June 2010 Archives

It's a blast from the past: FBI breaks up alleged Russian spy ring in deep cover: "The FBI has arrested 10 alleged Russian spies and broken up a "long term, deep cover" network of agents that spent years adopting American identities and gathering an array of intelligence, from information about nuclear weapons to the gold market and personnel changes at the CIA."

The only thing I'm startled at is that anyone would find this surprising. Pre-Glasnost, the KGB was heavily into the economic and corporate espionage business — not simply trying to suborn politicians and penetrate rival intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, but actively trying to gain competitive advantage for the Soviet Union's big industrial enterprises. From the early 1980s on, it was a huge priority for them — and indeed, Vladimir Putin was allegedly employed by the KGB directorate concerned with economic espionage. And human intelligence operations, even long-term infiltration ones, are comparatively cheap to engage in — given that agents need to work to maintain a cover identity, it takes relatively little money to maintain them in the field and to maintain a management structure at HQ: the cost of a single spy satellite would cover a hundred spies and their controllers for a multi-decade mission.

The real question we should be asking is, why did the FBI decide to arrest them, rather than continuing to monitor the (now compromised) spy ring, and possibly use it to feed disinformation back to its controllers?

Fuller Memorandum (British)

... For readers in the UK:

I am informed by $EDITOR that Waterstones are selling "The Fuller Memorandum" on a "3 for the price of 2" promotion. (Which also means it should be easy to find, with shop front placement.)

(Yes, there aretwo copies of that cover pic on my blog front page. If you had a book in the top 100 on Amazon in its launch week, what would you do?)

Bruce Sterling, SF novelist, journalist, and design guru, observed a while ago that the interesting thing about the iPhone was that it subsumes other devices. It's not just a mobile phone — it's an iPod, a web browser, a movie player, a satnav, a games console in roughly the same class as the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP (indeed, iOS games outsell PSP games), an ebook reader, a compass, a floor wax and a desert topping. With iPhone 4 it looks as if Apple are getting serious about some "traditional" mobile phone applications (for 1990s values of "traditional") such as compact camera photography ... and also some downright science fictional ones: it's a videophone contender, and even an HD video editing platform. There have been mutterings about near field payment technologies under development. Doubtless when it acquires a pico-projector (any year now) it'll also be a flashlight and a laser gun.

But what about last month's shiny, the iPad?

The Fuller Memorandum

All my author copies of the new books (paperbacks of "Wireless", US hardcover and UK paperback of "The Fuller Memorandum") have arrived. I'm told my local bookstore, Transreal Books in Edinburgh, is expecting supplies of the US hardcover of TFM to show up next Wednesday or Thursday; if you want to order a signed copy, send Mike an email. (I'll be dropping in to sign stock next weekend. Thereafter, my next signing will be at Pandemonium in Cambridge, MA on the 13th of July.)

Much to my astonishment, as of today — six days before the official publication date — "The Fuller Memorandum" is the #5 best-selling science fiction title on Amazon.co.uk. (And as #1-#4 include "1984", "Brave New World", and "The Handmaid's Tale" — three of the classic dystopias of the past century — it's actually the #2 current title.) ... correction: it's now at #2 in SF after "1984", and #84 in Fiction on amazon.co.uk.

I don't normally work on book-length projects without a publishing contract up-front, but I probably won't surprise you if I say that I'm dealing with the lack of a project to work on post-"Rule 34" by working on, er, another Laundry piece.

Ten minutes ago I composed a brief email message to my literary agent, with an attachment around 1.2 megabytes in size. Then I hit "send" on fifteen months minus five days of work. I've been keeping a low profile on this blog because I've just worked for nine consecutive days on what I hope is the final draft of "Rule 34": if my agent doesn't raise any red flags over it, it should land on my editors' desks in something between 24 hours and two months.

Feeling dead, now. Working for nine solid days will do that to you.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's necessary. Novels are complex assemblages, and when they run to over 100,000 words (this one ran to 108,000 — making it about three pages longer than "Halting State") there are a lot of intricate cross-linkages and continuity glitches to fix. Explanations for bits of the action may get written up twice in different chapters if I forget about having done it the first time; and plot threads get dropped by accident, especially if the writing process is stretched across more than a year. The only way to get it right is to plough through the entire thing non-stop, intensively re-familiarizing yourself with the book so that you can spot the little inconsistencies between page 50 and page 120.

... And then it's gone.

Ever finished a job that, give or take vacations, sick time, and minor interruptions, took you more than a year of solid day-job working time? If not, it's a really strange sensation. Most human occupations are process-oriented, ongoing grappling with a continuous requirement for activity that never goes away — they may break down into sub-tasks, but the tasks in question seldom extend across more than a few hours or a handful of days. Stuff that happens once, in a continous process lasting months, is very atypical and more usually experienced as parts of life distinct from work: pregnancy, or higher education, or a terminal illness. And having it just end feels somehow wrong.

I got the first draft done, then took some time out while my beta testers kicked the tyres (I have other jobs to occupy my copious spare time). Now I'm back at work on what I hope will be the final pre-submission draft of "Rule 34".

The first draft, which I finished on the 8th, is not something that is fit to publish. It's a story, certainly: the guts are all there, stitched inside the skin. It's even been spell-checked. (Insert hollow laughter here.) Earlier sections have already been reviewed, edited, and polished to a fine gleam; the last quarter, not so much. But not everything works properly. There are a ton of snags: red herrings that I forgot about part-way through the 15 month long writing process, stuff that isn't needed (and so needs to be cut cleanly away), other stuff that needs to be inserted to foreshadow later scenes — very often the climax of a novel doesn't make complete sense unless the author's taken the time to go back through the book and insert a bread-crumb trail of arrows leading up to the summit. This is especially true of a crime novel (which "Rule 34" undoubtedly is, albeit somewhat unconventional).

And there are more subtle problems. It took me 15 months to write the first draft of this one. Think back to whatever book you were reading 15 months ago. Now, how many of the details can you remember? Try to write a synopsis and you'll probably find (especially if, like me, you have a poor memory) some of the details are blurred. Re-read it and compare what you're reading with the synopsis and you'll probably unearth a number of surprises. This is exactly my position when I go back and edit something I wrote more than a year ago.

Here's another problem. Because I lose the plot every few months (to be honest, I get tired and have to take a break), I start each iterative attempt to spin the novel out by re-reading and editing the earlier sections. After a while I get over-familiar with the text, and lose the ability to focus on those early bits closely enough — while the later sections haven't been re-read and edited anything like as often. So there's a quality control issue here.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing for the past few days, and what I'll be doing for some time to come. The novel exists; it just hasn't passed its QA checks yet. But it should be done by the end of this month (July), a month ahead of the deadline.

After that, what am I going to do next?

Among other things, I've got a couple of unusual book projects to work on. First of all, I'm guest of honour at Boskone in Boston next February. A long-standing annual SF convention, Boskone is run by the New England Science Fiction Association, NESFA. NESFA have their own small press, and one of their traditions is to publish a book by the guest of honour — frequently a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I'm not going to pre-empt their announcement, but I just turned something in. So hopefully that means there'll be a new short-run hardback next February.

Next, I'm going to try and make an April Fool's joke come true.

Back on April 1st, Locus Magazine announced that Cory Doctorow and I were going to write an authorized sequel to Atlas Shrugged. As it happens, we don't have the permission of the Ayn Rand estate, but we're not going to let a little thing like that stop us! A couple of years ago we wrote a couple of fun novellas, collectively titled "The Rapture of the Nerds"; we plan to finish the long-planned and long-overdue novel, for publication in 2012 by Tor. (Locus editors: the joke's on you now!)

Finally: I have a superstitious dread of talking in public about projects that aren't under contract yet, just in case the deal falls through. (This happened to what very nearly became my first published novel, back in 1992.) Ace and Orbit won't discuss future books until I finish my current contract workload — that's how this business works. But what I am willing to say is that I'm aiming to hand in "Rule 34" in about nine days' time. Assuming all goes well, shortly thereafter I hope to announce a new two-book deal. I'll be pitching for a fourth Laundry novel, and a new far-future SF title. Here's hoping they like the idea ...

fuller memorandum cover pic

I have a crate of copies of the US hardback of "The Fuller Memorandum". This means it's on its way out to bookstores around the US even as I type, and should be on sale in a week or two.

(The British paperback was due to be printed last Friday, so it should be on its way too.)

I also have early copies of the American and British paperbacks of my short story collection "Wireless", which (hint) includes the Hugo-shortlisted novella "Palimpsest" and the Locus award-winning novella "Missile Gap". Unusually, the British edition is larger than the regular C-format — but don't worry, it's the same price as a regular paperback.

(No, I don't know about ebook editions. My publishers don't give me that kind of information unless I kick their ankles, although I expect that to change as ebooks grow to be more than, oh, around 1.5% of the market.)

I may be a little quiet over the next week because — see entries passim &mdash I have finished the first draft of "Rule 34", which means it's time to redraft the damn thing and get it into a fit state for sending to my agent. There's a lot of work still to do. It took me just over 15 months to write the first draft of this book — two or three times as long as usual — so there's probably a bundle of work ahead.

I have been wondering for a while just what we — the west in general — are doing in Afghanistan.

Iraq was pretty obvious: oil. (Don't listen to the mouth, watch the hands.) It wasn't anything as crude as grabbing the oil — stealing around ten billion tons of anything is pretty much impossible — but about exerting control over the manner in which it is sold in order to maintain a competitive advantage (a choke-hold on energy supplies) over economic competitors such as Germany and China. That was the core vision of the Project for the New American Century think tank in the late 1990s, and those folks later formed the top tier of the previous administration.

But Afghanistan? A fly-bitten wilderness with a rep for chewing up and spitting out invaders: so hostile that neither Pakistan nor Iran had any interest in trying to bite off chunks? It was once a second-tier Soviet satellite state; not hugely prosperous or progressive but vastly more modern and enlightened than the hell-hole familiar to us from news coverage today. Leaving aside the issue of how it was systematically turned into a suppurating wound on the southern frontier of the former Soviet empire by the judicious application of US government aid to radical Mujahedin elements — it's darkly amusing to re-watch the James Bond movie The Living Daylights in view of subsequent events — the only obvious western interest in Afghanistan, post-2001, lay in nailing Osama bin Laden's headquarters group and depriving Al Qaida of the ability to use the relatively lawless area as a safe training ground.

So why have we been re-enacting Vietnam 3.0 there for the past nine years?

The New York Times comes up with a valid-sounding reason, going forward, for maintaining an imperial outpost in Afghanistan: "The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves ... including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium ... The mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country, including in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan that have had some of the most intense combat in the American-led war against the Taliban insurgency."

Note the presence of lithium in that list. It's a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there's a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There's no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it's mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC's equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it's fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.

Two other points occur to me.

Firstly: are these reserves truly "new" discoveries? Or were they, perchance, identified as possibilities by earth resources satellite overflights at some point in the 1990s, but written off as unexploitable due to lack of access?

Secondly: disaster capitalism, anyone? (Clues to watch for include: sale of long-term mineral concessions to western multinationals, justification that "exploitation of mineral reserves will enable us to rebuild Afghanistan", continued maintainance of a large military peacekeeping presence to protect the mine workings, destruction of civil institutions and rival social power bases by — no, wait, that already happened.)

I hope I'm being too cynical here, or that the NYT are over-egging the pudding in this news story. But I'm afraid we're getting confirmation that Afghanistan is the second nation to be systematically trashed by the Bush administration in pursuit of energy-control politics.

Some of you may have iPads. If so, you might want to go look at the iBookstore, where Tor.com are releasing a bunch of their short fiction — including pieces by me, myself and I — as free downloads; they're on the front page right now, and in the top 100 free downloads at present. Tor are also rolling out their short stories via the Kindle store, so iPhone/iPod touch owners (and the odd owner of some quaint e-ink device) can get at them.

(Right now I'm told this is definitely happening in the US iBookstore; as I have a UK Apple account I can't confirm this, although they should show up in the UK in due course.)

Meanwhile, I've received my first author copy of the US hardcover edition of "The Fuller Memorandum", and I'm informed that the UK paperback is due to be printed this Friday.

Some of you may be wanting to purchase signed copies.

If you're in the USA I suggest you contact Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA. I'm going to be signing there on July 13th, and I'm pretty sure that if you ask them they'll be happy to sell you a signed copy.

If you're in the UK (or want a UK paperback copy, or a US hardcover sending somewhere in the UK), I suggest you contact Transreal Books in Edinburgh, Scotland. I'm going to drop by to sign stock there before I zip off to Cambridge in July, and Mike will be happy to sell you a signed copy.

(No, there's no online shopping cart; you need to send an email, or phone. Small speciality bookshops, remember?)

I've been tardy with updates lately because I'm having had some trouble achieving closure in the current novel.

Closure isn't the same as ending. It's dead easy to finish a novel if you don't care about closure; just have a masked stranger come through the door with a submachine gun, shoot all the protagonists, and type THE END. It's not very satisfying, though. Your readers will close the book with a sour taste in their mouths — especially if the book in question is a Regency romance.

Closure is hard to pin down, but if I had to take an off-the-cuff stab at it I'd say it's the emotionally satisfying wrap, coming after much struggle and a climax. The climax is easy to spot, whether it be on the melodramatic scale of the protagonist dueling with the villain on top of a burning zeppelin, or our thinly disguised literary academic narrator coming to terms with their middle age and deciding to move on. All fictional forms have their own forms and conventions for handling a climax, or declining to do so (in the case of slice-of-life narratives or somewhat perverse experimental works). But closure is not climax. A story that doesn't end with closure is unsatisfying — "it just ended" is a common reader complaint. But the closure-generating aspects of a story aren't necessarily as obvious as an infantile "and they all lived happily ever after". Sometimes closure is explicit, but sometimes it's sketchy — a bunch of arrows converging in the distance beyond the end of the narrative, so that the reader can draw their own conclusions.

Anyway, that's closure defined (or at least roughly circumscribed). My problem is a variation on the common issue of loose ends and dangling threads — a common closure issue in fiction. I'm working with three major plot strands, one of them only loosely connected to the others. Each of them needs to achieve closure. If only a couple of them achieve closure, my hypothetical reader is going to finish the book then say, "yes, but whatever happened to X ...?"

In my case, I've got the solitary strand more or less sorted out. But the two interlocking threads don't demand the same kind of closure, to say the least. Yes, there are different types of closure, following the conventions of different genres or types of literature. Detective/crime: the cop gets the crook and justice is done. Romance: the couple/multiple get it together. Horror: the last victim standing reaches an island of stability and comes to terms with what they've been through. Classical comedy, tragedy and farce have their own expectations of closure. (And so on.) And in my case I'm trying to use a welding torch on a romance-gone-wrong thread and a detective/crime thread, the latter as seen from the point of view of something utterly alien that is watching the world through the eyes of a sociopath.

I may be some time ...

I hate death marches.

(But a death march is what I'm on. Another three or four days and I should have a finished first draft of "Rule 34". Until then? Talk among yourselves ...)

Please folks, stop emailing me about the theft of virtual furniture in Habbo Hotel. It's old news. In fact, anything you read about in "Halting State" is old news, with the possible exception of quantum supercomputers in Leith and a Chinese gaming clan trying to pwn the IT infrastructure of an entire European country.

(That's why I'm writing a kinda-sorta sequel: "Halting State" is cooked.)

I am extremely busy this week (I'm on the down-slope to finishing the first draft of "Rule 34"), so in lieu of content, here is a video of a very silly cat:

(Her name's Mafdet, she's around 15 years old, and this is just part of her repertoire of author attention seeking strategies.)

Specials

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