Charlie's Diary

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Fri, 27 May 2005

Oh God, it's that time of decade again

There comes a point in any promising science fictional cultural revolution when the authors start scribbling manifestos and then denouncing each other as running dogs over their iced lattes. (It happens about once every two decades and we're currently running two years behind schedule.)

I'm old enough to vaguely remember the tail end of the cyberpunk thing back in the eighties, and when I grew up I promised myself that if it happened again I wouldn't indulge in the practice. Issuing literary manifestos is something one tends to live to regret, or at least be highly embarrassed about ten years down the road. But the current ferment in the British SF scene is such that people are trying to figure out what's going on; this leads to pinning of colours to masts and, by way of a slippery slope, to a manifestation of manifestos.

The first sign of this came last year, when The Third Alternative's discussion boards hosted a long and insanely recondite discussion of the matter of The New Weird. It turned into a kind of balloon debate, and in the end everybody except China Mieville and M. John Harrison was left behind as the balloon spiralled into the rarefied atmosphere of post-meta-political-para-fantasy or something. (If I sound vague about it, it's because I didn't really understand what the hell was going on. So I said my goodbyes, strapped on a parachute, and bailed out.)

Well, the second sign came earlier this year when Geoff Ryman, who is old enough to know better, in conjunction with various co-conspirators, issued the Mundane SF manifesto. (NB: before anyone assumes I'm dissing Geoff, I think he's a national treasure and one of the best working writers in our field. If I have a beef it's with the practice of issuing manifestos in general, not with Geoff.) And now Ian McDonald, who is also old enough to know better, has issued a counterblast.

This is not the time and place for me to start banging heads together, or to roll up my sleeves, strap on the virtual reality goggles, and issue an anti-manifesto. (I've got a stinking head-cold, my brain feels like mush, and right now I'm not up to the intellectual challenge of out-thinking a hamster. If anyone gets steamrollered around here, it's probably going to be me.) But I would like to take this opportunity to express my distaste for prescriptive, restrictive definitions of what we should or should not be writing about in fiction. I understand completely why the Mundane SF folks are lashing out against a particularly egregious bonfire of stupidities (hey, can I stick this effigy of George Lucas on top?). And I understand that the MSF manifesto is as much a provocation as a prescription. But I also agree with Ian McDonald about the undesirability of sticking creativity in a box and welding it shut. Mundane SF is a fine description of what a number of the better SF writers are currently writing in reaction against the perceived stupidities of the field, but it's a lousy presription.

More subtly, I think the targets of MSF -- the sacred cows they seek to slaughter -- are mis-selected. It is entirely possible to adopt the conventions of MSF and write an unbelievably bad cod-heroic far future fantasy. The MSF manifesto mostly takes aim at hoary techno-cliches, be they faster than light travel, meaningful commerce with alien intelligences, or galactic empires. In so doing, the MSF manifesto completely misses a far more pernicious vice to which SF is prone; the cult of heroism. Your average space operatic hero, stripped of their context, is a sociopathic killer. Your average adventure plot structure is a horrible passage through degradation and slaughter that would leave most real people screaming for antidepressants. Many SF writers display (as James Nicoll recently observed) about as much compassion for their fellow mammals as your average Dalek. In going after the forms of bad SF, the MSF manifesto seems to have missed the substance of the problem -- a form of fiction that has become increasingly detached from humanity.

It's not for me to an issue a manifesto (although I'm okay about writing "this worked for me, here's how to do it yourself" pieces), but if I was going to, I'd start by thinking about the values I want my fiction to reflect rather than obsessing over the calibre of bullet to load in my Browning.

[Mundane SF] [The inevitable backlash] [Discuss writing]

posted at: 15:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 25 May 2005

Ian McDonald has a blog


If you don't know who Ian is, you have a lot of reading to do. That is all.

posted at: 16:10 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 24 May 2005

Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds


In the run-up to the publication of my next novel, "Accelerando", it has come to my attention that some of you may be unclear about the true nature of the Singularity. In order to dispel confusion, educate the ineluctably perplexed, and channel my inner fifteen year old, I have therefore compiled a brief hypertextual guide to this topic.

[Continue reading: Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds]

[Discuss singularity]

posted at: 18:27 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 20 May 2005

Back home

Jet-lagged to hell and back. Normal service (or the lack of it) will resume shortly.

posted at: 22:07 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 18 May 2005

Locus award shortlist

Locus, the trade magazine for the science fiction and fantasy publishing field, runs an annual award for the best works in these fields, voted on by the readership. This years Locus award finalists have been announced and I'm somewhat gobsmacked to announce that I'm on the shortlist for Best Science Fiction novel with "Iron Sunrise", on the shortlist for Best Fantasy novel with "The Family Trade", and on the shortlist for Best Novella with "The Concrete Jungle"!

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 16:52 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 12 May 2005

Holding pattern (contd.)

I'm off on holiday tomorrow, for a week in the exotic tropical climes of Toronto. (Hey, it is south of Edinburgh -- just about everywhere is, even Moscow!)

If you don't behave yourselves I'll be forced to post my holiday snaps. You wouldn't like that.

As an aside, the first two copies of The Hidden Family turned up via courier delivery yesterday morning. It's been printed, it's on the way to the warehouses, and it should be in your local bookstore in another couple of weeks (if you live in the USA). If you've been putting off reading "The Family Trade" while you waited for the second half to be available, now's the time to pick up a paperback.

posted at: 11:20 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 08 May 2005

Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's gun is a literary weapon; "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

I'm a jobbing storyteller, who's just mailed in the manuscript of his eighth novel. I do this stuff because (a) I enjoy the process, and (b) it's better than working for a living. I'm more of an artisan than a theoretician; in this respect I'm not atypical among my peers, for while it's normal for authors to examine their own working processes, if you spend too much time in navel-gazing you'll never actually write anything.

There's a foggy borderland between working entirely by rule of thumb, and developing a theory to guide the process; I'm wandering around somewhere in the middle of this wasteland, squinting into the mists and trying to work out if there's a better way to do what I'm trying to do. And at present I'm thinking hard about Chekhov's gun -- because this literary conceit is sitting on the wall mocking me, stopping me from coming up with a sequel to a couple of reasonably popular novels.

Except the weapon on my particular wall isn't a pistol. It's a neutron bomb.

Back in 1995, I suffered a cynical rush of blood to the head and decided that I was going to write a space opera. To cut a long story short, the book that eventually emerged was published under the title "Singularity Sky" in 2003 (2004 in the UK). A sequel, "Iron Sunrise", was finished in 2001 and published in 2004 (2005 over here). I should like to note, parenthetically, that the title "Singularity Sky" bears no relationship to the content of the first book -- it was pinned on it after the event in order to avoid a namespace collision in Ace's list, and I've regretted the premature deployment of the "S" word ever since. These novels aren't brilliant and they suffer from a number of flaws, but most readers seem to like them well enough and it would be a comfort to my bank manager (not to mention my editor, and the fans who want me to write more of the same) were I to write a third one in the series.

The problem I've got with the setting is twofold. Firstly, in confronting the genre conventions of space opera I was forced to deal with a question that Vernor Vinge first articulated in the late 80's and early 90's; how do we avoid having a technological singularity come front-and-centre and disrupt the narrative? Fiction is an art form confronted by certain conventions, and among the most fundamental (but rarely articulated) is the axiom that fiction works best when it informs our identity, if not our reality: to put it another way, it's bloody hard to write fiction (let alone interesting fiction) about vastly transcendant post-human intelligences which are to us as we are to nematode worms. To dodge the problem of artificial intelligences bootstrapping themselves to near-godlike levels of competence and sidelining the plot, Vernor invoked an apparently physical mechanism (for "A Fire Upon the Deep"). For my part, I ran across an interesting essay on time travel and computing by Hans Moravec, banged it together with the physical principle that faster than light travel entails causality violation, got a spark (hey! I was writing a space opera -- faster than light travel is one of the hoary old cliches of the sub-genre), and nearly set fire to my own world-building trousers.

I'm not going to give away the shop in this blog entry, but to sum it up: the entity known as the Eschaton that crops up in both novels is not only a Deus in Machina, it's a Chekhov's Gun. The logic of the books points towards a conclusion in which the gun is fired (and the announcement over the PA system in the background is news to the effect that God has left the universe).

However. I don't really do heroic archetypes -- another of the hoary cliches to which authors of the Old space opera always genuflected, and which these days tends to be observed in the negative. As I got into spinning yarns set in this fabulous far-future universe I'd invented, I discovered that the stories focussed on a much more human scale: questions of philosophy arising were more likely to be examinations of social relationships or local politics than grandiose stabbings at the cosmic canvas. I'm no Olaf Stapeldon, or even Greg Egan.

So. I've placed this lovingly-polished weapon -- one capable of deconstructing an entire fictional universe -- on the wall, and I've got this feeling that it's staring at me, whispering: "pull the trigger, Charlie, you know you'll have to do it some day!" Even worse, I've implicitly promised the readers something that I'm loath to deliver. If I pull the trigger and expose the underpinnings of the plot, delivering the final explanation for what the Eschaton is about, then that's it: it's fat-lady-sings time for these books. I can live with that -- I've got other stories to tell -- but the characters in the books will be more than a little bit disgruntled and, more to the point, there's no coming back from that point. This isn't the Reichenbach Falls, and the Eschaton is no Holmesian villain. Nor is there a Holmes in this cosy human-sized universe, some chilly more-than-human intellect that can suck on its pipe and pronounce a chain of evidence linking the smoking gun on the wall to the dead god in the middle of the carpet.

If I want to pull the trigger, I need to find a gunslinger who's up to the task. And like I said, I don't buy into the myth of the super-hero.

How do you go about creating a believable human protagonist who is capable of destroying the universe? (And please don't say, "emulate General Jack D. Ripper" -- this isn't Dr Strangelove and black farce isn't how I want to go.)

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:34 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 07 May 2005

Holding (Part 2)

That's Glasshouse done -- hopefully finished for good. Also done: one interview for Interzone. Still to do: one novella, one short story, second half of The Jennifer Morgue. Before I do that lot, though, I'm off on vacation for a week (to Toronto, if you must know -- yes, it qualifies as an exotic holiday destination from here).

Oh yeah, the description of Glasshouse from the interview is as follows:

A psychological thriller set roughly 500 years fter "Accelerando", possibly in the same universe -- nobody can really remember, though, because one side-effect of mind uploading and duplication into new bodies is that it's possible to modify people's memories. In the aftermath of the censorship war that shattered the interstellar Republic of Is, one man -- a combat historian, demobilized after spending the war as an armoured battalion -- sets out to infiltrate an escape-proof prison in search of something evil. If only he could remember what ...

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 12:47 | 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)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)
Free download

The Hidden Family
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

The Family Trade
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

Iron Sunrise
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)

The Atrocity Archives
Via (Trade PB)
Via (Trade PB)
Via Golden Gryphon (HC)
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Singularity Sky
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (US ebook)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)


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) ]
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
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
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, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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