October 2010 Archives

(This entry has been moved up top and re-dated so it's visible ...)

Things may be quiet this weekend, because I'll be in Antwerp attending Beneluxcon as one of the guests (along with Justina Robson).

Things will also be quiet next weekend, because I'll be in Birmingham, talking to the Birmingham SF Group on Friday 5th.

And things will be very quiet the weekend after that, and for a few days either side, because I will be in Nottingham, attending Novacon 40, along with (I hope) a goodly number of their previous guests of honour.

Then I get to sleep in my own bed for two consecutive weekends before I'm off down to London for a week (no planned public appearances, alas: just some business meetings, catching up with friends, and going to a gig).

I'll try to keep you posted in between spasms of travel. G'day!

I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9.

It's not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter's "Infernal Devices", Tim Powers' "The Anubis Gates", the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don't have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius.) It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it's poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it's on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it's over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the 'S'-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you're lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ....

But there's a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).

Contemplating the numerous errors of the zombies'n'zeppelins fad in SF makes me twitch, for reasons that parallel China Mieville's denunciation of The Lord of the Rings (except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack and am besides too lazy to anatomize the errors of a generation at length in such an essay: personally, I blame the internet). The romanticization of totalitarianism is nothing new (and if you don't recognize the totalitarian urge embedded in the steampunk nostalgia trip, I should like to remind you that "king" is a synonym for "hereditary dictator" and direct you to the merciless skewing Michael Moorcock delivered to imperial hagiography in his Oswald Bastable books). Nevertheless, an affection for the ancien regime is an unconsidered aspect of the background of most steampunk fiction: much like the interstellar autocracies so common in space opera (and again, let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers). The Science! in steampunk (which purports to be science fiction, of a kind ... doesn't it?) is questionable at best (Cherie Priest, I'm looking at your gas-induced zombies) and frequently flimsier than even the worst junk that space opera borrows from the props department, because, as it happens, the taproots of steampunk lie prior to the vast expansion in the scientific enterprise that has come to dominate our era. But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor. That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).

You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

Only none of this stuff is fun, exactly, so I suppose it has to go on the list of "Novels I will not write" ... filed under "too angry".

Looking back at the calendar, I discover that for all but five of the past twenty years I've been earning my living as a writer. However, I've only been a full-time novelist for five of those fifteen years; the rest of the time I've been doing other stuff as well. "Writing" covers a multitude of sins — in my case, it ranges from being a technical author in a software multinational to freelance computer journalism (which doesn't bear much resemblance to traditional newspaper journalism, but that's another essay).

And in addition to writing novels, I've written non-fiction books. Well, I wrote a couple of manuals that were distributed with scarily powerful (for 1990-91 values of "powerful") graphics processors, bits of UNIX documentation for the Corporate Patent Zombie (in its earlier, productive phase as a real software company), and finally one that was published in 1996 under my own name (and obsolete before it hit the shelves).

But I did a couple of other non-fiction proposals that never made it out the door. One, "Take the Money and Run", I described in Halting State Variations. And then there's the other non-fic book, which really needs to be written (but not by me) ...

I made a new year's resolution last year to avoid buying spurious computing crap. So these thoughts are not based on actual face-time with a new shiny. However, as you probably guessed, I followed Apple's webcast last night and have some thoughts.

From Techrunch:

The Number Resource Organization, the coordinating mechanism for the five Regional Internet Registries or RIRs, this morning announced that less than 5% of the world's IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) addresses remain unallocated. The IPv4 pool first dipped below 10% in January 2010, and in the next nine months some 200 million addresses have subsequently been allocated from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to the RIRs.

NRO anticipates to allocate the last IPv4 address blocks to the registries within months.

Nothing new here — this has been on the cards for years — but it means the internet in 2011 is going to begin to change.

We've got a successor protocol (IPv6) — it's been around for years, although nobody uses it much. The IP depletion isn't going to affect end users signficiantly in the short term; new/low-end ISPs will probably switch from using a pool of dynamically allocated public-facing IP addresses, allocated one per active customer, to doing some kind of transparent masquerading/forwarding, to increase utilization. This will prevent incoming connections to customers ... but that could be seen as a benefit, not a drawback. However, there is going to be a problem for businesses and folks who want to run servers. Not to mention being a show stopper for Dynamic DNS services, and facilities like Apple's "Back to my Mac" (a part of the MobileMe package that lets travelling users get a remote desktop on their home system from wherever they are). And the inevitable migration to IPv6 is going to cause headaches.

What I want to know is, what kind of headaches? Do we have any networking professionals in the audience?

Alien Space Bats versus Talking Squids in Outer Space: the burning question is, who wins?

Most of my novels are available in ebook format, but I keep being asked in email some variation on the following question:

Recently, I started reading the Merchant Princes series ... I've been reading on my kindle. And there is no book 4, kindle edition that I can find. Which is odd, because I bought 1-3 and have 5 and 6 on my wishlist. Is there any explanation you can provide? Is it a rights thing, or a delay, or a the-original-manuscript-disappeared-down-a-black-whole kind of thing?
The correct answer is, "none of the above" ...

I'm trying to get my head around the historical processes whereby we (the UK) got into this mess over higher education. Not the minutiae (who's going to pay for university education) but the why of it ...

Halting State was published in 2007, after being written in 2005-06, but had a very long germination. Very long. As in, the first seeds of the book go back to 1998 — and it changed out of all recognition along the way ...

There is nothing like getting everyone mad at you simultaneously, is there? Personally, I take it as something of a challenge. And so, for the past few years I've been sitting on this book proposal for a highly commercial alternate history/time travel novel, fixed firmly in that sub-genre whereby $CONTEMPORARY_WARFIGHTING_UNIT is magically teleported back in time.

You probably remember the movie The Final Countdown (USS Nimitz magically teleported back to 1941, on the eve of the Pearl Harbour attack), or John Birmingham's highly successful "Axis of Time" trilogy (NATO carrier battle group, circa 2020, teleported back to 1941 ...) or the cultural variant novel "Island in the Sea of Time" by S. M. Stirling (Nantucket Island circa 1990 is teleported back in time, complete with inhabitants, to the era of the Trojan war) or "1632" by Eric Flint (mining town in Appalachia is teleported back in time to ...)

I have a shit-stirring variation ...

Working at home has some unanticipated side-effects. Forget the irregular hours, short commute, informal office dress code, and potential distractions; I'm being haunted by the sound of shuffling zombies.

You may have noticed me being a little scarce around the comments in the previous note on the Eschatonverse. And that it's been a little while since I blogged. There is a reason: my damned eyeballs.

One of the problems with being a novelist is that the career structure starts late; very few folks have anything substantial to say about the human condition before they hit thirty, and you're still a young writer until you pass 45. (Looking at my desk calendar, that gives me another two weeks or so ...)

About a year ago I noticed some changes to my vision. I've got, ahem, interesting eye issues to start with (myopia, some astigmatism, and different retinal problems in each eye) and for the past 12 months I've been fighting off galloping presbyopia. For the past couple of months it's been getting noticeably worse (I've been swapping reading glasses and distance glasses like crazy, and still having eyestrain-induced headaches) and since last week I've had a set of varifocals on order.

Anyway, this is really eating into my screen (and reading) time at present — the new lenses take a couple of weeks to make and ship — so "Books I will not write: #5" is going to have to wait for a couple of days.

I'm seriously considering a gigantic new monitor as well, but there's limited room on my desk (an odd Scandinavian fold-up writing desk from the 1970s, not a boring office table affair), and I am Not Interested in replacing it.

Meanwhile, if TruFocal lenses weren't so plug-ugly I'd be queuing up for a pair. And you know what? If they start selling them with an XGA or higher resolution built-in head-up display I might go for them anyway.



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