Friday, 12 July 2019

Science Fiction & Fantasy: The Most Intelligent Genres

First of all, what exactly is this Fantasy and Science Fiction category which I think is the most intelligent genre?   Any story (book or film) that contains elements not considered possible or factual falls into the Fantasy category.  It could be a little magic in an otherwise normal world (called Magical Realism) or an entirely foreign world of non-human beings doing things that would be considered impossible in our world (such as High Fantasy).

Science Fiction books and films also reach out of the known limitations of our world, but are focussed more on technology and the future of our real world.  Some Sci-Fi stories about robots and advanced computer technology are coming true or within realistic grasp, while others are speculation about a world in the distant future when space travel and contact with aliens are possible.  

As an author of a Fantasy series with a few aspects of Science Fiction thrown in, you might expect me to have been immersed in Fantasy books and movies all my life, but that is not so.  In fact, I used to intensely dislike anything unrealistic, and shunned TV shows like Star Trek, believing that ‘Trekkies’ were anything but intelligent!

So, what changed my mind, you wonder?  It was my growing fascination with ancient mysteries such as the statues on Easter Island, the pyramids and other megalithic structures around the world.  As I read more books about the subject, I realized I was reading about advanced technology, mystical beliefs and legends of Atlantis, and before long, these very subjects became the inspiration for my first novel.  As I began making serious plans to write it, I realized that I was going to write a book that would fall into the Fantasy genre.

While the ideas for RHUNA: A Quest for Ancient Wisdom were coming together, I decided to do my homework, and bought a text book about ‘how to write Fantasy and Science Fiction’.  Quite to my surprise, the author immediately began referring to Star Trek in all his examples, and my complete conversion to Fantasy & Sci-Fi began!

Far from being childish entertainment about space adventures and silly-looking aliens, I realized that Sci-Fi such as Star Trek actually tell the most intelligent and mentally stimulating stories of all.   Even the structure of the series teaches a most important lesson to authors, namely the telling of different viewpoints.  The three main characters of Star Trek, the Original series usually hold differing opinions on the same subject: Spock is the purely intellectual and logical, while Dr McCoy expresses pure emotion, compassion and mercy.  When the emotional doctor and the detached Spock clash, the practical and wise Captain Kirk must discern the balanced approach to the problem at hand.

This example of excellent storytelling allows the reader to examine different viewpoints, possibly siding with one of the characters and becoming involved in the problem they are trying to solve.   The various aspects expressed by the characters also creates conflict and raises an issue to be settled, which engages the reader.

Yet this is a common storytelling tool that can be used in all genres.  In Fantasy and Sci-Fi stories, however, the scope of issues, obstacles and conflicts to overcome can be endless because there are no limits of ‘known reality’ imposed upon them.    Although some of these stories may at first appear to be extremely unrealistic, a good and truly effective Fantasy or Sci-Fi story will resonate deeply with a very realistic issue.

For example: many episodes of Star Trek deal with alien encounters on distant planets, yet each alien society has its problems and challenges, just as we have in our real world.  Those issues are disguised in alien characters, impossible technology or supernatural powers, yet they direct the reader or viewer to a familiar dilemma of the real world in a way that would not be possible in any other genre. 

Imagine a book or film about the stark facts of racism or other kind of discrimination.  Our emotions are quickly inflamed, and we might have certain convictions or pre-conceived ideas, especially where culture and religion of another nation are concerned.  The realistic facts do not deepen our understanding or give us further insight, but when the same issues are transposed onto a fictional setting with alien beings and fantasy elements, we are suddenly able to see past those barriers.   Often, the fundamental elements of human nature and our inherent principles are seen in sharp focus through the Fantasy & Sci-Fi lens.  This in turn expands and deepens our understanding of the real world around us, broadening our horizons and opening our minds.  The Fantasy/Sci-Fi setting shows the problem in a unique, objective and abstract way which broadens the mind and stimulates the imagination.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”  A quote by Albert Einstein that is supported by scientific and medical studies about the connection between intelligence and imagination.

Another article on the connection between intelligence and imagination:

This shows that apart from helping us to understand ourselves and the real world around us, Fantasy and Science Fiction can be stimulating in other ways as well.  Simply the act of imagining a scenario completely different to what we know can have positive effects on the function of our minds.   And while some sub-genres such as Dark Fantasy and Dystopian may appear negative, these stories can reflect an emotional state or mood that the reader or viewer needs, especially when they end with a message of hope or triumph over great obstacles.

Let me end with a quick mention of my personal favourite Fantasy and Science Fiction films, as well as some quotes by a famous Sci-Fi author.

Warehouse 13 and Haven fit the Fantasy genre for their supernatural elements, while I, Robot and Minority Report depict possible future technology and are therefore Science Fiction.

Jack Williamson, who led the way for famous Sci-Fi authors such as Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke said the following about the genre:

“With very few taboos, it (Science Fiction) can deal with nearly every social and moral and technical problem that the human race meet, from nearly any point of view.”

“Taken as prophecy {SF} is the wrong way to take it. I think most future fiction tends too far toward the dark side. That’s an unfortunate accident. Reader interest demands conflict. Without the presence of evil and the battle to defeat it, there is no story. We tend to magnify the evil. Sadly, that fosters a habit of pessimism.”

“In times that sometimes disturb me, I try to see the international appetite for science fiction as a sign of widening awareness, at least a spark of hope that our threatened world can somehow sense its dangers in time to save itself.”

Monday, 24 June 2019

Writing Inspired by Films

You might be wondering why there’s an article about films on an author’s blog, so I’m going to tell you:  because to me, films are “visual books” and they have inspired the way I write my books.   The written word is only one way to tell a story, as you can see from my previous blog post entitled “The Wonderful Art of Storytelling.”

The tried and tested story format of the movie and television series is the same as the general formula for a written story, be it a short story, novella, novel or series.  For example, the beginning of the story sets the scene and introduces one or more characters who will face some kind of challenge or problem.  The ensuing parts of the story show how the problem is overcome or solved, and the final part of the story summarizes the end result or emphasizes a point.  In the case of a series, the ending can be in the form of a “cliff-hanger” – a new problem which will be overcome in the following sequel.

Image by Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
Other parts of the visual story that correspond with parts of a written book are the close-up, pace and creating suspense.  The close-up in films to show a person’s reaction or point the viewer to an important piece of the story corresponds to extra detail and emphasis in the written book. 

The pace of a story is important, as it allows the reader or viewer to absorb and become immersed in the mood, event or emotional atmosphere.  Changing scenes and skipping to another scene at the right time are also important aspects of pacing the reader or viewer.  Pace is most important when creating suspense, such as quickly jumping from one image or setting to another.   The pace of a film corresponds to the length of narration, description, chapters, breaks and changing scenes in a written book.

An understanding of these vital parts of the story has helped me in my writing, and it was a special interest in silent and classical films which established this foundation and enhanced my appreciation for the art of storytelling, whether by a visual medium or the written word. 

Silent films clearly show the transition from written books and stage plays to the moving picture format in the use of ‘intertitles’ or ‘title cards’ to provide narration and necessary dialogue.  They also show the quick development of adapting to the new film medium as the story went from rigid sets like a theatrical play to moving the camera outdoors to film movement and action, and then to moving the camera, such as panning across a room or landscape.  D.W. Griffith, known as ‘the father of film’ developed the pace and suspense, as well as the quick succession of images from one set or close-up to another.

While Griffith and other pioneers founded the film industries in America, German directors built on the innovations of the 1910s and created Expressionism in the 1920s.  This famous style of silent film in turn inspired the great Hollywood genre, Film Noir in the 30s and 40s.  German Expressionism inspired me greatly with its clever use of light and shadow to create atmosphere, suspense and above all, to express emotion and mood.  The viewer was swept away by these visual elements, and often it is the emotional impact of a story that remains with the viewer or reader long after the details and individual words or images are forgotten.

Image by Etienne Marais, Pixabay

This led me to consider the emotional impact in my own writing, and how I could express various things in an indirect way, like silent films used light and shadow in the visual medium.  In many guides or instructions for effective writing, it is advised to “show” rather than “tell” the reader what is happening or what a character is thinking and feeling.  This produces a similar effect to the visual use of light and shadow by letting the reader or viewer begin to feel and think about the story on a deeper level.

Perhaps you’re now wondering about other types of books which don’t conform to this general formula, such as many literary works.  Silent Film has represented this form as well, namely in Soviet Avant Garde:  a style of cinematography pioneered by Russian directors and film-makers in the silent era (up to 1929) using collages and montages to express a concept, mood or event.  There are usually no intertitles or dialogue, nor main characters; only a carefully-arranged sequence of short scenes, yet put together, they pack a powerful emotional punch.

You’ve heard the saying, “A Picture paints a thousand words”, and here is an example:  The latter half of the excellent 1947 classic film, “The Ghost and Mrs Muir” jumps several decades in the life of the main character, and it is depicted in just a few short, poignant scenes.  When Mrs Muir is a young woman with  a 10-year-old daughter, a sailor carves the girl’s name into a thick wooden post on the edge of the shore.  As years, and then decades pass,  the viewer sees several scenes of the changing tides at the beach and then the post with the engraved name:  each time more eroded and worn by the elements.  Such a simple yet powerful means to convey the passing of time that cannot be expressed in words!

In fact, visual and written stories complement each other:  some aspects of a story are better said in words, others better in images.  But you’ve probably heard people complain about movies never being as good as the books they were based on.  Is this a fair assessment?  For a start, a book without images allows the reader to form his or her own mental images of people and places described in the book.  Each person perceives a book according to their individual personality and understanding of the world, so that it is impossible to represent that book visually according to everyone’s personal idea.  When a book is transcribed to film, it is necessary to adjust and adapt the dialogue and narration to fit the expected movie format.  Finally, the end result is also filtered by the personal perceptions and preferences of the screenwriter and the director.   Rather than comparing apples to oranges, it is often better to view the movie version of a book as a separate and individual rendition of the same story.  After all, one story can be told in many different ways, and in more than just one medium!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The Wonderful Art of Storytelling

Most likely, your first thought is of books when you read the title of this blog post, but I’m here to tell you that “Storytelling” has a much broader and important meaning!  For a start, a simple relating of events is an instance of storytelling, and no doubt this was the first kind of story in mankind’s history.  When it was a significant event, the story was told over and over, probably embellished along the way, until it became a legend, myth or folk tale.  

Music has been an integral means of conveying a story throughout history, and many stories – factual, legendary or simply fanciful and for entertainment value – have been related by means of ballads, tunes and rhymes.  In Medieval times, minstrels roamed the countryside singing their stories, spreading an heroic tale or poetic fable across the land.  

Minstrels were like balladeers who sang stories.
Others developed the art of speaking to narrate a story, adding emphasis, dialogue and suspense to entertain as well as convey a story of some kind.  Often, a story had a lesson, a moral or point to teach and remind listeners of the importance of behaving a certain way.  

A more sophisticated form of storytelling is the drama or play in which actors participate in conveying parts of the story, in particular the emotional aspects of individual characters in the story.  And just as a theatrical play has a writer and director, so does the modern version of a dramatical play, namely the film.  

Finally, there is the written story, and this comes in many lengths, shapes and genres, from a very short story to an epic series.   The story can have a moral, a lesson in history, a concept of philosophy or human psychology, or simply be an artistic display of words.

The reader can become immersed in the lives of other people, thereby broadening the reader’s knowledge and understanding of how different people react and deal with life’s problems and challenges.   The reader can also be led to deeper self-understanding by relating to a particular character in a story.

Image by luankblo on Pixabay
Not only can a story relate an historic event for various purposes, but when the story conveys the mentality and culture of its time and place, it is like a time-capsule.  The reader of an old book, or the viewer of an old film, can be transported back to a time when the general world view and mentality were different, as well as the manner of speech and colloquial language.  Rather than dismiss an old story as outdated, it could instead offer valuable insight into the development of society and challenge one’s own opinions on certain issues.

just one of many books from recent decades 
containing "social commentary" reflecting
 the decade in which it was written.
Unless your next story is purely for light entertainment and relaxation, you might like to look for the moral, concept or insight it offers, and let it enrich you.  Do you agree with the actions and emotional responses of the main characters?  Why, or why not?  Does the viewpoint of a character from a past time period annoy or offend?  Why, and why was that viewpoint not offensive at the time?  

Whatever format and age your next story will be, may it be a personally rewarding and satisfying journey!

Friday, 29 March 2019

What really is Magic?

What do you think of when you hear the word Magic?  Do you think of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or maybe you prefer a more sophisticated illusionist like David Copperfield?  Maybe you think of Merlin the Magician from the Arthurian legend, or Harry Potter’s fun world of magic.  You might even think of New Age subjects like Wicca or Shamanism, perhaps even esoteric and occult teachings about angels, demons or our own inherent abilities to create “magic.”

Whatever people may think of magic, it has been around for many thousands of years, and in all countries and cultures of the world.  It is probably the only thing that is as wide-spread and universal throughout mankind's history as religion and the concept of God.  (In fact, some might even say that they are one and the same).

So, if the subject of Magic is so all-pervasive throughout mankind's existence, then what exactly is Magic?  In the most basic sense, magic is something that cannot be explained by science or technology, and this is the foundation of everything we call magic today.

Imagine life not so many centuries ago, when people had no knowledge or understanding of bacteria, for example.  An air or water-borne contagion infects many people, but no one can explain how they got sick.  It is easy to grasp for the nearest plausible explanation, such as the ugly old crone down the road who despises people and therefore cast a spell to make them sick.  

Other people living close to nature came to believe that spirits guided, helped or even attacked them, and performing certain rituals could either appease these spirits or call upon them for some assistance.   There are many examples of how the idea of something supernatural and magical came to be the popular explanation for events that were not understood in the past.

Image by Enrique Meseguer on Pixabay

Myths, folklores and tales from every country, race and group of people are full of superstitions, belief in the supernatural and in magic. 

But then magic began to be deliberately practiced by an organized group of people, and magic became a belief system like religion.  The foremost example of this is Ancient Egypt, and it spread to the rest of the ancient world such as Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and beyond.  Such organized magic made belief in such things like protection amulets, curses and supernatural powers a common and everyday thing:  maybe just like we take for granted that lights come on when we flick a switch, or we see an image on our screens, without understanding the exact nature of electricity or the functions of a microchip.

But did the magic of the past really work, like our lights and computers work in our day?  For magic and the people who performed it to flourish for centuries, if not even millennia down to our day, there must have been something to it.  Or was it because there was no other knowledge available to replace the belief in magic, according to what the priests and other practitioners of magic were saying?

Image by Enrique Meseguer on Pixabay

Magic did not seem to fade away as civilizations advanced, but rather seemed to become more established in the age of books, science and medicine.  The scientists, physicists and doctors of the Middle Ages were alchemists who studied astrology and believed they could turn lead to gold.  Some of their books still exist today, and are full of conjurations (spells) and mystical symbolism. 

The confusing language and codes were meant to protect the knowledge of performing magic from being misused or abused by people unworthy of wielding it, and this led to secret societies, initiations and masters who trained apprentices in the works of magic.

This led to the concept of hidden knowledge and activity, which is the meaning of the word occult, while the word  esoteric means something is known to only a select, elite few people.

Thanks to the Internet and an open society nowadays, most of these occult and esoteric traditions are well known, and no doubt gaining many new members all the time.  You’ve probably heard of the main ones such as Jewish mysticism called The Kabbalah or Qabalah, Hermeticism, The Rosicrucians and even the Freemasons whose traditions go back to Ancient Egypt.

The general teaching of these secret societies that is made public in many books is the

path to personal enlightenment, empowering each person to have control of one’s life and destiny.   But another much less-known theory about the purpose of these societies is that ancient knowledge must be kept secret and only revealed to a chosen few.  This ancient knowledge could contain science and technology not commonly known today, and which has been suppressed over millennia.

Whatever the case may be, magic is as popular as ever, judging by the endless variety of Fantasy books and films as well as the ever-growing range of non-fiction books about ancient magic, New Age themes, mysticism, esoteric societies and even the occult. 

But why is this so?  Do people just need an escape?   Is it an alternative to belief in a deity?  Is magic just another form of religion?  Or is there really something to it?  After all, research and study of the Paranormal has been undertaken by governments and other serious establishments, and the latest books on the subject are bestsellers!

Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe

Are these some of the ancient secrets that have been carefully guarded down the ages?  
Like many people, I have been fascinated by magic and the paranormal since my childhood, and I have based my Fantasy series on some research into ancient magic.  For instance, books 2 & 3 are set in Ancient Egypt, and Rhuna, The Star Child deals with the use of amulets, curses and illnesses believed to be performed by people with special powers.

The fifth book in the series, Rhuna, The Snow Dreamer features Tibetan lamas with supernormal abilities, as described in another popular book:

Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Red-haired Mummies around the World

Most of us immediately think of Ancient Egypt when we hear the word “mummies”, but did you know that mummies have also been found in countries far removed from Egypt, such as China and Peru?  Not only that, but many of these mummies are Caucasians with blonde or red hair!

At first it was assumed that the mummies found in Egypt were the direct ancestors of the Egyptians living there today, namely Arabs.  But advances in science and technology have now revealed that many mummies of Ancient Egypt are Caucasian or white-skinned with blueish eyes and, in many cases, blonde or even reddish hair.  Even the most famous mummy, the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, was European, according to modern DNA testing!

Many other mummies found in Egypt may not need DNA testing to prove their connection to Europeans because their red hair and Caucasian features already testify to their race.  Even the mummy of another famous Pharaoh, namely Ramesses II, whose body has been well preserved, revealed red hair pigments, according to this scientific article:

Mummy of Ramesses II
It is also of interest, however, that some experts believe that the famous enigma, the Sphinx,  has negroid features, and among the Caucasian mummies, many with African heritage have also been discovered.  
This is not really surprising when you consider that Egypt is actually part of the African continent, and that African nations from Nubia and Ethiopia merely had to travel down the Nile to reach Egypt.  Furthermore, it is worth considering how people migrated throughout history, and that like in our modern history, some nations travelled further across the world than others, establishing colonies or simply exploring uncharted lands.
A painting from the tomb of Seti I shows that Ancient Egypt had a variety of races
With this in mind, the discovery of red-haired mummies in China and Peru begins to make more sense.  The mummies of China and Peru show mummifying techniques similar to those used in Ancient Egypt, and since many of them also feature reddish hair and European features, we can assume a definite link between them.  

The red-haired mummies found in China are especially interesting because they have been well-preserved in the dry desert-like conditions of the Tarim Basin in far north-western China.  These mummies wore colourful clothes and in particular, woollen tartans – much like our modern-day Celts!   

Some books go into great detail about the mummies found in China:

The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West

This book, The Mummies of Urumchi, details the woollen tartan clothes of the mummies:

The enigma of red-haired people in ancient history continues, with the discovery of a tall, female Caucasian red-haired mummy in Mammoth Caves, Kentucky...
 ...and reaches even further to small islands such as the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco...
...and even as far as Easter Island where the famous statues have been restored to show the “top-knot” hairstyle made from reddish stone.  The statues’ features are also Caucasian.  When Captain Cook first visited Easter Island in the 1770s,  he recorded that he saw many people with fair skin and reddish hair living among darker, brown-skinned people. 

 There is also evidence of red-haired people among the Maori, the native people of New Zealand, according to this article:
We might never know all the historical facts exactly, but in the meantime the theories surrounding an ancient European race with reddish hair has been inspiration for my Fantasy series.  Based on the legend of Atlantis, blended with New Age themes, the main characters in the RHUNA series are white-skinned people, some with red hair.  Although Rhuna is a Polynesian woman from Easter Island, she mingles with people of many races and backgrounds as she travels the ancient world.  

The second and third books are set in Ancient Egypt, and in the third book Rhuna, The Star Child, the European and Arab races living in Ancient Egypt mix with the African nations from the south, and Rhuna interacts with the beautiful African Queen Uxbana.