What were the earliest things you learned from reading fiction?
These are some of my memories. Aged six, I discovered that scientists could accelerate atomic particles in a cyclotron – for what purpose I had no idea – thanks to the Target novelisation of Dr Who and the Cave Monsters, which I was caught reading under the desk in Year 2. Aged eleven, my history teacher was impressed by my knowledge of the panoply of Egyptian gods, gleaned entirely from Dr Who and the Pyramids of Mars (there’s a theme here). My love of history flourished thanks to more conventional historical novels ranging from The Wool Pack, laying out the intricacies of the Cotswolds medieval wool trade, to Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King, the tale of Louis XIV which was on my A-level reading list. Whenever I sweep the floor, unbidden into my head comes the voice of Ma Ingalls. “Draw the broom, Laura, don’t flip it; that raises the dust.” I learned snippets of Morse code from a tale of space hostages, and I still watch the movement of the ailerons on an aircraft wing thanks to a passing fascination with the Jungle Run flying adventures as a teenager.
Along the way, I have had to employ a certain amount of critical thinking, of course. There are no dinosaurs in caves under the Peak District and I’m unlikely to be kidnapped by top secret spacecraft any time soon, more’s the pity. But for me, the presentation of facts in fiction makes them come to life.
In 2016 I met an IT and cybersecurity practitioner with a message to communicate. He had a title for a book in mind: ‘Don’t panic: it’s too late for that’. I liked it. He had the knowledge, and I could write: it seemed like a good idea at the time. About three lunches and four coffees in, though, he suggested that the book should be fiction. Don’t be silly, I said. I can’t write fiction.
For the next eight months, he continued to nudge, and I resisted. Then one day, an idea hit me. I wrote three hundred words. “Keep writing,” said my friend. I did, and the rest is history. Since then, the SimCavalier tales of Cameron, Ross and their team have taken on a life of their own. There are two novels and a short story out in the wild and a third tale on the drawing board. I’m tapping a rich seam of real-life cybercrime and the plots themselves come straight from my fevered imagination.
The somewhat utopian world that my unconscious mind has constructed for the SimCavalier is not dissimilar to our own. I pushed the timeline forward by thirty years, allowing drones to deliver the shopping and autonomous vehicles to whizz around the streets, and I’ve flooded large swathes of low-lying Britain, just for fun. I’ve extrapolated today’s emerging technologies to a point where they reach daily utility but come with their own annoyances and vulnerabilities. Characters struggle with misfiring chip implants and faulty smart door locks while our hero turns to physical, unhackable means of security. Drones drop deliveries with all the finesse of a gig economy driver, squashing the morning muffins and spilling goods down the street. Advertising hoardings tailor their message to each passing individual, a creepy invasion of privacy become normality. Additive manufacturing – the 3D printing of components – provides the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the manned Mars mission, but also opens new cans of cybersecurity worms.
At the core of the plots lies the human factor, mistakes we can all make. People fail to update their passwords. Stolen login details change hands in shady dark web marketplaces. Faked public wifi networks trap the unwary. Ransomware exploits legacy software systems which are no longer supported by the developers but are clung to like security blankets by people who should know better. The need to stay on top of an ever-evolving cybercrime landscape keeps our heroes busy, but more importantly underlines the fact that there is an astonishing volume of malware circulating in the real world, like sharks around a stricken lifeboat.
Why do good stories make a difference? Research shows that people learn and retain facts easily from stories – including facts which are misrepresented or untrue. When test subjects in a 2003 study responded to a general knowledge quiz, they used the facts they had learned from stories given to them as part of the study, regardless of whether those facts were correct or not. Stories can provide a base layer of understanding in a way which can and does influence behaviour. Sadly, sci fi was one of the genres picked out by the researchers as potentially unreliable, particularly in the way that science is represented. I hope in a small way I have contributed to the reliable side of the equation.
Ultimately, it’s the quality of the story, not the quality of the fact, which makes the impact. I believe that authors of fiction have a duty of care to get the basic facts right. It is said that a lie can travel around the world faster than the truth can get its boots on, and it is only a passing consolation that this quote is probably not by Mark Twain.
 E.J. Marsh et al. “Learning Facts from Fiction” Journal of Memory and Language 49 (2003) 519–536
About Kate Baucherel
Kate Baucherel is a digital strategist, a writer of both non-fiction and cyber-crime sci-fi (the third SimCaviler novel is much anticipated next year), a Blockchain consultant, the COO of City Web Consultants, an occasional guest lecturer at universities, panellist and speaker at technology conferences around the world, Jackie Carlton once bought her a drink, has been known to dress up as Han Solo at Halloween (or whenever else she can get away with it probably), and if all that is not intimidating enough, is a 2rd Dan black-belt…
- You can find out more at http://galiadigital.co.uk
- Follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/KateBaucherel
- And read a hell of a lot more about her books on here, as I have reviewed several of them over the years by clicking on the indieomacon