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And another thing ...

The hidden easter egg in "Halting State" is that at no point does the book use the words "computer" or "software". Despite it being a book engaging with the social consequences of distributed computing and virtual reality.

(I do this sort of thing as a discipline, to focus my writing. The reason for the second-person voice in "Halting State" should be obvious to anyone who has even briefly played an adventure game: the second person is the natural voice of that particular game genre. Deliberately not using those particular words forced me to bear in mind that I was writing about people in a near-present where those particular signifiers have been so seamlessly absorbed into our culture that we don't think about them. Any more than we think about catching a train in terms of the procedural aspects of driving a train.)

65 Comments

1:

"The door dilated", huh?

2:

On the subject of avoiding particular words, I was greatly amused by Paul Cornell's Eastercon account of his new novel London Falling.

It's a police procedural, set in a London where inexplicable things do happen. And he's not allowed himself to use the word 'magic'.

Not even when his protagonists use a 'magic marker'.

3:

THATSNOTHINGIDONTLETMYSELFUSELOWERCASESPACESORPUNCTUATION

4:

And?

/s/magic/sorcery
/s/magical/sorcerous
Ok, that won't fix them all, but do that and the ones that need a manual edit should grate.

The name "Magic Marker" is a brand name.

Maybe I'm being thick, but there are synonyms for "magic(k)", and I don't see "Not using $brand_name" as being particularly clever or diciplined.

5:

I really enjoyed Halting State. It was your first book I ever read. Although jarring for the first couple sections, the second-person narrative does give you that sense that you're driving the character. It textually reminded me of the guy who mounted a camera on a pod coming out the back of his head and added a visor to his face so he saw himself in the third person and then went around detailing how this perspective made him act. (More aggressive, oddly.)
In reference to your other post about critics, I wanted to throw in that I am summarizing my Amazon review in my head before writing if of Accelerando which I just finished two days ago. In the process of doing that, I was reading some of the other Amazon reviews. I must say, it seems like one of the hardest things about being a writer - beyond the aspects of publishing itself - is dealing with criticism of your work at that level. It reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld act where he asks the pilot if he would like to be heckled before he flew a plane, etc.
Anyway, if a random fan's bolstering does anything to perk up your day: you are two for two for me. I enjoyed Halting State and Accelerando both quite a bit. I have my picks with certain choics made but in light of the fact that what you do in those stories is so experimental compated to standard, "New York Times Bestsellers" writing, I am all for that level of experimentation.
I started Singularity Sky (in America, I have it and Iron Sunrise; I know it was published as one book other places) and am about 30 pages in and enjoying it, too.
I think the neo-feudal society in a post-singularity space age in unique by itself and am looking forward to seeing where it goes. (The two main characters - I assume - have just met each other on the train.)
Anyway, long point short - please keep experimenting with your writing and doing interesting things! I'm enjoying it. A book long experiment can be a gamble, I'm sure, as it may misfire, but I'm a pretty voracious reader and a lot of the other stuff in the fiction to science fiction section of Amazon is a little too "done to death."

6:

Isn't this a bit gimmicky? Or too far to go just to play a trick?

Akin to "Gadsby" by V. Wright or "A Void", such avoiding of common words could show off wit, but harm your artistic skill. I think such trivial orthographic constraints quickly show as too much for books; also for unimportant writing such as blog posts, or for fans writing on such posts. No smart fan would do such a thing or anything akin to it.

7:

Nope, I don't think it's going too far. Now, doing it all the time would be a bit much ...

(IIRC Robert Silverberg did a novel in the 70's in which the protagonist comes from a civilization that doesn't belive in personal pronouns. Anyone?)

8:

All verboten.

This is a world in which, as far as the protagonists are concerned, magic doesn't exist. It's part of his self-imposed discipline that he's got to describe everything, including stuff which to the reader is very obviously magical/sorcerous/other-worldly, without using the terms. For the protagonists, it's unexplained weird shit, but they're not (at least yet) considering it as magic.

And Magic Marker may be a brand name but, like Sellotape and Hoover, it's frequently used for the generic item.

Perhaps you had to be there.

9:

My wife and I spent time teaching in Japan, and our students found it very hard to grasp the concept of articles, plurals, and personal pronouns, and how they were applied in spoken English, simply because such things don't exist in Japanese, which operates under the assumption that everyone involved in a given conversation has an implicit understanding of what is being talked about. Trying to explain why English has these conventions really makes you think about our own language and what our basic linguistic assumptions are. Halting State was a fantastic experiment in shaking up linguistic and narrative assumptions.

10:

I saw what you did in that post. ;-)

11:

Be careful there. If the trolls figure it out, one of our most powerful weapons--disemvowelment--will be seriously weakened.

12:

But nobody could maintain such constraints on writing continuously. I would think that just two posts on an author's blog could show difficulty. Now, if a blog's author got a laugh from such witticism - it did not fly past him - a fan writing posts might fight past such difficulty gladly.

13:

You used "phone." A lot. And ever since I rooted mine (Australians: minds out of the gutter on this one, please), I've become acutely aware that it is a computer, a lump of computronium with attached sensors and radios. And while you never used the word 'software,' you named software packages: BOOTS, ATHENA, etc.

On the one hand, this is good practice. On the other, it's a bit like overdescribing the kind of car someone drives. Still, nobody in your story ever just "grabbed a bite to eat": you named in detail every meal, and for that matter every brand of car. On the gripping hand, you never mentioned the brand of phone Liz owns.

14:

It makes perfect sense. I honestly don't remember when I've last used the words "computer" or "software". I'll talk about my netbook or my desktop machine, and when talking about software, usually it will be specified (Office, mail, whatever). So I think it made for an even more convincing world, in this particular sense. Although, honestly, I didn't notice it when I first read Halting State.

Also, I loved the second person from the start. But I'm old enough to remember fighting monsters in text.

15:

You know, I didn't spot that in Halting State. Definitely time for a re-read. And yes, I think that's an excellent constraint for that particular story. If people like Don Norman and the Ubiquitous Computing groups (at IBM, for instance, since I know a couple of them and have talked about this with them) are right, computers are going to disappear almost completely in the next 20 years or so, maybe less if cloud computing doesn't melt on us at the first heavy load / cracker attack. After awhile, young people who grew up with computing being a ubiquitous service like running water won't even know what a "computer" is. For that matter, right now there are a lot of people whose primary computer is a phone, and they don't call it a computer.

Bellingham, If I'm understanding you, it sounds like the constraint was to never to denote the cause of some activity by name, e.g., "magic", "sorcery", or "nuclear physics", but to refer to it by the perceived effects: "blue flames ran down the blade of the sword as it sliced through steel armor like butter."

16:

applaus*!

17:

The biggest linguistic assumption that defines our reality is that the world is composed of nouns and not verbs.

18:

That's the idea in this case, because the starting point is a bunch of coppers with the Metropolitan Police who live in our world.

(This seems to be a particular form of primary world fantasy, one in which the fantastical is resisted.)

19:

from The Language Construction Kit:
Jorge Luis Borges, in "Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis", posits a language without nouns; but this was because its speakers were Berkeleyan idealists, who didn’t believe in object permanence. However, linguists really do not like using semantic classes— or metaphysics— to define syntactic categories. (It’s not the right level of analysis; and it tends to obscure how languages really work by making them all look like Latin.)

also, google for Riau - quite a strange language for Europeans

20:

The Silverberg novel you're thinking about is "A Time of Changes". It's quite good.

21:

a civilization that doesn't belive in personal pronouns

Vietnam? :-)

23:

Just a few days ago I was telling someone that Halting State is written in "game-master voice".

24:

Sweden used to follow a limited form of this. During the 19th and early 20th century, it was considered rude to use personal pronouns in second person singular - and it was expected to use proper titles, too, not just names.

Ie, everyday conversation would include things like "would Colonel Henriksson want some sugar with the coffee" (using the family name as well!).

If one didn't know the name or the proper title to use, then you had to use quite strange constructions, like "is there a want for some sugar with the coffee".

This custom is one of the reasons for why the "du" reform in Sweden was easily embraced by almost everyone, and thus might have contributed to the almost aggressive egalitarinism we had here during the latter half of the 20th century.

25:

My memory (not infallible) says the Silverberg novel is A Time of Changes.

26:

Talking about challenges, the French writer George Perec once wrote a novel called La Disparition, a full length 300 pages story that does not contain, not even once, the letter e.

The book has been translated in English, still without a single e, under the title A Void.

27:

This is the same 'A void' alluded to back in comment #6?

28:

"...is that at no point does the book use the words "computer" or "software". Despite it being a book engaging with the social consequences of distributed computing and virtual reality.

(I do this sort of thing as a discipline, to focus my writing. ... "

To me these are a bit like "stop words" in traditional indexing (made by humans with very little computer intervention) or like the words which get "USE" indicators tagged onto them in a thesaurus. At the same time I see they are not quite the same. They are different sorts of stop words, they are litterary stop words.

Professionally this is interesting for me even though there are no graphical aspects. Heck, this is fascinating.

Where these the only "litterary stop words" in that novel?

But more importantly for me, on average how many "litterary stop words" do you have in a novel?

And finally:

Do you find that you use even more "litterary stop words" on average when a novel is set farther off in the future?

29:

It is, yes.

30:

Personal pronouns can make trouble. I had a tough time talking with/about a friend of mine while he was mid-gender realignment. For a while I skipped using any pronouns -- Eli wasn't "she" or "he," Eli was "Eli" and all reference was unambiguous.

31:

Showoff.

32:

This NASA promotional video contains no __________

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkHc_3Zrv8s

33:

Halting State doesn't contain the words in full, but it retains the fossils of them. There's the term "CS" and a fictional company "LupuSoft"...

34:

Dolphins probably have conversations that don't include their word for water likewise.

35:

Just to be picky, R34 contains at least one use of the word computer (but not as a noun): in the description of CI Dixon's training the phrase "computer forensics" is used. That just happened to catch my eye as I was re-reading R34 based on the recent topics. In case this is version specific, this is in the US Kindle version -- I haven't cross-checked the section in other US & UK editions. I don't think this violates the spirit of the writing discipline as the word is not used in describing a computing device. ;)

36:

Quick idea: part of the problem with Amazon's recommendations (amongst other things) is that it works under the assumption that everything you browse for and buy is for you alone. Excellent example; my recommendations are currently a fairly normal spread of SF books and women's jewellery because I normally buy SF books but recently bought a present for someone.

So for a more personalised ebook recommendation how about something that uses your current ebook library as a reference and lets you easily choose where to focus the search? For example you could boot up your reader/app, quickly flick through thumbnails of the books you own and highlight those that are similar to what you want to read at that time. Then you could get a recommendation list that is based on an interplay between the tags, review score and perhaps even a review score of the tags (e.g. a book with the tags "milSF" and "space opera" that only loosely pulls off the latter may have a tag score of 4/5 and 2/5).

That doesn't get round the fact that crowdsourcing for subjective scores is a fairly weak method of measuring whether you would like something of course.

37:

Different languages are interesting.

Here's some personal experience: I'm not a native English speaker. It was my third language, the first being Finnish and the second one being German. I have now known some English for about twenty-five years, and for various reasons even as I live in Finland, I use English for about half of my communications.

At work much of the stuff is in English, and with this Internet thing, many of the daily conversations in my free time are also in English. I read a lot, and nowadays I've started consciously reading more in Finnish, just to, well, read in my mother's tongue.

Even using the language every day in many contexts, I make simple mistakes a native would very rarely make. For example, in a conversation I don't always remember to use articles as Finnish doesn't have those), and sometimes I use the wrong gendered personal pronouns, because in Finnish we don't make that distinction.

I also often realize that I mostly learned English by reading - I know how many words are spelled but the pronunciation is not always clear. Of course English words have a lot of variation there depending on the speaker, but I am not very consistent in my speech, except of course souding mostly like a non-native.

As to the original post, I didn't notice that at all. I probably should re-read Halting State (and R34, too).

38:

The late Sarah Caudwell wrote four very funny murder mysteries in which the detective/narrator, Hilary Tamar (Professor of Mediaeval Law at Oxford University) is never identified by gender.

39:

And one thing I learned reading this blog over the past week is that both Halting State and it's sequel, Rule 34, are written in second person, but each for different reasons, which is neat.

40:

Bizzarely, I didn't figure out the reason for the second-person voice in Halting State for quite a while despite having played several text adventures. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I read it on your blog a few months ago, at which point I mentally punched myself in the face.

41:

Another, related, factor is that Amazon's system doesn't (as far as I'm aware) connect your reviews to your purchases. So if you buy a book, it recommends more books like that one even if you hated it. Which makes some sense if there isn't any kind of rating attached, but could usefully be rectified by taking advantage of rating information the user chooses to supply.

42:

I am an idiot. I just realized I posted a comment about Rule 34 but the topic (and the noted lack of using the terms "computer" and "software") refers to Halting State. My bad. Apologies for my confusion.

43:

> For example you could boot up your
> reader/app, quickly flick through
> thumbnails

Sooo... you're going to peer at a picture to try to identify a book? Why not just use a plain old list?

How do you store books on a shelf? Spines out to make a list, or face out to pick one by the cover art?

44:

I sometimes wonder about the effects of writing a full novel in one of these a-priori philosophical languages... Though some (like Ithkuil and Toki Pona) would be close to impossible to use at all, others (like Lojban and Fith) would force a major change in what can easily be said.

Natural languages, despite their variety, are limited in how strange they can be because every-day life contains certain language games across cultures that each language must optimize for (some of which may be rare to nearly nonexistent in literature, or may be avoided in the same way writers often avoid describing characters' bathroom breaks in detail).

45:

Sooo... you're going to peer at a picture to try to identify a book? Why not just use a plain old list?

That's actually a much deeper question than it sounds. Short version: different people have different models for cognitive processing. Consider why some countries have road signs that are almost 100% textual (the USA, for example) while others have more-recently-introduced design languages that are iconic or graphical ...

46:

Ah, it wasn't clear that the concept of "magic" / "the pixies do it" or whatever didn't exist.

Most instances of "Magic Marker" could be substituted "permanent marker", "spirit marker" or even just "marker" unless you have a reason for specifying the brand name.

47:

To follow in D. Kittrell's foodsteps: I am an idiot. This comment was intended for a different post.

48:

It's worth noting that as a Briton I would never, ever say Magic Marker. We don't identify any brand with that particular generic item. I'm not even sure you can buy that brand here, if so it's only recently become available. So, it's not weird that a British author wouldn't use that name.

49:

I'm as British as you are, and I've at least known of the brand for a couple of decades. Still, your mileage clearly varies and it's not worth arguing about beyond this.

50:

Fair enough. I note you're not arguing that we don't use it as a generic term, though. I've only ever seen them on the internet or American telly.

51:

"However, linguists really do not like using semantic classes— or metaphysics— to define syntactic categories. (It’s not the right level of analysis; and it tends to obscure how languages really work by making them all look like Latin.)"

I didn't quite understand this but I would like to.

I have seen "making them all look like Latin" applied to Japanese grammar (even for Japanese). Makes it a quite difficult subject to master, since it has almost nothing whatsoever to do with the actual Japanese language. And for all that effort, useless for a foreigner because it misses completely the distinctions that actually are important.

52:

Articles, especially when to use indefinite article, definite article, or none at all, is quite difficult for Japanese, but personal pronouns they have. "He" and "she" are used often enough, although "I" and "you" are used much less and people use role labels (section manager, person-with-more-seniority, younger sister) instead of you much of the time.
There is a marker for plurals (kaku), but it is optional and used mostly in writing. (Dictionaries translate it as each or all, but often it is actually just a way to make sure the reader knows that an object is plural.)
Another oddity about Japanese is that there are phrases for which it is of no use to know the meaning, but one must know the social situation in which it would be used. Ohayo gozaimasu, for example, is often taught as meaning "good morning", but that does not cover much about how it is actually used. (It actually means "It is early" using an archaic form (modern Japanese: hayai desu) and is always the first thing one says when seeing someone for the first time that day who one sees regularly. There is no equivalent universally and consistently used greeting in English.)

53:

I'm an American, and I haven't heard anyone say "Magic Marker" in lo these many years. More recently, people say "Sharpie," which is a different brand, but used as a generic name in the same circumstances.

But I haven't heard people say "Sharpie" in a few years either. They were most popular for labeling CDs and DVDs, which have fallen out of favor themselves.

54:

But we - at least, my type of Briton - do use it. As does the author in question, Paul Cornell, a man who is sufficiently British to have written episodes of Dr Who.

(And when I just told my wife there's someone on this forum who refers to these items as something other than Magic Markers, she made a sound denoting disbelief. On the other hand, she comes from oop north and refers to sinks as basins.)

It may be an odd regional thing. Like pasties and growlers. Or all the different names for bread rolls.

55:

"Sharpie" is still used in the USA; they're used in manufacturing to mark products for testing for instance. I used to use them to mark ICs when testing them at temperature; most markers don't work well if the marked surface is held at -55°C or +125°C (the standard mil grade temperature range) for long periods of time.

56:

Odd. I'm from Scotland, I've lived in Durham, I've lived in Brighton, and I now live in Cardiff, and I quite literally cannot recall anyone British ever using the term "magic marker" as a generic name. I've had office jobs in Scotland, England and Wales and people always ask for a "marker pen". Perhaps it's a class thing? Or specific to particular professions, or arty people, or "media people" or something?

I don't mean to harp on; I just find this kind of thing interesting.

57:

I've lived and worked, or at least holidayed or visited for work sort of "all over" too, and I'll agree that it's rare, but I have heard people actually talk about a "magic marker" in contexts that make it obvious it's used as a generic rather than a request for a specific brand. It's nothing to do with "arty people" I hope, because most people I know would be actively insulted by being called "arty". If they do $art_form then they'd accept being referred to by the specific agent noun, like calling Kate, Kari and Charlie "writers" for example.

58:

That's OK. We don't all speak the one language, even all of those who say we speak British English, and it is interesting when you spot one of those cases where different people — who otherwise seem to be using the same terms — have differences in their use of language.

I, for instance, use the words 'basin' and 'sink' for two similar but distinguishable items. The basin is used for washing hands and other body parts. And the sink is used for washing up. The basin is smaller, the sink larger. The basin will usually have sloping sides, the sink vertical ones. The basin is usually more rounded, the sink more rectangular.

In short, for me they're two different species, even if some examples fail to fall exactly into either camp.

On the other hand, for my wife, the words are more interchangeable. For a while I wondered whether it was a north/south thing, but our plumber, Essex born and still living in that county, also does it.

59:

"UK English" - That superset of regional dialects, pronunciations and usages normally met in the UK.

I would agree with you about the differences between a "sink" and a "basin" when referring to plumbing items. I would, however, also use the term (washing-up) "basin" to refer to a shallow, handle-less bucket (often but not always cuboidal) which may be placed in a sink.
I woould also use the term "sink" to refer to an open holding tank for liquids (normally more in civil engineering or geology than plumbing), or sometimes for holding surplus energy until it disperses (often qualified with the form of energy).

60:

Oh, by "arty" I didn't mean anything perjorative - I did meant "people who make art", given we're talking about an art supply item. Should have said visual artists I suppose.

By the way, as for those plumbing fixtures Bellinghman's on about, we have a "bathroom sink" and a "kitchen sink". In our house, the basin is the plastic tub that sits inside the sink to hold the washing up.

61:

...and here we go again! ;-) I'd say "artists" are people who make art (slight leaning to use the term more of picture painters and of sculptors than, say, of writers or film makers) regardless of which form they use. "Arty people" are the ones who write criticism or just hang out at awards shows, exhibition openings, film premieres and the like but never actually produce any works.

As for para 2, I think we're just demonstrated the differences again?

62:

As for para 2, I think we're just demonstrated the differences again?

Indeed, which is why I brought it up as an example.

63:

But you've probably heard "dry erase marker" at least once recently.

64:

Elf - It's not a term I hear used in the wild, so to speak. It's one of those phrases that marketers and advertisers use, but real people don't, like "whipped dessert topping" and "crispy."

You ever notice that, by the way? Potato chips and such are always "crispy" in text on the package or in ads. Never "crisp." At least in America that's true.

65:

In Britain what you call "potato chips" are called crisps anyway. So calling them crispy crisps would be a bit redundant.

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