I watch as little television as I can, and most of it by accident.

Whenever I do catch an eyeful, it usually consists of one of three things: a talking heads news channel, organized sportsball, or a Reality TV show. The first I try to ignore (they're usually triangulated on the tabloid newspapers with added eye candy, then dumbed down: as information sources this century, TV news channels are useless). The sportsball I leave to my spouse (who is prone to lecturing me interminably about Manchester City). But the latter phenomenon—Reality TV—has all the grisly attention-grabbing potential of a flaming school bus careening out of control into a public execution: I basically have to leave the room in a hurry to avoid having my eyeballs sucked right out of my head by the visual media equivalent of internet clickbait. (Luckily, my glimpses into this surreal hell-world are usually transient, a side-effect of my spouse channel-hopping between football matches.)

What makes Reality TV shows so addictive?

In one of my previous guest stints on Charlie's blog, I wrote a post about low thrillers and high thrillers. If you don't want to click through and read the whole thing, here's the Twitter version: high thrillers deal with seats of power and show the inner workings of government agencies/other powerful organizations as they deal with large scale dangers like coups d'etat or bio-terrorism, while low thrillers deal with ordinary citizens facing smaller threats, like professional criminals or a serial killer.

Those distinctions were at the front of my mind when I sat down to write One Man: a City of Fallen Gods Novel. I wanted to try an experiment, to create a fantasy that felt huge, but had very small stakes. No Dark Lord. No invading demon army. No impending magical cataclysm.

I wanted to write a story about a nine-year-old girl who gets kidnapped by gangsters because of something stupid her mother did, and about her neighbor--a man bearing many old scars, not all of them visible--who tries to rescue her. That was it. The stakes are one life, an orphaned little girl in a city full of them. A girl with only one person left in the world who cares what happens to her. But, with magic. A fantasy version of a low thriller.

I've got a new book coming out next October 27th. And it's one I haven't said very much about, because it wasn't actually supposed to happen.

So here's a discursive history of events leading up to "Dead Lies Dreaming", and then an explanation of my train-wreck of a schedule (and how I got mugged by an entirely unplanned book).

(This is the text of a keynote talk I just delivered at the IT Futures conference held by the University of Edinburgh Informatics centre today. NB: Some typos exist; I'll fix them tonight.)

Good morning. I'm Charlie Stross, and I tell lies for money. That is, I write fiction—deliberate non-truths designed to inform, amuse, and examine the human condition. More specifically, I'm a science fiction writer, mostly focusing on the intersection between the human condition and our technological and scientific environment: less Star Wars, more about bank heists inside massively multiplayer computer games, or the happy fun prospects for 3D printer malware.

One of the besetting problems of near-future science fiction is that life comes at you really fast these days. Back when I agreed to give this talk, I had no idea we'd be facing a general election campaign — much less that the outcome would already be known, with consequences that pretty comprehensively upset any predictions I was making back in September.

So, because I'm chicken, I'm going to ignore current events and instead take this opportunity to remind you that I can't predict the future. No science fiction writer can. Predicting the future isn't what science fiction is about. As the late Edsger Djikstra observed, "computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." He might well have added, or science fiction is about predicting the future. What I try to do is examine the human implications of possible developments, and imagine what consequences they might have. (Hopefully entertainingly enough to convince the general public to buy my books.)

So: first, let me tell you some of my baseline assumptions so that you can point and mock when you re-read the transcript of this talk in a decade's time.

This should be a trenchant, witty, explanation of what's going on in British politics right now, in the run up to a sudden-death general election on December 12th, but ... I can't. Even.

Here is a thought experiment for our age.

You wake up to find your fairy godmother has overachieved: you're a new you, in a physically attractive, healthy body with no ailments and no older than 25 (giving you a reasonable propect of living to see the year 2100: making it to 2059 is pretty much a dead certainty).

The new you is also fabulously wealthy: you are the beneficial owner of a gigantic share portfolio which, your wealth management team assures you, is worth on the order of $100Bn, and sufficiently stable that even Trump's worst rage-tweeting never causes you to lose more than half a billion or so: even a repeat of the 2008 crisis will only cost you half an Apollo program.

Finally, you're outside the public eye. While your fellow multi-billionaires know you, your photo doesn't regularly appear in HELLO! magazine or Private Eye: you can walk the streets of Manhattan in reasonable safety without a bodyguard, if you so desire.

Now read on below the cut for the small print.

Three bits of random news (not related to Brexit or Trump (at least, not directly)) did the rounds on Twitter yesterday.

This is a challenge! Write a short story. Incorporate material from all of the following news stories (click on the links and read them, the headlines barely scratch the surface):

  1. Angus man who tried to fly drone into Perth Prison claimed Romanian circus stole his chihuahua
  2. Giuliani Butt-Dials NBC Reporter, Heard Saying He Needs Money
  3. Migrating Russian eagles run up huge data roaming charges

For bonus credit, also include:

  1. Five hitmen jailed after trying to subcontract job to one another

... Points will be allocated for internal consistency, self-reliance without dependency on external fantastic elements (but bonus points may be awarded for incorporating additional current affairs news stories exhibiting a similar degree of derangement), and style. Story must make more sense than reality. Post your work in the comments. Thank you.

I'm speechless.

Since the previous blog entry with this title (on August 28th, a scant 8 weeks or so ago) British politics has gone mad. The Prime Minister seized power so enthusiastically, that when he grabbed the levers of power they broke off in his hands. PMs are not supposed to lose Commons votes; in excitingly historic times it maybe happens a couple of times a decade. This guy is losing them weekly; in fact, it makes headlines when he actually gets a vote to go his way. When he arrived he had a narrow majority, but then he sacked 25 or so of his MPs, and now he's gone and pissed off the minor party that was propping his majority up so badly that the DUP has bailed on him (and are rumoured to be backing Labour's call for a second Brexit referendum). This is like having a skunk cross the road to avoid you because you smell bad. After the Scottish courts ruled his first Prorogation illegal on constitutional grounds Johnson has tried playing dog in the manger, culminating in his behaviour last night when, in response to the Benn Act requirement for him to petition the EU27 for a Brexit extension, he sent them an unsigned photocopy of the letter specified in the Act, with a handwritten request to ignore it. (We have a Prime Minister in full Petulant Schoolboy Meltdown Mode right now.) We have ... no, I can't go on.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic Preznit Shitrag (I love him really! No, honestly) tried to schedule the next session of the G7 at one of his own resort hotels, in order to line his own pocket. It's as if he can't spell "emoluments" and doesn't care that he's under investigation for impeachment, or something.

In today's Guardian, Nick Cohen has a column that makes sense of it all. In general, there are two rival schools of history: the Great Man theory (history is manufactured on the fly by very stable geniuses), and the movement of masses theory (aka Marxism, aka Economics, aka it's all about who's got the money). Cohen advances a third, highly plausible, theory, the Great Moron Theory of history, and manages to cite Norman Dixon's classic work, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Briefly: these political dumpster fires bear striking psychological similarities to the inflexible and incompetent generals who thrive in military institutions until they're challenged by the exigencies of actually having to, er, do war stuff. At which point they break, catastrophically: they confuse war with sport, expect their enemies to mindlessly impale themselves on the ends of their bayonets, and consequently pay more attention to self-advancement than victory. This can work (for a while) when you're not at the top of the greasy pole, but when you're at the top there's no further scope for self-advancement: you have to deal, or else.


I am now waiting with bated breath for the EU27's reaction to BoJo's clowning about. Hopefully, if they've got any sense, they'll grant him a 12 month extension (way more than he asked for); that'd instantly provide us with enough elbow room for a People's Vote and/or a general election. But more likely the pain is likely to drag out until the opposition get bored pulling the wings off the upside-down-and-waggling-its-lets-in-the-air Boris, allow a no confidence motion to pass, and then try to form a government headed by ... who? Jeremy Corbyn? (Forget Jo Swinson.) If we're very lucky it'll turn out that Keir Starmer is running the show behind the curtain and Jezza will obediently do as he's told: but that's probably too much to ask for.

One thing is, however, now glaringly clear: if BoJo manages to push a Brexit through (any Brexit) it's curtains for the Union. Currently polls in Scotland show a 54-56% majority for independence in event of a no-deal Brexit; this rises to 70% or thereabouts among the under-34s. Boris's contempt for Scottish politicians is pretty glaring: he's grown up in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's abandonment of Conservative seats north of the border circa 1980 and doesn't seem to realize that it'll take actual hard work to convince Scotland (and Northern Ireland) not to leave—prevaricating over issuing a Section 30 Order to permit a referendum only makes things worse (for which, see Barcelona). His predecessors are worried, with good reason; it seems likely that Johnson's bumptious Little Englander pose is going to rupture the UK.

So. What next?

This blog hosts comments. Boy, does it host comments.

Nearly two decades of comments on this blog leads me to advance the proposition that any computing or information technology enthusiastically endorsed by the collective commentariat of this blog will be unpopular with the general public, and vice versa.


(Ducks and runs)

I mean, please. I know events have moved from shoddy scriptwriting to self-parody in the past month, but yesterday 2019 completely jumped the shark.

Donald Trump self-incriminating for an impeachable offense live on TV wasn't totally implausible, once you get beyond the bizzaro universe competence inversion implied by putting a deeply stupid mobbed-up New York property spiv in the White House, like a Richard Condon satire gone to seed—but the faked-up Elizabeth Warren sex scandal was just taking the piss. (Including the secret love child she bore at age 69, and her supposed proficiency, as a dominatrix, to reduce a member of the US Marine Corps to blubbering jelly—presumably Wohl and Burkman are now seeking proof in the shape of the hush-money payout to the delivery stork.)

But the coup de grace was Microsoft announcing an Android phone.

No, go away: I refuse to believe that Hell has re-opened as a skating rink. This is just too silly for words.

Someone is now going to tell me that I lapsed into a coma last October 3rd and it is now April 1st, 2020. In which case, it's a fair cop. But otherwise, I'm out of explanations. All I can come up with is, when they switched on the Large Hadron Collider they assured us that it wasn't going to create quantum black holes and eat the Earth from the inside out; but evidently it's been pushing us further and further out into a low-probability sheaf of universes somewhere in the Everett Wheeler manifold, and any moment now a white rabbit is going to hop past my office door wailing "goodness me, I'm late!"

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that my activity has been increasingly scarce since roughly January 2017. This is not an accident. You may also have noticed a downturn in my writing output in general, culminating in this year being the first year since roughly 1997 in which I have no new novels or short stories appearing in print. That's not an accident, either.

(Back from Worldcon, where I didn't win a Hugo, and Eurocon, where I was awarded the ESFS Hall of Fame award for Best Author, 2019. Whee!)

So I guess I don't need to give a detailed run-down of political events while I was travelling, save to say that we're now getting into 1642 territory constitutionally, with the unelected Prime Minister declaring his intention of asking the unelected monarch to shut down parliament so that he can force through an unpopular policy that everybody was assured was not a possible outcome of a referendum that was only upheld by the courts because it was non-binding (so the foreign interference and straight-up vote rigging couldn't be held a violation of election law). He's also proposing to pack the House of Lords with unelected pro-Brexit members just in case the HoL tries to to throw a spanner in the works.

Reminder: the legal wellspring of British authority is the crown-in-parliament (i.e. the powers of the monarch, as vested in parliament after the king picked a fight with that body and lost, comprehensively). This is an end-run around British sovereignty. It's a bit like, say, a US President packing the supreme court and then issuing an executive order suspending the 14th amendment (with a manufactured court rubber stamp): procedurally suspect and ethically outrageous. BoJo is gaming the British Constitution on a scale never seen before; if he's allowed to get away with this then, never mind Brexit (and a no-deal Brexit would be very, very bad in its own right), it means the end of British constitutional governance and a shift towards rule by executive decree implemented via the Civil Contingencies Act and/or Henry VIII Orders. In other words, a dictatorship.

Oh, and if the Queen gives Boris his rubber-stamp prorogation, it's quite possible that Brexit will not only take down the British economy, the British constitution, and the Conservative Party: it could well take down the monarchy as well. The Queen is personally popular, but she's in a horrible cleft stick: if she prorogues Parliament she pisses off the remainers (over half the population) and personally gets some of the blame for a no-deal Brexit. If she refuses to prorogue Parliament without a bulletproof legal precedent then she acts unconstitutionally and takes a fire-axe to the relationship between Parliament and Monarch ... and she pisses off a not-much-smaller segment of the population. The Queen is 92. Being put on the spot like this can't possibly not be incredibly stressful for her: there's no good solution, unless I've overlooked her having some magic constitutional power to, say, require the PM to prove that he has the confidence of parliament before he prorogues that chamber. The whole point of the post-1688/1832/1912 British Constitutional system is to put the theoretically-absolute powers of a once-absolute monarchy in a lead-lined safe at the bottom of a very deep mine shaft. So expecting the Queen to ride to the rescue is ... excessively optimistic.

To add to the fun and games, the political advisor at Number 10 who has the PM's ear is Dominic Cummings, who is noted for being both an Accelerationist and a closet singularitarian (he keeps the latter out of the public eye but it's on his blog). He can thus best be approximated to an ultra-capitalist rapture-of-the-nerds embracing Trotskyite, merrily intent on pouring gasoline on the bonfire of British constitutional traditions.

Opposition--both internal, within the Conservative party, and external, split between the minority parties--is divided. I'm seeing tweets by Labour MPs proposing that if parliament is prorogued they will conduct a sit in and establish a People's Parliament. (I was not exaggerating when I invoked the spectre of 1642.) But the situation is not helped by the new and rather right-wing leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinston, refusing to vote with a Corbyn-led national unity coalition. Or by Labour's perpetual on-going snit with the SNP (Scottish Labour has an unofficial policy of "whatever the SNP are for, we're against", because the SNP are their deadly rival for the peculiarly Scottish niche of "left wing party of government"; this has spilled over into Labour/SNP relations in Westminster). In theory there is an absolute majority in Parliament opposed to a no-deal Brexit, or indeed almost any form of Brexit. In practice, they seem to be more intent on forming a circular firing squad.

Sterling, needless to say, is down 1% this morning, trading at $1.20 to the pound, and the London stock exchange is tanking. Remember that this is nominally a conservative government, the party of business ... except Boris Johnson when asked about the effects of Brexit declared, "fuck business": he's actually got the Financial Times, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, and the Trade Union Congress lined up against him (which is the British equivalent of sheep and wolves holding hands in solidarity).

Folks, I have no idea what happens next. Lewis Goodall (a Sky News political commentator) noted on twitter that Johnson's strategy seems to be:

  • Get through first 2 weeks of Parliament in September (by prorogation)

  • Survive Party Conference season

  • Unveil a new brexit deal at council on 17th October

  • Survive the Queen's Speech because if they don't there'll be no deal by default

  • Ram the new deal through a terrified parliament in the days before October 31st

But it's not obvious that there's any scope for such a new deal to happen. Ireland will veto any arrangement that leaves out the Northern Irish backstop, and the EU 26 have their back. The ERG will veto any deal that includes the backstop. The EU negotiators have already declared that there's no more room for negotiation; they're fed up with the UK's perfidious nonsense and they spend three years negotiating with May in good faith: take it or leave it.

This isn't new. It was broadly the shape of affairs while Theresa May was in charge. What's new is a Prime Minister who is ruthless and willing to destroy the constitution, the monarchy, and the economy to get his own way--and who is listening to the accelerationists.

That's profoundly frightening.

UPDATE: They did it:

(via twitter)


Ruth Davidson resigns as Scottish conservative leader (actual resignation reported on the BBC in past 15 minutes; she's strongly opposed to a no deal Brexit and there's personal animosity with BoJo)

Legal move filed in Court of Sessions in Edinburgh to have Prorogation of Parliament ruled illegal (it's a cross-party move)

List of protests in cities around the UK

(I can't keep up; this is all news that's broken in the last couple of hours.)

Next week I'm off to the land mass to the west of me, visiting Dublin and Belfast for the World Science Fiction Convention, then the following weekend Belfast for Titancon, the EuroCon (European annual SF convention). This is not without complication: sensing vulnerability, my ancient and venerable washing machine picked this week to finally expire, forcing me to embark on a perilous quest for a replacement—not to mention a launderette with service wash facilities—during the Edinburgh Festival. (Which is why this update is late.)

(Note: this is not a solicitation for advice on whether a hand-powered mangle and hot tub combination is more environmentally sound than a Miele TwinDos automatic washer-drier, or the best way to dry my jeans in the toilet, or suchlike helpfulness. As I approach my 55th birthday I'm pretty sure I'm on top of these issues.)

Anyway, I'm on the program at both conventions, and I'm posting an abbreviated version of my schedule below the fold.

Whoops Apocalypse was a six part 1982 TV sitcom that aired in the UK during a particularly dark part of the cold war. It purported to document the last few weeks leading up to the nuclear apocalypse, and starred such luminaries as John Cleese and Barry Morse: it's available on DVD here. It features a chaotic and increasingly unstable global political situation in which nuclear alerts are accidentally triggered by malfunctioning Space Invaders machines; the naive and highly unpopular Republican U.S. President Johnny Cyclops is advised by an insane right-wing fundamentalist security advisor, called The Deacon, who claims to have a direct hotline to God. And the Shah of Iran is locked in the toilet of a cross-channel ferry. (Bits cribbed from Wikipedia because my memory is weak after all these years.)

Anyway, here are my notes towards a Brexit specific re-make of Whoops Apocalypse.

I am fresh out of blogging ideas, and am off to Jyväskylä in Finland for Finncon next weekend. In the meantime, feel free to use the comments (below) to ask me anything! NB: I will do my best to lie creatively in my responses.




  • Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed

Recent Comments

Search this blog