Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

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Run, And Find Out.

June 11, 2011

“[Tell Science Stories] about nature that are true and complex… but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there is a deep and many leveled beauty in the world”

In that vein, let’s start with a story.

Two years ago, I was working as a substitute primary school teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching 3rd Class (8-9 year olds.) I found some time, later in the day, when the work their teacher had left them was done. So I looked at their Science books, and discovered that they had yet to do a science lesson. (3rd class is the first class where Science is its own subject.)

As I flicked through the first few lessons, my eye fell on the lesson which demonstrated that sound could travel through solid objects. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, something flickered. Had this been my first Science Experiment in primary school, 16 years ago? I remembered saying something belligerent, and insisting that I be the one allowed to go outside to verify the results. Sound through solid objects, I thought? Nonsense! I won’t believe it, until I hear it!

So I began, outlining in the simplest terms that sound travels from (for example) the teacher’s mouth to the childrens’ ears. No talk of wavelengths, or even vibrations. That wasn’t the point of this lesson. The point was the question.

“Do you think that sound can only travel through air? Can it travel through solid things, like the walls, or the desks? Hands up who thinks it can?”

The class was evenly divided. Not, as I had expected, along lines of ability, or curiosity, or history of reading. The division seemed random, each child forming their own opinion from their own past experience. I banged my fist against a desk in demonstration. It got their attention. “So,” I asked “When I banged my fist on the desk, the sound travelling from here to your ears?” I mimed a line of sound travelling from the point of impact, through the air to their ears. “No sound travelled through the desk itself?” I asked one boy to put his ear to the other side of the desk. As he did so, I spoke about how Native Americans tracked the movement of herd animals by putting their ears to the ground. Then, I banged my fist against the table again, and the boy’s head flew up in surprise.

“Wooooooah.” He exclaimed, putting Keanu Reeves to shame. “That was waaay louder than before!!!” Surprise to excitement in a moment. And there it was. A moment of wonder and discovery as his idea of the universe’s workings shifted. The other children saw that look of wonder, and mirrored it. Without warning, the classroom descended into chaos, with children placing their ears against desks and urging their neighbours to bang their fists against it. Laughter and gasps filled the room.

What happens to that wonder? It gets trained out of children. In a few short years, getting that enthusiastic about knowing and discovering is going to social poison to them. Some will simply keep their enthusiasm quiet, waiting for a time when they can go to college and surround themselves with other people who managed to retain their passion for science and knowledge. Most won’t. Most will find themselves with a slightly anti-science attitude, one of apathetic avoidance rather than outright rancor.

The Anti-Science Narrative isn’t a monolithic tract that creates extremist anti-science activists. Like so many similar stories, it is told in the form of isolated fragments. Each of the statements above will act on People in isolation, the words creating a collage of ideas never explicitly linked up into an Idea, but rather creating an implicit social context that reinforces a grand story that has never been expressed as such. The same is largely true of sexism and racism. The narrative isn’t presented to us as a manifesto, but rather as a collection of little pieces that don’t seem too bad alone, but thanks to our minds’ ability to pattern form unconsciously, we end up with a tapestry woven from these threads without realizing we’ve done it. Scientists (and other rational minded sorts) find ourselves constantly arguing against the irrational beliefs held by others. Homeopathy, prejudice, conspiracy theorists… the list is long. We try to change minds with facts. Surely, we think, that should be enough to win the argument. We go away shaking our heads in disbelief, knowing we were right and failing to understand how people can be quite so irrational.

It’s because irrationality has the Bigger Story. It has many threads that twist throughout popular culture and everyday discourse. Scientists are cold. Scientists are amoral. Scientists change their minds all the time, you can’t trust what they say. It’s only a theory. Gut instinct is a valid reason to do something. Scientists are uncool. Scientists are arrogant elitists who look down on “normal people.” People would rather elect someone who seems “folksy” than someone who seems “smart.” Scientists dabble in things Man Is Not Meant To Know and the result will be terrible Horror Movie Gene Spliced Monsters or conquest of mankind by Talking Apes.

That story is out there, and there is one way to beat a story.

Tell a better one.

 

Communicating the facts is vital, no doubt.. Lots of people change their behaviour based on facts. But there are those who don’t. There are those who reject science as a wordview because they see it as Cold. They see it as actively removing beauty from the world by a process of reduction, of breaking down the world into its elemental constituents without a care for the breathtaking majesty of the whole. And sometimes, even we scientists forget that this isn’t true. We reject metaphor and symbol as the weapons of the irrational, and get far too literal minded. To steal from Alan Moore: “We distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place”

Science has a gloriously beautiful story to tell. It’s not a story about a Grand Design perfectly executed, but rather the improv jazz masterwork of a quartet of Weak Force, Strong Force, Gravity, and Electromagnetism. It’s a story about subatomic particles dancing to that tune and building conga-lines of Carbon that started making more of themselves, mass producing the sheet music of life . It’s about Sex and Death, and how they let each new organism put their own ragtime riff on the genome they were born with. It’s a story about how one of these animals realized that they realized and started passing information to the next generation without the use of bodily fluids and starting building our own symbols with scratches on cave walls and arbitrary shapings of sound. It’s a story about layer upon layer of emerging complexity that defies any one mind to understand it. It’s a story about thousands of great minds giving their life’s work to perfecting their own tiny slice of human knowledge, hoping that someday, our picture of reality will fall together, and be beautiful all the way down.It’s a story about a children experiencing the wonder of discovery .

 

The story we need to tell of science isn’t one about how it’s right. The story we need to tell about science is one about how the scientific picture of the world is more breathtaking and beautiful that one with willful gaps in it. It’s a story that speaks to the curiousity and wonder we all come into the world with, and it needs to be told to those who haven’t had it trained out of them yet, and to the ones who still have it lurking in their memory. Changing the course of a story as told by a whole society is a terribly difficult task, but it starts with a few people telling a better story, moving one or two people ever so slightly. One story is not enough to overcome the inertia of society. It would take millions of little stories of wonder to do that. But science gives us no lack of source material.

 

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Never Ending.

May 17, 2011

There was a sound, nearly subsonic. He couldn’t actually hear it, but he knew it was there. Dreams are like that. You know stuff, without sensing it in the conventional sense. He couldn’t hear it. But he knew the words to describe it.

 

“There was a sound, nearly subsonic. It was a rapid babble of syllables spoken through wet lips by wet gums chewing saliva and tongue.”

 

He was sitting at a long table. Wooden. Old. The strangeness of the dream, or rather, of dreams-in-general, struck him again. The way that you are never really aware of a whole scene the way you would be in waking. Your senses come in at the wrong times, disjointed. A badly conducted orchestra of stimulus. Or a poorly organised scene description in a bad story.

There was soft golden light, comforting and familiar, from somewhere in his earliest memories. You could be comfortable in that light, it meant you were in a safe place. The kitchen he sat in was a calm place.

But there was still that sound. Or rather, the dream-narration telling him there was one. And it’s source was at the head of the table. But still, dream-him kept looking at the table, or around the room at familiar cabinets and counter tops, soaking up the familiar, safe, golden light.

 

“You’re going to look up now” The dream narration told him. Not out loud, of course. This dream was told in words simply placed in his head. Or that were already there. No voice over, no captions. Just sentences in his internal monologue, telling him how it was.

 

“And it’s not going to be safe here, not anymore.”

 

He looked up.

So.

Very.

Slowly.

His head pulled up, creaking against a great weight. His dream-body was near paralysed, and each inch was a battle.

Its body language, the angle of its head and the way it held its arms, told him It was looking directly at him. That was all there was to go on. The face that looked right at him was without any feature, or even particular shape. A blank sphere, its surface rippling to the rhythm of that noise which he was at last actually hearing.

Frozen again, seeing only the Thing. And the dream-monologue was silent.  The other senses wandered off, leaving him only with sight. No explanation, no dream knowledge telling him what this Thing was. The emptiness of its face was immense. It’s not-anything-ness had a terrible gravity.

Suddenly, he was running from it, instantly outside the door and turning to the stairs, which yawned, chasm-like, in front of him, and swallowed him up as he fell.

As he fell, he knew

“It stood up, and took some steps towards the door, making Its noise again. When you finish falling, you’ll land right back at the head of the table. It has taken the seat next to where you will land, and it is waiting.”

 

And he saw it again, while the viscerality of the fall through space made his body lurch and recoil, propelling him towards waking. Right before the shock-near-impact-jump awakening, he saw It take the seat beside his, and begin pulling chunks out of its head, and rolling little clay spheres, miniature self portraits, and placing them in a row in front of him.

He would have that dream again the next night. 17 days later, he would dream it again, but forget upon waking. Two months later, he would have that dream four times in as many weeks.

Three years later, the dream began with him sitting next to It. It reached into its own face, tearing a gap that make a leering, face-splitting mouth. It tore two fist sized chunks out above its mouth, making ragged, wide eyes.

It spoke.

And again, he woke up.

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A Monster Calls

May 12, 2011

Nearly two years ago, a friend handed me a book, and told me

“Read the first page. I guarantee you’ll want to read the rest.”

It took 23 words.

That book was The Knife of Never Letting Go  by Patrick Ness. I started reading it that night. I finished reading it the next. Or rather, early the next morning.

Luckily, it was only a short wait for the second book in the series – The Ask and The Answer.

The third book – Monsters of Men –  took an agonizingly long amount of time to be released, but it was very much worth the wait. I purchased the book, and had to resist trying to read it as I walked home. I finished that book in a single sitting as well.

This evening, I went to the launch of Patrick Ness’ new novel A Monster Calls. (From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.)

After the impact the Chaos Walking trilogy had, I should have been ready for A Monster Calls. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to resist opening it on the bus home, even though I knew I had work to do. (Of course, having a tantalizing snippet of the book read at the launch didn’t help) I managed to resist briefly, but I went to bed a couple of hours ago and thought “I’ll just read a little bit more.”

I’ve just finished the book, and I can’t sleep just yet. I have a tendency to be effusive about books I enjoy. I have told anyone who would listen, at length, and repeatedly, about how fantastic I thought the Chaos Walking trilogy was and how they should immediately take  a weekend off and read all three in one sitting. I’m saying this now, because this history of enthusiasm might make you think it’s just my normal level of fervor at work in the words below.

It’s not.

A Monster Calls is an utterly breathtaking work of fiction.

Literally. As I closed the book, I had to take several deep breaths.

And that’s all I’m going to say. I could go on, with many more superlatives. I’ve been writing and deleting several, realising that I’d need either all of them or none of them to convey my reaction.

So there you go.

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Two Beginnings

April 29, 2011

Two things got Sami into trouble with his Mother.

Those two things were wondering, and wandering. He went wandering whenever he could get away from his chores, and he wondered while walking to and from his chores. He had poked and pried and explored every single corner of the Warren. The Warren was a maze of interlinked tunnels, some high enough to fit a human person, and some so small that even Sami, who was not yet a fully grown Goblin, had to crouch and crawl to get through them. If you were to follow the tunnels, you would find hundreds of caverns, like buildings along a street. The small caverns, some of them carved out by Kobs, some of them carved out by nature, were used by Goblin families as homes. The bigger caverns, the ones made by roaring underground rivers and ice flows in the far away past, were the centres of the goblin settlements, where they built their root farms, where they built their strangely on-top-of-themselves marketplaces and taverns.

The thing which Sami loved most about the Warren was the smell. The smell in the Warren was a lived-in smell. A lived in and not cleaned very often smell. It was a mixture of sticky goblin sweat smell, damp earth smell, and a mishmash of spices, roots and cooking meat, and some other smells that humans would generally prefer not to think about. Sami adored the smell. Like other Goblins, he found it comforting to be able to smell the people around him so strongly. The filth just added to the effect, meant the smell was real, made by real Goblins living real lives, right here beside him. In his mother’s burrow, he could smell her and each of his seven siblings. In fact, he could taste them, because the smell filled the air so fully. If you sat near the entrance hole, you could smell the burrows of the families that lived further down the tunnel. It gave Sami a great sense of community, to be able to smell his neighbours living just a short distance away.

Sami was a clever and curious gob, but clever and curious weren’t the virtues Goblins looked for in their children. They preferred cunning to clever, and everything else to curious. Sami’s mother always said that her mother always said that her mother always said that curiosity is even more dangerous for Goblins than it is for Cats. Sami had never seen a cat, but he very much wanted to. He was clever enough to realise that his curiosity to meet a cat was not the intended outcome of his mother’s advice, but curious enough not to let it stop his wondering and wandering. He wanted to see every part of the Warren, and he had seen most. Only one of Sami’s traits was considered desirable by his fellow Goblins. He was very good at sneaking. So good, in fact, that he was able to sneak around without other expert sneakers noticing his sneaking.

Today, however, was different. Wandering alone would have gotten Sami into trouble, but it was the second thing, the wondering, that was most dangerous.  Today, Sami wanted to see something that the Goblins in the Warren had not. After all, curious isn’t something many Goblins were.

Sami sneaked a furtive look around him, checking that no-one who would recognize him had noticed he was there, and slipped away down a rarely used tunnel…

2. Bump in The Night

Like so many ghost stories, this one starts with a child.

Alone.

In The Dark.

Katie used to like the dark. With nothing else to see, she could fill the emptiness with whatever wonders she could imagine. But lately, the dark had been filled up by other things. Little sounds that spread out into the silence and became very big indeed.

Lying awake, long after bedtime, Katie listened to all the noises filling up the dark. She waited for one noise in particular, the one that started everything.

BUMP!

She started to fill the darkness with scary pictures of what the noise might be, and hoped that she wouldn’t find out if she was right.

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A Town called NEVER.

April 11, 2011

Never is the sort of town you only ever see in a story. You see, it is, on the surface, a distinctly normal town. It is not too big, nor too small. It is not too near any other town or city, nor is it too far away.

 

Never is not in any particular country, and its people do not speak any particular language. The weather is not very hot, and not very cold. The townspeople are, for the most part, friendly and good natured, greeting each day with a smile.

 

So you see, Never is the kind of town which is so normal that you would only ever hear about it in a story. There is one thing that makes Never very special. It is the reason we are here, taking a look at the town called Never. It is why we are telling this story.

 

In the Town Called Never, Something That Has Never Happened Before Happens Every Day.

 

On Saturday, the townspeople found a mermaid in the fountain in the town square. She had been swept up from her home by wind and storm, and fallen from the sky like an Angel, to be caught in the arms of the waiting water. Mermaids, you see, always land in water, because the water looks after them especially. She was far away from her home, so the people of Never placed an inflatable swimming pool on the back of a flatbed truck, and brought her on the long journey to The River, which as all rivers do, led back to the Sea. That way, a mermaid can always find her way home.

 

On Sunday, a traveller came to Never. This was something that happened often, but this Traveller brought with her something special. In her long train of carts and wagons, there was a zoo of many animals. These animals were not the sort you would see in a normal zoo, or anywhere else in fact. These were the animals that only live in stories, and in this zoo. There was a snake, long enough to wrap around a house, which had the face of a beautiful lady. There was a Griffon, with the head and wings of an Eagle on the body of Lion, and it was indeed the noblest creature you could ever see. A cat that was sometimes just a grin reclined in the passenger seat of the lead wagon, and monkeys with many fingers and painted faces played hopscotch on the roofs of the town. They stopped for only a little while, and after they were gone, nobody could remember all of the shapes and sizes that they had seen, because you while you might see a Nessie in a zoo, you would never remember having seen it, because that is not how magical things work.

 

On Monday, everybody in the town gave each other gifts, even though it wasn’t Christmas, and it wasn’t anybody’s birthday. Each person gave what they could give best, and none of the gifts were bought with money. Home-makers baked fresh warm cakes, and their partners cooked dinners with flavours from all over the world. Children painted their imaginations in a hundred different colours. The elderly told their stories, and the youth listened and laughed and learned. The dogs gave their unconditional love and enthusiasm, though that is nothing rare for a dog to do. The birds gave song and the cats gave little things left on the doorsteps. The teenagers shared their music, and their parents did too, and everyone heard something new. Everybody had something to give, a little piece of their world that only they knew, until it was shared.

 

On Tuesday, a new family moved into the Town. They were called, they said, The Frosts. They told their new neighbours that they were moving north for the winter, because they did not like the warmer climes down south. They wore raggedy clothes, and their eyes were as black as coal. They had long, pointed noses that were quite a different colour to their very white skin, and whenever they shook hands, you would feel your hand quickly become cold and damp. But the Frosts were very friendly indeed, always smiling, except on the warmer days, when they would stay inside and you could hear their air conditioning running at maximum strength all through the day until the night time brought the cold. In the spring, the Frosts were gone – moving North, they said, for the Winter.

 

On Wednesday, Catherine challenged all the other children in the town to a race – a race in which their pets would compete to see who was fastest. Johnny brought his greyhound, a champion racer. Kevin brought his rabbit, because even though racer greyhounds chase the rabbit at the track, they can never catch him. Marie brought her Parrot, reasoning that something that had wings must be faster that all the pets that walk or crawl. Angela brought her beloved Tortoise Cecil, because she believed with all her heart that slow and steady would win the race. Catherine Rourke, however, surprised everyone when she produced her pet – a mighty Elephant, whose single stride was ten times longer than any of the other animals. How disappointed she was, then, when Bobby arrived with his little white mouse, whom Bobby said was  “subject in spearmints”  that would make him special. Catherine’s Elephant did run, very fast indeed, but he did not win the race.

On Thursday, old Mr. Machen built a rope ladder to the sun. He launched it on the back of a rocket he had built in his backyard, and the whole town watched the ladder fly up into the sky, and, miraculously, stay there. Mr. Machen said something about satellites and orbits, and then proceeded to climb. Many people tried to dissuade him, telling him that space was vast and cold and would kill him, and he said loneliness was just the same. He said he wasn’t going to wait for that, and that he wanted to go on a glorious adventure, and that riding off into the sunset didn’t sound half as fantastic as climbing a ladder to the sun.

 

Friday, however, was the strangest day The Town Called Never had ever experienced. And this is quite something, for the people of Never were used to spontaneous wonders coming into their lives, and indeed, they rather looked forward to what every day would bring. But on Friday, the oddest thing of all happened.

 

On Friday, Nothing happened whatsoever. Everybody got up in the morning as normal, went away to work and school and normal, and returned home for the evening meal as normal. The evening passed without incident, everybody using their free time for whatever they usually used it for. The people of Never found themselves very perplexed, when the children had gone to bed and the clocks had struck midnight, and they discovered that nothing at all had happened. Except, of course, for a perfectly normal Friday, which they were quick to note, had never actually happened before.

 

 

 

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Story Archaeology

March 21, 2011

I read this story on Wired today about a Dad who found tape recordings of his own father reading bedtime stories.

In it, and in an article linked within that article, the author mourns the fact that physical media, like cassettes, CDs, and books are on the wane. Personally, I find myself torn on the issue. On one hand,  I love physical books. My individual history with stories is too bound up in actual paper-and-ink for me to get away from, as much as I generally embrace new information technology. In reading John McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the book itself was as much a part of the experience as the words. It is printed on paper so thin you’re afraid that every page turn will be accompanied by a tearing noise. The story itself has the same feeling – you know, from the very beginning, that the everyday experiences it describes are stretched taut, ready to be torn by something truly terrible.  It’s a fragile and beautiful story, and the physical experience of fragile pages just drove it home for me.  Intentional? I don’t know, but that doesn’t really matter. Any story is tied intrinsically with the medium, and Words on a Page are subtly different from Words on a Screen in the same way that a story being read aloud is different from one you read to yourself.

And on the other, I recently rediscovered The Storyteller series, thanks to the wonders of digital media. The physical collection itself is hard to come by, either prohibitively expensive, or, more often, incomplete.  But I was able to obtain a copy in mp3 format, and it has been an absolute joy to re-experience them. I have found myself mouthing the words to poems I couldn’t name two weeks ago, instantly reminded by the musical cues and the rhythym of the reading what line should come next. I’ve listened to stories and felt the very same as I did hearing them as a child, the gut reaction to the words coming back to me as easily as the memory of the words themselves.

This is what digital media gives us – a place to put art and ideas that will last far beyond any physical artefact holding the same thing. Once we have scanned or uploaded a story, it will be there to be found. I count myself terribly lucky that I grew up in just the right era that I could find these stories again. The tapes I once had are old and worn out – in fact, they were already worn when I listened to them, and of the 40 something tapes I inherited, only half survived my constant use of them to be passed on to my sister, and pretty much none of them survived long enough to be enjoyed by my youngest sister by the time she was of an age to do so. (The book, by contrast, is a far more durable piece of technology than the cassette)

But if I come across a complete collection of the tapes and books when I have money enough to buy them? In a heartbeat. There is still more of the childhood experience that I’m missing. As I listen to the mp3s, the chimes remind me that there are pages I ought to be turning, and artwork that remains only half-remembered even as the words come back to me. There is the scramble to turn over the tape and hear the next story.  There is a lot of good in digital media, but we’ll never replace the physical. That said, physical vs. digital is one of those false dichotomies. Embracing digital media does not necessitate rejecting the physical. Loving the contents of your bookshelves or your CD collection doesn’t mean that backing them up in digital form isn’t a good idea. I look forward to being able to buy a book and receive both a digital and physical copy at once. One for the experience, and one that will last forever, so that at least some part of that experience can always be relived.

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My first stories.

February 25, 2011

An idle dinner table conversation has rekindled a whole bunch of new memories.

http://storytellerwebsite.wordpress.com/

The “Storyteller” series was a collection of children’s stories read by a variety of famous voices from the British theatrical scene in the 80’s (Brian Blessed included.)

I lived and breathed these stories when I was a child. I used to sit with the book on my lap, listening to the accompanying cassette. If I hit a word I couldn’t read, I would rewind the tape and try again.  These stories taught me to read, taught me the joy of hearing a story read, and filled my head with all sorts of fragments I haven’t been quite able to place since. They were my first stories, and even though the exact words of them are lost, I can still remember how it felt to hear them.

Reading the titles today, I get a rush of fragile imagery, and an unmistakable shudder of emotion. “Petrushka,” and “The Inn of Donkeys” and “Hugo and the Man Who Stole Colours”  scared and fascinated me. Every time they began on the tape, I contemplated fast forwarding to be safe from the scary story within. But I could never quite bear to look away.

“Shorty and the Shooting Star” and “Gatecrashers” and “Party in the sky” delighted me in ways I can’t remember. But the names make me smile.

They gave me my first brush with the wonderful patchwork of stories from across the world. King Arthur, Noggin, Anansi and Br’er Rabbit and so many more. These are stories I know better now, but my memory of their first tellings is fragmentary and irresistibly magical.

The memory of the “storyteller” collection is a treasured thing, even though it’s incomplete and barely tangible, and I would love so very much to hear those stories again, to see how many of them have worked their way into my thoughts and stories without me ever being able to remember why that fragment lurked in my mind.