July 2011 Archives

I sense a theme.

I've been reading a lot of blog posts, and comments to same, that highlight the seemingly intractable quality of current world problems. This recent post by Steelweaver is a great example. So are a lot of the comments to my previous "Beyond Prediction" post. Steelweaver in particular hits the nail on the head with the idea that "people no longer inhabit a single reality. ... Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue." This is definitely the case when you examine the cultural and political dialogues arising around the Greek and U.S. debt crises, or global warming.

--And this is a brilliantly insightful idea, but it's a little bit sad, too, because it seems as though a lot of people are just discovering this problem, and yet it's been well known for decades.

Yes, it's made out of people, but I don't mean the food - I mean the society in which any SF novel takes place. (I could've quoted Margaret Thatcher instead, about there being no such thing as society, but only to negate her sentiment.) It's something like the Gestalt notion of perception, of seeing a foreground object only against its background, content in its context - characters in their culture.

Of course a novel's scientific extrapolation, whether wild or logically reasoned, may already drive the fictional culture in a particular direction. Even so, you want something twisty and interesting, rather than straightforward. For me, much of the background is a natural part of the tapestry - in other words, as flashes of scenes come to me, the people's interactions are driven by how they are related. Those relationship types might be peculiar to the context: officer/private, master/slave.

I'm not really a political writer, I don't think, but my most overtly political world-building belongs to my books set furthest in the future (a 35th-century colony world, isolated for 1200 years) and those set closest to the present day - somewhere between 10 and 30 years from now.

Last week my wife and I read the chronologically-first Dragonriders of Pern book to my daughter. (She loved it.) DragonsDawn is one of more than a dozen novels by Anne McCaffrey set on the alien world of Pern, which in this story has just been colonized by humans.

I was struck by McCaffrey's detailed thinking about what colonization of another planet would be like--both because of the sophistication of some of her ideas, and the utter naivete of others. The colonists use genetic engineering to defend Pern's biosphere against incursions by an alien life form known as Thread, but nobody (least of all McCaffrey herself) seems to realize that the humans and their goats, pigs, food plants and associated fungi and microorganisms are themselves a catastrophic alien threat to the planet's biosphere.

I've just spent two years working toward a Master's degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation.

Because most people look at me blankly when I tell them this, I've developed two ways to describe what what I'm doing, and foresight is. The first is to say that foresight used to be called futurism, but that futurism has increasingly become associated with the idea of predicting the future. Foresight is not about predicting the future, it's about minimizing surprise. The second way I usually put it is that foresight is not about predicting the future; it's about designing the future.

Actually, I'll say it's just about anything, as long as it's understood that foresight is not about predicting the future.

World-building - where do we begin? For me it's a top-down, bottom-up, sideways-in, you-name-it accretion of (primarily visual) insights. The very word insight suggests visualization. (We're mixing physics and metacognition here.)

I like weird, abstract ideas on the edge of our understanding. Previously I mentioned the arrow of time and the transactional interpretation of quantum physics. When dreaming up that particular book, these concepts suggested to me the existence of oracles (experiencing time-flow backwards in parts of their brain, interfacing with their own future perceptions), whom I chose to treat as tools of the aristocracy. That suggests lots of potential detailed scenes, but let's stay with the big picture for now.

My perception of the arrow-of-time problem is that most people aren't aware it exists. So many people switch on a light without wondering where the power comes from (Faraday's observations being at the heart of it), or use a phone/computer/whatever without understanding its nature, that they are living in a world of Clarke's-Law magic. I'm driven by a desire to shake people's shoulders and say: "Wake up! Smell the roses! Understand the evolutionary process that produced petals and pleasing scent! Imagine the nuclear heart of the Sun that drives life and all Earth's far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic complexity!"

In Seattle. Will attempt to get to the Pike Brewing Company (1415 First Avenue, near the Pike Place market) for beer between 5 and 6pm this afternoon/evening. Send reinforcements. Stop.

This is a game I like to play. It's a kind of sanity check on our priorities, and also provides good roadmaps to the future. What's interesting, of course, is the different choices you come up with on different occasions, and also what's different between your lists and other peoples'. You can play the game strictly on the philanthropic level, or in medicine, or political influence, etc.--and the choice of which areas you choose is also telling.

Today, in late July 2011, this is how I might spend $1 billion, specifically into areas that I think are currently underfunded:

  • $100 million to build a working prototype vertical farm.
  • Another $100 million on self-replicating 3d printers and a business ecosystem for distributed manufacturing and design.
  • $200 million into several nuclear fusion efforts, including General Fusion's pneumatic-ram driven steampunk reactor, the Polywell, Focus fusion and fusion-catalyzed subcritical thorium fission.
  • $100 million into a demonstration laser launch system capable of launching at least a soft drink can's worth of mass into orbit. Actually, a lot of that would probably go into magbeams and tether-driven 'second stage' technologies.
  • $100 million into studying terra preta, iron fertilization, and carbon air capture. 'Cause even if you don't believe that all that CO2 in the air is causing climate change, ocean acidification is still a huge problem.
  • $100 million on magnetic shielding technology (and magsails) for space travel.
  • $200 million to buy and launch one of Bigelow's BA330 orbital stations to use as a variable-gravity research module and Mars cycler.
  • $100 million for an underground volcanic island lair (and lots of yellow jumpsuits). Just because I can.

...Well, that's what happens with this exercise--your choices veer all over the map. The rationale for these particular ones can be summed up in one of my credos, "Live on Earth as though you were colonizing Mars." The same technologies that will allow us to live on other worlds will allow us to live sustainably on this one; I don't distinguish the idea of space development from the idea of sustainability, the one necessitates the other.

What's really interesting is that though the above is the sort of list I might have seriously compiled a few years ago, after having gone through the Masters in Strategic Foresight programme at OCADU, my priorities have shifted. If I were to really get serious, I'd be investing in things like stakeholder management systems and in building structured dialogic design protocols into social media--essentially, making the internet into a global decision-making system. But to explain that line of thinking... would take a novel. Hmmm... What a good idea...

During Charlie's globe-trotting, interruptions to his supply of liquid helium cause difficulties in maintaining the optimum operating temperature (4K) of the superconducting neurons in his prodigious precuneus. (This is not rude.) So here I am, Not Charlie, humbly filling in.

Faithful readers know there are two FAQs that one really shouldn't ask. There's "I've an idea, will you write the book for me and we'll split the money?", which generates a reflexive two-monosyllable reply in any writer's mind (modulated by varying degrees of politeness as subsequently uttered).

But "Where do you get your ideas from?" elicits a different reaction: a widening of the writer's eyes as they affect disdain, a shakiness in their laughter as they attempt to dismiss the words; for there are places where We Dare Not Look (lest Cthulhu suck out our brains).

Okay, Charlie's flight to Seattle has departed Amsterdam, he's somewhere over the North Sea and out of touch with the world for the next 10 hours. Time, I think, to spill the beans about the fantastic and glamorous life of a writer's spouse.

Charlie has recently finished writing a novel, which means for the past few weeks he has been in Write Mode. Write Mode comes with its annoyances:

  • Every moment of the day will be spent writing, except when he needs to eat, make a mug of tea, take a bath or attend to the cats' needs.

  • Yes, he even writes there - he takes a laptop in with him.
  • As implied above, the only acceptable interruptions are those from felines.
  • No, I can't practice guitar - even with the wireless headphones, he can hear the strings. Nor mess with the synths, as the imperceptible sound of my fingers on the keys is like a machine gun to his ears.
  • Ditto watching telly. Especially Mythbusters, when they're playing with explosives.
  • Not only is the sewing machine too loud, but I suspect he'd take exception to hand embroidery - I occasionally have need to say ouch, you see.
  • Technical problems are my problem, and probably my fault (the latter is true).
  • When he's not writing, eating, tea-making, bathing or attending to Their Hairy Majesties, he's either sleeping or about to go to bed due to knackeredness from serious brain work.
  • He is too busy to answer the question What would you like for tea?, and it's hard to guess how hungry he's feeling, and what sorts of things appeal to him today.
  • Buggering off on holiday is Not Allowed. I am not his muse, but he still claims he needs me around to write.
  • Buggering off to the pub with friends is okay, but I don't think my liver will be happy with a fifth consecutive night's boozing.
  • When he can be persuaded to go to the pub, in those rare moments between finishing writing for the day and going to bed, he will talk about nothing other than the work-in-progress and plans for future novels.
  • In those romantic moments in bed before nodding off, he will talk about nothing other than the work-in-progress and plans for future novels.
  • If I were to try and chat to him in the bath, he would talk about nothing other than the work-in-progress and plans for future novels.
  • I suspect when he's talking to the cats, he's telling them about the work-in-progress and his plans for future novels, with specific reference to the feline characters in them.
  • Even when there's a bloody great Vulcan bomber taxying past at high speed, he will mention how it fits into the Laundryverse. Fortunately this cannot be heard easily.
  • He was in Write Mode in the run up to my driving test. How much do you think he discussed my driving when he was supervising my driving practice? What do you think he mostly talked about?
  • Forget grocery shopping. You learn a lot about how detailed his world-building can get when doing utterly mundane things together.
  • He is, of course, completely unaware of his monomania.
  • Despite the cats being allowed to distract him, he will not provide them with the attention they think they deserve, and so spend time in my study meowing for some of my attention. It's not as good as Charlie's attention, but it will do.

(Hey, Charlie, thanks for giving us the chance to join the discussion, and have a great trip. Now, what've I been thinking about lately? The events of the past week reminded me of a little incident...)
A couple of years ago I sat down to lunch with a prominent astronaut, a Shuttle commander and space station veteran. We talked about space development and alternative paths to what NASA has actually done since 1970. I told him that what I'd been waiting for ever since Skylab was a variable-gravity research station, because it hadn't taken us long to accumulate lots of evidence that lack of gravity is bad for the human body, and because lower gravity was the only physiological variable for the Moon, Mars and other possible destinations that we couldn't currently test for. It's also one of the most important; a variable-gravity station could tell us whether unaltered humans could live long-term on Mars, for instance. The astronaut asked me how I would be build this station, and I said, "Rotate two booster modules, one habitable, linked by tethers." Much like Skylab, and very simple to construct.
He shook his head. "Tethers in space," he said, "break."
I blinked at him. "Well, if they break, you build 'em stronger, make 'em out of something else, or you use a number of them." I didn't quite say, "This isn't rocket science," but really, it's basic engineering.
He shook his head even more vehemently. "Tethers in space," he snapped past gritted teeth, "break."
I had no reply. I had been watching him; he became visibly tense every time the conversation moved away from strict NASA doctrine. This made me realize something:

Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go--and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA's Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. --That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.
All of which is why I'm heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I'm not going to miss you.
As to the astronaut, fortune continues to smile on him. He's got a future mission to the ISS. I suppose that's better than nothing. But I feel sad for him because, believing what he believes, will he ever really see where it is he's gotten to? If even he has abandoned the dreams Apollo made possible, then what, now, can we dream about?

First, the formal intro:

John Meaney is the author of ten SF novels — Paradox, Bone Song and Absorption among them — including one of the Daily Telegraph Books of the Year, and an Independent Publishers Novel of the Year. He has been shortlisted three times for the British Science Fiction Award.

In order to write full time, he lives in exile in a Welsh valley, surrounded by sheep.

His first degree was in physics and computer science, and he is belatedly completing graduate work at Oxford on a (very) part-time basis. His long IT career culminated in working as a trainer, often abroad, combining hard tech with applied psychology and stand-up comedy... making use of his training in hypnosis.

A black belt in shotokan karate and graduate of a world-famous dojo, Meaney has been training in martial arts for nearly four decades, and considers "thug" a compliment.

His heart melts at the sight of a cat, and for a bar of dark chocolate, he is anybody's.

And now the informal one:

John is one of the hidden treasures of the British SF field; while his books are available in the USA, he's best known over here. Aside from "Bone Song" and "Dark Blood" (published under different titles in the US — they're dark metropolitan fantasies with more than an echo of Walter Jon Williams' amazing Nebula-winning "Metropolitan" and "City on Fire" to them, if Dubjay had tackled necromancy rather than geomancy), he has a line in futuristic space-operatic thrillers infused with, well, his background: computer science, weird physics, and martial arts. If you like Charles Stross novels (subtypes: Laundry Files or Space Opera) you'll find something to like in John's work, and I'm really pleased to welcome him here for the next few weeks.

Here's the formal intro:

Karl Schroeder has published nine novels and is currently finishing a Master's degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation. His books include Ventus, Lady of Mazes, and the Virga series, which is more or less "Master and Commander" but set in a world without gravity. When he's not writing he works as a futurist for government and industry clients. Right now he's writing the greatest near-future science fiction adventure novel about stakeholder management systems that the world has ever seen. You can find his personal blog at www.kschroeder.com.

And here's the informal one:

I first met Karl about six or seven years ago. I'd run across his fiction earlier, following up a personal rec by Cory Doctorow who was excited about him for some reason. It didn't take me long to figure out why. His first novel, Ventus (that's a free ebook edition) hit me between the eyes with a mix of fresh thinking about space opera, nanotechnology, terraforming, and information theory. Since then, he's only got better: "Lady of Mazes" was a tour de force, and his Virga series are both good quasi-steampunky fun and an exercise in applied hard SF world-building that doesn't have many equals right now. If you like Charles Stross novels (subtype: the SF ones) you'll probably like Karl's books too.

I'm really pleased that he's agreed to guest blog while I'm away-from-keyboard, and I hope you will be too.

I'm off to Seattle in about 36 hours, and will probably be Away From Keyboard for quite some time — possibly up to a week.

In the meantime, John Meaney and Karl Schroeder have kindly agreed to blog here: I'll introduce them tomorrow. You may see some unexpected guest contributions from elsewhere.

Final note: it has come to my attention that Harry Connolly (who you may remember blogged here last year) has a new novel out: Circle of Enemies (Kindle edition). It's the third in an excellent, very dark series of supernatural thrillers, and to spread the word his publishers have put the ebook edition of the first volume, Child of Fire on special offer at $0.99 for a month. (Yes, that link goes to the kindle store.) If you're jonesing for another of my Laundry novels, you could do a hell of a lot worse than read "Child of Fire" — I think you'll like it.

I'm off to the west coast of the United States next Thursday.

While I'm gone I have some bloggers lined up to keep you entertained — who I will be introducing in due course — including two talented hard SF writers, John Meaney and Karl Schroeder.

Meanwhile, if you're wanting to get books signed or hear me reading or ask me questions, I've got some dates for you:

* Seattle: I'm reading and signing at the University Bookstore, Tuesday July 26th at 7pm.

* San Francisco: I'm reading and signing at Borderland Books, Saturday August 6th at 3pm.

* Portland: I'm reading and signing at Powells City of Books, Friday August 12th at 7:30pm.

(There may be other short notice fixtures. If so, I'll try and blog them before they happen!)

One of the major influences on Rule 34 was a throwaway idea I borrowed from Vernor Vinge -- that perhaps one of the limiting factors on the survival of technological society is the development of tools of ubiquitous law enforcement, such that all laws can be enforced -- or infringements detected -- mechanistically.

One of the unacknowledged problems of the 21st century is the explosion in new laws.

Continue reading (at orbitbooks.net).

Hopefully you haven't been too incommoded by my absence from the blog for most of this week. (Hopefully you didn't even notice it.)

The reason for the absence is that I've been nailing down what I hope is the final submission-grade draft of "The Apocalypse Codex", aka Laundry Files book four, which is due for publication in the first week of July 2012. It's been a long haul but it's with my agent now, and if she doesn't raise a red flag over it, it's cooked.

Elevator pitch below the cut.

This is probably an FAQ:

If you're looking to link to me on the internet, this blog is my main presence. And if you don't have my email address, you can nevertheless send me email via the link in the right hand column, captioned "talk to me".

I grudgingly use Facebook, but only because they have a proprietary email system with 700 million users and no gateway to the rest of the internet.

I do not and will not use the following social networks:

* MySpace (I am not a boy band)
* Google+ (One massively intrusive privacy-ignoring social network is one too many)
* LinkedIn (As much use as a chocolate manhole cover to a novelist)
* Twitter (My thoughts are not generally compressible into 140 characters — so sorry!)
* Steam (Despite rumours to the contrary I'm not a gamer)

Finally, please don't invite me to join you on other social networks. Life is too damn short to keep tweaking my privacy settings and answering nosy questions from networks that want to know my inside leg measurement so they can shove behavioural ads for trouser manufacturers in my face while I'm trying to work.

If you want to network with me I'm happy to talk to you in the comments on this, or other, blog entries ...

I get email.

Normally I don't publish private correspondence, but sometimes — rarely — I feel like hanging someone out to dry ...

(I continue to blog over at Orbit, my UK publisher)

One of the hoariest of science fictional archetypes is the idea of the artificial intelligence — be it the tin man robot servant, or the murderous artificial brain in a box that is HAL 9000. And it's not hard to see the attraction of AI to the jobbing SF writer. It's a wonderful tool for exploring ideas about the nature of identity. It's a great adversary or threat ('War Games', 'The Forbin Project'), it's a cheap stand-in for alien intelligences — it is the Other of the mind.

The only trouble is, it doesn't make sense.

Continue reading ...

Back while I was working on "Halting State" I had a number of what I called "Halting State moments" — the eerie experience of seeing something I'd invented for a near-future novel's background colour showing up in the news, in real life. It was somewhat disturbing, but after a while I got used to it: at this point, just about everything in that novel (written circa 2005-2006) has shown up, with the possible limited exception of a (the current argument being whether it is in fact a general purpose quantum computing device or something more limited).

Well, I've just had the first real "Rule 34" moment: DNA testing is now being used to enforce dog-poop by-laws. (It's only a matter of time before the police drones come with dog-poop samplers ...)

Have you spotted any harbingers of the world of "Rule 34" yet? And if so, what and where?

By now some of you have read "Rule 34".

If you want to discuss it, or ask me questions about it, feel free to chat in the comments on this blog entry.

If you haven't read "Rule 34" yet, stay away from this blog entry's page and especially the comments, because there will be spoilers.

Let the fun begin!

US Rule 34 cover (clickthru to Amazon.com)UK Rule 34 cover (clickthru to Amazon.co.uk)

I'm getting reports of "Rule 34" being mailed out by Amazon.co.uk and showing up in bookshops. So it's finally on sale!

(Well, this is the official publication week ... Tuesday in the US, Thursday in the UK, but some early leakage is normal. Especially as tomorrow is some sort of public holiday in the US, so those Amazon orders won't be delivered before Tuesday.)

Where you can buy it

Amazon US: [ Hardcover edition ][ US Kindle edition ]

Powell's US: [ Hardcover edition ]

Amazon UK: [ Trade paperback edition ][ UK Kindle edition ]

Signed copies: Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh currently have signed copies of "Rule 34" and can ship them internationally. For details, email Transreal Fiction.

UPDATE: Yes, I know about amazon.ca's Kindle store problem. Ace have been told, and are going to fix it.

... Or read the first three chapters below

I get reviews ...

Kirkus Book Reviews (who always try to find something to hate in genre fiction) gave "Rule 34" a starred write-up:

"Another detective joins the celebrated ranks of Edinburgh's finest, this one with Stross' distinctive science-fictional twist ...
Dazzling, chilling and brilliant."

"Rule 34" comes out this week (officially on Tuesday in the US and Thursday in the UK).

I gather some folks like their copies signed: as I live in Scotland, this might be difficult for US readers.

Anyway, if you want a signed copy you've got a bunch of options ...

Last week I did a brief hit and run on the concept of the Singularity. Today I'd like to raise awareness of one of the taproots of Extropian thought — specifically, the origins of modern singularitarian thinking in the writings of the 19th century Russian Orthodox teacher and librarian, Nikolai Fyodorov (or Federov).

(I'm blogging over at the web site of Orbit, my UK publisher. Here's the first of my essays there.)

Unless you're very old or very ill, you probably expect to live to see the near future. The "near" future is a terrifying period: it's that part of the future when I'll still be around, and readers like you can poke fun at me for my predictive failures. (Not that SF is actually about predicting the future, but lots of people seem to think it is, and the fun-poking proceeds on that basis.) It's also that part of the future that's hardest to second-guess, because we're so close to it ...

Continue reading ...



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