So every so often a random news article bites me on the world-building toe. Yesterday's came via Ars Technica in the shape of a very interesting research study on cultural attitudes to traditionalism and national parasite stress (Original source).

To quote the abstract of the paper in full:

People who are more avoidant of pathogens are more politically conservative, as are nations with greater parasite stress. In the current research, we test two prominent hypotheses that have been proposed as explanations for these relationships. The first, which is an intragroup account, holds that these relationships between pathogens and politics are based on motivations to adhere to local norms, which are sometimes shaped by cultural evolution to have pathogen-neutralizing properties. The second, which is an intergroup account, holds that these same relationships are based on motivations to avoid contact with outgroups, who might pose greater infectious disease threats than ingroup members. Results from a study surveying 11,501 participants across 30 nations are more consistent with the intragroup account than with the intergroup account. National parasite stress relates to traditionalism (an aspect of conservatism especially related to adherence to group norms) but not to social dominance orientation (SDO; an aspect of conservatism especially related to endorsements of intergroup barriers and negativity toward ethnic and racial outgroups). Further, individual differences in pathogen-avoidance motives (i.e., disgust sensitivity) relate more strongly to traditionalism than to SDO within the 30 nations.

This got me thinking: what are the implications for world-building in mid-to-far future SF and space opera?

I turn 52 next week, and I have a confession to make: I feel like a complete failure at "adulting". Adulting, loosely defined, is that set of activities and behaviours which we judge to be characteristics of grown-ups. You can stop now and make your own list: what I'm going to suggest, speculatively, is that you probably feel like a failure at adulting too. (If you don't, you can stop reading here.)

I'm not alone in this self-defined failure. Lots of people I know, my own age and younger, also admit to feeling like failed adults: "I haven't grown up" is merely the tense-shifted version of "I don't want to grow up". But what does this really mean?

I'm not blogging a huge amount this month because, well, it's autumn, I always have fun adapting to the shorter days at this time of year (as I grow older I tend to hibernate for 10-12 hours a day for about a month as the Scottish autumn and winter comes calling), and in those hours I'm awake I'm busy with other stuff.

~~Tomorrow~~ Sunday I'm flying out to Tel Aviv where I will be spending much of the week as guest of honour at the ICon Festival 2016, Israel's largest SF convention. A couple of weeks later (from the 4th to 6th of November) I will also be attending Bcon, the 2016 Eurocon in Barcelona.

And when I'm not at my last two SF conventions of 2016, I'm keeping myself busy working on "Ghost Engine", the space opera for 2018. (The first draft of which is just past the halfway mark—it's shaping up to be a big-ass 400+ page beast, longer than any other stand-alone novel I've written since "Iron Sunrise".)

I'd like to apologize for not giving you more chewy essays to gnaw on; it's just that time spent blogging is time spent not writing the next novel, and time spent traveling is time spent not writing anything at all.

(This blog entry is about British politics. If you aren't interested, don't bother commenting. I have to live here, so it's a matter of considerable importance to me. NB: While I appreciate that other countries have their own problems—one could point to Donald Trump's presidential campaign as reflecting the same disturbing populist reactionary xenophobia—this isn't about you, it's about me, and comments referring to the US presidential campaign will be deleted (until we pass the #300 mark, as is customary here).)

Brexit is going to kill people. And soon.

This week saw the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, and in among the rather scary exclusionist rhetoric it became apparent that the Nasty Party has decisively swung away from representing the interests of the business community and is staking its future on the xenophobic anti-foreigner vote which came out of the woodwork to swing the Brexit referendum in June. In particular, the Prime Minister has a plan for Brexit and it appears to be trending towards the hard option; that her priority will be to clamp down on immigration, and to do so she will abandon the free movement of people that is a keystone of the European Union.

Note that the EU has made it glaringly clear that retaining free movement is a non-negotiable prerequisite for retaining access to the European single market—they made this clear to Switzerland earlier this year—and there is clearly an appetite among other EU heads to state to drive a hard deal with the UK.

Now here is a graph (sorce:

Sterling/USD, one week exchange rate

What does it mean?

So, this Tuesday SpaceX pulled back the curtain to announce their Interplanetary Transport System—a monstrously large rocket, fully reusable and about two and a half times the size of a Saturn V moon rocket—capable of transporting a hundred people to Mars, and with a goal of initial flight testing within a decade.

It's not total vaporware: in the past couple of weeks they also tested the first full-up Raptor engine that will power the ITS (a cryogenic methalox engine with a closed-cycle gas generator, which gives it a specific impulse head and shoulders higher than Apollo-era kit and the capability to operate on fuel generated from the Martian atmosphere for return flights). They've also unveiled the biggest carbon fiber tank ever assembled (the fully-reusable ITS will use carbon composites extensively), and have unveiled a bunch of targets for what the ITS stack will be able to achieve: in non-reusable form it will be able to deliver a 500 tonne payload to LEO, and with reusability in mind a 320 tonne interplanetary craft capable of landing vertically on Mars (and, when refuelled, of returning to Mars orbit without staging).

So, here's my question:

What are the other possible commercial applications of the ITS, besides sending a million optimists to Mars?

I'd like to give you a happy fun thought experiment to chew on.

It's 2016. And it's been a bad year. Let's imagine that it's about to get infinitely worse for everyone, and by December 31st, 2016, the human species is extinct. Cause: something minimally disruptive to the rest of the biosphere. (A very tightly targeted human-specific military bioweapon gets out and proves to be unexpectedly deadly: say, an IL-4 expressing poxvirus that goes above and beyond.)

Earth abides, of course, and without humans life goes on.

In a discussion elsewhere on the interwebbytubes, the subject of in media res openings came up.

An in media res opening is one where a story starts with a bang, a climactic action sequence -- then cuts away to a slow build-up to how the protagonists got to that point. It's a variant on the hook line, whereby the author sets out to snag the reader's attention right from the get-go (e.g. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." -- Iain Banks, "The Crow Road") but with a whole scene, rather than just a striking opening sentence or paragraph.

One or two commenters (in the discussion elsewhere) objected that IMR openings feel manipulative and increasingly fall flat; the event may be explosive (car chase! space battle!) but we've been given no contextual information about the stakes, no character to identify with, and it's clear that what follows is gradually going to focus down until it converges with the opening, thus undercutting any suspense until we get to see how it plays out at the end of the story.

But I don't think this is inevitable.

(Blogging continues to be sparse because, although I just sent in a final draft of "The Delirium Brief", I'm hard at work on other projects—notably my 2018 space opera, "Ghost Engine", and my 2018 Merchant Princes universe novel, "Dark State"—and taking time off to attend a birthday party in Berlin.)

The trouble with writing fiction is that, as a famous novelist once said, reality is under no compulsion to make sense or be plausible. Those of us who make stuff up are constantly under threat of having our best fictional creations one-upped by the implausibility of real events. I'm pretty much resigned to this happening, especially with the Laundry Files stories: at least space opera and fantasy aren't as prone to being derailed as fiction set in the near-present.

But there's a subtle corollary to the impossibility of story-telling keeping up with reality, and that's the point that it is also pretty much impossible to invent protagonists who can keep up with reality.

I'm taking an hour out from polishing and sanding the final draft of "The Delirium Brief", the eighth Laundry Files novel (which is due to hit my editors' inboxes this Wednesday) to just mention something that bugs me which came up in another context this week: interruptions.

Some people thrive on office chatter, conversations, and meetings. In contrast, while I'm working, I can't stand that stuff. My phone ringing is enough to throw me out of my work flow state); never mind a human being poking their head around the door, or incoming email and instant messages. Scheduled conference calls are even worse. Being thrown out of flow is jarring, actually mentally painful: and once the interruption is dealt with it can take me a quarter of an hour to pick up the pieces of whatever I was working on and get back down to it.

What's going on?

Some people on the internet are getting very excited at the (unconfirmed) reports of an "Earth-like" exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri, a mere 4.25 light-years away from Earth. If correct, the planet is orbiting in the liquid water zone around our nearest stellar neighbour and is of the same order of mass as the Earth. (Note that this could mean anything from Mercury to Neptune in scale: it's very approximate at this stage. Earth-like in exoplanetography does not mean it's a habitable new eden suitable for colonization, it just means "not a gas giant like Jupiter or a tiny dwarf like Pluto".)

So here's a reality check.

As you might have noticed I haven't been updating this blog very often for the past six weeks. This situation is going to continue for at least another three weeks, and I think I owe you an explanation.

I spent the back end of June and the first three weeks of July on the road, which kind of explains the paucity of updates back then. But then I got home and ran straight into two huge jobs: one scheduled, and one completely unplanned. The scheduled job—checking the page proofs (final PDF images of the book, as it will be published) for Empire Games went smoothly and to plan. But the other was an emergency, and it's still ongoing, because ...

... BREXIT broke my next Laundry novel, and I'm having to rewrite it.

(With contributors Raq, Charlie, & Malka - see below)

With Verizon's purchase of Yahoo!, young developers' thoughts turn to Flickr -- one of the long-lived and popular core acquisitions -- and we think longingly of the early days, back when photo apps were fleet and well-supported. When everyone knew the value of good code. When we felt fairly confident that our stuff would stay our stuff.

Yeah. Okay. Done laughing?

We're so resigned to not truly owning the digital property we've paid for that iTunes' arrogance deleting personal music files is barely registering, except with musicians who are losing their personal work and a number of voices crying out on Twitter, especially during updates. We're used to tech companies redesigning interfaces in the middle of the night, taking away much-loved tools, and replacing them with advertising and easier ways to share more faster. The interface is where the profit is, and who cares about the content?

Worse, when looking at the Yahoo! buyout in particular, we worry that Verizonhoo! has no clue how Flickr works, much less how to support it. We loved the tech that Ludicorp built and sold to Yahoo in the early days. But you'll remember that Yahoo!, after "losing" both original leaders -- Caterina Fake and Stuart Butterfield -- also proceeded to lose its grip on how Flickr functioned, and what client needs it served. We fear for what remains of Flickr, once again, and are busy downloading years of images before saying the word "flickr" becomes a paid premium service.

In the bigger (ahem) picture, we're rapidly approaching that point in tech where historical knowledge of base code is long gone and corporate ability to pivot based on user needs is lost due to mergers, firings, and general MBA-nization of tech innovation. Yes, that's been going on since the 1980s and earlier with IBM and friends, but nearly every tech startup founded since then to take on the big corps has either been eaten or become a big corp in its own right. Tech doesn't want to be free (with apologies to Stuart Brand). It wants to be bought out.

With more mergers inevitable as the large corporations hunger for more and more user data, we worry that any suitably evolved tech will seem more like magic to its holding company -- and that will impact not only how we use that technology going forward but also how technology continues to evolve in its use of us. Our data is already a value point, our time already part of the business plan. What's next?

Our intrepid correspondents have amused themselves by ginning up predictions* for future mergers and their outcomes. Feel free to play along / roll your own.
*no actual predictions were harmed in this game.

  1. Facebook/Oracle : they pretty much already owned the mySQL dbase, actually Trading as: FACILE.

  2. Uber/CNN : Advertised as "Uber for News" and facing questions like "how is this different than Periscope?" This merger results in bystander reporting for micropayments, the end of the traditional tv studio, and on-call hair & makeup vans. Trading as: NEWSR

  3. Kaspersky/Tindr : Giving up on pretending to be anything but Russian cyberwar. Trading as: N/A privately held

  4. Amazon/BAe Systems : Amazon needs delivery drones; BAe Systems needs someone to buy their drones. Trading as: AMZN

  5. Pfizer/Blue Apron : For faster distribution of agribusiness output. Trading as: PFOD

  6. Monsanto/Plated : Competition is healthy; you may be less so. Trading as: MOPL

  7. Microsoft/Reddit : Sorry but you know it's true. Trading as: MSFT

  8. Google/Slack : And a hundred thousand voices cried out before their data became part of the hive. Trading as: GAAK

  9. T-Mobile/StubHub : T-Mobile Thursdays via bot army. Trading as: TUBHUB

  10. AOL/4chan : Trading as: your worst nightmare

  11. Flickr/iTunes : Which means Verizon/iTunes...but it's OK because while you have to pay to upload, pay to create playlists, and pay to tag music, the UI is much better. Trading as: iTUNSR

  12. Disney/WOTC : So yes, Nyssa Revane and Chandra Nalaar are now Disney Princesses. Trading as: WSNY

  13. Evernote/PayPal
  14. : Because monthly subscriptions are not enough. Trading as: EVERPAL
  15. Google/Monsanto : Verily. Trading as: MOOGLE

  16. Tesla/Spotify : The next stage in the rolling computer, app launcher, and vehicle. Trading as: TSTIFY

  17. IBM/BuzzFeed : They just bought it to feed to Watson. Trading as: LOLWTF

  18. Apple/SpaceX : Having conquered the terrestrial computer market Cupertino turns its vast, cool intellect towards the Red Planet. Or maybe they just want to download their backup of Steve Jobs into Elon Musk's brain and regain some visionary leadership. Trading as: SKYNT

  19. 7-11/Bitcoin : How many slushies can you mine today? International calling cards and remittance terminals. Trading as: HOTDOG

  20. Spotify/Youtube : video killed the radio star). Trading as: YOUSPOT

  21. Microsoft/Alibaba : mutually assured expansion). Trading as: ALOFT

  22. Contributor Bios:

    Fran Wilde writes science fiction and fantasy and occasionally consults on tech. She used to program games, websites, and maintain youthfully naive buy-in for companies like Macromedia and Flickr before Adobe and Yahoo! ate those and many others. Her next book, Cloudbound, comes out 9/27/2016 from Tor.

    Raq Winchester is a futurist and startup mentor who has been employed by one or more of the organizations mentioned in this article. She is using those experiences to fuel her first book, on being an innovator in a bureaucracy, how a government job is like a LARP, and unicorns.

    Charles Stross escaped from a dot com, wrote for computer magazines for a bit, then dived full-time into writing SF novels for a living -- honest work, unlike the other aforementioned jobs. His next book, Empire Games, comes out 17/1/2017 from Tor.

    Malka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and PhD candidate studying the sociology of disasters. Her science fiction political thriller Infomocracy is out now, and the sequel Null States will be published in 2017.

Charlie said you fine folk might help me resolve a family argument!

Geek parenting raises all sorts of issues not covered in the child rearing manuals. You know the kind of thing: Do you scold a child for wrecking their sibling's house in Minecraft? What if the same child swears foully, but in Mandalorian? What if your 8-year-old daughter wants to have your Necronomicon in her room? What do you do if familiarity with the Belter patois is hindering your 12-year-old son's progress in French?

Now they have this running argument over who would win the celebrity deathmatch? Cthulhu (not to be confused with the plush incarnation that usually resides in the naughty corner of my daughter's bed for trying to eat the faces of the other toys) or the Emperor of Mankind from the Warhammer 40K universe?

(Or: when fiction comes true, part 93.)

I'm used to "Halting State" moments, when something I invented in a work of near-future SF slides disturbingly close to reality a few years later. I'm a lot less used to that happening in my more far-out/speculative fiction, though.

I'd classify the Merchant Princes series (including the forthcoming "Empire Games" trilogy) firmly in that category, even though chunks of it are set in a world so close to ours that even the folks in the headlines are familiar—it invokes parallel universes, after all, some of which exhibit rather less familiar takes on historical progress. One of the things I do in this series is to play with the history of development economics, very much in the non-quantitative SF tradition of asking "what would be the consequences if X happened instead of Y".

One of the hard drives in the server this blog resides on started malfunctioning just after midnight Saturday (UK time; about 4AM EST).

The server is running again for now, but I've put in a support request for a drive swap on Monday morning. As it's part of a mirrored drive array the server will be offline for a few minutes while my hosting provider installs the replacement, and may run slow for a few hours thereafter as the controller brings the new drive up to date.

Of course this happened just as I had a cracking idea for a substantial new blog essay, but I think it's prudent to leave posting it until after the hardware is fixed ...!




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