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I don’t watch much TV, mainly because I don’t have much TV to watch. My area isn’t cabled and the building I live in is listed (Grade 1, and leaning slightly), so no satellite dishes allowed. My internet is intermittent at best (and leached), so I don’t have streaming services, just Freeview. I don’t get out much, and I didn’t have to go far last night to end up at a wedding…

Sheldon proposes

If I had multi-channel TV or unlimited streaming, I’d probably lose my life. Any quest for all knowledge is never going to be completed in this life, and there isn’t time to watch even a small part of current TV and film studios’ output. I have a large film library (only about one third watched), and I’m selective in my TV consumption, because most of all, I like to write.

Because I watch so few shows, I become somewhat obsessive over those that I do, always able to ace a round on the BBC’s Pointless when one of my shows comes up. Among many genres, I’m a fan of US comedy, but like all of my viewing, I’m selective. I could boss any quiz about Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, That 70s Show, and The Big Bang Theory.

Some might think I’d like Friends, but no. The only intelligent character in that show (Ross Geller) was always mocked for his intellect, or his words cut short by those who didn’t understand him: His friends; his ignorant friends. Big Bang is the opposite.

Last night I watched the long-awaited nuptials of two people I feel very close to, because I’ve studied them for so long, and because the characters are so well-observed that I have much in common with them. This was the wedding of Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Jim Parsons is a person I admire greatly, not just for his acting. I like to find out about the people I enjoy on screen, and to watch what else they’ve done. In Parsons’ case, he’s worth checking out in a small role he played in Zach Braff’s Garden State (also Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter) in Andrew Niccol’s In Time, and Kevin Sussman (Stuart Bloom) in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading).

Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler) is an author and neuroscientist, as well as an actor. She shares a birthday with my son, and played a young Bette Midler (as CC Bloom) in Garry Marshall’s Beaches, aged 11. But I digress.

Big Bang is a show beloved of geeks, because it’s about us, the misfits. Last night’s wedding episode wasn’t just the marriage of two good friends, but a nerd’s fantasy. It’s a show that’s good at paying tributes, and there were many nods in the wedding episode.

TBBT WeddingFox News

Amy’s parents were played by Kathy Burke, who seemed to carry parts of her various characters from American Horror Story, and Teller, the silent half of Penn and Teller. It was a little or well-known fact – depending on the circles you keep – that Teller isn’t in fact mute, and many more people knew that after the show.

Before the wedding, Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg, who can also be seen in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), finds a lost dog, which it turns out belongs to Mark Hamill, and who offers a chance to digress briefly into another geek world: That of StarWars.

Gary FisherHelloGiggles

Gary Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s dog) was already a legend after he shat on the floor at a StarWars convention (above), and he had a special relationship with Mark Hamill’s dog, Millie. Since then (and as featured in last night’s Big Bang Theory), Mark Hamill now has a dog called Bark (Hamill). Mark Hamill was then asked to officiate at the wedding, a role already booked for Wil Wheaton.

The Big Bang Theory is probably the best (if only) place for a friendly clash of two mutually inclusive franchises, StarWars and Star Trek. Wesley Crusher and Luke Skywalker together on screen was something even sci-fi nerds probably thought they’d never see, and the on-screen chemistry said they were right at home.

People like me don’t get invited to weddings (we can’t stand them anyway), but if we had to go to one, it would be one like Sheldon and Amy’s, where usually uncomfortable people felt at ease, in a usually uncomfortable environment.

There was a scene which didn’t make the final cut, in which Sheldon and Amy open a gift from Stephen Hawking. He made several appearances, this being the poignant last reference from the sentinel who knows the Big Bang better than most: a pocket watch (so beloved of Sheldon) and the inscription: “Sheldon, I’m so glad you finally married Amy. It’s about time. Ha, ha, ha. Love, Stephen.”

We all know it’s a fantasy (Jim Parsons is already married to his husband), but even geeks and nerds can emerge from their shells sometimes and enjoy themselves. We just need each other in our virtual lives.

With my head in the cloud cities

THE WRITER’S LIFE | ON EARTH

As a science fiction writer, I give plausibility to my stories with some grounding in scientific fact. Some of my near-future worlds are simply based on what I see around me, and how things might develop, one way or another. Like many modern thinkers, I can’t imagine life on Earth as we know it more than a few decades from now. The human population is growing, and our planet only has finite resources. We need to move out…

saby-menyhei-cloudcity-final-v001Saby Menyhei

I’m anti-capitalist, generally-speaking (I have to be: I’m an anarchist, and because my own companies folded when I was drinking), and I’ve sometimes wondered, what’s the ultimate aim? Not being rich myself, I simply can’t imagine devoting my life to making as much money as possible, and never really stopping to enjoy it (but then most capitalists are immune to everything but themselves). There’s only so much room on the planet, only so many raw materials and consumers. That’s a discussion for another time, but it’s relevant to humanity’s current position, where people like Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk agree, that humans need to start leaving Earth within the next century. Great minds think alike (and so does mine).

There is one way we could stay on this planet a little longer: If we all turned vegetarian. Any argument that we evolved as carnivores is irrelevant to a species as advanced as ours, able to maintain good health without eating other people. The retort that we’d be over-run with animals if we didn’t eat them is largely redundant, when there are more animals raised as livestock for human consumption than there are animals in the wild. Those animals we rear and breed require food too, and crops to grow that food needs land. We also steal the young and the maternal milk of the animals we share this planet with. We imprison other autonomous, self-determining beings, for our own consumption, simply because we can, and because they can’t argue or fight back.

As the human population has grown, we’ve lacked foresight to keep it in check and maintain a sustainable environment. Instead, we’ve destroyed the homes of others to make way for ourselves, with no apparent thought for the long-term and permanent damage we’ve done, yet still we’re clearing areas of forest for palm oil, to feed ourselves and our livestock. The greater moral and ethical case for vegetarianism though, is the limited size of our one world: It’s theirs, we just live with them. They were here first. As a species, humans are really quite unpleasant, and I pity any other worlds we might one day populate.

We need to shrink our sense of entitlement, accept that there’s no room for human greed, give up much of what we’ve stolen, and make space for the others whose planet we invaded. We’re unique as a species, but not just in our selfishness. We have the ability to communicate in complex language, to imagine and invent. The problem humanity has is itself, when we’re prone to conflict over our own ideals, and because big plans require co-operation. In the absence of any extraterrestrial agent appearing, to unite warring factions against a new and common foe (or interest), the nearest we have is what’s around us. It doesn’t require the imagination of a hostile or altruistic alien visitor, it just needs us to open our eyes to what we’ve done.

Among the few capitalists I admire, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent a positive future, built on technology, and for the benefit of all. They are among long-term visionaries, who see greater gains further ahead than the traditional short-term gain capitalist. They imagine the advancement of humans as a species, through co-operation, exploration and discovery, and they see a future world built on social capitalism. Long-term gains are a satisfaction with life, not currency. But it needs money to get there.

Bezos’ business model is surprisingly simple: He built his fortune through Amazon, which used the existing infrastructure of the internet. His and others’ vision is to build a technological infrastructure which others can plug into, very much like every business which uses the World Wide Web. His is also a massive and ambitious vision: Cloud cities.

We have the technology, and the likes of Bezos and Musk have the money (a fanciful thing like a cloud city isn’t likely to be government or state-sponsored, yet). It’s estimated that there are enough minerals, elements and other raw materials within near-Earth asteroids to build an 8000-storey building which covers the entire surface of the planet, which would clearly defeat the object but it’s illustrative nonetheless.

We can build spacecraft to mine the asteroids, and process the materials to construct infrastructure. Eventually we’d have industrial facilities in Earth orbit, or geostationary in near-Earth space (or even tethered to the surface). From those factories, we can produce, process, and manufacture to fulfil our needs, and we can design and build further, with the cloud cities as outposts for onward future exploration. With its available resources and lack of gravity, space is far better suited to heavy industry than a planetary base.

These early manufacturing facilities in the sky would most likely be fully-automated, operated by robots and managed by AI. In a utopian future of human socialism, the machines have made humans redundant from all but a few occupations. The wealth generated by this automation is shared fairly among a human population and humans are able to create their own lives, free to think, question, discover and make things.

The cloud city model would allow us to return much of the Earth to nature, even without many of us having to leave in the short-term. If we moved everything we need to sustain our race, off of the planet’s surface, we’d be able to return around half the Earth’s land area to those who were here first. With most manufacturing in the sky, and shuttles delivering goods to Earth, humans only need room to live (modestly) on the surface. If we grow crops in our cloud cities, most of our food cycle could operate in space, and we could even raise our livestock on sky farms (although I’d like to think we’d realise the benefits of vegetarianism by then).

While the human population continues to grow, and for as long as most humans eat meat, the only chance the planet and its native wildlife have, is for humans to use their unique ability to sustain themselves. There may be a global nuclear war just around the corner with the way things are going, but although it’ll reduce the human population, it might make Earth a wholly hostile environment and lead to the mass extinction of animals and the planet’s entire ecosystem. There’s a conspiracy theory that this is all planned and that those in power (and wealth) already have plans to vacate the planet. That and many other ideas make more dystopian science fiction for me to write, but some utopian futures remain within reach, even as our species stands at a pivotal existential point.

If we manage to avoid a mass suicide event in the next 100 years, there may be a chink of light for humanity, in the silver lining of the cloud cities and beyond.