October 2007 Archives

Right now I'm (a) finishing a short story, (b) starting a novel, (c) rebuilding my office (which entails unloading, dismantling, moving, reassembling, and re-stacking six metres of full-height bookcases), and (d) about to head off to Novacon 37 at the weekend. So, apologies for the scarce posting. (By annoying coincidence, Novacon happens to be the same weekend as World Fantasy Con, which this year is somewhere in Long Island, and Utopiales in Nantes, both of which I wouldn't mind going to as well, but Novacon wins, for a reason that should be obvious if you look at their website.)


A question that comes up repeatedly in author interviews is, "what's with your sense of humour? Why are your books funny?" (Or whimsical, or just plain surreal.)

There seems to be a widespread belief that if literature is Serious, then it must be Humourless. (Serious has become a synonym for humourless in today's public discourse.) The division between the funny and the serious is pernicious. Usually when you see people mocking an institution or an idea, it implies there's something questionable about it; but people who derive power and status from their position (be it within an institution or for their endorsement of an idea) tend to dislike anything that undermines their platform — and so, they insist, it is Serious. Thus, there is an enforced split in many aspects of public life between the serious and the funny.

I suspect the literary canon has to some extent been pre-filtered for humourlessness by literary academics who are themselves humourless about their status. In the literature we are spoon-fed at school, "funny" isn't one of the selection criteria (unless you count Shakespeare's fart jokes and 16th century puns, which were doubtless thigh-slappers back in the day but require some translation for an audience of bored 15 year olds in the late 20th or early 21st century). And so, most readers are left with the educationally-installed belief that serious literature shouldn't be humorous or whimsical.

But the real world is contingent. The real world is weird. The real world is full of stuff that you couldn't get away with if you stuck it in a slapstick comedy. Case in point: this recent obituary from the Independent:

Sammy Duddy
Belfast paramilitary and drag artist
Published: 19 October 2007

Sammy Duddy, political activist, drag artist and poet: born Belfast 1945; twice married; died Belfast 17 October 2007.

Sammy Duddy was a colourful Belfast character who combined membership of one of the city's most lethal paramilitary groups with a career as "Samantha", a highly suggestive drag act.

In the 1970s, he was by day a propagandist for the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the extreme Protestant group which was responsible for the killings of hundreds of Catholics. By night, however, he appeared on Belfast's limited but vibrant cabaret circuit, presenting a ribald act in loyalist pubs and clubs dressed in fishnet tights, wig and heavy make-up.
Regarded as a moderate in UDA terms, he found himself on the opposite side of the argument to more extreme figures such as Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair. On one occasion, Duddy's home was attacked with a pipe bomb, while on another shots were fired into it. While he was uninjured, his pet chihuahua, Bambi, was hit by gunfire and died.

I mean, come on! If I stuck the late Mr Duddy in a novel, you'd think I was making him up. Right?

And then there's the more esoteric stuff. Case in point: for one of my humour/horror crossover spoof lovecraftian spy thrillers — a planned sequel to "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — I'd decided to do something really bugfuck, and have the Royal Air Force flying a squadron of black Concordes, one of which would be armed with nuclear missiles.

You might think that the idea of nuclear-armed converted Concordes was daft, but you would be wrong; indeed, Prototype 002 was built with internal attachment points for a munitions bay, and an internal space that could be converted into a weapons store, to an RAF requirement: at one point in the late 1960s they were considering turning it into this, a supersonic replacement for the RAF's Vulcan bombers. So all that neat thechnothriller plot idea boiled down to in the end was running a couple of extra airframes off a production line, painting them in British Airways livery, and describing their movements as "charter flights" ... at a time when HMG thought nothing of blowing a cool billion pounds (back when that was real money) on a black project to design a new warhead system for Britain's Polaris missiles. (And they didn't even bother to inform the cabinet.)

Every time I think I've gotten a handle on how weird the real world is, it throws another curveball at me. So there's no way to keep up with the inherent strangeness of the universe without pulling on a rubber nose and the big old floppy shoes and making my fictional universes almost half as weird as the stuff I read in the newspapers every day.

Toot! Toot!

Here's a video of yr hmbl crrspndnt, reading from Halting State at Borders in San Francisco two weeks ago. (Many thanks to James Young for kindly videoing the event and sharing the results with us.)

(If I look slightly glassy-eyed it's because my day started with a 4:45am wake-up call in Portland and I didn't get any down-time between then and this reading, which started around 8:00pm in San Francisco.)

Continuing from the "recommended reading" thing, I'd like to mention a project my friend Hugh Hancock has just completed. Hugh specializes in Machinima — making movies in virtual reality. He's just released the full-length feature cut of Bloodspell, an epic swords'n'sorcery movie — originally released in 5-10 minute episodes, now watchable as a 90 minute feature film.

(How does machinima work, you ask? Well, in conventional computer animations such as Shrek, the animators use 3D modeling software to pose the figures, then generate a sequence of still frames, one by one. In machinima, using a multi-user VR system — either a game engine such as Neverwinter Nights, or a more specialized tool — the animators prepare scenery, design in-environment avatars, then film the thing in continuous shoots, much as you'd film real actors on a stage set.)

Bloodspell's good fun, but it's also worth looking at as the first full-length example of a new medium. It's got some rough edges: but then again, if you produce a feature movie on a budget of under £10,000 you expect rough edges. (Most of them are down to the animation toolkit Strange Company used — the Neverwinter Nights 1.0 engine, which was state of the art circa 2001, and is now well-understood but some way behind the state of the art.) The important thing to note is that this sort of movie would have been flat-out impossible on that sort of budget, using traditional CGI techniques. It's a triumph of guerilla cinematography, and it points out something really interesting: that the cost of entry to CGI movie-making has dropped way down.

Back in the old days of CGI movies from the likes of Pixar, you'd need 130-300 animators working for 2-3 years on a budget of £20-30M to produce a 90-120 minute feature. Today, you could produce something to the same standard as Shrek using a dozen animators in twelve months, on a budget of £1-2M. And with machinima, the budget floor drops even lower — falling into the high end of graphic novel/comic productions.

Charlie says: go have a look at Bloodspell — it's only a 900-1000Mb download. And remember: this isn't about to replace Hollywood tomorrow, but if Marvell and DC Comics aren't feeling the chill wind down the back of their neck, they're asleep at the switch. Because as streaming internet media players become ubiquitous, this sort of thing — cheap, fast and out of control — could very well be the future of mobile entertainment.

I don't usually advertise stuff on this blog (except myself), but I got a book through the mail this morning that ought to interest anyone who reads SF: Rewired: The post-cyberpunk anthology. Back in 1988, Bruce Sterling put together a seminal anthology, Mirrorshades, which provided a whistle-stop tour of the roots of cyberpunk SF in a single volume; it's still worth reading, but this new anthology, which Jim Kelly and John Kessel bolted together, provides a much-needed update on the state of the art since 1988. (Lest we forget: back in 1988 the internet was a spam-free file transfer net for big computer corporations and academic departments, modems — remember those? — ran at 2400 bits per second, mobile phones were the same size as bricks, and the Cold War was going to last until 2050, at least.Things have changed, slightly.)

Obligatory declaration of interest: Jim and John picked one of my stories, "Lobsters", for their pot. They also chose stories by the likes of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Michael Swanwick, Greg Egan, and relative newcomers such as David Marusek and Mary Rosenblum to round out their survey of the post-cyberpunk scene. It's a fascinating anthology,

Highly recommended.

When it comes to talking about tech gadgets, I confess to a poor track record: I have a low saving throw vs. shiny!, and so I fall into that category so beloved of the IT industry, the early adopter who'll buy anything. (I'd even buy a Palm Foleo .... if they hadn't paid more attention to all the skeptics and cancelled the thing.) You should therefore consume the rest of this post with an appropriate sprinkling of sodium chloride.

I spent last week bouncing from signing to reading to interview like a demented flea, trying to cram as much promotional work into six days as was humanly possible. Along the way, somehow my luggage expanded — one of the occupational hazards of being a bibliophile on a signing tour is that grateful bookshop proprietors will sometimes offer you a discount on purchases — and when I woke up back home, I discovered I'd acquired a Sony PRS-505 ebook reader.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Sony used to be a really kick-ass consumer electronics and design company. But since their merger with a film conglomerate, they've widely become seen as Evil™ among those of us who take an interest in technology-as-legislation and openness; they're relentless champions of DRM and closed standards, even when it amounts to shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly. (The big irony is that their media division accounts for a much smaller proportion of their turnover than their hardware side; it's very much a case of the tail wagging the dog.) As debacles like the great rootkit scandal demonstrate, this seems to be a matter of company policy and until they learn better all their products are going to be tainted by this nonsense to some degree. But their electronics and design still kicks ass. What to do?

Back in the dark ages of the early 2000's, Sony produced an early ebook reader called the Librie.

Now, ebook readers are an interesting category of device. Nobody has yet built a perfect one. The Librie was unusual for its time in eschewing the traditional liquid crystal display (which requires current as long as it's displaying an image) and using E-Ink's electronic paper technology. Electronic paper is very slow and unresponsive, black and white only ... but only draws current when it's changing state. It's also flexible, has a contrast ratio similar to paper, and in mass production should be cheap. The selling point of the Librie was that you could load books into it, and turn several thousand pages before it needed a re-charge (equivalent to reading for several tens to hundreds of hours). Other ebook reader display technologies, or PDAs, tend to require re-charges after 2-8 hours, which is somewhat annoying.

The Librie, not to put it too pointedly, sucked. It could only read ebooks in one, proprietary format, available only from an ebook store run by Sony. You bought a book ... and it expired after 60 days! So it sold like last year's day planner, even in its launch market, Japan.

Someone at Sony was at least willing to put good money after bad. So in early 2006, they emitted Librie 2.0, the PRS-500 ebook reader. They dropped the tiny keyboard (used for annotations), improved the Windows-only host software so that it could import PDFs and RTF files (but you still needed a Windows PC) and some of the content no longer expired. More importantly, the display was a little better, the ebook file formats were documented, and hackers got their hands on the PRS-500 and wrote tools (notably libprs500) that allowed Mac, Linux, and UNIX users to convert files into something the PRS-500 could read, and to load and unload them from the device over a USB cable. It turns out that the PRS-500, like other ebook readers (such as the iRex Iliad and the forthcoming Bookeen Cybook 3) runs an embedded Linux kernel and custom software and is to some extent customizable.

I took a look at the PRS-500 and rolled the dice. I made my saving throw: the piggy bank breathed a sigh of relief. But then, last Friday, I saw a PRS-505.

The PRS-505 is Sony's third attempt at a consumer ebook reader, and it's pretty good. It's not ready for the mass market, but it'll convince bleeding-edge enthusiasts like myself to part with their money. It's not only got a Memory Stick slot for storing books, but a real SD card slot — a tacit admission that Memory Stick is a proprietary turkey that nobody uses — and all the storage areas (internal memory running to 192Mb, plus both cards) show up as ordinary USB mass storage devices when you plug the gizmo into a computer. It charges over USB, too, meaning there's one less wall wart to carry. The display is improved, with higher contrast and faster page transitions.

And ... it can read PDFs and RTF files natively. Just dump your files onto a memory card and stick it in; the spinning cursor will run for a while as the reader (which has a relatively gutless CPU) scans it, and then the files will all show up. Formatting a novel in RTF for display takes several seconds (as I said, it's not fast), but it works. PDFs are faster, although I'm not terribly happy with the PDF viewer's zoom. For the first time Sony have emitted an ebook reader that you can plug into a Mac or Linux box and use right away.

On the down side: they're still trying to make money through their walled garden of an ebook store. The PRS-505 sells for $350, and comes with a voucher for $200 of ebooks in the company store. That's $200 of books that you can't read on another device or do anything useful with, and you can't get the credit outside the US, and you have to use a Windows application to get it ... it's all rather annoying. But at least there's a back door now, and the door's open wide; with libprs500 I can convert files to the native BBeB format the PRS-505 uses (which display faster), and it's usable as-is.

As for why I bought it?

I spent an 11 hour flight from Heathrow to Seattle reading ebooks on my trusty old Palm TX. After six hours I had to recharge the battery; the recharger gizmo weighs twice as much as the PDA. And my eyesight is beginning to succumb to middle-aged bit rot; the four inch screen was a bit of a strain. Then, when I arrived, I was expected to do a whole bunch of public readings from Halting State. Now, I don't generally read from the book itself; I abridge and tweak the text, to make it flow more smoothly when I'm speaking, so I don't have to stop and gasp for breath halfway through a long sentence. I hit those readings with a subnotebook computer in hand, and I was constantly worried that I'd have battery problems, or that an unforseen software whoopsie would cause a kernel panic and I'd have to stop to reboot in the middle of things. I also had no fun at all with overhead lights reflecting off the backlit screen. In principle I could have prepared my reading drafts and printed them out on paper before I set off ... but in practice, I left it too late.

Being able to dump those files onto the PRS-505, formatted for reading on a device that has a battery life measured in months and can be read outdoors in direct sunlight or on a podium under spotlights, would have been really useful. (Alas, I didn't buy it until the last day of the tour, and this use didn't occur to me until I was on the flight home.) And indeed, I think this is what I'll be doing in future. Even if it doesn't do much else, the PRS-505 is half the weight and half the size of an A4 folder full of papers. (And it can play MP3s. Did I say it could play MP3s?)

So what's wrong with it?

As a basic ebook reader, I'd have to say nothing. But it's not going to take the market by storm, or get much love beyond the already-extant ebook afficionados, for a simple reason: to get books onto it you need a host computer. Even if you've got Project Gutenburg mirrored on a Linux box, rather than relying on Sony's DRM-locked company store, you need a host computer. What we really need is an ebook reader with Wifi or a phone subsystem, and Amazon — or better still, a reader's account at the Library of Congress or the British Library — on tap. There are strong rumours that Amazon are working on such a device, but if so, it hasn't surfaced yet. Meanwhile, the PRS-505 is a got-it-right-at-the-third-attempt success; Sony finally got a clue about what the customers wanted and, however grudgingly, gave them a flash of the old brilliance that made Akio Morita's firm what it was in the 1980s.

Well, I'm home. And due to arriving in a seriously sleep-deprived state, I have managed to nuke a couple of days of incoming email. Including stuff sent via the web form. If you poked me with a stick in the past few days — since Wednesday, say — and didn't receive a reply, then assume I've lost your message and, if it's important, you should resend it.

I did a whole bunch of readings, some of which were videoed; when I get some URLs I'll add links to them here.

I am now going to spend the next week emulating a corpse. See you later ...

I'm in the US this week; this is just a reminder that I'll be signing books in Portland at Powell's City of Books (1005 West Burnside Street) tomorrow (Thursday 11th) at 7:30pm onwards, and in San Francisco on Friday 12th at the Borders at 400 Post Street.

(That's all of HALTING STATE that I'm able to post in my blog — for now. If you want to find it again, you might want to bookmark the permalink to this entry. (Or you can order your own copy by clicking the dustjacket pictures below.)

Prologue: We know where you live, we know where your dog goes to school

Chapter 1: Grand Theft Auto

Chapter 2: Stitched Up

Chapter 3: Steaming

Prologue: We know where you live, we know where your dog goes to school

Chapter 1: Grand Theft Auto

Chapter 2: Stitched Up

Debug mode:

You are sitting, half-asleep, in an armchair. Your eyes are closed and you feel very unsteady. Your head's full of a post-viral haze, the cotton-wool of slowed reflexes and dulled awareness. In stark contrast to the normal state of affairs, you can hear yourself think — there's just one little voice wobbling incessantly about from side to side of your cranial prison, which is no surprise after the amount of skunk you just smoked. In the distance, the chiming clangour of tram bells sets a glorious harmony reverberating in icy splendour across the rooftops. And you are asking yourself, like the witchy-weird voice in a video of an old Laurie Anderson performance,

"What am I doing here?"


There's a ringing in your ears. Oops, must have drifted off. That's the trouble with smoking shit to help yourselves forget —

Yourselves? Well yeah, there's you, and there's Mitch, and there's Budgie. Tom couldn't come because he was busy being newly married and responsible, but between you and Mitch and Budgie you're three of the four corners of the former Social Networking Architecture Team, and you've flown out here on a budget shuttle from Turnhouse to get falling-down legless and scientifically test all that research into whether cannabis destroys short-term memory, because god help you, it's better than remembering how badly you've been shafted.

Which is how come you're sitting in a half-collapsed armchair, stoned out of your box, on the narrow strip of flagstoned pavement alongside the Prinsengracht canal, listening to alarm bells —

Continue reading ...

Prologue: We know where you live, we know where your dog goes to school

Chapter 1: Grand Theft Auto

En garde!

You are standing in the nave of a seventeenth century Church, its intricately carved stone surfaces dimly illuminated by candles. Your right foot is forward, knee slightly bent, and you can feel the gentle curve of the worn flagstone beneath the toes of the hand-stitched leather slipper you're wearing. Your right arm is raised, and your hand extended as if you are pointing a gun diagonally across your chest, muzzle wavering towards the roof of the west wing: with your left hand, you support your right, just as if you're holding a heavy pistol. Heavy pistol about sums it up — the longsword may be made of steel and over a metre long, but it weighs no more than a Colt Python, and it's balanced so that it feels like an extension of your fingertips.

You are facing a man who is about to try to kill you. He's wearing a black kevlar-reinforced motorcycle jacket with lead weights velcro'd to it, plus jeans, DMs, and a protective helmet with a cluster of camera lenses studding its blank-faced shell. Like you, he's holding a longsword of fifteenth century design, its steel crossguards shielding his hands: which are, in turn, raised, like a baseball striker poised ready for the ball. But you don't see the biker jacket or DMs because like your opponent you're also wearing a full facial shield with head-up display, and it's editing him into a full suit of Milanese plate, the mediaeval equivalent of a main battle tank.

"Let's try that again," you offer.

Continue reading ...


It's a grade four, damn it. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who'd reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something — but definitely not one hundred percent in touch with reality. So they'd dropped it from a three ("officers will be on scene of crime as soon as possible") to a four ("someone will drop by to take a statement within four hours, if we've got nothing better to do"), with a cryptic annotation ("MOP raving about orcs and dragons. Off his meds? But MOP 2 agreed. Both off their meds?").

But then some bright spark in the control room looked at the SOC location in CopSpace and twigged that they'd been phoning from a former nuclear bunker in Corstorphine that was flagged as a Place of Interest by someone or other in national security.

Which jangled Inspector McGregor's bell, and completely ruined your slow Thursday afternoon.

Continue reading ...

Hello. We're Round Peg/Round Hole Recruitment. We want to offer you a job on behalf of one of our clients ...

Continue reading ...

Blog entries are going to be a bit thin on the ground next week due to travel, so over the next few days I'll be posting some extracts from "Halting State" here. (Unfortunately I can't do a full Creative Commons release on the book — at least, not at this point.)

US Halting State Cover
UK Halting State cover(Author clears throat, looks around nervously, climbs on soap box) ...

My latest novel, "Halting State", a near-future thriller of skullduggery and rules lawyering in the shadowy world of massively multiplayer virtual reality games, is officially published today in the US. (It'll be published in trade paperback in the UK in early January.) The book covers to either side link to Amazon pages where you can buy them now: it's interesting to compare the different approaches the British and American art directors have taken.

Now, if I wasn't a self-effacing Brit, I ought to be taking this opportunity to tell you how good this book is, and how you can't possibly live without it. But I'm shy and bashful, so I'll leave it up to some other folks to tell you about it.

Vernor Vinge said: "Charles Stross is the most spectacular science-fiction writer of recent years. In 'Halting State', he has written a near-future story that is at once over-the-top and compellingly believable.".

And William Gibson commented: "As keenly observant of our emergent society as it is our emergent technologies, 'Halting State' is one extremely smart species of fun."

But wait, there's more!

John Carmack (yes, that John Carmack) adds, "Just the right mix of extrapolation and intrigue to leave me wondering to the very end."

While Bruce Schneier enthuses,"A great read, and a fascinating look at future of security in a massively networked world."

And the New York Times froths: "The Act of creation seems to come easily to Charles Stross ... [He] is peerless at dreaming up devices that could conceivably exist in six, sixty, or six hundred years' time".

Now that I've dropped the cover blurb neutron bomb, don't you want to read it?



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