September 2011 Archives

Last post, someone asked whether we've gone beyond molecules to engineer development of an organism. Molecules are what runs development--molecules made by genes. Consider the homeobox HOX genes (which Charlie mentions in Glasshouse). The same fundamental set of HOX molecules turn on development for the fruit fly, the mouse, and the human.

Picking a drug-producing bacterium off a bar counter is one thing. But would we pick a baby because it makes one molecule?

We already do. Suppose your child has an incurable defect, a single broken gene that fails to make one protein. In some cases, the child can be "cured" by stem cells from the umbilical cord of a matched relative. To get the stem cells, you fertilize in vitro, and grow the embryos in a dish. Then pick the one with the right gene that makes the right protein. So that embryo gets implanted, and when s/he is born, the umbilical cord blood cures the sibling. But what about those other embryos in the dish?

In The Highest Frontier, parents pick genes to make their kids look like Paul Newman; and so the entering class is full of Newmans. But to make synthetic babies, why stop with what's human? I once asked Francis Collins, before an audience of a thousand industrial chemists, whether we should improve humans using chimp genes, since the chimp has a stronger immune system. He gave me a look of horror, then took the next question.

Whatever genes we choose, cord blood won't always do. Suppose it's a brain defect, or a cancer? Then we need to carry the gene in with something really good at infecting cells--HIV. The main media refused to actually name AIDS virus for several weeks; it took a comic strip and SF blogs to say it. Of course, the lentiviral vector can't be one that actually causes AIDS; it has to be stripped down and modified for safety. The way you make it safe is (1) gut out the AIDS-causing genes, (2) add animal virus regulators, such as from woodchuck hepatitis virus and cow respiratory virus. Just hope you're not a woodchuck.

Would you like to have chimp genes to fight cancer and malaria? Or maybe kudzu genes for antioxidants?

Could microbes grow the starship? Starships grow as organisms in George Zebrowski's Macrolife, and in Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood. A single cell could multiply into a living starship made of trillions of cells. The starship could divide and form a whole fleet of them, enough to sustain generations of human travelers. Any damage could be repaired, since every cell's DNA would contain all the blueprint of the entire structure. Our own teeth grow biofilms that survive decades of brushing and dentistry--maybe they could survive outer space.

So far, most synthetic biology looks at one molecule at a time. Synthetic biology basically extends what microbiologists call the fermentation industry. The original fermentation product was ethanol, in yeast-fermented beverages that kept water safe to drink. Today, microbes make all kinds of products, most notably antibiotics like penicillin. Pharma companies send explorers to remote parts of the globe to find exotic drug-producing strains. My students discovered a new drug producer growing from a crack in a bar counter at the local college hangout. To prove it, they first spread tester bacteria on a Petri plate; then spotted four different bar isolates on top of the testers. The isolate at left shows a clear ring where its antibiotic diffused out and killed the tester. We don't yet know what the antibiotic is, but if it's new we could patent it for Kenyon.

We imagine making products "not found in nature"--but even natural microbes make molecules that organic chemists would never dream of. Look at this antitumor agent discovered from a filamentous soil bacterium, the kind of bacteria that give soil that new smell in the springtime (Science 297:1170). Those sets of three parallel lines are each triple bonds, within a nine-carbon ring. Who would even think to draw such a thing, let alone make it? To make it, the bacteria use modular enzymes, nanoscale assembly lines that condense one functional part after another. The original nanotechnology.

In principle, microbes could produce any organic molecule. In The Highest Frontier, microbial machines "print out" any molecule or complex--even viruses, unfortunately, like flu or Ebola. A new twist on "computer virus." And in Brain Plague, where the microbes grow buildings, they develop cancers--blobs of building material that crawl off to tap a power line. Still, is it worth a try to grow a microbial starship?

Thanks so much for Charlie's introduction, and for his extremely generous invitation to post here. I've enjoyed Charlie's books, especially Rule 34, and the discourse on this blog. I will see what I can come up with, while Charlie and my other lucky friends head off to a spaceship conference. And they complain of jet lag? For me just a trip to Oxford Street (from rural Ohio) would be worth the jet lag.

My book that Charlie kindly mentioned, The Highest Frontier, turned out to be controversial. Greg Benford and Don Sakers loved it, but someone else feared reading it would make himself ill, while yet another wanted to see "if the test readers live." I thought readers might pause at the zoophiles, the twin towers scene, or the gay-married college president. But the main flashpoint was salt (NaCl). Could table salt become a controlled substance?

Salt's taste and antimicrobial power run through human history. There have always been salt roads, salt taxes, and salt wars. Salt trade drove the rise of cities like Liverpool, and destroyed cities in Europe and Asia. Gandhi's independence movement began with a salt march. In America, the Iroquois called colonial Europeans "Salt Beings" for their obsession with it. Today, in modern medicine, the salt wars continue.

In The Highest Frontier, Jenny Ramos Kennedy is a Cuban-American student-athlete who goes to college in a casino-financed space habitat. She likes to capture ultraphytes (invasive UV-photosynthetic extraterrestrials) and keep them in the cellar, just as kids today keep skunks or pythons. But unlike pythons, cyanide-producing ultraphytes make the bioterror list. Ultraphytes (today's colonial Salt Beings) are actually halophiles, life forms that need high salt. To curb the spread of ultraphytes, Homeworld Security controls salt. If that sounds about as useful as controlling toothpaste in your carry-on, read and find out.

The orbital spacehab is something I'd like to learn more about. Could an orbital spacehab really get made by 2100? Engineering is not my field, but from the Wright brothers to commercial jets took 50 years. Today, the International Space Station does surprisingly well with pathetic investment; what if someone were to stake more? I wonder if the folks who built Vegas could put something more outrageous in space. And when the government outlaws vice on Earth, they'll need someplace off-world to keep it--and tax it.

What most interests me space biology. My microbiology textbook opens with the Mars Phoenix lander. Could we grow space lift cables as bacterial cell walls? Some bacteria related to anthrax already grow as thread-like macrofibers, which genetic engineering might convert to nanotubes. The cables would be self-healing, amid all that Kessler debris. Could photosynthetic bacteria run fuel cells and make hydrogen? This is no longer fiction, it's science today. Could solar microbes someday power a space habitat? We need power generation off-world, the sooner the better, because all large-scale energy sources have large downsides for planet Earth.

Have to run and check my drug-resistant bacteria, but let me know if the test readers live.

I'm going to be somewhat busy for the next week (travelling to and from, and attending, this conference), and am unlikely to be blogging. So I thought I'd had the podium over to a surprise guest: Professor Joan Slonczewski. In addition to teaching microbiology at Kenyon College, where her students conduct research on bacteria in extreme environments, she's been publishing SF for a quarter of a century, winning the Campbell award along the way (for "A Door Into Ocean").

Her latest novel, The Highest Frontier, (Kindle edition available here) shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security. Her best known book, "A Door into Ocean", depicts an ocean world run by genetic engineers who repel an interstellar invasion using nonviolent methods similar to Tahrir Square. In her book "Brain Plague", intelligent microbes invade human brains and establish microbial cities. (And you can find her books via Amazon here.)

If you're looking for SF informed by a sharp understanding of genomics and biology, Joan's got a lot for you! And she's also got a strong interest in space colonization — which I hope she'll share with us over the next week.

If you're regular here, you might have noticed lately that my blog entries have been structured more as triggers for discussion than as lengthy discursive essays. There's a reason for that: I've been busy working, and it's easier to occasionally pop into a discussion than to come up with a coherent, structured, defensible essay a couple of times a week. Besides, there's enough of a community here that I figured I should let you folks do some of the heavy lifting for once ...

Well, I just got to type THE END at the end of another novel. This doesn't mean the work is over; my esteemed collaborator has a chunk of tyre-kicking to do and may yet flag it up as not finished yet ... but in principle, I think we've got a workable first draft of "The Rapture of the Nerds", which is due out from Tor next September.

I really get bugged by being labelled "the singularity guy", but unfortunately there's no way out of it this time: RoTN is clearly a singularity novel, and bears some alarming parallels to Accelerando, if you can imagine me doing a mind-meld with Cory Doctorow, smoking hash until hallucinating, then feeding that earlier novel to a wood-chipper.

In other news things are going to be quiet again next week, because on Wednesday I'm off to DARPA's Hundred Year Starship symposium in Orlando. (It's only a weekend event, but the routing from Edinburgh to Orlando is baroque, so I won't be home and back on local time 'til the following Wednesday.)

To quote DARPA's intro web page:

The 100 Year Starship Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. ... This endeavor will require an understanding of questions such as: how do organizations evolve and maintain focus and momentum for 100 years or more; what models have supported long term technology development; what resources and financial structures have initiated and sustained prior settlements of "new worlds?"
This is, in my view, vital stuff; as you probably guessed (if you've been following the intermittent essays and discussions on space colonization) I think we're still at the stage of dealing with "unknown unknowns" here, trying to scope out the right questions we should be looking for answers to before we can actually evaluate whether space colonization (or even long-range exploration) is a practical proposition.

Hopefully I'll have something to report the following week ...

Well, I went and done it.

I've completed my Master's in Strategic Foresight and Innovation (now watch me innovate!). It's taken two years but I enjoyed every class and project. Most of you know I was working on this; I've described the general idea behind foresight here before (basically, futurism without tears) but a lot of people were asking what my thesis was about. Well, it's about science fiction, funnily enough.

This blog entry is basically a placeholder for a continuation of the (fascinating) discussion of the world of the late 21st century that has taken over the previous blog entry.

We're not running out of oil in the short term. However, demand for oil is growing faster than supply, which means the price of oil is becoming increasingly volatile. (And sooner or later, the accessible deposits are going to play out and the supply is actually going to start shrinking.)

We aren't dependent on oil for energy. However, oil has a huge advantage for us in that it is easily storable and transportable, and is very energy-dense: a really efficient electrical battery can store less than a twentieth of the energy locked up in an equivalent weight of gasoline.

So what the post oil world means to me is a huge restructuring of our transport infrastructure, and everything that depends on cheap land transportation — from suburban sprawl to big box retail stores and personal vehicles, everything is up for grabs.

What other structural changes are on the cards for the late 21st century?

With the exception of sequels to existing works or stuff I already wrote blog entries about in the "Books I will not write" series:

What would you like me to write next?

(Note that even if I like your suggestion, I am already under contract for 2012 and 2013. So consider this an exercise in idle curiosity feeding in to long-term blue-sky planning ...)

Next Wednesday, I'm doing a reading and interview in Kirkcaldy in Fife, at 7:30pm in the Central Library:

Fife Libraries & Museums bring you Sci-Fife, a series of events featuring some of the best known science fiction authors based in the UK ...
Charles will be appearing at Kirkcaldy Central Library on the 21st September, with tickets costing £3.50, (£3 Presmier/Super Fifestyle). Andrew Wilson will be hosting the Charles Stross event, and has the difficult task of keeping Charles on topic, and to time for the evening.
This is part of an on-going program of readings by SF authors; next up are Ken MacLeod and Hannu Rajaniemi during October/November.

(Update: Facebook event link.)

What is horror?

I can't give you an absolute definition of the term because, like all abstractions, the term 'horror' is experienced differently by different people. What I can say is that in general it is a strong emotion, usually accompanied by disgust, distress, and aversion: that it frequently evokes the fight/flight adrenal reaction, and that involuntary exposure to actual (as opposed to simulated) and unavoidable horrific phenomena may result in long-term post-traumatic stress symptoms.

And then there's horror in fiction, which is something else.

My take on horror is that it's a tone; you can add a tint of horror to any other genre. Horror goes well with SF ("Alien"), with fantasy, with crime, with thriller, with romance, with literary realism, with just about every flavour. It's the monosodium glutamate of fiction. We add it because it's a contrast-enhancer.

Fiction may be about the study of the human condition, but the human condition under the mundane constraints of ordinary life lacks jeopardy and the attraction of drama. We attend to the dramatic because it evokes high emotions and (if you go by Aristotle) a sense of catharis, of release of tension, with the climactic resolution of the source of these emotions. Horror is a pretty extreme emotion, so evoking it gets us out of that everyday anomie pretty easily.

Furthermore, if applied correctly horror is an emotional cattle-prod that can drive all of us to empathize with the victim. Other stimuli are more ambiguous, and therefore more liable to fail. Love at first sight can easily trip up the reader if they look at the object of desire and wonder what the besotted viewpoint can possibly see in them; middle-aged restlessness seldom holds much interest for young adult readers. On the other hand, nobody looks forward to being pursued and eaten by zombies, slaughtered by serial killers, or being abducted and forced to write one more sequel to their best-selling series (unless there's a seven digit advance attached to the contract).

I will confess to using horror freely. I've got an entire series out there which, arguably, consists of horror (the Laundry books and associated stories) — horror layered on top of humorous pastiches of various British authors of spy thrillers (at least in the novel-length iterations). If you're going to use humour, it can very rapidly spin off into irrelevance unless you ground it somehow: a bit of horror goes a very long way towards keeping a humorous work from feeling light to the point of irrelevance. It makes a most effective contrast agent. Perhaps more usefully, a small dab of carefully-applied horror can force us to reconsider some dramatic conceit that we may have been tempted to take too lightly. (That's the role of the Toymaker's "sample" in "Rule 34": to jerk the reader out of any empathy for him that may have been sneakily installed in their heads by following the narrative from his viewpoint.)

There are, however, a couple of serious drawbacks to the use of horror. For starters, if over-used the readers can become habituated to it, to the detriment of the overall plot. If you've kept your characters wading through gore for five hundred pages, it's very hard to lend sufficient weight to a sensitive interpersonal denouement; similarly, if you've done the tight-and-narrow focus horror trick of magnifying a small-scale and very ordinary tragedy into something that fills the silver screen of the reader's imagination — waiting for the results of a hospital lab test, say — then you risk bathos when you snap the focus back to wide-angle. More subtly, certain types of reader respond to horror as if to an excessively strong chilli pepper; you risk losing a chunk of your audience if you push the revulsion button too hard. And finally, certain types of story just don't work with horror (although I confess I'm having difficulty thinking of a canonical example).

Do you read horror? If so, why?

Just a heads-up to anyone in the UK who hasn't been keeping a close eye on the weather; Hurricane Katia, which was a cat 4 hurricane off the North American coast last week, has decided to go walkabout, and is due to hit Ireland and the UK tonight and tomorrow.

It's unusual, but not unprecedented, for a west Atlantic hurricane to end up in the north east. By the tiume it gets here Katia will have declined from hurricane force to a strong post-tropical storm, but we're expecting gusts of up to 100mph over Ireland, and 80mph over northern and central Scotland. There is scope for structural damage, travel disruption, and flooding. Even over here on the sheltered east coast, we're looking at winds gusting to 70mph tomorrow.

If you're in the UK, keep an eye on the Met Office severe weather warnings.

I'm going to turn the TV off on September 11th. And close all the web browser tabs I have open on news sites.

This isn't to belittle the events of ten years ago, or to show disrespect for the victims and their bereaved: rather, it's to avoid the narcissistic and indecent media feeding frenzy that battens onto popular sentiment and attempts to jerk every tear from the emotional aftermath of tragedy, the better to milk the advertising revenue stream.

If the media really wanted to mark the occasion respectfully, they'd do so by holding a minutes' silence at 8:46am EST this Sunday.

My last blog post ("The Wrong Trousers") was still fresh in memory when I stumbled across a link, and because misery loves company, I feel the need to share it with you.

I understand weddings are affairs that tend to require getting dressed up.

And cosplay is, well, "a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Characters are often drawn from popular fiction in Japan, but recent trends have included American cartoons and Sci-Fi", as wikipedia so drily puts it.

Naturally, somebody was going to put the two activities together: cosplay weddings aren't that unusual these days.

However, I can't help thinking that this is going too far. (Note: link goes to Google's cache because the target web page appears to be under DDoS at present.)

What were they thinking? How on earth is history taught wherever they come from? And what, I wonder, would real Nazis make of these wedding photos?

I'm just barely old enough that it's a miracle I survived toddlerhood, having come into existence in the era of child-strangling continuously-looped window-blind cords and child-trepanning lawn darts, guaranteed to come down point first and ever-so-much faster than they went up. This is relevant because it means that when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and making the first serious, striving steps toward becoming a published SFF writer, the genre discourse was all about the singularity.

A lot of bad advice gets handed out to aspiring writers. One of the crappier pieces that I received at that time was the assurance that I must address the concept of the rapture of the nerds in every science fiction story, to be taken at all seriously. That uploaded brains were where it was at, and if we didn't talk about that, we weren't talking about the Real Futuristic Future™.

It was also at about that time that our esteemed host, Mr Stross, had just published his breakout story "Lobsters," which deals--among other things--with just the problem of uploading brains. And I read that story and was blown away... but I also had the privilege of hearing Charlie speak on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003--possibly both, looking back--and he said something that made much more sense to me than the idea of one major catastrophic event as singularity, after which would be Humanity v. 2.0 and nothing old would matter anymore.

Charlie presented the idea that history was a series of one-way gates; that every time we passed through one, it was a technological singularity from which there was no turning back. It was just that we adapted to these changes, and considered them commonplace: that the post-human future looked pretty human once you were in it.

At the same time, I had been noodling with some ideas of my own regarding uploaded minds or created artificial intelligences. Some of these appeared in Hammered and the associated novels; some have appeared in Dust and its associated novels.

It troubled me that this idea of a post-human future was so western, so industrial, and so absolutist. I admit to a kind of existentialist bent in my personal philosophy--I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist (I could be wrong! There could be something that looks, from the outside, like a god!)--and I'm exquisitely aware that value judgments are externally exposed and culturally determined.

And the fact that the future is not equally distributed, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling, does not make the lives of the people who still live ten or twenty of fifty years ago--technologically speaking--of less value than the lives of those who--technologically speaking--are living five or ten years ahead of me. (Every time I go abroad, I am reminded of how primitive so much American infrastructure is. Why does the bus stop by my house not tell me when the next bus is arriving? Why do I need to take my credit card out of my wallet to buy groceries?)

Geoff Ryman addresses a lot of these issues brilliantly in his novel Air, set in a future Cambodia. I also think Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death--while not a singularity novel, per se--makes an interesting series of counterpoints to the idea of "a" singularity. It's set in a future Sudan, and the base cultural assumption it makes are very different from those we're accustomed to seeing in western SF.

So I leave the reading of these novels as an exercise to the class, and pass on discussing my suite of issues with the Western-Civ-Centric singularity for now.

Because what I want to talk about today is another problem I have with the singularity as monolithic event. When I first started talking about it online, in 2006 or so, I identified what I was doing as a feminist critique (and to be specific here, I am talking about the uploaded-brain rapture-of-the-nerds singularity, not the augmented-meat/skinned reality brand of singularity. We have so many, these days. It makes one jealous of having just a nice neat three or five or seven branches of Urban Fantasy to fight over and lump-or-split texts into.). At the time, I wrote:

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I used to burn my mouth a lot when I wasn't thinking carefully about what I was drinking, because the air is so dry that you often can't see the steam rising from a cup of tea. After a while, I learned to hesitate, and check the temperature of the air over the fluid with my lip. This isn't something I ever decided to do. Rather, my autonomous systems figured it out for themselves. Because they're smarter than you think they are.

The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical.

Sarah Monette pointed out at Boskone (2006) that the idea of the singularity is at its heart a denial of the body, and it occurred to me that that could be read, from a feminist perspective, two ways. One, that sex becomes irrelevant, or--and here's the bit I twigged on--that if you squint just right, what you're left with is a very Augustinian refutation of the flesh. In this way, Stross's notorious turn of phrase, the rapture of the geeks, is exactly right. The weak/evil/flawed/excoriated flesh is scoured away, and what is left is divine, improved, elevated, incomprehensible.

Transcendent, if I may.

There's a bunch of talk about how SF has to address the idea of a singularity to be relevant, which to me is bullshit. Augmented intelligence, techshock, sure--but we've been dealing with that as a genre for the last hundred years. Which is why I like Charlie's one-way-gates (the Strossian singularity) as a more useful idea than the Vingean posthuman singularity. (I'm pretty freaking posthuman to a sixth-century Northman, yanno?)

Basically, it's a lovely idea, and there's been a lot of very good SF written about it, but I think allowing this idea of posthumanity to become The Defining Dialogue of "serious" SF is a mistake. (Of course, I'm not much for SF as predictive--we keep missing the big ones, after all, so I don't see why that should change.)

But then, there's this drive to define SF as Apollonian, in contrast to the purported Dionysian bent of modern fantasy, and to thus elevate SF, and I think is some ways that's one element of the whole posthuman thing. Because a singularity is nicely Apollonian. Augustinian. Anti-feminist, if you accept the idea that women's fiction tends to be more concerned with relationship and the negotiation of life and that women are more concerned with the messy bits of being made of meat.

Boy games are still privileged over girl games, in other words. Even when the games are intellectual.

Of course, I don't for half a second think that the male writers playing posthuman games are intentionally setting out to devalue "female" (please note the scare quotes) values or perspectives. I know Peter Watts and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow and so on, and a less gender-bigoted bunch of guys would be hard to find. (Actually, one of the things I really like about Cory Doctorow, and a symptom I suspect of how giant and shiny his brain really is, is that he can manipulate "masculine" and "feminine" communication styles with equal facility.) What I'm saying is that if you come at this thing from the right angle, it looks surprisingly like the old logic-trumps-emotion, Apollo-trumps-Dionysius, male-trumps-female, SF-trumps-Fantasy, mind-trumps-meat "moral" argument.

This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it's so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it... but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian... but then again, what if it's not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it's a package deal?

It doesn't fit our Western cultural preconceptions, of course. But then, our current Western cultural preconceptions have deep roots in Thomas a Beckett's stinky hair shirt and Calvinist doctrine, the mortification of the flesh for the glorification of the soul.

And that's interesting to think about, from a perspective of regarding unquestioned assumptions.

I still think what I wrote then is broadly true, though I've refined my perspectives somewhat, and started tying it more closely into some of my broad, unified theories of what's afoot in speculative fiction.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are. So I've been playing more extensively with this idea of what the actual practical results would be, if we did have the technology to "upload" a mind, or copy it in some fashion. And possibly download it into another brain.

How does this affect identity? Does identity even exist under those circumstances?

Where's your soul now, Augustus? The machine shapes the ghost as surely--probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity--as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

And that fascinates me. Far, far more than beaming my brain across space into a new body for easy lightspeed travel.

There's a lot of effort expended on identifying The Next Big Thing in science fiction, and arguing about what it should be, and trying to make each of the cresting wavelets into the next big sweeping change. Biotech was supposed to be The Next Cyberpunk; so was quantum physics; likewise the singularity.

Which is why, I think, I felt as an arriving writer that it was being stuffed down my throat.

But Next Big Things, like minds, like singularities, are emergent properties. I don't think they can be prescribed--only identified once they are inevitable.

And I think while we've all been trying to declare one, one has shown up.

Because a thing I notice about "my" generation of science fiction and fantasy writers is that we are different in one particular significant manner from the generations before us, and I think that particular difference contributes to this lack of a unifying Next Big Thing.

The coming revolution in the English-language genre is here. And it's this: we're diverse. I've taken to calling it the Rainbow Age of science fiction, because the one thing I notice about the writers in my cohort is that we are multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic. We come from a wide range of class and religious backgrounds and life experiences. We do not conform neatly to gender binaries or established sexual identities. You cannot assume that we are male, or heterosexual, or white, or American or English or Canadian, or of protestant or Jewish background, or that we are probably professional or middle class.

The thing--the only thing--we have in common is that we are science fiction and fantasy fans.

And certainly diversity is not new to science fiction fandom, but this mass and breadth of diversity is. This sheer number of intelligent, vocal people who come from outside fandom's established demographics means that the genre club scene is suddenly, vividly alive. Fusion is happening. Creation is underway right here.

It's causing some readjustments of assumptions and it's pushing some people's comfort zones.

And I think that's glorious. I think it's healthy. I think it's blowing the boundaries of the genre wide open, throwing the windows wide, getting the dust off, and leading to some of the most creative and interesting work I've read in years. I think this diversity and multi-threadedness and the power of these arguments is exactly what science fiction needs to make it a vital and enduring and relevant literature for another fifty years.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

This is an SF writer's blog, so once in a while I like to talk about what other SF authors are saying and doing.

Bruce Sterling is something of an object of emulation of mine. (Want to know where SF will be going in 20 years' time? Just read whatever Bruce is publishing this decade.) So I read his latest blog entry (yes, he blogs on WIRED) with fascination:

Since I'm a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail.
I should explain now why I have been wearing "5.11 Tactical" trousers for a decade. It's pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They're both repurposed American Western gear. I'm an American and it's common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.
Whereupon the Modern Thought-Leader Chairman Bruce launches into a fascinating exegesis on the design of outdoors wear, the role of clothing fashion in William Gibson's recent work, and the similarities between the use case for trouser choice among cops and SF writers.

Confession: I don't wear tactical assault police-pants, I wear Marks and Spencer moleskin jean-cut trousers with added elastane to better support my lardy arse when it's not plonked in the second-hand Aeron to bash out prose. Doubtless I'd look a lot less lardy-arsed if I went for the full steampunk look or wore power-assisted battle armour (the better to beat down bad reviewers), but either of those directions would make getting dressed in the morning a whole lot harder, and I'm not an early morning person. So when I'm out and about, my solution to Thought-Leader Sterling's SF writer/journalist gadget problem is a SeV Fleece 5.0 microfibre fleece with integral shoplifting system TravelSmartSystem™ — 24 pockets (some of them inside other pockets), wire management system, detachable sleeves (in case one of the gadgets' lithium ion batteries catches fire and I overheat), transparent capacitative panels so I can fondle my JesusPhone without taking it out of its compartment, and ... a user manual. Yes. A jacket that needs a user manual.

(I've been wearing it for a few months now (eeew) and am about to consult the user manual for washing instructions — sorry, sanitary maintenance protocol. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, in the brave new futuristic twenty-first century, what's your favourite example of brave new functionally futuristic clothing?

As noted previously, I'm on the road for a few days. Normal activity will resume after the weekend ...

Charlie is traveling for a couple of days so I'm dropping by for a quick post. Remember me from last April? Dracula-movie guy? Vaguely familiar?

Anyway, I wanted to kick around a few ideas about ebooks; authors (and some real people) have been talking this subject to death for years--decades, even--so what's new to say?

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I've been surprised by the way sales are running on It's a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it's not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked's Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

I realize this isn't anything like a complete picture of sales trends, but it is interesting in the same way Netflix is moving away from mailing DVDs. is so well positioned to sell digital files that one glance at their list of Contemporary Fantasy bestsellers shows one unsurprising fact: It's not dominated by books put out by New York publishers.

As I write this, the top three books are in the "Vampire for Hire" series, which are self-published, as are seven of the top ten.'s digital customers appear to be moving toward self-published books and away from professionally-published ones.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we're no strangers to love. You know the rules and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling. Gotta make you understand.

Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry. Never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

We've known each other for so long. Your heart's been aching but, you're too shy to say it...

Okay, yeah, that was a rickroll. Hopefully, you laughed, which is more than you would have gotten out of my predictions of the future. The truth is, I don't know if anyone is really capable of calling the score on this one. Yeah the "book stink" people (the folks who are always talking about the way books smell) are the minority most of us expected, and ebook sales are growing, but the picture is more complex than that. Ebooks seem to be hitting mass market originals (like my books) much harder than hardbacks and trade-sized paperbacks, but how much more of a bite can they take? What happened to windowing? If ebook readers buy even more self-published books, will be less of a problem for brick-and-mortar indie stores? And what about those readers who really make a book into a mega-hit, the casual, two-book-a-year, everyone-else-has-read-DaVinci-Code-so-I-should-too people?

It's fascinating (if slightly painful) and I'm curious to see if the market finds an equilibrium soon. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling.

ObPlug: Here's a couple of links for those curious about my books: New book, which Charlie has very kindly blurbed | Sample chapter | Entire series.

Thanks for reading.

In fiction, zombies are a metaphor: the soulless, soul-sucking horde that will never stop coming and will drag you down eventually, no matter how much ammunition you're carrying. And they'll turn you into one of them when that happens. The metaphor usually keys into xenophobic fears, such as plain old-fashioned racism (zombies offer a politically acceptable alternative to ranting about the asiatic hordes outbreeding the white master race and eventually diluting them into mongrelism and extinction), or fear of the underclass (again, it's open season on zombies). I suspect in the 1950s zombies could have stood in for Communism.

What can we do with zombies that is different?



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