December 2006 Archives

Well, there are roughly 88 minutes to go. The party's canceled due to the storm I hear howling around the eaves — the winds are gusting to over 80 miles per hour out of town, I hear, and there's heavy rain — but I've got a comfortable sofa, a black cat sprawled next to me, Queen on auto-repeat on the stereo, a bottle of single malt scotch waiting to be opened, and a novel under the keyboard. (When I'm not goofing off, feeding the blog.)

In a lot of respects, 2006 really sucked. So may you all find the new year, 2007, to be better in every way than 2006!

"Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him"

— Nouri al-Maliki, president of Iraq

Well, it looks like they're determined to kill Saddam Hussein. Which is no surprise, and I won't be shedding any tears for him, other than on the general principle that the death penalty is always wrong, no matter who is on the receiving end of it. But leaving aside the sentence, the whole business raises certain unpalatable issues ...

That Saddam himself handed out many death warrants (and on occasion executed the victims himself) is well-documented; he was not remotely an innocent. He richly deserved to be hauled up in court to account for his crimes. And yet, we learned that his appeal against the sentence had been denied, from the politicians, before the judges handed down their decision. And when an earlier judge appeared to be trying to give him a real trial, defense and all, the judge was sacked and replaced by a political stooge. And several defense lawyers were murdered or forced to withdraw after threats to their family.

I shouldn't have to say "this really, really stinks". I don't want to be backed into the corner of seeming to defend an odious tyrant in his final extremity. But evil acts do not demand restitution by the commission of more evil acts, and dressing this one up in the garb of "respect for human rights" merely serves to make a travesty of human rights. Hanging Saddam won't bring even one of his victims back from the grave: all it'll do is turn him into a martyr to Iraqi nationalism, a dubious honour that will result in more blood being shed in his name down the months and years and decades to come. Saddam deserved just one thing — a fair trial (and one in which the true record of his crimes would be scrutinized impartially and made public, so that no future revisionist might claim him to be a hard-done-by innocent). The judgment of history will plainly be that he didn't get a fair trial ... and the fact that he was denied one speaks volumes about the circumstances under which he was prosecuted and the people who presided over the entire charade.

If they couldn't give him a fair trial at home, then they should have handed him over to the International Criminal Court in Brussels, who know how to deal with dictators and genocides. That they didn't is indicative of the low esteem in which the new government of Iraq holds the rule of law. And it suggests that the substance behind all that high-spoken guff about invading Iraq to restore freedom and democracy — the stuff the sabre-rattlers fell back on when the lies about weapons of mass destruction and an Al Qaida link-up turned out to be hollow — is just so much festering corruption.

"Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him". Nouri al-Maliki, I doff my hat to you — you've just invented an oxymoron to stand beside "we had to destroy the village in order to liberate it" as an exemplar of moral corruption and folly.

And I expect it's a statement that will come back to haunt you.

Just a brief update:

Firstly, I'm very pleased to be able to announce that "The Jennifer Morgue" has gone into reprint, less than two months after the first print run escaped into the wild from a series of improbable mishaps and disasters.

Even more interestingly ... my novella, "Missile Gap" (originally published a year ago in an SFBC special, "One Million AD", edited by Gardner Dozois) is now published by Subterranean Press, in a limited edition of 1000 signed copies. But if you want one, you'll need to move fast — retailers had snapped up the entire print run as of the date of publication. (Another print run is in the works, but won't be the signed limited edition.) You won't find this in any of the Year's Best anthologies, due to contractual hang-ups (I was asked ...) so this is your only source for it.

Oh, and I handed in the final draft of my next SF novel, "Halting State", which is due out this coming October from Ace. As the [provisional] dust jacket blurb puts it:

In the year 2018, Sergeant Sue Smith of the Edinburgh constabulary is called in on a special case. A daring bank robbery has taken place at Hayek Associates—a dot-com startup company that’s just floated on the London stock exchange. But this crime may be a bit beyond Smith’s expertise.

The prime suspects are a band of marauding orcs, with a dragon in tow for fire support. The bank is located within the virtual reality land of Avalon Four, and the robbery was supposed to be impossible. When word gets out, Hayek Associates and all their virtual "economies" are going to crash hard.

For Smith, the investigation seems pointless. But the deeper she digs, the bigger the case gets. There are powerful players—both real and pixelated—who are watching her every move. Because there is far more at stake than just some game-head’s fantasy financial security...

Which means in a day or two I'm going to be getting down to work on the next book. See you next year!

At 7:25pm on Christmas Eve, my colo server threw a kernel panic — the Linux equivalent of a Windows blue screen of death — and went to sulk in the corner.

It is more than a year since the last time it panicked. But boy, did it pick a good time to do it!

Normal service is now resumed ...

I don't normally read spam, but this one got through my first line filters and was so tempting that, well ...

Dear Beneficiary,

The Priory Of Sion Society of Edinburgh under the jurisdiction of the all Seeing Eye, Master Nick Cobb has after series of secret deliberations and random ballot as selected you to be a beneficiary of 2006 end of Year foundation laying grants and also an optional opening at the round table of the Priory Of Sion Society.

These grants are issued every end of year around the world in accordance with the objectives of the Priory Of Sion Society as stated by King Francis Aurthor I in 1815 which is to ensure the continuous freedom of man and to enhance mans living conditions.

We will also advice that these grant funds awarded to you which amount to $350,000.00 be used to better the lot of man through your own initiative and also we will go further to inform you that the open slot to become a Priory Of Sion is optional.

I hope you understood and do contact the Grant Claims Office Co-Secretary, Name: Barr. Richard Salter,,do send along your personal information’s (Names, Residential Address,Occupation,Tel/Fax Numbers,Sex,Age and Country) for more information's on what you are to do to make claims of your grant awarded to you.

Yours Sincerely,

Mrs. Judith Ernest.
Priory Of Sion Society of Palmerston Place Lane, Edinburgh

Words cannot describe how tempted I was to reply, along the lines of: "Dear Judith, thanks for your offer — but there's no need to do this by email: would you mind telling me what street number you're at and what your office hours are so I can drop round in person?"

After all, if the phishers pick an address about a ten minute walk from their mark's front door, they've got to expect the occasional walk-in ...

(And that's leaving aside the amusement value of anyone expecting a religious organization to offer me a grant. But that's about par for the course with spammers: they pander to the gullible, and they're not terribly bright themselves.)

I was amused today to see the results of the latest ICM poll on religion in The Guardian — amused because it gels with my general feel for the people around me, and amused because it flies in the face of the political discourse flooding the news media these days.

63% of the UK population define themselves as "not religious" — even among people who identify as "Christian", this is more of an ethnic or cultural definition than a spiritual one. Religious identity is strongest among the elderly and women; 43% of the population never attend religious services of any kind, which is pretty impressive if you consider the potential of weddings, funerals, christenings, and school services to suck in by-standers. Only 13% visit a place of worship every week (and about triple that figure among minority religions).

Oh, and 82% of the UK population see religion as a cause of division and tension between people.

Trying to come up with a response, a Church of England spokesman said the "impression of secularism in this country is overrated".

Yeah, right. You speak for an organization that has an audience draw 40% that of a Terry Pratchett mini-series on Sky TV. Doctor Who has a 4:1 lead over the C of E in regular audience terms. Maybe we should give Russell T. Davis four seats in the House of Lords?

What makes this most poignant is that over the past six years there's been an increasing trend towards politicians admitting their superstition in public as if it's something to be proud of. We've got an Education Minister who's a member of Opus Dei, a Prime Minister who's some kind of high church god-bothering believer and thinks praying with his allies is a substitute for realpolitik and rationality, and waiting in the wings as his successor is a dour presbyterian. They've been egged on by the ascendancy of apocalyptic nonsense in America, where it's impossible to get ahead in politics without holding regular conference calls with an imaginary friend — especially if your name is George W. Bush and you're trying to stroke th evangelical base — and where secularism is a swear word to a large subset of the population. They've even been trying to infiltrate their beliefs into public life, promoting the role of "faith schools" — religious brainwashing incubators — in education, talking about reviewing the law on abortion despite a clear public consensus (68% consider it an electoral non-issue, according to ICM; only 14% want the law changed to make obtaining an abortion harder). But they don't represent us. And if they go much further down that route, they're going to reap an electoral whirlwind, because this nation is, at heart, sensible and moderate ... and pulpit-bashing went out of fashion a century ago, and is now seen for what it is: a sign of dangerous detachment from reality.

The problem with moving house is that it doesn't matter whether you move 500 metres or 5000 kilometres, the logistics are mostly the same (except for the fuel bill). I moved nearer to 500 metres than the other extreme, but it's still left me wiped out, stressed out, and living out of an unfeasibly large pile of boxes.

On the other hand, it's almost all over, bar the unpacking. And I can get back to real life; viz., editing and redrafting novels, and worrying about where the ideas for the next one are going to come from.

Speaking of which, I was disappointed to learn today of the demise of Saparmurat Niyazov, President for Life of Turkenistan, aka Turkmenbashi; a supremely eccentric dictator whose weirdness was of the first water. Doubtless he was a most unpleasant fellow whose demise will be welcomed by many: but his life and personality was a vein of rich ore that I mined ruthlessly whenever I needed to come up with science fictional villains. As wikipedia puts it:

Claiming Turkmenistan to be a nation devoid of a national identity, he attempted to rebuild the country to his own vision. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Türkmenbashi after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family. He even named the months, and days of the week after himself and his family; January becoming Turkmenbashi. ... Statues of himself and his mother are scattered all over Turkmenistan, including one in the middle of the Karakum Desert as well as a gold-plated statue atop Aşgabat's largest building, the Neutrality Arch, that rotates so it will always face into the sun and shine light onto the capital city. ... He was given the hero of Turkmenistan award five times. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets — but it's what the people want," Niyazov said.

Want a science-fictional dictator? Just take and six of Turkmenbashi's weirder decrees and throw in something random like the story about Freddy Mercury, the dwarfs, and the silver platters of cocaine. Behold: instant surreal satire! Nobody need even suspect that your imagination was deficient ...

However, there's a real-world downside to the death of this annoyingly ubiquitous kleptocrat. Turkmenistan is bordered by Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the southwest, Uzbekistan to the northeast, Kazakhstan to the northwest, and the Caspian Sea to the west ... and it possesses the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas, not to mention substantial amounts of oil. In short, it's a geopolitical nightmare — a mostly-moslem ex-communist dictatorship, dangerously close to two of the most turbulent satans in the malleus maleficarum of western foreign policy, and the lynch-pin that held it together has just disintegrated.

Oh, did I mention that Turkmenbashi had a designated successor? According to the Turkmenistan constitution, the head of state's succession falls to the head of the people's assembly. Unfortunately, that chair was occupied by Turkmenbashi himself.

Just like moving house, with regime change it doesn't matter whether the cause is something as trivial as a 66-year-old man having a heart attack or the United States invading a country several thousand kilometres away — the fallout is just as messy.

I don't think I'm sticking my neck out far in predicting that this one is going to be a royal clusterfuck — probably exactly the kind of memorial that Turkmenbashi himself would want to be remembered by. I don't see any way in hell that the EU and the US can avoid being sucked screaming into the political black hole that is Turkmenistan, and there's a good chance that nice Mr Putin is going to have his friends in the FSB take an interest too. Add borders with Afghanistan and Iran and the whole situation is ripe for someone — anyone — to strike a light; fourth largest known natural gas reserves is the kind of phrase that ignites wars. For the time being, deputy prime minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (and there's a name to conjure with!) has been named head of the funeral commission (which may indicate a bid to take power); but with no obvious succession and no effective organized power centres in Turkmen politics, all the ingredients are in place for a weak interim government and any amount of oil-oriented dirty tricks. Imagine Iraq in 2000, if Saddam had died of a sudden heart attack ...

So, I moved house last week. Broadband is up, my office is slowly coming together out of a pile of boxes, and I didn't quite manage to kill myself in the process. I'd like to have more to say about it but I think I'm due about a week of lying on the sofa gasping for breath first, and then I've got one novel to give a final polish to and another that's due a substantial rewrite.

Once I've recovered from the move I'll try and get back to you with some prognostications on a topic of earth-shattering importance, such as: Why is it that I can find a metric shitload of IEC power cables (that I mostly don't use any more) but none of the useful stuff I need to hook the stereo up in the living room? (No, don't answer that: it's a rhetorical question.) And why is it that the only DVDs I can find are the complete first and second seasons of The Ren and Stimpy Show? Moving is an experience so profoundly surreal that I suspect only the late Douglas Adams could do it justice ... I should have done it years ago, if only for the hallucinogenic focus it applies to your environment.

Meanwhile, here's a short story to be getting on with.

Moving house: just say no!


(That's my living room, in case you hadn't guessed. Spot Little Miss Underfoot, circled in red.)

Blogging's going to be scarce until after mid-December, because I'm about to move house. The removals firm are turning up on Wednesday to start on things, and I should be installed in the new place and with internet access restored by Friday next week. It's a big move, by my standards, because we've been in this flat for eleven years and two months: stuff accumulates, to the tune of roughly 5000 books. And while we're not moving very far — about half a kilometre across town and three floors up — when you get down to it, the only difference between moving half a kilometre and half a thousand kilometres is the fuel in the truck's tank.

Of course, this is the modern age, and I will not be totally offline: I have a smartphone with 3G broadband, email, and a decent web browser, so even while we're without a cable connection I'll be in touch via email. But I hope you'll appreciate I have higher priorities than writing long blog entries ...



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