October 2008 Archives

More commonly known as Halloween, the ancient festival of Samhain marks the end of the harvest season, with aspects of a festival of the dead. It became associated with the Catholic All Saints' Day in the ninth century; there's quite a lot of additional cultural baggage associated with it. While it was frequently observed in Ireland and Scotland for many centuries, it began to grow to its current prominence in the USA in the 19th century, as a response to lingering puritan prejudice against other festivals; when people want to party, if you ban one excuse they'll find another. (Which, incidentally, is why Hogmanay — new year's eve — is such a big deal in Scotland, where once the Kirk banned Christmas festivities as ungodly).

But what I find most interesting about it is that it recurs every 365 days (give or take the odd leap year).

We humans are slaves to the calendar. From our origins as plains-dwelling scavengers through the early millennia of agriculture, our diet was dominated by the climate, and the climate in turn depended on the cycle of the seasons almost everywhere. The cycle of seasons is hugely significant if you're a hunter (some prey species disappear at certain times of year; others are subject to behavioural variation (for example, mating seasons). It's important if you're a gatherer of wild fruit and seeds, and it's a matter of life or death if you're a subsistence farmer scratching away at the soil to raise one harvest a year. Hunter-gatherers can, at least in principle, move to follow the food supply; farmers are on the wrong side of a Malthusian one-way door, their population density at least an order of magnitude higher. Running away to find a less over-grazed region isn't an option on the menu. And so we observe the calendar, marking off the significant end-points of the season with an almost superstitious dread. All Hallows Night marks the end of the harvest season and allows us to rub shoulders with the dead; and if it hasn't been a good harvest, we might be joining them before Beltane.

For a thousand generations this has been our lot. But these days we live in a time of plenty — an age when "seasonal vegetables" are optional, bananas cost less than potatoes in western European supermarkets, and intensive farming can deliver two or three harvests in a single year (and more, when greenhouses and hydroponics are used).

And what does it mean to live somewhere utterly divorced from the Earth's seasonal cycle?

I may be sceptical about space colonization, but I'm an optimist about exploration. I'm fairly certain that at some point in the next one to two decades human beings will visit the moon again — this time for an extended duration stay, spending long months and possibly years in conditions as unfriendly as those any 19th century arctic explorer could have imagined. In two or three decades, there'll probably be a base camp on Mars; not a city, not a colony, but nevertheless a habitat of sorts (and one that will probably be occupied for years — the cost of going to Mars is so prohibitive that in this day and age a 48-hour excursion to raise the flag looks positively feckless).

What are their festivals and cycles going to be, those explorers who visit worlds where the sidereal year is something other than 31,558,149.540 seconds?

I'm back, and somewhat relaxed. (There's nothing like a weekend at a beer festival in a foreign country, drinking Bokbier, to force you to take your hands off the keyboard, step away from the computer, and stop obsessing. Well, mostly.)

My game plan for the next few days is to fix some minor snags in "The Fuller Memorandum". Then it's November 1st, and NaNoWriMo kicks off. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month — a somewhat mad competition, international in scope these days, to write 50,000 words of fiction from a cold start in the month of November; a motivational crutch for folks with creative ambitions, the idea is to hold your feet to the fire of an actual word count and grind out the prose (which is the hurdle at which most would-be novelists stumble). I've got a novel to write (in the shape of "The Trade of Queens", the sixth book of the Merchant Princes series — and the final one, in the current sequence). It's going to run to a good bit more than 50,000 words (somewhere between two and three times that length), but getting 50Kwords down in November would be a good start, so I'm going to do that. If I seem somewhat optimistic, that's because I managed to write a 102,000 word first draft in 33 days last month; NaNoWriMo should be a comfortable, achievable target despite certain domestic interruptions that are sure to take me out of the competition for 5-10 days.

I will confess that part of the reason I've been holding off on starting TToQ is because of its sensitivity to current affairs. It's set in a very close, just slightly dissimilar, version of our own reality — at least, up until 2003: this novel kicks off in mid-2003 with an act of terrorism that dwarfs 9/11, and the politicians who get to deal with the outcome are modeled closely on those who we remember dealing with the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and Hurricane Katrina in our own history. In some respects, this alternate-recent-history novel holds up a mirror to my problem with near-future SF: "what if," the personal Imp of contrarianism is whispering in my ear, "some time between October 28th, 2008 and January 30th, 2009, Dick Cheney and/or George W. Bush do something utterly unexpected that breaks your mental model of their likely actions?" I live in fear that I might have to go right back to the drawing board if they turn unpredictable after election day. Come January 30th, I can rest easy — the Bush-Cheney executive will be part of history, and I can fictionalize whatever I like around them. But until then, there's always the remote chance that they'll upset my confabulation of their likely response to a certain type of major incident in 2003. In some ways, writing alternate history is safer than near-future SF; but not if you blunder across the uneasy frontier between history and current affairs.

I'm off tomorrow, by air to Amsterdam, back Tuesday. I might blog in the meantime — there's wifi in the hotel — but frankly, the plan is to forget everything and just relax. I'm bad at relaxing; I'm the kind of guy who, if things are going swimmingly, will invent whole new sources of angst just to have something to obsess about. Like, oh, the imploding pound (Sterling is down to a five year low against the dollar this morning, and it's not doing so hot against the Euro), US presidential politics, neo-Calvinist greens trying to convince everyone that looking after the environment is only possible if we adopt a lifestyle like 1960s East Germany, only with fewer luxuries, the latest neofascist police state wheezes to catch the eye of our beloved Home Secretary ... on which note, it seems even the outgoing director of public prosecutions is opposed to her expansion of state snooping powers (yes, the DPP is the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, and joins two former directors of MI5 in the pinko liberal soft on terror camp over that issue) ...

Aaagh. I need a break. Here's hoping a weekend binge on Oude Kaas, genever, and bokbier helps.

So I had another birthday (they're coming faster, these days) and then spent yesterday and today on a death march, checking the page proofs to the next Merchant Princes novel. (It's "The Revolution Business", and it's coming out in hardcover from Tor next April.) One of the side effects of this job is that you don't pay much attention to weekends and public holidays. Next up on the block is an actual vacation — I'm taking a long weekend in Amsterdam (to do the Bokbierfest and kick back). Then I've got two jobs to occupy me for the rest of the year, and a bit beyond: (a) writing "The Trade of Queens" (next up in the Merchant Princes series) and (b) fixing the first-draft errors in "The Fuller Memorandum" (a lower priority, unless one of the publishers suddenly decide they want to pull it forward a year or so from the current schedule).

I suppose I should mention something about the process of revision at this point. When a novel is finished in first draft, it's not yet publishable. Never mind spelling errors, there are usually internal inconsistencies. So you either re-read it interminably, looking for them, or let other trusted readers — your agent, or friends — check it over. Sometimes they're small: one of the flagged errors in "The Fuller Memorandum" is our protagonist saying that he's leaving work at 6:40pm, but meeting someone in a pub outside the office at 8:30pm. And sometimes the mistakes are major: the most terrifying thing someone can say about your new novel is something like, "I enjoyed it, but I didn't understand why $VILLAIN did $LYNCHPIN_OF_PLOT. Wouldn't it have been a lot simpler if they'd done $SOMETHING_ELSE instead ..." where $SOMETHING_ELSE is something so obvious and trivial that it entirely undercuts 50,000 words of elaborate action: if you start hearing that response from more than one reader, then it's a sign that you need to go back to the drawing board.

And it's not just the plot development and action that's vulnerable — if you're dealing with a character you established over the previous few books, and your readers are hooked on the series, you can't have them suddenly behaving in a ways that's even partially inconsistent without the emotional or character development to support the change. I've got plenty of the first type of snag to fix before TFM is ready to send to an editor, but I don't think any of my test readers have identified any fatal flaws in the entire novel. We shall see.

I'm feeling pretty weird right now; I've just finished a novel.

(Writing, not reading.)

Of course, a novel isn't really finished when the author writes THE END — it goes through a whole series of editorial stages, then shows up for the first time as a real book, and even then it isn't over; there are errata and unspotted typos to fix in subsequent editions, translators' queries for versions in other languages, and so on. But there's something distinctly final about the sensation of writing THE END when you get to that point in the first draft beyond which the story doesn't want to continue.

This novel is unusual in that it was premature — very premature. In fact, I'm feeling slightly guilty about having written it, in fact — it diverted time from other scheduled projects, time I can't easily claw back elsewhere, and I suspect it means I'll be working over the festive season. But despite being premature, it's not an unwanted novel — it is in fact one I've already sold, there's a contract and everything — but the deadline is July 31st, 2010. I've got two other novels under contract that I really ought to have written first. If artistic inspiration ran on railroad tracks I wouldn't be setting finger to keyboard on this one until October next year.

Be that as it may; this book (which I knew I was going to write eventually) crept up on me out of nowhere and mugged me last month. I was sitting in front of the word processor, dully staring at an empty file and wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else — and some imp of the perverse prompted me to open a 2000 word stub of notes that I'd jotted down six months previously, and then it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write some more, and more, and moreandmoreandmoreandmore ... and suddenly I was unable to stop.

Creativity is a weird thing. You can plod along a steep uphill road for months, or it can hit you like an express train. I've learned to go with the flow when this happens: if a story wants to escape it's best to let it out, to go with the flow and worry about cleaning up the schedule afterwards. Once you pass forty, it doesn't seem to happen so often. This is the first such novel-length outburst I've had since I wrote the first draft of "Glasshouse", back in 2003, and I hope to live long enough to experience it again some time ...

Anyway, I've been writing compulsively, for about six to eight solid hours a day, pretty much seven days a week for 32 days. (When I say "six to eight solid hours a day", I'm not talking about the typical intensity of work you'd expect to put in during a day at the office; I'm talking about six to eight hours of being present in the office and nattering to fellow employees around the water cooler; I'm talking about the kind of work flow when you eventually glance up from the keyboard, uncramp your fingers, realize you're hungry, and wonder how the hell it got to be so late.) And during that time I bolted together the first 101,000 word draft of "The Fuller Memorandum", third book in the series beginning with "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — a job that would normally take about four to six months.

(Whether it's any good or not is a question I can't answer yet. Sometimes writing in a rush lends coherency and intensity to a project, but it can equally well result in clunky prose and over-hasty visualization. I'm still too close to it to judge the quality of handiwork; whatever happens, it's going to take at least one very careful editorial pass before I'm ready to hand it in. And that's not going to happen for a while. As I said, I have other books and other deadlines: now I've got this one out of my system I have really got to work hard to get the next one out on schedule.)

What I really want to talk about here is the sensation of finishing a project.

Writing a book in a month is hard time, roughly equivalent to putting in an eighty-to-ninety hour working week for four or five consecutive weeks on a normal job. But it's a job with a very well-defined ending. You work yourself up to a peak of mechanical performance, managing to produce a regular week's output every two or three days: and then suddenly ... you've run off the edge of a cliff. And as soon as you look down you're in free fall, just like Wile E. Coyote.

My first reaction: naturally, I want to crow about it from the rooftops! This is perfectly normal and age and experience have taught me that, present company excepted (hey, you're here to read my blog, right?) most people don't want to hear about it. So consider yourselves crowed at.

My second reaction: I need a vacation! (Writing is weird. It creeps into your skull and inhabits your dreams. This week I've had some really weird ones ....) Luckily all I have to do is finish working over a fat pile of page proofs in the next week — checking for errors and redlining them — them I'm off to the Bokbierfest in Amsterdam for the weekend, with my wife for company instead of a laptop. (I hope she remembers my face. When I'm head-deep in the guts of a novel I'm very poor company. Even the cats complain.)

Finally, there's the third reaction: emptiness. This job has an addictive quality to it. It's an art form as well as a business, and it's one in which you eventually get to hold in your hands a physical product and know that it's touched thousands or tens of thousands of other people, and there is the moment that you learn to live for, those two ultimate words: THE END. They zip past really fast, and then they're gone, until the next time. And you know what? It's a lot of work to get back to that place ...

So: the crash. Me, I just start another novel. (In this case, I'm taking a luxurious, lazy two weeks off then diving straight into "The Trade of Queens".) How do you deal with it?

And today's piece of gratuitous real-life surrealism is brought to you care of The Register, who report on PetPlan Insurance's survey of gadget-inflicted injuries to pets:

2.86% of guinea pigs admitted to veterinary hospitals in the survey had been injured by karaoke machines
I'm speechless; I just can't compete with this shit. Unlike John Scalzi, who committed this hideous crime against feline dignity in 2006, and who must be reminded of it at every opportunity:

bacon taped to a cat

The iPod: not just a passing fad.

90% market dominance is all very well, but when half the cars destined to be sold in the USA in 2009 offer iPod connectivity it's a fair bet that the iPod isn't going to die out in a time frame of less than a decade. It's the new cassette tape, and that lasted for nearly four decades: even taking into account the faster turnover of technologies I reckon being built into cars means it's going to be around for another 5-10 years minimum &mdash one to two generations in the automotive world.

Cars have a much longer after-life than consumer electronics, and most folks don't bother replacing/rewiring their in-car electronics (especially as they're getting more and more tightly integrated into the vehicle). So even if something new sweeps the iPod out of its dominant position in the post-Walkman mobile music market, they're probably going to stick around (in one form or another) as a cartridge medium for carrying music to and from your car.

Cars: the ultimate iPod accessory.

Richard M. Nixon or George W. Bush?

Let the debate begin!

(I am keeping a low profile this week because I am working on a book.)

Are there any studies of the effect of an economic recession or depression on religious behaviour?

(I'm not talking about politicians' public displays of piety, but actual increases/decreases of religious activity — prayer, attendance at places of worship, evangelical outreach programs, basically holy wars: the entire spectrum — and how they correlate with the economy.)

Added bonus questions: do dispensationalists follow the same pattern as other religions? How does prosperity theology fit into the pattern? And what, if any, effect do economic recessions have on the Islamic world?

(Warning: I'm hoping for some actual evidence-based findings here, not uninformed speculation. This is not your soap-box, it's my research tool. If you try to use this discussion as a soap-box, I will take it away from you.)

(A lovely image in the title, to put you in the correct frame of mind for what comes next ...)

There's been a rumour floating around for a year or so now about a fantasy that the Parliamentary Labour Party seems to have fallen in love with: the idea of being the first government to engineer a panopticon singularity. According to rumour, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) hasn't delivered the promised results of allowing just about any government agency, from local council departments on up, to get access to private communications intercepts. It seems that much of the stuff targeted by RIPA orders is transient; communication carriers like phone companies and ISPs just don't have the storage capacity to log and retain everything. So a couple of years ago, the Home Office began looking into something a little bit more drastic.

Say hello to the Interception Modernisation Program.

(More details here and here, and just in case you think relying on one source is a bit much, here and here and here and (the Guardian, still half in love with NuLab, are late to the party) here.)

Quoth The Reg:

The project has been pushed hard at Whitehall by the intelligence agencies MI6 and GCHQ. One ISP source described their demands as "science fiction". It's envisaged that the one-stop-shop database will retain details of all calls, texts, emails, instant messenger conversations and websites accessed in the UK for up to two years.

Communications providers fear a technical nightmare if they are forced to implement common data formatting rules. GCHQ declined to comment.

Which is fine as far as it goes ...

When I first heard about this, my reaction was "they can't do that". A quick back of the envelope estimate of the volume of data they'd be sucking in suggested they'd need to build a new 400Mw power station just to keep the drive arrays spinning. But with a price tag of £12Bn being bandied about ($20Bn, to you Johnny Foreigner types) it's time for second thoughts.

Meanwhile, there's the National CCTV monitoring policy setting standards for high resolution CCTV cameras with centralized networked control and monitoring, the security services demanding real-time access to the Transport for London Oyster card database, ANPR roll-out on the motorways and planned extension of ubiquitous vehicle tracking via automated number plate recognition (ANPR) to all A and B roads within 2-3 years (this has been bubbling since 2006), the National Identity Register going live (and Cory Doctorow is not amused). Oh, and there's the children's database.

Putting it together, here's the big picture of life on Airstrip One in 2013:

When you leave your home you remember to take your mobile phone (which the government is tapping, as they do, and logging the location of to within 50-100 metres at all times) and your ID card (because if you're stopped by a police officer without it you can be fined, heavily). As you walk to your car, you are being recorded by the CCTV network, and ID'd by your gait or facial features. Your emotional state may also be monitored at this time for crude signs of aggression or depression that affect your posture or movement. When you get in your car and drive somewhere, your vehicle is tracked. You arrive at your place of work, where you are under CCTV surveillance by your employers' security staff, and your internet usage is both filtered and monitored by the government. Any email you send is cc'd to the big government database and scanned for suspicious content that may indicate criminal or terrorist (or just plain weird) activity. And when you get home again in the evening and slump in front of your laptop to surf the net, remember that our lords and masters have decided that the 1950s vintage Obscene Publications Act applies to fanfic, the definition of illegal 'extreme' pornography is so vague that you can be jailed for looking at images of sex acts that are legal, and you can be banged up for years if you accidentally stumble across a web site containing network monitoring tools or information useful to terrorists (a term with no set boundary, as Gerry Adams and Nelson Mandela can attest).
And don't look to me for help; I'm either in prison or I fled the country some time ago.

I'm in little doubt that the ghost of Erich Honnecker is wanking furiously in his grave. And laughing. At us. Because the UK is within a couple of years of becoming the ultimate surveillance state, far more intrusive and efficient than the fishbowl built by the Communist party of the GDR.

i wonder if they think it'll help them ride out the economic storm?

Okay, hang onto your hats. We're clearly in for a bumpy ride over the next couple of years; even discounting the worst-case scenarios (I'm a happy pessimist: I always need something to worry about) it looks like we're in for a recession that will be at least as bad as the 1990-92 one, and possibly much worse. Now is the time to go long on Baked Beans and short Hummers; I'd love to see an index of the price of second-hand Herman Miller Aeron chairs (personal experience last week suggests they're sliding — there's a glut on eBay).

But this isn't 1990-92, nor yet 1929-39, much less 1872-73. this isn't just going to be the first recession of the 21st century — it's going to be the first recession of the internet age.

(I'm going to stipulate that the dot-com crash in 2000 doesn't count as the damage was specific to the IT and telecommunications industry; it didn't affect society at large — growth overall took a dent and there were a lot of windbags with MCSEs looking for what jobs there were, but you didn't see banks going bust or governments panicking.)

The conventional wisdom has it that if there's one thing the internet does to the wider economy, it can be summed up in one word: disintermediation. Back in the dim and distant prehistory of the 1980s, we used to buy our daily bread, or Armani suits, or whatever, from retailers. The retailers in turn were fed by a supply chain of wholesalers who were plugged into distribution channels which ran all the way back to the factory doors where manufactured or farmed stuff was put together and slung at the public. But the internet lets end-users plug into the same computerized ordering systems that used to be the privilege of the wholesaler. We've gotten awfully good at agile distribution, just-in-time manufacturing, business-to-business networking and outsourcing and a bunch of other -ings that only make sense if you have a responsive, high bandwidth communications network.

One one level, the systems we depend on are far more fragile than they used to be. Instead of the supply chain being a pipe with stuff flowing through it in regular quantities, goods tend to be ordered, built, and despatched like network packets, as and when they're wanted. This sort of system has very little overhead and is highly efficient, but it's prone to catastrophic breakdown; visualize a car factory that has outsourced all its components and simply does final assembly and customization, and the hole it falls down if the steering wheel supplier suddenly goes bust.

On another level, the whole agile logistics thing works in our favour; our hypothetical car factory can in principle zap the CAD blueprints for the steering wheel molds and tooling over to another factory somewhere, whereupon they can be up and pumping out units within a couple of days. Assuming they own the IP that went into the blueprints for their steering wheel, of course ...

... and assuming anybody is still buying cars.

We've never actually seen a true global recession in a Web 2.0 world. What's it going to look like? How is it going to differ from a recession in a pre-internet world? Is it going to accelerate the hollowing-out of the retail high street as economy-conscious shoppers increasingly move to online shopping and comparison systems like Froogle? Are we going to see homeless folks not only living in their cars but telecommuting from them, using pay-as-you-go 3G cellular modems, cheap-ass Netbooks, and rented phone numbers to give the appearance of still having a meatspace office? Is the increasing performance curve of consumer electronics going to give way to a deflationary price war as embattled producers try to hold on to market share as Moore's Law cuts the ground away from beneath their feet?

What have I missed?

I'm prompted to write this entry simply because a number of folks on the earlier blog entry seem to have misunderstood the point I was making ... this is by way of illumination.

In my view, near-future SF isn't SF set n years in the future. Rather, it's SF that connects to the reader's life: SF about times we, personally, can conceive of living through (barring illness or old age). It's SF that delivers a powerful message — this is where you are going. As such, it's almost the diametric opposite of a utopian work; utopias are an unattainable perfection, but good near-future SF strive for realism.

Orwell's 1984 wasn't written as near-future SF, even though he wrote it in 1948, a mere 36 years out: it explicitly posits a global dislocation, a nuclear war and a total upheaval, between the world inhabited by Orwell's readers and the world of Winston Smith. You can't get there from here, because it's a parable and a dystopian warning: the world of Ingsoc is not for you.

In contrast, Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire is near-future SF, even though it's set nearly a century out; his heroine, a centenarian survivor from our own times, is on the receiving end of a new anti-aging medical treatment that has some odd side-effects, and so we get a chance to tour the late 21st century vicariously. You're meant to think, "I could end up there" — that's the whole point of near-future SF.

Technothrillers aren't near-future SF. Technothrillers are thrillers first; they play against the background of the world as we know it (albeit the world of drama and espionage and public affairs) without considering the way the technology trappings they rely on might change the human condition. The high-tech stuff is window dressing.

Near-future SF does different things with the same tools; they come front-and-centre -- or rather, their effects come front-and-centre, and the world is changed thereby. And they're not necessarily such obvious new technologies as smart bombs and wrist-watch radios; they might equally well be a new way of looking at the memetic spread of fashions, as in Connie Willis' Belwether, or social network mediated economics, as in Bruce Sterling's Maneki Neko.

(There's a key scene in "Halting State" where I played with this: Jack and Elaine are walking through Edinburgh, circa 2018, and Jack is explaining how it would outwardly look mostly familiar to someone from 50 years ago -- except that underneath the building facades and differently styled cars and clothing, everything works differently. Whereas in a traditional technothriller, everything works the same but the cars are very gosh-wow and all have machine guns behind the headlights, so to speak.)

The time has come again to play "hunt the typo" in one of my books ...

In January or thereabouts, Ace will — at last! — be publishing "The Jennifer Morgue". If you stumbled over a typo in the Golden Gryphon hardcover edition, please post a comment. Ideally give me a page number or some quoted textual context around the typo that I can search on ...

The deadline is October 7th.

(Note: there is no need to report typos in the British paperback, which went via an entirely different production pathway; I'm just after errata from the US limited edition hardcover, which is where the DTP files for the US trade paperback edition are coming from.)



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