Parlez-vous les kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.

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The omnipresent Kung Po chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My real and online lives have always been blurred, and my fiction contains much which is real. The places and people of my imagination connect and fold in on each other and into parallel worlds besides. Where it all plugs in is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington: a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own.

mp_chicken_keyboardFollow me on Twitter

I have much written in longhand journals but little published lately, because I’m unable to finish anything with all that’s crowding my head personally. So it was ironic that I opened a page in ‘642 Things to Write About‘ today, to see ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

Sensing an urge, I stuffed 642 Things into my satchel and made my way to the Unfinished Literary Agency’s office, a place I feel I belong. Home is where the heart is, which is probably why I still have fond memories of being homeless in a world without judgement. Ink pumps through my veins, which is why I feel at home in the agency I wrote, one of many homes I created for myself.

When I arrived at the office, I found I wasn’t alone (even though I’d travelled that way). Not only is the agency home to myriad unpublished manuscripts, filed where most people think indie creative writing belongs (there is no direct sunlight in the office), now it was a nest for a familiar chicken.

Helen (‘Len’ in the short form) was the chicken I’d created when she hatched from a Campbell’s Soup tin in my kitchen back home in Catford. She’d subsequently disappeared in a flight of logic, when she proclaimed herself as God and we’d disproved her over dinner. That was a few weeks ago. Now she was seated at my desk (standing on the chair), pecking at my typewriter by candlelight.

Naturally I was curious about what Len was writing, but every time I tried to look, she obscured the paper in the typewriter with her wings. I asked her what it was she was working on, and she pointed at a pile of papers on the desk. It was at least a ream of A4, typed on both sides. Sensing I wasn’t going to get any keyboard time, I picked up the manuscript.

It was a report from The Department for Work and Pensions, their response to my appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to hear my case for having my human rights returned. Was Len turning it into a surrealist novel, or writing a damning critique of its inaccuracy? For now the chicken wouldn’t let me see, so I tried to catch some sleep in a place I might find it easier than usual, away from home.

The hardest thing about writing is starting. Once you’re into it, things flow. Sometimes you can’t stop. Most of the time, the writing can’t keep up with the thinking. And so I slept, while a chicken transcribed whatever it was in her head.

When I woke, the chicken had gone. She’d apparently also found the switch for the desk lamp I once wrote into existence, in case I should ever run out of candles.

Everything else was as I’d left it after I’d last visited, except the in-tray of The Unfinished Literary Agency, a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own. There were suggestions, some so sparse and vague that they could be ideas for novels, typed on a space as small as a compliment slip:

The waters on Earth contain the answers humanity needs to explore the oceans of the cosmos. Over time, new bacteria will grow on the human pollution which floats on the oceans, and human science and technology will advance as it learns more from nature. Eventually, human scientists will realise that a single strain of DNA can hold more information than any artificial storage medium, and it can survive almost any environmental condition practically indefinitely. And ultimately, humanity will see that the new bacteria on the plastic polluting the oceans contains DNA encoded with a message of extraterrestrial origin.

Clever poultry. It’s amazing what you can do when you have someone else to write it for you. Apparently I hadn’t disproved Len that last time, but her creator. She’d also left some sketches of road plans based on Mobius strips, so she wouldn’t get run over again.

I rushed home to start writing again. It was only when I got back that I realised I left my DWP paperwork back at the office.

Pink Chick

Every night as you drift off to sleep, you sail through purgatory. The only way to pause and remember is to float on the lucid waves.

Being here and now and there and then, is what it feels like to be a writer, unable to know what happens next, but knowing where to go. Writing from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Making music and singing out from where the sun rarely shines.

This post was brought to you by the writing prompt, ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (Volume One) is available now.

Hide and seek close to home

THE WRITER’S LIFE

In an hour of freestyle therapy writing for today, I let my mind wander, but not far from home. In sixty minutes of whimsy, I picked ten random facts from the air around me, in no particular order but as they occurred to me while my mind pondered locally. The writing prompt was a game of Hide and Seek…

Knock knockKnock Knock (PocketGamer)

I was born a Man of Kent, but I’m made in London (Catford runs through my heart, like a stick of candy).

I don’t think I’ll ever have any other favourite film of all time than my current one. I simply can’t imagine anything affecting me more than Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

My favourite times of day are eighteen minutes to three in the afternoon, and eighteen minutes to ten in the evening: 14.42, and 21.42, because they’re 42 (the answer to life, the universe and everything) and a factor of itself. I’m rarely awake at 06.42 or 07.42, but I often witness 02.42, and sometimes 03.42.

I call out my favourite Freeview TV channel names as I watch my microwave clock count down time to some dinners: DMAX (42), Food Network (41), Quest (37), Spike (31), E4 (28), 5USA (21), Yesterday (19), Film4 (15), Pick (11), BBC4 (9)…

I have a Bacon Number of 2: The concept is based on the six degrees of separation theory, which suggests that everyone in the world is connected through no more than six degrees of separation (or acquaintance). For example, having met Princess Anne, I’m separated from Queen Elizabeth II by just one degree (her daughter). My degree of separation from Kevin Bacon is the same, as I’ve met both Christan Slater and Whoopi Goldberg, both of whom have worked with Kevin and therefore have a Bacon Number of 1. That’s how I get my Bacon Number of 2.

Cats know that they have a higher purpose on Earth, but they haven’t worked out what it is yet. This explains their curiosity and nine lives.

Dogs know what the cats’ greater purpose is, and they really want to tell us.

I’m able to dream lucidly. After years of practice, sometimes, just sometimes, I can become aware that I’m dreaming within a dream, and take some degree of control over my actions and surroundings. Some of what I find there goes into my stories.

I believe in multiverse theory, and in fictional realism. This branch of the theory argues that given an infinite number of universes, everything must exist somewhere. So, all of our favourite fiction and fantasy may be descriptive of an alternate universe, one where all the right pieces came into place to make it happen. By extension, every story I’ve written, every character and world I’ve created, continues to exists in an alternative universe somewhere. I often check back on some of them with supplemental stories.

Next year I’ll turn 50, and I’ll be living in my 7th decade: Born in May 1970, I was conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, worked the 90s, married the noughties, and started over in the teens. An autobiography-ette: Born 1970, not dead yet.

I think I’ll explore some more, wider afield. Then I can write more stories.

buy-me-a-coffee

The origin of unpacked furniture

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place (and there’s a book), which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them, and sometimes I wonder if we may have a greater purpose, but haven’t worked out what it is yet…

laptop-cat-bb0919-3014947-600-1440509828000

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

Dreams play TV

Wherever our lives may lead, we are all but a plot device.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

Leave heavy lifting to the reader

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Whatever the length of a story, each word has a load to carry, and it’s a writer’s job to make sure each pulls its weight. Where a key rule is ‘show, don’t tell,’ words often have to carry passengers, in meanings, parallels, and analogies. Writing a story of six words is good exercise for the longhand pen while away from the typewriter, where I’ve been with a notebook.

German times tables

Like many writers, around 90% of what I write is never published: it’s all notes and thoughts in journals. From some of those (less than 10%) something more might emerge, and one of my favourite writer sandpits to play in is the six-word story. Even within such a tight word limit, a story can have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I try to use the minimalism of the format for more than one effect, even if it looks like I can’t be arsed.

I try to make my fiction evocative, invoking memories and questions: ‘What if…(…he’d finished the job; I just end this…)?’ The six-word story lends itself to that (leaving the heavy-lifting to the reader). Those stories then languish in my notepad, and some become more. Others remain just thoughts, but ideas shared might find another writer looking for an idea or a starting point. There are a finite number of plots and writers to write them, but infinite ways of telling the stories.

Being anonymous John, Malkovich (Malkovich, Malkovich…)

Malkovich-Banner-1024x576

Watching TV tonight, I jotted a few things down in my journal. I ended up with seven six-word stories, some final drafts, and others the seeds for my own longer stories or those of other writers. To a reader carrying their weight (of interpretation), seven stories of six words could be seven chapters in a story of 42 words.

Together, we can write books which have many more pages in the mind than they do in reality. ‘Leave heavy lifting to the reader’ is a story in itself…

Lonely dog seeks new homeless human

Innocence, learning, losing; life’s only path

Butterfly lands, human blinks, humanity sleeps

To their utter astonishment, it flew

A benevolent armada, above the clouds

I asked if they had music

In the beginning was the end

There are many more of the briefest tales at the online repository of such things, SixWordStories.net. My longer works are available from Amazon (other bookshops are available, and all of my titles can be requested from most (and at public lending libraries)).

In the beginning, this was new

I go everywhere, you go anywhere

I ask why, you tell me

At the end, we leave together

1. Message to campers? (2,3,7)*

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There was a time when if anyone asked me how I was or what I’d been up to, I’d just tell them to read this blog. Lately I’ve been distracted, consumed, and my posts sparse. My story continues, but nowadays it’s tales around the campfire with old friends, as I edit what’s in my head.

burning1981The Burning (1981)

It’s probably not gone unnoticed (least of all by me) that I’ve not written much that’s new lately. It’s equally clear that’s because of my preoccupation with fighting for my independence with a fascist regime. But as I’ve noted recently, I’ve accumulated a lot of longhand notes, scribbled at random times in a journal, but not evolving into anything.

Two things occurred to me: that I’m spiting myself by allowing the social cleansing machine to wear me down; and that in any case, I only have a finite amount of time available.

So I’ve made a kind of belated new year’s resolution, if only to myself and for the sake of my sanity, to keep me writing. As part of that, I’ve been fleshing out some of those notebook ideas and building the beginnings of plots.

The message to campers is a statement of intent, and of me building personal goals, as I lay foundations for a third collection of short stories and a possible novel in the next year or two. This then is me setting out my stall and committing myself (but without strict deadlines attached, I’ll just go at my own pace).

Some will be flash fiction, others long-form (and the possible novel, or at least a novella). All are working titles and subject to change, not being written for quite some time, or at all. These are not synopses, as I don’t want to give anything other than intrigue away. Just hints, in the hope people want to read the stories they become.

This is my sandpit too. There are a finite number of plots, but infinite ways of interpreting and telling them. If any other writers reading are struggling with the block, perhaps I might provide seeds, and stories could be told which I’d never have written. Others are free to join me in my playground:

Homo equus: The discovery of bones (possibly ancient), some human and others from horses. Perhaps to be expected in a battlefield, but like many of my older stories, there’s a twist which very few will see approaching.

Message in a bottle: A story arising from plastic pollution, where new bacteria are found to thrive. Could they be an effect of plastics we haven’t yet considered, given the problem is so recent?

The extraterrestrial typewriter: From a writing prompt in the writer’s block-busting book I have, 642 Things to Write About, specifically What your desk thinks about at night. With my laptop running the SETI@Home screensaver, a form of first contact is made between my typewriter and a signal from the cosmos.

Andrea: An android, who – like so many others – wonders what life means. It’s a well-used trope, usually addressing immortality, but I’m building a twist in, kind of an opposite of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Technological beings are made from the same stuff as us organics, the dust from the stars. They just had an explosive evolution and worked out they’d quite like to live.

Neo Anominati: Human DNA is hacked. Can’t say much more.

The genomic riddle: DNA can travel vast distances and carry huge amounts of information. What if we’re looking in the wrong place with SETI and radio astronomy?

The plastic population: Imagining another world, with strict controls over the introduction of foreign bodies, and where any human free of all traces of plastic is free to visit. Such a shame that micro-plastics pollute our first home to such a degree that they’re now in the rain, and every living organism.

We are the swine: A neo-apocalyptic Lord of The Flies, some Animal Farm, and a bit of 1984.

August underground overground: A companion piece to the original August Underground’s Diner (near Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington), launched in pop-up form in Wimbledon and staffed by recovering horror icons (think Pinhead with Elastoplast, Freddy Krueger with skin grafts and a manicure…). It might have some Wombles as antagonists.

hellraiserfaceswab2Beta (atomic)

Those are the ones with some literate flesh and bones. There are others besides, some ideas so surreal that they might not make it out of the journal or my head. But it’s enough to be getting on with, to check back on and to work through. Knowing people besides myself are watching adds another (very pleasant, quite thrilling) dimension.

*1. “To all intents” (announcing intentions to the campsite)

When I started writing this blog (over five years ago), it was because I had no-one to talk to, notes-to-self while I lived on the streets and transcribed my scrawl on a library computer. It’s still that, albeit on the typewriter, on my writer’s desk, in my studio: an attempt to write what’s on my mind, whether or not I had plans for that material in fiction or reality, but always wearing my heart on my sleeve.

To be continued.

Calling occupants of writing craft

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While my offline self continues to deal with real-life situations I needn’t trouble the world with, the one who’d like to tell everyone everything was suffering writer’s block. And I’ve been revisiting my favourite science fiction universe in Firefly, the demise of which I mourn daily, just like Sheldon Cooper.

Serenity_Pierre_Drolet_06-1This sci-fi geek modeller is my favourite person right now: He’s made a model of an aircraft carrier and parked Serenity on the deck (Pierre Drolet Sci-Fi Museum)

I read an article recently on hobbies to help with anxiety and depression, and writing wasn’t one of them, which was strange, because it’s been writing that’s helped me most over time. In the beginning, it was all I had.

That was five years ago, when I begged money on the streets to buy exercise books from Poundland (and white cider), and stole some bookies pens. When I used to sit in various warm, dry and light places, I planned to turn my story into a book. Then I got over myself and realised no-one would be interested in a Charles Bukowski fan boy (although I’ve been compared to him since, and many others in fact: some of the greats in the genres I write). In any case, The Paradoxicon was a fair stab at a semi-autobiographical flash fiction novel, allowing me to move on, and I’ve written four other books since.

Much has changed since then, and life has got easier in many respects (somewhere to live helps), but without the constant distraction of life keeping you on your feet, there’s a tendency to get stuck. I’ve never lapsed back to drinking, but I know why I did, when I’d sometimes rather blank something from my mind which won’t sleep. But I’m a writer.

Unless you’re writing for a mass market, it’s a very internal affair, and prevented from writing about much in my real life (the privacy of others), my solitary offline life gave me little else to think about. Well therein lies the paradox I’d created for myself: As a writer, I can write anything. And as a blogger, that can just be a diary entry.

Right now I’m perched on a cushion on my chair, not just because I’m short but because the air canister has emptied itself, so it’s lost its power of levitation. Nevertheless, the dead chair is full of memories that I’ve written while I sat at this desk on many other late nights. I’ll keep my old seat, because I can’t afford another one anyway, but most importantly, it’s where I am now.

I’m aware of the weight distribution in my arse on the cushion, and because I think different to most, I feel speed. Because what I can feel below me – the weight of my backside on the seat – is the feeling of my own gravity in relation to that of the Earth. So in another way of thinking, the pressure I feel is not me bearing down, but the entire planet pushing up beneath me. Like this world and everyone else on it, I’m spinning at 1000 mph and hurtling through space at around fifty times that. These are the things which keep me awake at night, sometimes joyfully.

If I get it right, I can sometimes lucid dream, and within my mind I can explore the universe (there are articles dotted about this blog). It’s getting to sleep that’s the problem, but writing is good for insomnia.

I’ve got sufficient followers to guarantee at least one will be interested in what’s on my mind, because they’ve chosen to follow me and be a part of another virtual life. And in a life cut off from most human contact, for someone like me, that’s a comforting thought.

So even if I am rambling, I know that someone besides me will be reading, then I feel less alone.

This blog was originally that of a writer with depression, like so many others, and yet it was the illness which prevented me dealing with it. Such is the power of the mind when it’s cracked. But other times, living with a Kintsukorai mind (one which is more beautiful for having been broken) is one long lucid dream.

Whenever I question what’s in my head existentially, I’m reminded of a documentary Stephen Fry made about his own brand of depression. At the end, he posed a question: If there were a big red button, and hitting it would just restore you to “Normal”, would you? Same as him, I don’t have to think for long: No.

Paul Auster once said he’s happy with a day’s work if he has 500 words of perfect prose at the end. I’m happier when I’ve pumped out 850 words of pulp thoughts in an hour and cleared my mind for others to read. A problem shared, is one divided or multiplied.

Suffer in silence

Now Serenity awaits, somewhere in the universe. If I can just dream, I can hitch a ride, with friends, the captain, a shepherd, a doctor, and a companion or more.