The Uncanny – Or, My Conversations With An Artificial Intelligence

Yes, I know, I'm terrible at drawing Sigmund Freud.

Yes, I know, I’m terrible at drawing Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud had some very strange ideas about a lot of things, but he had at least one idea that could be useful to both sci-fi and horror writers. I am, of course, talking about Freud’s concept of “The Uncanny“.

In case you’ve never heard of it before, Wikipedia defines it as “an instance where something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange“, which sounds about right.

I first discovered this idea during an English literature module at university a few years ago and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until a few weeks ago when someone on DeviantART mentioned a website featuring a program called “Cleverbot EVIE“.

This is a website where you can have a conversation with an artificial intelligence called “EVIE”. The site also features surprisingly realistic animated CG graphics too and EVIE can also show a range of semi-realistic expressions when answering questions.

Although her artificial intelligence isn’t perfect and she can say some hilariously random things, my first reaction to this site was one of confusion and unease.

After all, I was having a conversation with an artificial intelligence – something which I assumed was the stuff of science fiction rather than modern life.

Not only that, her response to one of my questions was quite chilling. See for yourself…

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Look at the bottom of the screenshot. If you're a "Battlestar Galactica" fan, you're probably freaking out right about now....

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Look at the bottom of the screenshot. If you’re a “Battlestar Galactica” fan, you’re probably freaking out right about now….

Anyway, this site is the perfect example of Freud’s idea of “The Uncanny”. After all, you’re talking to a person who isn’t actually a person. You’re looking at someone who almost looks real, but not quite. You’re looking at someone who winks and smiles in an almost imperceptibly unrealistic way.

So, why is any of this useful to sci-fi and horror writers? Well, these are two genres where you have to blend realistic things and unrealistic things together in a way that keeps your audience interested.

For example, many of the scariest horror stories are set within the modern world but they also feature all sorts of mysteriously menacing supernatural and paranormal things too.

Likewise, although “serious” science fiction stories might include things like faster-than-light travel, large spaceships etc… the technology in these stories has to seem like it’s a realistic future evolution of modern technology.

So, given that both types of stories rely on blending realistic and unrealistic things they’re absolutely perfect for adding uncanny stuff to. And, of course, the uncanny can be used to provoke different reactions in each genre.

In horror stories, the uncanny (eg: seeing a very slightly different face in the mirror) adds an extra level of fear to the story by subtly suggesting that reality isn’t as reliable as the reader thinks it is.

But, in sci-fi stories, adding uncanny stuff (like humanoid robots) can be a way to show your readers that they are looking at something far removed from their “ordinary” lives.

Not only that, most new technology looks at least slightly strange to people who haven’t seen it before, so making the technology in your story look “uncanny” can also be a good way of making it seem even more “futuristic” too.

Of course, the uncanny works best when it’s subtle. It is at it’s best when your readers know that they’re looking at something strange, but they can’t instantly work out exactly why it’s so strange.

So, make sure that you keep at least most of the uncanny stuff in your story at least slightly subtle.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)

Today’s Art (22nd November 2014)

There’s actually quite an interesting story behind the creation of today’s painting – you see, I was feeling uninspired yet again and I found myself staring at a blank page of my sketchbook. Literally.

Of course, I quickly noticed the texture of the page itself and I noticed that some of the faint lines on it looked like the branches of a tree… and then this painting pretty much sketched itself out. Seriously, this has probably got to be the first time that I’ve ever been inspired by literally just staring at a blank page LOL!

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Dark Cove" By C. A. Brown

“Dark Cove” By C. A. Brown

How To Add Some Trickery To Your Thriller, Detective and/or Spy Story

...and a few household stationery supplies.

…and a few household stationery supplies.

Even though this is an article about writing thriller fiction, I’m going to start by talking about TV shows for a while. Trust me, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, I was watching a TV series called “Burn Notice” on DVD recently and it made me realise something interesting about storytelling, particularly in thriller stories.

Although some of the stuff I’m going to talk about here is similar to an article about sci-fi/fantasy fiction I wrote last May, I’ll be looking at more “realistic” types of fiction in this article.

Anyway, “Burn Notice” is a show about an ex-spy who is trying to track down whoever mysteriously fired him from his job – he also solves crimes, helps people and/or outwits criminals in every episode too. It’s a really cool show, but this isn’t a review of it.

But, one of the interesting things about the show which could be useful to thriller writers is the fact that whenever the main character does something sneaky – he’ll usually explain what he’s doing in a voiceover. In other words, we get the illusion that we’re learning super cool secret spy tricks and this vicariously makes us feel like super-cool secret agents.

Sprinkling your story with cool-sounding “information” is a perfect way to keep your readers fascinated. But, since you’re probably not a spy or a detective, then how do you do do this?

For starters, you don’t actually need to talk to any real spies, detectives etc… about how they do their jobs and what tricks they use. Although if you somehow can do this, then this is probably a bonus.

Likewise, you should NOT look up information on the internet about exactly how people carry out activities that would be dangerous and/or illegal. Even though it might seem like an obvious way to do background research for your story, it is a really stupid idea! And, in some cases, it may even land you in legal trouble. So, don’t do this!

In other words, you don’t really have to know anything – since not knowing anything doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it in your story. The trick is to trick your readers into thinking that you know what you’re talking about. Still with me?

The best way to trick your readers into thinking that you know as much as a trained spy, detective etc… does is to start small. In other words, show your main character using a couple of small (non-illegal and non-dangerous) tricks that actually work in real life.

These can be spy/detective-related things (eg: like the main character finding a good place to hide a piece of paper). But they can also be totally random unrelated things that most people don’t know about (like how to extend the life of a marker pen).

As long as it isn’t illegal, violent or dangerous and it sounds like something that most people don’t know and would probably like to learn, then do your research and add it to your story.

A good place to start for researching cool obscure things is a site like Wikihow or, for more directly spy/detective-related things, then check out online articles about things like computer security, home security etc..

Showing you main character protecting himself or herself against the bad guys by using a realistic non-violent security technique that anyone can use is a great way to impress your readers.

For a good literary example, check out the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” (an excerpt can be found here). In this chapter, the main character (an ex-military policeman) is able to spot a suicide bomber because he’s memorised a list of warning signs that tell him what to look out for.

Now, once your readers see these small realistic things, then they’ll probably assume that you know what you’re talking about. So, when it comes to the really dramatic stuff – you can just make it up or, even more sneakily, leave a few details tantalisingly vague. As long as it doesn’t sound blatantly unrealistic, most of your readers will probably believe you.

But what if they don’t? Well, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think.

Chances are, any actual detectives, spies etc.. that read your story will probably be glad that you aren’t actually teaching the general public anything dangerous or secret.

Not only that, most people are smart enough not to imitate things that they read in thriller novels – so they’ll probably never check. At worst, if your story becomes extremely popular, then any films based on it might eventually appear in a segment of “Mythbusters” or something like that (and, let’s face it, having something based on your work appearing on a major TV show is hardly a bad thing).

So, remember, if you make sure that the small stuff is realistic, then you can just make the big stuff up and most of your readers will probably believe you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)

The Joy Of… Self-Imposed Rules

2014 Artwork Self imposed rules sketch

Ever since I got back into creating art on a daily basis in 2012 and got into writing non-fiction on a daily basis in 2013, I’ve set myself a lot more rules than I used to.

Whilst, back in 2009, my only real “rule” for myself was something like “Don’t post any nude art on DeviantART” (which was just as well, given how terrible my art looked back then). I seem to have picked up a lot more “rules” since then. Although I’ve thankfully got rid of the “no nude art on DeviantART” rule though…..

Some of my new “rules” emerged out of fear of external censorship or controversy, but many of them were things that I imposed on myself for various random reasons.

I’m not going to list them all here, but they include things like not directly using my favourite four-letter word on this blog (which can be really f—-ing annoying sometimes!), setting myself limits on how often I can produce some of my favourite types of art (eg: zombie art, art featuring various eccentric fashions etc…), trying to avoid politics as much as possible etc…..

Anyway, since I’ve already written more than a few articles about the downsides of these self-imposed limitations, I thought that I’d turn things around and look at the positive side of self-imposed rules.

At first glance, it might seem like making up self-imposed “rules” for your own writing or art practice would do nothing but stifle your creativity. More to the point, you might wonder, why would anyone bother to do this?

After all, creativity is supposed to be about expression and freedom, right? Many people (including myself) would, quite rightly, oppose any kind of externally-imposed “rules” being placed on creative people. I mean, censorship and regulation is the enemy of creativity.

So, why would anyone do this to themselves?

Well, one of the advantages of coming up with rules and limitations for your own work is the fact that it can actually make you a lot more creative. It can prompt you to make more varied types of art or writing and it can also be a good way of finding your personal art or writing “style” fairly quickly too.

After all, if all or most of your work has to fit within a set of rules that you’ve come up with before you started, then it’s going to have a fairly consistent and distinctive “look” to it after a while.

Not only that, if you’re the kind of rebellious soul who is driven to create things for yourself (rather than just looking at things that other people have created), then you probably hate pointless rules. So, the idea of being able to “break the rules” occasionally or of finding sneaky ways to “bend the rules” can be a very powerful driving force for creativity.

So, if you make up some self-imposed rules that you can break and/or circumvent later, then this can be a good way of keeping things interesting when you’re writing, drawing, painting etc….

Yes, the idea of rebelling against yourself might sound kind of bizarre, but it can be a good way to feel like a rebel quickly when you’re uninspired. And, let’s face it, many people do their best creative work when they feel like they’re rebelling against someone or something.

In addition to this, if you set limits on how many of your favourite types of stories, drawings and/or paintings that you can produce within a given time (eg: only allowing yourself to write one horror story a month), then this makes these things seem a lot more “special” than they might otherwise do.

If, for example, you can only produce one thing that you really love every week- then you’re going to put a lot more enthusiasm and energy into it than if you produce it every day.

The other great thing about setting rules for yourself is that the only person you have to answer to is yourself. In other words, if one of your self-imposed rules is actually hindering your creativity rather than helping it, then you can drop it. Likewise, if you want more of a creative challenge, then you can come up with a few more rules to follow. It’s totally up to you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)

Today’s Art (20th November 2014)

The Transgender Day Of Remembrance is a day that is held around the 20th November every year in order to remember transgender people who have died due to hate crimes.

Depressingly, there is a new list of names every year. A new list of people who were killed for nothing more than just being themselves. In 2014, no less.

Transgender people have existed for as long as any other type of people- although how and/or whether we can express who we are has varied greatly throughout different cultures throughout history. You would think that it would be a total non-issue these days.

I’m not that good at expressing my gender in real life (for all sorts of reasons ) and, at most, I tend to look slightly androgynous and use androgynous initals rather than my birth name whenever I can. But many other transgender people across the world do express themseleves fully and they should be able to do so without fear (like anyone else).

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Transgender Day Of Remembrance 2014" By C. A. Brown

“Transgender Day Of Remembrance 2014″ By C. A. Brown

Should You Include Aliens In Your Sci-fi Story?

My guess is that there is probably other life in the universe ... but it's probably just bacteria.

My guess is that there is probably other life in the universe … but it’s probably just bacteria.

Although there are loads of different sci-fi sub-genres out there (eg: cyberpunk, biopunk, sci-fi horror, dystopic sci-fi, space opera etc…), most sci-fi stories can basically be divided into two different categories – stories involving aliens and stories without aliens.

This might seem like a trivial difference – after all, sci-fi is still sci-fi regardless of whether it contains aliens. But whether or not aliens are involved can vastly change the entire atmosphere, tone and style of your sci-fi story in ways that you might not expect.

Since there is no real “right” or “wrong” answer to this question, I’ll explain some of the ways that deciding whether or not to include aliens in your story can affect your story and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

So why does this make such a difference? Because the focus of the story is completely different.

In a sci-fi story where humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, the focus of the story is firmly on man-made technology and human society. In other words, your sci-fi story is like any other kind of “realistic” story, with the only difference being that it is set in the future rather than in the present or the past.

In addition to this, deciding not to include aliens in your sci-fi story also carries the implication that humans are alone in the universe – which can either make your characters more resourceful (eg: no aliens are going to rescue them if they get lost in space), can add a nihilistic existential gloom to your story (since we’re literally totally alone) or it can make your readers feel slightly better about being human (because we’re the most awesome lifeform in the universe).

These types of sci-fi story are also one of the easiest types of sci-fi stories to write, for the simple reason that the only really new stuff you have to come up with is new technology for your human characters to use.

However, if you include aliens in your sci-fi story, then the focus on your story will be on humans trying to find their place in a varied universe, interplanetary relations, the unknown and a whole host of other subjects.

Rather than an individualistic story about humanity finding it’s way in an “empty” universe, sci-fi stories involving aliens have more of a focus on community, politics and social relations. I mean, for starters, if we lived in a universe filled with many different alien societies, would our current distinctions between nationalities, religions etc… on Earth matter as much as they do these days?

In addition to this, alien characters can be used as a metaphor for various parts of human society (eg: the fervently capitalist Ferengi characters in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). Alien characters can also be used to incorporate more fanatistical elements into your sci-fi story too (eg: telepathy, pyrokinesis etc..) and alien worlds provide a lot more variety to the settings of your story too.

However, coming up with an interesting new alien species can be fairly difficult. Yes, you can just invent them using your imagination (and this is a fairly common way of creating alien characters) – but, if you want your story to appear more “realistic”, then you need to consider all sorts of other things too (eg: how your alien characters evolved etc…).

Of course, there’s also something of a middle ground between these two options. For example, you can have a mostly human-based sci-fi story which also hints at the existence of aliens too (eg: like in a TV show like “The X-Files”) or you could do the complete opposite and have a mostly alien-based story that features a few human characters (eg: like in a TV show called “Farscape”).

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As I said earlier, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers when it comes to deciding whether to include aliens in your sci-fi story. But, I hope that this was useful :)