It is Saturday January 24th, 2015. Greece is going to the polls tomorrow, in an election triggered by the main centre-right coalition's inability to form a consensus on who the president should be. (The Greek President is elected by members of the Parliament rather than by the public or an electoral college.) It takes place against a background of traumatic externally-imposed austerity that is familiar, in watered-down form, to anyone living in the UK outside of London and the south-east, and to many elsewhere in Europe. And it is looking as if Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, is on course to win an outright majority and form a new non-coalition government.

This is not an insignificant regional event. Events in Greece set a precedent for the next election in Spain, where support for Podemos ("We can") is growing rapidly. It may also provide a precedent for the UK, which is due to undergo a general election this May, and where polling suggests that the once-dominant share of the vote held by the Labour and Conservative Parties (around 97% of votes cast, in 1950) has declined to around 60%, and where hitherto marginal parties (UKIP on the right, the Greens on the Left) are rising towards, or passing, the 10% milestone.

Syriza is a left-wing party, unapologetically opposed to the policies of austerity and IMF imposition of deficit-reduction on the Greek public. They don't want to leave the Euro (to do so would cause, at a minimum, a banking crisis and a worsening of recession), but the widespread pain of austerity has reached the point where the downside of leaving the Euro may be seen as less unpleasant than continuing along the current path. (Nor is austerity without its critics; it's deflationary, damaging to growth, and there is some evidence that it is being chosen as the course out of the 2007/08 crisis by the rich for ideological reasons rather than efficacy—it doesn't harm continued accumulation of capital, but it places a disproportionate burden on the poor.)

Predictably the big political guns throughout the EU have been wheeled out against Syriza, to frighten them into going along with the post-2010 arrangement. But it's looking increasingly likely that the Greek public are about to say, not merely "no," but "hell, no!"

So what happens next? Monday's papers are going to be an interesting read ... as for me, I'm speculating idly if, now that Lenin's not-so-excellent experiment has been dead and buried for a generation and the crisis of capitalism has given us a salutory lesson in the consequences of unbridled greed, we aren't now drifting back towards the realization that it's time to try Socialism 2.0.

I have not been blogging much lately because I have been a bit busy. "The Annihilation Score" (Laundry Files book 6) has been copy edited and is on course for publication in the first week of July, and I'm now about a quarter of the way into writing "The Nightmare Stacks" (Laundry Files book 7). This is a priority right now, because on January 28th I'm off to New York and Boston for my annual winter trip (and expect to come back with a bunch of edits to process on the new Merchant Princes trilogy). As my literary agent and my US publishers are all based in New York, and there's an SF convention—Boskone—in Boston, it's really a work thing, but I'm going to find time to send up the bat-signal for a brewpub evening in both cities: watch the skies, or this blog entry, for details.

Read below the cut for my itinerary and Boskone program items.

(Oh yes, one other thing. This is the time of year for Hugo nominations. 2014 was a bit of an odd year for me, insofar as I published just one piece of Hugo eligible fiction. It's a novel, an earlier work in the same series won a Hugo last year, and that's all I'm going to say. I am going to try to get off my arse and write a bit more short fiction over the next year or two, though, so things will be more interesting next year.)

Our glorious prime minister, failed TV company marketing director David Cameron, has proposed banning all forms of encryption that can't be broken by the security services. I'm not the only person who thinks this policy is beyond bonkers and well into criminal insanity (even his own deputy prime minister has reservations), but for the record, let me lay out why this is such a bad idea.

0. It is already a criminal offense to refuse to disclose your encryption keys, or to decrypt an encrypted file, on receipt of a lawful order to do so by the police or a court, under powers granted by Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), in force since 2007. (Immediate consequences: paranoid schizophrenic jailed for refusal to decrypt his files. Apparently French anti-terrorism police became suspicious when he ordered a toy rocket motor. Strong encryption is the new tinfoil hat for technically ept paranoids: there's a human rights issue here. But I digress.) The point is, legal powers to essentially compel compliance with Cameron's goal already exist.

1. What Cameron is asking for, however, is a lot more drastic: the outlawing of endpoint-secured communications protocols. In other words, the government must be able to decrypt any encryption session used within the UK. This has drastic consequences which would, in my view, drastically undermine British national security (and cripple our IT industry).

What are these consequences?

2. If the government can decrypt an end-to-end encrypted session, then a third party can in principle use the same mechanism to decrypt it. (The third party could be a rogue government employee, or a crypto hacker.) This is not a hypothetical: it's intrinsic to how cryptography works. It's either secure against all third-party snoopers, or it isn't secure and will be cracked in time inversely proportional to the value of the data conveyed. Also, merely knowing that an encryption protocol has a weakness makes it easier to attack.

What sort of stuff would be at risk of third-party snooping by criminals or random hacker gangs like the denizens of 8chan or Anonymous?

3. Let's start with email. Not just your regular email: how about privileged lawyer/client communications? Internal transmission of confidential medical health records within the NHS backbone network? Your accounts, going to and from your accountant?

4. But email is only the tip of the iceberg. How about the encrypted web session you use to check your bank account? Or to pay your income tax? If you're a small business, the VATMOSS system is obviously a target—and a high value one, where an attacker could steal large amounts of money. Mandatory back doors in encryption imply weakening the security around the government's own tax-raising system. (Talk about sawing off the branch you're sitting on.)

Some systems require end-to-end encryption or they are simply too risky to permit. What are they?

5. Let's start with SCADA systems that control blast furnaces, nuclear reactors, water treatment plants, and factories. Then we can add other online systems: the in-cab signalling system used to deliver signals to drivers of trains on railway lines cleared for high-speed running, traffic signal boards on motorways, and in the not too distant future systems used by air traffic control for filing flight plans and transferring security-related passenger information.

We should then add online finance systems, from Paypal to the APACS credit card settlement system, the BACS payment system through which about 80% of the pay cheques in the UK are sent straight to the recipients' bank accounts, to inter-bank settlement and reconciliation, the share dealing system used by the London Stock Exchange, and every supermarket and wholesale warehouse inventory management and stock control/ordering system in the country.

What is the worst case outcome of mandating that the security around all these systems is weakened?

6. How about a group within 8chan deciding, purely for lulz, to scramble all the patient medical records accessible over the NHS Spine? Or that the Russian Mafia, who are already very much into cybercrime, hit the BACS system and use it to siphon off or scramble all payments going into the HMRC Income Tax accounts on January 31st?

Here's the key message that Cameron simply doesn't understand:

7. There is a trade-off between internal security and external security. You can have perfect security against message traffic between external hostiles if you ban encryption ... but by so doing, you destroy your internal security against attack from any direction at all. Or you can have total internal security with end-to-end encryption of all communications, and be pretty much immune to certain classes of hack attack, but lose the ability to listen for terrorist chatter. These two circumstances are opposite ends on a scale. You can adjust the balance between the two, but mandating either end of the scale is idiotic. Our prime minister has mistaken the rotating knob for a push-button with a binary on/off state. Hopefully his advisors will take him aside over the next few days and teach him better, or he'll lose the election this May. Either way, though, this proposal is disastrous and if it happens, well, I'll just have to get used to being a criminal.

Sorry folks, but we're just not.

One of the failure modes of extrapolative SF is to assume that just because something is technologically feasible, it will happen: I'm picking on sub-orbital passenger travel as an example of this panglossian optimism because I got sucked into a thread on twitter the other day and I think it's worth explaining my objection to it in a format that permits me to write more than 140 characters at a time.

The proximate cause of my objection was someone asserting that Virgin Galactic's business model is ultimately targeting sub-orbital flights between continents, rather than brief bouts of free-fall tourism for the rich. At first glance, this isn't an obviously stupid assertion: enough folks have signed up for the sub-orbital tourist package that there's clearly demand, various companies have been buying patches of isolated terrain as sites for spaceports (even in Scotland), and there's a British start-up proposing to build an air-breathing hypersonic carrier craft for satellite launches and passenger travel. It's a perennial dream technology that keeps coming back from the dead, because the idea of flying from Heathrow to Sydney in three hours instead of 22 is obviously appealing to those of us who occasionally fly LHR-SYD.

Except ... it's bunk. Let me explain why.

Q: What constraints dictate the length of works of fiction?

A: Same as any other product: money and time …

The most familiar form of fiction in the English-language publishing world, today, is a stand-alone bound book containing a novel. (Perhaps the second most familiar form is the series novel, which recycles characters of a setting from earlier works, optionally continuing to unfold a multi-book story or hitting a reset button between novels, as with some TV serials.)

A typical modern novel is in the range 85,000-140,000 words. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. The shortest work of fiction I ever wrote and sold was seven words long; the longest was 196,000 words. I’ve written plenty of short stories, in the 3000-8000 word range, novelettes (8000-18,000 words), and novellas (20,000-45,000 words). (Anything longer than a novella is a “short novel” and deeply unfashionable these days, at least in adult genre fiction, which seems to be sold by the kilogram.)

One would think that it’s so much easier to write a 5000 word short story (it can sometimes be done in a day) than a novel (it can sometimes take years) that they should be commoner. But trade fiction authors who write for a living seem to focus exclusively on novels, to the point where some of us don’t write short fiction at all. Why is this? Stay with me below the cut and I’ll try to give you a [highly subjective, personal, biased] explanation.

Just so you know, I've delivered the next Laundry Files novel to my publishers and it's in the pipeline for publication in the first week of July. I don't have any covers to show you yet, but my editor at Ace has kindly agreed to let me share the cover copy (text) for The Annihilation Score with you:

Hugo Award-winning author Charles Stross presents the next case in The Laundry Files, "a weirdly alluring blend of super-spy thriller, deadpan comic fantasy, and Lovecraftian horror" (Kirkus Reviews).

Dominique O'Brien—her friends call her Mo—lives a curious double life with her husband, Bob Howard. To the average civilian, they're boring middle-aged civil servants. But within the labyrinthian secret circles of Her Majesty's government, they're operatives working for the nation's occult security service known as the Laundry, charged with defending Britain against dark supernatural forces threatening humanity.

Mo's latest assignment is assisting the police in containing an unusual outbreak: ordinary citizens suddenly imbued with extraordinary abilities of the super-powered kind. Unfortunately these people prefer playing super-pranks instead of super-heroics. The Mayor of London being levitated by a dumpy man in Trafalgar Square would normally be a source of shared amusement for Mo and Bob, but they're currently separated because something's come between them--something evil.

An antique violin, an Erich Zann original, made of human white bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo's proficiency as a world class violinist, it cannot be controlled ...

No, you can't pre-order this just yet. Patience: I'll let you know when it's available.

This is a bucket list. Feel free to contribute. To participate, items should be:

* affordable by weight and size and time (PLA or nylon feedstock isn't free—you're looking at up to £100/kg in bulk—and can take an hour per inch of depth to extrude)

* require only a consumer-grade 3D printer such as an UP! Mini-printer (anything costing over £2000 is disqualified—I'm after plausible hobbyist uses here—I assume you already have a computer to run design software on: high end sintered-metal printers are right out)

* shouldn't be a duplicate of a readily-available commercial product

* shouldn't already have a download available on Thingiverse (such as my head)

So Goodreads are trolling for author content. And they're trying to get authors with goodreads listings to make themselves available for Ask the Author events!

Shocking. I'd never have thought of doing that.

Anyway: here I am, I haven't done it for a while, so consider this your invitation to an open mike Q&A with me.

Note that I will be spending a good chunk of this week visiting relatives, so on a train/using an iPad/not responding promptly. I may decline to answer any question for any reason at all. I may even lie to you. (I am not a performing monkey: I will not dance if you shoot at my feet.)

What do you want to know?

In the previous discussion thread, someone mentioned having a problem with one particular far-future (well, set 400 years hence) SF novel that disrupted their reading of it so badly that they ended up giving up on the book. Interestingly, I had the exact same problem (and ended up bailing 50 pages before the end of a 1100 page novel—there's your sunk cost fallacy in a nutshell). And I think it's worth taking a look at it, because it's one of my own pet shibboleths and I'm bored and I want to take it out for a walk today.

I'm fifty. I'm not the same guy I was when I was forty, or thirty, never mind twenty, or ten. I visualize identity not as a solid object but as a wave form travelling along the temporal dimension through a complex emulsion of memories, experiences, and emotions, bounded at front and back by singularities—boundaries beyond which there is no continuity (and almost certainly no persistence of identity). We're all waves travelling through this common soup of human existential phenomena, occasionally refracting through one another and being changed thereby. And as we move, we change. Not only are our physical bodies not made up from the same individual atoms: the bits you could notionally use to describe us change, too. New data is added, old patterns are lost (I have the memory of a goldfish these days).

Beyond the obvious (gross physiological deterioration and pathologies of senescence), what are the psychological symptoms of ageing?

To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek ("dude, where's my jet pack? Where's my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!") can be added an appendix: "and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?"

Well, dude, I've got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I'm back with a report.

I'm in Berlin! (Combination of vacation and research trip.) And I'll be in Brauhaus Südstern (Hasenheide 69, 10967 Berlin) on Sunday evening from about 7pm. I gather they have good beer, and food. Conversation too, if you're in town and want to drop by.

(Facebook event here.)

The Japanese economy is officially in recession, and David Cameron chose to use his last speech at the G20 summit to warn of the risk of a new global economic crisis. I wonder if he knows something that the rest of us don't (yet)?

I'm off to Berlin tomorrow. I'll try to blog, if I have time and if the global economy doesn't collapse while I'm away. (If it does, I'm going into hiding.) Alas, the Stasi Museum is shut for construction; guess I'll just have to be content with the DDR Museum instead. Oh, and one final piece of news: I finally got (and signed) the US contract for "The Annihilation Score", so I guess next summer's Laundry Files novel is officially A Thing. (I never quite believe it until I have a chance to read the small print.)

This is an open question primarily for British readers. (If you're American and a non-expert on British political/constitutional affairs, I reserve the right to delete your comments in the interest of keeping the signal to noise ratio high on this discussion.)

Where do you think the sources of power in the British political system will lie in 2034?

Bonus points for references to Bagehot, Piketty, Marx and Wiener.

(Note: I'm making the key assumptions that the Beige Dictatorship is unstable and that something else will come to replace it in time: also that the Labour/Conservative political duopoly is drawing to a close after nearly a century as both parties lose their mass base, that they won't be replaced by other mass-movement parties as such (unless Anonymous qualifies as a political party), that the average age of TV audiences is going up by more than 12 months per year, that newspapers are in a death spiral, and mass media in general are being replaced by a foamy carbonated sea of micro-targeted filter bubbles. I'm also making the assumption that we're not all going to go a-flying up to AI Singularity Heaven within the next 20 years. So: after the next couple of stuck coalitions/minority governments, and maybe a fiscal/banking crisis or three, what replaces the current system?)

Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

I've been quiet for the past week because I've been hammering on the redraft of "Dark State", the first book in my big fat post-Edward Snowden near-future SF trilogy. (Same universe as the Merchant Princes, set 17 years later, but still awaiting a new series title because, eh, series reboot.) For some reason I don't have much energy for blogging while I'm elbow-deep in the transmission tunnel of a novel: must be getting old or something.

Later this month I will be visiting Berlin. (That's Berlin, Deutschland, not Berlin, North Dakota. Sorry, folks.) Partly it's R&R—I've rewritten two novels since the beginning of September—and partly it's research (big hunks of "Black Sky" and "Invisible Sun", the second and third books in the trilogy, are set there, and I need to refresh my memory, walk some routes, and check out certain museums). But while I'm there, I'll be doing a kaffeeflatsch at Otherland bookshop (Otherland Buchhandlung Schmidt, Tress & Weinert GbR Bergmannstraße 25 10961) on Thursday November 20th from 7:30pm. (Facebook event sign-up here.)

I also intend to go here and here: guess which is for R&R and which is for Research? (Actually, that might not be obvious: Tropical Islands is like something out of a William Gibson novel—it's really mind-blowing, like an L5 space colony that has touched down on the East Prussian plains.) And there will be a pub meet-up announcement in due course!




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