Differences And Writing

Like many people, I’m an amateur writer. I’m not brilliant at it and have a lot to learn. In particular I’m recently becoming aware of the potential minefield that is writing characters who are ‘different’ to you in some way. In particular here, I’m thinking of gender. It is a pretty fundamental thing, and it will have an impact on a character’s personality and behaviour … and as I’m slowly beginning to realise, it’s very, very easy to completely get it badly wrong.

I’ve been trying to work on my depictions of female characters, as frankly, that hasn’t been all it could be. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to shove them into distant, unapproachable roles (such as the Inquisitor and also Kelso in The Misfits). It’s not conscious and it’s not deliberate, but that’s what I’ve found myself doing. Also, a while back I became aware of the Bechdel Test.

After the usual period of denial, I became uncomfortably-aware that a lot of my stuff fails it. And given that I like to imagine myself as a reasonably-liberal, reasonably-modern person, I wasn’t too happy about this!

The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting that you have it. *Tick* The second step is, well, trying to do something. My first experiment with that was At The Inn, which did represent some progress.

I’ve been trying to build on this, which is partly what’s incorporated into the following. It’s also where I’m putting into use the thinking I’ve been doing about alien planets and their possible interactions with human physiology. (Although that’s not so obvious in the first section, here.)

So, below, is the opening bit from the project I’m tentatively entitling ‘Shot In The Dark’. I’m not claiming to get everything right and I’m not claiming absolute success or perfect achievement with my attempts, but I am genuinely trying!

‘Can I ask you a question, missus?’

The kid couldn’t have been more than five, maybe six at most. Earth years, I mean, not local ones. He had a shock of curly blond hair and large grey eyes, and he was sucking nervously at his thumb. He looked uncomfortable, unused to busy places like this.

‘Sure,’ I said.

I resisted the urge to point out that technically, he already had asked me a question. Scoring points off of kiddies is mean.

He looked up at me with wide, young eyes. ‘Do you think there are aliens, missus?’

Oh wonderful. The Inevitable Alien Question.

I resisted the urge to laugh. All around us, people bustled. It was Open Night at the Observatory and this time, we were fully-booked. The buildings were full of people, parents and children visiting, and the department’s staff and students. We were doing our best to run the evening as smoothly as possible for our guests. It was critical that they went away with a good impression of us. That would go a long way to dispelling the residual prejudices – we hoped, anyway.

It seemed to be working so far. The place was filled with the hubbub of conversation, shoes squeaking on the floor-tiles and people gesticulating. The white lights in the ceiling cast sharp shadows on the floors and walls.
And now I’d just been asked the Inevitable Alien Question. Oh well, I’d known it was coming at some point. For an astronomer, this is an occupational hazard!

I looked back at the kid. ‘I’m sure there are somewhere,’ I said, choosing my words with care. ‘I mean, it’s a big universe. We’ve only explored a very small part of it. And there is life, even in our corner. Even here in the Hole.’

I didn’t add that the life in question consisted of no more than some strains of native pseudo-bacteria, lurking in our seas. I’m sure school would tell him about that stuff soon enough. ‘Doubtless somewhere else…’ Somewhere. A long way away.

Probably some other galaxy, actually. This one seems pretty quiet – apart from the bits that are hosting open evenings, I mean. The chattering of people swirled around us. The crowd’s incessant motion tugged at the corners of my eyes.

The kid sucked on his thumb. His eyes watered. For a moment, he looked like he was about to cry. I felt my stomach drop. Oh goodness, what had I said this time? Around me feet scuffed on the floor and voices wittered at each other.

I caught a snatch of speech.

‘…it’s like Denmark in 1943,’ I heard someone say. ‘The tanks will roll any day now…’

Oh goodness, that was depressing. Quickly, back to the kid and his aliens!

I took a deep breath. The air smelled of various perfumes, with an undertone of the cleansing agents the cleaners used here in the Science Learning Centre. As I looked back to the child, I realised I shouldn’t have looked away.

The kid’s eyes were wet, moisture gleaming around the edges – I had that horrible feeling that I’d just urinated on his prize idea. Children can be mercurial, and easy to upset. I manage it pretty regularly at these open nights. I’m not good with children. Frankly, I’m not that good with adults either – it’s a subset of a wider problem!

Then the kid’s face changed. The incipient tearfulness disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief. He’d decided not to burst into tears. I’d been spared – this time! Whatever deity it is that looks after over-worked, under-people-skilled junior academics, this once It had taken mercy on me.

A conspiratorial look fluttered across the child’s face. ‘Can I tell you a secret?’ he asked.

I felt my eyebrow go up. From my left, I heard the sound of the room’s door as it creaked open. We really needed to get something done about those hinges, I noted to myself. It would only take a single oiling…

‘Go on,’ I said, not sure whether I should or not. There’s an art to knowing when to humour small children and when to send them on their way – and it’s an art to which I remain uninitiated.

The kid leaned forward, looking serious. ‘Mummy and Daddy think the Phoneys are aliens,’ he said.
I felt a wave of cynicism ripple through me, along with a need to say something unflattering about the Persephonese. Once more, I had to swallow my urge. I took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of other people’s perfumes. The odours mingled and clashed in a displeasing manner.

I paused a moment before replying. I have to be careful what I say on this subject – I can’t claim that I think the Persephonese Empire is pretty, but then, nor is being nationalist. I said, ‘The Persephonese – not the Phoneys! – aren’t aliens. They’re human beings too, just like us.’

‘Daddy says proper people don’t act like that,’ the kid said. He seemed determined not to let this one go. ‘If they’re not proper people, they can’t be human, right? And that means they’re aliens.’ The kid suddenly beamed with pride, puffing out his chest. He was delighted with his logical deduction.

To be fair, it was a reasonable chain of logic for a five-year-old. But it was also complete crap. I could feel that urge, to debate and argue … it was bubbling up. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s leaving other people’s heads full of bad ideas, that and walking away from an argument. (And then there are anchovy sandwiches, which are frankly a crime against taste … but I digress!)

Careful again, I said, ‘When we left Earth, we went on the Five Ships. They took us to one planet. This one, here. Things happened to us, and we became ourselves. Some other people went to a different one, with different ships, and different things happened to them.’ Nothing good, from what little we knew. ‘And so they became different people. That’s why they’re Persephonese and we’re not. But we’re still all human. I’m sure your dad is just frustrated.’

The kid was about to say something when I was rescued.

I heard shoes clicking on the floor. A woman walked up. My height, bar an inch or so. She had shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing a sharply-cut business suit. She had an expensive-looking palmtop clutched in one hand. It said, GUILBERT ASSOCIATES on the side, in a no-nonsense corporate font. I’d vaguely heard of them – they were an accounting firm, based somewhere in New Seattle.

The woman looked harried and rather tired. There were bags under her eyes. She looked at me, taking in my rumpled blouse, my lab coat and my dusty jeans. I don’t think she entirely approved. ‘Ah, Doctor-’ a quick glance at my namebadge ‘-Srivastava, I hope Eamon isn’t taking up too much of your time.’

‘Your son?’ I asked. There was a distinct resemblance, I noted – a similarity in the shape of the chin, and both of them had unusually-flat noses.

She nodded. ‘Yes. I was wondering where he’d got to. I hope he hasn’t pestered you too much.’

I smiled brightly, trying to be all charm. ‘No, not at all. We were just talking about aliens, weren’t we, Eamon?’
The kid nodded, silent and serious-looking.

There was a sudden stir in the room. I heard Kayla’s voice call out, ‘PLANETARIUM SHOW IN FIVE MINUTES! ROLL UP, ROLL UP!’ People started moving – that was their cue to go and wait outside the show-dome. It was downstairs and outside. They needed the notice-time. It was a reasonable walk from here to there.

People started filing out through the door.

The woman clamped a vice-like hand onto Eamon’s shoulder. ‘Come on dear,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to miss the show.’ She smiled at me, a somewhat strained gesture. ‘Thank you for your time, Doctor.’
And then, propelling the child in front of her, she departed.

I watched her go. A moment later, a quiet voice said from behind my shoulder, ‘Wouldn’t want to be her sprog!’

I twitched in surprise. It was Kayla. Kayla duQuesne, one of my graduate students. I turned and smiled at her. Speaking in a low voice so no-one else could hear, I said, ‘Me neither.’

By now the room was almost empty. The planetarium was popular – as well it should be. We had one of the latest holographic imaging systems. The galactic zoom-through in particular was impressive. You’d sit there in the audience whilst stars and dust clouds and nebulae streamed past and through you. You almost felt like you really were hurtling toward the Galaxy’s distant heart.

I’d only ever seen the show once, and that was on the test day. Forget about slipping away during the open evening – we were always far too busy. And Scrivens could get tetchy about staff ‘pulling junkets’, as he put it. I’d like to see it again but it wouldn’t be worth the trouble I’d get for it.
As we watched, the room emptied.

Soon it was just us and a couple of other Institute people, up here in the Second Demonstration Room of the Science Learning Centre. It became quiet. With fewer hot bodies filling the space, the room also felt cooler. It also seemed a lot bigger, although no less clinical. The white overhead fluorescence-panels gleamed on plain tables and the display items sat arrayed upon them.

‘How are things so far?’ Kayla asked me.

I sighed. ‘Busy. I’ve been asked the aliens question now.’

‘Only once? Really?’ Kayla pulled a look of mock-surprise. ‘That must be a record! Don’t worry, Lana. It’s not even nineteen hundred yet – there’s still time!’

‘Yes, there’s still time,’ I sighed again. We weren’t due to finish until twenty-thirty hours – thirty minutes before planetary midnight. Another hour and a half of crisp business people and kiddies. I knew I’d be shattered by the end of the night. I always am, post-open evening.

‘Have the plates got many viewers?’ Kayla asked.

I looked over the table next to me.

This evening, I was presenting Astronomy Through The Ages. The display consisted of various props and items, meant to show the progress of science over the centuries. One of them was a set of glass photographic plates. They had been taken sometime in the mid-Twentieth Century, back on Earth and back when people actually used chemical photography as a research tool. They’d somehow survived everything that had happened since – the Forty Minutes’ Fire, the Exile, the long voyage on the Five Ships and even our unexpected arrival here, on the Unlikely Hole. They’d sat in someone’s store room for ages, unloved and ignored, until they’d abruptly been donated to the University about twenty years ago.

And with the old solar system devastated by the Accident, they had become a priceless historical artefact. Actual things – from Old Earth! They were worth more than their weight in plutonium. Having them on display here showed just how serious we were about the open nights.

I couldn’t get enough of them. They were beautiful. Plate glass negatives, stars and other stuff shown in dark black. They were big, too. The crate they came in was heavy. I’d had to haul it up the stairs this evening and my shoulders were still aching, nearly three hours later.

If only our budget at the Institute could stretch to an elevator…

The plates were arrayed on the table, in pride of place. I’d positioned a desk lamp to shine on them, for full effect. They looked stunning.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think anybody’s even glanced at them.’ It was heart-breaking. They were gorgeous! How anyone could fail to drool over this priceless astro-porn, I did not know.

‘No accounting for public taste,’ Kayla muttered with a dark glower directed at the door. She reached out and picked up one of the other items on the table. It was a replica of a first-generation telescope, our best guess at what a Galileo or a Marius might have peered at Jupiter through, back on that fateful day in the Seventeenth Century.

I didn’t tell Kayla to be careful with it. It was a cheap replica.

‘I can see you!’ she said, holding the long tube up to her eye.

Then she giggled.

Kayla has a silly streak. She’s a good grad student – much better than I ever was – but she does have a daft sense of humour. That said, I wish more people were like her. If people didn’t take themselves so seriously all the time, I’m sure all the worlds would be better places.

Maybe that’s the problem with the Phoneys – they take themselves too seriously!

Kayla put the telescope down. It landed on the table with a clunk. I winced – it was cheap, yes, but that said our budget wasn’t infinite.

‘Kayla, be careful, okay? We don’t want Scrivens on our case!’

‘Oh,’ Kayla said, sudden remembrance crossing her face, ‘that reminds me! Scrivens was looking for you a few minutes ago. Something about a call.’

I groaned. ‘Oh goodness.’ A call? Who had I offended now? ‘I’ll go and find him. Do me a favour – keep an eye on the plates for me, okay? Be good not to get them covered in kiddie fingerprints.’

Kayla snorted but nodded her agreement. It had happened, once before. The cleaning had been a careful, nervous process.

I strode out of the room and into the corridor. Scrivens was supposed to be on reception, down near the front door. I walked down the corridor to the stairwell. The stair treads were wide and low, like all staircases on this planet. I took a firm grip of the handrail and began my way down, the heels of my boots clicking on the risers. I’ve seen plenty of people go running down flights of stairs, but I never do. Tripping and falling under our gravity is not a good idea. The number of people who die that way at train stations every year is a scary statistic. You’d think people would have learned by now – we’ve been at the bottom of the Hole for three and a quarter centuries!

I made my way down the stairs without incident. By the time I got to the bottom I was breathing hard. We really did need an elevator in this place! It was a constant visitor complaint, post-open evening. It was one thing where they really did have a point, too.

The atrium of the Science Learning Centre was your generic institutional space. Flanking the glass doors at the front, there were two potted plants. Terrestrial ferns of some description. Behind them were the doors and the front window. Tint-glass, designed to block out UV – the atrium was mirrored with a coppery tint by their surfaces. It was dark outside, but the contrast stopped me seeing out. The atrium was floored with brightly-coloured tiles, laid out in a cheesy astronomical mosaic. The old terrestrial Zodiac, with its fanciful constellations. A parade of fish-men and bulls and centaurs and hunters. All very mythical, but hardly scientific.

I did wonder who’d signed off on the budget on that one. And where they lived…

Over by the door was a trestle table, along the wall. Its surface was laden down with boxes of fliers and adverts for the telescopes and the exhibits at the open evening. Behind it was Timothy Scrivens – Professor Timothy Scrivens, head of the New Seattle University Institute for Astronomical Research. My boss. And he was looking twitchy. His bald head was shiny with a nervous sweat and his glasses were being twirled in one hand. That definitely meant something was up.

Smiling as confidently as I could, I walked over. ‘You wanted to talk to me, Tim?’

‘Ah, Alannah, there you are!’ My goodness, he did look nervous. His pupils were wide and his mouth kept opening and closing. I was put in mind of a beached fish, flapping helplessly on the sand – Scrivens does make that impression on other people as well, or so I’ve been told.

‘Uh, Kayla muttered something to me about a call.’

‘Yes!’ he pointed to his palmtop. It was on the table next to him. Open, I noticed. The screen was lit up. ‘They phoned me a few minutes ago. They said – they said they’re sending a flier for you!’

I frowned, feeling baffled. Overhead, the air conditioning hummed quietly. I felt a breeze from one of the vents, stirring my hair. ‘Who’s sending a what?’

‘A chopper,’ he said, ‘for you!’

I stared at him. ‘Someone’s sending an aircraft? You mean, here?’

‘Yes!’ he said. ‘Oh Alannah, what have you been doing? This can’t be good!’

I was feeling more and more confused. ‘Tim, wind it back for a second, I must have missed something. Someone’s sending a chopper here – for me?’

He nodded. ‘ They called me – it was the cabinet!’ What? He’d been called by a piece of furniture? Then I noticed a nervous tick above his left eyebrow. Scrivens wasn’t nervous, he was downright scared.
He said, ‘The call was from the Cabinet Office!’

My jaw didn’t drop, but I’m sure my pupils did expand as I belatedly realised what he meant. ‘The Cabinet Office? You mean it’s a government chopper?’

He nodded, head bobbing up and down like it was on strings. He scratched at his chin, a manic gesture. ‘I spoke to the – it was the Personal Secretary! The President’s Secretary!’

I boggled. ‘That makes no sense. Just to be sure – you mean the State President? Not the university one?’
He nodded. ‘Tarja Galvez-Ortiz, yes. That one. I spoke to her secretary!’

I suppose I should clarify. A department at one of the leading universities on the Unlikely Hole does get some official attention, now and then. Certainly we spend half our lives with our palmtops out, on the phone to the Research Funding Board, begging for more shiny pennies. And visits from local dignitaries do happen sometimes – a few years ago, we even got one from the Mayor, on a tour of the University. But a phone call from the President’s secretary… that was beyond the norm.

‘And they’re sending a helicopter – just for me?’ I said, disbelieving.

He nodded. ‘Yes.’

Air travel – the Unlikely Hole is a high-g planet. Defying gravity is expensive . Gravity being defied just for little me is rather surreal.

‘Did they say why?’

He shook his head.

I became aware of a growing noise outside, a sort of wok-wok-wok. It was getting louder. Scrivens started then looked toward the glass doors, a nervous glint in his eyes. His bald heat shone in the light from the ceiling lamps. ‘I think that might be them,’ he said.

‘That was fast,’ I said, feeling bewildered.

Then his palmtop chirped.

He picked it up. ‘Hello?’ he said.

‘Professor Scrivens?’ a voice asked.

‘Uh, yes?’

‘Captain Alvarez here, with Search and Rescue AR21. We’ll be landing outside. Is Dr Srivastava there, please?’

He looked at me. ‘Uh, yes, she is.’

‘Okay. We’ll be on the big field, behind the main buildings. If you could get her there as soon as we’re down, that would be great. Many thanks.’ Then the voice clicked off.

Moments later, we found ourselves outside.

The Science Learning Centre is a two-storey, greyish soapbox building. By day it’s filled with batches of school kids, doing experiments and practicals. In the evenings the telescope domes in the fields in front are opened up. Our undergraduates come up to do their observational projects – or at least, those of them that show up for the department’s track-car, anyway. That’s not always as many undergrads as you might expect. A couple of times I’ve been supervising up here, and we’ve had fewer than half the number we’re supposed to. It’s ridiculous – this lot get a free mark just for attending! When I was an undergrad, no-one offered us free marks for anything, and yet this lot turn their noses up!

Anyway – again, I digress!

By track-car we’re more than forty minutes’ drive from the edge of New Seattle here, and we’re in the next valley over. Even here, the western horizon is stained orange with the glow of the city. Still, we have a better night sky here than anywhere within city limits. Tonight was particularly good. The sky was cloudless and sharp as a bell. There was a chilly wind blowing. It made me shiver underneath my lab coat. I was briefly glad that I hadn’t been out on the telescope domes tonight.

As I walked toward our rendezvous point, I heard the grass crunching under my boot-soles. I could smell it too, a natural, living scent. I breathed in the fresh, crisp air. Even as we waited for the unexpected aircraft, I couldn’t resist looking up.

And lo, there was the sky…

The air overhead was still and cold. The observing conditions were good. Anyway, the atmosphere we have here on the Hole is thinner than the Earth’s was. Our planet has less cloud, too. Tonight, neither of the moons were up. The combination of factors was playing out to its full, beautiful degree.

The sky was ablaze with stars, like thousands of tiny diamonds scattered across blackest velvet. Overhead you could clearly see the Milky Way, a misty arch stretching from one side of the sky to the other. Beneath it you could see two silvery smudges – the Clouds of Magellan, two of our Galaxy’s dwarf satellites. We have a good view of them from this latitude.

‘The Scar’s bright tonight,’ Scrivens said, at my side.

And there, halfway up to the zenith in the west, was something less awe-inspiring and more chilling than our neighbouring dwarf galaxies.

I couldn’t help a glance at it. Some people won’t look at it – they think it’s bad luck. There’s a whole superstition based around ‘seeing the Scar’ – supposedly that risks drawing its attention, and obviously that’s bad juju. Being hardcore science-nerds of course we astronomers have our own ideas about that. In fact one of the telescopes tonight is pointed at it. BRAVE THE SCAR, it says on the sign outside.
The Scar. By eye, it just looks like another star, except brighter and a vivid turquoise in colour. It flickers like the others, except its flickering is brighter and slower, like sunlight seen below the sea. Its flickers aren’t due to the atmosphere – they’re innate to it.

The Scar. The thing left behind by the Accident, after it ate our original Sun. The Scar is bright – you wouldn’t be able to see the old Sun from this far out, but the Scar is one of the most prominent things in our night sky. When it ripples up to its peak, it can actually rival the moons sometimes. Even at its faintest, it’s the equal of the planets in our skies.

‘Hard to think,’ I said, ‘that it can be so bright at this distance.’

‘Goodness knows what it must be like from Persephone,’ Scrivens agreed.

‘Maybe that’s why the Phoneys are so crazy,’ I said.

‘It must dominate their skies,’ Scrivens mused. ‘Brightest thing after the suns.’

Yes, sometimes astronomers talk shop too.

I felt a new breeze stir my hair. The wok-wok-wok was very loud now.

We were stood on the field behind the Science Learning Centre. A few curious people, attracted by the strange noise, were beginning to straggle around the building. Scrivens noticed them and took off in their direction, trying to heard them back.

The breeze was strengthening. Then, I saw it. A black shape outlines against the dark sky, temporarily eclipsing star after star as it glided forward. Overhead, an impression of movement – the rotors of the helicopter. I could feel a rising wind from them.

The backdraft from the rotors gained strength. The silhouette grew as it sank toward the ground. The rotors growled, Wok-Wok-Wok.

Then, light blossomed out. Sharp, bright, white! I had to shield my eyes against the actinic glare. A searchlight, underneath the helicopter. I heard angry shouts from the direction of the telescope domes, as the glare stabbed into dark-adapted eyeballs.

The rotors were deafeningly loud now. A repetitive cacophony, WOK-WOK-WOK-WOK! My hair swirled around me in the rotor-wind, now almost a local gale.

The helicopter settled to the ground. In the sharp new light I could see that it was painted in the red and white of Search and Rescue. The door on its side slid open. Overhead, the rotors spun down to a stop. Their nose abated – thank goodness!

Someone jumped out. He was wearing SAR crew overalls, rugged-looking boots and a flight helmet. He was carrying a sleek palmtop. He walked over. He glanced at the palmtop’s screen for a moment, then looked up again.

‘Dr Alannah Srivastava?’ the man asked me.

I nodded. ‘Uh, hello.’

He dug into a pocket and produced a pair of headphones. ‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing them to me. ‘They damp the noise, and there’s a microphone.’

Gingerly and not at all sure about this, I took the headset, turning it over into my hands.

The man looked behind me. He raised his voice. ‘If you could all move back, please – yes, like that! Thank you. We need the space – safety, you know!’

I looked behind me. I was startled to discover a dense semi-circle of gawking onlookers, hovering at the edge of the pool of light. Adults, children, students, staff. I felt like half the world was staring at me. It seemed people wanted to know what was going on.

Well, so did I.

‘If you could come this way please?’ the man asked, gesturing me toward the helicopter.

‘If you don’t mind me asking,’ I said, ‘what exactly is all this about?’

‘They’ll tell you more at the Glasshouse, ma’am,’ he said. ‘I haven’t been briefed myself. Now if you could just step this way?’

As we walked toward the waiting helicopter, one more belated question entered my head. It was weird enough that I personally was being whisked – by air! – to the government’s headquarters. But there was even more weirdness. You see, it was the middle of the night. Apparently, whatever it was that the government wanted with me, it couldn’t wait until the morning.

What in the Hole was going on? I had honestly no idea.

* * *

(To be continued … perhaps.)


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