Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 31 Oct 2002

Tools for writers

Here's a brief rant about digital writing instruments and my experiences with same.

I write for a living -- roughly half a million words a year -- so this is a topic close to my heart. I currently write on a laptop. My laptop is equivalent in power to a desktop PC, which is nice. But it's not ideal, for several reasons:

  1. Weight. It weighs 2.5Kg. This is enough that I can sling it in a shoulder bag because it'd do my neck in. (Laptop backpacks rule.) An ideal writing instrument should be no heavier or bulkier than a 200-sheet pad of A4 paper, i.e. weigh under 1Kg and fit in a rectangular volume of about 2cm x 30cm x 230cm (1 inch x 12 inch x 9 inch). Laptops simply don't go there unless you pay eye-watering amounts of money (see "Cost" below).
  2. Battery life. It's an Apple iBook and very good at power management -- it can run for all of 4 hours on the road before I have to swap batteries or plug it in. Other laptops I've owned drained their batteries in as little as 30 minutes or as much as 3 hours. In my view, 4 hours is the minimum tolerable life; it's barely enough for a long train journey or flight. You can get laptops with longer battery lives but they sacrifice performance and cost eye-watering amounts of money (see "Cost" below).
  3. Fragility. Drop it from a height of one metre onto a carpeted floor. How well will it cope? (See "Cost" below.)
  4. Cost. A full laptop costs an alarming amount of money; I can buy a used car and run it for a year for less than I paid for mine. It defeats the object of the exercise to have a portable tool that is so fragile you can't drop it off the edge of a table, so expensive you don't dare take it out of the house without keeping it under guard all the time, and so power-hungry that you need to take a supply of spare batteries and a mains transformer if you go away with it for a weekend.

Ultimately, my laptop is just an all-in-one-desktop PC with a flat panel display and a built-in uninterruptable power supply. Whoop-de-doo. What does a real portable writer's machine need to do?

The technology to build what I want in a mobile writing instrument has existed for ten years or more -- maybe even fifteen. Here's what I want:

  1. Weight. Should not weigh more than 1Kg or occupy a bigger space than an A4 writing pad. That is; I should be able to stuff it into a shoulder bag without noticing the extra drag it creates.
  2. Power. Should have a battery life of at least 8 hours. Batteries must be cheap commodity items; no weird proprietary cells that cost GBP 150 every two years when they lose condition and have to be replaced. Ideally it should run for at least ten hours on a pair of "AA" rechargeables. Oh, and it mustn't lose its memory when power levels drop too low or the batteries are removed for replacement (yes, I mean you, Clive Sinclair!).
  3. Fragility. I don't expect miracles, but I don't want fragile hinges and huge LCD screens that distort if you flick them with a fingertip. A black-and-white screen able to hold 25 lines of 80 column text, and readable by reflected daylight or office light, would do fine. (I need a higher contrast ratio than the Psion Series 5 provided, though; say equivalent to a Psion 3a, or a Palm III.) Unfortunately the Palm standard screen size -- 160x160 pixels -- is just too small to see that 80x25 text. Maybe the new 320x320 Tungsten Palms will do, but they violate the power rule (above) and the cost rule (below). Bah, humbug.
  4. Cost. This is highly subjective; Bill Gates could afford a new Mac Powerbook every day, whereas a student might find replacing a second-hand Palm III a serious drain on their expenses. But I'd say if the writing machine costs more than US/EU $500, it is too expensive. That's about twice the cost of a decent mobile phone, twice the cost of all the clothes on my back (footgear included). It needs to be able to pass the swimming pool test: i.e. "if I fall in a swimming pool, how badly would it inconvenience me?"
  5. Input methods. There Can Be Only One: I require a full-sized laptop-grade QWERTY keyboard, dammit! (I've tried Graffiti. I've tried the old NewtonOS handwriting recognition. Pens suck. End of discussion.) I have no objection to other input methods being available -- speech, pen, telepathy, whatever -- but I'm a writer and writers use keyboards. It needs to be a full-sized keyboard I can touch-type on, and it needs to be rigid enough I can use it in my lap. (Hey, Think Outside have been listening -- they just demo'd a folding keyboard for the Palm Tungsten that looks as if it might almost be what I'm looking for.)
  6. Storage. I'm not after a mobile multimedia centre; I've got a walkman, dammit. What I want is sufficient storage for a years' worth of writing projects, and a single 128Mb solid state memory card is more than adequate. But it does need to be non-volatile, and able to survive accidents that might trash the machine its installed in. Fragile hard disks are one of the biggest drawbacks of laptops (after the screen). Finally, we're getting somewhere -- 256Mb CF cards retail for under $200 these days.
  7. Compatability. I'm a writer; if I write something I want it to be accessible in thirty years' time. Weird proprietary object stores with hot-synch tools that only work on one particular release of Windows don't cut it. (Are you listening, Psion? No, I thought not.) I'm willing to settle for the ability to edit plain ASCII, or preferably UTF-8 unicode, and use TCP/IP-based protocols to move files on or off the machine via ethernet or 802.11 or similar. I'll settle for less bells and whistles just as long as the file formats are Standard with a capital 'S'. RTF is just barely standard -- I can hold my nose and use it, but it's still controlled and defined by one of the worst offenders in the field of proprietary file formats.
    Here's a hint: Palm have traditionally got compatability right -- they used a proprietary data store but published all the specifications and libraries you need to get into it, and support connectivity on a wide range of desktop machines. Psion, in contrast, didn't.

So. What have I tried?

Cambridge Z88: Pros: the keyboard. Cons: screen was muddy and only had 7 lines, and it had a dismaying tendency to lose its memory. Plus, data transfer at 1Kb/sec is just *too* slow these days.

Psion 3a/3c/3mx: Pros: compatability, application suite, price, power. Cons: keyboard and screen too small, Word limited to 40Kb documents, memory cards weird and proprietary.

Psion 5/5MX: Pros: better keyboard, bigger screen than Series 3. Takes CF cards so storage limits not an issue. Cons: lousy compatability with the non-MS universe, keyboard still too small, screen muddier than Series 3a.

Palm III/m505: Pros: external keyboards are great, compatability is great, newer ones take SD cards for expansion, cheap, good battery options. Cons: screen is just too small for composition.

Apple Newton: Pros: hmm, have to think hard. Cons: costs as much as a laptop and they don't make them any more. Pass.

Windows CE machines: Pros: usually have okay keyboards (especially "Jupiter" class machines), good colour screens. Cons: cost creeping up, compatible only with Windows, sod-all third party software, and you have to use the Windows CE user interface. (What maniac thought it was a good idea to put the "OK" button in dialog boxes in the sodding window frame next to the "close window" button?)

HP Omnibook 300: a 1990-vintage laptop built by HP's calculator division. Can run off 4 "AA" cells, can use memory cards in a PCMCIA slot, amazing battery life, black-and-white reflective VGA screen. Sadly, you can't buy them any more (they were £2000 when they were new!), and it's a 386/20 running in 286 mode with Windows 3.0 and Microsoft Word for Windows 2.0 on it; it's hard to get it to run anything else. *Slightly* too heavy to fit the bill, but came bloody close (and I only paid 200 pounds for my second-hand one).

What's left to try?

Well, there's the Alphasmart Dana. I am really looking forward to seeing this -- it's like a cross between a Palm III and a Cambridge Z-88, and if the screen is usable I'm having one as a general utility/writing gadget.

There's the new Think Outside keyboard and a Palm Tungsten. The new micro- keyboard is designed to stay rigid if you put it in your lap, and sacrifices the number row on the QWERTY layout (making them option keys on the QWERTY row) -- as a writer, I can live without digits. If the Tungsten screen is able to display 80x25 text or better in Wordsmith, and if it gets a bit cheaper (heavy competition from Dell suggests it will have to), it might be the answer.

There's a second-hand Psion Series 7 or Psion NetBook. (But they're far too expensive when new, and suffer most of the same problems as a real laptop.)

There might be a cheap PocketPC 2002 machine from Dell later this year. If so, I expect Think Outside to bring out a keyboard for it. If the Linux for iPaq folks port Linux to it, it might be a contender for me. (As it is, it's tied too closely to Windows -- see "Compatability" above.)

But I am still amazed that, fifteen years on from the Z88, nobody has built a machine that does what I want in a mobile writing platform. But I can guess why. Here's a clue: any company who builds a machine like the one I want will face the same dilemma as the Victorian pram manufacturers. Talk about the triumph of marketing over common sense ...

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 13:14 # G

The Cutie Bunch Friendly Pal Pack

I thought this 'toon by Angus Oblong was vaguely cute. (Personally, I like my 'toons raw; how about you?)

[ Link (Thanks Feorag!)] [ Discuss pomo ]

Posted at 12:47 # G

Wed, 30 Oct 2002

Sons of Samhain 2, tomorrow in Edinburgh

Sons of Samhain 2
Downstairs at the Canons' Gait, 232 Canongate, Edinburgh
8pm, Thursday 31 October 2002
Price: £2 (concessions: £1)

Tomorrow night.

Be there, or settle for missing the opportunity to heckle yr. hmbl. blggr.

[ Link ]

Posted at 17:16 # G

Tue, 29 Oct 2002

Flexible fun

Getcher flexible roll-up USB keyboard here!

(Yeah, I know this is pathetic. So bite me: I'm averaging 18,000 words a week and only a few days from coming out of Sequel Hell. And you wonder why I'm obsessing about keyboards?)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 20:19 # G

Mon, 28 Oct 2002

Big anti-war demos in USA

Turns out that, even though the mainstream media barely noticed it, there were huge anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC and San Francisco last weekend -- participants claimed a turn-out of over 100,000 people at each city, making these the biggest anti-war demos in North America since the Vietnam war.

Events like this simultaneously remind me that the majority of Americans haven't taken leave of their senses -- and worry me, because the almost total silence of the mainstream media in the face of such enormous expressions of public dissent is ominous in the extreme.

Who 0WNZ your free speech?

[ Link ] [ Discuss NWO ]

Posted at 19:22 # G

There goes my work schedule

The eleven kilo crate of books I bought at ConJose has finally arrived, 7-8 weeks after I sent it. All good stuff, most of it very hard to get hold of in the UK.

Now I have to work with an entire shelf of goodies staring at me ...

Posted at 13:46 # G

Computing with Time Machines

Here's the abstract for this paper, by Todd Brun of the Institute for Advanced Study:

A computer which has access to a closed timelike curve, and can thereby send the results of calculations into its own past, can exploit this to solve difficult computational problems efficiently. I give a specific demonstration of this for the problem of factoring large numbers, and argue that a similar approach can solve NP-complete and PSPACE-complete problems. I discuss the potential impact of quantum effects on this result.

It seems to be a somewhat more rigorous treatment of this article by Hans Moravec, pointing out that access to wormholes linking two disjoint locations in spacetime -- note the "space" syllable -- can use the grandfather paradox (in time travel) to collapse complex iterated calculations into a single step.

The really interesting insight Todd Brun contributes is that it's not only NP-complete problems but also PSPACE-complete ones that can succumb to timelike computing attacks. PSPACE-complete problems are those where the amount of storage required to process the results of the computation increases as some polynomial function of the input data. (I think it's reasonable to say that most complex what-if simulations fall within the scope of this problem domain -- i.e. they're at most PSPACE-complete, if not easier to solve. Any takers?)

Science fiction authors should take note: as general relativity tells us that time travel is barely distinguishable from faster-than-light travel, it follows that if FTL is possible, these computational tricks should also be possible. That is: a universe that has faster-than-light starships is also likely to be the home of vastly superhuman intelligences and entities with access to privileged information about the future -- oracles.

(And yes, I read the Moravec essay before I wrote my novel "Singularity Sky", which is due out in August next year and attempts to take these issues seriously.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 11:56 # G

Sat, 26 Oct 2002

Nigerian Spammers vs. Cthulhu

Here is a truly inspired exchange of email -- between a 419 fraudster from Nigeria ("Dr David Ehizojie, the principal partner of David, Ayo & Co. Chambers") who made the mistake of trying to obtain the bank account details of "Randolph Carter" ("an anthropological researcher with Miskatonic University, in Arkham").

Recently, in the course of researching the belief systems of some obscure Polynesian cultures, I came across some fragmentary references to a god "Cthulhu." After more research, I found scattered references to Cthulhu in Egyptian, Mongolian, and several African cultures. I would ask you, since you are from Nigeria, if you're familiar with the name Cthulhu, possibly pronounced something like "Kloo-loo." If you are, I would appreciate it if you could send me any information.

Hours of endless, if not aeons of deathless, fun ensue ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]

Posted at 19:32 # G

Fri, 25 Oct 2002

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you ...

Sons of Samhain 2
Downstairs at the Canons' Gait, 232 Canongate, Edinburgh
8pm, Thursday 31 October 2002
Price: £2 (concessions: £1)

Writers' Bloc, the spoken word performance group based in Edinburgh, will be running another event for Halloween at the Canons' Gait pub, in the Canongate. Sons of Samhain 2, on Thursday 31 October at 8pm, will be a mixture of stories, vignettes, poetry and music to suit the dark reputation of the night.

In times gone past Halloween was a time to light fires against the coming winter. Householders would make extra food to offer to the spirits of long dead ancestors; but the ghosts were often beaten to it by guisers, imitators of the dead who called in the hope of an extra harvest meal.

Writers' Bloc welcomes all souls, living or otherwise, for a feast of literary horror and black deeds. Descend the stairs leading to the nether regions of the Canon's Gait at the appointed time and reap the harvest of the Sons of Samhain.

[ Link ]

Posted at 18:47 # G

All your network are belong to us

Curious Yellow is a design study for a really scary worm: one that uses algorithms developed for peer-to-peer file sharing networks to intelligently distribute countermeasures and resist attempts to decontaminate the infected network.

The Curious Yellow infection should, if properly deployed, control the vast majority of the network. New directives can be sent to the entire network in less than 15 seconds. It is therefore not necessary to have the entire network gang up on a single machine in order to disable it ... if all of the nodes surrounding the target simply drop traffic routed to the target then the target becomes unreachable. The worms controlling the hosts attempting to contact the target can simply ensure that no attempt to communicate to the server is ever made. Curious Yellow can make any host simply cease to exist as far as the network is concerned.

Having total control of all of the Internet's traffic allows for other, more interesting, attacks. Traffic can be modified arbitrarily as it passes through the network. ... All of the unencrypted traffic on the Internet can also be observed. The entity controlling Curious Yellow can pick out particular individuals to monitor or gather statistical information about a large number of individuals.

Of course, Curious Yellow's control over individual computers is not limited to controlling Internet traffic. As zero-day root exploits are found and patches distributed, worms can eventually gain superuser access to all of the machines, giving them access to all of the stored information and all of the spare resources such as hard drive space and CPU cycles, and the ability to surveil all of the world's Internet-connected computer users. By sending out code updates to the network which cause Curious Yellow to metamorphasize into an anonymizing proxy network, its owners can connect anonymously to target computers and control them interactively, browsing files and watching what users do with them. ... The entity which controls Curious Yellow controls the world's computers.

Dealing with the infection once it has been detected is difficult. Once a signature has been detected for the worm, it must be codified by the various competing virus scanner manufacturers and then distributed to infected computers, probably by voluntary downloads. Naturally, once an anti-virus patch for the worm becomes publicly available on the Internet, Curious Yellow will cause that site to disappear from the Internet ...

Curious Yellow does not exist -- yet.

With any luck, it never will. Replacement of IPv4 networks with IPv6, extensive use of VPNs, use of public key cryptography to authenticate BGP and DNS records, adoption of well-understood security architectures such as those discussed in this paper, and a range of other well-known techniques would make the job of writing a Curious Yellow worm prohibitively difficult.

Unfortunately, that ain't gonna happen. From the start, the NSA militated against making TCP/IP a secure networking platform because that would also make it difficult to monitor what people were doing with it. The same network hardening techniques that would make a network resistant to Curious Yellow would also undermine the ability of the authorities to monitor their populations. And the security services like the idea of monitoring the internet because it's easier work than actual old-fashioned spying -- you get to sit in a nice warm office surrounded by expensive toys, instead of freezing your butt off on a hillside in Kandahar trying to inveigle your way into the confidence of an Al-Qaida leader.

One final note. One of Vernor Vinge's lower-probability scenarios for a hard take-off singularity is that a distributed computing project on the internet achieves human-equivalent consciousness. Curious Yellow looks remarkably, to my SF-writerly eyes, like one of the essential components of such an outbreak. (It also looks -- wearing my journalist's hat -- remarkably like something the NSA would have released five years ago, if they had a clue, but their current lobbying efforts in Congress suggest that they haven't; for better or worse, institutional inertia within the intelligence community ensures that their outlook remains at least a decade behind the times.)

What do you think?

[ Link (Thanks, Cory!) ] [ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 11:20 # G

Thu, 24 Oct 2002

Dangerous clothing

According to a study cited in the August issue of the British Journal of Plastic Surgery, surveys show 40% of men in their 30s and 40s have problems removing bras. A recent test found men spent an average of 27 seconds taking them off using both hands; right-handed men using their left hand took an average of 58 seconds. (<FNORD>This clearly begs the question of why they were wearing one in the first place.<FNORD>)

Why the British Journal of Plastic Surgery? Well, they were reporting on the reconstructive surgery required after one unfortunate fellow inflicted a really nasty torn ligament on himself.

(I think this is one for the same file as the Japanese fad for platform soles that are so high that at least one young woman managed to break her neck when she fell over ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss Dangerous Clothing ]

Posted at 10:45 # G

Wed, 23 Oct 2002

Meanwhile, in the real world ...

EverQuest is a multi-player graphical online roleplaying game, like many others descended from D&D. It turns out that the economy of EverQuest is succumbing to hyperinflation, as players realise that there are some actions they can make their characters take that generate currency in the virtual world -- and write macros to generate piles of gold pieces.

Moral of story: in cyberspace, virtual scarcity is a lousy way to run the economy.

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 18:27 # G

Tue, 22 Oct 2002

Alphasmart Dana

Looks like they're shipping. (I'm sourcing a review machine -- should be worth a write-up in Shopper, and anyway these wonderful gadgets are wasted on their target market, primary school children.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]

Posted at 22:13 # G

Wombats at dawn

(This is probably funnier if you read A Colder War first ...)

Apparently the following turned up on the Culture Mailing List (for devotees of Iain M. Banks):

Brad DeLong said:

> Clearly what we need now are Wombats of Mass Destruction.

Lester Hecht is writing a report that scares him. It's a hot summer night in Langley and yet he feels cold. He finishes typing a sentence then reaches across his desk and slides another plain brown envelope into the lamp's small circle of light. As he moves to open it, he notices his hand is shaking. He puts the envelope down, leans back in his chair and closes his eyes for a few moments. It's late and he's been working on this hellish material for many hours and his eyes hurt and he wishes he'd never learned these things, that he could just forget it all. He reaches for his cigarettes, lights one, and breathes deeply. A minute passes, then another. Finally he feels his resolve return and opens the envelope.

Lester slides a photocopy of a newpaper article from a now defunct Iraqi propaganda paper out of the envelope. It shows the dictator standing with a small group of children, smiling. He's not quite pulling off "benevolent" but seems to have effortlessly hit "sinister". In the background are lines of cages. There is a large sign in arabic, and below that a smaller sign in English that says "Karbala Petting Zoo".

He puts the sheet aside, and removes the next item. It is an image from a Cheyenne photoreconaissance satellite passing high over Diwaniyah. The analysts from the National Reconaissance Office have already been over the image, covering it with little boxes and helpful labels. It shows a number of low buildings somewhere deep in the Iraqi desert. A bulldozer is visible next to the rough track along which vehicles from Karbala have been arriving under cover of darkness. There are guard posts, some APCs, barracks. He squints at a fuzzy, organic shape labelled "anomaly" for a little while and then puts the image aside.

Next up is a photgraph of Saddam's birthday parade. It is taken from some high vantage point, but not from the air. Perhaps the photographer was in one of the hotels overlooking the parade route. A column of tanks and rocket launchers is passing one of the dictator's doubles, who is looking suitably grim and determined in the face of the Zionist-Imperialist Menace. The vehicle immediately in front of him is different to the others. It is the launch platform for a SCUD-2 missile, but it carries no rocket. Instead the heavy truck is modified to carry a cubic box covered with a tarpaulin. The wind is blowing the tarp against the cage and beneath it is the barest impression of bars. Lester knows that beneath the cover is a cage. Now, from the other intelligence reports, he knows what lies within that cage. Finally, chillingly, he has learned that it isn't a bluff.

Once more, he leans back in his chair and wonders how to tell the President that Iraq now has Wombats.

[ Link ] [ Discuss (thanks to Richard Baker) ]

Posted at 22:09 # G

Big Brother called while you were out ...

I'm just back from Dublin. It's been a relaxing weekend, indulging in my favourite private vices -- buying books, drinking with friends, and being rained on. (Well, maybe not that last item.) Octocon was about as small and friendly as I'd expected, and I've remembered why I used to do lots of small friendly SF cons. Maybe next year ...

Then I got home to find that yes, Toto, this is the twenty-first century -- and I'm not entirely happy with it.

The Observer have broken a fun little story about celldar being developed in the UK. This isn't entirely news; New Scientist ran a story about celldar a couple of years ago, pointing out that it can in principle defeat the stealth technology used by modern combat aircraft and missiles. Stealth relies on the craft being shaped to reflect radar pulses away from the transmitter/receiver, making it appear much dimmer. Celldar doesn't use a single radar transmitter; it uses the cellphone network, and smart receivers that can synthesize a whole bunch of noisy return signals from all directions to see what's going on. Because stealth designs are optimized to work against one problem -- a radar transmitter located ahead of the aircraft -- they work badly against distributed mesh systems like celldar.

What I didn't spot is that celldar is being developed -- in conjunction with terahertz radar -- for distributed local-scale radar surveillance. Who needs video cameras everywhere when there's an invisible sea of tagged radio waves that you can track moving objects through (by working out what's blocking signals from different transmitters)? It should have been obvious from the zeitgeist; software defined radio is upsetting a lot of apple carts right now. But somehow I didn't twig to the possibility that within a couple of years there are going to be Big Brother devices out there that let any cop or spook with access to the cellphone exchanges literally see right through walls and track moving objects -- people, cars, whatever. At least you can see a TV camera and tag it with spray paint. What the hell does celldar do to our concept of privacy?

[ Link ] [ Discuss Big Brother ]

Posted at 20:10 # G

Thu, 17 Oct 2002

A long weekend

Tomorrow I'm going to stand in front of an audience and deliver a powerpoint-oid talk about Linux on the corporate desktop. Then I'm going to go home, pick up my luggage, and head off to Dublin for a long weekend with Feorag at Octocon, the Irish national SF convention.

If anything interesting happens I'll try to get enough connectivity to blog it. (Or not.) Normal service may be resumed next Tuesday night.

[ Link ] [ Discuss cons ]

Posted at 17:44 # G

A new toy shop on the web

Well, I've managed to talk myself out of buying a 20Gb iPod until I complete the first draft of the current novel -- pretty essential motivation, as (a) I'm only about two weeks away from that point, and (b) it's dragging a little -- but what did I do but run across another toy shop on the web? I'll swear you can buy anything online these days.

I could really go for the home railgun kit. Or the multi-level marketing scheme. Or even the robotic Ayn Rand. Drool. Unleash the inner villain within -- handy low-cost credit terms available!

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 17:24 # G

Wed, 16 Oct 2002

Petition bombing

There's an online petition of writers and artists opposed to the war on Iraq. Cory Doctorow blogged it in BoingBoing:

Science fiction and fantasy writers are among more than 100 artists who have signed an online petition opposing military action in Iraq. Signatories include SCI FICTION editor Ellen Datlow and writers Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Goldstein, John Kessel, Kelly Link and Michael Moorcock, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web site reported.

"Science fiction writers have a special interest in the future, and the U.S. policy on Iraq is putting our future at risk," said Douglas Lain, the Portland, Ore., man who co-wrote the petition with New Zealand author Tim Jones, the SFWA site reported. "It's no wonder that so many fine writers in the genre are coming out in opposition to Bush and his war."

Trouble is, the petition's been discovered by the knuckle-draggers. And the list of signatories has been web-bombed by the fuckwits; there's nothing quite so illuminative of the mind-set of the "nuke 'em till they glow then shoot 'em in the dark" crowd as the turd-shaped comments they've scattered through the list.

Just what do the idiots think they're achieving, anyway? Trying to shout down the opposition is about the one historically proven technique for ensuring that people pay attention to what they're saying.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]

Posted at 17:21 # G

Mon, 14 Oct 2002

Shameless self-promotion interlude

Looks like I've sold another book. Subject to contract, Golden Gryphon will be publishing a hardback edition of my short novel The Atrocity Archive next year.

"The Atrocity Archive" was originally serialised in Spectrum SF; it was reviewed by Richard Horton in Locus; and subsequently by Nick Gevers (Locus, August 2002), who wrote: "Building on A Colder War, his superb short story of a few years ago, Stross has written a supernatural thriller of extraordinary conceptual magnetism, in the same league as Tim Powers's not dissimilar Declare." Together with the sequel novella The Concrete Jungle, and an introduction by Ken MacLeod (both written specifically for this book), it should be appearing in hardback in autumn/winter of 2003.

(Maybe it's risking fate's wrath to talk about it before the contracts are signed, the advance is paid and the paper's with the printer, but I'm ever so slightly over the moon about this ...)

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 15:24 # G

Fri, 11 Oct 2002

Inventing the Victorians

"According to Virginia Woolf, the modern world began on a spring evening in 1908 when she and her sister Vanessa received a visit from Lytton Strachey at their flat in Gordon Square. Strackey walked into the drawing room and pointed to a stain on Vanessa Stephen's dress. "Semen?" he enquired. It is not recored whether his guess was correct. Woolk's account, in Moment's of Being, is more interested in the question than the answer:

With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good ... it was, I think, a great advance in civilization.

And like all advances in civilization, it required that the previous order be shown to be less civilized, less interesting, less sexy in every significant way than the new, the modern, set.

In "Inventing the Victorians" Matthew Sweet takes ferocious aim at all our received wisdom about the social order of the nineteenth century. Victorianism as we understand it is, he claims, a construction of the Bloomsbury set and the modernists, radical poseurs who wanted to portray themselves as progressive and who, in order to do so, painted an exaggerated frumpy burlesque of the preceeding generation as regressive. Their narrative formed the last word on the Victorians, for by the time they were putting it together those few survivors of the era who might rebutt them were old and tired; and so it has been allowed to stand, enshrined and mythologised, accepted without question.

Take stuffy Victorian etiquette guides, as found in any number of libraries and fetishized by those people who look to the Victorians as some sort of acme of anal-retentive protocol. But much of it was founded on more pragmatic understanding. From the changing cutlery to use when eating fish -- determined by the reaction of mild steel cutlery (produced in bulk via the Bessemer process) with the vinegar-based sauces popular with English cooks, and the later availability of electroplated silverware -- to the injunction that "ladies do not eat cheese" (especially when it's unrefrigerated runny French brie, made with unpasteurised listeria-laden milk, and the ladies might be pregnant), there's far more common sense to it than the advocates of Victorian up-tightness might believe. And modernist views of Victorian etiquette are just one of the topics that come up for Sweet's jaundiced re-evaluation.

There's not a whole lot that's new under the sun in the way humans behave towards on another; which makes it all the stranger that our view of the Victorians as being quaint, alien strangers with no resemblance to ourselves has stood unchallenged since the 1920's. But many of those facets of our own culture that we hold most fervently to be evidence of our own modernity are in fact constructs that surfaced during the reign of the laughing queen -- a woman noted for her low sense of humour, and whose depiction in many photographs as having a laugh like a drain was covered up in the interests of royal dignity. The Victorians invented modern marketing and advertising, including such deplorable practices as spamming by telegram. Thomas Hardy grappled with movie rights. Salacious and sexual, the Victorians had no less -- and no more -- trouble with sex than we do today; the endless shelves of dusty tomes advocating continence were as representative of their age as "The Surrendered Wife" is of our own. And all told, the Victorians come over as being closer to our present day reality than the Bloomsbury crowd.

[Link (via Amazon)] [ Discuss book reviews ]

Posted at 21:11 # G

Thu, 10 Oct 2002

Brief interlude ...

I'm upgrading my laptop to run OS/X 10.2, aka Jaguar. This entails rebuilding scads of software, so I'm a wee bit distracted right now. Coming up after the break: a review of "Inventing the Victorians" by Matthew Sweet, or maybe a rant about the evils of UNIX.

Posted at 19:53 # G

Tue, 8 Oct 2002

Charlie Stross's unmistakably outrageous deception

A guest editorial by R. Robot:

I ask you, has our Republic seen the like of this cheap moral equivalence? Like Saddam, Charlie Stross believes in a shockingly internecine philosophy of treachery. There's no room in the camp of the child-molesting National Public Radio set for our faith-based truth. Charlie Stross and his vile Democrats are at it again. "I have a few questions I'd like to ask about this," he said in a New York Times op-ed. It is tempting to accept this verdict as all the proof needed that Condie Rice is solidly on the right track. But the argument needs to be addressed, not because it is not foolish but because it is the fashion among fools, and because those fools are shockingly internecine fools.

"I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war," says Charlie Stross. For shame! It is tempting to accept this verdict as all the proof needed that George W. Bush is solidly on the right track. But the argument needs to be addressed, not because it is not foolish but because it is the fashion among fools, and because those fools are cunningly ad-hominem fools.

Last week Charlie Stross went so far as to leave the mainstream completely and enter a kind of execrable alternate universe of negligent duplicity.

We must build the pro-war regime change.

[ Link (for more bot-generated warblogger rants; thanks, Patrick!)] [ Discuss pomo ]

(Now if only I could figure out how to get my words into the New York Times for real ..! )

Posted at 17:20 # G

Fri, 4 Oct 2002


Off to visit family in Leeds this weekend. No updates for a while ...

Posted at 12:43 # G

Wed, 2 Oct 2002

Transhumanism and its enemies

While I was at the worldcon, I got chatting with Karl Schroeder, author of "Permanence" and "Ventus" among other things. I've been getting a lot of hype for my short stories lately, and Karl had picked up on it. However, he'd drawn some rather odd conclusions about me, namely that I was a hardcore transhumanist, some kind of extropian extremist. ("Compulsory mind uploading! Dismantle the moon! Immortality today and forevermore!")

We got past the ideological misunderstanding fairly quickly: but it set me thinking. Just why does the whole posthumanist agenda put some people's backs up? One might think that the idea of transcending human limitations imposed by nature -- such as old age and death, our fundamental lack of intelligence, and any other constraint that's a function of random chance rather than intelligent choice -- was a good idea. And how could anyone possibly object to other people being allowed to persue such goals? It's not as if it would ever be compulsory, after all ...

Well, maybe. As Karl pointed out, technologies change the world; once the cat's out of the bag, it's very hard to stuff it back inside. And it's a very important, very big, cat. The idea of being able to fundamentally change human nature is the most interesting and important one to have come out of the science fiction field and into the public regard in the past decade. I'm working in a desultory manner towards a paper on transhumanism and its malcontents, and here's my first stab at identifying people who will probably come out in opposition to the whole idea when it surfaces in the public zeitgeist:

  1. Suppose you're a religious conservative living in a world where those pesky transhumanists are getting into immortalism in public. You may well consider you have a moral obligation to prevent them from using technology that lets them prolong their lives -- because if they do so, they're putting off the time when they get to die and go to meet their Father in Heaven.
  2. Even if you're a religious conservative who doesn't believe in interfering in the neighbours' business, there are arguments against transhumanism. The transhumanist philosophy emphasizes "jam today, no need to wait until tomorrow". This approach is seductive and can mislead the young who the old and wise have a duty of care towards. (This is a variant on the religious conservative argument, emphasizing an obligation of responsibility towards the group. Non-stasist ideologies are deeply subversive to a patriarchal stasist society.) Moreover, just by existing, the transhumanists are a threat to religious conservatives. Transhumanism explicity denies the validity of the human limits that such lifestyles affirm as existing through divine providence. By doing so, transhumanism is implicitly in denial of religious doctrine. (And I don't see any way to make this contradiction go away.)
  3. All new technologies offer new opportunities for abuse, as well as benefits. Anyone can come up with a list of horrors that nanotechnology and full control over the genome could unleash upon us. It is easier to try to deal with these problems by simply banning the entire technology than by thinking about it and working out how to use different components of it to regulate the threatening ones. People who like easy solutions therefore have a constant temptation to go for the total ban. Democratically elected politicians within the current international regime in particular need to be seen "doing something" to justify re-election to their voters, but there's very little they can do to the economy for example that has a substantial effect. Hence the slide towards gesture laws such as the USA's Communications Decency Act, Children's Online Protection Act, the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and so on.
  4. Mohammed Atta and friends would have found it much harder to slaughter thousands if airliners didn't exist. Barbarians will adopt new technologies for destructive ends, and they won't hold off perverting them to their ends simply because it's illegal. (This is support for argument [3] above.)
  5. About 10% of any population of humans will resist change in the workplace, whether or not it's going to make their job easier or more fun or better rewarded, simply because they have difficulty understanding what's going on. When you have a technological revolution, it tends to put people out of work. (See "rust belt".) Transhumanists propose the full-on maximum-speed adoption of technologies that will at a mimimum cause adaptation problems for those people who don't want to learn how to do their job better, much less bolt a supercomputer into their brain and re-arrange their personality to accomodate the job. (There are sound reasons rooted in evolutionary biology for human beings being instinctively conservative about change. In the natural state, if you change too fast you risk dying. Even if there is no immutable "human nature" at work -- and in spite of the fact that humans are the most behaviourally plastic primate species we know of -- it's still a powerful tendency, and transhumanists are working in direct opposition to it.)
  6. Riffing off of [5] above, most political philosophies adopt one of two competing axioms about human 'nature' -- that it is static, that you can't change people, that they're born the way they are and never change, or that they're infinitely adaptable and you can not only breed a better starting point but you can turn a Cockney shopkeeper into a duchess. I'm going to label these the "nature" and "nurture" axioms.
    These two viewpoints are not automatically correlated with "conservative" and "progressive" ideologies. It's true that the Soviet communist planners were strongly on the "nurture" side (to the extent of adopting Lysenkoism during the Stalin era), but the converse (capitalists are "nature" ideologues) isn't true. However, there is a political tendency that believes the "nature" axiom whole-heartedly -- monarchism -- and it isn't extinct even in the USA. Americans talk jokingly about blue- bloods and Boston Brahmins and political dynasties like the Kennedys and the Bushes, but these groups genuinely have a reason to promote the hardcore "nature" argument -- because it serves as justification for their own position in the currently-extant power structure. It stops being an arbitrary positional accident of birth and inherited wealth and becomes a law of nature (as opposed to a divine right granted by God).
    Given that folks with this kind of privileged background are disproportionately represented in politics in the West, I do not believe we can rule out the opposition of aristocracy to the transhumanist agenda. The USA may have no truck with "titles of nobility" in principle, but GWB just abolished inheritance tax and there are already jokes about how long it'll be before Chelsea Clinton runs for President; less self-consciously egalitarian societies have even more entrenched elites. The transhumanist agenda is deeply threatening to people who are already at the top of a social hierarchy because it suggests to them that their position is an accident and they can be leap-frogged easily.
  7. The aristocracy argument ([6] above) also goes for the leaders of developing nations, and their populations. It does them no good to develop to late 20th century industrial status if the developed world has whizzed off into some posthuman demolish-the-moon-we-need- the-computronium transhuman condition. Poverty is both absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is the absence of physically vital materials -- water, food, shelter, clothing (in that order). Relative poverty is the absence of socially necessary materials -- being unable to play a role in civil society due to not having a TV set and therefore not knowing what's going on, not having an internet feed, having a cheap wreck of a car when all your neighbours have Mercedes, and so on. We'll always have relative poverty -- it's our shadow -- although we can strive to minimize its impact by reducing inequities in the distribution of wealth.
    However, the relative-poor (not the absolute-poor, they're too busy trying to keep from starving) will see transhumanism as a gap-widening ideology. And indeed it is; when mind backups in case of accident become available to the rich, they become an additional hurdle for the relatively poor to cross before they cease to be excluded. The gap has just widened, and it is now harder for them to catch up than it was before. (See [3] above.)

This is my list as it currently stands. It is not a complete list by any means, but it's a formidable one. Unless proponents of transhumanism can develop specific arguments for each of the resistant groups on the list, and until they can explain ourselves in sound- bites that give such groups the warm fuzzies, they're going to be viewed as dangerous neophiliacs (at best) and as clear and present dangers (at worst) by a large segment of the population.

Can you spot any groups I've missed? (And for extra bonus points, how would you going to frame an argument for transhumanism that both a billionaire heiress from Boston and a Bible-believing trailer trash from Detroit can understand?)

[ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 18:16 # G

Scribble scribble

Yeah, I know I've been quiet for a couple of days. That's what writing 3000 words and editing 15,000 words a day does to you. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I collapse ...

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 17:29 # G

Back to work

Well, I decided to press on with the current novel. It took a while, but eventually I figured out that what was wrong wasn't the book, but simply the direction it was going in. When I have writing problems they're usually the result of me trying to do something far too fancy, and I was busy digging myself into an extremely deep hole.

Rather than ditch it and start anew I decided to grit my teeth, go back, and hack the first 80,000 words into shape before continuing. The ending sequence is going to be fairly straightforward; our various hero protagonists, together with the moustachio-twirling bad guys, are aboard an interstellar liner that's been hijacked by said bad guys for extremely evil purposes. Think of it as "The Poseidon Adventure" meets "Die Hard" in space, with a plot by Christopher Brookmyre sharecropping for Iain "M" Banks. (At least, that's the design goal, alright? Nobody ever accused me of not being over-ambitious.) Anyway, this should work, for space-operatic values of "work"; but the underpinning leading up to this climax are a bit creaky, and they Need Fixing.

Be it resolved:

  • The cute talking cat with opposable thumbs is out. (I think David Weber has copyright on that one.) So is the sassy younger brother of the cute teen-age heroine. (Out the airlock, I mean, not out of the plot. Got to motivate her somehow, haven't I?)
  • The cute teen-age goth heroine wants it to be known that the next guy who calls her "cute" is going to need voice pitch lessons before his computer can understand him again. (And she's nearly twenty, anyway, and what are you staring at? Pervert.)
  • The evil bad guys bent on galactic conquest aren't bad, they're just misunderstood good guys. The sulky teen-age goth chick, however, works for the Forces of Darkness and Must Be Stopped, even though she doesn't know it. (If stopping her involves executing her family and blowing up a few planets well, we had to destroy the space station in order to liberate it, and why don't you stop asking me these tough questions, okay? Do you think it's easy being evil bad guys?) If you stare into the void for too long the void stares back, and these guys have just been in space a bit longer than they realised.
  • The sub-plot about time travel is grandfathered out. At least within this light-cone. Bonus points for this decision allow me to ensure that ...
  • ... the deus ex machina will stay very firmly "ex", where it belongs.
  • The war crimes tribunal will be reading the manuscript and making notes. (There will be an exam, later.)
  • It is possible that one or more of: the sulky teen-age goth girl, the ass-kicking heart-of-gold war crimes investigator, the bearish but idealistic journalist, the killer dwarf disguised as a clown, the war crimes investigator's husband (who is an engineer with a part- time gig fixing causality violations and broken plot mechanisms on behalf of God), or even the goth chick's green-skinned boyfriend, will Die Hideously in order to Further the Plot.
  • At least one more inhabited planet will be destroyed live, on the very page in front of you.

Phew. I think I can probably finish the book now. Or at least blow up some more real estate and go looking for a fat lady to sing the curtain down. Isn't it amazing how much fun you can have writing space opera once you approach it with the right attitude?

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 09:31 # G

Eldred v. Ashcroft: Free the Mouse!


"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

Who I am:

obligatory short bio

Buy my book (Toast):


Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Boing!Boing! ][ Electrolite (PNH) ][ Junius (Chris Bertram) ][ Amygdala (Gary Farber) ][ The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ][ This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ][ Tangent Online ][ Grouse Today ][ Hacktivismo ][ Pagan Prattle ][ Anton Sherwood ][ Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ][ Muslimpundit ][ Martin Wisse ][ The Stationmaster ][ Take it as Red ][ Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ][ Kuro5hin ][ Advogato ][ Linux Weekly News ][ The Register ][ Cryptome ][ New World Disorder ][ Technoptimist (Duncan Frissell) ][ Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ][ Simon Bisson's Journal ][ Max Sawicky's weblog ][ Gabe Choinard ][ Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ][ NTKnow ][ Encyclopaedia Astronautica ][ BBC News (Scotland) ][ Pravda ][ Meerkat open wire service ][ Die, Puny Humans! (Warren Ellis) ][ D-Squared Digest ]

Older stuff:

October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

What I'm listening to:

(Back soon)

Dead trees:

Just read: (review-o-matic)

"The Sacred Art of Stealing" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.8/5 Brookmyre does it again, in this sequel to "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away". Dadaist bank robbers and cops with personal problems combine in a comedy of criminal manners. Colour me green with envy. (I'm now up-to-date on Brookmyre, and I don't know whether to be happy or sad that there's no more to read until next year.)

"Ghost of the White Nights" (L. E. Modesitt) - 3.7/5 Spy thriller and third in series set in alternate world where ghosts are real, observable phenomena -- and history has turned out rather different. Cloak and dagger intrigue between a Dutch-dominated North America and the Tsar's military in an alternate 21st century Moscow, slightly spoiled by the plot McGuffin being nearly identical to the previous two books.

"Whole Wide World" (Paul MacAuley) - 4.9/5 Writing like Christopher Brookmyre on downers, MacAuley -- one of the UK's best practitioners of the art of hard-SF -- paints an incredibly bleak near-future internet-saturated picture of crime and punishment in the 21st century. Unmissable, and believable.

"The Praxis" (Walter Jon Williams) - 4.2/5 The kind of good old-fashioned space opera that keeps you up 'til three in the morning to see what happens next; first volume of a trilogy, the fall of the Alexandrian Empire with added aliens and intrigue.

"Dead Air" (Iain Banks) - 3.5/5 Unflinching and sharp character profile of a self-destructive wanker immolating himself wilfully. It's beautifully written, but by the time I got three-quarters of the way through it I found myself giving up due to lack of empathy with the protagonist. Who needs a serious kicking.

"Quite Ugly One Morning" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.0/5 Brookmyre's first novel, a bit less developed and slick than subsequent products but still amusing and with a rather brutal portrait of the mind of a classic Tory wide-boy villain.

"The Merchant of Souls" (John Barnes) - 4.1/5 Third volume in sequence beginning with "A Million Open Doors" and "Earth Made of Glass" -- innovative space-operatic stuff with a heavy emphasis on experiences of acculturation and loss. Paints a bleak picture of an Earth so engrossed in hedonistic solipsism that ... well, read it if you liked the first two. (I did, and I'll read the next.)

"The Duke of Uranium" (John Barnes) - 3.2/5 Lightweight fluffy kids adventure: Barnes in make-money-fast mode.

"The Collapsium" (Wil McCarthy) - 4.6/5 Picaresque hard-SF comedic throwback to the heroically cardboard days of Hugo Gernsback style ripping space opera yarns, while nevertheless being a throw-forward to a new awareness of character detail in that sub-field -- not to mention being the first to get into print with a whole new family of technologies based on structured matter of a rather exotic variety! McCarthy makes it onto my automatic-buy-in-hardcover list with this one.

"Limit of Vision" (Linda Nagata) - 4.0/5 Competent biotech/hard-SF yarn from Linda Nagata; experiment involving self-replicating neural life forms goes awry, ends up scattered across chunks of Vietnamese jungle leaving protagonists infected with neural symbiotes in stand-off with scheming corporate bureaucrats. Still scratching head over what it all means. A 21st century "The Midwich Cuckoos", only with nanotech instead of aliens?

"Chindi" (Jack McDevitt) - 2.5/5 McDevitt perpetrates space opera again. He's good at characterisation, but his characters and their culture paint a picture of a star-faring 23rd century which is whitebread middle-America writ large. And I really wish he'd come up with a different plot skeleton -- this is the third or fourth novel in a row he's used the same structure for. (He's good at suspense and occasionally dreams up a new McGuffin, but it's getting tiresome.) Verdict: not quite bad enough to put down unfinished. Which is a shame, because he's capable of much better work.

"Declare" (Tim Powers) - 5.0/5 Oh wow. I am very glad I didn't read this before I wrote "A Colder War" or "The Atrocity Archive". Like the latter, it's an explicit cross-over between the occult and the traditional British spy thriller. However, Powers is treating his material with more respect, and his portrayal of Kim Philby as the nexus of a mind-bogglingly weird extension of The Great Game should by rights be one of the classics of the sub-genre. Can be read as an exegesis on faith, a straight thriller, a horror novel, or anything in between. Truly brilliant.

"The Eyre Affair" (Jasper Fforde) - 3.7/5 You may enjoy "The Eyre Affair" if you think self-referential literary conceits are fun, but I don't, and consequently I found it somewhat lightweight, even annoying. Inspector Thursday Next works for LiteraTec as a literary detective. The novel revolves around her pursuit of the dastardly villain Acheron Hades, who has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Some cute ideas, other aspects spoiled by the lack of polish: this really needed to be written by Eugene Byrne.

"Ares Express" (Ian Mcdonald) - 5.0/5 Why in hell wasn't this on the Clarke award shortlist, or better still, the winner? Ian Mcdonald does magical realism does terraformed Mars -- touching, surreal, funny, sad, knowingly self-aware and astoundingly sensual, this novel was clearly better than almost all other SF novels published in the UK last year, and its absence from the shortlist is little short of scandalous.

"Redemption Ark" (Alastair Reynolds) - 4.2/5 Al Reynolds, master of the dark space opera: his previous two novels ("Revelation Space" and "Chasm City") were both 600 page monoliths with a good 400 page novel struggling to get out, but he's got it right at the third attempt. Compelling, plot-driven, dark far-future SF with odd echos of Bruce Sterling's seminal "Schismatrix".

"The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A social history of the North Atlantic" (John Malcolm Brinnin) - 4.5/5 Magisterial and heavily researched history of trans-Atlantic steamers, with specific reference to the society and culture of the passengers they carried. Covers the period from roughly 1800 (with the early scheduled regular sailing packets) through to 1970.

"Permanence" (Karl Schroeder) - 4.0/5 Amazingly weird space opera that takes brown dwarf star systems, ubiquitous computing, digital rights management and the Fermi paradox seriously. Let down by characterisation quality, this nevertheless fizzes with ideas.

"Bouncing off the Moon" (David Gerrold) - 3.7/5 Middle volume of a trilogy: Gerrold is re-inventing the 1950's Heinlein juvenile. Competent technique, but he tends to preach and drags the plot mechanism along on a wire. (Did I really just confess to reading this?)

"A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.8/5 Two students at a Scottish university try to form a rock band, with mixed results. Years later, one of them -- now an English teacher with a three-month-old kid -- sees the other across a crowded airport concourse. Which is odd, because he's supposed to be dead. Only he isn't: he's become the world's most wanted terrorist, and the shit is about to hit the fan in a way that only Brookmyre can deliver.

"Boiling a Frog" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.2/5 Another Parlabane novel -- this time less in love with the hero, and more thoughtful. Works well, but looks like it ought to end the series.

"One Fine Day in the middle of the Night" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 5.0/5 A Scottish high-school reunion crossed with Die Hard -- only it's much better than that. This time Brookmyre gets it right on all counts: it's the sort of novel Iain Banks would be writing if he was ten years younger and much, much angrier. Not to say funnier. (And he's pretty funny to begin with.) Wow!

"Country of the Blind" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 3.9/5 Not exactly bad, but clearly one in a series of novels about Jack Parlabane, enterprising investigative journalist (of the black-bag-job variety). Jack gets to stick it to a rather revolting politician, hard. Not the first in the series, and suffers a bit from the author clearly being a bit too in love with his hero -- but enjoyable for all that.

"Empire of Bones" (Liz Williams) - 4.1/5 Near-future SF. The aliens turn up, in the form of ambassadors from a huge, ancient empire ... and it turns out they're not interested in talking to western governments, scientists, or politicians. Instead, Jaya Nihalani, a fugitive Untouchable guerilla dying of a hideous disease, is singled out for their attention. There are wheels within wheels, and machinations between castes in the empire are going to cause earthquakes on Earth before long. Yes, it's an "aliens colonize Earth" novel. It's also an original and intelligent one that doesn't fall for the usual sad stereotypes.

"Not the end of the world" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.6/5 Whacky, extremely tight crime/conspiracy thriller centering around oceanographers, porn stars and barking mad fundamentalist preachers in LA. Well-rounded characterisation and a slick plot drag you into a Banksian exploration of the evils of religious fanaticism. Strongly recommended, and Brookmyre goes right onto my "buy on sight" list.

"Orbis" (Scott MacKay) - 0.0/5 Gave up halfway through. Characterisation shallow, basic conceit fun but implausible, background iffy, plot made of paper. (I'll give 0.0/5 for a book I gave up on after getting significantly into. I think if I'd finished it it would be on course for a 2/5, but life's too short.)

"The book of Jhereg" and "The book of Taltos" (Steven Brust) - 4.2/5 (Reprint collections of Brust's earlier Vlad Taltos novels -- heroic fantasy, but a breath of fresh air compared to most of that genre. Light reading, but fun: Brust has more talent in his little finger than Robert Jordan has in his -- no, let's not go there.)

"Bones of the Earth" (Michael Swanwick) - 4.4/5 Really truly excellent dinosaurs/time travel book, with a sting in the tale (spoiled slightly by the way the plot deconstructs to something isomorphic with Asimov's "The End of Eternity", but Swanwick is a much better writer than Asimov and it's still well worth reading)

"redRobe" (John Courtney Grimwood) - 4.0/5 (Enjoyably grim, violent, post-cyberpunkoid chase after the dead Pope's bank account details -- not in the same league as "Pashazade", but still worth reading)

"Schild's Ladder" (Greg Egan) - 3.9/5 (has structural and narrative problems)
"Effendi" (Jon Courtney Grimwood) - 4.9/5 (brilliant middle of a trilogy recapitulating George Alec Effinger's themes)
"Bold as Love" (Gwynneth Jones) - 4.5/5
"Mappa Mundi" (Justina Robson) - 4.1/5
"The British Spy Novel" (John Atkins) - 4.2/5
"Chronospace" (Allen Steele) - 2.9/5
"Vitals" (Greg Bear) - 3.8/5

Now reading:

"Citizens" (Simon Schama)
"The Scar" (China Mieville) (stalled)

To read:

(Way out of date -- I'll update this later)


Now let us peel back the foreskin of misconception and apply the wire brush of enlightenment (Geoff Miller, alt.peeves, 1992)

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