Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 30 Apr 2005

Holding pattern

Sorry, marking time right now. I've just reached the 50% point in the current novel in progress, but I have a different novel to hand in on or before July 1st that needs polishing, and a novella to write. Things are going to be quiet around here for the next few weeks.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 11:48 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 22 Apr 2005

We're going to Jupiter!

Maybe not just yet, but ...

By successfully inducing a state of reversible hibernation in mice, scientists have managed to make a mammal hibernate on demand for the very first time.

Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, led the work and reports his results in the journal Science today. "We think this may be a latent ability all mammals have - potentially even humans - and we're just harnessing it and turning it on and off, inducing a state of hibernation on demand," he said.

In his experiments, Prof Roth and his colleagues knocked mice out by making them inhale air laced with hydrogen sulphide, a chemical produced in humans and other animals which is thought to help regulate body temperature and metabolic activity. The mice were kept in a hibernation-like state for up to six hours before being returned to normal. During this time, the mice stopped moving and appeared to lose consciousness. Their breathing almost stopped and their core temperatures fell from 37C to as low as 11C.

"We have, on demand, reversibly demonstrated the widest range of metabolic flexibility that anyone has ever seen in a non-hibernating animal," Prof Roth said.

Okay, it's going to be a while before we get to human trials -- but there's a strong medical reason for going there: to allow the airlift of injured people out of remote regions without their medical condition deteriorating. And once we've got medically proven reversible hibernation, suddenly the multi-year journeys that current rocket technology imposes on us if we want to actually go visit other planets become a lot less of an insuperable obstacle.

[Link] [Discuss space]

posted at: 12:33 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 18 Apr 2005

On swings, roundabouts, and long-term trends in science fiction

(Or: dammit Ken, I wasn't going to write this just yet!)

Conversations in bars tend to bring out the armchair philosopher in me. At the drop of a hat I'll start pontificating about things I know absolutely nothing about (or worse, that I know just enough about to be dangerous). So you should take the following spiel with a pinch of salt: just because I flew a kite in front of Ken MacLeod and he didn't shoot it down at once, you shouldn't assume that this is some sort of definitive ex-cathdra statement of TRVTH issued by <snark>the new genius of British SF</snark> and hereinafter to be carved on gold tablets and paraded before the massed ranks of the SF literati. It was just a pub conversation which started with the question, "why is the Hugo novel shortlist entirely British this year?"

To some extent the British shortlist is a coincidence. There are lots of American SF and fantasy writers producing good (possibly even great, although that's a word I prefer to leave to posterity) work this decade. However, none of the usual suspects emitted a book within the right window of opportunity to pique the interest of the Hugo nominators: Dan Simmons is between volumes, as are Lois McMaster Buljold and George R. R. Martin and Connie Willis. I'm not sure what Neal Stephenson is working on after the Baroque Cycle, but it'll probably end up on the shortlist. And so it goes. These folks are all automatic Hugo nomination fodder, and for good reason -- they combine some degree of literary respectability with a dedicated following of fans. There are other American authors who deserve to be on the shortlist but aren't. By way of some examples, Bruce Sterling makes the cut with monotonous regularity in the short categories but his novels don't ever seem to push the right buttons, and there are those maverick authors who will never be on the list because they aren't seen as respectable. (I'd be extremely surprised if any novel published by Baen Books made the shortlist, for example, regardless of its merits. There's a certain degree of snobbery within the ghetto, after all, as even the most debased look for someone else to feel superior to.)

But I digress. For some reason, the USA didn't produce any nominees this year. As a large chunk of the nominations were received from American voters, and British voters are happy to vote for American nominees, it's clearly not a case of nationalist sour grapes. So what went wrong? Why did the smaller country, whose SF/fantasy output is dwarfed by that of the USA (much as its population is -- by a 1:5 ratio) sweep the shortlist?

Here's my speculation: American SF is going through a gloom-laden period induced by external social conditions, much as British SF did in the 1947-79 period (and differently, in the 1980-92 period). Extrapolative SF is often used by writers as a mirror for reflecting our concerns about the present on the silver screen of the future. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" were artefacts of the late 1940's/early 1950's paranoia about communist infiltration. "Fugue for a Darkening Island" was a dismal if-this-goes-on dirge played to the tune of Enoch Powell. "Neuromancer" was 1980's corporate deracination hooked up to an overdose of MTV, mainlining on hidden assumptions of monetarism. When SF is at its most overtly predictive -- especially when it speaks of the impending future -- it is talking about the present, capturing the zeitgeist and projecting it forward. (It takes a very special kind of imagination to capture tomorrow's zeitgeist, and all too often it goes unnoticed because it's just too damn weird to understand.)

Anyway ...

During the 1947-79 period, an era of British political history dominated by the long shadow of the retreat from empire, there was a definite note of pessimism to SF's vision of the future. Certainly there were optimistic hold-outs, but they seem (in my blurry beer-addled memory) to have been outnumbered. From John Wyndham's cosy catastrophes to "The Machine in Shaft Ten", things didn't look so good. A black, trenchant miasma hung over the typical future visualized by British writers of SF, a pessimism about the future that either lurched headling into the distance (to outrun the terminator of civilization) or revelled in decadent and decaying cultures that lusted after -- and ultimately received -- oblivion.

1979 marked the beginning of an interregnum in British SF. I believe I can say without risk of contradiction that, love her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher's government was a polarizing force in British culture. It shook society to its core, closing off some avenues and opening up others. It was a period of deep uncertainty and stark division, during which the post-war consensus established by the One Nation Conservatives and the Old Labour Party evaporated as if it had never existed.

Let me be frank: I was not and am not a Thatcher supporter. Nevertheless, I will credit her with settling the biggest questions left unanswered by the post-empire order: what was to be the future of the British economy and British society? The heavy industries -- coal, steel, shipbuilding, heavy engineering -- went to the wall. Those that survive today are much smaller specialists competing in global markets, not the archaic and historic legacy of the 19th century. And it was during the Thatcher years that the fate of the British Empire was finally sealed -- not with a bang but a firework show, as Chris Patten managed the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1996.

I believe the mood in British SF began to shift during the second Thatcher term, but the shift only got underway in earnest on Black Wednesday, September 16th 1992. I was sitting in a hotel room along with a bunch of other writers attending the annual Milford SF writers workshop when the news came through that the interest rate had risen by first 2%, then 3%, in one day flat -- and then John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, publicly announced that the UK was to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Politics in the UK largely plays second fiddle to economics, and right then and there a buzz of excitement swept round the room -- Major's capitulation marked the end of the Conservative Party's credibility as the party of sound economics, and the beginning of the end of the interregnum. The break with the post-war consensus had been made, and now a break with the polarized, bitter debate over where to go next was impending. Britain's future within the EU was becoming visible, and a new political epoch was dawning in which rather than being a retreating imperial power the culture of the UK would reflect its position as one of the poles of influence within a new, nascent superpower.

Now, the Thatcher interregnum produced a big enough sea change in British SF as it is. The polarized social debate is clearly visible in such works as Peter F. Hamilton's Greg Mandel novels, Iain Banks's Culture stories and novels, and the shattering of society into fringe cultures is reflected in a variety of works by authors as diverse as Storm Constantine and Paul McAuley. Interzone dumped a whole sackful of fish food into the aquarium by buying the early short fiction of many authors (subsequently identified as the Interzone generation), myself included. Turmoil in society reflected turmoil in the worlds envisaged in the SF authors embedded in that society wrote.

And that brings us to the British present. The new space opera is predominantly a British form within the field -- a huge irony because, as Ken notes in his weblog, much of it has its roots in American SF of the 1960's and 1970's. Here we've got Iain, of course, but also Peter Hamilton, Paul McAuley (when he isn't reinventing the scientist-detective thriller), Neal Asher, Ken MacLeod (when he holds still long enough), John Meaney, myself, and others. The epistemological and philosophical quarry that Ian Watson toiled in alone throughout the 1970's is now a vast open-cast mining complex worked by such luminaries as Justina Robson, M. John Harrison (in his second coming), and Tricia Sullivan. And the politics ...!

Politics is currently largely taboo in American SF. The dialectic is stilled by the dead hand of decisive victory: the commies lost, game over. Global capitalism uber alles is the shape of the future and there's nothing of interest to be accomplished by railing against it. In contrast, the game is very much not over in the UK. Politics lends British SF a preoccupation with the shape of ideas about how we should live, rather than stifling it with ideologically dictated parameters that define how we shall live. Writers like Jon Courtenay Grimwood, China Mieville, and Ken MacLeod are illuminating all sorts of strange nooks and crannies within the eroded heroic sculptures of the future that furnish the collective imagination. There is nothing quite like this happening in American SF today, although during the New Wave of the 1960's these questions were asked, and asked pointedly.

So. Why not?

Here I'm going to shortcircuit the endless debate and bring up my proposition: that the shape of American SF, as with British SF, is determined by the cultural zeitgeist, by the society's own vision of its future. And I propose that the American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic. The American century that dates to VJ Day, August 1945, is more than half over. Much as the shadows lengthened over the coal-driven British Empire during the age of oil, so the shadows are looming over the oil-driven American Empire. Peak Oil is a spectre haunting the corridors of Washington DC, as it haunts the centres of power in every other nation. But the United States is unusual among the industrialized nations in its dependence on oil, and its vulnerability when the price of oil begins to rise. Transportation and climate militate against the easy adoption of other lifestyles, and the demand for stability in the oil market is leading the current administration ever deeper into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.

This is not the place to list all the controversies or uncertainties haunting the American psyche in the wake of 9/11. Nor am I going to leave any hostages to fortune by prophesying either a reinvigoration of American hegemony, or a Soviet-style collapse. I'm agnostic on the matter. What I am willing to assert is that this uncertainty is haunting science fiction and warping the sort of fiction that is being written.

In American SF today there is a huge surge in the proportion of alternate history counterfactuals: as James Nicoll notes, AH is often used as a consolatory literature that, at its worst, says "we go back in time and make history happen the way it should have happened! Yay, Us! In a completely contrived scenario, we can win!"

The boom in fantasy probably needs no further explanation. Ditto the military-SF field, which at its worst reflects the self-indulgent imperialist excesses of the British penny dreadfuls of the early 20th century.

Real extrapolative near-future SF is scarce enough to make individual instances of it noteworthy. Bruce Sterling has written more than his fair share, and has lately been joined by Elizabeth Bear (whose near-future SF trilogy -- beginning with "Hammered" -- superficially resembles Mil-SF, until the ruthlessly extrapolated background becomes grimly clear). Kim Stanley Robinson is chipping away at it too, in "Forty Signs of Rain", and he even breaks the prime directive by getting all political. (But hey, what are rules for if not for breaking?)

Finally, a whole bunch of the most talented in SF, the best and the brightest, have run off to write historical fiction. Neal Stephenson leads the pack with his mammoth 17th century doorstep. Bruce Sterling's writing post-9/11 technothrillers with verve, insight, and a complete aversion to his earlier twenty-minutes-into-the-future stomping grounds. And William Gibson's last magnum opus, "Pattern Recognition", is the 1980's cyberpunk masterpiece that "Neuromancer" ought to have been -- a brilliant, literate, thoughtful, and gritty epic of near-future SF set in the second year of the twenty-first century (two years before its' publication date).

So: what's almost totally absent is convincing near-future SF about a future America that is anything other than a dystopic rubbish dump. Bleakness is the new optimism. Writers living in the USA today just don't seem enthusiastic about the near future in the way that they did as recently as the 1980's, where at least the cyberpunk future of cliche was a vaguely habitable pastiche of the globalized present. They are, in fact, exhibiting the same canary-in-a-sociological-coalmine mallaise as British SF writers of the 1960's and 1970's. When the future looks grim, how on earth can you write optimistically about it?

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:10 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Apr 2005

Eyes lie bleeding

So I'm 39,000 words into the novel and my eyes won't focus on the same window at the same time. I can't focus, can't concentrate, I've only done 10,000 words in the past week, the deadlines are looming, and all I can do is roll my eyes in opposite directions like a goddamn chameleon.

If I was Hunter S. Thompson this would be a witty anecdote and I'd be demanding lawyers, guns, and money. But my gonzo's gone missing, my mojo's run off with my mastercard, and I don't even have any ether to pour in the legwell of my car.

Where's Dr Evil when you need him?

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 08 Apr 2005

Flowcharting Bond

Yes, I have my reasons -- mostly to do with "The Jennifer Morgue" being an overt James Bond pastiche (with added Lovecraftiana and misplaced-protagonist humour). After you've watched more than eight of these movies the common plot skeleton begins to surface. It goes back as far as the first couple of movies, made while Ian Fleming was alive and involved, but with each successive title it becomes more stereotyped. So I've been drawing flowcharts to help me:

More on this as the Bond Flowcharting Project develops ...

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 15:57 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 02 Apr 2005

New, promising rocket propellants

Yes, Poly-acetyl Ozone is ready for flight testing!

Thanks to Tom Womack for this one. ("Stable at 7 kelvin ... hypergolic with atmospheric nitrogen ... Successful flight again! Notice the exhaust trail from surface level up to the point where the primary propellant tank decomposed unexpectedly at an altitude of about 800 meters. We were very happy to see that the second stage ignited properly and climbed an additional 1,200 meters before its propellant load also decomposed unexpectedly.") Probably funniest if you've read "Ignition! A history of liquid rocket fuels" by John D. Clark.

Mars or bust!

[Link] [Discuss funnies]

posted at: 20:58 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 01 Apr 2005

Stross to Earthlings

Reports of my transcendence are regrettably lacking in a few minor details. Most notably, I am finding posthuman life rather cramped inside this Palm Pilot, and I urgently need more storage. Anyone got a spare 1Gb SD memory card?

[Link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 20:48 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Freebies online: Hugo voting minutiae

I'm back from eastercon. Still recovering from the trip and playing catch-up with work; as intimated before my departure, things are going to be quiet around here for a while.

I'm pleased to announce that my Hugo-shortlisted novellas are going up on the web:

  • The Concrete Jungle (HTML)
  • The Concrete Jungle (PDF)
  • Elector will show up later (I'll update this in due course)
  • Now, a dilemma.

    As you'll have noticed, I'm competing against myself in the "best novella" category. This is a delicate subject. Notionally, voters are supposed to vote for their favourite story. In practice, what happens is that some folks vote for the best story -- while others vote for their favourite author. A second problem is that the Hugo votes are run as a preferential vote system -- you rank your choices in order of preference. As the Hugo FAQ goes on to explain (pay attention now, this is important):

    To begin with, all of the first preference votes are counted, just like a traditional "first past the post" ballot. But then the nominee with the least number of first preference votes gets eliminated. The second preference votes for that nominee are then totaled, and added to the first preference votes of the remaining nominees. If there is no second preference, then the ballot in question is discarded. This gives us new vote totals for the remaining nominees, and the nominee with the least total votes is discarded. Once again second preferences are examined or, if the second preference has been eliminated, you go on to the third preference and so on. Eventually we will be down to just two nominees, and the one with the highest final vote total wins. The whole process then starts again from the beginning, but eliminating the winner, so that we can see who came second. And so on. (Thankfully this process is automated: the same piece of software has been used in Hugo voting for years.)

    The importance of this process is that you can rarely win a Hugo just on first preference votes. If you examine the voting patterns you will quite often see that a particular nominee gets a lot of first place votes, but drops down the order as preferences are redistributed. The system works against nominees with a small base of very enthusiastic fans and in favor of nominees with a broad base of support. So lower preferences do matter, and you should think carefully about how you use them.

    Got that? Just to recap:

    • The loser (on first preferences) is discarded
    • The second preferences for that loser are transferred to the first preference votes of the remaining nominees
    • Repeat until only one is left

    Let's look at a simple example:

    Suppose we have three candidates, A, B, and C. You want A to win, you don't mind B, and you detest C. So you rank them A -> B -> C.

    Suppose that you're in a minority and your candidate, A, comes last on first preferences. A loses the vote, but B picks up your second choice votes for the run-off between B and C.

    What does this mean for the Hugos?

    Well, what it means is that you should rank the works on the ballot in order from favourite to least favourite. You can leave blank the items you either dislike or haven't read. But having said that, if you want to vote for a hypothetical author who's on the ballot with two items in the same category, you don't have to worry about splitting the vote as long as you vote for both the items in order of preference and rank them together. If they've got items A and B of (A...E), there's not any real difference between voting A->B->C->D->E and B->A->C->D->E in terms of outcome. If A is eliminated first, the secondary votes accrue to B; if B is eliminated first, the secondaries go to A. As long as you vote for both the author's stories and rank them next to each other, you won't be splitting your vote.

    NB: I'm explaining this because I've been asked about it a lot over the past week -- by folks who are used to first-past-the-post ballots in which you can cause a preferred candidate to lose by splitting the vote. I think you should vote for whichever stories you most like, in whatever order you think best. This is a vote for the best novella, not a popularity contest for favourite author. However -- speaking personally -- I think it would be ironic if people who wanted to vote for me ended up refraining from voting for both stories because they were afraid of splitting the vote, and thereby lost it.

    [Discuss writing]

    posted at: 11:18 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


    Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
    Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
    Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
    "Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

    Quick links:

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    Who am I?

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    Buy my books: (FAQ)

    Missile Gap
    Via Subterranean Press (US HC -- due Jan, 2007)

    The Jennifer Morgue
    Via Golden Gryphon (US HC -- due Nov, 2006)

    Via (US HC -- due June 30, 2006)

    The Clan Corporate
    Via (US HC -- out now)

    Via (US HC)
    Via (US PB -- due June 27, 2006)
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    Free download

    The Hidden Family
    Via (US HC)
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    The Family Trade
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    Iron Sunrise
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    The Atrocity Archives
    Via (Trade PB)
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    Singularity Sky
    Via (US HC)
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    Via (US ebook)
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    Some webby stuff I'm reading:

    Engadget ]
    Gizmodo ]
    The Memory Hole ]
    Boing!Boing! ]
    Futurismic ]
    Walter Jon Williams ]
    Making Light (TNH) ]
    Crooked Timber ]
    Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
    Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
    Bruce Sterling ]
    Ian McDonald ]
    Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
    Cyborg Democracy ]
    Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
    Atrios ]
    The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
    This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
    Jesus's General ]
    Mick Farren ]
    Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
    Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
    Tangent Online ]
    Grouse Today ]
    Hacktivismo ]
    Terra Nova ]
    Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
    GNXP ]
    Justine Larbalestier ]
    Yankee Fog ]
    The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
    Cough the Lot ]
    The Yorkshire Ranter ]
    Newshog ]
    Kung Fu Monkey ]
    S1ngularity ]
    Pagan Prattle ]
    Gwyneth Jones ]
    Calpundit ]
    Lenin's Tomb ]
    Progressive Gold ]
    Kathryn Cramer ]
    Halfway down the Danube ]
    Fistful of Euros ]
    Orcinus ]
    Shrillblog ]
    Steve Gilliard ]
    Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
    The Panda's Thumb ]
    Martin Wisse ]
    Kuro5hin ]
    Advogato ]
    Talking Points Memo ]
    The Register ]
    Cryptome ]
    Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
    Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
    Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
    Simon Bisson's Journal ]
    Max Sawicky's weblog ]
    Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
    Hitherby Dragons ]
    Counterspin Central ]
    MetaFilter ]
    NTKnow ]
    Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
    Fafblog ]
    BBC News (Scotland) ]
    Pravda ]
    Meerkat open wire service ]
    Warren Ellis ]
    Brad DeLong ]
    Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
    Jeff Vail ]
    The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
    Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
    Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
    Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

    Older stuff:

    June 2006
    May 2006
    April 2006
    March 2006
    February 2006
    January 2006
    December 2005
    November 2005
    October 2005
    September 2005
    August 2005
    July 2005
    June 2005
    May 2005
    April 2005
    March 2005
    February 2005
    January 2005
    December 2004
    November 2004
    October 2004
    September 2004
    August 2004
    July 2004
    June 2004
    May 2004
    April 2004
    March 2004
    February 2004
    January 2004
    December 2003
    November 2003
    October 2003
    September 2003
    August 2003
    July 2003
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    February 2003
    January 2003
    December 2002
    November 2002
    October 2002
    September 2002
    August 2002
    July 2002
    June 2002
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    March 2002
    (I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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