The Structure of Stories

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 18 May, 2017.


We all love stories. Starting from those told by our parents as they regale us with wondrous tales while we sit on their knees, to sitting and listening to those told by grandparents around the fire, up until later life, when we discover books, movies and television. We remain glued to majestic stories and seek them out. After all, our earliest history we only know via stories told over generations – stories are intrinsic to human nature!

Every story differs in its details, making it unique. Yet when you look closer, there’s a common thread running through many stories. Some are due to its presentation – movies are often presented in three acts, while stage plays and television shows have five acts, each somewhat self-contained, and each driving our story forwards. Still, when you examine some of our most popular tales, our wildest stories, our finest myths, you find a structure that pervades across all presentations. You find the monomyth. 

The monomyth has three stages. In the first, the Departure, our hero begins his or her journey. At first, the hero is living a normal life, either revelling in it, or yearning for more. Then comes the call to adventure, where our hero must leave what is known and travel into the unknown. This usually comes from an external agent, either mystical or in person, driving them towards it. Think of Joseph being sold to slavery in the Bible, or Gandalf arriving in the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, or the Droids bought for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The hero might resist the call, or go willingly, but ultimately they leave their old world behind. 

Having crossed that first threshold, they then enter the unknown world of adventure, where the old rules no longer apply. They meet their mentor, and acquire new companions on their journey. Then, they face their first challenge – and they’re defeated. This usually also involves losing the mentor. Witness Joseph’s service as a slave and imprisonment, Gandalf’s death in Moria, and Obi-Wan’s death in Star Wars.

This starts them on the second stage, the Initiation. This is where the hero is tested on a road of trials. The hero can meet an untrustworthy person whose help is needed on the quest (for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s cupholder). They might meet a god/goddess that helps them on their journey (Galadriel in Lord of the Rings). They are tempted to abandon their quest, either by a romantic interest, or their companions (Han Solo offering a way out of the conflict for Luke in Star Wars). Ultimately, they face their trials and challenges and overcome them to reach the apotheosis, or climax, of the story.

Armed with new knowledge, the hero faces the toughest challenge yet – and is sometimes assisted by their formerly ‘untrustworthy’ friend who comes through in the end (like the cupholder, Han Solo, and yes, poor old Gollum in the end of Lord of the Rings). The hero experiences a rebirth, and receives the boon they have been craving all along. Joseph becomes vizier of Egypt, Frodo gains his freedom and Luke recognition. 

Then the final stage – the Return. Faced with their rebirth and newfound boon, they have to reintegrate with their old lives. They cross the threshold back into ordinary life, now a master of both. Joseph experiences this when his family come to Egypt for food, and he resettles them there. Frodo has his journey back to the Shire, where he has more challenges when he gets there. Luke finds a new home for himself in the Rebellion.

The monomyth was first introduced to the world by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, back in 1949, and has found itself embedded in popular culture since then. When examined, you’ll find the monomyth in many of our most popular stories, from a wide variety of authors and filmmakers. In fact, most superhero origin stories follow the template almost to a T.

Why is this, though? Perhaps the most explored area that concerns itself with this is called memetics – the study of memes. First proposed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Meme, he proposed that there is, similar to how genes self-replicate, mutate and respond to societal pressures, a similar method by which ideas do so. Thus was born the idea of a meme: "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." Needless to say, the meme soon itself became a meme, and the name is now coupled with an internet phenomenon based on templates of pictures. 

At its core, however, the monomyth is perhaps the most solid evidence for the persistence of memes. A story structure that has pervaded all cultures to become embedded in our psyches, and one we instinctively flock to when we need to tell the story of a hero. Perhaps aptly, it is also commonly known The Hero’s Journey. 

However, just because the monomyth is so persistent in our culture, does not mean that it is the only way to tell a story. After all, you can probably yourself name many stories that don’t follow this template – and in fact, it is sometimes used to make the exact counterpoint to what the hero’s journey expresses. One of my favourite novels, Dune, expressly aims to follow the monomyth so as to subvert it, cunningly making the point that an infallible hero’s mistakes are always amplified by those who follow them without question.

So while our stories may have structure, and seem similar, you should always take the time with your own stories to see what archetypical story you’ve followed, and ensure it sends the message you’ve envisaged. And perhaps, if you’re struggling to tell your own story, you can use the structures, the memes, of those who came before you, and make them work for you. Most importantly, however, is to remember that these memes are like genes, and if you follow a blueprint, you should twist and subvert it enough to be novel.

How Far We’ve Gone

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 11 May, 2017. 

From the birth of the human species in Africa 200 000 years ago, humanity started to spread, and by 1500 years ago, humanity had spread out across almost every landmass on earth, save for Antarctica. The Earth was ours. True, movement was not quite as easy as it is now, but that barrier stood but a little while longer, until 8 September 1522, when Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the globe. And so, we cast our eyes upwards…

By 1610, Galileo Galilei, father of modern science, perfected his telescope, and discovered Jupiter’s moons, craters on the moon, and showed Venus had phases when viewed from Earth. But it was Sir Isaac Newton who started us on the journey outwards, with the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, one of the most important works in the history of science. Besides his classic laws of motion, and the law of universal gravitation – contained in the first part De motu corporum (On the motion of bodies) – the last part enabled us to venture outwards. De mundi systemate (On the system of the world) laid down the mathematical basis of planetary orbits, and formed the basis of our ability to look upwards and reliably see planetary bodies where we expect them to be. 

Yet still we were trapped on this pale blue dot in the cosmos. That stopped being the case on 16 March 1926, when Robert Goddard’s first liquid fuelled rocket launched. Soon, his work was expanded upon, and after some trouble with the Germans in Europe, we began our ascent. On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched and the first artificial satellite broadcast its deeps from space. On 3 November 1957, this was followed with the first dog in space, Laika, aboard Sputnik 2.

But low-Earth orbit was not our mission, and we cast our nets further. On 2 January 1959 the probe Luna 1 became the first object to reach escape velocity, and exit Earth’s gravitational reach. It became the first object from earth to reach the Moon’s vicinity, and soon after, on 13 September 1959, Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to impact the Moon. 

Then on 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Our probes, however, soon reached much further. On 14 December 1962 Mariner 2 managed the first successful planetary flyby, coming within 35 000 km of Venus. By 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. We kept going. On 14 July 1965 we received the first close-up photographs of another world – Mars, taken by Mariner 4. But the race was on to the Moon.

On 3 February 1966, Luna 9 performed the first soft landing on the Moon, and sent the first photographs from the surface of another world. By 3 April 1966, Luna 10 became the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Then, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 became the first human to set foot on another world. To this day, this is the furthest extent of human spaceflight. Mankind has never again ventured further from its home. 

Our space probes, however, continued on its relentless outward journey. By 2 December 1971, the Mars 3 probe landed on Mars, and sent the first signals from Mars’ surface. Then, on 15 July 1972, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to leave the inner solar system, on an escape trajectory away from the Sun. On 3 December 1972, it did the first flyby of Jupiter at a mere 130 000 km.

In 1977, two remarkable spacecraft launched. On August 20, Voyager 2, and on September 5, Voyager 1 was launched. Based on the data sent back by Pioneer 10, they were hardened against radiation to make them the best outer solar system explorers yet. By 5 March 1979, Voyager 1 did its flyby of Jupiter and five of its moons. On 1 September 1979, Pioneer 11 flew by Saturn and took the first photographs of its moon Titan, where the Cassini probe is currently busy with its Grand Finale. Voyager 1 finally did the same on 12 November 1980. 

But here, the distances become vast – almost unimaginable. Only on 24 January 1986 did Voyager 2 manage the first flyby of Uranus, approaching within 82 000 km. And then on 25 August 1989 it managed to fly by Neptune, getting within 30 000 km. Until now, Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited these two far-away planets. Finally, on 14 February 1990, Voyager 1 took the first photograph of the entire Solar System, before ultimately, on 25 August 2012, becoming the first spacecraft to leave the solar system.

There are still quite a few spacecraft out there, exploring the space in between us and Voyager 1 – Cassini around Saturn, Dawn exploring the asteroid belt, Juno around Jupiter, the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars – directing the two still-active Martian Rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, and New Horizons that blitzed past Pluto in 2015, but none have gone as far as Voyager 1.

Voyager 1 is currently 20.6 billion kilometres from Earth. To put that into perspective – if the Earth was resized to a ball only 1 meter in diameter and placed in Windhoek, Voyager 1 would be as far away as Durban from it. Only 2 billion km behind it is Pioneer 10, also on its way out of our solar system, 18.1 billion km from Earth, but unfortunately we’ve lost contact with it back in 2003. Voyager 2, at 17 billion km from Earth, remains in contact, with Pioneer 11 at 14.3 billion km following, but out of contact since 1995. 

So here we are. Our spacecraft slowly reaching out into the cosmos, with naught but a golden record to mark our location should anyone encounter it in the vastness of interstellar space. I suppose, if nothing else, it should be some consolation that no matter what we do here, now, at least some part of us (mechanical, true, but carrying pure human ingenuity) will keep going, to mark, as a species, how far we’ve gone.

The Grand Finale

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 27 April, 2017.


On 26 April, 2017, at 2 am Pacific Daylight Time, the Grand Finale began. The spacecraft Cassini started its first dive into the space between Saturn and its magnificent rings – the first of 22 such dives it will perform before finally crashing into that remote planet. For 13 years, Cassini has been sending back its remarkable readings and photographs of Saturn and its moons – the latest just two weeks ago, with data that indicated that Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, contains an ocean of liquid water underneath its icy surface, which may be capable of supporting life. 

 Cassini started on its journey almost 20 years ago, launched on 15 October 1997 from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40 in a Titan IV/Centaur rocket, as the Cassini-Huygens Mission. A joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, it cost about US$ 3.2 billion. Cassini itself was designed and constructed by NASA, with the ASI providing its high-gain radio antenna for communication with Earth, as well as its radar and its radio science subsystem. The ESA constructed the Huygens probe and lander, destined for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon (which is in fact larger than the planet Mercury).

Fitting for a mission to Saturn, these two were named after those who had made discoveries about Saturn first. Giovanni Domenico Cassini had discovered the divisions between Saturn’s rings, and 4 of its moons, while Christiaan Huygens had discovered its moon Titan. Cassini-Huygens, though, had to travel a bit further than they did to get a closer look, and utilized some quirks of physics to do so.

First it dropped into the Sun’s gravity well, and approached Venus. On 26 April 1998 it did a close fly-by of Venus to get a gravitational-assist, or gravity slingshot, to place it into orbit around the sun. This was not enough, however, and it made a second fly-by of Venus to slingshot it out to the asteroid belt on 24 June 1999. With the sun’s gravity pulling it back once more, it was time for a final slingshot manoeuvre around Earth on 18 August 1999 before it finally had enough momentum to propel it into the outer solar system.

By 30 December 2000, Cassini-Huygens made its closest approach to the planet Jupiter, sending back over 26 000 images, which contributed to major findings about Jupiter’s atmospheric circulation. On its way to Saturn, it further participated in a test of the General Theory of Relativity on 10 October 2003, when its radio waves passed close to the sun, and its frequency shift could be measured as predicted by Einstein.

On 11 June 2004, Cassini-Huygens flew by Saturn’s moon Phoebe, returning the first images of that moon. Finally, on 1 July 2004, Cassini-Huygens became the first spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, after a seven-year journey. Now its work would really begin. On 24 December 2004, Huygens was released, and began its decent to Titan. On 14 Jaruary 2005, it entered Titan’s atmosphere and after a two and a half hour descent, landed on solid ground, the first landing ever in the outer solar system. 

Cassini, now on its own, continued its mission of exploration. During the next 4 years of its prime mission, it encountered Titan 45 times, explored 10 icy satellites and orbited Saturn 76 times. On 15 April 2008, its mission was extended for another 27 months, called the Equinox mission. This involved 64 more orbits, 28 Titan encounters, 8 Enceladus encounters, 3 with other smaller icy satellites and an equinox crossing in August 2009. Still, its job was not done, for in February 2010 it received another missions extension, called the Solstice Mission. With its mission extended by seven years, it involved another 155 orbits, 54 Titan encounters, 11 Enceladus encounters, 5 other icy moon encounters, and the opportunity to observe spring–early summer in northern hemisphere of Saturn.

The wealth of data Cassini sent back was enormous. The spacecraft had sent back more than 500 gigabytes of data, that enabled the publication of more than 3000 scientific papers, and in its time there, had discovered seven more moons of Saturn – Methone, Pallene, Polydeuces, Daphnis, Anthe, Aegaeon and the as yet unnamed S/2009 S 1.

Besides the discovery of water via plumes on Enceladus as mentioned, it also uncovered that Titan has rain, rivers, seas and lakes and is covered in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere. It discovered that there are vertical structures in the rings of Saturn, piled in bumps of almost 3km high. It captured the first complete view of the odd hexagon at Saturn’s North Pole, and discovered giant hurricanes at both poles. These are but the tip of the iceberg of its remarkable discoveries.

But all good things come to an end. By 2016, Cassini had started to run out of fuel. Due to the discoveries made by Cassini about the potential existence of life on Saturn’s moons, it could not be allowed to drift indefinitely and potentially crashing on them – it was imperative to protect them from any potential biological contamination. 

Thus, it now embarks on its final mission, and its most daring one. Climbing high above Saturn’s poles before diving between the rings to plunge close to the planet, before climbing up again and repeating it 22 times. As it does this, it will collect rich and valuable information about the planet’s magnetic and gravitational fields, revealing how it is composed on the inside, and possibly solving the mystery of just how fast the interior is rotating. It will improve our knowledge of the materials in the rings, and help us to understand its origins. All this, while taking ultra-close images of the planets rings and clouds, before finally, on 15 September 2017, crashing into the planet in a blaze of glory. To quote NASA: “It’s inspiring, adventurous and romantic — a fitting end to this thrilling story of discovery.”

For Queen and Country

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 20 April, 2017.


Yesterday, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted 522 MP’s to 13 to call a general election on 8 June 2017. This might seem quite strange to us, with a parliament with fixed terms – and in fact, it is a bit strange for the UK as well – after all, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 had not even survived two successive parliaments. 

What makes it even more significant is that this is the first time a sitting parliament has voted to dissolve parliament and initiate an election. Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, parliaments in the UK usually dissolved on their own, initially after 7 years, in line with the Septennial Act of 1715, and from 1911 onwards after 5 years, in line with the Parliaments Act of 1911. 

This self-dissolution, however, rarely happened. Due to the existence of the UK parliament, we tend to consider the UK a democracy. However, it is the United KINGDOM of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and parliament could always be dissolved by Royal Proclamation of the Monarch by virtue of his or her Royal Prerogative. 

Originally, this meant the King or Queen decided when parliament would dissolve, but as parliament’s power grew, this was done less and less on the Monarch’s whim, and increasingly only on advice of the Prime Minister. As such, by the nineteenth century, the Prime Minister in essence dissolved parliament and decided when elections would be held – not an insignificant power for the party in charge, and the reason why parliament so rarely dissolved on its own.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 changed that, of course. The Act removed the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament, and repealed the Septennial Act of 1715 as well as any other reference to this royal prerogative. It thus vested this duty in parliament itself, allowing it to dissolve parliament itself either by a two-thirds vote for an early parliamentary election, or by a motion of no confidence in the government.

Lest you think that the queen has given up much, it should be remembered that she still retains quite a large set of prerogative powers. While she these days only exercises them on advice of her government, it remains within her power to do so in case of a governmental crisis. These powers include appointing a Prime Minister of her own choosing – which she last did in 1963 when she appointed Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister, on the advice of outgoing Harold Macmillan.

She can also dismiss a Prime Minister and government on her own authority. The last time a monarch did this was in 1834, by King William IV. She can also refuse royal assent on a parliamentary bill, though a monarch last did that in 1708, when Queen Anne withheld assent on the Scottish Militia Bill.  

Inter alia, her other powers still include: to summon and prorogue parliament; to command the Armed Forces;  to dismiss and appoint Ministers; to commission officers in the Armed Forces; to appoint Queen's Counsel; to issue and withdraw passports; to create corporations via Charter; to declare War and Peace; to deploy the Armed Forces overseas; to ratify and make treaties; to grant honours; to grant Prerogative of Mercy; and to appoint Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.

Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly. Even though we call Queen Elizabeth II a monarch, the United Kingdom is in fact a theocracy. In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, seized its assets and declared himself Head of the new Church of England. Even today, Queen Elizabeth II has as part of her titles ‘Defender of the Faith,’ with the Church of England being a state religion, with its measures approved by both houses of Parliament. In the UK House of Lords, there are still 26 Bishops of the Chruch, the Lords Spiritual, who retain seats in the upper house of parliament.

What about parliament then? Well, while the United Kingdom may be a theocracy, the royal prerogative is these days only exercised by the Queen on advice of her government. And these powers have been greatly diminished over the years. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Parliament established itself as the source of legislation. By 1707, the Acts of Union had established Parliamentary Sovereignty.

Essentially, this devolved into three basic concepts. One – Parliament can make laws concerning anything. Two – No Parliament can bind a future parliament. In other words, no previous parliament can make a law a future one cannot overturn. And three – A valid act of Parliament cannot be questioned by the court. Parliament is the supreme lawmaker. 

So when we come back to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, we see that it is in fact powerless to bind any parliament to its provisions. According to parliamentary sovereignty, any future parliament can vote simply to repeal it. While it has for now survived, it did not need to for Prime Minister Theresa May to call an election – she could simply have used her Conservative majority to nullify it. And not even the Queen with her vast prerogative powers could have stopped it.

In truth, the government of the world’s fifth-largest economy is a strange affair, a result of its long existence. This is why we remain curious whenever something strange occurs on that tiny island off the coast of Europe. That, and the fact that that tiny island nation, with its odd form of government, once controlled the largest empire known to man, with a quarter of the earth’s population and land area under its dominion.