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I've been reading my reviews again. This is always bad for the authorial blood pressure. However, we have a technical term for an author who argues with reviewers: "idiot". So I'm not going to do that.

However, below the cut, I'm going to put some bullet points for those of you who've read "Rule 34", just to draw your attention to some aspects of the novel that you might otherwise have skidded past.

1. Yes, all the main protagonists in the book are LGBT, or are somewhere on the Kinsey scale other than a 1, with the exception of the Toymaker. Yes, I was trying to make a point. There are a lot of cliches in fictional depictions of LGBT folk (or, to be fully inclusive, QUILTBAG people). Cliche #1 is the novel with the single token gay protagonist whose sexuality, if it is visible at all (rather than merely being flagged by the author) is purely stereotypical and there to flag how open-minded and inclusive the author is. Cliche #2 is for the STGP to fill in for the magical negro, and come to a similar sticky end. Cliche #3 is the bisexual female who, after a night of passionate hetero sex, comes to see that she doesn't feel attracted to women any more ... well, fuck that shit. You will spot some of these cliches in "Rule 34" as photographic negatives. "Rule 34" is written from a perspective of queer normativity rather than closeted invisibility. If you find that uncomfortable, then I suggest you examine yourself in the mirror for signs of homophobia. That is all.

2. On style: "Rule 34" is set in and around Edinburgh, a city I have lived in for nearly two decades. I've taken some liberties with the vernacular, both as spoken by Leithers and by incomers from elsewhere. Regrettably, the local editor I'd planned to work with on the final draft wasn't available due to a family emergency: I'm told I didn't do too badly, for a southerner. What I did do was drag in a bunch of argot from elsewhere: from the worlds of policing and the internet, both of which are to some extent trans-national in scope. Finally, "Rule 34" was edited for its largest market—American readers. I should say no more on this subject lest I incriminate myself, but: there's a reason for the internet puppy thing.

3. Similarly, while "Rule 34" is outwardly shaped to resemble a work of detective fiction, it isn't one. The cop doesn't even solve the crime (although by the end of the novel she knows more or less what's going on, and rescues a MOP from near-certain death). Nor is the "criminal" arrested and apprehended at the end, although the Toymaker won't be selling any more toys for a while, and Anwar is going to have some explaining to do. It is a kind of science-fictional look at the police procedural, but what's really going on here is a look at the future of criminology in the context of a world where non-anthropomorphic AI (in other words, stuff that is functionally intelligent but doesn't resemble a "brain in a box", a la HAL 9000) is out there, and theories of consciousness have terminally undermined our traditional concepts of free will and mens rea.

This is the future. Even today, policing doesn't work the way fiction would have you believe because our social narrative of policing is dangerously out of date. It's informed by journalists and reporters who themselves reflect the prevailing cultural view of policing that they grew up with. Notepads and two-way radio and detectives talking to suspects and witnesses, shaking trees to see what falls out. That isn't even the way it works now; where it's going in another 15 years is anyone's guess, but going by the gripes on the various [anonymous] police blogs I've been reading, their IT support is roughly 5-10 years behind that of a private sector operation, albeit catching up rapidly. The vast project of re-writing the entire criminal law system in the UK is still under way, and criminal investigation (as opposed to public order policing) even today is a data-driven intelligence process. Automation is being applied wherever possible, with interesting consequences: face recognition software used on CCTV footage to identify rioters, for example.

But even the police are looking backwards. It's easy enough to deal with drunk public order offenses and speeding tickets. But what does it mean when the biggest and most successful criminals run multinational corporations or get themselves elected president and change the law to give themselves retroactive immunity? What does it mean when research in cognitive psychology strongly implies that we don't actually have "free will" in any meaningful context?

4. Speaking of politics, it seems to me that the biggest political question of the 21st century will be how we devise frameworks for living in a world where personhood covers more than biologically-defined humanity. We already have corporate personhood, and look how well that's turned out; we've given legal personhood to corporations and then passed laws that require them to behave like sociopaths, because lawmakers have been unclear on how to differentiate between the interests of a group and the individuals of whom the group is comprised—or between the corporation and the shareholders. Moreover the cult of corporatism and managerialism has persuaded many people that all large enterprises work along more or less the same lines—and that the best practices for managing a corporation can also be applied to a nation-state (which is an utterly different type of collective: for one thing, nation-states are theoretically immortal and issue currency and manufacture debt to soak it up).

The question of how to accommodate human beings and hive organisms like corporations and governments within a single equitable moral and legal framework is already a pressing one. If we ever develop AI or intelligence enhancement technologies or intelligence-augmented animals, we're going to meet the same mess, only even worse. We need to work out how to compel moral behaviour by non-human actors, otherwise we're going to end up with monsters like ATHENA and The Operation.

5. Speaking of ATHENA: ATHENA is not a single process (warning: "process" is a technical term of art!)— there are multiple instances of it running, some of them threads of the same process, others independent. Different factions are using ATHENA for different purposes, hence the seemingly conflicting priorities.

ATHENA exhibits thalience after a fashion, and is constrained to nudge the outside world until it converges with ATHENA's internal model of how the world should be, but ATHENA has no identity: as the Gnome points out, the last thing we want is AI that has its own priorities. Hence the second person viewpoint throughout the novel: ATHENA has no "I" and is constrained hence orients its identity with respect to an external "you".

6. On fiction:

Fiction is the study of the human condition through the medium of interesting lies—scenarios that explore some aspect of what it means to be a person. It's a form of play in the ethological sense, one which specifically engages with our linguistic and social instincts. (Johan Huizinga's definition quoted on that wikipedia page covers fiction quite nicely.)

I write my more serious novels to explore aspects of the human condition under circumstances that do not—and may never—occur. This is in contrast to the literary mainstream, which has to some extent spent the past century vigorously mining the rich seam of mundane everyday life. But versimillitude is becoming questionable, if not porous and friable. We're living in the 21st century: it's not possible to write a novel that seriously explores modern life without a background that includes rapid, cheap international travel: the commercial space industry: smartphones and the internet and spam: social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter: the rapidly shifting reference points of life expectancy, gender roles, and politics.

The mundane world we live in is rapidly accreting the baroque trappings of a science fiction novel. The internet has exploded messily across the world around us: ignoring its noxiously fermenting culture in a novel of the near-present is like ignoring the clashing influences of punk and Margaret Thatcher's vanguard Tories in a novel set in the London of the late 1970s.

As far as the tech extrapolation in "Rule 34" goes, with the exception of ATHENA it's so ploddingly mundane that I can't see why people see it as science fictional. To take but one example: the 3-D printed meth labs were a work of fiction in 2009-10 while I was writing, but today academic researchers are already printing their earliest ancestors. I can claim no credit for this as a work of prediction: it's a perfectly obvious spin-off of a technology (3D printers) that is today roughly where personal computers were in 1975. One can claim no great credit for raising a head of steam when it is steam engine time. Does this make it "hard SF"? Maybe. It certainly makes it mundane SF. But I'd contend that "Rule 34" is also mainstream literary fiction (at least insofar as I can aspire to give voice to such, and to the extent that there is any merit whatsoever in genre categories).

So, finally:

"Rule 34" was my attempt to write a novel of the near-present—the present day with certain existing trends magnified for visibility—which asks what it takes to live as a human being in a world where human beings are not the only kind of people, where our notion of free will turns out to have hollow foundations, and where the entire concept of the natural order of society is up for grabs.



'with the exception of ATHENA'

In a sense, you've done that traditionally SFnal thing of inventing one change and then looking at the consequences.


For every reviewer that sees thread in a work that leads up a particular garden path there is a creator saying "Seriously? You saw that? WTF?"


quote - "What does it mean when research in cognitive psychology strongly implies that we don't actually have "free will" in any meaningful context?"

Whoa there - you got any links on that subject, there, pilgrim?


Okay, I'll admit that I missed that ATHENA was multi-process. I'm a bit bemused at missing it -- it's obvious on the face, but I just slotted ATHENA into the Papaltine/Sauron role of background plot driver with an agenda.

But it's obvious that something like ATHENA has to be multi-process and distributed. The Internet is a massive collection of computing resources, but it is a massive collection of unreliable computing resources. You can count on a few billion ticks/sec being online, but you can't count on exactly where those ticks will be running.

Indeed, with the virtualization revelation, and the ability to seamlessly move processes (indeed, entire OS/Application instances) between physical boxes, it's almost a ready made background for something like this.

Which, of course leads me to a realization. ATHENA's processes don't run on conventional operating systems, they run directly on the hypervisors and use the hypervisor infrastructure to deal with moving active processes between platforms and restarting processes that get caught on suddenly failing hardware. It also allows you to migrate two processes to one physical box for some seriously high bandwidth if the threads need to exchange a great deal of state.

Indeed, you could almost describe ATHENA as a metavisor.


I've read much of your other output and I want to read Rule 34. But I read the teaser chapter that's openly available, and try as I might, I (as a non-native speaker of the language) can not penetrate the dialect-filled dialog. It's just too-slow going for me to be able to read the text and enjoy it at the same time.

Humbling in a way, and a good reminder of just how disabling a lack of full, effortless literacy can be even when you are considered literate in the "managed a high-school diploma" kind of sense.


"We're living in the 21st century: it's not possible to write a novel that seriously explores modern life without a background that includes rapid, cheap international travel: the commercial space industry: smartphones and the internet and spam: social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter: the rapidly shifting reference points of life expectancy, gender roles, and politics. "

Last year I read Emma Donoghue's lesbian romance novel, "Landing", and was struck by the fact that it's the first time I've read a "literary"/"mainstream" novel that came even close to accurately representing a long-distance relationship in the time of the internet. I don't normally read lesbian romances, but the literary fiction I do read all seems to be set, technologically, in 1985 or 1997, where there may be cell phones, but certainly isn't a global network of always-connected people.

(For a science fiction related example of this problem, Connie Willis's "Blackout / All Clear" novels are wonderful, but it was jarring to see people in the "future" running around trying to contact people. Why couldn't they just phone/email/sms them?)


Whilst I fall under the catagory of "hereonormative white male" I never find it strange to read of characters of diverse sexuality. This is probably due to a period of living in Brighton and a very varied friend group. Conversely if a story is populated purely by heterosexual people my suspension of disbelief starts to falter.

So I've never really acknowledged that Rule 34 has a cast of characters with diverse sexuality though now I think about it I guess that for many people this would be a hugely obvious point.


I wonder if lack of technology detail (beyond the odd mobile/cell phone call) in contemporary fiction is a symptom of wide spread future shock? Is the general book-buying public subconciously seeking out stories that set comfortable limits around how much technology is present in the characters day-to-day life? (Could this also explain the apparent explosion in historical novels?)


Feedback on the blog piece:- 1) I read this slightly differently, as a society where LGBT are mostly socially accepted. I won't spoil, but I know enough about World religion that I used "mostly" advisedly. 2) Ok, I'm from the West of Scotland, but your Edinburgh is every bit as recognisable as Quentin Jardine's and Ian Rankin's (Skinner and Rebus respectively) versions. This is an unalloyed compliment. 4) That one's been running for literally decades now hasn't it? 5) I missed that a bit. I'd thought ATHENA was multi-threaded and distributed processing, but with a single "goal". And I'm an Ada programmer.


Wow. I don't know if I'm just amazingly non-judgemental and accepting, or just totally unobservant, but I never really picked up on the LGBT thing. Obviously I noticed people's sexuality when it was pointed out, but it never occurred to me as odd, or that there were so many LBGT PCs/NPCs. I suspect I'm a bit of both... guess I'll have to read again...

Well done anyhow Charlie - a great book made even better!


Start here and get link-following. ",)

Also, Erik @4: OGH already covered virtualization, non-dependable resources, and massively parallel computation - all those games in Halting State running on their players' mobile phones...



seeing as you brought up Rule 34... Reading it I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre's work and definitely beyond the top layer of having a common geographic location.

just to satisfy my own curiosity have the two of you worked together on projects previously?


No, but I'm a fan of his work. And he liked "Rule 34"!


"(W)e've given legal personhood to corporations and then passed laws that require them to behave like sociopaths, because lawmakers have been unclear on how to differentiate between the interests of a group and the individuals of whom the group is comprised—or between the corporation and the shareholders."

I cannot speak for the UK, but in the US that's much more of an internal cultural thing than a legal thing.

I refer the interested reader to "Why We Should Stop Teaching Dodge v. Ford" (note: .PDF file). Basically, contrary to public belief, there is no legal obligation that a corporation must maximize profit. According to this law review article, Dodge v. Ford, the one-and-only judicial decision that says so, " a mistake, a judicial “sport,” a doctrinal oddity largely irrelevant to corporate law and corporate practice. What is more, courts and legislatures alike treat it as irrelevant."

A principal reason given as to why the legend of Dodge v. Ford continues to grow is no less emphatic:

"In particular, Dodge v. Ford serves professors’ pressing need for a simple answer to the question of what corporations do. Law professors’ desire for a simple answer to this question can be analogized to that of a parent confronted by a young son or daughter who innocently asks, “Where do babies come from?”"


Charlie, you might want to check out the audio here:

Half of Session 2 is me on history of police computing, the other more relevant half is a senior copper (DCC Tayside) explaining why and how they need to get on Facebook, Twitter, etc, and the use of software filters to make sense of it all. Discussion is mainly him, but I say something half-clever towards the start.


I'm with Antony on this-- I never noticed that all the main characters were LGBT! Colour me Mr. Unobservant.

I'm also with Ryan @7, in that if I'm reading a book with a wide cast of characters who are all straight I think: "Where are the LGBTs?"

I'm not sure whether a token LGBT character is better than none. I'll have to give that a bit of thought.


Can you put in some links to reviews that sparked this post? Were the reviewers experienced SF reviewers, of literary mainstream reviewers?


The bigger question is what is consciousness?

One of the more accessible things published lately is "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman.,_Fast_and_Slow

He's not addressing free will directly, but saying that when we think, particularly in the field of economics, we are being rational, we're often not. He's also sort of talking about subprocesses in the "mind." Philosophers have been talking about this for awhile - there's Douglas Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach.",_Escher,_Bach There's also works on therapy - particularly hypnotism, and "Neuro-Linguistic-Programming" that has some interesting methods to work with a person's "parts". (Wikipedia is calling this pseudoscience and Charlie pokes fun at it as Politically Correct policing.)

Then the "conscious" part seems to be some assemblage of these subroutines, (or a routine that sits "on top" of the subroutines) that "thinks" it's calling the shots. It thinks it has free will. So athena is a bunch of routines, and doesn't seem to be "conscious." Can it become?


I think the fact that people keep missing the LGBT sexuality of the characters is a credit to both Charlie's writing, and a lesser degree his average readership -- it's pretty clear in the book that the character's sexual orientation is completely incidental to the plot (even Anwar's prediliction for cheating on his wife by dabbling in same-sex encounters could be replaced with a prediliction for same-sex affairs, without changing anything significantly). More importantly/tellingly it's their attitude to relationships that impacts character behaviour, not whether they have relationships with men, women or both.


With respect to point #3, criminals getting elected, we're rapidly collecting datapoints on that, with Italy being the index case.


Start with Benjamin Libet's experiment.


Point (4) in Charlie's opening discussion [ & I've spoken with him on this subject ] Legal changes - yerssss - there's a very worrying trend in UK legislation at the moment, which the cops are finding very convenient. It's called "Srict Liability" & it is VERY dangerous. The idiot piece I linked to yesterday about an art gallery in London being visited by the Plod also carried dangerous overtones of Strict Liability ... IF someone decided that a representation of Leda & the Swan really encouraged bestiality - You are GUILTY: JAIL: No option. Stupid, yes, but how convenient for a control-freak guvmint, or a nascent Police STate.


For some reason that makes a lot of sense. You being a fan of his work, I mean.

24: 12 and 13 - So we're clear on my reasoning, I've not read much Chris Brookmyre, and what I have read wasn't set in Edinburgh.

More generally on the LGBT thing, I've had this general conversation at SF cons, and the usual conclusion tends to be that SF fans are liberal and/or libertarian (note lower case "l" is used deiberately and advisedly) and don't really care about your sexuality.


"OGH already covered virtualization, non-dependable resources, and massively parallel computation - all those games in Halting State running on their players' mobile phones..."

Something which actually struck something of a jarring note with me at the time as I was working for a major handset manufacturer trying to ensure that mobile phones were doing as little as possible with large chunks of the system either running at greatly reduced clock rates or switched off altogether in the interests of battery life :-)


And speaking of contemporary police procedurals--- and if you wish, of missing Laundry --- what's your take on Gareth Williams?


Ha, silly bear.

Of course we have free will. You just have your definitions of "we" and "free will" confused.

We are not deterministic in our nature. That's good enough for me. Everything else is just navel gazing.




I've recently bought a new phone to replace one that was pre "Halting State" and I'd say you've had a fair degree of success since this one can manage up to 2 weeks on a single charge. :-D


See also: Wegner, D., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 480-492 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.54.7.480

Desmurget, M., Reilly, K., Richard, N., Szathmari, A., Mottolese, C., & Sirigu, A. (2009). Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans Science, 324 (5928), 811-813 DOI: 10.1126/science.1169896

When and where decisions get made are proving to be quite different to how "we" experience them to be.


As far as the tech extrapolation in "Rule 34" goes, with the exception of ATHENA it's so ploddingly mundane that I can't see why people see it as science fictional.
Don't sell yourself short Charlie, there was so much happening in the background that I got the impression you held back to prevent the story from going off the rails due to the bizarrness introduced by the confluence of so many tech trends (using a 3d printer to create a bio-vessel using GMOs to create new drugs and restricted materials; The knock-on effect on drug policy alone would have probably filled the book).

Also, I found ATHENA so terrifying because it was so plausible. That said, I was a bit mystified why ATHENA chose to kill its victims in such a poetic manner. Was this to draw attention to them? But that would suggest an anthropomorphism (human like behaviour) because there would have been much more efficient ways of killing them and linking them (a la the computer-dating /psych eval)


The problem is that free will is an invention of medieval Christian theology, and thought about free will has remained more entangled with theological concepts like dualism than scientific ones. I have never found the phrase "free will" very precise or useful; on the other hand, determinists also seem to be creating a strawman ("everything we do is an inevitable product of our nature and environment").


reply to Janne @5
I hope I am not being too spoilery here, but the extreme accent in the first chapter is used only for that chapter by a single character as a point of view to set the scene and to introduce another character (in a rather clever way I might add). The rest of the book is not like that.


Here's a pretty good overview of the free will debate. The term "free will" is about as accurate, up to date, and meaningful as phlogiston, and yet it's the one we continue to use.


I think chapters 2 and 3 are also in the blog archive here, round about last July.


Free Will! He's innocent!

(Sorry, feeling a little silly there)


Bobh, thanks for that. Shall check up on the Hofstadter book - that one fell through the cracks. Talk about different levels and facets of consciousness reminds of Berne's transactional analysis, his notion of the mind having 3 broad areas of behavioural response, parent/adult/child. Must say that helped me in my 20s to overcome some childhood traps, as well as the usual family-social scripts and manipulations.


The LGBT content in Rule 34 was absolutely wonderful. By which I mean, matter-of-fact and completely non-intrusive. Like hetero characters are usually handled.

As a supporter of equality I was thrilled by it; I accept the sore-thumb LGBT characters in a lot of contemporary SF because I think everyone deserves to have heroes (and sometimes villains) that look like them. But WOW is it ham-handed a lot of the time, and more standout when it's in stuff that's otherwise well-written.

Growing pains are inevitable, and beat the alternative. But I'm glad you're doing your part to push us past the cliches, offensive and/or well-meaning.


My recollection is that mandated corporate behavior depends on the area of incorporation. For example, New Jersey has lovely tax laws - so most corporations incorporate there, but does require corporations to act like sociopaths. Other states allow inclusion of greater good into corporate charters, but apparently are otherwise less legally favorable.

Still, I suspect most corporate shenanigans are primarily evolutionary in nature. We evolved in tribal groups. Strangely, most people behave well in tribal groups...and small companies.

Every group > 30 people I've seen seems to be highly dysfunctional. I suspect that this is because humans just don't work well naturally in these extended social groupings. Oh well. Fact of life, I guess.



Interesting spoilers.

I conclude from all this that a few reviewers / critics have been speedreading your novel, and then dashing out a piece right before their deadline. The results are often the same as making a blogpost while drunk, except for better grammar and vocabulary.


I'm with Antony on this-- I never noticed that all the main characters were LGBT! Colour me Mr. Unobservant.

Non-traditional sexual orientation is of much less interest now than it was just a few years ago. Give it another couple of decades, and will anyone even care, other than "likes big [whatevers]" or "likes redheads?"

I noticed the characters' orientations, but I was operating under the idea that Charlie brought it up just to show how it wasn't important in the social context of the story.

  • TRX [frequently misses the point...]

"Every group > 30 people I've seen seems to be highly dysfunctional. I suspect that this is because humans just don't work well naturally in these extended social groupings."

Or perhaps that is because the probability of including a sociopath (2-5% of the US population) becomes high enough in these groups to notice the result?


"Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet." Christopher Priest

oooooooooh, get her! 8-)

I hope this isn't offensive to QUILTBAGs - I like to think I am one....


"The problem is that free will is an invention of medieval Christian theology".

So you are implying that ancient cultures and contemporary non-Christian influenced cultures have no concept of free will? Hmm, try reading works from ancient Greece, or Rome, to name but two, that will disprove this.

If anything, Middle Eastern, monotheistic theologies suggest that everything is "God's Will", thus implying that true free will is [relatively] absent.


Well quite... Statistically we're all all meeting LGBT (or whatever) people all the time in all sorts of environments and it just kind of drifts past us. Generally (the odd particularly flamboyant individual aside) pretty well unnoticed because when we're buying a bus ticket, performing a code review, or performing a surgically precise character assassination on a manager over lunch gender, sexuality, and preferred modes of sexual gratification just don't come into the conversation.

I have actually had a colleague leave work as Robert and return a couple of weeks later as Roberta (not literally, but you get the picture...) and it was all a bit of a nine-days wonder really with only the odd slightly jarring moment over photographs in a Wiki and the like to say that things had ever been any other way. The characters in Rule 34strike me the same way with their sexuality and gender being almost incidental details to flesh them out a bit rather than defining characteristics, which (in my possibly rather sheltered and genteel corner of the world at least) is by and large how things work in real life...


If free will doesn't exist, we may have to invent it, in order to maintain the current philosophical underpinnings of the structure and processes of our society.

I tend to think that it is almost certain that free will is an illusion, that accepting this would radically transform our ideas of how social systems should be structured and run, but that there will be immense resistance to change and hence the idea of "unfree" will.


Others have given some good starting points and recent refs on free will research (Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley's work I still find hard to get my head around, despite being a neuroscientist myself). Dan Dennett is also a good, accesible starting point on both this and consciousness, in general.

Net result: probably largely in the parietal lobes, there are processes reporting to, and likely also generating, a self-aware, conscious state. The (as far as we can tell, essentially universal) perception is that that same conscious state is also driving top-down decisions (a.k.a. 'free will') but this is becoming increasingly proven to be false, with those decisions predictable on the basis of activity elsewhere in the brain significantly prior to conscious perception of having made a decision.

[Some really interesting but limited data from folks with parietal lesions, where the time at which a decision is reported as having been made is the same time at which the action decided upon occurs.]

See also an intersection with law: several cases now where the accused has shown that a biological phenomenon (e.g. brain tumour) was responsible for creation of the self that committed an offense, but that that self no longer exists after correction of the underlying biology.

All fascinating stuff, and the basic answer to 'do we have free will?' is best guessed right now as 'no, not in any sense that it's traditionally thought of' - i.e. both free will and consciousness are emergent properties of neural activity at lower levels. Once you get into the realm of the philosophical zombie you're in the right place..


"But what does it mean when the biggest and most successful criminals run multinational corporations or get themselves elected president and change the law to give themselves retroactive immunity?"

What is rather scary is that, at least in the US, no laws would need to be changed, since the President has the power to pardon, commute, or grant amnesty to anyone, including his or her self (unless currently under impeachment proceedings), for any federal crime.


I noticed the sexual orientations and didn't care. I mean, sure, it made me uneasy, but Charlie's claim notwithstanding this does not mean I'm a latent homophobe: heterosexual activity also makes me uneasy. Except in rare cases (when it is necessary for plot advancement or characterization) it is best left soft-focus IMNSHO. Of course, others may validly disagree...


Alex Tolley said (amongst other things):

If free will doesn't exist, we may have to invent it, in order to maintain the current philosophical underpinnings of the structure and processes of our society.

Perhaps, but what if all behaviour is deterministic but in-principle unpredictable in detail, which is to say if you can't predict behaviour with 100% certainty then it amounts to free will.


No, it amounts to unpredictable behavior. Free will means the "I" behind your eyes determines your behavior. There is a difference.

Having said that, most of the experiments I have read about are on simple decisions. I see no reason to exclude the "conscious self" from influencing behavior by adding its own input, even if it does not have full control. Thus "premeditated murder" is unlikely to be considered a non-crime because "my unconscious agents had control, not me". There is plenty of opportunity for the conscious self to have had an input.


Hi Charlie,

Thanks for the reflections on Rule 34.

Are there any anonymous police blogs that you would particularly recommend?



I'm with Antony on this-- I never noticed that all the main characters were LGBT! Colour me Mr. Unobservant.

Me too. Don't know whether to be pleased or ashamed by that ;-)

Also - I twigged who/what the stories narrator was a little bit before the reveal at the end, which made finishing the book harder for me as I was quite literally muttering "you clever f**ker" out loud for the last few pages. I don't think I've ever read a book where the choice of narrative voice is a plot point. Bravo sir. Bravo.


Doubt it. I've dealt with way too many issues from non-sociopaths. At 15 people, it is easy to build feelings of solidarity and group identification that keep everyone marching along together and moderating their various neuroses to make things work. Also, at 15, sociopaths tend to end up pushed into the recycling bin. (backstabbing the person you work with every day is not a survival skill*) At 100, you tend to end up with smaller group identification (sales, engineering,...) and much less of a feeling of community. At that point, you end up with annoying infighting, backstabbing, and blame-shifting.

Now, there is also the problem that, for larger companies, there are a lot of fairly painful decisions that do need to be made. So - compassion can be a negative survival trait. And, this does mean that leadership positions do tend to select for low empathy...

However, overall, I do believe that perfectly normal, reasonably healthy people become incredibly annoying when working together in large groups.

--Erwin *Had our entire engineering department demand a change in the reporting structure directly from the company owner because they were unwilling to report to the idiot in charge. The idiot was moved to sales.


This is a more general comment:

I don't really like Rule 34 specifically because so much time needs to be spent identifying with Anwar, and I find him a disgusting character to identify with, not because of his sexual orientation, but because he is so immoral (i.e., untrustworthy, but the emotional tag is immoral).

OTOH, I consider ATHENA to be a quite clear extrapolation of where AI is going, and fail to see why you don't think, if you do, that this would lead to a technological singularity. (You've said that you don't believe in "the Singularity", but perhaps you mean something very different that what I mean.)

Halting State was a work a genius, but Rule 34 is probably it's technical equal. I just can't like it as much (see above).

FWIW, I am probably atypical of your readers, as I don't like the Laundry series. For similar reasons. I'm not fond of horror, probably because I'm too overstimulated by it. "The Color out of Space" was something that kept me from sleeping for nearly a week while I was around 12. (Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, I think.)


A SF oriented audience might also enjoy "The Mind's I" a collection of essays, fiction and notes put together by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

It includes a bunch of Stanislav Lem shorts amongst other things.

It was published in the eighties so it misses some of the fun things that have popped up in the last twenty years, but it's still an approachable and enjoyable read to a bunch of cognitive philosophical thoughts.


This is going to sound snarky, but it's a genuine question: Do you only read fiction with characters that you find likeable and moral? Is this not somewhat dull?


Well, that's the interesting question: when we talk about "free will" what does that mean? I can decide amongst alternatives, but sometimes there are no possible alternatives. Or there may be alternatives that I can't for one reason or another imagine.

But that said, the point I was trying to make was that while I may be predisposed to make certain decisions in a deterministic sense if it is impossible in principle to predict these decisions then while I may not posses free will my determined actions are in principle indistinguishable from free decisions.


(1) I didn't notice the LGBT level either. Don't know whether that makes me unobservant, slow thinking or tolerant.

(2) I lived in Edinburgh for 7 or 8 years so no problem with the language

(3) While obviously there was more too it, it still worked perfectly well as detective fiction, as well as SF

(4) and (5) Not qualified to comment

(6) I've noticed this. Most recently, I've just read an ARC of... I won't say, but it's book about a near future global disaster set, I think, 10 or so years in the future. The onset of the disaster is revealed near the start of the book, in a TV broadcast. No social media rumours beforehand, no tweeting of the story, no web discussions afterwards - just a TV announcement. the book might as well be set in 1980 or 1950.

I was surprised because the whole plot turns on this disaster and I had approached the book as if it was SF of some sort and I don't think that any decent SF author would make that particular mistake.

I think though that it's not meant as SF, more as literary fiction. While Charlie says above that it's not possible these days to write a book that ignores the realities of modern technology and society, all the same, they get written - it seems to me that it's part of the convention of that genre to ignore technology, even if doing so isn't actually necessary for the plotting.


Also: I kind of like Anwar. He's not the sharpest tool in the box, and he's weak, but he's trying to do better. He's in an arranged marriage he didn't want, but is still dutifully trying to provide for his wife and kids and not embarrass them. (Coming from a conservative culture, the social cost of coming out is very high: too high for him.) He's easily led and makes a great patsy, which is why he ended up doing time. He wants to go straight (in the legal sense); he just doesn't really know how to do it, and makes horrible mistakes.


Max Brooks' "World War Z" is an example in the other direction: the conspiracy theories flying around the Internets at the time were discussed in the early chapters, IIRC.

@Conan at 57: chaos theory means we can not have free will and still be completely unpredictable to an outside observer, you know...


People have already showered you with links, but I thought I'd throw Metzinger and Wegner onto the pile.


I like Anwar too, even if his behavior is annoying, precisely because he's trying to do better and his reasons for not leaving his wife are understandable in his circumstances. Sadly, as Liz (I think) pointed out, he's smart enough to do some really clever things like ferret out how to turn on the yeast's hidden functions, but not quite smart enough to think things through and realize why doing so is a horrible idea.

As for the LGBT characters, I definitely noticed because their presence and treatment was a breath of fresh air. It gets tiresome when essentially every single piece of (non-fan) fiction out there is focused on straight people. Its not that I don't appreciate non-cliche queer characters being included by authors (ie Pinky & Brains) but its nice to have them in the spotlight for a change.


I spent the whole time feeling slightly sorry for him, while also wanting to give him a good slap and shout loudly at him. In other words: A wonderfully complex, layered, interesting and real character.


Just wanted to ask, out of curiousity -- which reviews of Rule 34 have annoyed you? I saw mostly positive ones, except for a few amateur Amazon ones.


Look first at Daniel Dennett's "Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting."

He starts with a pretty solid teardown of the "state of the art" in the philosophy of free will and concludes: most of it is bullshit. Free will is typically defined as "For any given event, given the exact same circumstances, you might have chosen differently," and shows how this very common and psychologically satisfying notion makes no sense: you will never have the exact same circumstances, it's absurd to say you could have chosen differently because (a) you didn't and (b) you will never get the chance to prove otherwise. "Free Will" is a null hypothesis.

And then he builds on notions of Free Will, drawing on both neuroscience, to show that in a purely natural world, compatibilism is all you have left.



I think the fact that people keep missing the LGBT sexuality of the characters is a credit to both Charlie's writing, and a lesser degree his average readership

The sad part is that you speak of this as being to someone's credit. To see why, replace the "nonstandard" sexuality with some other trait. Would it really be to anyone's "credit" if they didn't notice or care that all the important characters were black\Jewish\women? Put that way, it's still a pretty pathetic situation, ain't it?

Btw, please don't think I'm trying to dump on your opinion; I certainly agree that a character's purported sexuality shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I just think it reflects poorly on our polity when an opinion like this is anything other than unremarkable.


I just think it reflects poorly on our polity when an opinion like this is anything other than unremarkable.


(And if R34's insidious QUILTBAG-positive viewpoint infects anyone who was previously unthinkingly reactionary, I'll consider it a job well worth having done.)


I noticed the lgbt thing. It did feel a little hamfisted in that they all were lgbt. It was less "I dislike this due to my own bias" and more "wait this guy too?" I probably wouldn't have noticed at all if just one of the mains wasn't lgbt. Now the actual writing of the Was excellent. Would rather a book full of your lgbt characters than to read another novel about amazing homosexual space men who seduce the evil straights with the power of love or another feminist lesbian space colony that is perfect because it has no men. I actually recommended glasshouse to my house mate and her trans girlfriend and they enjoyed it immensely.

Tl;dr I am really enjoying your future Scotland stuff, But I am sure that there would be at least one straightie left to write about for the next book.


Wotevah... I enjoyed Rule 34 very much. It was engaging and stimulating. It was clever. It probably has flaws - but if it does, I've forgotten what they were... And who cares, anyway? The LBGT thing, by the way, didn't even give me pause for thought. I hope it wasn't meant to. You've clearly come a long way since Singularity Sky which was the only previous book of yours I'd started to read, but never finished.


I noticed the QUILTBAG characters, but only because I write QUILTBAG characters and I am a QUILTBAG character.

I found Stross's anti-troping annoying only because it was so pervasive. The story's already about a mass concerto of chaos; having all the characters be queer too is a bit like the conductor deciding arbitrarily that all the players have to be left-handed: not conducive to the outcome of the story. It came across as Trying Too Hard, but that was my only complaint.


It's fairly standard that people project their own expectations onto the characters they read. Witness the witless who were shocked at how many black characters there were in The Hunger Games (the movie), only to have it pointed out to them that the characters were black in the book too. They'd glossed over that, ignored it, skipped it entirely. When it was pointed out to them, some of them were furious that Rue was black after they'd shed tears over her.

Everyone assumes a character in a book is "standard issue," for their own definition of standard, until told otherwise. My definition of standard issue is fairly broad, for others not so much. You have to be strong about jarring the reader out, because you don't know how deeply in the reader might be.


Free will is a juridical concept, part of the framework that justifies punishment.

It's a basic, primate instinct to use punishment as the main means of social control. We attempt to control our children by punishment (spankings, groundings, timeouts), our spouses by punishment (complaining, refusal of sex or money, beatings), employees (fines, firing), citizens (fines, jail, execution), other nations (sanctions, war).

In order to justify punishment, you must distinguish between those who freely choose to do things you don't like and those who have no free will (due to mental illness or incapacity). If they are exercising free will and are rational, then the prospect of punishment is believed to deter them. If they are incapable of making rational choices, then punishment is not a deterrent, and you have to come up with another way to control their behavior (currently drugs or confinement).

Research now tells us that we have less free will and rationality than we suppose; that punishment doesn't deter and is often useless for shaping behavior. Positive reinforcement (rewarding behavior that you like) works much, much better than negative reinforcement (punishment).

We can operate without hypothesizing a hard line between behavior that is free and that which is determined if we also abandon the use of punishment as the main instrument of social control. We need to be asking, "How can we change or suppress this asocial behavior?" But this is hard to put into effect beyond the family level, as anyone proposing shaping rather than punishment is confronting thousands of years of legal tradition as well as the primate urge to punish.


I have to agree MattPrime, I noticed the preponderance of 'non-normal sexuality' characters and it smelled of 'Internet Puppy'. Statistics says that 'normal' is, well, normal. In any group of 'n' characters you subconsciously notice the unlikelihood of them all being different in one particular direction and it jars. And frankly, in literature it's more the norm today to have a cast that looks self-consciously PC - to the extent that a woman behind the kitchen sink and looking after kids is the rare and brave exception; not the flamboyantly gay character.

It's SF, so I damn well want my quote of 'unusual' - but it should serve the story (not detract from it) and like any change from the real world in SF, you need to show the whys and the widescale consequences. The world of "Rule 34" would not look like our world if the statistics of 'not normal' were indicative of the general situation.


I imagined it running on something like the Amazon cloud. In a Linux VM with all the dependencies it needs installed and so on, no need for anything fancier in an academic project. Already in the Amazon cloud you can spin up new instances as needed very easily.

I think the multiple "processes" Charlie is talking about are more than a matter of "import multiprocessing" (this being a series that explores the glorious future that awaits us if Python 3 is widely adopted). More like multiple distinct installations with no shared databases, or maybe it's a service-oriented thing with a shared back-end database and multiple accounts.

One question I have is how ATHENA gets access to all the CCTVs, public transport schedulers, etc. I hypothesize that this is done by automated social engineering, in which case ATHENA has socially engineered access to, um, every government's computer systems. That's a wee bit terrifying.

I agree with Jonathon Green @25, the model of distributed computing in Halting State seems unlikely. Computers can run in your pocket, but they are far happier in a data center with a direct connection to the electricity grid and a big fat low latency connection to the internet backbone and scuttling minions to tend to their needs, and security to guarantee that the hardware is free from tampering. I wouldn't want to run something like Siri in my pocket, for example, the battery life would be terrible. The P2P model is better suited to criminals and dissidents.


As I said in my Amazon review, what impressed me about R34 was how its short-term extrapolation from 2010 highlights just how much the world of 2010 is truly science fictional to those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s -- and how little the science fiction we read at the time prepared us to this reality.

I assume we're all in spoiler territory here, so I can safely summarize one of the first deaths in the book as: "He was murdered by his Roomba for spamming." How many thousand words would it take to flesh out the background of that sentence in an Analog story in 1985? But you could describe the plot that way in Forbes or the Economist in 2010, and the copyeditor won't bat an eyelash.

That's why I was willing to slog through Scottish dialect: I think today, and more so 20 years from now, we live in a world of microcultures. Without NBC or BBC to homogenize our voices, we'll be hearing more words around us.


I do. Professionally. Often in the original language, although my Attic is not as good as I would like. Could you give an example of one of the passages you are thinking of, or better yet give a book on the philosophy of free will which thinks that modern ideas ares significantly influenced by ancient ones? The Greeks were certainly interested in fate and responsibility, but that doesn’t mean they had the idea of free will, any more than the fact that the Romans played dice means that had a rigorous idea of probability.

Free will is -fundamental- to Catholic theology, and important to other Christian theologies even though they often reject it. See eg. the 1909 “Catholic Encyclopaedia” s.v. “free will” I don’t think its so important to Jewish thought, and I’m not sure about Islam or the other branches of Christianity.


Sorry, but that's nonsensical. That you didn't choose otherwise does not mean you couldn't have, it just means you didn't. That you can never prove otherwise simply means it's untestable; you cannot prove either alternative. To prove that something couldn't have happened any other way, you'd have to run multiple trials under identical situations, and confirm that there was one consistent outcome. Which is impossible. So you cannot know whether there is free will or not (at least not based solely on this logic framework). And why is free will a null hypothesis? If you're trying to prove free will, then it's not the null hypothesis (the null would be no-free-will, and you'd set out to reject that null); if you're trying to reject free will, then yes, it's the null, but only because you've set up your question that way.


Do you really think an audience who read Glasshouse would have a problem with GLBT protagonists?


I assume we're all in spoiler territory here, so I can safely summarize one of the first deaths in the book as: "He was murdered by his Roomba for spamming." How many thousand words would it take to flesh out the background of that sentence in an Analog story in 1985?

I don't think it would take all that many, the basic concept of "the internet" could be sketched out in a sentence or two (basically just that all computers are connected to each other in a global communications network, which can be used to do things like send "electronic mail" from one person to another), and from there you could just say something along the lines of "he was murdered by his robot vacuum cleaner for using an illegal program to send out huge amounts of electronic junk mail over the internet". I take your basic point that the world of 2010 would seem pretty science-fictional to someone from 1985, but technology-wise it wouldn't be that shocking or unimaginable to a sci-fi fan from that time (they'd probably be more surprised by cultural and political changes).


"He was murdered by his Roomba for spamming." How many thousand words would it take to flesh out the background of that sentence in an Analog story in 1985?

It might have been easier for Analog in 1965: "The deceased was engaged in fraudulent and unethical advertising practices. Somebody got a message through to his home robot, and it killed him." Advertising and its abuses was well known in the 60s (becoming quite the social phenomenon for a while), and Analog readers would have taken in stride that a resident of the 21st century might have a household robot. One might have to explain computer hacking - that the message was in robot brain instruction code, not English - but the idea that somebody might get clever about misdirecting attention away from the actual murderer would not be out of place in a Sherlock Holmes story.

And after I'd typed that, I realized this story was already told, although without advertising: it's the basic plot of Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov, from 1954. Go figure.


"Somebody re-worked his household robot's definition of human."

You can do some technical hand-waving about the details of the process. That is where the changing technology becomes significant. There are commonly used words now which were unavailable to the 1960s writer.

(Shakespeare is the first recorded use of a great many words, but for him to use them. he must have known his audience could understand them.)

So "hacker" doesn't have a clear start date, but wasn't generally known until the mid-eighties. It would be something startlingly new in a 1960s story, but an author might have heard the early uses, and could have used it with some deft incluing. Phrases such as "can't hack it" are cited from the mid 1950s.

So the detectives might say, "We're looking for a pretty smart guy. Most of us couldn't hack it." and then, a little later, "We're looking for a hacker, not just any guy."

It's at this point that the phrase, "My name's Friday, I'm a cop," springs to mind, with thoughts of Dragnet warped into the 21st century.

Hmm, I'm not sure about what Nora Roberts does under the J D Robb name. It's in that fuzzy edge of sci-fi territory that the literary set don't seem to want to touch. Maybe she and Charlie are approaching near-future crime from radically different directions, quite apart from the effect of the sort of story they want to write.


See also Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine.


It has had one positive effect; I now know to ignore that blogger's opinions on contemporary F&SF.

85: 59, 62 and 63 - Pretty much my feelings about Anwar too. So much so that I was more interested in him than in Liz or the Toymaker.

Why? Can you honestly say that "all the important characters being black/Jewish/women/hyperintelligent shades of the colour blue" would actually have an effect on the plot? I'd say not, which is why them being LGBT doesn't notice particularly; not because it's an unusual choice outside of a couple of specific sub-genres but because it doesn't particularly matter to the storyline!

IMO the only character who's sexuality actually matters to the story is Anwar, and that's because he's part of a conservative religious/ethnic community and protecting his family from the rest of same by hiding his sexuality.


So "hacker" doesn't have a clear start date, but wasn't generally known until the mid-eighties. It would be something startlingly new in a 1960s story, but an author might have heard the early uses, and could have used it with some deft incluing. Phrases such as "can't hack it" are cited from the mid 1950s.

So the detectives might say, "We're looking for a pretty smart guy. Most of us couldn't hack it." and then, a little later, "We're looking for a hacker, not just any guy."

There is a semantic drift going on here. Originally "hacker" meant someone who, armed with a hatchet or machete, could go out into the woods and do a mcgyver-type thing. A hacker could make you a table or chair out of branches: it wouldn't be good furniture but it would be usable.

In early computing, dualism was engineer vs. hacker : as above, both could build the chair, the hackers one would fall apart soon, the engineers would be a properly designed and sturdy thing. Hackers, by definition, would be clever enough to know what needed to be done, but not necessarily care about doing it right.

On board a ship for example, you might want a hacker for emergencies: someone who could just fix it without needing all lathes and other tools, but you wouldn't want to sail in a ship made by them.

Hacking was disparaging. Someone who "couldn't hack it" couldn't do a menial job just doing the work, clearing some bush. The idea of a Hacker having awesome skills seriously wouldn't occur to someone in the 1960s.


I find it interesting that you picked 1985 in #76. That doesn't feel nearly far enough back to me. Shockwave Rider was already 10 years old. PCs, LANs, BBS were becoming common. Non-fiction best sellers about concepts like the Microprocessor Revolution and increased leisure time were already old hat.

You don't need to be very cynical to think that nothing much happened in the last quarter of the 20th century and "nothing much" is still what's happening today. Some times it feels like we haven't had any real future (shock) since about 1970. Plenty of "faster, better cheaper", but not much "WTF did that come from?".


ScentOfViolets @67 and Charlie @68: I absolutely agree that the sad part is that presenting characters with LGBT sexuality as they are written in RULE 34 is remarkable (lets stop calling them "LGBT characters", that might help make them less remarkable to begin with). Unfortunately, we are indeed still at the point where we do need to hold up this kind of writing and say: Look, this is how it's done.

In fact, what Charlie manages is even better than making the characters' sexuality irrelevant to the plot; it is irrelevent to the character's personality and particularly their attitude to relationships. Even Anwar, I suspect would be off drinking and cheating on his wife no matter his sexual preferences, because that's his personality (ok, partly driven by repressing his sexuality, but I don't see that as the biggest driver, he's the classic weak-willed easily-lead type in an situation with only hard choices available).

Until all characters' can be written in this way, sexuality agnostic if you like, we do still need to highlight the kind of character building Charlie does in RULE 34. As Charlie says: It might just help to change some opinions in the real world.

(PS: Those posters who find the LGBT sexuality of the characters as "ham fisted", should probably, as Charlie suggested in the blog entry, examine themselves in the mirror for signs of homophobia.)


And after I'd typed that, I realized this story was already told, although without advertising: it's the basic plot of Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, from 1954.

And, with advertising and a distributed online intelligence pulling the strings, it's the plot of Daniel Suarez's "Daemon", from 2004. And it's similar to Robert Harris' "The Fear Index", from 2011. And the movie "Eagle Eye". Maybe time to let that plot lie fallow for a bit?


Zora just nailed it perfectly in three or four short paragraphs.

(Oh, and how science-fictionally cool is it to visualize a near-future world where disposing of the concept of "free will" has also freed us from the several thousand years of baggage that give us such large-scale cultural ills as warfare and punishment complexes?)


I think you've overlooked Koomey's Law -- a corollary of Moore's Law: "The number of computations per joule of energy dissipated has been doubling approximately every 1.57 years. This trend has been remarkably stable since the 1950s (R^2 of over 98%) and has actually been somewhat faster than Moore’s law."

Apply that to your pocket rocket smartphone of today and, well, we expect the baseband processor to run happily for up to a couple of weeks off a pocket battery today (ahem: GSM/GPRS/EDGE, not HSPA and LTE ... yet). Where is this trend taking us in the long term?


I'd like to think the audience for "Rule 34" was larger than the audience for "Glasshouse" (which I'm told is my slowest-selling SF title in the US).


I've an idea about how my attitude to LGBT characters has changed over the years. Partly it's driven by the general change in attitudes expressed in the media. Partly it's meeting people from a wider circle than a mid-sized village in rural England.

But Rule 34 maybe does lay it on a little too thick. Invert the sexual preferences of the characters, make the Toymaker the only LGBT character, and what does it look like?

Putting it like that does feel a little crude, but I am not sure that there is as much cliché-breaking as there should be.


Yeah, Anwar was squarely cast in the role of sorceror's apprentice. I didn't like him though; I felt his attitude towards his wife to be contemptuous and patronising, when from the snippets you saw of her she was clearly a much more thoughtful person even though she too was stuck in a less-than-ideal arranged marriage.


That was kinda the point, no?


I really liked Rule 34 and oddly enough could not finish Halting State. Don't know what that says about me. Further, I think Glasshouse is Charlie's best novel.

The points Charlie lists in the post seem obvious to me; so I don't know what the reviewers were doing when they supposedly read the book.

As to Point 2, the local dialect did often come off as forced to me. There's always a fine line between "realism" and clarity. If you are not a native speaker, it's usually better to translate to a more standard register. (Middle class UKians writing Cockney; New Yorkers writing "Southern;" UKians writing "US Southern" (shudder); it always ends in tears; best not done.)

I thought the QUILTBAG characters were well handled, but then I am not one myself; so maybe not the best judge. FWIW, I thought Charlie succeeding in walking the fine line between clunky artifice and well pitched corrective on that one. As a hetero-male-identified subject who used to read lesbian detective novels, not sure if I am the normative/typical viewpoint on this subject.

As an artificial intelligence, although one who runs one process in one shell, I appreciated Charlie writing one of us in a way that avoided many of the hackneyed tropes of the genre.


Ok, a future phone could reasonably run today's Siri [1]. However by then Siri will be a good deal smarter, if only from data-mining a decade's worth of interactions. That sort of data will be a company's unbeatable marketplace advantage. Apple isn't going to be keen to put it in people's pockets. Even with a revolution in how we make software, anything social (everything) will need to run on hardware trusted by all the participants. Encrypted computation is not efficient, and tamper-proof circuits beg to be tampered.

You could do a lot of cool stuff on a phone, but it seems like it will always be easier and safer to do the heavy lifting in trusted data center. Uses will be found for the amount of computation that is available.

[1] between solving proteins it sniffs in the local environment and checking if they interact unpleasantly with one's personal proteome (third generation single-molecule DNA sequencing has to be pretty miniaturizable, and who knows what other interesting sensors will be possible), monitoring your metabolism, keeping track of what you're doing well enough to pick the least annoying points to interrupt and generally being context aware, ... this is far more interesting than the same old debate on free will :-)


See, I noticed that pretty much all of the viewpoint characters [1] weren't conventionally heterosexual, shrugged, and moved on. I blame it on having read far too much slash fanfiction. Although I have to admit, I don't necessarily see this as a Bad Thing.

[1] Technically, the Toymaker counts as heterosexual, in that the one and only time we see the character being depicted as even vaguely sexual, it's with a person of the opposite external genitalia to themselves. However, I'd argue that given the state of the Toymaker's mind, he barely considered his sexual partner at the time to be part of the same species as himself, which makes the activity very much akin to bestiality on a personal level.



"First appearance of hacking in an (SF) story?

Proabably Arthur C. Clarke: "The Pacifist" 1956 as collated in "Tales from the White Hart".


Perhaps Charlie might like to comment, but I interpreted the Toymaker as being classically sociopathic.


I've got to disagree, slightly. Free will is not just a judicial concept. It also appears in economics and religion, among other things. It is also not necessary for judicial proceedings, once you get out of the European tradition. To choose one quick example, karma can certainly cause you to behave badly, but that doesn't exempt you from being punished in societies that believe in it.

More generally (these days), free will is a concept to turn human behavior into a mathematical model, such as game theory or economics. As a modeler, you have to make assumptions about how your simplified human will make choices, and free will is one such important assumption. It makes all humans mathematically equal--none of them bring their histories, social concerns, or other baggage into the game, and so they will all theoretically behave the same way.

As one modeler noted, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." What's fascinating is how many people try to fashion themselves after the model of Homo economicus, often at great psychological cost to themselves (as one can see, riding a subway into a financial district every morning--look at their faces). Homo economicus has no family, no social ties, no history, no passions, and no politics. He is a miserable model of a human, and he is inherently predictable. Why be this person?

It's also telling that, among the many researchers who generate models, economists are unusual in blaming their subjects for not living like the abstractions of their models, rather than using the places where their models don't work to expand on their "science." (the quotes are because in more rigorous sciences, when the model is wrong, it is discarded).


I wanted to comment about the general idea of non-human "personhood."

First off, this isn't an attack on LGBTO people. When I publish a book under my real name where I posit a human society with three social genders, you can pretty much figure where I sit on the acceptance of biological diversity.

That said, I think we have to be very careful on projecting both artificial beings and corporations forward as becoming more "real people" in the future.

As an extrapolation, it's fun. It falls right in with the myth of progress as a forward march to enlightenment.

The problem is, in real history, rights come and go all the time. Slavery has been invented repeatedly. Treating humans as property is a meme that certainly isn't dead, whether we're talking about modern slavery or states like North Korea that assert ownership of their citizens (if the state gives you everything, as in a strict socialist regime, leaving it can be seen as a form of theft).

Or you can look at the security line in the airport, and figure out exactly how many rights you have in there. You don't get to have free speech, nor do you get to bear arms in defense of your country (cf: Flight 93), just to name two losses. You're little more than meat herded through a chute to make some company rich, at least given how much such practices actually make us more secure.

Or you can look at American prisons and what they do to rights.

As another example, back in the neolithic/old bronze age Middle East, women apparently were much more socially and legally equal than they are now. Or one can consider the ready acceptance of homosexuality in places like Classical Greece or the India when the Kama Sutra was written. All of these places were once more socially progressive than they are now.

Technological advance does not track with rights advance, unfortunately.

Corporations are pieces of paper, attached to a legal theory that they can act as people in a court of law. Given how much anger this concept has raised and its shaky legal foundations in the US, it's entirely possible that we'll see corporations stripped of their personhood in critical ways in the near future.

The same with machines. I hate to compare AI to slaves, but when it's so easy to teach humans to regard other humans as inferior, subhuman, or property, I don't see a big movement towards granting personhood to machines, no matter how complex and ethical they become. It's too handy to see them as tools.

If anything, given the actions of social media companies, I see a big attempt to grab our "online personas" and turn them into the properties of the companies. In a real way, this turns citizens into property, and it's a rights grab.

Perhaps the world of Rule 34 is more permissive than what we'll actually see in our future?


While it was delightful to read a novel whose main characters were "normal people" (in my world), I have to say that the ending left me feeling a bit like Dorothy after her encounter with the Toymaker: rode hard with no satisfying ending to make it worth it.

I seriously doubt that one was meant to prefigure the other, but it was an echo that has stuck with me ever since the book came out, and I've avoided recommending the book because of it. "Fun book, but the ending will piss you off."


I'm guessing the inclusion of LGBT folk was either to more accurately model the setting, or to loosen the reader's grip on assumptions. Didn't seem to slow the story in any way.


We keep referring to characters and people with LGBT sexuality as "LGBT characters" or "LGBT folk", which seems to me to reinforce their sexuality as the single most important part of their personality. It isn't (or it shouldn't be). And that's really what we need to recognise and remember. (And I think that is a big part of the reason for Charlie's inclusion of these characters -- to do what SF does well, and hold a mirror up to our society and assumptions and show us ourselves from a different angle.)


Absolutely yes - the Toymaker is noted directly as being sociopathic: "You take after your dad, a high-functioning sociopath with an incurable organic personality disorder" - and this is reinforced continuously by his observed behaviour. Later on, "Head office wanted a special type of assessment performing, a sociopathic disorder assessment on a named executive. It was him. Liz, I should have seen it coming before—I mean, I was just stupid. John Christie is a narcissistic psychopath -"

I was unperturbed by and only mildly noticing of the various sexualities on show. Didn't strike me as if there was much of importance to hang off that.


The caveat there, though, is that we don’t know how to ‘fix’ many criminals, and that there would be ethical issues with forcing treatment on them if we did know how to 'cure' them. Medical ethics are based on informed consent, and people rarely consent to radical changes in their habits or values. Rehabilitation for all and short prison sentences also reflect the idea that anyone can change if they want to; I suspect that ‘scientific’ criminology would lead to fewer short prison sentences, but more life sentences to remote islands with a barracks, a farm, and some guard towers to stop escapes. The way we treat dangerous people with mental illnesses isn't based on punishment, but it isn't gentle either.


That was pretty much my response-- the narrative identified each individual character as LGBT, I filed this info away, but I didn't notice that all the main characters were LGBT. It just wasn't that big of a deal.

As for Glasshouse: it is a good book. All who say otherwise Are Wrong.


Regarding free will: Most of us are shaped by our upbringing. I grew up in a house where reading and education were considered important, and it was taken for granted that I would go to college and get a nice desk or professional job. Since I was a directionless kid, that's exactly where I ended up. If I'd been born in different circumstances, I probably would have been a midlevel drug dealer.

Most people end up where they are because they are doing what's expected of them. Give poor people other options, and they'll take them.

Regarding a person's sexual orientation not mattering -- that particular phrasing -- "it doesn't matter" has always bugged me, and after listening to Dan Savage's podcast, I realize why: It's related to society's not caring. It's related to the statements by the conservative-parody character Stephen Colbert plays on his show: "I don't see race."

People's sexuality is part of their identities. It matters.

I'm thinking right now of two lesbian and gay friends. In both cases, I like their partners. That's important, and they wouldn't have the same partners if they had different sexual orientation.

I'm still not articulating this very well. I'm still thinking it through.

And I'm not criticizing anyone who says that sexual orientation doesn't matter. I think we're all still thinking this through. And I think it's a figure of speech, not meant literally.

Regarding science fictional elements and technology in mainstream literature: I think part of the reason that the technology in mainstream is retro is because mainstream writers take years to create novels, and novels take a couple of years to publish, and so the novel that hits bookstore shelves tomorrow might have been fully outlined in the writer's head in 2002.

And another reason for technology lacking is that novelists tend to be late technology adopters -- even, in my experience, science fiction writers. And fans. (I remember in 2009 being asked to help come up with some panel ideas for a local con. I suggested one on online fandom: Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. The other people on the concom looked at me as if I had lobsters coming out of my ears. "Twitter? What's that?")

Charlie, you're right that much of today's mainstream literature needs to read like sf in some ways. One of my favorite writers is the comic novelist Richard Russo. His 2009 novel "That Old Cape Magic" is as mainstream as they come, no science fiction elements at all. But the characters are in frequent communication by cell phone and instant message, and the story depends on taking for granted inexpensive travel between Los Angeles and Cape Cod. And of course the characters drive cars, and a couple of them work as screenwriters, which would be science fiction in our great-grandparents' era.

Also: The main character of "That Old Cape Magic" spends a lot of the novel having conversations with his dead mother. It's never resolved whether she's a ghost or he's imagining it, and I don't think either situation is true. I think the conversation is simply a reflection of contemporary understanding of how empathy and our mental model of other people's behavior works. Certainly, I representations of my dead parents in my mind, and I have something resembling conversations with them. That also applies to people I'm very close to who aren't dead, they're just simply not in the room at the moment.


"...but technology-wise it wouldn't be that shocking or unimaginable to a sci-fi fan from that time (they'd probably be more surprised by cultural and political changes)."

Being a SF fan from that time the only surprise was the fall of the USSR without a nuclear war. The lesser surprise is how little has changed culturally and especially politically.


There's a lot less scope in improving computations per joule than in the overall limit to computation. I think we are about 10^10 away from hitting the limits. IIRC the Human brain is around 10^4 away, which is actually quite impressive.


See: the Norwegian prison system.


...the literary fiction I do read all seems to be set, technologically, in 1985 or 1997, where there may be cell phones, but certainly isn't a global network of always-connected people.

Putting on my amateur sociologist hat for a moment, i would say that this is because the authors you are reading came of age during those years. I've noticed that for most people, the technology they are comfortable with and are wiling to accept as the norm is that level of tech they were raised with. obviously, technophiles like our host and many of us here are the exception, but when it comes to society at large and literary authors in particular, I've noticed this quite a bit.

I have several friends who are smart and otherwise tech savvy, but refuse to use a smartphone or join social networking sites because they don't know what to do with them and don't want to learn. They shop online from time to time, play video games every once in a while and even make use of some limited streaming media, like Netflix, but in general their technological level is set at circa 1995, or when they were in their late teens.

Likewise, my wife works at a pubic library and deals quite a bit with poor and elderly patrons whose technology use is stuck at the bare minimum they need to get by. They can handle online applications and web forms and limited online purchasing, but they usually need assistance. Their children use MySpace or Facebook, and maybe email or text messaging, but none of them have smartphones. For many of these people, the world is still quite analog. The future really is distributed unevenly, and the poorer you are, the further back in time you are stuck. For most American or European poor people, it's 1992. In other parts of the world, it's still the 19th century.

(That our political class still thinks it's 1968 is another issue entirely).


What I liked the most about R34 was the implied consequences.


The book contained an AI that used initiative and creativity to murder spammers. This is a nice bit of slight of hand, because most people despise spammers so much (including myself) that this glosses over the importance of the precedent.

ATHENA is all software and was made by academics. Duplication and tweaking for other purposes will be easy. It also went rogue quickly. There is a very interesting implied setting in the not so distant future.


You're right, and I would extend this further.

You don't have to be poor or very old to be completely isolated from the hi tech aspects of our societies.

Anyone, and I mean anyone with just enough money to hire a few employees (as the boss of a small company or whatever) can delegate the use of hi-tech to said employees. These persons aren't poor but they aren't "rich" either. They need all their precious time to keep their company afloat and really can do without the hi-tech that didn't exst when they grew up.

Also, anyone, and I mean anyone who is just high enough in any bureaucracy (government or other) to have an admin assistant and/or clerks and/or other subordinates can delegate to them any level of use of hi-tech services. They need all their precious time to go to meetings and more meetings and they really can do without the hi-tech that didn't exst when they grew up.


Illustrated by the futility of the court order forcing ISPs to block Pirate Bay. It took me less than 30 seconds to find a proxy to get around the block. if anyone is interested.


I'm with a smaller British ISP. works still just fine. They only served the injunction on the Big Five ...


I'm with Virgin. It's a pretty good deal. For around £30 a month I get 60Mb/s. Last night (about 03:00) I did a PD download that peaked at around 62Mb/s. Normally I don't get more than 40Mb/s


Hello -- glad you brought this up! I did notice the LGBT characters, and was pleased with what you'd done: made it unremarkable. Most books don't have an LGBT protagonist, and nearly all of the ones I've read that do are genre fiction grappling with what it means to be LGBT in today's world*. And those are important, don't get me wrong, but it's nice to look beyond that and see a world where (almost) nobody cares, where the protagonists happen to be gay or lesbian but that isn't what the story is about. So kudos.

  • Well, OK, also escapist romance. But excluding those...

In general, there's a learning curve with new technology, and if you're already mired in an existing system, it can be cost prohibitive to learn the new stuff.

I suspect this notion is at least as old as Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and it's not just about new tech, either.

That said, I seem to recall a security headache back in 2009 nicknamed something like BOTPOTUS, the Blackberry of the President of the US, aka Obama's Blackberry.

Here's the other end of the problem: new tech seems pretty much to be an open field security wise. The bad guys simply haven't figured out what its vulnerabilities are and gone after it in any systematic fashion. Having a high value target like BOTPOTUS changes that equation in undesirable ways.

Having a high level leader depending on new technology is a scary situation for his security detail. How are they going to know if and when the leader's shiny cool gadget has been hacked, from reading his email to using his GPS chip as the homing beacon for an incoming missle? There's something to be said for keeping the newest generation of gadgetry at one remove from this individual. If nothing else, it makes the vulnerabilities somewhat more knowable, although it increases his vulnerability to black swans.


hmm I do need to reread R34 at some point. I didn't really pick up on the QUILTBAG (I has learned new word.) element of characterisation as a deliberate point. Well, not quite true. Anwar's bisexuality I saw as a facet of his character that given his religious / cultural background, provided tention and further impetus for him to have to live a vunrible nafarious lifestyle. Thus his relationship with his partner in crime was more complex than the all too familiar, guy trying to go straight, gets talked back into doing one last job.

Lizz's sexuality I pretty much just took as, well why not. All burning out, jaided cops can't be middle aged alcoholic divorced men.

Looking back on it, I'm left with a sense of the near future tech, a world falling, if not into a singularity. Into a state where no one's holding all the chips. (excuse the pun.) The increased complexity and unpredictability that is implied. All the Cop Space and distributed infoware still means modified apes fire fighting, trying to keep a lid on things or playing janiter to a faster thinking, practically omniscient entaty, working to it's own agenda.


I never really believed in 3-D printed real things. Last night on the net I saw a lower human jaw with teeth that was 3-D printed out of titanium. Far out.


"The cop doesn't even solve the crime...." Joyce Porter's Inspector Dover series features a detective who has absolutely no interest in solving crimes. Dover (the least competent person in Scotland Yard; kicked upstairs several times to get rid of him) just wants to pin the murder on someone, and get back to only pretending to work.


Dialect: I grew up in New York State, about a hundred miles from New York City. The New York Metropolitan Dialect was my mother's native form of English. I lived in NYC for about ten years. But if I were writing a character from NYC, I would very much want to have a native of the City look over that dialog.

But it would be very, very, very difficult to write a story in which there are no characters who speak differently from the writer. There are class differences, occupational differences, ethnic differences, political-ideology differences....


"Free will is not just a judicial concept. It also appears in economics and religion, among other things."

Free will, in theology, justifies supernatural punishment, either in hells or in reincarnation in unpleasant circumstances. The threat of supernatural punishment is just another means of social control.

Free will and rationality in Homo Economicus belong to a traditional/juridical model of human functioning. Behavioral economics seeks to produce more useful models.

As for the difficulty of changing criminals ... surely shaping behavior would include not creating them in the first place (getting rid of discrimination, providing good schooling and legitimate employment opportunities, etc.).

Shaping behavior would also include giving criminals opportunities to learn useful habits and skills in prison (rather than letting prisons become schools of criminality) and providing a path to a non-criminal life after prison (rather than refusing to hire ex-cons, so that they're forced back into criminality).

It would take time and careful experimentation to reduce anti-social behavior. You would probably also end up with an irreducible minimum of people who have been so damaged by a combination of genetic vulnerability and circumstance that they can only be contained. One would want to do that in the most humane manner possible. If this were only a few people, it would be affordable.


The existing purpose of prison is: a) Punishment b) Rehabilitation c) Social exclusion The reason why prison fails is because it mixes all three. Far better to separate them. If you want to punish, then punish If you want to rehabilitate, then educate (even if forcibly) If you want to socially exclude, then it can be done quite pleasantly and humanely.


Thanks for the explication, Charles! As a long-time detective and science fiction reader, I can easily be tripped up my genre expectations. I found Rule 34 to be consistently interesting and challenging. The use of characters with non-hetero "normative" orientation was also good to see, particularly here in the USA where the Right is so psycho about such things.


Or one can consider the ready acceptance of homosexuality in places like Classical Greece or the India when the Kama Sutra was written. All of these places were once more socially progressive than they are now.

You seem to be saying that how socially progressive a society is can be measured by a single data point. There was much in these ancient societies that very few people would consider progressive today.


I am not surprised that the LGB (no T in there if I remember correctly) angle of the book did not draw much attention. These guys behave pretty normal, they cheat on their wifes, have on-off relations, experience bad one-night stands. This before a background of multiple dead fetishists, a sadistic psychopath, pedophiles, and a dancing goatse digiframe.

131: 106 and #110 - $Person is an emfosser. Does their sexuality actually matter in how they do this unless they allow it to interfere with how they interact with their professional contacts? I'd submit not, which is why Liz being a lesbian is irrelevant to her Police work, although it's very relevant to some of her social interactions in the narrative.

Er, Charlie is somewhat notorious for his use of the device of the unreliable narrator.


Also, if I remember correctly (link to supporting articles mislaid, again), the Greeks were actually significantly less tolerant of same-sex relationships than today's popular consensus would like to make out.

The ancient Greeks tolerated relationships between a certain class of older man and younger boys, but homosexual relationships were not widely tolerated or encouraged, and were as likely to result in persecution as they are today (perhaps more so). As I said, this is all from memory and possibly flawed, but I recall the evidence suggests that the ancient Greeks were comfortable with signs of physical affection denoting close friendship between men; but drawing from this that homosexuality was common and widely tolerated is similar to drawing the conclusion that because Arab men are comfortable holding hands in public, clearly they are tolerant of same-sex relationships.


Yes, this is all mentioned at length in Wikipedia, but I came across a discussion of it somewhere else too, that went into more substantive and reliable detail than the wiki articles. But alas, links long since lost.


I'd like to note that that Glasshouse was the only book that I have ever bought on impulse from a AAFES retailer bookshelf prior to a major field exercise. I previously had heard of you via your online version of Accelerando, but upon reflection, I did not get the point regarding PTSD rehabilitation and treated it as an adventure/milSF book until I read your spoilers on this blog. Just sayin'.


I find it bizarre that people could miss the queer cast of Rule 34, not the least because Charlie has a history of this, explicitly at least from Accelerando (BDSM as well as the queer/trans identity politics inherent in swapping one's self over to a flock of pigeons), and in various ways an important thread in the Laundry series as well as Glasshouse, Saturn's Children.

This is one of the major reasons I read Charlie (or any other sci-fi author) – and the tedious hetero-ism of Gibson, Stephenson and others is why I don't bother with them anymore.


Urgh. 122. That should have been, need to read R34 again. (I read it last September.) Thanks for the book recommendations regarding free will. Just got hold of the Daniel Kahneman book.


Point of note: the classical greek culture (circa 600BC to 100BC) was, in terms of gender relationships and sexuality, closest to modern backwoods Afghanistan than to anywhere we'd consider civilized today.

(And pre-Christian Rome was just plain weird. Ahem. Not to say that post-Christian Rome wasn't weird, too, albeit in a different direction.)



Didnt the eipgraph to R34 make your points 1 and 2 even more tersely?

(That is a great line, btw. Im still trying to imagine a context in which it makes sense...)


Sigh. Epigraph, not eipgraph. And a missing comma. Sorry.


This is one of the major reasons I read Charlie (or any other sci-fi author) – and the tedious hetero-ism of Gibson, Stephenson and others is why I don't bother with them anymore

Are you sure that you aren't being as limiting? I enjoy books that mix in a different point of view - I didn't see the LGB-ness or hetero-ness of the characters as "defining them", it's just who they are.

I grew up in a somewhat homophobic atmosphere, and the book that made 15-year-old me think about my view of the world was Graham Chapman's excellent autobiography (he of Monty Python). The eye-opener was that... people are people. Over the years, I've discovered that several of my friends are gay - so what? It doesn't change who they are, or make them better or worse people. They weren't trying to pick me up at the time, or me them, so orientation was a moot point.

My politics are centrist, but that doesn't mean that I refuse to read Ken Macleod; I enjoy his books. I roll my eyes at libertarians, but I finished "Freehold" by Michael Williamson. I hope for a good story, with believable characters, well written - I don't demand that the characters and their actions reflect my own personal comfort zone.

I was amused once when someone responded to those who complained about the high level of homosexuality, divorce, breakup, infidelity, violence, and dishonesty amongst the characters of Eastenders (for y'all, it's a BBC soap opera). The respondent pointed out that the characters were actually less likely to divorce, cheat, lie, and steal than the general public, based on available statistics - and that the complainers were hoping for an unrealistically nice and comfy world for their early evening dose of melodrama.


The past is indeed another country...

(I'd love to know where the pervasive idea of ancient Greece as some ultra-permissive paradise started -- my history just good enough though.)


The scariest thought-police are those who police their own thoughts.


I've just read it. Great stuff! I particularly like the way you've got "the first true AI" as almost alien. IOW, we're so used to, as you say, thinking of AI as artificial consciousness (like ours but silicon), that not many people have thought of the possibility that it might be intelligent and thinking, but in a way that's not familiar to us, that's unprecedented in our experience.

It's also kind of cool that just at the very end, it comes across as a little bit super-hero-ish :)


Sheesh. If you want an example of Charlie's point #4 (corporations must act as sociopaths), read this:

The article is about one of Mitt Romney's partners at Bain Capital. He seems to maintain that the only worthwhile value is economic. He attacks Warren Buffet for wasting his money on charity, and people who don't go into finance as "art history majors" who contribute nothing to society. He seems to have no clue about investing in social capital. Reason enough why some* business people should be kept away from government.

Charlie, I thought about posting a comment to that article with a link to your blog. I know you get enough traffic, and attacks, without our adding to them. I don't want to overwhelm your server again. You might want to add to you posting rules.

  • In defense of businessmen, my wife runs a social service agency with a large and active board of businessmen (including hedge-fund managers) who think that their success obligates them to help other people. And I've made fun of Lloyd Blankfein's "Doing God's Work" comment, but he is a board member of a foundation that gives massive amounts of money to charity. I'm afraid there are people I just don't get. Maybe more on that later

The ancient Greeks had sexual morals which were based for the large part on notions of animal husbandry. Not surprising since their biggest cities were not that large and the more important classes of citizens had both a farm in the hinterland and a house in the city.

In their minds you needed heterosexual sex so that the city could survive over the generations just like you needed roosters to mate with chickens so that the farm could survive. They had no problems with roosters having sex with each other (or with pheasants or grouse or...) as long as they didn't neglect the chickens completely.


Are you sure that you aren't being as limiting?

No. I read a lot, and a lot of it is either dense academic stuff that makes my eyes water or grim reports on quiltbag (haw!) discrimination. Also makes eyes water. So then I read sci-fi because in the best of it I find the imagination for a world I think we should try a lot harder to aspire to. I don't mean 'singularity' or other tropes, but rather how (regarding specifically here queer issues) identity and desire might be possible under different circumstances.

I don't think the queer identities of the characters in R34 'define' them any more or less than being poor, of an ethnic minority, disabled or otherwise not part of the normative white, able-bodied, hetero mainstream might do so. Which is to say, if you're not part of the non-norm, you likely have scant idea or experience of just how different it can be.

I'm not demanding the characters fit my 'comfort zone' either. Though equally, why not? Why shouldn't I expect equal representation in sci-fi (and everything else)? As it is, I'm simply not interested in reading hetero, white middle-class male authors who write for an audience of the same, populate their books with the same and in the extremely rare occurrence there is a token minority in the story, they are usually a cliché that dies rather nastily.


This link may be of interest with regards to defining people by their QUILTBAG status:


I'm not demanding the characters fit my 'comfort zone' either. Though equally, why not? Why shouldn't I expect equal representation in sci-fi (and everything else)? As it is, I'm simply not interested in reading hetero, white middle-class male authors who write for an audience of the same, populate their books with the same and in the extremely rare occurrence there is a token minority in the story, they are usually a cliché that dies rather nastily.

Richard Morgan - "The Steel Remains" and "The Cold Commands" will probably fit the bill nicely, then. Both blindingly good books.

Meanwhile, expecting authors to meet a quota of equal representation in all things seems doomed, doomed, I tell you. Dilbert had a try back in the day - Antina, anyone?


There's an additional problem, especially in government, where there's a tendency (at least as I've seen it here in the US) to want to use new technology to stay ahead of political competitors and other nations' governments. This can cause problems when moving from one generation of technology to another, where there are similarities that can lead the user astray. For instance, the White House has had an email system since sometime in the 70's, but it was isolated from the internet (what there was of it at the time) so there were fewer security issues. I suspect that many of the security bobbles having to do with email in the government are the results of habits developed in the old closed email systems (which were actually more like BBS systems) that were transferred directly to systems with email servers sitting on the public 'net and serving people at many levels of security clearance.


I haven't read Richard Morgan, though I'll give him a whirl next time I'm in my local bookshop. (though courtesy Charlie's efforts here, I'm not short of new reading.)

Just to be clear, I don't expect "authors to meet a quota of equal representation in all things". It's very simple: I read the fiction authors whose grasp of gender, desire, and identity doesn't insult me as a reader.

As for Dilbert, the author of that is a misogynist. I don't read him.


I'm afraid I am a nightmare reader for SF writers hoping to be literary and "socially relevant". I really only care for the Big Ideas and could not care less if the main characters fuck chickens in their spare time.


Davbe-the-Proc @ 143 THERE speaks someone brought up in a (Roman) catholic environment! Scary, but true.


Actually, no. I'm saying that the idea of a progressive march of history towards greater freedoms is a comforting myth, but not one supported by the evidence. Charlie used the idea as a basis for his book, which is fine, but I don't think it's a likely future.

Personally, I do think it's worth fighting for the rights of LGBT people to be regarded as social equals (so long as we're not talking about pedophilia--I draw the limit where people get hurt). However, I don't think there's any historic inevitability to progressives winning this fight, which is why we need to keep actively pressing on it.

Furthermore, I'm willing to bet that people a century or a millennium from now will have a different take on human rights, and some of it will seem like a substantial setback to us today.

As for corporations and AIs being people, that's even more sketchy.

AFAIK, the idea of corporations as people is based on questionable legal grounds in the US, and if it gets abused too egregiously, it will eventually disappear. Certainly, the concept that abstract entities can act as people has an ancient basis. AFAIK, temples and/or Gods owned prostitutes, property, and other slaves back in ancient Sumer and Egypt, and more modern African tribes have come up with similar ideas (see the Lele's village wives for an example of a woman marrying a group). This is an idea that has been repeatedly created and discarded, and there's no particular reason to think that modern corporations are any more likely to retain their current rights as humans.

As for artificial intelligences, I'm cynical enough to think that we'll treat them like animals long before we start treating them as people. Right now, they're things. They've got a long ways to go.


I am always fascinated and slightly repelled when someone says: I don't read $author because they are a $personality_trait.

I won't read someone's work because they write poorly, or the story doesn't interest me, or because they let their own opinions and sensibilities bleed into the story to the point that the story becomes a soap box. I don't particularly care what the author is like personally so long as they can write well and entertain me (I might make an exception if I found a author was using their profits to fund something I really found objectionable).

To put it another way, would these people be comfortable if someone said: I don't read $author because they are black?


You only now noticed this?


I cannot agree that punishment does not deter bad behavior, i.e. I think that punishment DOES deter bad behavior in most situations. Consider the percentage of pedestrians crossing the street on red light - the higher the fines (or: the higher the probability of being caught, which is the same), the less people will trespass the rule. Here it is simply the optimal method of reinforcing good behaviour - there is no subconscious "desire to punish". Sorry but I cannot see why people should be motivated positively here? Should they get a chocolate whenever they wait for green? :-))) Remark: I am not defending any "zero tolerance", draconian punishments, and similar nonsense. And as far as I am concerned, with no policemen in sight, and with no cars coming, I always ignore the red light. :-)


... let me apologize to Mr. Stross, my comment was in fact not response to his comment but to the comment of Zora.

Zora said that "there is a primal desire to punish... punishment does not work". To summarize, as a lawyer I think that

/1/ punishment is a well-thought, and not some "primal" (or subconscious) reply of the society to malicious behaviour,

/2/ punishment works. For some people (serious criminals), positive reinforcement is ineffective.

But I agree completely that for normal people, positive reinforcement works much better than punishment. Thank you and good night!


Miroslav Skala You are obviously a USSA'ian ... Since this draconian and absurd rule, imposed on the so-called "land of the free" does NOT apply here.


No, punishment is a very negative factor in Western justice systems (especially in the USA) and I suspect in China as well, where there was at one time a tradition of public interrogation/torture for suspects. Punishment provides a strong motivation to prosecutors for sentence inflation, to juries and victims and their families and friends to press for conviction on less than convincing evidence1. Moreover, the desire for punishment leads to a lack of concern about the conditions in prisons, including a consensus that prison rape, assaults, and murders are acceptable because "the prisoners deserve it, it's part of the punishment." This in turn makes rehabilitation much harder and less likely for those who could be rehabilitated.

Punishment is not containment, which is what's needed for those who can't be rehabilitated, and the concepts of "debt to society", and "full measure of punishment" prevent us from tying release to a state of "no longer a danger to society"; along with the difficulty of rehabilitation this leads to high rates of recidivism. Punishment is also not deterrence; at least as it used in the USA system with which I'm familiar it often produces opposition in the prisoners (many of whom are already suffering from some form of oppositional defiance disorder).

We need to replace punishment with a rational approach to dealing with criminals who refuse to accept the rights of others; one which educates and rehabilitates those who can be rehabilitated, and contains and protects society from those who can't. This won't happen as long as so many parts of the system see their fundamental purpose as punishment. As long as they feel opposed to the system rehabilitation for them is impossible.

  • Which, coupled with the police' strong motivation to close cases as soon as they find a likely-looking suspect and the rest of society's tendency to believe that someone accused of a crime by the police is guilty of that crime, often leads to draconian punishment of innocent people, or punishment more severe than is warranted by the actual level of guilt of someone accused of a greater crime than was committed.
  • 162:

    What does work as a deterrent is a high probability of being caught.

    What does work as a deterrent is a high probability of being caught.

    If most criminals were rational beings, yeah, it would. But the average career criminal is less rational than the average economist (who isn't as rational as she would like to believe) :-). The real problem with deterrence is that a lot of people who commit crimes have poor impulse control, so thoughts of deterrence don't occur 'til after the act, if then.


    What has been observed, I hear, is that people adapt to harsh prison regimes. And once they have adapted, you've lost the chance to change their behaviour.

    The "short, sharp, shock" of Thatcherite rhetoric might have made a difference to a first offender, if it really was short. But it wouldn't work the second time.

    I can't find references to this, and I heard it in pre-internet days, but it doesn't strike me as obviously ridiculous.

    Incidentally, "short, sharp, shock" is a reference to "The Mikado".

    To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock, In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock, Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock, From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!


    Zora said that "there is a primal desire to punish... punishment does not work". To summarize, as a lawyer I think that

    Well yes, but as a lawyer you're invested in the system. What are your cognitive biases? Can you imagine a system in which law backed up by sanctioned punishment is not the main driver for socialization? If not, why not?


    I can't find references to this, and I heard it in pre-internet days, but it doesn't strike me as obviously ridiculous.

    IIRC the Thatcherite "short, sharp shock" was an ill-considered move back towards the remand policies of the late 19th/early 20th century, when magistrates' courts in England could impose prison sentences of as little as six hours, and frequently did, because they had no mechanism for effectively fining or collecting fines from the destitute, and no form of community sentencing/rehab.

    Oddly, being slung in the slammer for 48 hours once a month due to getting paid and drinking it all and being disorderly doesn't seem to have worked on drunkards; England had a sky-high petty crime rate back then.


    I think a balanced diet is important as part of these programmes; may I suggest Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, eggs, chips and Spam?

    [[ Spammer now gone ]]


    There are perfectly credible 'third sector' models of incorporated entities which are well-established in the UK, and I believe elsewhere. The sole traditional responsibility of the organisation is not to make a loss, in most cases, but it may do most other things that it cares to - or rather, that it's founders care to. The sociopaths are the businessmen (do you know what the Russian slang for 'gangster' is?) who run the sociopathic organisations. Businesses themselves are no more sociopaths than states are criminal - some are, some have been, and some will be, however.

    I have been the chairman of half a dozen not-for-profit limited companies in the UK, all set up to enhance the common good and all playing by the corporate rules; and yes, we did do some good. On a slightly off-topic note, there was some disinclination to use the term 'chairman' in the doings of these bodies, and so we used the guid Scots word 'convener' instead, being gender neutral. As a bit of mischief I did at one point try to introduce the term 'chairbeing', as I felt that convener was somewhat too human-centric, but the human block vote was used against me. Was I prescient, or what? Ask ATHENA!


    Dear Charlie, thanks for your response. - As a civil lawyer I believe I am not part of the system but one of my cognitive biases definitely is that I deal with more lies than average person. - In my comment I perhaps did not understand that people were speaking here about prevention, i.e. what to do BEFORE someone commits a crime. I was speaking what to do AFTER that, and here let me reiterate my idea that, when someone rapes a woman, he must not only compensate her for her pain and stained clothes but he must be punished. Otherwise, imagine a terrible picture: A billionaire who calculates that - with his wealth - he can rape and compensate 100 women. Another argument: Many raped women will indeed want the punishment, giving them the feeling of justice and fairness, rather than money from the rapist. - Speaking about PREVENTION, however, I agree completely that positive motivation is better than negative one. I is my fault if my previous comment sounded differently. With best regards, Mira.


    If you mean that I am from the USA (by saying "you are probably a USSA-ian") then not, I´m from Middle Europe.


    You are completely right that prison rape/murder/assault is a really horrible thing. And I have heard of teams of people (killers for hire): The "shooter" kills the victim, the "muscle" goes to the police and pleads guilty and goes to prison for 15 years: Thanks to his muscles, he will have several "personal slaves" there, healthy food etc, and after that he returns and lives as a rich person...


    "I have heard of" ...

    In gangster-run countries, perhaps. But there is a saying: "Bad cases make bad laws", and I think this is a case. In more civilised countries, the solution is not to make prison a hard enough punishment to deter the instruments of the real criminals, it is to prosecute the real criminals themselves.

    Yes, it's hard to do that in a gangster society.


    Charlie, are you aware of the TV show "Person of interest", the premise is similar to rule34, in that there's an ATHENA-like program being used by the protagonists as a mcguffin for the episode of the day. There may even be a similar overarching plot as the program takes steps to defend itself from percieved threats, though that's only been hinted at so far.



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    This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 2, 2012 12:26 PM.

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