My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.

Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration(OMG is that blood?)"

And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...

Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."

It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.

Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?

Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!

Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!

And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.

So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...

I've been writing Laundry Files stories since 1999, and I recently passed the million word mark. That's a lot of stuff! And it occurs to me that while some of you have been following them from the beginning, a lot of people come to them cold in the shape of one story or another.

So below the fold I'm going to explain the Laundry Files time line, and give a running order for the series—including short stories as well as novels.

Right now, the British (and by British I mean London) press are currently obsessed with a single topic: the up-coming BRExit referendum on June 23rd, asking whether the UK should leave (or remain in) the EU.

(This topic is somewhat less visible in the Scottish media because we have a general election coming up on May 5th. Campaigning is currently frantic, with Labour and Conservatives scrabbling to come second, the Scottish Greens (not the same as the English Greens) looking to upset the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, and Pat Robertson presumably saying "I knew it". But I digress.)

I already blogged about the BRExit referendum back in early 2013, when it was still only an idiotic twinkling in David Cameron's eye, and I still maintain that it's basically just an internal Conservative Party power struggle—the stench of hypocrisy and opportunism hangs over the contenders. But I'm not going to bore you with arguments I already went over years ago. Instead, I'd like to kick open a discussion (noting the presence of lots of non-British readers on this blog: I'm intrigued to know how this very British lunacy looks from the outside) with two observations I didn't make the previous time round.

Hugh Hancock, your friendly neighbourhood crafter of tales about supernatural get-rich-quick schemes gone horribly wrong, back with another bit of musing on what the Chatbot Future holds... See also Part 1 - Sexbots and Part 2 - Magical Beasts

In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.

It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.

What makes me so sure?

Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.

Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?

Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.

But that's not the interesting bit.

The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.

Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.

A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.

The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.

More than a hundred. More than a thousand.

Guest post by filmmaker, game designer, comics author, and person who should really take a holiday some time Hugh Hancock

As an author of fictions about demonology that goes horribly wrong and the avoidance and escape of previously-bound supernatural guardians, I'm thrilled, fascinated and somewhat disturbed to learn that we're on the edge of an age of things that look a lot like supernatural servants.

Rather than apps, the smart money is now on bots - intelligent servants called and dismissed with specific incantations, capable of granting your heart's desire (assuming that desire is for an artisanal pizza or an Uber).

I went over this briefly on Tuesday, in which I concluded that it's entirely possible we'll soon be able to summon a succubus - in the "perfect inhuman lover" sense, not the "explanation for brief sleep paralysis" sense - into our PCs.

(Fun side note: it turns out Ashley Madison was already using techo-succubi extensively in its affair-enabling business.)

And that led me to thinking. What other roles have humans traditionally attempted to summon, bind, control or conquer supernatural servants for? And to what extent have we managed to replace those with technology?

Let us wander off into occult history and figure out what other mystical creatures we're cohabiting with these days, or will be soon...

House Fairie, Brownie, etc

We'll start in Charlie's and my home, Scotland, where one of the most mundane and obviously useful of magical servitors originates - the brownie.

Not to be confused with the delicious baked good, the Brownie was a small faerie from the classic surprisingly un-grand-and-threatening school of British faeriedom, which would help out around the house in exchange for the owners keeping up a certain set - and often rather tricky - series of rules, from giving the little critter food to avoiding thanking it for its work.

They're fairly clearly the inspiration for Harry Potter's House Elves, although the latter are considerably more user-friendly.

Assuming you kept up those rules, Brownies would clean, churn butter, and perform other useful, mundane tasks.

Do we have a technological equivalent? We have several.

Right now, people are having sex with a computer.

I don't mean that they're having sex with a RealDoll or similar—although I'm sure they are.

I mean that there are people out there, right now, who are shagging a state machine.

Welcome to the world of computer-assisted self-bondage (LINK IS VERY VERY NSFW!). Using Arduinos, Heath Robinson-esque contraptions involving keys held in CD trays, and Bluetooth-enabled electrostim machines, men and women have programmed their own doms or dommes. A truly merciless dominant who will randomly please or hurt, and there's nothing the user can do about it.

(There's a Terminator misquote here that I'm desperately trying not to make.)

Meanwhile, there are dozens of other people who are attempting to chat up a slightly different state machine.

Advertisers on porn sites around the world have figured out that users are, shall we say, somewhat preoccupied, and there are a limited number of advertising techniques that will work. One of the most common ones is a "fake chat" ad—an attractive woman propositioning the user with the promise of, at least, some hot Facebook or Snapchat messages.

Some of the more advanced ads actually take the user to a landing page where a very, very crude script will respond to them.

This has been happening for ages, of course. So why am I talking about it now?

Because tech developments in other areas are about to turn the whole "sex with your PC" deal from "crude and somewhat rubbish" to "looks like the AIs just took a really unexpected job away".

Soon you may well be able to summon a succubus. Through your PC.

Rise Of The Chatbots

Summoned servitors are about to make the mother of all comebacks.

I'm rather enthusiastic about that on a fictional level. Indeed, the film I just released, DANGEROUS TREASURES, came very close to being called BOUND THINGS instead—it's a story of a couple of geeks who follow clues on a deepweb occult forum which lead them to have a lengthy and bloody interaction with the bound guardian of the treasure they're robbing. And the binding and summoning of guardians is key to the entire thing (hopefully not spoiling it too much!).

(Amusingly for the topic of this post, the reason we didn't call it BOUND THINGS is that it sounded rather too porny.)

Accidentally, I seem to have hit something of a zeitgeist with this one. Because in Silicon Valley, I'm reliably informed, the Wave Of The Future is exactly this: summoned, intelligent servants which you can control if you know their True Name.

Hi! Charlie here. I'm a bit burned-out and busy with real-world stuff right now, so for the next week, guest bloggers are standing by to keep you perplexed bamboozled entertained. Starting with an interesting essay on deep learning and chatbots by Hugh Hancock, later today ...

Hugh adds: The film I've just released is called DANGEROUS TREASURES. It's a geek action-horror-comedy about Lovecraftian horror, deepweb forum culture, and frantic Googling.

The tagline I'm using is " These geeks think of themselves as 2016's Indiana Jones. Too bad the thing they've awoken knew Cthulhu. Personally. "

Last Sunday I gave a brief talk discussing world-building in SF/F at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I've been quiet since then because of a combination of work and a stomach bug. Meanwhile, here's the outline for my talk. (Yes, it's fully collapsible/expandable.)

It's March 31st, not April 1st, so I can see no justification for the news being this weird: Ha'arez is reporting that Otto Skorzeney worked as a hit-man for Mossad in the 1960s, Microsoft just announced full native Ubuntu Linux support on Windows 10, and SCO are appealing against the IBM verdict again ...

... Oh, wait: this is a leap year. Stand down, false alarm.

(What utterly surreal symptoms of the Crazy Years have you stubbed your toes on this week—other than Donald Trump, of course?)

A lot of people are watching the spectacle of Apple vs. the FBI and the Homeland Security Theatre and rubbing their eyes, wondering why Apple (in the person of CEO Tim Cook) is suddenly the knight in shining armour on the side of consumer privacy and civil rights. Apple, after all, is a goliath-sized corporate behemoth with the second largest market cap in US stock market history—what's in it for them?

As is always the case, to understand why Apple has become so fanatical about customer privacy over the past five years that they're taking on the US government, you need to follow the money.

It's Mancunicon 2016, the British Eastercon, this weekend from Friday through Monday, and I'm off to Manchester tomorrow (by road, to beat the bank holiday rush). Blogging will be entirely contingent on me having any spare time, and as I'm also working on a book-related project (see the past three blog entries if you want a clue) that's looking fairly unlikely.

I'm on a small number of program events—search for me by name and you'll find me. And if you can't make the kaffeeklatch I'll probably be in the bar! Because all that deep and furious thinking about space opera finally rattled something loose, and now I need to chill for a little while.

(I have a few more SF convention appearances scheduled over the next three months, and will add the details here when I have the energy: they are, Conpulsion (gaming convention, Edinburgh, April), Balticon 50 (general SF convention, Baltimore, May), and Westercon (general SF convention, Portland OR, June).

So: in the ongoing investigation of space opera, I've looked at cliches, I've tried to come up with a rough definitional rule of thumb ... but I've avoided what's possibly the largest elephant in the room, namely, plot structures.

A key aspect of space opera is that it's about epochal events and larger-than-life characters. Most genres can be written to work in a variety of modes; for example, consider the difference in the level of melodrama in spy thrillers betwee James Bond and Graham Greene's The Human Factor. Similarly, high fantasy can be quietly introspective and pastoral, or focus on the clash of kings and dark lords, and horror can run the scale/focus gamut from The Yellow Wallpaper to The Stand.

What is space opera, anyway? Going by the discussion on the preceding blog essay, lots of folks are a bit confused. And so they should be; it's not exactly a well-defined concept.

Dave Langford and Brian Stableford took a stab at describing it in the gigantic monograph on space opera in the Encyclopedia of SF, but they (wisely, in my opinion) didn't try to give it a coherent definition, because it's a diagnosis, not a prescription.

I think that for a work of SF to qualify as space opera it requires certain features to be present. Breadth of scope is one of them: Interstellar scale is almost mandatory (although I think there are exceptions: "Tiger Tiger"/"The Stars my Destination", perhaps). A sense of wonder is necessary as well. The key factor is that it's almost invariably romanticist in sensibility, often overlapping with the gothic: if it lacks a romantic/gothic tone then it's probably not space opera.

I wouldn't call "Ringworld" a space opera, even though it hits the high notes on scale/sense of wonder/adventure—Niven's tone is all wrong—but on the other hand, "The Quantum Thief" trilogy nails the target even though it's not strictly speaking interstellar and a metric shitload of it happens in upload/computing environments. (Jean le Flambeur is a classic space operatic anti-hero in the mold of Gully Foyle.)

Discuss.

So I'm chewing over the idea of eventually returning to writing far future SF-in-spaaaace, because that's what my editors tell me is hot right now (subtext: "Charlie, won't you write us a space opera?"). A secondary requirement is that it has to be all new—no sequels to earlier work need apply. But I have a headache, because the new space opera turns 30 this year, with the anniversary of the publication of "Consider Phlebas" (or maybe "Schismatrix")—or even 40 (with the anniversary of the original "Star Wars"). There's a lot of prior art, much of it not very good, and the field has accumulated a huge and hoary body of cliches.

Some of you might remember the Evil Overlord's List, a list of all the generic cliche mistakes that Evil Overlords tend to make in fiction (16: I will never utter the sentence "But before I kill you, there's just one thing I want to know."). I think that it might be a good idea to begin bolting together a similar list of the cliches to which Space Opera is prone, purely as an exercise in making sure that once I get under way I only make new and original mistakes, rather than recycling the same-old same-old.

This is not an exhaustive list—it's merely a start, the tip of a very large iceberg glimpsed on the horizon. And note that I'm specifically excluding the big media franchise products—Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and similar—from consideration: any one of them could provide a huge cliche list in its own right, but I'm interested in the substance of the literary genre rather than in what TV and film have built using the borrowed furniture of the field.

List follows, below the cut.

My first series, The Tales of Einarinn, took the epic fantasy focus away from kings and princes to look at ordinary people threatened by warfare and wizards. So why did I decide to write my next story about that archetypal fantasy figure; the absolute feudal ruler? Because I was getting very tired of commentators insisting that epic fantasy is conservative, consolatory and uncritically, if unconsciously, advocates old-fashioned, hierarchical political systems.

As someone moderately left of centre in British political terms, that's so very much NOT what I write. So I decided to take a good, hard look at the realities of absolute rule, in particular its fatal flaws. Because it's no surprise that most societies aim for democracy (with all its imperfections) as far as they can, and that the world's currently seeing the mass migration of people desperate to escape tyranny.

With great good fortune, I'd already introduced the autocratic, autonomous warlords of the Aldabreshin Archipelago in the Tales. So I set about exploring and expanding that particular society, creating the backdrop for an exciting, intriguing fantasy series that would incidentally explore that particular hinterland. This process soon involved consciously including elements to make a reader think 'Wait, what?!'

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