Over on Black Gate Magazine, I've just reviewed some Osprey "Dark" and "Adventures" books - fictional military history texts from a publisher that usually deals in facts. Two are squarely Traditional Fantasy; one about the mythical wars of Atlantis, the other about Orc warfare , complete with all the tropes: goblins, dwarves, trolls, dark lords and minions.... it could almost be a guide to one aspect of the Oglaf mileu...

And did I mention Oglaf (really very NSFW)? That um... raunchy... webcomic is a romp through a Dungeons and Dragons-esqu world, and derives its humour not from sending up the genre, but from the situations it creates.

Then there's Dungeons and Dragons itself, and a zillion tabletop and screen games that scratch the same itch. Nobody goes, "OMG. 'Mage' Knight. How clichéd!" They're too busy playing. Nor, for that matter, did anybody stop to complain when Terry Pratchett pretty much segued from taking the piss out of what I've been calling Traditional Fantasy, to using it as his sandbox.

Because Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy is a great sandbox. Let me put on my (very minor compared to our godlike host) writer hat... (Clunk! Yes, it is a helmet)... there. OK, here's how I see it...

Charlie blindsided me by promising I'd talk about German Longsword. That's like saying, "He'll talk about his Blues band." 

It's just too big a topic!

So let me turn the tables and tell you about how swords led to me meeting Charlie, and how both Charlie and swords led to me becoming a professional author. The story is not what you'd think.

Back when the world was young, a large Goth (long hair and black clothes, rather than long hair, pointy helmet and lamellar as per Shieldwall: Barbarians!) threw me through a pile of chairs.

As he helped me up, I realised he'd cured the nagging shoulder pain I'd been suffering.

That miracle cure was the least of the many good things that stemmed from that moment. (Though if we'd turned it into an alternative therapy, perhaps we'd both be rich! Stand here madam. Try to relax while Igor lovingly hurls you through our stack of handcrafted homeopathic crystal chairs arranged on a bed of natural herbs according to a traditional feng shui pattern...)

My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.

As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:

"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."

And:

"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"

Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.

I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple...

Hi! I'm about to head off to France for a weekend at Imaginales, a French SF/F convention. While I'm gone, you can expect the usual guest blogging to take place.

To start things off, I'd like to introduce M Harold Page, Scottish author and amateur swordsman. He blogs regularly at the Hugo-puppyinated heroic fiction site Black Gate Magazine, and this weekend he's here to shamelessly plug "Shieldwall: Barbarians!", his Dark Age adventure yarn which you can buy from Amazon. He's also going to be talking about some other topics, including self-publishing and (I hope) German mediaeval martial arts.

I've been away for a few days (family stuff) and the travel gave me a lot of time for thought (you can't type on an inter-city train going at full tilt on our crappy lines). As we seem to be moving into Grim Meathook Future territory with the current government trying to make being poor illegal, I decided to Get With The Program, and invent the most evil business master plan I can think of for capitalizing (heh) on the New Misery.

Note that I am too damned old to play startup chicken all over again, and besides I've got books to write. This is just an exercise in trying to figure out how to make as many people as possible miserable and incrementally diminish the amount of happiness in the world while pretending to be a Force For Good and not actually killing anyone directly—and making money hand over fist. It's a thought experiment, in other words, and I'm not going to do it, and if any sick bastard out there tries to go ahead and patent this as a business practice you can cite this blog entry as prior art.

So. Let me describe first the requirements for the Evil Business Plan of Evil, and then the Plan Itself, in all it's oppressive horror and glory.

Last week, our newly re-elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, said something quite remarkable in a speech outlining his new government's legislative plans for the next five years. Remarkable not because it's unexpected that a newly formed Conservative government with a working majority would bang the law and order drum, but because of what it implies:

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'."

Think about it for a moment. This is the leader of a nominally democratic country saying that merely obeying the law is not sufficient: and simultaneously moving to scrap the Human Rights Act (a legislative train-wreck if ever I saw one) and to bring in laws imposing prior restraint on freedom of political speech (yes, requiring islamists to show the Police everything they say on Facebook before they say it is censorship of political speech, even if you don't like what they're saying).

We've been here before, of course.

Ramez Naam is the author of 5 books, including the award-winning Nexus trilogy of sci-fi novels. Follow him on twitter: @ramez. A shorter version of this article first appeared at TechCrunch.

The final frontier of digital technology is integrating into your own brain. DARPA wants to go there. Scientists want to go there. Entrepreneurs want to go there. And increasingly, it looks like it's possible.

You've probably read bits and pieces about brain implants and prostheses. Let me give you the big picture.

Neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: Virtual and augmented reality with all 5 senses (or more); augmentation of human memory, attention, and learning speed; even multi-sense telepathy -- sharing what we see, hear, touch, and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.

Arkady flicked the virtual layer back on. Lightning sparkled around the dancers on stage again, electricity flashed from the DJ booth, silver waves crashed onto the beach. A wind that wasn't real blew against his neck. And up there, he could see the dragon flapping its wings, turning, coming around for another pass. He could feel the air move, just like he'd felt the heat of the dragon's breath before.

- Adapted from Crux, book 2 of the Nexus Trilogy.

Sound crazy? It is... and it's not.

Start with motion. In clinical trials today there are brain implants that have given men and women control of robot hands and fingers. DARPA has now used the same technology to put a paralyzed woman in direct mental control of an F-35 simulator. And in animals, the technology has been used in the opposite direction, directly inputting touch into the brain.

Or consider vision. For more than a year now, we've had FDA-approved bionic eyes that restore vision via a chip implanted on the retina. More radical technologies have sent vision straight into the brain. And recently, brain scanners have succeeded in deciphering what we're looking at. (They'd do even better with implants in the brain.)

Sound, we've been dealing with for decades, sending it into the nervous system through cochlear implants. Recently, children born deaf and without an auditory nerve have had sound sent electronically straight into their brains.

Nexus

In rats, we've restored damaged memories via a 'hippocampus chip' implanted in the brain. Human trials are starting this year. Now, you say your memory is just fine? Well, in rats, this chip can actually improve memory. And researchers can capture the neural trace of an experience, record it, and play it back any time they want later on. Sounds useful.

In monkeys, we've done better, using a brain implant to "boost monkey IQ" in pattern matching tests.

We've even emailed verbal thoughts back and forth from person to person.

Now, let me be clear. All of these systems, for lack of a better word, suck. They're crude. They're clunky. They're low resolution. That is, most fundamentally, because they have such low-bandwidth connections to the human brain. Your brain has roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections, or synapses. An iPhone 6's A8 chip has 2 billion transistors. (Though, let's be clear, a transistor is not anywhere near the complexity of a single synapse in the brain.)

The highest bandwidth neural interface ever placed into a human brain, on the other hand, had just 256 electrodes. Most don't even have that.

The second barrier to brain interfaces is that getting even 256 channels in generally requires invasive brain surgery, with its costs, healing time, and the very real risk that something will go wrong. That's a huge impediment, making neural interfaces only viable for people who have a huge amount to gain, such as those who've been paralyzed or suffered brain damage.

This is not yet the iPhone era of brain implants. We're in the DOS era, if not even further back.

But what if? What if, at some point, technology gives us high-bandwidth neural interfaces that can be easily implanted? Imagine the scope of software that could interface directly with your senses and all the functions of your mind:

They gave Rangan a pointer to their catalog of thousands of brain-loaded Nexus apps. Network games, augmented reality systems, photo and video and audio tools that tweaked data acquired from your eyes and ears, face recognizers, memory supplementers that gave you little bits of extra info when you looked at something or someone, sex apps (a huge library of those alone), virtual drugs that simulated just about everything he'd ever tried, sober-up apps, focus apps, multi-tasking apps, sleep apps, stim apps, even digital currencies that people had adapted to run exclusively inside the brain.

- An excerpt from Apex, book 3 of the Nexus Trilogy.

The implications of mature neurotechnology are sweeping. Neural interfaces could help tremendously with mental health and neurological disease. Pharmaceuticals enter the brain and then spread out randomly, hitting whatever receptor they work on all across your brain. Neural interfaces, by contrast, can stimulate just one area at a time, can be tuned in real-time, and can carry information out about what's happening.

We've already seen that deep brain stimulators can do amazing things for patients with Parkinson's. The same technology is on trial for untreatable depression, OCD, and anorexia. And we know that stimulating the right centers in the brain can induce sleep or alertness, hunger or satiation, ease or stimulation, as quick as the flip of a switch. Or, if you're running code, on a schedule. (Siri: Put me to sleep until 7:30, high priority interruptions only. And let's get hungry for lunch around noon. Turn down the sugar cravings, though.)

Crux Implants that help repair brain damage are also a gateway to devices that improve brain function. Think about the "hippocampus chip" that repairs the ability of rats to learn. Building such a chip for humans is going to teach us an incredible amount about how human memory functions. And in doing so, we're likely to gain the ability to improve human memory, to speed the rate at which people can learn things, even to save memories offline and relive them -- just as we have for the rat.

That has huge societal implications. Boosting how fast people can learn would accelerate innovation and economic growth around the world. It'd also give humans a new tool to keep up with the job-destroying features of ever-smarter algorithms.

The impact goes deeper than the personal, though. Computing technology started out as number crunching. These days the biggest impact it has on society is through communication. If neural interfaces mature, we may well see the same. What if you could directly beam an image in your thoughts onto a computer screen? What if you could directly beam that to another human being? Or, across the internet, to any of the billions of human beings who might choose to tune into your mind-stream online? What if you could transmit not just images, sounds, and the like, but emotions? Intellectual concepts? All of that is likely to eventually be possible, given a high enough bandwidth connection to the brain.

That type of communication would have a huge impact on the pace of innovation, as scientists and engineers could work more fluidly together. And it's just as likely to have a transformative effect on the public sphere, in the same way that email, blogs, and twitter have successively changed public discourse.

Digitizing our thoughts may have some negative consequences, of course.

With our brains online, every concern about privacy, about hacking, about surveillance from the NSA or others, would all be magnified. If thoughts are truly digital, could the right hacker spy on your thoughts? Could law enforcement get a warrant to read your thoughts? Heck, in the current environment, would law enforcement (or the NSA) even need a warrant? Could the right malicious actor even change your thoughts?

"Focus," Ilya snapped. "Can you erase her memories of tonight? Fuzz them out?"

"Nothing subtle," he replied. "Probably nothing very effective. And it might do some other damage along the way."

- An excerpt from Nexus, book 1 of the Nexus Trilogy.

The ultimate interface would bring the ultimate new set of vulnerabilities. (Even if those scary scenarios don't come true, could you imagine what spammers and advertisers would do with an interface to your neurons, if it were the least bit non-secure?)

Everything good and bad about technology would be magnified by implanting it deep in brains. In Nexus I crash the good and bad views against each other, in a violent argument about whether such a technology should be legal. Is the risk of brain-hacking outweighed by the societal benefits of faster, deeper communication, and the ability to augment our own intelligence?

For now, we're a long way from facing such a choice. In fiction, I can turn the neural implant into a silvery vial of nano-particles that you swallow, and which then self-assemble into circuits in your brain. In the real world, clunky electrodes implanted by brain surgery dominate, for now.

Apex That's changing, though. Researchers across the world, many funded by DARPA, are working to radically improve the interface hardware, boosting the number of neurons it can connect to (and thus making it smoother, higher resolution, and more precise), and making it far easier to implant. They've shown recently that carbon nanotubes, a thousand times thinner than current electrodes, have huge advantages for brain interfaces. They're working on silk-substrate interfaces that melt into the brain. Researchers at Berkeley have a proposal for neural dust that would be sprinkled across your brain (which sounds rather close to the technology I describe in Nexus). And the former editor of the journal Neuron has pointed out that carbon nanotubes are so slender that a bundle of a million of them could be inserted into the blood stream and steered into the brain, giving us a nearly 10,000-fold increase in neural bandwidth, without any brain surgery at all.

Even so, we're a long way from having such a device. We don't actually know how long it'll take to make the breakthroughs in the hardware to boost precision and remove the need for highly invasive surgery. Maybe it'll take decades. Maybe it'll take more than a century, and in that time, direct neural implants will be something that only those with a handicap or brain damage find worth the risk to reward. Or maybe the breakthroughs will come in the next ten or twenty years, and the world will change faster. DARPA is certainly pushing fast and hard.

Will we be ready? I, for one, am enthusiastic. There'll be problems. Lots of them. There'll be policy and privacy and security and civil rights challenges. But just as we see today's digital technology of Twitter and Facebook and camera-equipped mobile phones boosting freedom around the world, and boosting the ability of people to connect to one another, I think we'll see much more positive than negative if we ever get to direct neural interfaces.

In the meantime, I'll keep writing novels about them. Just to get us ready.

This has been a busy month for my backlist: "Accelerando" has just been published in French for the first time, and "Halting State" is due out in Italian really soon ...

But there's something new on the horizon.

The Phantom League, which came out in 2010, is a space-trading board game in the lineage of "Elite"; you're the captain of a merchant spaceship, exploring new star systems, establishing trade routes, engaging in acts of piracy and otherwise trying to get one up on your rival players. It's a whole lot of fun, and the game has evolved over the past five years, with several expansion packs and updates.

Well, I'm pleased to announce that the forthcoming second edition is going to be based in the universe of Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise! In the new game you take a role of an individual, with ambition and a ship, not an Admiral of some mighty armada, conquering planets. It's all personal: your goal is to become the most famous (or infamous) spaceship captain in the whole galaxy—whatever it takes. Here's the Announcement; you can sign up to a newsletter for further updates as the game gets closer to release.

Okay, discuss.

Two notes:

1. Here's the historic 1945-2010 election turnout chart broken down by UK country. Here are some notes on historic turnout by the Independent, going a little off-message (their Russian owner insisted they back the Conservative party). Turn-out is currently estimated around 62-63% of the electorate, but hit 82% in parts of Scotland, and seems to have averaged around 75%.

2. Ed Miliband (Labour leader) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat leader) both look likely to resign. Meanwhile the count isn't final yet, but the Conservatives are on course to form a narrow majority (22 seats to declare, 13 needed, LD on 8, so if they get 5 more seats they can form a Con/LD coalition, and 13 to rule outright).

NB: Play nice. Moderators will be wielding yellow and red cards freely in event of any gloating/triumphalism or sour grapes: let's keep this polite

UPDATE as of 12:40pm it's a confirmed Conservative majority. Clegg, Miliband, Farage resigning (rumours that they are to be the new Top Gear line-up cannot be confirmed at this time). 30% swing to SNP in Scotland virtually wipes out all other parties—Labour, Conservatives and LibDems down to 1 seat each. Interesting times ahead ...

The UK is heading for a general election next Thursday, and for once I'm on the edge of my seat because, per Hunter S. Thompson, the going got weird.

The overall electoral picture based on polling UK-wide is ambiguous. South of Scotland—meaning, in England and Wales—the classic two-party duopoly that collapsed during the 1970s, admitting the Liberal Democrats as a third minority force, has eroded further. We are seeing the Labour and Conservative parties polling in the low 30s. It is a racing certainty that neither party will be able to form a working majority, which requires 326 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats lost a lot of support from their soft-left base by going into coalition with the Conservatives, but their electoral heartlands—notably the south-west—are firm enough that while they will lose seats, they will still be a factor after the election; they're unlikely to return fewer than 15 MPs, although at the last election they peaked around 50.

Getting away from the traditional big three parties, the picture gets more interesting. The homophobic, racist, bigoted scumbags of UKIP (hey, I'm not going to hide my opinions here!) have picked up support haemorrhaging from the right wing of the Conservative party; polling has put them on up to 20%, but they're unlikely to return more than 2-6 MPs because their base is scattered across England. (Outside England they're polling as low as 2-4%, suggesting that they're very much an English nationalist party.) On the opposite pole, the Green party is polling in the 5-10% range, and might pick up an extra MP, taking them to 2 seats. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (who are just as barkingly xenophobic as UKIP) are also set to return a handful of MPs.

And then there's Scotland.

Not too long ago, someone in the twittersphere asked, "Whatever happened to psi? It used to be all the rage in science fiction."

The answer, essentially, was that John Campbell died and nobody believes in that crap any more. And anyway, it's fantasy.

Now here's the thing. If you accept Clarke's Third Law, which boils down in the common wisdom to "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," you kind of have to ask, "Do we believe psi is crap because it really is crap, or do we just not have the technology to detect or manipulate it?"

Hi! This week, for a change, I'm handing over the soapbox to a new guest blogger—one who's been publishing books almost since I was in high school: Judith Tarr.

Her first fantasy novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985, and went on to win the Crawford Award. Her space opera, Forgotten Suns, has just been published by Book view Café. In between, she has written historicals and historical fantasies--including World Fantasy Award nominee Lord of the Two Lands—and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. A short story, "Fool's Errand," a prequel to Forgotten Suns, appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Analog. She lives in Arizona with three cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

OK, here's an idle thought (and a question) for you ...

A couple of weeks ago at the British Eastercon I found myself on a panel discussion about vampires. (Hey, I've been trying to get the hell away from being Mr Singularity Guy for years now; what's your problem?)

Anyway, there I was sitting with Freda Warrington and Jim Butcher, and our moderator opens up by asking, "what makes vampires sexy?"

And I suddenly realized I had come to the right place for an argument. Because ...

Vampires are not sexy. At least, not in the real world.

So IO9 ran a piece by George Dvorsky on ways we could wreck the solar system. And then Anders Sandberg responded in depth on the subject of existential risks, asking what conceivable threats have big enough spatial reach to threaten an interplanetary or star-faring civilization.

This, as you know, is basically catnip for a certain species of SF author. And while I've been trying to detox in recent years, the temptation to fall off the wagon is overwhelming.

(Warning: some links lead to to triggery ranting. As James D. Nicoll warns: "memetic prophylactic recommended".)

By now, everybody who cares knows that the nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards reflect the preferences of a bloc-voting slate with an agenda—and their culture wars allies. But, interestingly, a new Hugo-related record has been set: for a Finnish publisher few people have ever heard of is responsible for no fewer than nine nominated works.

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