Behind The Scenes
Some chat about my books and how they come about. Although not intended as story discussion, there are some details that will be spoilers for those books unread.
This is in fact the first story I wrote and it originally manifested as a screenplay. I was playing the screen writing contests in the United States as a way into creative writing.
It’s also the story that got under my skin and drove me to the madness in the first place, where it is not the wanting to write that makes you put pen to paper, but some deep seated need driven by story.
In the beginning it was the notion of an odyssey where a single member of the human race is pitted against the odds, while the rest of humanity is forced to watch on, powerless to help, but which in itself brings out the best in us, sweeping aside age-old divisions that cut through life on Earth.
One of the characters was Lucy, a Machine Based Intelligence. Originally, she was intended to be just a supporting character, albeit an important one. But as I wrote her it became immediately apparent that she did not see it that way at all, and the story became as much about her as Robert Cantor. You hear of how characters can develop a mind of their own, often quite different to how the writer originally intended them to be. Lucy is very much an example of that.
Many painful drafts between 2005 and 2006 got me nowhere. However, the feedback was fairly consistent – too big, too complex, too reliant on exposition, but some interesting ideas…why don’t you consider spinning those out as stories in their own right?
So I did, giving me A Child Of Our Time (COOT), and Seen And Not Seen (SANS).
A reasonable degree of success from those led me back to a re-write of The Veil, now third in the series by the same name.
But as a screenplay it was still not getting much traction in the contests, plus the reality of those contests—of which I had been fully aware from the beginning—was finally catching up with me. Basically, it is nigh-on impossible (but not completely so) to get anywhere.
So I bit the bullet and took to re-purposing my screenplays as novellas. Indeed, the fact they came from screenplays is why they are a) novellas and b) in the present tense.
TVOR was the third I wrote as a novella—actually, it’s close to 50k words—and because it was part of a series, it meant I could lighten the exposition load—it could still be read alone, but if the reader wanted to know more they could read the other two.
The second story I wrote as a screenplay, and the first spun out of The Veil.
In The Veil the Machine Based Intelligence, Lucy, had a backstory that placed her in a difficult situation that itself was intended to heighten the drama. She had taken the life of a man, and the world was not willing to listen as to the reasons.
So COOT became the telling of Lucy, what she had done, and why.
COOT is part of the Veil series in as much as it is part of the overall story line, but the Veil themselves do not specifically appear (though there is a very small hint of their influence).
It was also an opportunity to expand on the notion of Machine Based Intelligence, as introduced in TVOR.
MBIs, or, as they were dubbed in the story, Embies—which is a semi-derogatory term.
I used the notion of MBI, rather than AI, because for me the term Artificial Intelligence is something of a misnomer, even though it is technically correct in terms of English meaning—Intelligence, but created by Man.
MBIs/Embies are what I would consider to be ‘real’ intelligences, in that they are not systems devised to behave in an intelligent way, but actually are intelligent. As the emby Lucy puts it, they are more than the sum of their parts. This is also true of the first generation, even though they are depicted as more akin simpletons, and without any self-awareness.
It’s a tricky positioning because science fiction has always depicted AI as being truly intelligent—we have become used to that term in that context.
But in terms of the real world technology there is a spectrum of capability—most of what has been termed AI to date has been algorithmic (statistical and probabilistic, for example), with the latest AI tech now coming online being ‘machine learning’. These are simply systems, and neither is even remotely close to AI as depicted in Sci Fi, of which there are no examples, a situation that is likely to remain the case for decades.
It has been pointed out to me that MBI is IBM in reverse. I can honestly say that it was an accident—I didn’t even notice. No, really! Many will, of course, cite HAL, whose name is one letter removed from IBM, something that Clarke and Kubrick were adamant was not deliberate. I can only imagine that when it comes to intelligent machines there is some deep cosmic connection with the aforementioned company.
The original version of COOT placed third in the Final Draft Big Break screen writing content in 2008. I was flown to Hollywood and attended the award ceremony there, plus got to meet some producers.
But, alas, that was that.
So I decided to re-write it and see if I could take it further. It made it to the semi-finals of the Nicholl Fellowships screen writing contest. Only the semi-finals? That put it in the top 125 out of 6000+ entries of the most significant contest of them all, and I got calls.
But those calls were nothing more than the Hollywood machine taking a look at anything that might be remotely interesting, meaning that all I had was a distant sight of the foothills that would eventually lead to a mountain almost impossible to scale.
I ran it through a number of contests of the following years, again with reasonable success (taking success to not actually require you to win the contest outright). During that time I wrote Seen And Not Seen (SANS), re-wrote The Veil, and developed a couple of other stories into screenplays. I had a reasonable level of success with my various projects, and that built confidence.
Seen And Not Seen (SANS)
The second story I spun out of TVOR, and the first in the series (in terms of storytelling) before ANOW came along.
Just as COOT told Lucy’s backstory from TVOR, so SANS was intended to tell Robert Cantor’s backstory, as well setting up Cantor Satori, the Afrika Project and, of course, the Veil themselves.
But unlike COOT I had much less of an idea of what SANS would be about plot-wise, even though there was quite a lot of exposition in the original TVOR. So in some respects it was much more of a completely ‘new’ story that needed to be constructed from the ground up.
TVOR and COOT both had one or more core ideas about which I built there respective stories. In SANS it was the folly-of-man, the pursuit of some enterprise that, while founded on good intentions, results in some terrible outcome that should have been foreseen by its instigators.
As a novella it was the first, which is probably why it is the shortest, and sticks more closely to the original screen play.
I like to re-use—or, rather, make use of—characters that perhaps were not so prominent in other stories, and in SANS there is a priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral. In the screenplay that’s all he is, but in the re-written version of TVOR he becomes Joseph, and I made him so in the novella version of SANS.
In some ways, what has emerged is a cast of characters who span the series, but who have different levels of significance in each of the stories. Lucius is another example—central to COOT, but less so in SANS.
Have now revised SANS to align it with ANOW. As a result there is more in the way of exposition in SANS, though still not a huge amount. We get more of an inkling of what/who the Veil are, plus Joseph’s character gets a bit of a boost to facilitate this. BUT these changes are still relatively minor with respect to the whole book – so the story has not changed.
What we do see more clearly is that the Veil have instigated the start of the Last Day, moving the first of their principal players, Robert Cantor, into position. In TVOR Robert remarks that if he is monstrous, then he has been made so. And that’s just what the Veil are doing in SANS.
Also, we see that the horrifying experiment hidden inside the Five Earths initiative is, for the Veil, a turning point. For them it marks a fork in the road that leads to the Veil itself…or not. By revealing the Messiah program to the world they create the first of the monsters they need.
Is it the fourth or the first in the series? Truth be told, it could be either—as well as being the second or third, for that matter.
ANOW is the first not to come from a screenplay, and at close to 52k words, is novel length according to the Hugo definition. But I would say it is still a quick read, and closer to the length of Sci-Fi novels I used to read in the 1970s.
As with TVOR, it opens with Joseph, but aside from him in-common characters are initially thinner on the ground. There is no Justice Garr, Landelle, Toor or Robert. The one character that is present is Monica Satori, and in some ways that what ANOW seeks to cover—where she came from.
But ANOW isn’t about Monica. Like each of the stories in the series it seeks to explore some quandary, and in the case of Any Now it is existence itself.
For that I had to delve in to the realms of consciousness and the cosmic, though found it necessary to significantly distill things down to concepts that would still allow the story to flow. Looking back at my original notes, they read like the ravings of a mad man.
Richard Felton and the Agency also feature, as do the Veil, and there is a lot more in the way of answers when it comes to those two organisations, plus a bunch more questions…
Center stage, though, is Rhoda Mollo—a new character. Or is she? In fact, she ‘appears’ briefly in COOT, and is referenced in TVOR.
A couple of other characters also appear from the other stories. We meet Cyril, the garage clerk from SANS and COOT, before he joined Cantor Satori, and also Bertie Bertram, the building manager of the Cantor Satori tower.
Bertram is an example of a character from the screenplays who almost didn’t make it into the novellas. In fact, she nearly got dropped altogether—she originally featured as a significant character in the first screenplay version of COOT, but that changed so much as to remove all the scenes that had her in them.