An unfathomable and irrepressible sensation

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

It’s been nine months in the making: Six months of writing, then three months of compiling, editing, proofing, more editing, re-reading and re-proofing. The final printed book proofs arrived and now it’s good to go. I must admit to a very pleasant sensation of well-being.

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Douglas Adams had the inspiration for The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as he lay on top of a pile of hay while drinking cider. I was sitting in my studio, listening to Pink Floyd: The Division Bell, in fact, and specifically the track Keep Talking. It’s the one which samples Stephen Hawking’s famous quote:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…”

My learned friend was of course referring to the human invention of language. But I thought (as others have), ‘But what if we could talk to the animals?’ As a big fan of Douglas Adams, I’m aware of the Babel fish and its use as a universal translator. And that’s when Cyrus Song was born.

Cyrus Song is also the alternative track title of Keep Talking. Cyrus is Sol, our sun: one of hundreds of billions in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, which itself is one of hundreds of billions in the known universe. Space is big, really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Cyrus Song is a big book. Well, it’s not a huge tome as such (412 pages), but it’s deep in context and message. It’s “A deep and meaningful book, with a big heart and a sense of humour,” as one test reader put it. Another said, “An absolute joy to experience unfolding,” and a third, “Enjoyable, inventive and thought provoking.”

It’s a good book. Well, I’m bound to say that; I wrote it? But no. I was a writer for two years before I was brave enough to call myself one. I’m pleased with all four of my books but Cyrus Song is the one I’m proud of. It’s the book I would hang my writer’s hat on and be judged as a writer by.

As a part tribute to Douglas, my book takes a few of his ideas and expands upon them, as small parts of a bigger story which has completely original elements. There are microscopic pan-galactic animals, travelling on arks piloted by black mambas, there are pan-dimensional white mice, and there are three main humans in the cast of characters. There are many domestic and wild animals, given voice through the Babel fish, and there are many cameo appearances by people whom I’ve also paid small tributes to (see if you can spot them all, in the human and animal characters). Nothing digresses too much from the plot though.

It’s a story about a man (a writer) and a young scientist. It is not a love story. In fact, I wrote it partly to demonstrate a lot of things about the depths and breadths of love, but which I can’t divulge at the risk of spoilers. But it’s love on a greater scale, like all humans being equal citizens of the earth, alongside the animals. I also touch on a lot of other subjects: Human psychology, evolution, language and communication, and a lot of science. But the science is all researched and it’s plausible, then it’s written in such a way as to make it accessible. There are other galaxies and dimensions, and there are wormholes. There’s human cloning and the aforementioned intergalactic snake crews, ferrying microscopic animals of all kinds to our planet. There’s the Babel fish (a computer program in my book), which translates the voices of pets and wild animals, both in the wild and in zoos. There’s a lot of factual information about animals, nature and the environment, told in a sort of QI style. The named animals at London Zoo are the actual ones living there at time of writing. All the species discussed are researched in their habits to bring forth their personality types through the Babel fish. The space-time travel, human cloning and more theoretical stuff are all researched so as to be plausible.

The book has been on sale now for a whole 24 hours and I’m seeing copies being bought; for now, in the UK; in a couple of days, worldwide on Amazon; and in a few weeks, available from all retailers and available in libraries. I’m hoping that in a few weeks, the early buyers I’m seeing on Amazon, have enjoyed the book and review it, or post on social media. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic to think that feedback will be positive. And so sales of Cyrus Song will grow gradually but exponentially, as word gets around by natural and organic human marketing. It just needs people to read it, to enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

More than one of my test readers expressed an impatience for a sequel. I’ll only know if that’s worth writing if the original story is popular enough. I have at least four months before I can do any more than plot Cyrus Song II, because I have a personal promise I made to myself: To write a modern historical book, about two people who made me a writer, and whom I can think of no better way to thank than to use the hands they gave me to write something for them. I speak, of course, of my parents.

Like my children, my parents are proud of what I’ve become. Cyrus Song is a multi-generational book and both generations either side of me are keen to read the book when I give them copies. I hope others will join them.

I do know how I feel, actually: I feel how those beta readers said they did at the end of the book: Calm and tranquil. At peace.

Cyrus Song is available now on Amazon.

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A prelude to the Cyrus Song

THE WRITER’S LIFE

So, there’s going to be this book. I may have mentioned it once or twice. That’s because it’s a good book, and it’s not just me who says so. And everything surrounding the book has just happened, by weird coincidence and by virtue of the number 42.

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Coincidences are there to be found in many things, if you look enough. It just so happens that Cyrus Song took about seven months to write. Since then, it’s gone through another two months of compiling, editing and re-reading. In my own eyes, it’s perfect. There are one or two reviews due back from test readers in the next few days, but the reviews so far have been good:

I don’t think I’ve read anything else which is as funny as it is deep.”

A worthy tribute to Douglas, but it’s totally its own thing.”

Very, very clever.”

I love all the little tributes buried in here.”

And so on (names and addresses supplied).

There’s much more besides, happening on my own planet and in the wider world, but I’m pre-occupied with getting this book out. I’m still suffering separation anxiety from my characters while they’re in the care of the beta readers. So what about when the book is published, and Simon fry, Hannah Jones et al, are in the hands of (hopefully) many readers? By then, they’ll be characters I’m proud of enough, and confident in, to send out into the wider world. I love them anyway: They’re people I created, including all their problems, and they’re people I care about. While they’re still with those remaining test readers, they’re still effectively out on approval. They’re like my children on the first day of pre-school.

Many people reading the book, may actually learn a lot. Not just from the story itself, but from all the factual information in there. I always do a lot of research, and that’s certainly true of this book. All the science is plausible, and many of the places actually exist. When it comes to London Zoo, the animals in the book are the animals actually at ZSL Regent’s Park at time of writing: Kumbuka, the silverback gorilla, is real, as are the pair of black mambas in the reptile house. And there are many others, from Aardvark to Zebra.

Now that the manuscript is otherwise complete, and the book proofed, I can take a stab at a publication date (which adds up to 42): 17.08.17. Whereas – like Douglas – I’ve previously loved the whooshing sound a deadline makes as it passes, this may be one where I can jump off of the train while it’s still moving, and hit the platform running: If anything, Cyrus Song should be released by that date, so possibly before. I’m sure I’ll find a way of making 42 from whatever numbers they are.

And now that the time approaches and I’ve had almost all feedback, I can write a longer synopsis to the one on the back cover of the book:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones is a veterinary surgeon. She has a quantum computer, running a program called the Babel fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s ponderous mission to find answers to questions he never knew he had, about himself, life, the universe and everything. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. But in a way, it is, because the book is a greater story: Animals talk; There are pan-galactic microscopic animals; and there are white mice. There’s a rabbit, because all rabbits always look like they want to say something. We find out the truth about many animals, including what the cats are up to. There’s an accidental human clone, a large supporting cast of characters, and many tributes in cameo roles for people whom I admire. I’ve buried some Easter Eggs in the book too.

And there is an answer. There’s an answer to life, the universe and everything, besides 42 (although 42 does get a mention). It’s a tribute to Douglas Adams and I saved the best review till second-to-last:

This is a worthy offshoot of Douglas’ books, and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A tribute, but very much original.” (Name and address supplied).

It’s science fiction but it’s plausible; It’s deep in meaning, and very funny. I can’t say much more beyond the extended synopsis, because of what’s in the book. People may read this book and choose not to give too much away: A bit like the film, The Cabin in the Woods, talking about it could reveal spoilers. That’s what I hope for most: for those who’ve read it to say to others, “You just have to read it.”

Soon my creation and my characters will be out there in the wider world, and I have every confidence they’ll do well. You have been listening to the prelude to the Cyrus Song, brought to you by the number 42.

How the fuck did you think of this? Where did you get the idea?” (With my imagination).

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A world with soft edges

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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(Crochet toys!)

There are many things which make my life good, when I’ve served myself so many shit sandwiches in the past. For me, the main ones are having kids and being a writer. Looked at the other way around, it’s even better: I’m a writer and I have kids. From their point of view, it’s one of the greatest things ever: When you’re 11 and nine-years-old; when you want a bedtime story and your dad’s a writer, you can just have a completely new story written for you.

Louis (11) and Lola (9) gave me the cast: Their bedtime companions; A Minecraft cuddly pig and a stuffed puppy from IKEA, called Snorty and Greg respectively. Then I asked my kids what super power they’d most like to have: Lola would like to fly and Louis chose invisibility. So I wrote a story: A completely new bedtime story, and my children were at the world premier, read by the author. But it’s a story for everyone:

A world with soft edges

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

That was Snorty’s wish and Greg’s dream.

Snorty was a small Minecraft pig: Just a simple collection of polygons in the Minecraft world, made real and less cube-like as a soft toy, and with a back leg which hung a little loose. Greg was a Labrador puppy from Ikea: His coat was a bit faded and he was small. But he was Swedish: He could bark very loudly if someone said or did something he disagreed with, or if something happened which he didn’t like.

The pig and the dog would spend their nights exploring, but always aware of the giant children, in case they woke. Because when the giants woke up, the animals would immediately fall asleep: That was just the way things worked. The giant children would look after the animals during the day.

“Are the giant kids asleep?”, asked Snorty.

“Yes they are. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to answer you and you wouldn’t have been able to ask me in the first place, would you?”

“Oh yes”, said Snorty. “My leg’s a bit loose”.

“How many times do I have to tell you, your leg is fine.”

“But that giant girl has had me for so long, and she loves me so much that she’s made my leg loose.”

“Yes, and the giant boy loves me a lot, so I’ve got faded fur. But when we’re awake and those two are asleep, I put an amazing technicolour dream coat on.” Greg gave Snorty a Thespian twirl.

“Ooh, look at you!” Snorty smiled, then looked at his leg. “But what about this?”

“You look fine!”, Greg said. “Your leg might drag a bit, but I won’t leave you behind. When the giants are asleep and we’re awake, your leg is as new as my coat.”

“Greg? Do you wish you could talk to your giant?”

“I can’t talk to him. He has to sleep, so that his batteries recharge.”

“Have they got batteries?”

“No. Just big, developing brains. I can’t talk to my giant kid and you can’t talk to yours. They have to be asleep, so that we can get up to things. We have to explore and have adventures while they sleep. Some of what we do, they see as dreams and that feeds their batteries.”

“Their brains, you mean.”

“Same thing really, Snorty. But yes. Then while we’re asleep, they go off and do nice things, so that we have pleasant dreams.”

“So it is like we can talk to them? I mean, we live their dreams while they sleep; And they live ours while they’re awake? Is that right Greg?”

“I think so Snorty. Do you know what your one dreams of?”

“She said that if she had one superhero power, she’d be able to fly. What about yours, Greg?”

“Mine said that he’d like to be invisible. If you could wish for something though, what would you want your giant to do?”

“Well, she wants to fly. That means I can fly. But we’re different to the giants. I think I’d want her to know that if she really wants to fly, she can. Maybe one day, she might fly in a different way. Or maybe, she might actually fly. I want her to keep imagining. Would you want to be invisible, like your giant does?”

“That would be a lot of fun. There could be intrigue and espionage, which would be very exciting. We have to be responsible though and not misuse the superpowers. All superheroes have to be careful not to reveal their powers. We do have a bit of a problem though”, said Greg.

“How so?”, asked Snorty.

“Well, if you can fly and I can be invisible…”, Greg began.

“Then I can’t see you.” Snorty finished the sentence.

“Hmmmmm…”, said Greg.

“Hmmmmm…”. Snorty agreed. “So, I could be flying around and not know where you are.”

“And I could see you flying around but you wouldn’t be able to see me.”

“Hmmmmm…”

“Hmmmmm…”

“I know!” Snorty shouted. “If I’m flying and you need me but I can’t see you, you could just call my name.”

“And if I’m invisible and you want to find me”, said Greg, “You could call mine.”

“We’d be a a superhero double act. A bit like siblings”, said Snorty.

“But without having to admit that we’re best friends”, said Greg.

“Yeah.”

“That’s quite cool.”

Suddenly and for no reason whatsoever, a castle appeared: Not in the distance; not just in front of them, but all around them.

“We’re in a castle,” said Snorty.

“You do have a habit of stating the obvious, piggy.”

“But why are we in a castle?”, said the pig.

“I don’t know. One of the giants is dreaming. And they’ve given us a castle.” The dog looked thoughtful. “Shall we have a look around? I mean, seeing as we’re here?”

“What are we looking for?”

“I don’t know. But a castle has just materialised around us. It would be a bit silly not to look around, wouldn’t it?”

“Isn’t it a bit rude to look around other people’s houses?”

“Well, yes. But we’ve been put inside this one, so it’s kind of ours.”

“Perhaps we’re trapped? Maybe there’s no way out.”

“If anything really bad happens, then the giants will wake up. When they wake up, all of this will be gone.”

“But I like it here.” Snorty looked around. They were in a huge entrance hall, with large wooden doors on either side and a grand staircase, leading up to a balcony which ran all around the room.

“I like it here too”, Greg said. “As long as nothing bad happens, we can stay here until the giants wake up. So we must look out for anything which looks like a bad dream and use our superpowers to keep them away.” Greg stood on his back legs, so that he looked more dramatic in his colourful coat.

“What am I supposed to do?”, Snorty asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can stand up like that and look like a twonk. I’ve got a wonky leg, remember?”

“I do not look like a twonk. I am being theatrical. Besides, your leg is fine in here. How many times do I have to tell you, Snorty?”

“Oh yes.” Snorty stood on his hind trotters and looked down. “The floor’s further away.”

“Don’t say you’re afraid of heights. I thought you wanted to fly.”

“I do. I’m not afraid of heights. Aren’t you afraid of not being seen?”

“I’ll only use my invisibility if I have to. I can bark. I mean, I can shout, remember? It’s got a bit cold and dark in here. I am a little bit worried. “

“So am I.”

“I think there might be a bad dream here somewhere.”

“Me too. Don’t go invisible yet, Greg.”

“I won’t. But don’t you fly off either.”

“I won’t. What does a bad dream look like, Greg?”

“I don’t know. The whole point is that the giants wake up and then it stops. All we can do is…”

“What?”

“The best we can, I suppose. I feel strange, Snorty.”

“So do I Greg. I think this might be how bad dreams start.” Snorty looked at Greg. “Hey!”, he shouted. “You’ve got my legs!”

Greg looked down. “I thought the ground looked closer.” He walked around for a while on his new trotters. “There’s nothing wrong with this leg you’re always moaning about. It just looks like I’m wearing pink trousers. It is cold in here. Hey! You’re wearing my coat!”

“Ooh! I am.” Snorty looked at the coat, then down at the floor. “The floor is even further away. Greg! I’ve got your legs!”

“I’m glad you’ve got them, because I was wondering where they’d gone. I think we should see if we can get out of here. This is a bit weird.”

“There are two doors”, said Snorty. “Shall we check one each?”

“That sounds like a plan”, said Greg.

But both doors were locked. Greg trotted back to the middle of the room, using Snorty’s legs, which he now had. Snorty padded, on Greg’s legs, which he now had.

They looked around and there were no other doors. The castle had materialised around them after all; They’d not walked in through a door. The only other way of leaving the entrance hall was the staircase leading up.

The dog and the pig walked to the stairs. But the stairs had turned into an Escalator, which was running down.

“What in this world has happened?”, said Snorty.

“One of the giants is dreaming this,” Greg said. “What will they think of next?”

“Shall we try going up it? The moving staircase?”

“We can try. We’ll need to run. And keep to the left.”

“Why?”, asked Snorty.

“Stand on the right, remember? And we’d better be quick.”

“Why?”

“Because the walls are closing in.”

“And the ground is shaking. Do you think the giants are waking up?”

“I hope so. Whether they are or not though, there’s only one thing we can do to get out of here.” Greg looked up.

Snorty looked up too. The walls stretched up as far as they could see and were closing in on all sides. They couldn’t run up the Escalator: It was running too fast; The walls were closing in. And besides all of that, they each had the wrong legs.

“You need to fly up”, Greg said to Snorty. “And I need to shout as loudly as I can.”

“Erm, Greg?”

“What, Snorty?”

“Actually, I am afraid of heights.”

“Oh you twonk! Why did you get that superpower? Well, you need to fly and you need to carry me. And I need to shout. Hopefully, we can wake someone up.”

“But I can’t carry you!”

“You can if I’m invisible.”

“How?”

“Because I’ll weigh less. I’ll be with you, so you don’t have to be afraid.”

Greg closed his eyes and became invisible. He shouted to Snorty: “Now, fly piggy. Fly!” He shouted and shouted; He barked and shouted some more.

Greg’s coat became Snorty’s wings and his legs dangled beneath as he rose into the air. The higher he went, the quieter Greg’s shouting got.

The walls continued to shrink in around them and the whole world shook, as Snorty’s wings grew tired and Greg’s barking was drowned out by the earthquake around them.

How long does a blink of the eye last? A blink is the time between the eye closing, then opening again. Usually it’s less than a second. Sometimes, it’s a whole night; or perhaps a lifetime.

In the blink of an eye, Greg and Snorty were back with the giants.

“Is there any way we can tell them about this, dog?”

“The only way to change things, piglet” Said Greg. “…is to end the dreams.”

“Could we tell him about it? That man on the typewriter.”

“I think he already knows.”

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

It happens every night. All over the world.

It’s rather wonderful, if you think about it.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016

Postscript

Nailed it, according to the test audience, aged 11 and nine.

Post Postscript

[SPOILER ALERT]

Floored someone, when I heard from a contemporary who’d got all of the subtext and said they had a wet face at the end. Because there’s a very tragic thing at the end, subtly hidden: I put that in, so that a parent reading it to their kids might be as deeply affected by it as those whose heads it should drift over.

My family and other mammals

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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“Thanks for all the fish.”

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose. It was 44 years before I finally smelled the coffee.

As a recent convert to vegetarianism, and having read a lot on the subject, I am of a mindset where I see other mammals as simply non-human animals. I had to conclude that the animals I was eating were autonomous, self-determining beings with a conscience. My personal conscience would not allow me to eat another being, any more than I would want to eat one of my family.

I’ve been sober now for two years and the thing I wonder most about life now, is why I tried to block it out for so long, when life can be a wonderful thing. Sure, my depression is sometimes debilitating but that provides a contrast and makes me appreciate the nice things, family and friends among them.

Yesterday was a chance to spend a few hours with my parents at my place. Nowadays, we discuss family first, then we meander off into sometimes fascinating territory. Yesterday we discussed politics and history, among other things. Just occasionally, the old man drifted off, like dads do. The mother ship carried on talking, like mums do. I just floated along on the moments: Happy, sad; Proud and grateful.

In a few weeks, I’m looking forward to some very special family time, when myself and my kids are staying at my parents’ for a week: As recently as even a year ago, this would not have happened because I was still in recovery. We have a few things planned, including a trip to London. The kids have already expressed a preference to visit Tate Modern, my favourite place in the universe which I currently know of. Mum’s interested too. Wherever we end up, I’ll be a kind of sandwich filling: the middle of three generations. I’ve also promised my mum that we will resurrect an old tradition if I’m successful at my upcoming PIP tribunal (I won the last time I took on the Department for Work and Pensions): I will take her to see a West End show. She’s always wanted to see Les Miserables on the West End stage and I don’t mind seeing it a third time.

My parents gave me a gift: My DNA; An IQ of 147, a thirst for knowledge and an ability to translate it all into words. They’re proud of what I’ve become: They tell their friends that their son is a writer; They gave me the very typewriter (A Windows 10 laptop) which allows me to convey all of this. Three years ago, I was drunk; I had been for a long time. Then something strange happened: I eventually realised, at the age of 44 and with the benefit of sobriety, what life is all about. I can’t explain it; But I can convey it. I’ll always be an alcoholic but I know that I’ll never lapse, because of what I’ve seen.

I’ve witnessed many things, including quite a few of my own making: I write stories now and people love them. If I was still drinking, I wouldn’t be able to do that. Right now I’m in a literary hot tub of my invention, aboard a very small intergalactic craft, with a group of manatees, discussing the benefits of them being the most spherical animals on earth (What a wonderful thing to be). I’m writing a companion story for Cyrus Song. It’s called Cyrus Choir:

“…I dined alone that evening. I tried to place the enormity of that day into some sort of context. But even though I’m a writer, there were insufficient words to explain it, no matter how numerous and intertwined I made them. Less is more in literature. I’d listened to animals talking. My life: String theory in a Pot Noodle.

Given what I was contemplating and what I was eating – because the two were separate – it occurred to me to check the ingredients of my dinner; I’m a vegetarian, after all. A quick scan of the pot and a spoonerism reassured me: Not poodle…”

I’ve been asked where the title for Cyrus Song came from, because the words aren’t repeated in the story. As always, I have a reason and although I like to make readers think, this one was a bit tenuous. Cyrus Song was inspired by a number of things and a few people: A girl I know; a fight with a fruit fly zooming around my screen; and a song: Keep Talking, by Pink Floyd, AKA Cyrus Song and featuring the voice of Professor Stephen Hawking:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.”

The rest is a work in progress. Life’s what you make it and although I wouldn’t recommend the route I took, I’m glad it deposited me here.

All we have to do is make sure we keep talking.