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Books I will not write #6: Halting State Variations

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 ...

It was going to be about vampires.

And before that, it was going to be non-fiction.

Lest you go WTF?!? on me, let me explain: in 1998, I'd almost given up on fiction. I was writing and selling the odd short story, and shopping around a novel titled "Festival of Fools" (later, "Singularity Sky"). Most of my writing effort was focussed on the newsstand computer press; around 1998 I acquired the monthly Linux column in "Computer Shopper" (the British mag published by Felix Dennis, not the Ziff-Davis title he allegedly got the idea from). I had pretty much despaired of ever getting a novel published, but I did have a non-fiction book to my name ("The Web Architect's Handbook") and another non-fiction contract outstanding.

And I was working as programmer for a dot-com startup, Datacash Ltd (which, just now, is the subject of a takeover offer by Mastercard, which tells you it was one of the few dot-com 1.0 start-ups to actually survive and prosper).

Well, it didn't look likely in 1998-99 that I was going to make my fortune (things were a little, ahem, fraught), but I did have a buttload of ideas for a book about the dot-com boom, as seen from inside. These I gathered together into a pitch titled "Take the Money and Run", which was going to be "The Soul of a New Machine" for the dot-com era.

Here's how the detailed proposal began:

hematically, the history of Datacash is a journey — from the prehistory of e-commerce, through to market floatation on AIM. Along the way we run into assorted businesses, old (acquiring banks) and new (dot-coms). We also meet a clash of personalities — the Suits and the Geeks — and a clash of business models — traditional British corporatism and radical Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. There's also a clash of technologies,
from the antiquated APACS protocols and mainframe-bound procedures of the banks, to the internet protocols and open source mentality of DataCash. DataCash is a weird hybrid, prone to tensions running along these axes, and this needs to be brought out.

This book isn't going to try to present a formula for becoming an internet zillionaire, because there isn't one, and by the time the process looks stable enough to formalise the industry will have matured enough to make it impossible. (Besides, I don't have an MBA and I don't look good in a suit. So there.)

What this book is going to do is paint a picture of an accidental journey. When we got started, I was so confident of failure that I insisted on working as a contractor rather than an employee/shareholder. Even Gavin, CEO and main stakeholder, only anticipated a 12-month window of opportunity and a peak value of maybe a million. How we got from there to here isn't easy to understand without some knowledge of: ...


In 1999 I was talking to a literary agent (not my current agent) about this idea; he got cold feet after a few months and wished me good luck elsewhere. Meanwhile, things were turning sour, and by early 2000 the dot-com bubble was a bust, I was working full-time as a freelance computer journalist, and "Take the Money and Run 1.0" was history.

When fate hands you a bunch of lemons, you make lemonade. And so I got the idea of using my experience to write a novel, not a boring corporate biography. Iteration #1 of the fiction version of "Take the Money and Run" featured, well, skull-duggery inside a dot-com. Which would have been great, except nobody in 2001-02 wanted to read a historical murder mystery set, er, three years ago.

By this time I'd sold "Singularity Sky" and "The Atrocity Archive", and was working on the first Merchant Princes books. But the idea of using Datacash (or something like it) as a setting haunted me. So did a certain imp of the perverse. My muse likes to mess me around and have me run variations on old, classic themes of genre fiction. One of the more bizarre experiences of working in the dot-com sector was running into against Venture Capitalists — not just at Datacash but subsequently (I was involved in an abortive attempt to bootstrap a new startup: abortive, because we made our first pitch for funding on September 12th, 2001). The effect of VCs on a successful company as it nears the market can be quite strange — money makes people do weird things. And the VCs are largely unseen by the ground-level staff: they're faceless, distant influences who seem to sap your energy and warp your workplace to their needs. So what better way to really put the V into VC than to write a vampire novel set in a start-up ...?

Here's the proposal I pitched at my agent:

This is a general concept, not an outline. The idea's to combine two ideas — my earlier idea for a mainstream/crime novel set in a failing dot-com, with a wholly new twist on the idea of the vampire in fiction. It's not a standard vampire novel, nor a Laundry novel, but hopefully twitches the same funny/horrifying nexus as "The Atrocity Archives".

Our starting point is that vampires exist. They're not very supernatural: all the stuff about holy water and mirrors is so much superstition. But this much we know: they're effectively immortal, they're much stronger than mere humans, and they're very, very hungry. They drink blood and eat flesh. Daylight burns their skin, and prolonged exposure gives them severe (but survivable) tumours, so they tend to stay out of it. They're obligate carnivores in human skin, living among the human herd (much as in Suzy McKee Charnas' VAMPIRE TAPESTRY). It may be that vampirism is the effect of contracting a rare viral infection; if so, it has neurological side-effects.

Vampires can live on raw meat and no bits of human. But they have a tendency to succumb to a berserk hunger, and this is increasingly likely to manifest itself the longer they stay on the Atkins diet. Humans just plain smell like food to them, and the longer a vampire holds off the hunger the worse the consequences.

Some vampires can sublimate their hunger into a thirst for material wealth. Rolling in a bathtub full of money helps stave off the urge to rip out throats and drink blood. When this happens, the result isn't pretty — have you ever wondered what motivates the most ruthless of corporate raiders? Most of them are human, but a tiny fraction of the most hungry capitalists are vampires, hoarding the only acceptable substitute for flesh and blood that works. (Besides which, being richer than Croesus is good insulation if the forces of law and order start looking for serial killers in high places.)

Most vampires die young, but if they're intelligent and quick-witted they're effectively immortal — certainly by human standards. However, being a vampire isn't easy. Vampires are interstitial creatures who live in the cracks in the walls of the human societies upon which they prey. They can't afford to be exposed; exposure means death.

Thus, experienced older vampires live like spies or terrorists, with a chain of safe houses and hidden investment caches and always a get-out plan in case someone stumbles across their chain of corpses and starts to seek them. They may not own the investment caches directly — they may use human proxies, Renfields, to operate them — but they'll be readily available and designed to withstand the corrosive effects of change and time.

Over time it has become harder to remain anonymous in our highly networked society. To survive, a vampire needs to become a stainless steel vampire, to work with the tech.

Fifty to a hundred years ago a wave of major extinction killed off 90% of the elder vampires. They simply lacked the flexibility to adapt to the changes brought by the 20th century, and one thing or another got them. (Imagine making the mistake of retreating to the dreaming spires of your youth — back in the 16th century — only to get caught in the firebombing of Dresden.) Some ancients survived — those who are most flexible suffer from a rolling amnesia which blots out most memories more than 50-100 years old, allowing them to keep up with the times. But most are gone forever, leaving only their fossilized hoards behind. The rate at which new cases of vampirism occur is very low, far lower than folklore would suggest.

Because of the great extinction, there is a good living to be made for a freelance forensic accountant with an eye for two-century-old bearer bonds, rusty keys, and treasure maps. Just as long as they don't stumble across a hoard belonging to a vampire who didn't succumb during the great extinction, of course. If the Snark doesn't turn out to be a Boojum, the accountant may very well wind up dead. It's not a risk-free occupation ...

Some hoard-hunters do it as a hobby, while they have a day job. Others do it professionally: the Inland Revenue's crack Vampire Team, for example, with their million candlepower torches and armed Special Branch escorts with carbines firing wooden bullets. But slowly but surely, the caches of hidden treasure are being exhausted. Money is no longer a static thing, but liquid, fungible, tied up in information exchange.

Remember those semi-amnesic Great Vampires who roll with the times? They're not total amnesiacs; the most important wisdom of the ages sticks with them. The madness of crowds, for example, is the easiest way to fleece a herd of human sheep. They're sensitive to patterns of human behaviour that no short-lived mayfly human can sense, except in the abstract; this gives them a huge edge. And they have an unearthly ability to make people believe things, however improbable they might sound at face value. A vampire prince makes a great marketing huckster, a brilliant visionary executive. An angel investor.

... At which point I need to splice in the proposed plot for the crime novel, with a few added twists: in a nutshell, our dot-com is a cash cow for a vampire who is feathering his nest-egg. Our vanishing hacker tried to rip the vampire off, and has been disappeared for his pains. Our investigators-who-don't-trust-each-other, the classic ill-assorted pair, slowly realise that they could re-create the crime — but who killed the original criminal? And why? Cue the slow build-up of tension as they discover that they're not up against an ordinary fraudster, or indeed an ordinary murderer, but something much darker and smellier.

Note: in that final paragraph you'll see the first hints at the characters of Jack and Elaine in the final published book.

I'm not sure just why my agent took agin' the vampire theme, but remember: this was circa 2002-03. The urban fantasy boom was in full flood and we both thought it was going to prove to be a bubble and burst, sooner rather than later. Either way, she talked me out of it, and I went back to a straight computer-crime novel pitch, albeit now with actual protagonists.

Here's the 2003-04 pitch:

He's a cynical, divorced dot-com programmer with a soft spot for cats. She's a quiet, mousy attack auditor who works out with a broadsword. Together, They Fight Crime.

Well, sort-of.

"Take the Money and Run" is a novel of crime, computers, murder and mayhem set in Edinburgh during the frenetic peak of the dot-com boom in 1999-2000. A perfect crime has been committed, the venture capitalists grooming NetCredit for a stock market flotation have gone into emergency damage control mode, and external security auditor Elaine Barnaby is called in to find out how the senior programmer at the company managed to steal ten million pounds and vanish without leaving a trace — and make sure it can't happen again. Erratic but insightful contract programmer Jack Reed is hired as a specialist to help her understand the guts of the dot com's business systems.

Elaine and Jack slowly realise that all the mechanisms are in place to repeat the crime — and the people who know about it are beginning to disappear, one by one. Are they going to be next? Are they going to find out where the mysterious but brilliant Barry Fink went? Or is one of them going to give in to the temptation to take the money and run?

My positioning for this proposal was that it would be my breakout novel into crime — specifically, into high-tech crime fiction, doing something that nobody else was actually doing at the time.

The problem (I think this is what my agent pointed out at the time) was that I have no track record in crime. And, really, it's not a crime novel unless there's something nasty and violent going on. Computer crime is arid, nose-bleedingly high concept, and not entirely captivating to the mass market unless you can hang some kind of personal jeopardy on it. And doing it as a literary novel of character ... given my track record circa 2004, that might be seen as somewhat risky.

So "Take the Money and Run" went on the back-burner for another year, until ...

In early 2005 I began getting an itchy, strange feeling: a tingling in my sense-of-wonder gland. Early 2005 was around the time World of Warcraft was really beginning to pick up mindshare as it surged past its millionth user. Early 2005 was around the time I began to see essays on the net enquiring as to the value of the virtual economies in the leading MMOs. Early 2005 was the year when I heard about a man who, walking into a South London police station, asked to file a crime report: he'd been sold a magic sword on ebay, and it turned out not to be enchanted. (After an hour or so the terminally perplexed desk sergeant finally worked out what was going on and wrote it up as fraud: deceptive sale of an item that was not what it purported to be.) I realized or heard somewhere and recognized to be true the fact that these games, the massively multiplayer ones, were the first truly consumer-oriented virtual realities, and they were taking off like the world wide web ten years earlier.

Like the world wide web, ten years earlier!

I knew what it was like to work in a tech company in a bubble, and I'd worked shoulder-to-shoulder with games programmers, and I'd seen the VCs at work, and I'd got the characters, and I'd got the plot, and now I finally had a McGuffin that would enable me to write that damn' dot-com novel, by shunting everything a decade into the future and focussing on the second-order economic effects of widespread adoption of VR.

And here's the original "Halting State" pitch that evolved from "Take the Money and Run" (you'll see I even left the old title in place at one point):

Working title: HALTING STATE

by Charles Stross

Elevator Pitch:

He's a reclusive, unfit programmer who knits and plays role playing games. She's a quiet, mousy attack auditor who works out with a broadsword. Together, They Fight Crime.

Well, sort-of.

"Take the Money and Run" is a near-future SF crime thriller set in Scotland circa 2012, during the frenetic peak of a very strange virtual economic boom that echoes the dot-com boom in 1999-2000. Hayek Associates are a postmodern company, economic gurus or "quants" who provide consultancy services for the companies who run MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). By 2012, MMORPGs are bigger than Hollywood. With tens of millions of customers worldwide paying hundreds of euros a year, these games are big business — and competition between game vendors is cut-throat. to keep the players happy enough that they don't emigrate to the competitors, the economy within the game universe has to be kept stable. Hayek Associates design and implement the economies inside fantasy roleplaying games, and run their central banks. Since their start-up back in the mid-noughties, HA have grown to the point where they're responsible for stabilizing the universe of Warcraft Two, with over fifty million users spending over five hundred million dollars a year on the game; they're about to become the first company in their field to make an initial public offering on AIM (the London equivalent of NASDAQ). But there's been a robbery, and the central bank has been taken for sixty million — that's Gold Pieces, not Euros — and their lead programmer has gone missing.

A perfect crime has been committed, and the venture capitalists backing Hayek Associates' IPO have gone into emergency damage control mode. External security auditor Elaine Barnaby is called in to look at the games' internal economic framework, find out what happened, and to work out how senior programmer Richard "Reliable" McDonald managed to steal ten million pounds (laundered as hot vorpal blades on eBay!) and vanish without leaving a trace — and to make sure it can't happen again. Meanwhile, erratic but occasionally insightful contract programmer Jack Reed is hired to help her understand not only the differences between a real bank and one guarded by dragons and sorcerers, but the similarities.

Elaine and Jack slowly realize that all the mechanisms are in place to repeat the crime — and the people who know about it are beginning to disappear, one by one. It seems that virtual money inside a game can be worth real money on the outside — enough to kill for. Are they going to be next? Are they going to find out where Richard Reliable went? Or is one of them going to give in to the temptation to take the money and run?


It's hard to describe the feel of an unwritten book, but an important point to note is that we're already living in the future William Gibson described in Neuromancer. As he said more recently, "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed". It would be all too easy to set "Take the Money and Run" as a noir-ish crime thriller set in a cyberspace populated by elves and dragons, and equally easy to make it a straight police procedural. However, the setting has a flavour all of its own: the two novels I'd point to as thematic references are "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson (for the combination of financial and internet wizardry and hip startup feel) and "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away" by Christopher Brookmyre (Scottish crime best-seller) for the combination of surreal local colour, hard-edged Scottish grit, and the obsession with computer games. This isn't a novel set in a computer game so much as a novel about the industry that creates the games — as it will look in a decade's time, having eaten the husk of Hollywood and grabbed eyeball share away from TV. It's also a near-future SF novel that takes a hard look at the future of entertainment, the meaning of money, and crimes that don't yet exist.


Detailed plotting is currently contingent on research that is under way, including interviews with police computer crime specialists, former executives of dot-com start-ups, and games industry insiders. (In all cases there are specific people I'm already talking to; I have a good idea where the plot is going to go, but first I need to ensure the technical legwork and extrapolation of the industry's progress over the next two generations of MMORPGs is solid.)

In the real world, today, subscribers to MMORPGs pay up to EUR 15/ USD 20 a month for access to their games universe. Today, World of Warcraft has perhaps 3 million subscribers. In 10 years, Warcraft Two or a similar game can expect 10-30 million users, a majority of them Chinese, spending roughly EUR 10/USD 15 per month. This adds up to roughly $150-500M per year in turnover, conservatively, and excluding peripheral costs incurred by gamers. A game on this scale takes 100-300 core programmers 2-5 years to write, and 1000-3000 game administrators to run, with support by 'bots and volunteer GMs.

Despite the huge numbers here, the total population of game players will be relatively static, only large enough to support 3-8 major games at this scale (1-3 cutting-edge new ones, and 1-5 last-generation game worlds that are slowly losing customers but which can be run as cash cows.)

Because of the static market pool, games companies have resorted to releasing "hacking tools" — technically illegal, but deniable — to allow players of competing games to migrate their characters and treasure into the new games. It's economic warfare, and the existence of emigration between games means that games companies are forced to fine-tune their play environment to make the players feel happy. However, a critical flaw in existing MMORPGs (as of 2005) is that game play is inflationary — it keeps introducing new treasures, because when your universe is run as a plot-coupon fantasy quest, it comes to an end if the treasure tap is turned off.

Firms like Hayek Associates are the second generation of economic consultancies to hire "quants", or quantum physicists. In the 1990s, applied physicists whose careers had been abruptly terminated by the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) flooded Wall Street. In the 2000s, the next generation — following developments that have superseded string theory — have no Wall Street jobs to turn to, but the money in the games consultancy field is good and the dress code is less formal.

The background premise at the heart of this novel is that two games companies — or rather, their economic consultants — are conducting a duel for market share in the real world by trying to cripple each others' economy. The stakes are high; the next game generation is a year from launch, and when it ships it will rack up 50-100 million users, with turnover in the gigabuck range. Each of the duelling competitors wants to ensure that their next-gen game grabs the entire market. Richard "Reliable" has been bribed or blackmailed into installing a back door in the central stock market of Warcraft Two, one that permits the manipulation of magic item derivatives. But finding this back door is going to be a hell of a problem for Elaine the auditor (who is used to investigating computer crime inside real banks) and Jack the gamer/programmer (who knows a fourteenth level rogue when he sees one but isn't so hot on shorting commodities). Together they're going to have to go into the murky world inside the computer game (which is a lot weirder than anyone imagines) and journey into the heart of the rival campaign to try to understand how the business model behind the crime works. And then they're going to have to figure out how to get the police to pay attention ...

Assuming they can do so before whoever murdered Richard "Reliable" comes for them, too.

... Because the economy inside a computer game isn't just imaginary. It's a whole new way of mediating demand, and some very dangerous people are looking to Warcraft Two as the pilot program for their revolutionary agenda. After all, once you know how to crash a virtual economy, what's to stop you doing exactly the same thing to a real one?

(Finally, did I mention a romantic sub-plot? No, I didn't, did I? If there is one, I'll let the characters write it themselves: it usually works better that way. What I know at this point is that the character dynamic is a little like Rachel and Martin in "Singularity Sky", but edgier and more stand-offish: they're more likely to dislike one another at first sight.)


"Halting State" is expected to run to 100-120,000 words and can be written within 12 months of commissioning.

In the end it took 15 months (largely due to the second person thing: "you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike"), and the plot diverged significantly from this original pitch. It's success was also anything but assured. One of my publishers made a very conservative offer for the book (straight to paperback on a small advance), which my agent and I agreed to pass on at the time; the other publisher made a reasonable offer but make it conditional on me agreeing to write two books, one of which would be a (bankable) space opera (to cover their loss if "Halting State" bombed).

This final version of the book got written because I badly wanted to do so — I had a feeling that its time had come — and because I could afford to (I had a parallel contract with Tor for the second three Merchant Princes books; I wasn't going to starve). But it was a close-run thing; my agent was skeptical, one of my editors was skeptical, and if the commissioning editor at my other publisher had not been feeling a little adventurous ...



Ilove THIS L atest Stross POST, I really do ...can't think of a way to insert a 'I LOVE Fantasy-Land ' type Heart IN THERE - AS IN i Love NEWE YORK - BUT THIS Latest in the Sequence OF STROSS Posts on,' How To Do It/How it was DONE ' Really Does confirm my own thought ... Which Is, MINE tm. .. that there is a HOLE in the Market Place for a None Fiction HOW TO DO IT/ HOW IT IS DONE Book on the Business of Being A Writer with the Basic BOOK being in Hard Dead Tree Copy ... AND A Subscription E BOOK version that would be Kept up to DATE and include linked references to wherever Our Gracious Host thinks appropriate for the Aspiring Author to Look SEE.

I've Met People Who Positively PANT to be Published Authors and who Long for an Easy .. er, no that's Cruel.. a Straightforward ? WAY .. the Tao/Toe of Writing for Profit ? ... to approach the Task of achieving the ROLE of BIG TIME Author along the lines of Terry Pratchett or ... " "JK Rowling on Oprah: There could be a new Harry Potter book". Series And TV. ... " Bloody Hell does SHE Never End!

Ghods How Readers of the Harry Potter Genre are Longing to make Herself even More Wealth/fILTY Richy .. AND how the Spare Room Writers do long to Win the Literary Lottery .. for its just a Trick Eh Wot? not Hard Work based on a foundation of Talent ...just some sort of trick!

I worked in Technical Support of various aspects of Business and Management Education for a very long time and I can't begin to tell you how Much the average student of Business Studies .. I helped Train People in the Black Arts of HRM but I'm not a BAD Person ... just Longs to BELIEVE that there is a simple way to achieve ... whatever.

Part of this is based upon American Evangelism ...ONLY BELIEVE and Wishing WILL Make IT So ! ... but mostly it is based upon the fervent wish that the World Just can't be that Complicated can it?

Anyway .. a How To Do It Book ... you've already written it Charlie just needs to be edited. Easy Peasy!


Forgot to mention that the Title 'Take The Money and Run ' is a definite Winner and to say .. you have read Barbra Hambly s " Immortal Blood " and its sequel " Traveling With The Dead " ??

Dave Langford recommended it to be many years ago and it is a wonderful spin on The Vampires of London and the classic Detective Story of the Golden age of the same.


So, has the Urban Fantasy bubble burst yet? I`m under the impression it still goes strong (judging by the books I see in stores - lots of vampires).


Correct. Hey, I don't call it right every time! (Neither does my agent.) However, she did make the point that if I submitted a "vampire novel" to a publisher in 2004, it would get a certain type of marketing treatment and cover -- and what I was proposing to do deviated sharply from the standard-issue vampire novel. Which in turn means that it would have had unpredictable results (which usually translates as "bad sales").

If I ever decide to do paranormal romance, I'm much more likely to dust off Unicorn School™: The Sparkling.


Urban Magic is by no means all about ' Lots of Vampires ' of the Longed for by Adolescent female Goths variety. It is an interesting genre is Urban Magic and it goes way back in literary time ..But, have a look at my current favorite series ... that is not of ' The Laundry ' ..

Griffin is a Londoner to her very Soul and Boot Soles ..very atmospheric Stuff... what happens when a Master Magician has a Stroke?

"Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of The Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady. Enter a London where beings of power soar with the pigeons and scrabble with the rats, and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels.

Enter the London of Matthew Swift, where rival sorcerers, hidden in plain sight, do battle for the very soul of the city … "


Good to see that Charlie is now, like Manfred, being beset by crazy-sounding half-sentient entities that may or may not turn out to be uploaded lobsters.


The premise of vampire venture capitalists sounds exciting, in that secret history/cryptohistory way.


Wonderful. I'd actually like to see the vampire book, though of course now it'd have to find its own niche that isn't Halting State or the Laundry, not using material that got repurposed already. But the stuff you're actually writing makes up for the delightfully funky stuff that you're admitting to not writing. Too bad there aren't enough days to write them all, eh?


Too bad there aren't enough days to write them all, eh?

I think I said when I began this series of essays that ideas are easy; it's the time to turn them into books that is scarce.

Most authors don't get to write novels that are insightful enough to be interesting until they're 30-40 years old. They then have an average 5 year career ... meaning some bomb out after 2 books, but some go on for the next 40 years until old age forces them to stop.

Again, most authors average a book a year. Some are faster, and some are much faster, but in general the quality suffers if they write too fast; I've only been able to manage two books a year for most of a decade because one of those books would be an episode in a series, and the heavy lifting of ideas would be reserved for the "serious" novel. I could probably write 3-4 books a year ... if you didn't mind endless series work like the Merchant Princes, only somewhat repetitive and not as full of ideas. Or I can cut back to one every 12-18 months and do each of them properly.

So a "serious" career is probably limited to between 5 and 30 novels (or maybe 60, of which 20-30 are "interesting" and the others are strictly there to keep the money flowing).

In contrast, I get novel-grade ideas 3-4 times a year. So only about 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 ever actually get written.


It`s a bit off-topic, but I have to ask: does it mean that by keeping on the beaten track, you can predict the success of a book fairly well?

Also, couldnt you just camouflage you book to look like a standard-issue vampire novel by putting lots of typical atmospheric stuff in the beginning? I dont know, start from a vampire POV, or with a blood-drinking scene, or in a goth-party. And then, when the reader is already hooked (and likely, already purchased the book) you can dump all the economy stuff on him...


You say ideas are easy and cheap, while complete novels are hard, but profitable. I wonder if there is something in the middle that money could be made of. Movie scripts, perhaps? Or comics? 8-)


It's a bit off-topic, but I have to ask: does it mean that by keeping on the beaten track, you can predict the success of a book fairly well?

Yes, up to a point.

By keeping to the beaten path my publishers can predict sales quite well -- that's why there's so much pressure on all genre authors to "write me a book just like the last one, only a teeny bit different".

On the other hand, by keeping to the beaten path I don't stand a chance of making a sudden sales breakthrough.

As for your camouflage suggestion, I did just that with the Merchant Princes. A subset of the audience had a violent throw-book-at-wall response; the result is flat sales from book to book, rather than the growth you'd expect of a successful series.

(Readers who are hunting a specific type of experience don't like being deceived into reading something else.)


Charlie, typo in paragraph 4: "I was writing and selling the odd sWell, hort story, and shopping..."


As for your camouflage suggestion, I did just that with the Merchant Princes. A subset of the audience had a violent throw-book-at-wall response; the result is flat sales from book to book, rather than the growth you'd expect of a successful series.

Ha! That proves the system works, assuming you only write one book in a given genre. You could plunder several subsets of readers for fun and profit this way. 8-)


If I could get all my readers from each sub-genre to buy all my books, I'd be a major bestseller. Instead, I have three distinct fandoms flying in loose (but non-overlapping) formation ...


There's the Baen Books approach; Senior, Bestselling Author pens a very complete outline of something bankable, Junior Author writes the actual prose and (hopefully) learns something in the process. Everyone makes a profit. That's how people like Eric Flint and David Weber get their names on four thick books a year. We just need to find the right writing partner for Charlie...


Oh, hi Charlie... we were just joking around... you know playing with an idea or two... Listen, I Gotta Go! Bye


I wonder whether the Laundry books would sell as Urban Fantasy with the right covers?


I have three distinct fandoms flying in loose (but non-overlapping) formation ...

Well, I've liked everything you've written. Some more than others, but I think I've read them all.

I didn't particularly like the Merchants War series until #5 — none of the characters were particularly likeable, and it took that long for me to being to get into the geopolitics.

I quite like Glasshouse and Halting State — read each one several times.

Avoided the Laundry series for ages (I don't really like horror), then listened to the Christmas episode and got hooked.


The only thing about making VCs vampires is that makes them seem too cuddly and friendly...


I'm sure A Man from Mars on El Reg's comment section is the first stirring of an emergent intelligence.



I really like the Vampire Capitalist idea; I've met a bunch of them, and my usual name for the (human) ones is Vulture Capitalists, for their tendency to circle around the soon-to-be corpses of the non-performing investments. Ghouls, if not vampires.


Halting State was sublime. Just a hell of a read.


There are some ideas in Halting State that may turn out to be very good predictions for the next few years. The integration of XBox Live into Windows Mobile 7 seems like a strategy out of Halting State (as well as integrating your gaming across TV/PC and Mobile). The "Three Screen Strategy" pursued by Apple, Microsoft and Google made a lot more sense once I'd read Halting State.


I thought Orlovski was. His work certainly seems calculated.


Archeopteryx @ 5 It's called "neverwhen", by Neil Gaiman ....

General comment: Vampire capitalists, and the Arcanum (turning base metal into gold / philosopher's stone / Alchemy ) In the Late-Middle Ages on to about 1700, the main problem for achemists ws obtaining FUNDING - nothing new there. And some of them found out / developed some very interesting things, from John Dee's researches into mathematics including cryptography, to the manufacturing process for true Porcelain .... I've just come across a corporation who are doing quite nicely (with the backing of three VC houses) at turning their base metal into large hoards of other people's gold, which they collect. And they're named after a famous wizard ...


"I have three distinct fandoms flying in loose (but non-overlapping) formation ..."

Well, I buy, read and enjoy everything of yours. From comments here there is clearly an element of overlap between the three.

Incidentally, I'm intrigued by your having many more ideas than time to write them. Do you know whether that's just you, or is it general to writers/ SF writers? (The only other instance I have heard of, which is not really a good comparison, is Russell T Davies, whose books about writing his last couple of "Doctor Who" series give a fascinating insight into that process - and he worries a lot about running out of ideas.)


Re the vampires - didn't you do that with the Weerde (sp?) short story?


well there's a difference between running out of ideas and running out of good ideas ..


The Weerde was designed by Roz Kaveney, back in the late 80s/early 90s, as a shared universe anthology setting: I didn't have any real design input on it.


Yeah, but still - I read that first Weerde book only some months ago - I see quite some parallels between the Weerde (and if I remember correctly, especially your story in the book, but mabye here I'm wrong) and your description of vampire venture capitalists living among their herd.


Neverwhere. (And Kate Griffin's work is explicitly compared with it in the blurbs. Kate Griffin is also perhaps the thinnest pseudonym I've ever encountered, given that it lists her fantasy books, complete with her real name, on the 'by the same author' page....)


I think the earliest complaint about the need of funding for alchemy in the moder modern sense that I can recall reading is in Chaucer, although various histories of alchemists in the late 13th/ early 14th centuries mention various wannabee's spending all their inheritance and ending up poor.
Alchemists also introduced the technique of distillations into mainstream European culture and kept the imnportance of proportion at the front of people's thinking; the earliest picture of an analytical balance (i.e. one enclosed in a glass case) is in Norton's Ordinall from the 1480's.

Moreover alchemy played some part in the improvements in assaying over the centuries, in part because you want to know that you have actually made gold rather than simply coloured the surface.


"As for your camouflage suggestion, I did just that with the Merchant Princes. A subset of the audience had a violent throw-book-at-wall response; the result is flat sales from book to book, rather than the growth you'd expect of a successful series."

Interesting. I had exactly the opposite reaction:

0) It's a Stross, buy it as he's usually worth reading.

1) Ho hum, alternate reality, world walking, lost scion of nobility, seen it before.

2) No, hang on, he's doing something different and interesting.

I suppose some like predictable tramlines for their reading and others like hill walking with unexpected vistas.


This is SO unfair!

I, for one, was doing my very Best to catch up on my neglected...I have a good Excuse .. catching UP exercise on the Stross back catalog and I was up to the just delivered " Glasshouse " and then I was diverted to Lev Grossmans 'The Magicicsns ' by a recommendation by Someone or Other, whose Name .. NAMES are Very Important .. I have forgotten.

That recommendation By someone or Other is pretty good .. Very atmospheric and so forth in its Cleverly arched reference to popular culture and Harry Potter that is clearly going to head in some sort of direction that is very oblique to the Genre of The - Public School Story that I will forever associate with my various Girlfriends fondness for Books that had Titles like ... "Jenifer Pulls It Off " or " Monica of the Pony Club Meets Lassie " ... that sort of thing anyway.

I gained No Credit from my fellow Boys of liking the company .. and Strange Conversation .. of Girls when I should have been out playing footy but there were fringe benefits to the society of girls and so I didn't give a 'F' word for their opinions.


Yep .. Ive Read Neil Gaiman too and whilst "Neverwhere " is set in London so many story's are.. and although it does draw upon the geography and trappings od London as well as the Ancient Archetypes of fiction that far precede the 'Novel 'in epic poetry and stage and fable none the less Kate Griffin's work is totally different in mood and texture to that of Gaimans London Themed "Neverwhere " .. give it a try ..the first in the series has been out for some time now and must be remaindered Real Cheap.

On at Chrisj at 31 .. not sure of how to get the fancy quotey text thingy .. but I rather suspect that Kate Griffin decided ..or that her agents and publishers did decide ..that she needed a complete break between the Juvenile/Young Adult stuff that she had been writing since her first published work appeared when she was ...

" Catherine Webb was just fourteen when she wrote her extraordinary debut, Mirror Dreams. With several novels already in print at just 19, Catherine has quickly established herself as one of the most talented and exciting young writers in the UK." ...

Bloody Hell! 14!

Anyway whilst her early work is a bit derivative of Roger Zelazny her latter Juvenile Fiction stuff in the Horatio Lyle series is pretty good and does contain rather adult themes .. an examination/argument of the justification of the use of a weapon of Mass .. but limited in effect to London ..against the 'enemies ' of the Human Race ...

I'm not sure of the propriety of publishing a link to an authors site from another authors Blog but I'm sure Charlie will sharp put me right if I have transgressed.


Don't want to sidetrack the discussion - we are after all here to discuss Mr Stross's works, not those of Other Writers - but while I quite enjoyed Kate Griffin's "Madness of Angels" (the first in the series) I found that poem rather offputting ("Come be we, be free...") and didn't bother with the next, Maybe a should have tried harder and given them another go?


Vampire Capitalists! I love it. That's the book that needs to be written. I can just see the viewpoint vampire shrieking "Blood! Meat!" and diving into a bathtub full of cash.

I'm not sure who should observe this scene though. I don't think I could stand viewing it through the vampire's eyes. Omnipotent observer is a bit distancing. Possibly first person viewpoint of a "faithful servant". Possibly a doctor who is hired to find a better way to suppress the side effects?

Too bad it's not going to be written.


I think that's a divide between people who know an author and those who don't. Someone looking to start a new fantasy series of the "regular person gets sucked into fantastical world, discovers that they're Important" expects certain tropes and conventions. If they don't know Stross, they would be expecting the normal course for a series like Merchants and be annoyed when those expectations are violated.

I contrast, those of us who know Charlie's work might be put off by "Oh, typical fantasy idea... yawn" and not like the start but like how things develop. I'm partway through book 1, so I'll let you know. :)


I should have thought vampires could fit quite nicely into the Laundryverse - or at least creatures that would correspond to the common idea of vampires - should there be a need for them there. After all, if it can have zombies, why not vampires?

I suspect the key point is the "should there be a need". While any number of things could be introduced, doing so just for the sake of it would be an indulgence, presumably.


There is, at some point, going to be a Laundry story that starts with:

"Everybody knows there's no such thing as vampires. However ..."

However, in "The Apocalypse Codex" I am working with a rather different template parasite. One that Peter Watts thinks is a bit too creepy.


I did rather get the impression that Angleton was a bit like a vampire, except he ate something different.
On a personal level, The Atrocity Archives and unpleasant stuff at the end of the Fuller memorandum were about as unpleasant as I would like to be exposed to*, so I hope the exposition of the parasite isn't too detailed.

*Never read more than a few pages of a few horror stories, I don't like the genre. Of course it is fiction, and people in real life do worse to each other, but being a human I can ignore real life rather well whereas stuff in the middle of a story I am reading is a different matter.


You know, I keep hoping such a book won't suck...Really.

I also thought that the capitalist vampires sounded like the opposition in the Blade Comics and Blade movie trilogy. Personally, I'm just as glad Halting State went through all those metamorphoses.

If you can get your hands on the book Dark Shamans: Kanaima and the Poetics of Violent Death, you might find it useful. It's not quite as dry as it sounds, and it's certainly an angle on the vampire/werewolf thing that hasn't been exploited much.


Howdy!     As always, a treat to see inside your mind.  One day I hope to convert my accumulated savings and buy one half as lively, cut-rate price notwithstanding.

    I canna help but notice how the vampire theme you describe herein seems oddly resonant with another theme from an earlier post.  Mix, blend, let ferment until the result is ready for the MMPB market to (buy and) hail the newest Strossian title:

                    Vampire Space Pirates of KPMG

No coat, it's quite warm as yet... but do put me down for a copy, if ever.


I can't believe no-one's referenced Blindsight! (Well except for Charlie mentioning Watts above)

I remember there being discussions about Blindsight vamps VS twilight ones; I wonder where VCs might fit in. (Unless they got some significant stats boosts above what Charile mentioned, sounds like they'd either be dead or find some way to make money out of the conflict....)


The "vampire" story would probably work better now than a few years ago. There have been various non-traditional vampire depictions recently. Peter Watts or Steve Stirling -- and both of those are similar to Williamson's "Darker Than You Think" in some ways. Though he did werewolves as a predatory subspecies rather than vampires.


"Everybody knows there's no such thing as vampires. However ..."
Blood is important to Laundryverse magic, and the things waiting to tunnel into our universe range from hot and fast and smart to dumber than dogshit. Why not swarms of short-lived entities with no will or personality of their own, which can re-animate pre-existing neural networks and which need to be replenished as they're exhausted or consumed by the re-animation? That'd explain the regular need for sacrifice ingestion. Throw in a bitten subject's death bootstrapping a summoning for more of these entities, and a little handwavium to explain away how a bitten living subject won't necessarily become infested with them and become a vampire if they manage to out-live the last of the infection. Add a side-order of sub-plot, concerning harnessing these entities to propel submarines and spacecraft for as long as you can bleed the crew, and possible economic and ethical repercussions if such a "green renewable" power generation technique became widespread, for the trifecta.
Now all I have to do is get next week's lottery numbers so I can pay you to write it...


I found Blindsight through a forum post (either here or elsewhere), and I thought it was interesting having vampires being more of a background thing - they existed, and some background on why/how, but the plot wasn't 'zomg vampires aaaah!'


"However, in "The Apocalypse Codex" I am working with a rather different template parasite. One that Peter Watts thinks is a bit too creepy."

Peter Watts thinks it's a bit too creepy?

This I have to see.


The final pitch sounds as if it could be a shared universe with Cory Doctorow's For The Win. As it stands, the most significant difference between Halting State's setting, and FTW's, seems to be that Halting State runs at about plus 5-7 years from today, while FTW seems to be about plus 2-3 years.

But speaking of Things Charlie Will Never Write, what's it going to take to get you to pitch a Futurama script? Seriously, name a figure, and I'll start a Kickstarter page. I can't be alone in wanting to see that.


One that Peter Watts thinks is a bit too creepy.

I was about to ask if you had read Blindsight but if the uber-pessimist that is Mr Watts (love his stuff) thinks it's creepy, it's going to be a great read.

51: 21 - "vulture capitalists" - I've had the same feelings about them for years, without ever having met any! 26 - So do I (buy everything Charlie's writ, wrot, rited, whatever).

As a generalisation, I'd say "Halting State" is my (very close)4th favourite, behind the Laundryverse.


Ooh, what he said. I'd chip in for that. Would we even need to if Groening liked it though?

Good news, everyone! etc.


a rather different template parasite. One that Peter Watts thinks is a bit too creepy.

Not vampires. Not werewolves (not parasitic). Not zombies (not creepy enough).



"One that Peter Watts thinks is a bit too creepy."

I think you've just made another sale here, Charlie.


I urge you to look at the life cycle of cymothoa exigua, then contemplate what would be to us (humans) as c. exigua is to its host ...


Re: cymothoa exigua: "It appears that the parasite does not cause any other damage to the host fish [1]. Once C. exigua replaces the tongue, some feed on the host's blood and many others feed on fish mucus. This is the only known case of a parasite functionally replacing a host organ"

I wonder which organ said parasite would replace in us humans. I had one guess that made me shudder...think Philip Josè Farmer's Image of the Beast, and Ron Jeremy or Rocco came (no pun intended) to my mind...eeekkkk....


Uh-huh, I was figuring on something 'below the belt' as it were as well... See also the horrendous cinematic treat Bad Biology :)

Either that or parasitic border crossing guardsmen, natch :o


Stainless steel rat, Neal stephenson and Chris brookmyre, these are just three of my favourite things!I may have to read Halting State again...

Has anyone else noticed the resemblance between the "Night Watch" books and the Laundry Series? Low ranking civil servant, unwittingly recruited by a secret government agency that deals with the supernatural, who steadily increases in power and competence after his mysterious and incredibly powerful boss gives him jobs that look straightforward, but usually end up being a little... more involved. (who also has a wife who is far more capable and powerful).

Sorry, this is a little off topic.


Night Watch? Who's the author?


The Russian Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko. International best-sellers. The first two were made into very successful films by Timur Bekmambetov before he moved to Hollywood.


Night Watch and the sequels are by Sergei Lukyanenko. There was a movie or two made from the series. It's quite Laundry-like and far removed from the world of Harry Potter (who was lucky to get a scholarship, I imagine Strange Hill is a pretty tough school for a swot like Harry)...

re:Futurama - I'd love to see that. With rumours that Banksy is directing an episode of the Simpsons, I'd like to think a Strossian Futurama isn't impossible.


"Near Future" . . . probably the hardest sf of all to write right, as it were. How far out is "near future" allowed to go? At this end it merges into the techno-thriller, but on the far side, ten years? Seven years? A variable window depending on the tech?

Hmmm . . . piling misdirection on misdirection as well as larding it with one of my own distractions, vampires aren't individuals, they're families (which explains the apparent immortality, among other things); carefully spread disinformation has through the centuries made various Family depredations the responsibility of lone individuals. Psychopaths, poor things, are vampires created through chance recombinations of recessives thrown out generations ago by individuals sowing their oats among the cattle and doomed to eventual discovery without family help.

The big idea: Corporations as they are currently conceived are a purely vampire innovation. The amorality of corporations is a relatively new phenomenon, perfect camouflage for the Families, justified by plausible economic pseudoscience drawn up by the more intellectual Family members and heavily promoted and financed by the money side. A fine mechanism allowing the Families to hugely increase in size and prosperity (though of course, as always through time without mind, there's an Inner Circle that has a lock on the franchise.) The plot: Up to now the Families have been concealed by legions of hangers-on sheep eager to make a buck, but with the advent of reputation-servers able to trace the movements and activities of individuals, discovery of certain heritable patterns of activity seems all but inevitable . . .


Erm, err... "Night Watch" is by TERRY PRATCHETT ......

@63: "The amorality of corporations is a relatively new phenomenon"
NO Never heard of US Anti-trust legislation, and why it is that way? Or "Robber Baron" capitalism??


You're thinking of the wrong Night Watch, Greg :)

(Although I will confess that Lukyanenko's trilogy live near my Pratchett collection for the same reason Waugh's "Men at Arms" does.)

I've only seen the first of the films, but thought it hugely inferior to the books, which are highly competent dark 'urban fantasy'. (And bear no resemblance to the "Harry Potter, Russian style" that whichever idiot it was at whichever newspaper it was described them as.)


@ 64:

Certainly. That's why I said "relatively new". Corporations have been around for centuries, and in something approximating their modern form since the seventeenth century, iirc. But it wasn't until the mid-19th century, when the sole power to dispense corporate charters by royalty or governments ("for the public good") was diluted and when the concept of limited liability was introduced, that the corporation appeared in it's modern form. It seems to me that in this context, describing events of 150 years ago as "relatively recent" is perfectly legitimate. If you object strongly enough, I'm happy to discuss just the dates and time periods to the nearest half- or quarter-century :-)


Night Watch was originally a 1-page graphic novel without dialogue, by Rembrandt. I think that's the first one.


I'm pretty sure the term 'quant' comes from quantitative analyst. A lot of them are former quantum physicists, true. The rest are rocket scientists, according to Ken MacLeod.


"Near Future" . . . probably the hardest sf of all to write right, as it were. How far out is "near future" allowed to go? At this end it merges into the techno-thriller, but on the far side, ten years? Seven years? A variable window depending on the tech?

My back-of-the-envelope definition of "near future SF" is: anything close enough that the author can reasonably expect to live to see it happen (and defend themselves against ridicule incurred thereby). Given that your average novelist is in their mid-forties to mid-fifties, this typically means 20-40 years out; 50 years is teetering on the horizon.


ISTR that book titles aren't copyright (unless they use an irregular spelling and/or capitalisation).


There are those who argue that C. exigua is actually an example of symbiosis, not parasitism. I'm sticking with Tories, me. They only help themselves grab more sea weed. Unless they're the host, rather than the parasite?

Although it's still pretty sick.


Problem with that isopod is that it's too obvious. Heck, voice recognition software could probably be programmed to find one that's a host. I suspect the parasite would slur the host's voice in characteristic ways. It only works for fish because fish don't use their tongues to communicate.

Besides, you're asking the host to swallow isopod crap. It better be addictive and highly nutritious. And I suppose there better be 3,000 calories per day, just to maintain that superhuman strength and speed. Assuming you want rigor in your fantasy, that is...


I was under the impression that the South Sea Company, the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company (and their agents in the opium smuggling operations such as Jardine, Matheson & Co.) were not very moral.


It certainly can have that derivation, see here ...

However, the term 'quants ' is often used as an abbreviation of 'Quantitative Methods 'which was the title of the module of a Business Studies degree course that covers such stuff as ..probability concepts and applications, decision models and decision trees,regression models, inventory control models, linear programming modeling applications computer analysis,network models,project management and simulation modeling.Or at least thats what it was called when I worked in School of Business Management that was part of a British University.

Business Studies Students used to fear Quants far more than they did horrific supernatural entities since, whilst they could doubt the existence of supernatural entities, they knew that Quants existed and would make their lives miserable.


Thanks for the link Charlie.

I'm reading The Fall by Del Toro and Hogan. On page 94 they talk about Sacculina a genus of parasitic barnacles that attack crabs.


Then there is this article linked in the Wiki page.

Do Parasites Rule the World?

BTW, Charlie, do not read The Strain or The Fall by Del Toro and Hogan if you are basing your Vampire on cymothoa exigua.


You want vampirism? How about recasting Stormbringer as a black Glock 17 that magically manufactures its own bullets? Get an albino hitman, and...

Never mind.


I'm Not Doing Vampires. OK?

("The Puppet Masters" meet H. P. Lovecraft would be another matter ...)


There's a whole book, Parasite Rex that I think that Discover article grew out of. Fun reading. I was amused to find out that even professional parasitologists have their retching points. I was less amused to find that parasitology is one of those declining fields of research. Not smart at all.

One thing I would more seriously pitch is that parasites often have complex life cycles, with up to five or more forms required to complete the life cycle, especially if two or more hosts are required. This was shown in the Alien franchise, but it hasn't been exploited nearly as much as it could be.


Given that we're talking about the Laundry, and that comment about "Puppet Masters", I'd guess that we're not talking about a parasite that replaces the tongue. That's too easy, and doesn't quite fit in with the "energy being from a high entropy cosmos" theme we've seen so far. If it were my critter, I'd make it a little blob of computation that takes over the language centers of any vaguely sentient life form. That way it could parasitize humans preferentially, but could also live on a parrot if need be. "Awk! Parasites of eight!"


So we should add Snow Crash to the mix, Bruce?


Heres a horrifying idea. A parasite that replaces your eyes. You dont realize it, but later the parasite starts to modify your optical input for his advantage...


There are parasites that chemically or physically castrate their hosts and others that provoke copulation. It would not be remarkable if they were to replace the genitals. Or perhaps I mean "not be impossible", as someone might remark on it.

Stargate's Gou'ald were not consistently well-realised but were sometimes effectively icky parasites with a complex life-cycle.


"I was under the impression that the South Sea Company, the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company (and their agents in the opium smuggling operations such as Jardine, Matheson & Co.) were not very moral."

Certainly not, but they were more or less instruments of their governments' foreign policies. Even JM got their start as consuls for Prussia (and later Denmark and Hawaii). The tail wound up wagging the dog soon enough, though.

Jardine, Matheson & Co. are still around, and interestingly they are one of two outside shareholders in the main Rothschild holding company, Rothschild Continuation Holdings AG, holding 20%. JM has handled the Rothschilds' Asian interests since 1838. [cue spooky theremin] But even the conspiracy theorists seem to be afraid to mention that the real puppet masters might be Scots - the Keswicks and the Flemings. Which perhaps puts some of the themes in the Bond books in a different light.

Legal disclaimer: None of the above have been confirmed to be members of a centuries-old vampire banker drug-running conspiracy which controls the Illuminati, the Teletubbies and the Trilateral Commission.* (*Well... maybe the Teletubbies.)


heteromeles @78: There's a whole book, Parasite Rex that I think that Discover article grew out of. Fun reading.

Awesome, I've ordered the book. Thanks...


@77 and @79: about Puppet Masters and Lovecraft, does anyone read UserFriendly the online comics? Once (June 2002)it featured small "Cthulhulets" cloned by evil Pitr that ended up sold as sushi: see from to

those would be perfect as parasites eating and replacing whole brains, with host's memory and all. Think one small Cthulhulet saying: ""


Look on the bright side - the fourth "Night Watch" book was set in Edinburgh...

You'll have seen the DVD of the first file remaindered in the supermarket.


There's a theory about at the moment that suggests humans are symbolise with technology. We use technology to improve our lives and the technology itself benefits. Look at optics, especially in the case of spectacles. We get the benefit of better sight and the meme for lenses improves as we develop the technology to benefit ourselves (interesting ideas, not sure that's the best example I could have thought of). The use of slings to hold babies when we were first evolving to walk upright, allowed us to give birth at a much earlier point of gestation when the baby was smaller and so get through the pelvis which could then change shape to allow us to walk further upright. (this all comes from radio 4's material world program from the 9th of September btw. Give it a listen)

Given that parasites and symbiotes are just a different balance of a similar relationship, you could have a technological parasite on humanity. Technology that causes humans to reproduce it,but has utterly no benefit to anyone whatsoever. Even spam benefits someone. I was thinking in terms of a virus that would spread through pictures,particularly on halting state style vidglasses and cause you to unwillingly spread it to other people, although come to think of it a) that's a virus not really a parasite, and b) that's kinda the plot of snow crash. Doh!

Any of you intelligent people got a better example of a technological parasite?


Microsoft Office? ;-)


The fourth "Night Watch" also sucked horribly.


i phones.... they infect all who come into contact with them... 'must-buy-apps......'


Is Public Wi Fi the Chinese guy who just won the Nobel peace prize? ;-)


This fills me with strange delight!

I guess if it's an XP bug then it'll die out as XP gets phased out. Although seeing as that article was dated yesterday, it seems odd that Microsoft hasn't patched what would seem to be a bit of a security hole.




Thanks post, Charlie. I am reading your Merchant Princess and it's really impressive! Have you thinked any time to write an epic alternate history in the same vein as Kim Stanley Robinson's 'The times of rice and salt'?


Hard to have symbiosis with something that isn't alive. Yet.

(Warning: soapbox. I did my doctoral work on symbioses.) One of the things that set humans aside from all other animals is our crazy desire for symbioses. We call it domesticating. Modern humans are nuts. We'll try to domesticate anything. Wolves? Aurochs (two meters high at the shoulder)? Oh yes. Grasses? Can't live without them. The old weeds in the barley crop were hybridized to become the wheat western civilization reveres Insects? Bees and silkmoths. Fungi? Brewers yeast, and all the aspergillus species used in Asian cuisine. Even E.coli. We domesticate the bacteria from our own guts, even though we also have a natural symbiosis with them.

And that doesn't even touch the attempts to domesticate bears, rhinos, eagles, snakes, chimps, etc., etc., etc., The evidence is that people will try to domesticate just about any species they come across. Most attempts fail, of course, but we're amazingly compulsive about trying to form that domestic bond.

Other animal and plant species form symbioses, of course. Pretty much every multicellular organism has some symbiont. What sets humans apart is that we seem driven to do it. With everything.

The amazing thing is that few really comment on this, especially among the physical anthropologists who study human evolution. Every one focuses on fire and tool use, mostly because they leave better archeological traces. But we're equally odd in the way we associate with other species.(/soapbox)

This is actually a good point. We're already doing it, but when we get to the level of self-assembling or reproducing machines, we really need to make sure the buggers are thoroughly domesticated. No wild machines. Please.


Charlie, would it be unseemly to say uncomplimentary things about your competition on your blog?


It depends on the context. (And note the moderation policy comments on English libel law. I reserve the right to un-publish stuff that is hazardous to the integrity of my wallet.)


But who is 'domesticating' whom ?

The Grey Wolf descendent's that we call Dogs are the most successful carnivores on earth and live in symbiosis with Modern Humans as Dog Ape Packs .. but who domesticated whom? Each could be said to be symbiont's of the other but who started the mutually beneficial relationship, Us or Them?

And then there's the Cat; did We adopt Them or did they adopt Us?

Also, if we are so very clever why haven't we been able to engineer the camels ability to spit a cud of well chewed ickyness with improbable accuracy into a weapon of war?

There are Things of wot we are not being told!


I'm certain there's no legal problem. Your wallet, I'm almost as sure.

A great thing is when an author takes a neat idea and does a good job with it. This is your blog, so I'll toot your horn: Saturn's Children. Neat idea, justice done.

A disappointing thing is when a neat concept is wasted on an author incapable of doing it justice. Steve Stirling has had at least two neat ideas, but dealt with them in a way that prevented me from suspending my disbelief. So the books went unbought, after a disappointing skim. The rub, though, is that the market seems to discourage the ideas from being picked up by another author. Nobody is going to write a new book based on "Slavers invade Europe" or "Mars really is like Barsoom" or "the United States suddenly disappears" or "carrier group goes back in time to WW2." All of these sound like books I'd greatly enjoy on an airplane, but none of the actual ones were readable.

(I never said I had good taste in ideas; sadly, however, my taste in characterization, plausibility, and factual accuracy seems to be rising with age.)

In the kind of nonfiction that I write, this isn't a problem. If I write a crappy book about the Mexican Revolution or the Panama Canal or expropriation, others have an immediate incentive to put out something better on the same topic. In fiction, however, the incentives would seem to be to avoid being derivative.

Is that correct? How close can one tread to another author's concept before getting burned, either monetarily or reputationally?


I once discovered one of those tongue eating parasites in the mouth of a red snapper I was preparing for dinner. Lets just say I had a somewhat...atavistic reaction to it.

After I'd peeled myself off the ceiling (note to self: do try and hold on to the sharp knife next time around), I cut the head off the fish parasite included and dropped the whole thing in the bin.


But who is 'domesticating' whom ?

OK, sorry for this long one, concerning copyright, this scenario may seem generic, but anybody is free to use it, kinda like GPL, only difference this covers even commercial use, eh, you get the picture...

Well, to return to the original proposition about not so supernatural vampire^w, eh, infected, any pathogen able to induce changes in its host species this specific is likely to have a long evolutionary history with said host or some closely related species. Which would of course imply co-evolutionary changes in pathogen and host species.

An interesting line of thought in this concerns the observation that human parasites modifying our behaviour are not unknown, syphilis and especially rabies come to mind, with neurosyphilis leading to a disinhibition quite fitting for a sexually transmitted disease and rabies being one of those little natural wonders notably absent from creationist arguments from design, even though the evolution of eyes by random mutations and selection is blindingly obvious compared to the complex and well targeted changes orchestrated by this little bugger, eh, molecular aqggregate:

BTW, rabies is even implicated as the role model for somee "infectious" supernatural conditions, namely werewolves. Problem is, like most modern day infections, they seem to rely on a high population density in the host species, with lower densities diminuishing the changes of the host spreading the pathogen before it succombs to the disease, or, better said, higher population densities permit pathogens that are as deadly as modern diseases, since they have a high chance of infecting new host; exploiting the metabolism of the host for reproduction is a prerequisite for infection of new hosts, so more exploitation is generally positive, but compromising the viability of the host is a risky game:

Some may wonder why I wrote "modern diseases", since most of the epidemics are usually seen as not that modern, e.g. whatever killed of the Athenians under Pericles:

Thing is, in the context I'm thinking about, even agriculture is as late an intruduction as most of us think the JesusPhone is, and we're talking about the deca millenia of hunter-gatherers here. And to get some perspective, there is a figure with the relationship between number of mammalian species and population density in hunter-gatherers in this paper:

Data on historic Paleolithic humans is hard to get, but relative developments can be reconstructed:

or here as a pdf:

So, using the American data from the PNAS paper, this puts mean population density somewhere around 1 human/100 km^2; Greenland, this vibrant densely populated country, has a population density of 2.7 humans/100 km^2. So, implying you catch some uberbug urging you to run straight to the closest human being, you'll need to transverse 20 km. About the range you can walk in one day. When you're healthy, wellfed, know where they are...

Of course, Paleolithic humans were not evenly distributed, but segregated in small groups, which doesn't help much for spreading the pathogen between groups. Even though some of these groups may be clustered on coast lines etc. But in general, you get the picture.

Looking at these circumstances, which viable strategies could our uberwald uberbug in the making adopt? First off, mutations taxing the host too much should either have a plan B, aka intermediate host or vector, or will be selected against; there is the possibility of select individuals of said group acting as said vector with other individuals dieing like, well, like victims of the plague died, with the added bonus that members of a group decimated by a disease might cross the effective size of a hunter group using certain techniques, necessitating disbanding of the old group and integration into other group, repeating the vicious cycle, note the connection to xenophobia and magical thinking typical of some Horror traditions. In general, this leads us to some variations of the scenario I have in mind, but as that's for later, I stop here. Without said vactor, the pathogen might stay in the group, lose virulence and eventually switch to vertical transfer between the generations, with some interesting options concerning sex-specific transmission when the transmission between the generation becomes truelly sexual; for example, some bacteria using said route are known as "male-killers". There might be some narrative potential for a family harbouring these, marrying out, building a network, encouraging practices leading to enhanced propagation of said pathogen, Bene Gesserit, anyone?

Well, ok, not that far-fetched, as there is a colder war in us seldom mentioned:

Problem is, using this strategy, spreading to other groups becomes difficult, and groups may die out, even without intra- and intercommunity violence etc.; And transmission between generations is not that efficient with high infant mortality. Which leads us to the second strategy, my main point here; stay infective, maybe even enhance transmission to other groups[1], but maximise the duration of the infectious stage in the host. In some cases, the end result of this strategy might look like some kind of subthreshold common cold; but the common cold is still quite incapacitating, so there is room for optimization. And when we're at less incapacitation of the host, the disease might enhance it's endurability, life isn't easy in the Paleolithics. That's of course not just in the interest of the pathogen genes, it's in the interest of the host genes, too, but there is some difference; mammalian host genes are under some constraints that don't apply to pathogen genes, just guess, what mighty organ our body uses lots of energy for, even though it has no direct survival value, well, lots of value from the POV of our genes, but not from the POV of a pathogen, at least a non-STD? You guessed it, it's going to be all about sex. So, neutering the host and extending its lifespan, at least in terms of lifespan in the Paleolithic, is a viable strategy. Concerning normal lifespan, this should lead to a longer adult life with less senescence, since most of the mortality seems to be infant related, there is this:

Enhancing intelligence and stamina, maybe even implementing some kind of hibernation to cut energy use, no need for all this primate socialising to get sex partners, hey, you ever wondered why delta opioids are beneficial in ischaemia, seems like they are implicated in the "true McCoy" with some mammals; maybe some of those pathways are there in us, so activating them in humans might be quite easy; humans are day-active, so implementing adaptions for night hunting is a logical choice to maximise available energy, BTW, people late up at night are said to have a higher IQ, wonder if that has already happened; less pigmentation to save energy, enhanced sensitivity to sunlight to get more vitamin D; cannibalism in times of utter famine, yes, we all do, but infected not-so-humans might have a pathogen induced lowering of the barrier against eating their kin, and some habits die hard, eating the long pork might be enjoyable. Maybe enhanced incidence of switching groups, so some changes in social behaviour, whoever accused them of being charming, magnetic, even though sometimes aloft personalities, but somehow immoral and without true connections to other humans?

And let us not forget, even without the group-switching, the aforementioned changes predispose for the life of an outsider, and we all know what HSS does to those, it's not pretty, so pathogens enhancing the Macchiavellian aspects of our mind have an advantage; and as our gracious host, eh, Charlie, not the other infected one, has pointed out quite often, our possibility to ascribe intentions to other human beings seems to be connected to our tendency to ascribe intentions to our non-human environment; there may be a link between our tendency to follow social norms, or get alarmed by dangers, and a host of disorders like social anxiety and some of the quirky sides of OCD.

Means? Well, most modern authors treat the religious overtones of the classic vampi^w infected as an artifact of Medieval superstitions, leaving only the more material methods like sunlight, silver or garlic as more or less working weapons. Problem is, our infected, or better, our pathogen, are at least in part bred to conform, in part bred to dominate, otherwise there be people with torches and pitchforks, er, spears and clubs. And even lack of senescence and enhanced healing only get you this far. So, to survive, our infected need some of the social paranoia and intuitive manipulation of a textbook case of a personality disorder, with the vital difference that many of the strategies utilized by the personality disordered stem from a deficit in normal capabilities, Linehan, can you hear me; those capabilities are, at least at first, intact in our infected; at first, because living 200 years with the possibilities and deficits of our infected is going to do some things not very pretty to their behaviour, at a minimum, you should ask yourself what to do when normal sex is no fun anymore. So we have some room for character development, or should I say character derangement, in the long run, in the short run, our infected is going to be hypervigilant concerning social signals and coincidences everywhere, on the one hand enhancing its survival value in some ways, on the other hand leading to some nice effects concernig cultural artifacts part of the socialisation of our infected; for real life examples, look at the connection between envy and some very material consequences of it on the one hand, and the beliefs about the "evil eye" in the Mediterranean:

Infected individuals will react as all humans du, with a nice bent on magical thinking. Even very rational infected are having some traits of this, see OCD, again.

Things concerning the alpha males, bot real and imaginary ones, will be especially effective. Means? Well, crucifixes, staffs of Solomon and like are going to be quite effective against our vampire, not because of some innate abilities, but because the infected believe into them; use against infected is going to be like psychological warfare; that said, there may be some nice differences between "classical" pagan religions and Christianity here, with Christian infected with carnivorous urges etc. inclined to view themselves as damned etc., and some pagan religions prone to allocate infected to some priestly role with the same ease prioritizing celibacy for some positions allocates people with non-standard sexuality to said positions in other religions; BTW, damnation of infected by christianity is not necessarily the case, there is some Roman Catholic theologician saying "love the sinner, hate the sin", so who's to say there is no YInfectedMCA ? But somehow my view of the infected resonates quite well with things like the castrated priesthood of Cybele, or the ever-shifting nature of Hecate, or the connotations of the latin term "monstrum", or the original druids[4], less with "salvation in death" and Faustian bargain. But again, the fate of said cults in Ancient Rome cautions against a simple "paganism is paradise for infected, christianity is hell".

So, our "supernatural" infection is going to work with some overtones of group selection; we talked about the fate of the infected in a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer group, what about the rest of the group? Generally speaking, pathogens infecting all members of a group will be selected against; immortality is energetically costly, and a group composed exclusively of infected individuals might not find that much more food to compensate for this; a group with one infected member might survive, even when the infected is at least in part a parasite; maybe there is even some synergism; with another strategy, there may be other infected members, but their course could be much more benign, or worse for those of us more immortality inclined; the pathogen could nonetheless induce resource allocation to more severe cases in those weakly affected above the amount mandated by mercy or justice, hey, it's getting White Wolf here, we get the ghouls:

BTW, ever wondered why our longevity is increased compared to other monkeys, err, apes? First appearance in some Homo erectus? Bah.

Back to individuals with the full course of the disease; strapping our naked apes for quasi-immortality is a complex task, necissating a complex genome, all those telomerases etc. So we can bet our pathogen is going to be quite complex, in case of a virus, there is going to be LOTS of DNA and proteins, which are not that much known for their stability ith oxygen, UV etc. So, there are at least two ways of getting new infectious particles:

a) create lots of them, and make them strong; interferes with "low virulence", bent on leading to a wasteful disease. b) infection takes time, repeated applications is required.

This circumvents another problem, namely "why is not everybody a vampire". First, of course, as mentioned, the implied changes in metabolism etc. are going to be costly in energy, necessitating animal protein, AKA animal meat or, in times of famine or lack of suitable animals, cannibalism, with the added possibility of blood for the renewable resources faction, most really old vam^w, eh, infected are prone to lactose intolerance and stay to the Massai diet:

So, full infection of many members of a group is leading to social conflicts and likely ostracism, see, torches, spears and clubs, so very infectious strains of our pathogen are selected against.

But the need for repeated administration circumvents the problem what happens if everybody bitten by a vampi^w infected in times of dire hunger or becaus he liked the tast of it becomes a vam^w infected himself; it's not going to happen, since repeated administrations in short time are necessary, which reintroduces this nice deviant sexuality aspect no self-respecting vamp^w novel abvout infectious diseases can do without.

Add some adaptions with the gatrointestinal system, carnivores need less of it, so energy not wasted in the duodenum, and you are left with an obligatory carnivorous, socially manipulative, superstitious, borderline psychopathic and sexually deviant quasi-immortal with a certain penchant for cannibalism acquired in some time of hunger; not really scary, OK.

But the fun should be to get some decent characters in different timelines infected, watch their reactions, the reactions of their societies, lead them down the slippery slope of character derangement to acts Gille de Rais would feel vomitous about; and make it clear that concerning campi^w infected, those guys are exceptionally nice ones. And, to return to the question who domesticates whom, there is likely to be different strains of these pathogens, with some of them integrationg into the host genome...

[1] I always imagined the semi-nomadic Indo-Aryans with their wanderlust, their penchant for psychostimulants[2] and other intoxicants[3]

and signs of co-morbid OCD in some Vedic rituals as the poster child or an ethnic group on ADHD, but who knows...

[2] Singing Hymn 119, Book 10 of the Rig-Veda in a Mentat intonation after ending my caffeine withdrawl was quit unnerving for my cohabitant...

"The heavens and earth themselves have not grown equal to one half of me Have I not drunk of Soma juice?"

[3] Seems like the Scythians were known for excessive drinking by Ancient Greek standards, which might mean something...

"They say that when the Scythians had come for this purpose, Cleomenes kept rather close company with them, and by consorting with them more than was fitting he learned from them to drink strong wine. The Spartans consider him to have gone mad from this. Ever since, as they themselves say, whenever they desire a strong drink they call for a Scythian cup." Herodot, 8.4

According to some, final proof the Russians are not just geographically connected to the Scythians...

[4] There are two things I'd like to see: first of, get some real Germanic warriors face to face with some of our neo-pagan neo-nazis; hilarity ensues, "Why should I stop fucking my slave girls or abstain from impregnating my foreign wives? Where's the fun? But you are no noble, not like these Roman warriors over there..." Ends with mayor buttfuck[5]. Second of, get some hippie neo-pagans to some authentic druidic rituals. "Is this vomit part of your offerings?"

[5] For details see Gudmundar saga dyra.


With the note that I an not a libel lawyer, I think you'd be ok with a statement to the effect of "IMO [well-known fantasy author] is a 3rd-rate hack who had an idea 20 years ago, and has been re-writing it in trilogies ever since" (there are several candidates that I could replace $[wkfa] with but won't unless their names come up in prior discussion). That is a statement of opinion about someone's writing.

Saying that "$[wkfa] stole that idea from [unknown and unpublished writer]" would be actionable though, since it's a direct accusation of plagiarism.

Actually, Para(2) there possibly explains Noel Maurer's peeve about how a good concept wasted by a bad fiction writer doesn't spawn a bunch of better done versions of same concept.

Oh and Noel, you might take note that Steve Stirling does actually read and post here himself.


How close can one tread to another author's concept before getting burned, either monetarily or reputationally?

It all depends on how well the other author tackled the topic, and whether your treatment of it is better (for some metric of "better" that matters -- depth of insight, or financial viability, or whatever).

Put it another way, many (but not all) readers of mass market genre fiction read as an alternative to watching TV; it's just another narcotic entertainment medium. To these people, there is no such thing as one vampire romance too many, one alt-hist re-run of the US Civil War too many, and so on. If you are a writer and your goal is to make money, and you've been lucky enough to get the marketing push and exposure that makes you a front of store sales sensation rather than just another midlist Joe or Jill toiling at the coal face, then these readers are your bread and butter.

And then there's the high road ...

(Exeunt, Stage Left, muttering and making notes about a space operatic re-telling of the War of the Triple Alliance -- because it hasn't been done to death by the alt-hist junkies yet. Hey, what if Paraguay conquered South and Central America by 1870 and began casting jealous eyes on Texas ...?)


I like the idea of this (loose) series of posts. Heads-up for fans on what's not going to happen, and why.

Pre-empting slightly (after burning through "Fuller Memorandum" last night in 3 solid hours from 10:30 to 1:30 - damn you, I need coffee this morning!), one prediction...

The list of "things that man should not write" will include "Case Nightmare Green".

Like Men In Black, Harry Potter, Neverwhere or other alternate-reality-exists-which-most-people-don't-know-about books/films, this only works so long as most people don't know about it. Once most people do know about it, book history has diverged from actual history, and you're screwed. (Doctor Who did precisely this under Russell T Davies, creating the problem that once everyone on Earth knows aliens exist, a global society that isn't based on combined planetary defence becomes implausible. Which is an interesting and little-commented-on part of Stephen Moffat's reboot last series, where all memory of the Doctor's previous exploits has been erased.)

Chances of "Case Nightmare Green" happening and no-one noticing? It'd take a bit more than the Plumbers to clean up that one.

Plus "Case Nightmare Green" inevitably means the end of the series. If Nyarlathotep/Cthulhu/whatever eats everyone's brains then series finishes, and if Nyarlathotep/Cthulhu/whatever somehow get fought to a standstill then you still have the problem of how to top that. And end of series probably means some hassle in finding something else to join the loose formation. ;)

But last and most significant, there's the simple fact that the shark's scarier when you can't see it, which is what differentiates proper horror from boring splatter. The perfection of the Laundry take on horror is the brevity of description on the really horrific bits, which exactly matches how your mind keeps you sane when you go through really grim stuff. Once you show the monster in full techicolour, it can still be scary but it stops being horrific.


Like how some (yes I'm one of them) of your readership will also read some "urban fantasy" if it's well written, but would not consider reading anything by Elmira T Hackette (thanks to Ian Sorenson for the idea behind the name) just because she's the best seller in the field?


"Nobody is going to write a new book based on "Slavers invade Europe" or "Mars really is like Barsoom"... All of these sound like books I'd greatly enjoy on an airplane, but none of the actual ones were readable.

I beg to disagree.

Reading the Domination trilogy (appendixes included)plus Drakon on a plane? Was it a flight from Europe to Australia with stopover in Kuala Lumpur, and while being a very fast reader. And I loved Teyud za-Zhalt. Now, if you want to have nightmares, think her and Eric von Shrakenberg knocking at your door...


You're wrong about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. But then, it used to be the received wisdom in hard-SF circles that you couldn't write about the Singularity, either -- you could show the run-up or the aftermath, but not the event.


Unless it already DID happen, and we are in the simulation spaces already....


Ooh, spoilers! ;) In which case, I look forward to being proved wrong on all counts. (That's the nice thing about predictions - unless you're a weatherman, no-one really expects too much from them.)


Actually, that sounds like an excellent idea. I heard a little bit about that war when I did capoeira back in my misspent youth. Capoeiristas allegedly performed heroically on the Brazilian front lines in that war. Nifty neato martial arts action there (especially since it's old-style capoeira, with the machetes, knives, and axes, and colorful silk kerchiefs round the throats to keep the straight razors from biting).

But really, the fun is that there's another triple alliance in Latin American history. If you wanted, you could mix both of them: the Mexican Conquest and 19th Century war, Aztec blood magic and Brazilian candomble...?

Of course, marketability is the question here, I think.


Yes, yes, yes, I know you're not doing vampires. Nonetheless, there's some neat stuff here on the evolution of vampires. Real science, believe it or not. May contain feathers.


Hey, tastes differ. I found Under the Yoke boring and didn't finish it --- the Draka characters didn't make sense as people (slaving your second cousin? Really?), were too implacably superhuman (no fat ones? Seriously?), and the scenario was just stupid. (You're gonna enslave all of Europe with lower troop levels than the Nazis in occupied France?)

I tried Marching Through Georgia; it was worse. Didn't get more than a chapter in. The appendices didn't help. How exactly did the Draka finance all this industrial production? Why were they so technologically ahead of Europe? Huh?

A few years later I greatly enjoyed Drakon and the Drakas bunch of shorts --- the first was just a bunch of Terminatoresque fun and the second got the atmospherics actually believable, at least in some of the stories.

I honestly have no idea who Teyud za-Zhalt is.


Speaking of "the second person thing"...

I have a friend who's very intelligent and plays a lot of PC games, and he read and enjoyed the whole book without noticing the second person thing.

Make of that what you will.


That's the whole reason the book was in the second person: it's the natural voice of computer gaming narrative.


Getting back to vampire capitalists, The Simpsons often uses that motif for Montgomery Burns (which really explains a lot--Smithers does look quite pale most of the time).

But why leave a string of corpses? Simply take a bit from more than one host and keep a willing herd around--any rock star or CEO could easily manage that, I should think.


Somehow I don't think that martial arts really played a significant role in the War of the Triple Alliance.

Cholera, though, another story.

The key thing about the war was fiscal and financial systems of all the countries involved were very underdeveloped. Give them European tax systems and access to European financial markets, and they would have mobilized true mass armies. Ugh.


Absolutely agreed about martial artists and about cholera. Given that the capoeiristas of the time were (most likely) gang-bangers from the ghettos of Bahia, this is akin to modern gang members bragging about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Which they do, if one believes the nightly news.

Still, if you're looking for odd angle from which to tell a novel, this is certainly one. Additionally, there is a strong connection between capoeira and candomble. Again, this isn't unusual (many fighters are superstitious, and many are deeply religious), but it adds color to a story.


you wrote "Mars really is like Barsoom" so I assumed you hinted at SM. Stirling's In the Court of the Crimson Kings, and Teyud is a main character here, you'll find a good plot resumé on Wikipedia. Re: Draka...tastes differ but imho the world building was accurate and consistent. Anyway, imho is just imho, no?


Yessir. IMHO is just that.

I paged through Court, thinking "What a great idea!" By five pages in, the sheer stupidity of the background --- back on Earth, not on Barsoom --- was too much for me.

Same thing with the Draka books. Consistent, maybe, but what does accurate mean? The world was impossible. So why bother?


You know, I liked Courts of the Crimson Kings when I first read it. You know, popcorn, soda, that sort of thing? It was a pastiche of an old pulp series. What more do you want? Quality literature? Believable technology? Savorability? That's not what he was going for (I hope).

I mean, let's look at the original Barsoom: we've got an ex-confederate/immortal dude named John Carter doing an astral voyage to Mars. Once there, he finds it's: a) cold, b) desert, and c) dangerous.

So what does everyone wear? Nothing but a harness. They run around naked. Oh yeah, and they carry three blades (long sword, short sword, and dagger) like ERB heard about samurai and thought that was cool. They've got pistols and rifles that are better than anything on Earth, but they still end up using their long swords all the time like it's still 1500 or so. Short swords? I think they threw them, or something. I don't remember. They were mostly for decoration.

But let's get back to the clothing, or lack thereof. I mean, can you imagine the chafing problems of walking around naked with all that hardware on? Even assuming that they were physiologically incapable of freezing all the dangly bits off in a Martian night, there's still the massive problem of desert dust and sand. You know, the stuff blowing on the wind, that sort of thing? It will get in all the nooks and crannies and proceed to rub them raw. Those equipment harnesses must have been extremely soft and comfortable, otherwise they would have blisters and abrasion like you wouldn't believe, especially with all those swords and guns banging around on them. Oh, no, they had metal with buckles and rings. Never mind.

And we won't even go into the fact that John Carter was obviously the best swordsman of all time, because he could pick up a totally alien sword and immediately beat someone who was centuries old, and been fighting with that sword for most of his life...

Right. On that basis, Stirling did a much more believable job. Congratulations, sir.

Anyway, Burroughs has his place. I read his stuff when I was a kid, and that's where it belongs.

Oh, and there's a story that Disney/PIXAR is going to animate John Carter of Mars. My guess is that they're not going to hew too closely to the original. All that indigenous Martian nudity would not get past the MPAA, and it wouldn't play well overseas. Too bad, really.


@91 I think that Stephen King covered the cell phone as virus transmitter to biologicals pretty well in CELL. Maybe that is Apple's strategy after all...

These "I'm not writing these books threads" have been great. Although I was saddened to see we will never get back to the eschaton universe as it was great fun and the only decent space opera I've really read since discovering Heinlein as a kid in my local library. This far of Charlie later works I have been enjoying the Laundry books the most. Due in no small part to the fact that I work as a US government contractor.


Here's the thing: with a stupid background and dumb characters, there's no straight man for the joke.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 9, 2010 7:09 PM.

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