The Return of the King but backwards

A plot summary of JRR Tolkien’s book but backwards.

Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, arrives from the Undying Lands to Middle Earth on a ship with many powerful elves and the wizard Gandalf. At the Grey Havens he is met by three hobbits who greet him warmly and invite him to come and live in their homeland, The Shire.

Frodo travels to the Shire with Sam Gamgee, a prosperous and important hobbit who is highly regarded in The Shire. Frodo settles down for a quiet but comfortable life in his new home at Bag End but is troubled by prophetic dreams. Despite this sense of growing doom, it is a very prosperous time for the Shire even if it’s population starts getting slightly smaller.

Suddenly a dark change comes upon the Shire. Some evil force is at work! Buildings fall rapidly into disrepair while many new uglier buildings begin to appear. The hobbits start forming their own armed factions. One day a large mob of armed hobbits, led by Frodo’s friends assemble near Bag End, when to their horror the dead body of strange wizard and his henchmen appear. By some horrific necromantic power, the bodies of the wizard and the henchmen spring to life!

Frodo and his friends are forced to retreat as the wizard (known as both ‘Saruman’ and ‘Sharky’) musters forces against them. Frodo and his companions finally flee The Shire altogether. They meet up with the friendly wizard Gandalf the White at the town of Bree.

The Hobbits set off to get aid for the Shire from the King of Gondor. They reach Gondor with Gandalf but not long after their arrival a strange malaise falls on Aragon the King. Troubled, he decides to abdicate his thrown and divorce his wife Arwen so that he can deal with the coming crisis.

To everybody’s horror, Frodo and Sam fall into a sudden coma. Both of them begin to suffer from the symptoms of exposure and dehydration. Wounds appear on Frodo’s half-formed fingers. Their health crisis worsens but before a remedy can be found, the two hobbits are kidnapped by giant eagles. The eagles fly the hobbits to a mysterious volcano, Mount Doom in the desolate land of Mordor.

Regaining consciousness on the slopes of the Mount Doom they discover the volcano is in the process of erupting. They make their way into a cave as the eruption lessens. Overwhelmed by some sort of psychic force within the volcano, Frodo performs an incredible feat of magic. He brings forth from the lava a creature called Gollum and a magical ring. The Gollum creature then attaches the ring to Frodo’s hand by magically inserting new fingers on to Frodo’s hand using his teeth. As weird as this sounds, it does stop the volcano from erupting.

The weird volcanic ritual’s true purpose is revealed when Frodo feels the presence of a new being: Sauron the Dark Lord! Somehow, the ritual has brought this horrific being into existences as well as his many minions! Elsewhere in Mordor, the huge tower known as Barad-Dur springs into being and Sauron’s attention is focused on Frodo.

Coming to his senses, Frodo removes the ring from his new-formed finger and he and Sam flee the volcano. They make their way down the mountain, occasionally harassed by Gollum. They land of Mordor has become populated by a military force of orcs and the two hobbits realise they have to find an escape route. They head towards a pass over the mountains that should take them back to Gondor.

After a long trek, they reach the mountain pass of Cirith Ungol. Sam decides to betray Frodo (not unreasonably given that Frodo appears to be part of a plot to resurrect Sauron the Lord of Darkness) and leads him into the guard tower and ties him up so he is a prison for the orcs. Apparently Sam has been planning this all so that he can fight a giant spider who lives locally and to whom Sam has an unresolved grudge…

…Meanwhile, Aragorn the former king of Gondor has assembled a small army and has made his way to the gates of Mordor. They arrive just in time for Frodo’s weird volcanic ritual to bring not only Sauron into existence but also Sauron’s terrible army that assembles itself at the gates of Mordor to challenge Aragorn’s forces! After a skirmish, Aragorn is forced to retreat but the forces of Mordor allow Aragorn to take his troops back to Minas Tirith.

The safety of Minas Tirith does not last long. An army from Mordor forms around the city with many of Sauron’s forces rising from the dead and battle is joined! Realising the necromantic powers in play, Eowyn of Rohan uses the battle to resurrect one of Sauron’s chief minions the Lord of the Nazgul. However, her efforts are actually an attempt to bring her father King Theoden back to life!

Aragon’s is forced to retreat from the battle and using mysterious ghosts, commandeers ships to evacuate his forces. Meanwhile, the Riders of Rohan also flee from the battle field led by their resurrected king. With these forces gone, Sauron’s army lay siege to Minas Tirith.

All looks hopeless! But then the necromantic tides turn when Lord Denethor walks out alive from a mysterious pyre that was burning! Initially confused, Denethor regains control of the city from Gandalf and under his increasingly confident leadership the siege from Sauron’s forces lessens. As Minas Tirith’s defences and morale improve, the intensity of the attacks lessen. Eventually, the army laying siege to the city realise that the place is impregnable. Disheartened, Sauron’s forces make an orderly retreat.

Seeing that Minas Tirith and Gondor are now at least temporarily safe, the wizard Gandalf decides to leave the city and travel to Rohan, which has expressed some concern about the wizard Saruman who is currently locked up in a tower in the ruined city of Isengard. Meanwhile, Aragorn has made his own way to Rohan and has used his own necromantic powers to install some ghosts in a cave.

The heroes have avoided destruction but the forces of evil only appear to have gotten stronger in the process! The book ends with the fate of Middle Earth in doubt!

Mechanics and genre

A character from previous years re-appeared this week. (I say ‘re-appeared’ but that’s obviously from my perspective, I doubt they were hiding in a box until my attention was drawn their way.) Damien Walter, the former science-fiction critic from the Guardian, posted on the r/printSF reddit and the people there couldn’t decide if it was a jolly topic for debate or trolling. In the end they split the difference, retained the discussion but banned Damien Walter. Well, I guess online communities find ways of policing themselves.

He starts by observing a change about midway through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire (yes, I know) and then argues that:

“Asimov was a great writer on many levels. But it’s kind of fascinating that it takes him a few hundred pages to do what any novelist would be doing from the first page – get into his characters. This is what the lit folks mean when they say SF is badly written. There’s a whole set of techniques evolved over centuries of novel writing, SF often misses them all or in part. I’d argue SF is a different mode of fiction writing. One closer to creative non-fiction, because of its focus on ideas. But I’d also argue SF writers could do well to read a lot outside SF, to learn those other skills.”

There is a lot wrong with the argument but I think it was the general tone that upset people on the Reddit. However, let’s unwrap a few things.

  • The specific example is a ‘novel’ that is two distinct novellas stuck together. The change in style is Asimov writing a distinctly different style of story.
  • That aspect of older US-style science fiction is important when considering the styles and conventions of the genre. Much of it was published first in magazines and the medium influenced the genre.
  • His example is a novel published in the 1950s from stories published in the 1940s. That’s not a great example on which to base a generalisation about what SF writers should do now.
  • Do “lit folks” say SF is badly written? Is this really a thing? Maybe it is and maybe they are pointing at works from the 1950s? Plausibly somebody somewhere holds that opinion but an example of somebody notable would help here to frame the point.
  • Is SFF a different mode of fiction writing (aside from it being a genre)? Specifically “one closer to creative non-fiction”? In general, I think not. I can see a case that SFF contains with it subgenres of fiction written using non-fictional conventions and certainly the Foundation + first half of Foundation & Empire has some of that quality — a fictional future history.
  • …but if we do focus on that sub-genre of SFF, a writer intentionally writing fiction using non-fictional conventions is making a deliberate choice. Think about the example of a fantasy map. It’s fiction and it is SFF but the fact that it lacks characters or plot devices or reflections on the interior thoughts of a protagonist, isn’t because the fantasy map maker hasn’t read widely.
  • More generally is it really the case that SFF writers are deficient in the skills of literary fiction? I’m not sure the question makes any sense. There are certainly some very accomplished writers and there isn’t a shortage of well written SFF. Are there also writers whose work is less skilled? Sure, but notable ones are writing stuff that works for them and their readers. Writing in a style that works for the story and the readers is a choice.

Horses for courses I guess. Understanding conventions, tropes, stylistic devices and deploying for the purpose of writing is the skill. Science Fiction and Fantasy as a very broad genre is unusual in containing within it notable stories and sub-genres that are highly conventionalised along with notable stories that are highly subversive of conventions. It’s a really big playground.

Book Launch: How To Science Fictionally

To celebrate five years of all this stuff and nonsense, here is a new collection of posts spanning the nearly two-thousand day history of the blog.

We answer all the important topics! How can you make your space ship travel faster than light? How can you make your teleporter work? How are you going to send a message home and how are you going to style your beard?

These and many other questions are often badly answered in this compendium of essays from Camestros Felapton (that’s me!). Ranging from flippant to occasionally researched, this book answers the burning issues in modern sci-fi.

Available from these fine purveyors of electronic books:



Apple: Via Apple Book Store

Barnes & Noble:


Amazon: Ha, ha, nope.

In there you will discover…

  • How to travel through space: an introduction of sorts
  • How to travel faster than light
  • How not to time travel
  • How else to time travel
  • How to survive as a time traveller
  • How to grow a beard
  • How to teleport
  • How to ansible
  • How to change your mind: Get Out and other things
  • How to keep politics out of your science fiction: Captain Bob and the Space Patrol
  • How not be human: The Being Not Human Awards
  • How to make a replicator, a replicator, a replicator…
  • How to be psychic
  • How to be a priest
  • How to duplicate people
  • How to be a pod person: Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978
  • How to catch the tube
  • How to make something invisible
  • How to fly
  • How to make a force field
  • How to hover just a little bit off the ground
  • How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star
  • How not to make a phaser
  • How to make a magic gun stopping thing
  • How to change a British superhero
  • How to tell if a film is science fiction
  • How to tell the difference between fictional science and fictional magic
  • How not to alter history

Sir Tim Cattenborough Presents The Life Cycle of a Novel

[A stunning new nature documentary by world famous publisher, naturalist and national treasure Sir Timothy Cattenborough]

Our beautiful planet Earth. From up here on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro we can see the vast vistas of nature’s own miracles and what greater miracle can there be than the majestic novel — one of the natural world’s most miraculous miracles.

Here I am in the forests of Borneo gazing in wonder at the spectacular site of thousands of novels making their nests among the natural shelving of the great pine trees of northern Scandinavia. Whether it is these great majestic creatures of the plains of Patagonia or the more common domesticated novel of these rolling hills of Southern England, the novel is a familiar sight to us all.

But very few people have ever managed to see the hidden lifecycle of a novel. How are they born? How do they grow? And how, via the miracle of evolution do they reproduce? Today, via special cameras disguised as robots disguised as librarians we have, over a gruelling five minute project, at last gained unique footage of the novel’s lifecycle.

Here we are in the tar pits of Southern California. Here scatter brained authors drunk on fumes wander into the sticky petroleum products and become caught. This process, known as pitching a novel, provides the perfect breeding ground for more books. Young virile novels land on the decomposing bodies of the authors and there they mate and leave their eggs, flying off to grow even further.

Using our special macro lenses we can see here those novel eggs hatching into their first semi-aquatic form. These tiny monster-like creatures are known, here among the fenlands of Northern Europe, as short stories. They may look tiny but many are infamous for having vicious stings in their tails.

Tiny and vulnerable, these larval novels often huddle together in “magazines” for warmth and protection, as we can see here among the frozen wastes of Greenland. There they feed on tiny protozoic food sources such as ‘subscriptions’ and ‘reviews’. The lucky ones continue to grow while others become consumed by their siblings.

The larger short stories fight for attention and sustenance. Soon the few that have survived the brutal competition for resources have grown into the next stage of the lifecycle: the novelette. Still far from fully formed, the beginnings of novel-like structures have begun to appear. Some novelettes may have begun to grow chapters or even cover-art (the strange colourful crests that might evolve into mating displays).

Birds, small tigers and meerkats all seek out novelettes as tasty treats, thus winnowing the herds of novelettes that appear just before midwinter in anticipation of award season. Hungry squirrels burrow away collections of novelettes and often leave them forgotten in desk drawers or amid poorly named folders on their laptops. Very few of these noble creatures will make it through to the next stage in their growth.

Those that do survive, continue to grow into armoured novellas. Now equipped with their own external exoskeletons, their ‘covers’ may still be soft and their binding may only be rudimentary. Many will still seek to stay in the colonies known as ‘anthologies’ due to their resemblance to ant nests. There, amid the company of both novelettes and short stories they continue to take on adult form.

The passing seasons brings those novellas into full novel form. Some may be not quite full length or be in a ‘young adult’ form. Others will have grown tough outer carapaces known as ‘hardbacks’. These new novels are often garishly coloured. Scientists are divided as to whether the coloured patterns and striking colours are to attract mates or, alternatively, a form of disruptive camouflage to confuse voracious carnivores such as lions, pythons and book hoarders. Some novels form symbiotic relationships with other creatures – in particular librarians – and form large colonies in urban centres.

Later adulthood leads to further growth. Some novels find rich sources of nutrients and grow into mighty doorstop-sized novels. Other bifurcate into bizarre multi-novel book series and spread root-like tendrils known as spin-offs.

But death and rebirth are the only two constants of nature and even giant hardback multi-novel series with embossed leather covers must eventually pass beyond. Yet, by the miracle of nature, nothing is wasted and from the decaying remains of one novel come a myriad of derivative short stories. Thus the circle of life is complete.

The Being Not Human Awards

Robots, aliens, talking (or at least sapient) animals, AIs, demons, gods, vampires, entities, orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giant spiders and guests, welcome! Please take your seats, there is plenty of room in this elegant if ageing theatre that we call Camestros Felapton’s Experience of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Genre. Get comfortable, introduce yourself to your neighbour and sit back.

I’d like to discuss with you all what it is to be you. Now I must apologise in advance. There are many you in the audience, people I love dearly, who may take offence at what I am going to say next. Yes, yes, I am looking at you Mr Spock and yes, you C3PO and there’s no point waving that screwdriver at me Doctor, nor hiding behind Gimli’s axe Legolas. I love you all but I’m sorry, this really is not about you. Yes each of you is distinctly not human in deep and notable ways as explained in great detail in the backstory section of your Wikipedia pages. However, for our purposes tonight while you may be the big stars, this is not your turn in the spotlight. We love you but we love you because you have to admit that your are not exactly not-human.

Yes, Mr Spock (and yes you too Data, no need to add a third voice C3PO) that was a double negative. Each of you are positioned as aliens as a way for people to understand the variation in human experience. On the whole that has been a positive I think. Each of you have been embraced by humans who can see aspects of themselves and their own sense of difference from other humans. I do not begrudge your roles to that end even if the idea of taking the actual variation in human experience and calling some of it alien, as if being stoical or logic or struggling with your own understanding of emotion or just being quirky and eccentric (yes, your fez is nice Doctor) makes you equivalent to being a different species. It’s a bit off when you think about it like that even if the repeated moral of your story is that being a person isn’t about what species (or machine) you are.

In short, dear favourites, none of you sitting in those front seats are ABOUT being not-human. Quite the opposite. Your alienness is simply a metaphor for our own prejudices and social norms excluding variety. And for that you get the love, the accolades and the fans. However, I must put you aside for today’s ceremonies.

Sorry, [shield’s eyes and looks up to the lighting desk] can we raise the house lights please? Particularly that very shadowy section over there? Yes, the section that appears to be generating its own anti-light and which is emitting eldritch noises? Thanks! Oh! Not to bright! Some of our guest are a little…sensitive…to photons.

Secondly I must offer my apologies to another section of the theatre. Actually could we all give a big round of applause to a guy who has been doing absolutely solid work in this industry for literally decades. You know who you are. I’m pointing right at you. Stand up and take a bow big guy. He’s my good friend and golf buddy, he’s the monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind, the one, the only (I hope) dread Cthulhu! [applause]

Cthulhu is here tonight to represent a major part of our big SF & F non-human family. We couldn’t do it without you guys. You are the monsters, the dread hordes, the onrushing threat that seeks to overwhelm the kingdom, the dark secret trapped in the unholy tomb. You guys just don’t get the credit you deserve, particularly with the conditions you have to work under. The damp, the dark, the often unquenchable fires of damnation, often without hazard pay. Bravo, bravo.

But I said you were owed an apology and you are. So often you are the fears and prejudices of your authors. Often you are the product of the internal or overt racism of your makers. Sometimes your creators (no, no Supreme Dalek, I don’t mean Davros, I mean Terry Nation, please stop screeching “Davros”) so often intend for you not to be explorations of what it might mean to be something other than human but rather to cast humanity’s own evil in an external form.

Hands (or whatever) up everybody in that section that was intended to be a metaphor for fascism? OK, OK. Lots of hands and plungers up in the air I see. Now hands up everybody who was intended to be a metaphor for communism? Yup, lots of appendages going up. Now hands up those of you who were a metaphor for both and sometimes a metaphor for uncontrolled capitalism! Ha, yes, yes Cybermen it really is amazing how many things you can be a metaphor for!

And zombies. I’m so sorry. I get that you can’t really parse what I’m saying and I know there were some pedants (yes, I do mean you Mr Spock) who said that you are by definition human and hence shouldn’t have been invited at all. However, you above all represent the urge for creators to invent beings who can be slaughtered without remorse. [weird rattling sound] Yes, excellent point Triffids, your narratives often shift to other humans being the REAL threat.

That was a timely comment as I’d like to direct everybody’s attention to the sentient plant creature section of the audience. A big hand for them all please! Yes, yes, YOU ARE GROOT! Ha, I think the Ents are just discussing something witty to say in response…they’ll have a quip to say in a couple of hours. Ha, sorry Audrey no time for a musical number tonight! You are all wonderful but please don’t let those sun lamps get on the vampires in the next row.

And by a handy coincidence that takes me to the first award of the night. It is the award for the first non human fictional creatures that made me think about what it might be like for some being to be intelligent but not in anyway like the way it is for a human to be intelligent. And the award goes to…THE TRIFFIDS FROM DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS BY JOHN WYNDHAM! [the crowd goes wild, music from the Howard Keel movie version plays,a little group of triffids clump three-leg-stumpily up the ramp to the stage.]

These guys, wow. Such, such good work. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction owes them so much. Just look at the cheers they are getting from the zombies! These heroes of our industry have no central nervous system. They don’t have brains, we really don’t even know what kind of sense they have except hearing. Yet they can organise and plan and turn the tables on humanity. Is it some kind of collective intelligence? An emergent property from their system of communication? Nobody knows! It is the blithe obliviousness to the idea of triffids having mental states that means the triffids aren’t just another natural hazard after humanity finds itself struck by disaster. Of all the waiting rivals to the hegemony of people, it is the triffids who seize the opportunity. From us all and on behalf of the academy, please except this trophy and this prize of a large bag of potting mix.

OK calm down everybody. We’ve still a couple more awards to go. So let’s get right into it. The second prize tonight goes to the first depiction I encountered as a child of an alien ‘monster’ that really wasn’t what it seemed and which had to try and make sense of humans very quickly to stop them murdering it, thus revealing that the humans were actually the aggressive alien species after even if they din’t realise it . I can see a lot of excited candidates shifting in their seats. It’s a big category and I’ll be frank, the Silurians were a strong contender for this but the judges (yes, you Mr Spock) disputed that sapient dinosaur count as aliens. However, in the end for shear alienness I had to give this award to everybody’s favourite classic silicon-based lifeform. She’s the lava creature from Janus VI. You know her, you love her, you may have mind-melded with her (yes, you Mr Spock) it is THE HORTA FROM STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES EPISODE DEVIL IN THE DARK! [Crowd goes wild again as a kind of blobby thing squishes up to the podium.]

Congratulations! Thank you Horta representative for taking time out of your busy 50 thousand year life-cyle to be with us tonight. Please accept this trophy and this pallet of premium quality house bricks. The Horta everybody! Ha, yes Silurians, it is always the greedy mine operators who set off incidents like this. THINK BEFORE YOU DIG, PEOPLE!

Well we are nearly at the end of the night and it is time for the big award. Laestrygones and Gegenees, our final recipient is in the category of my favourite inscrutable intelligence that is manifestly a thinking thing but which surpasses the understanding of the people who encounter it thus challenging us to reconsider what it is to think and what it might a non-human intelligence be like. A tough category and one that we struggle to define boundaries for. There was a strong argument for the whatever-the-thing-is-in-Area-X in Jeff Vandemeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. A judge’s ruling (yes, you Mr Spock) disqualified the giant wandering space computer conglomerate from Star Trek: The Movie on the grounds that it was actually just the Voyager probe. That same judge really wanted to include the big space thing from Star Trek: The Voyage Home, but honestly there’s nothing inscrutable with just really liking whales — I mean that’s a pretty simple motivation when you think about it. In the end there was only once choice I could pick.

Please give a big Being Not Human Awards round of applause for…THE PLANET SOLARIS FROM STANISLAW LEM’S SOLARIS! Due to orbital mechanics and limited space in the theatre, Solaris can’t be with us tonight but to show their appreciation they have tapped into our subconscious and used their power over neutrinos to re-create a lost loved one in a manner that will be psychological traumatic for each and every one of us but will make us reconsider the nature of not only ourselves but how we might connect with minds utterly different from our own when we so often fail to even be honest with ourselves. Solaris everybody! Not just a planet but also a really bad therapist.

And that’s it for this decade’s Being Not Human Award ceremony. Thank you all for attending. Time to go back to sleep on R’lyeh Cthulhu! Ha yes Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Camestros Bortsworth wgah’nagl fhtagn to you too! See you next Thursday at the golf club! Good night one and all! Yes, yes, you ARE Groot! Drive those Ents home Groot, they may have been drinking and we don’t want them trashing Isengard again! See you Cybermen! Be nice to your Borg cousins!

Good night everybody!

The Arts and the Blog Challenge Project

A few days the admirable Shaun Duke put out a call on twitter for fellow bloggers to join a kind of writing challenge. He later explained it in more detail in this post on his own blog:

“What is the Blog Challenge Project? In short, the project aims to create a community of bloggers and booktubers who will encourage one another to create content, support one another in their blogging ventures, and provide a giant list of prompts and ideas for posts that folks can complete on their own time or challenge one another to explore. The idea is to provide some positivity and community in a time of immense stress. You can click the link to read the full info page and see our current list of prompts!”

Aside from being a great way to find other interesting posts to read, it looked to me like a good way to create inter-blog conversations. People don’t need to write about things at the same time but having common prompts will help more natural conversations and back-and-forth of ideas happen. I was very happy to join.

But where to start! Well I could just do what I normally do and wait for inspiration to hit me with its four claws, confused expression and unsatisfied hunger for kibble and then, after I’d written whatever post came out of that experience, add the topic I wrote post-hoc to the list. That didn’t feel entirely in the spirit of the thing. So I decide to cheat in the opposite way and pick the first prompt somebody else had already written on! Brilliant, I said to myself, although Timothy was disappointed that I hadn’t done a photo essay comparing shapes of commercial pet-food kibble with famous starships (another time).

Luckily, Shaun Duke had also got the ball rolling with a big picture post entitled The Arts are the Glue that Holds Civilization Together.

“And in doing all of this and seeing all of what is happening around me, I’ve started to answer a crucial question out loud to myself: why do the arts matter yesterday, today, and tomorrow? And I think I’ve got a decent answer to that. I’d argue that the arts are the glue that holds civilization together on both the personal, national, and global scale. It’s the thing that allow us to express ourselves, to find joy and relief, to be human and explore what that even means. The arts are everything.”

Now as people know, in the great sorting hat of the disciplines I was shuffled off into House STEM and I can’t say that the hat got that wrong exactly but I haven’t been particularly faithful to my appointed box either.

Shaun’s thesis that the arts form a kind of social glue strikes me as absolutely right. The dark side of that is the way those who seek to take power away from us do so via propaganda and narratives. That’s not deny that other forms of intellectual disciplines aren’t also used for evil because they are from economics to physics but that the political power, even in a tyranny revolves around persuasion and the subversion of the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes.

A lot of talk about the value of the arts points towards the virtue of creativity. That’s not wrong but it’s not the aspect I find compelling mainly because I think people miss the extent to which creativity is embedded in every discipline. The difference with the arts is that creativity is more overtly celebrated. Albert Einstein, for example, was manifestly a very creative thinker but it is the correctness of his theories that earns them their praise rather than their novel elegance.

Rather, what I value from the arts in terms of a unique contribution is their capacity to interrogate creativity creatively. The arts in general provide a way of exchanging ideas that provide the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes but the discipline of the arts gives us tools for us to examine how those ideas operate and mesh together and also how they differ from one another.

Without tools to interrogate the creative, the spiritual and the aesthetic aspects of our culture we lose sight of their power. Losing sight of that power is how we end up with things like Fox News on the one hand or L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics on the other. Conversely not understanding how disciplines that our current culture regards as somehow “non-arts” hides from us connections and delights and ways of enjoying the world around us.

I’ve discussed before Japanese Temple Geometry ( a perfect instance of what we’ve stereotyped as unartistic playing that demonstrable social glue (in this case community worship) and engaging with notions of the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Our capacity to interrogate, define and converse about the arts is essential. It is essential for us as an open society in which ideas flow and people can grow.

Now excuse me, I have to draw a theorem.

How to make a replicator

Replicators are more of a staple of Star Trek than other franchises. As we’ve seen in Star Trek: Picard, DS9 and Voyager, the fun concept can be a bit limiting to plot and characterisation to the extent that later versions of Trek find ways for people to cook and make stuff without the use of a replicator. Jean-Luc Picard’s brother refused to have a replicator in the house, carrying on a family tradition. So while they are a fun idea, I’m not surprised they haven’t caught on in science fiction quite so much. If anything, they make stories just a little more dull without adding many interesting dilemmas (either practical or moral).

Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes took a different spin on the notion of a food replicator to imagine a kind of 3D printer that can assemble organic objects. The same technology (or something very similar) is used to create new versions of the crew.

The Six Wakes style replicator strikes me as a concept we might start approaching. There are already ways of printing some kinds of food and I can imagine that becoming gradually more sophisticated.

Star Trek replicators are interesting though. Presumably they work using the apparent mastery of manipulation of mass-energy that the Federation has. I’m sure the mechanics of them have been explained within Star Trek lore but let’s speculate about replicators we could create if we have imaginary technology.

  • Rejigged teleporters. Teleporters of the fax-machine style disassemble matter into energy and then store the pattern in some sort of buffer system. Infamously, they can be turned into copying machines. Switch off the safeties and build some more permanent buffers and you have a replicator. Want some earl-grey-hot? Make yourself a cup and then teleport it away. Then teleport it back to the same spot. Now the cup of tea is permanently stored in the buffer and you can re-teleport it back whenever you want a cup.
  • Analyse and recreate. This is conceptually a cross between the 3D printer idea and the teleporter. You need command over the very nature of matter and energy but this time you have a machine that creates a digital model of earl-grey-hot by scanning lots of cups of tea. The advantage of this is that you can change parameters like tea strength or temperature and also combine models e.g. replicate your earl-grey-hot in a wine glass or a nice cab-sav in a tea cup.
  • Read minds. I’ll assume we have some magic and what we want to access is the platonic ideal of a early-grey-hot. Access the higher realms of reality and use your magical power to bring an instances of the ideal cup of earl grey into the mundane world. How to find that ideal cup? Well, the world of ideals is concepts so you just have to look deep into the minds of people who like a nice cup of tea and grab their concept of a nice cup of tea…and so on. It’s easy from there…
  • Use time travel. This is theft and surely breaks all sorts of laws of conservation of mass. Use a time machine to take a cup of tea from the past. Drink the cup of tea. Now, use your time machine to go back to the point just before you stole the cup of tea from the past. Steal the tea again but don’t drink it. Instead, send the tea back into the past to just AFTER you stole the cup of tea the first time. Yes, yes, I know, somehow that doesn’t all add up.
  • Buy tea bags and a decent electric kettle. This only works for creating tea.
  • Digitise your brain. You now exist in a virtual world. Pay developers to make virtual versions of a nice cup of earl-grey-hot. Wait. The developers get back to you explaining that there are delays in the next sprint. Wait. The user-acceptance-testing version of the product is sent to you with a 13 hour turn around. The developers appear to have made a beer glass full of sputum. Explain that it isn’t what you asked for. No, no, you have to lodge a Jira ticket. Wait. Get frustrated and ask why is the cup-of-tea project delayed. The developers explain that you changed the specifications and they need to re-code the whole thing. They send you a bill for the extra time. Repeat this process multiple times. You end up with a saucer of apple juice. You drink that instead.
  • Build a vast planet of robots. The robots create vast quantities of stuff. Use transdimensional wormholes to access the stuff but claim it is replicated.

Timothy and the Orthography of Biddlesworth

It was a cold March day and Timothy the Talking Cat was stuck indoors. An icy wind would catch on the cat-flap in the kitchen and set the thing flapping noisily in a way that drove the cat away from his comfort position by the infrared glow of the Aga.

Pacing the extensive hallways of Felapton Towers, the loquacious cat felt edgy, unnerved, not entirely as comfortable in his plush purple skin as he should feel. Was it just the unseasonal wind? Was it the photo of Boris Johnson he had unwisely stuck to the bathroom door so that eyes of the mop-haired tyrant seemed to follow you as you passed him by on the way to the lavatory? Or…was it something else…something deeper that only the finally tuned feline instincts of the world’s greatest editor could intuit? Or was it the other unseasonal wind that had come from Timothy unwisely stealing Camestros’s coconut and mushroom chilli from the fridge and eating it in one sitting as a late night feast?

Timothy dismissed his apprehensions and made his way to the extensive library. He strolled bast the shelves of Louis XIV-style Kindle and made his way to the bejewelled Android tablet section of the library. Picking a vintage 2014 Galaxy Tab off the shelf at random he flicked open the first app he saw and began browing.

In a large comfortable chair that was just barely maintaining its integrity after years of misuse as a scratching post by the resident cat, sat Camestros busy reading the latest copy of The Sydney Morning Herald in a bid to maintain an increasingly shaky cover story that he was actual a meat robot living in Australia. For extra verisimilitude he was holding the paper upside down while trying to make notes to help him distinguish between Peter Dutton and Sontaran Commander Lynx. When suddenly his antipodean research was loudly interrupted by the banshee like wail of the cat.

“Omy gosh!” cried Camestros, “you aren’t going to have coconut chilli diarrhoea again?”. The cat stared at him sarcastically, which is a trick only cats know how to do.

“No, I am not going to have coconut chilli diarrhoea — something which I note that you have no idea how to spell never mind clean up properly. I am afraid we have far, far more serious trouble that any intestinal issues caused by your poor cooking and irresponsible positioning of left overs where any innocent cat might find them inside a locked fridge at midnight. No, dear Camelstrop we are facing a far, far deeper crisis. Come hither and look upon what I have found.” replied the cat, without ever once pausing in his direct speech so that the text could be broken up with a brief ‘he said’ or maybe a ‘cat replied’.

Camestros, not wanting to disturb the blanket on his knees, used the heels of his feet to drag the chair across the floor without standing up from it. The cat shifted its otherwise blank expression from sarcastic to sardonic with a mere flick of a whisker.

After the screeching of the chair feet across the parquetry floor had finished and Camestros had reached a position approximate to the cat’s, he looked over Tim’s shoulder to see what the cat had found.

“It’s just Google Maps!” said Camestros, relieved, “I was worried it was going to be some dead animal you’d found behind a wainscot.”

“Firstly you have no idea what a wainscot is. Secondly I have vowed not to show you any more dead animals as you simply do not appreciate them. Thirdly look at the map! Look carefully at the description of our address!”

Camestros adjusted the pince-nez on his nose and read aloud: “Felapton Towers, Biddlesworth, Biddlesworthshire, UK…Wait…what? Biddlesworth?”

“Exactly! You maybe slow of wit but even you can see that something is afoot. Bidlesworth is spelt with only one ‘d’!” replied Timothy triumphantly.

“No, no, that’s not it at all. Our town is, or was, called ‘Bortsworth’ not ‘Biddlesworth’ with either one or two d’s. No, my dear cat, something much worse is going on than the orthography of Biddlesworth!” exclaimed Camestros, “Timothy, everything we knew or thought we knew about ourselves is wrong!”

“Oh no,” said Timothy, “you can’t mean!”

“Yes, our LORE has changed!”

“Noooooooo!!!!!!!” said Timothy quoting his most famous creation, Chiselled McEdifice or was that his most famous creation anymore? Now that the very backstory to Timothy the Talking Cat had changed from Bortsworth to Biddlesworth (with one or two d’s) could any statement about his past be made with any certainty.

“Quick to the kitchen cupboard!” cried Camestros, “We have not a moment to lose!”

“I’d rather not go into the kitchen,” said Timothy, “the cat flap keeps flapping without me making it flap and I don’t like it.”

“Ok, understood. Quick, let me go to the kitchen cupboard!” cried Camestros ammendedly, “I have not a moment to lose.” And off he went leaving the blanket and cat-damaged comfy chair behind.

After much rummaging around and at least one bang on the old noggin, Camestros returned with two aerosol cans.

“The cupboard was a mess. I suspect, Mr Atomic our cleaning robot has ceased to exist during the clumsy re-writing of our backstories!”

“Meh,” said Timothy, “I never really felt he added anything.”

“Also Straw Puppy has gone!” added Camestros.

“That is an outrage!” cried Timothy.

“Luckily I have just the thing!” said Camestros holding up two aerosol cans garishly labelled “RetConBeGon” in comical letters.

[Camestros] Quick, spray it all over yourself!
[Tim] We are back in dialogue format!
[Camestros] That shows it is working!
[Mr Atomic] I smell the sweet smell of propellants.
[Camestros] Mr Atomic! You’re back! Quick! We are having a canonical-crisis! Takes these cans and spray the whole house! The whole town! The whole count!
[Mr Atomic] Excited as I am to engage in the wholesale dispersal of cleaning products I can’t help but note that our collective backstories have never been known for their consistency.
[Timothy] Listen here you no-good anthropomorphised excuse for a Roomba, whether I am a human-sized cat or a regular-sized cat with human sized ambitions is MY choice but I will not have some unknown interloper interfere with my precious town of BIDLESWORTH!
[Camestros] (Bortsworth)
[Timothy] (sorry) [sprays a bit more RetConBeGon on their armpits] I will not have some unknown interloper interfere with my precious town of BORTSWORTH!
[Mr Atomic] Very commendable sir. I shall release the crop-dusting drones fortwith.
[Camestros] Hoorah! We are saved!
[Timothy] For now…but who know when the sinister figure behind all this will strike again…

[Cut to a shadowy meat robot in Sydney] Oh, I shall strike again little cat. Just you wait and see….

How to be psychic

Are psychic powers a trojan horse from the world of magic that have snuck into science fiction? Psychic powers are almost indistinguishable from wish fulfilment in aggregate and only take on a resemblance of speculation about reality when codified into subtypes with Graeco-Latin names with sciency connotations.

But psychic powers aren’t going to vanish from science fiction any time soon. Doctor Who has psychic paper and telepathic circuits in their TARDIS, Star Trek has empaths and telepathic Vulcans, and Star Wars has a conflict between psychic factions as its core mythology. Firefly and Babylon 5 had psychics. Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Le Guin’s Ekumen universe, Asimov’s Foundation series, multiple Philip K Dick works, each contain various beings with mental powers. Science Fiction has a permission note for amazing mental abilities had has used that licence freely.

‘Psionics’ are a core conceit of science fiction in much the same way that faster than light travel is. It is so baked into the history of the genre that a person with amazing mental powers is something the audience for sci-fi just sorts of expects to encounter. Unlike warp-drives et al it is a marker of the strange. When Spock begins a mind meld the incidental music on classic Trek shifts to spooky.

So how can we dress up characters having magical powers amid a supposedly science and technology world?

  • Don’t. One step is simply to banish psychic powers to the outer darkness. After all plenty of science fiction doesn’t have psychic powers. True, I can’t think of a major film/TV sci-fi franchise that doesn’t…but surely psychic powers are not a compulsory part of science fiction.
  • Don’t dress it up. If we put The Phantom Menace’s midichlorians aside, Star Wars treats the Force as a quasi-religous power operated by space wizards. Force powers look ubiquitous in the Star Wars galaxy but only because we follow force-using characters. The films and adjacent media suggest that ordinary people regard it as either magic or superstition. Even senior members of the Empire military who *know Darth Vader* personally are sceptical right up to the point that ex-Anakin strangles them from a distance. Star Wars rejects scepticism about magic powers and even sympathetic characters who are sceptical are shown to be wrong (e.g. Han Solo). It is a universe of miracles.
  • Brains are radios. Telepathy at least makes some sort of sense. After all brains really do use electricity and presumably that electrical activity can be detected from a distance. Brain-computer interfaces are real actual technology ( ). Quite how another brain might pick up remotely another brain’s activity is unclear but there is some merit in the idea that of all the things in the universe that might be able to make sense of brain activity is another brain. Classic Trek’s very limited telepathy requires Spock to physically touch another person’s head. However, even if we imagine Spock’s fingers have some sort of EEG like capability, Spock’s capacity to mind meld with almost anything intelligent pushes even his ring-fenced powers into spooky territory.
  • Brains are quantum woo-woo. As I’ve said before, we don’t really have a strong concept of what we mean by ‘intelligence’. We know we can make electro-mechanical devices that can do clever things (i.e. computers) but we don’t know if brains are just a very complex electro-chemical equivalent. Physicist Roger Penrose has argued that our current understanding of physics is insufficient to explain intelligence (I think his argument is weak but it is hard to show the opposite without building a functioning brain from the ground up). So maybe brains are doing something weird at the sub-atomic level…
  • Brains tap into the quantum-sub-ether-interdimensional-ultra-force-vortex-thingy. Following on from the above, if brains need extra made-up physics just to do regular stuff like crosswords, arguing with your cat or writing rambling blog-posts, then why can’t brains make use of this whole unknown physics to do other stuff? We can hardly complain about psionics using fictional fundamental forces when phasers, light sabres, force fields, tractor beams, and even robots sort of hovering just a bit off the ground may also rely on unknown physics.
  • Minds aren’t brains and brains are just the giant USB cable joining the mental world to your body. Mind-brain dualism has a respectable history in philosophy even if it offends a more materialist view of reality. If your mind is some other kind of thing then maybe minds can interact in some other kind of way. You can call it the psychic plain or you can dress it up in inter-dimensional language but once you go down this route then even faster-than-light telepathic communication begins to make (fictional) sense.
  • Ha ha but telekinesis is obvious nonsense. Yeah, it is hard to make telekinesis make any kind of sense except…’Spooky’ version of how brains/minds can exist that rely on special unknown physics have a basic problem. Somehow, a mind that exists in a psychic plain can still make your body do things via your brain…but that necessarily implies that a mind in this other realm of physics can affect change at a macro level in more conventional physics. Voila! Telekinesis is far from spooky but is almost a requirement (at a restricted level) by having minds distinct from brains.
  • Reverse Platonism. I’m wandering straight into magic now but at least magic with a veneer of rational philosophical traditions. In a Platonic view of reality, abstractions such as ‘circle’ or ‘good’ are the higher reality and that reality is something we can access through rational, logical inquiry. I can infer the properties of a perfect circle even though our flawed reality can never have such a thing as a perfect circle. But what if I’m really, really smart and spend my life being raised by Vulcans in a Jedi academy that is attached to the Second Foundation base on the ruins of Trantor? Maybe then my mind is just so clever that I can manipulate the higher Platonic reality and affect change in our more mundane reality? Wooooooo! This is the principle underlying wish-fulfilment taken up a few levels. What it fits nicely with is the trope that psychic powers are a product of extreme mental discipline. Train with monks (or Vulcans or the Second Foundation) long enough and your mind becomes so smart you can manipulate reality.
  • I thought so hard I just disappeared. A word of caution though. If your mental abilities become to acute, you may accidentally transcend reality and disappear. If you find yourself in that situation then immediately engage with something that will bring your mental powers down. Fox News, lots of beer, might work. Avoid powerful psychoactive substances and sensory deprivation chambers.

How to make a force field

Force fields want to be two different kinds of thing at the same time. They want the physical presence, fixed location and barrier qualities of matter but somehow at the same time be energy. The nearest natural example is Earth’s own magnetic field which does not operate as a barrier per se but does effectively deflect the impact of the solar wind. Deflecting/diverting energy around an object makes more sense and interestingly that idea also points towards invisibility devices and cloaking devices.

However, the classic force field acts more as a barrier than a system of energy diversion. Not unlike a physical barrier, for dramatic purposes the more a force field is hit by weapons the weaker it gets. Other qualities of fictional force fields include:

  • Transparent but usually partly visible (either glows or glows when touched).
  • Requires power to be maintained.
  • Selectively permeable. Some energy can pass through (e.g. light) and sometimes physical objects can pass through. Sometimes it lets air through but prevents solid objects and sometimes vice-veras. Personal shields in Dune let slow things through for example, whereas shields on hanger-bays in Star Wars let space ships in but stop the air evacuating.
  • Centrally controlled.
  • Has a distinct shape and location. Unlike Earth’s magnetic field (which is everywhere on Earth and dissipates gradually) a force field occupies very defined space.

Arguably, any society that is advanced enough to control gravity has a sufficient understanding and control over fundamental forces that maybe anything is possible. I think I can break down the fictional science of force fields into two basic options.

  • The force field is built using principles of forces and energy beyond our understanding. Of course that raises all sorts of other questions about how the rest of the future technology is more limited.
    • For spherical force fields maybe it is some fundamental force that we aren’t familiar with currently. The force acts at very, very specific distances.
  • The force field is more physical than it looks.

For example, maybe the force field is actually a cloud of many tiny objects. Imagine many microscopic drones that are also computer controlled and fly about along specific routes. Quite how, I don’t know, but tiny computer controlled objects give some of the physicality and selectivity of how force fields appear in science fiction.

Come to think of it, tiny energy emitting drones flying around in fixed positions would also help explain how light sabres work. Light sabres themselves have many of the same issues as force fields to the extent that they would appear to be the same technology.

Skipping back to Star Trek, force fields also (sometimes) stop teleportation. I think that makes sense for any kind of teleportation where essentially the transportation occurs by beaming a person as energy from one place to another.

Finally, maybe the terms ‘force’ and ‘field’ are just misdirection — at least for the space ship style deflector shield style. Maybe your spaceship is just covered with tiny emitters that can fire lasers, particle beams and/or tiny bullets at any incoming objects or beams. The appearance of a distinct layer is an illusion. The force field appears that way because that is the optimal distance at which an incoming beam etc can be intercepted after detection.