Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ideas are everywhere

Reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us gives a whole new perspective to my obsession with the brain and how it works. Reading that you’re likely to be replaced by a toothed worm is a bit confronting. But also reading possible different outcomes about how the plant and animal life is likely to regenerate itself also has you thinking that perhaps the Earth would be better off – more beautiful, more fascinating – without us.

Weisman lays out a range of scenarios of how nature would move in if humans suddenly disappeared, dealing with everything from architecture to toxic waste. He talks to experts in their fields and looks at case studies around the world, including the Korean demilitarised zone and the archaeological site of the ruins of the Mayan civilisation, to imagine a world without humans. What plant life would thrive? How would forests recover? How would animals adapt and evolve without the threat (or protection) of humans?

It may be a long way from neuroscience but in terms of my research, Weisman’s book is an invaluable resource for ideas about how to construct the physical world of my novel, which is set in an abandoned resort in remote far north Queensland, and to look at the science that might be re/misinterpreted by a group who hold the core belief that the Earth is better off without humans.

Weisman’s book is a useful companion to The Revenge of Gaia, where the author James Lovelock expands on his theory that the Earth works as a single living, breathing organism, one that we humans have made chronically (although not yet fatally) ill. The Revenge of Gaia is a little more hard going in terms of readability (and in terms of its hypothesis that we're pretty much all screwed) but again offers fascinating insights and facts that can be fed into my neurons and if the right bits fire up, hopefully come out with an interesting insight that will add detail to my manuscript.

Where do you get your ideas seems to be one of the most commonly asked questions of writers. And when you read some writers’ work you have to wonder how they came up with the amazing stuff they did. But it still seems to me to be a strange question to ask. Ideas are everywhere.

Shaun Tan, talking about his book The Arrival, said that the idea for his immigrants being set loose in their new homes in balloons came from seeing how coral spawn by releasing eggs that float off into the water like hot air balloons soaring up into the sky. I love the way he made that connection between watching how the coral release their eggs off to an unknown destination and how immigrants coming to a new land are often sent off to places they know nothing about. That's the beauty of ideas in action.


News stories, particularly science based news, teems with ideas just waiting for a writer to come along, pick them out and give them new life. But if science isn’t your thing then go for history, war, crime, sport, music or art (generally the weirder the better). Getting ideas shouldn’t be a problem. It’s choosing the right idea, and how to put it together with other, seemingly disparate ideas to come up with something unique (just as Tan did) that’s the hard part. But if you are a writer who’s stuck coming up with something, give Weisman’s book a go. Depending on how things go with us humans it might have enough ideas in there to last the rest of modern civilisation.