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The benefits of hindsight

Updated: Jan 22

In the late 80s, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a university in Sydney. Having come from a country background, but without the means or obvious opportunity to easily return to the land, the idea of studying plant genetics filled my head with visions of high yielding crops, coreless apples, and oranges with edible skins. You name it. My mind was a post-adolescent maelstrom of creative concepts.


Sadly, like most plans at that stage in life, it wasn’t even well mixed, let alone half-baked.


Nine years of boarding school hadn’t prepared me for the boundless world of a modern university. I discovered, even more so than my new city friends who had a better understanding of how the world worked, that I was distracted by the simplest of shiny objects. There were just too many extra-curricular activities more enticing than sitting in a lecture theatre while an old guy wrote illegible equations on transparent overhead projector sheets.


There was a world of fun to be had and for once, no-one was ordering me to polish my shoes. And with first-hand experience, I can tell you that independence is intoxicating and confusing in equal measures if you’ve never experienced it before.


The pin that burst this freestyle bubble was an envelope containing my inaugural semester grades. Finding it in the letterbox was the first stark reminder that I was attending university for reasons besides a social life. To my horror, the slip inside lacked any grades near the beginning of the alphabet. They seemed to have fallen off the perch and into a bucket labelled - Conditional Pass. Wondering where all the A and B marks had gone was probably unfair; I hadn’t attended lectures for more than six hours a week. If that.


Suddenly, the university course handbook, which had been repurposed to stop a bookshelf from leaning, took on the importance of an ancient nautical chart. Buried in its pages, there had to be a course that didn’t end in disaster. Perversely, I still washed up on the rocks, so to speak.


In the end, it wasn’t difficult to find a way forward. I could stay in science by shifting from studying the living to learning about rocks, while only adding six months onto the total time to graduate. Provided, I put my head down and collected good grades.


Okay, swapping from biology to geology sounded … tolerable.


With hindsight, would I have done things differently? Probably not. It sounded like a career that still got me outdoors. And I’d be kidding myself if I thought my first year was ever going to be anything but a fun and feral mess.


A quarter of a century later and developing a nostalgic streak, as you do in mid-life, I found myself thinking about my first year at uni. Not about how to survive on less than twenty dollars a day, thank goodness. Instead, for some inexplicable reason, marine corals popped into my head.


Which via a tortuous route has brought me to the topic of this blog - why I wrote Enhancement?


Before I explain why, I’ll confess I’m not a science fiction buff. Reading any online list of the top ten science fiction books of all time, I’ll give myself a feeble tick against one or maybe two. A score on par with my first-year university grades. Fudge in a couple more ticks for movies of sci-fi books and I might just scrape in a Conditional Pass. Which is odd, as I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember. Maybe the length of the books turned me off; a notable span of mental endurance has never been a strength of mine. Or maybe I’m confusing them with lengthy fantasy novels.


Anyway, now comes the tough part – how to talk about a science fiction book so that people who haven’t read it don’t have the plot spoiled, while also keeping those who have read it, interested?


I’ll start by repeating one of my first ever Tweets which went something like this:

A summary of my first book? Sure, here goes. Science fiction, 12 stories, 75yrs, across five continents. Told in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person (plus one train of consciousness for the fun of it, and yes, it was a lot of fun to write!). What might happen if we implanted algae into our skin so we could photosynthesise?


Where did this peculiar idea arise? Well, from corals, of course. Although, I’ve read there is a salamander that also can do this magic trick, but I left that one alone.


Considering all the benefits that would come from having a body that could draw, to some limited extent, energy directly from the sun like plants can, I’m surprised we haven’t figured out how to do it yet. Or at least, given it a good crack.


Become little green men, as it were.


Seriously, it’s not that outlandish to imagine because there’s a precedence. Corals are a symbiotic relationship between an animal and a plant. Strictly a form of algae, not a plant, but I didn’t let that technicality get in the way of a good story. Especially not in science fiction, where I assumed you are allowed to make anything up to a point before it blurs into fantasy.


Interestingly, Enhancement wasn’t the first story I’ve written. I had started Gold, which is a contemporary fiction novel, many years before Enhancement. It’s just that Enhancement ended up being finished first. Perhaps because it may be easier to write a collection of short stories than it is to write a full novel. Certainly, I’ve found that to be the case. Again, it may be because I find my attention wandering off into a space where lots of new ideas are easier to cope with than one long, convoluted one.


Had I a crystal ball in 1988, would I have imagined writing a book about photosynthesising humans? It’s not as wild as it seems. There were plenty of weird conversations we shared in that dingy university bar, let me tell you. Maybe one day I’ll dredge up more from that smoky past and also turn them into stories.


But first I’ll have to remember what my mates and I talked about. And we’ve already been over that I’m not good at tests.


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