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.

Stockings with go-faster stripes

TRUE EVIDENCE OF LIFE

I’m still suffering writer’s block somewhat, not because I’m stuck for ideas but my head is full of them. On a personal front, in my real life, there are ongoing issues of my dad’s health, my son being a teenager, and family drama where I’m always the black scapegoat.

In my fictional worlds, I’m writing more short stories and a couple of books. None of which I can write about here because they’re works in progress. It’s like writerly constipation.

I hope other people read my stories and often I happen upon other people’s. There are only so many storytellers, but there are close to eight billion of us on this planet. None of us will ever hear every story, but while there are readers and sharers, stories live on. Like Paul Auster collecting true tales of American life, which can sometimes be indistinguishable from fiction.

Auster American Life

This one started with a question in my Quora list:

If you are visibly disfigured or disabled and a random three-year-old loudly asks their parent(s) about you, what would you prefer the response of the parent(s) to be?

It had already been answered by Cecelia Smith, from Dallas in Texas:

It happened today … a very lively and curious 3 year-old was running through Starbucks, making her sparkly neon shoes blink, and nearly landed in my lap because she overshot the spot where she planned to turn. As she backed away, she noticed that I don’t have feet … her eyes got wide and she spun around “Mommy!! This lady doesn’t have feet!”

Mommy was looking mortified but was balancing a baby in a carrier while trying to say “I’m so sorry” and get the child to come back to her … but the bright little spot of energy had already spun around to me again and was studying the bright knit socks I wore over the stumps.

Where did your feets go?” I told her I’d been in an accident.

Will you grow new ones?” Nope. They don’t grow back. But that’s ok, because I have the chair to let me get around.

How fast can your chair go?” … Which turned into a discussion of who was faster, me in my chair or her with her pretty, neon shoes that lit up when she moved!

We ended up having a “race” across the store .. and she WON! She was so excited, and showed me how her shoes sparkle when she dances too!

Then she suddenly stopped and got a seriously sad look on her face.

“You can’t dance can you?” I had to admit, no I can’t dance like she does. BUT if she holds my hand while she is dancing, then it is like we are dancing together.

So she grabbed my hand with a big smile and danced with me!

Everyone was just delighted watching her – because she was just delightful.

Mom still looked uncomfortable – she wasn’t sure how she, as the parent, should respond. When the dance ended, Mom came over to apologize – and I told her there is no offense in the honest innocence of a child. I had enjoyed our talk and our dance.

I was really glad Mom had another child to tend to, so that I had the opportunity to have such a positive interaction with the little girl. When a child notices me and my “invisible feet” … all too often the parents pull them away, and tell them they are being rude and teach them to avoid interacting with people like me. I understand the parents think they are being polite and teaching their children manners – but what they really are doing is teaching their kids to ignore the existence of disabled people. I’d much rather have them see me as just someone who is a little different.

I didn’t bother to answer the question myself. I’m not sure why it appeared on my answers (requests for) page. Despite social anxiety disfiguring me in the eyes of the blinkered, I’m not one who necessarily draws glances.

I could make it into a sci-fi tale: I could strap rockets on those feet, make it a meeting of races from different worlds experiencing music for the first time… I could do so much, but it stands alone as a story which touched me, in that small part of the heart which still hopes for humanity. Despite what has happened to our countries, the UK and USA will always have a special relationship among those of us who see it for what it is.

Some stories require no embellishment. But there are billions of fables, anecdotes and thoughts of whimsy in all of us, which would go untold if there weren’t writers. I once had nothing, but I found the written word. We can all tell stories.

Maybe this one accidentally ended up in my list of questions for a reason.

The history of the potting shed

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A question asked directly of me (and I assume of others) on Quora was, What made you realise you were a writer? I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter, and the enquiry gave me the chance to pot some history. When you’re feeling shit about yourself (depression does that) and have no-one to hand, sometimes you just have to go over it all again for your own benefit.

Alien smoking pot

They say not to dwell on the past and to move on, but I must never forget that my ability to travel forward in time obliges me to travel back every now and then, lest I forget. The penitent man in the eyes of God seeks forgiveness in a life of servitude in return for entry to heaven. The atheist with many more questions will forever carry the burden of guilt, but never seek the forgiveness of a deity made in another man’s image. So I write open letters to the other humans around the world, to whom it may concern…

Robot writingTechRadar

As a human who writes, I don’t fear redundancy by technology just yet. For now there’s enough pure humanity still detectable in our own species to protect (most) writing as a human interface, where the readers’ and writers’ gains are more about preserving life than getting paid for what we do.

Every writer will tell you a different human story (their own), and mine is probably as original as most. I started writing on the streets, like a budget version of Charles Bukowski. I didn’t so much realise I was a writer as happen to be one.

I worked in London in print for 25 years, from the days of hot metal and the trade as an art, to the digital revolution and print as technology. From corporate finance and security printing in the 80s boom, to working with design agencies in the West End, print was always an industry fuelled as much by alcohol as ink. Deals were done in pubs and bars, and a lot of people made a lot of money.

I went on to run my own companies, latterly home-based when I was married with kids. But the alcohol in that environment wasn’t the same lubricant it had been in the city. Eventually my drinking got the better of me and I lost everything in 2011: Home, marriage, kids, business.

I found myself on the streets and only then realised that anyone, no matter who they are, could be just one or two luck-outs away from there. I literally had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no TV, radio or internet. I was cut off.

Being December, I’d seek warmth in McDonald’s after I’d got enough money together for a coffee. I could read the free newspapers but there was nothing else to do. So I begged some money for a notepad and stole some pens from a bookmaker, and the rest is quite literally history.

Becoming a writer just happened, but what made me realise I was one? I’d never had time like that alone with my thoughts, and the opportunity presented itself to get some of them down. Many went into the blog as I’d use library computers, and others became the foundations for short stories (some of what I experienced out on the road people wouldn’t believe, so it’s easier written as fiction).

I got back on my feet, but I’m always an alcoholic (albeit a functioning one) so I couldn’t go back to work. After all that, I didn’t want to. In some respects, I was happier on the streets just writing than I’d ever been in well-paid jobs. I’d rather not have lost everything else, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t have become a writer.

It’s about freedom and satisfaction with life (there’s no point being a writer if you’re out to make a lot of money). My alcoholic breakdown left a lot of scars (on me and others), but those who knew me throughout said that I emerged a better person (and a pretty good writer). I look at the world differently now, in a way no-one can until they’ve been at that all-time low.

I don’t know what I’d do without writing, when I have so few physical people around my in real life. It’s hard enough living with myself, let alone burden anyone else, so I address much of what’s real in fiction. It’s not so much virtual detachment as the only coping mechanism I have, when to write beyond the headlines would be speculation. So long as that remains fictional, there’s hope, because the real life news is that my dad’s health is deteriorating and my son is the same teenage lost boy I once was. I hope we all get better as I’m the Marmite filling in a generational sandwich.

The whole of my life, before and after the fall, is in my books and online writing, a mixture of fact and fiction, real and virtual. From Linotype print to the scars of the road, ink flows through my veins and written into my skin. My words on the page are as deep as the tattoos on my arms: my children’s names, in Helvetica typeface.

Nowadays I tell my kids, be the best that you can at that which you enjoy the most, because then you give the most and you get the most back. My dad told me something similar once, and I hope that one day I will. I know I have good guides.

I may not Douglas Adams