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Why I've been quiet for the past couple of weeks

I just an hour ago typed THE END at the end of a rather annoyingly long Scrivener project titled "Neptune's Brood".

I've been having to ration my typing due to the carpal tunnel issues I alluded to in an earlier blog entry. My hands are getting better (slowly), and despite everything I have managed to complete another novel. It's about 10% longer than expected, which accounts for most of the delay. (And I had to re-write most of it earlier this year after reading Debt: The First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber, a most interesting and provocative investigation of the sociology and anthropology of money and debt.)

If you want to know what it is, well, it's a mundane SF space opera (something that's supposed to be more or less impossible) set in the universe of Saturn's Children (only a very long time later). For added stunt writing chops, we have a non-violent protagonist (ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone—you might be shocked: if not, you ought to be), a financial framework for a universe reliant on much slower than light space travel, and communist space squids. There is a fat lady, but I don't think she sings. And writing it gave me a high concept nose bleed, so if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the pub tonight to cauterize some neurons.

Normal blogging service will resume subsequently, I promise.



"ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone"

I'm re-reading James White's Sector General series. I don't think Conway intentionally killed anyone anywhere in the series.


Yeah, that Debt, that caused me to do some serious rewrites. I've done some follow up research since reading it, and while I've found I'm out of my depth, it's very refreshing to see the foundations of economics posited in such a drastically different light, e.g., barter/credit.

Anyhow, great book. Any recommended followups? And am looking forward to the next Saturn's Children!


"ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone"

Since you included fantasy in your question, that's easy. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.


He intentionally -- albeit very, very reluctantly -- killed a pet that he thought was a person.


Knowing something of magick, I hated that book and could not finish it.


"ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone"

Last month? I think I re-read Blindsight that recently.

Pacifism cannot exist absent the protection of strong authority, possessing both a monopoly over coercion and sufficient will to exercise same where necessary to preserve civil order; in any other circumstance, the pacifist's choices extend only as far as hypocrisy, on the one hand, or extinction, on the other.

In other words, pacifism exists only under the protection of someone willing, if necessary, to defend it with violence; without that, the pacifist will either be forced to violent self-defense, hence hypocrisy, or killed, hence extinction. Someone who calls himself pacifist, at best, simply hasn't yet had to make the choice.



I said "non-violent", not "pacifist". Please do not confuse the concepts.


The is an interesting question and leads to the observation that RECENT SFF is remarkably lacking in nonviolent protagonists (and non-protagonists too for that matter). Yet go back a ways and that is not the case. Mainstream SFF was once quite nonviolent - think of a lot of Asimov's stuff. For that matter, despite their other failings, Heinlein's youth oriented space opera involved very little violence.
I had the difference driven home by reviews of Banks' The Wasp Factory that denounced it for its violence and perversion and I wondered what the big deal was.
Of recent authors the only one I can think of who tends to play down the violence is Blaylock. I don't recall the protagonists of Knights of the Cornerstone or the Ebb Tide killing anyone. In fact they see more interested in lunch, or possibly in collecting bizarre artefacts. However, I am not sure he is exactly mainstream SFF.

So why is violence now integral to so much SFF (and TV and Movies, for that matter)? Why have WE changed so much in our reading habits?


Let's see, from the last week:

Existance, Dr. Brin: Hmm, I was going to argue no protagonists killed anyone, but there is one scene that makes it clear someone who was a protagonist at the time requested a killing strike, so that qualifies.

Tunnel in the Sky, Heinlein: The only protagonist killing I recall is against non-sentient beings.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Grossman: Oddly, while I was at first sure the protagonist, a supervillian, had killed someone in his attempt to take over the world, I couldn't think of any specific example in-story. The only direct kills mentioned are at the hands of others. A secondary protagonist, ostensibly one of the good guys, kills in flashback, so that may qualify.

One Of Our Thursdays is Missing: Yep, definitely kills someone.

Ananthem, Neal Stephenson: protagonist kills no-one, except possibly by choosing different reality-tunnels that result in him surviving, but others not -- including the death of the character who set up the choice of reality tunnels, and who it's implied made the actual choices involved. All actual killing seems to have been done by others.


"...pacifism exists only under the protection of someone willing, if necessary, to defend it with violence; without that, the pacifist will either be forced to violent self-defense, hence hypocrisy, or killed,..."

False choice. In most instances pacifists are not killed because they do not pose a threat to those who do kill.


It depends how immutable you think human nature is. Nearly all of Greg Egan's stories feature post-humans whose first order of business was to edit out the violent, expand-to-fill-all-available-resources drives from their makeup. The main characters in his novels never kill anyone as far as I can recall (for one thing, it's generally impossible to do so, given the presence of backups); the closest thing I can think of ethically speaking are some forced uploads in Diaspora.


Hooray! I can't wait.


Pacifism seems to be what you're aiming for; while I've read plenty of SF that involves violence, I've read little or none (nothing comes to mind, at least) that involves gratuitous, i.e., needless, violence, on the part of the protagonist.

I know of plenty of ideologies which reject gratuitous violence, but only one which rejects the possibility that violence could ever be anything else.


Not everyone who uses violence does so only, or even primarily, in self-defense. What if I have something you want, and I won't give it to you or trade it for something you have? One of your options is to kill me and take it.

While you may well find this abhorrent, and I'm not too fond of the idea myself (preferring, as do most people, not to be killed for any reason), historically speaking it's been far more common than otherwise, especially in the absence of civil authority.


Re: Soon I Will Be Invincible: I remember that Doctor Impossible did his best to limit civilian casualties in the cafe scuffle with the I Can't Believe They're Aren't the Teen Titans, in marked contrast to the heroes. I got the impression while he would happily risk the lives of abstract billions in his schemes, he was quite unwilling to kill people in person.


I should like to note the case that Stephen Pinker makes in his latest book, that as a species we are essentially engaged in a millennial process of domesticating and pacifying ourselves, by weeding out the violent cases and building societies that are stable without violence -- so that if you live in the UK, your chances of being violently killed at a factor of 70 lower than they were 3-4 centuries ago, and per capita the 20th century was far less blood-drenched than many previous epochs (and the 21st century so far is pretty much bloodless in terms of warfare, and with violent crime rates in general trending down in most places).

I am sure there are holes to be picked in his argument, but the self-domestication hypothesis has something to be said for it -- compare your typical pet dog with a wolf, for an example of how it looks in another species.


I am not a pacifist, but I have somehow managed to get through my life to date without killing anyone. I'll hazard a guess that the same is true of you too. There's no particular reason why protagonists of science fiction novels should be unable to get through their lives without killing even if they aren't pacifists, either.

So no, I don't think pacifism as such *is* what Charlie's after. The problem (assuming it to be one) isn't just that SF authors have protagonists who are too fond of killing, but also that they keep putting them in situations where killing is (arguably) called for. The moral or aesthetic failing (assuming it to be one) isn't so much the characters' as the authors' and/or readers'.

(I genuinely did mean those parentheses. It's a perfectly defensible position that there's nothing wrong either morally or artistically with enjoying reading about killing, and nothing wrong with writing books for people who enjoy reading about killing to read.)


Oh, I don't imagine for an instant that human civilization is anything other than a long process of self-domestication -- I've long had the opinion that calling it 'civilization' as it applies to ourselves, rather than the domestication it plainly is, because we find the former word a bit more palatable than the latter. Neither Mr. Pinker's offices, nor anyone else's, are required to convince me of that.

I will extend your example of wolves vs. dogs, though, as it's quite apt. Dogs, even after millennia of domestication, still become violent, some so much so that they have to be put down, i.e. killed, in order that they do not present a threat to life and limb. All I'm arguing is that some humans go likewise, and that one ignores this fact at his peril.


I'll grant that the "rogue dog" problem clearly exists with humans. However, unlike a dog, you can usually reason with a human, or subject them to cognitive-behavioural therapy. Or at worst segregate them from the rest of the population. (The reason we kill dangerous dogs is because (a) we don't attribute to them the same rights and intrinsic worth that we ascribe to a human being, and (b) trying to rehabilitate or contain them then becomes cost-ineffective.)


Holy hell, I'm looking forward to reading that. Loved Saturn's Children.


I think part of the issue is that we don't do fly-on-the-wall SF/F. At least not very often. We rarely do traditional romance in either of those settings either - I'm talking well, 50 Shades of Gray say - boy meets girl, they fall in love and have lots of sex (or kisses and get married if you rather the Mills and Boon style). If there is romance it's war-torn land.

If Neo had taken the other pill and we'd carried on watching his dull life as a cubicle drone he wouldn't have killed anyone - but would we have watched the film?

SF/F and books in many other genres focus around some form of conflict because it's a good, if overused, tool to write interesting stories. That's been true for some time although not universally so. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep was I think the last book I read where the protagonist isn't a killer.

There are a few modern day TV shows that blur the boundaries. With the exception of Ray Langston most of the core CSI characters haven't killed someone in 11 seasons of TV (some of the core cops in the show have though, and there have been a few deaths at CSI's hands too but they are very few and far between). But... just about every show generates more than its fair share of bloody bodies and plot conflict that way.

And although you can pick out non-killing stories, Asimov and Heinlein and Dick all wrote stories with killers in them too.

Given she's the continuing character between Halting State and Rule 34 you could argue that Sue Kavanaugh is a main protagonist. Does she kill anyone?


Given she's the continuing character between Halting State and Rule 34 you could argue that Sue Kavanaugh is a main protagonist. Does she kill anyone?

No. The vast majority of cops go through an entire career without doing so. Indeed, doing so even once is a major life-changing event (starting with the suspension and the enquiry, never mind the PTSD, and working on from there).


In that case Rule 34 is the last SF/F book that I read where I'm sure a protagonist didn't kill anyone, shortly after release. Currently Bob is doing a good job in Apocalypse Codex too although I'm not far into that yet.


Forgot / got distracted ....
There is another book, very interesting, recently published on the same subject:
"Paper Promises" by Philip Coggan
ISBN 978-1-846-14510-0

What is REAL money and REAL worth, now that "precious metals" are no longer (and can be no longer) a measure of monetisation?
Now couple that with the measure of "debt" be it real or imagined, and the long record of countries "defaulting".


"[A]sk yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone—you might be shocked: if not, you ought to be..."

Octavia Butler, Lilith's Brood series. (This is one of many reasons Butler is such a legend.)

And I'm not shocked, unfortunately. This is one of the reasons SF as a whole is often considered subliterary crap - too much of it incorporates romantically violent concepts of "adventure" that many a scholar would no doubt consider Fascist.

(Me, I'm not sure about Fascist. But I do think that people seeking entertainment in mock violence probably indicates some serious underlying social problems. And perhaps biological problems, as posited in the Butler novels.)


Me, I'm not sure about Fascist. But I do think that people seeking entertainment in mock violence probably indicates some serious underlying social problems.

Violent spectacle has been a major chunk of our entertainment by way of the mediaeval hanging holidays right back to the Roman colliseum, or the classical Greek tragedies, and doubtless earlier.

I'm much more concerned with the ideological normalization of the will to violence. It's a cheap shot, frankly. We ought to be able to do better.


I want to say nobody dies in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire (about artist hippy types, though it's been a long time since I read it and I could be misremembering it) and Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Evans-Watts (Watts seems to write non violent fantasy about ordinary folks, going by the two books of his I've read).


Fair enough. But I do wonder, sir: Have you ever had the sublime experience of someone showing you a weapon, and quite credibly threatening your life, because you accidentally cut him off in traffic on the way into a supermarket parking lot?

I can't quite say I recommend the experience, but I did find it a very salutary lesson in the value of a high regard for the rights and intrinsic worth of man -- specifically, that I'm not the only person who gets to decide how much such ideas are worth; it turns out that the person brandishing a weapon in my face gets a say, too.


"Neptune's Brood" sounds awesome. Whenever I try to think about interstellar finance in a standard physics universe, eventually I get to "Step n: ???". I'm very keen to see how this works.

I suppose we have to wait to 2015 to read it, though?

On the killing thing -- ethical problems make for drama: they are the stuff of all fiction. Possible reasons for the use of killing as the go-to ethical problem are 1) a certain amount of laziness among authors, 2) the constraints of length make it hard to do the world-building necessary to show why a non-killing ethical problem is such a big deal. Though China Miéville managed very well in The City & The City.


Money is completely arbitrary even when based on precious metals. The only benefit of the latter is that ordinary people cannot create it in significant quantities. The modern equivalent would be Bitcoin.


I've always enjoyed space trader stories. Will this qualify as one of those, as it's dealing with slower-than-light economics?


OH.. K ...must trot downstairs and look for my Sector General Novels well as Jim's other Stuff .. I'm looking for " The Dream Millennium " which is Jim Whites answer to American GUN Culture .. Jim was raised in Northern Ireland amidst The Troubles and had a great deal of Medical Experience - at the wrong end of Experience, by virtue of having been afflicted with Diabetes that would eventually rob him of most of his eyesight and sadly kill him all too soon.

Anyway in one of the Early Sector General- VAST Multi Species Hospital in SPACE - stories Jim has a £Protagonist$ explain to his Main Medico Dr Conway that he - Conway - was in fact a product of a planetary experiment in Pacifism .. that Conway is, in fact, a member of a kind of Protected Species and that the other Species of the Galactic Mixed Race Cocktail were ever so much more Violent than he had been led to believe.. until the point of Denouncement in which Conway had to be brought to the realisation that, despite the GOOD Doctors pacifist beliefs, all Soldiers weren't Evil by default on account of their spin-towards directed, and controlled, Violence.

Do you know that there are people in this world who honestly believe that the best way to teach their children to deal with violence is to ensure that they don't know how to fight? You've got to ' Laff ' aint you?

So, " The Dream Millennium "

Which is a ..well, a kind of counter to Robert Heinleins " ..oh, good grief, my Memory .. 'aff a mo' ..still in Willy Garvin arch cockney geezer Mode thanks to our Hosts latest effort .. down stairs ... oh don't need to ..Google ' Robert Heinlein an armed society is a polite .. and there we have ...

followed by ..I did find the paperback but this is easier ..

So, in that plot line list of lives a terrorist explains to Conway ...oops Not Dr Conway but an airline pilot that a "Sheep " like him wouldn't understand ..and then put a bullet through the pilots brain by way of 'explanation'

Socio paths RULE ! Or words to that effect.

So onwards to Charlie at 19 ..

" 'll grant that the "rogue dog" problem clearly exists with humans. However, unlike a dog, you can usually reason with a human, or subject them to cognitive-behavioural therapy. Or at worst segregate them from the rest of the population. (The reason we kill dangerous dogs is because (a) we don't attribute to them the same rights and intrinsic worth that we ascribe to a human being, and (b) trying to rehabilitate or contain them then becomes cost-ineffective.)"

You can sort of reason or at least 'train 'some dogs and Humans into the constructive use of violence or you wouldn't have Police Dogs .. or Police Men/Women. We are at one social level members of a Wolf/Hominid Pack/family /clan but most of us don't personally go for the throat unless its called for.

Unfortunately there are people ..and Dogs/Wolves /Pit Pull Dogs ..who wont follow the ancient rules of letting go of the throat short of death of the loser in any given fight.

What to do with the Socio-paths of any species is a big problem if you decide that you don't want to put them to death...and a bigger problem if you decide that you do want to kill them because what do you do to them then if your polity is a bit short of money and Socio-path Confinement Costs are a bit on the steep side ?

And then there are otherwise gentle and physically ineffectual people who just long to provoke violence as, well ... say, you were doing your best to solve a potentially violent problem - without spilling blood and then, after the event, and, precarious, peace was made ... potential Male Victim said " Oh I KNEW that he/They would make mince meat of me but I longed to see YOU HURT him!!! because I knew that you wouldn't let him/them hurt me! "

Then extrapolate that up through the organisational levels of political control of the Ape/Wolfe Pack

Oh well, as a complexity of cooperative Species our" Pack " is capable of learning from our mistakes and can curb and control the tendency towards lethal violence. Editing the tendency out of our species ? Isn't really a practical option.Even given genetic engineering and social engineering of an improbably perfect scale there are still going to be gentle people who long for control and management of a perfect weapon ....just in case. Where's the Harm? We are the Good Guys and would never press that big Red Button.


Second to last, Agent to the Stars. Your mileage must vary considerably depending on your taste in authors. I can't remember a Connie Willis protagonist killing anyone, and Gene Wolfe and Terry Pratchett have their share of nonviolent protagonists.


You're wrong about "Holy Fire"; there are deaths in it. Oddly, they're mostly suicide -- although there is an attempted murder.


About non-lethal protagonists: Maybe you're not reading enough female authors. I don't recall the protagonists killing anyone in Jo Walton's Among Others, in anything by Connie Willis, or in almost anything by Ursula Le Guin. (C. J. Cherryh, now... .)


Off the topic of space opera, but on the topic of carpal tunnel syndrome....

If you figure out good mitigation strategies, please blog about them.


Non violent protagonists: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson and Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds?

I could be wrong, I have an appalling memory for plot details.


"I want to say nobody dies in...and Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Evans-Watts (Watts seems to write non violent fantasy about ordinary folks, going by the two books of his I've read).

Correction: Lawrence Watt-Evans.

And some of his books have a whole lot of violence; more so than some military sf/fantasy.


Congrats on crossing the finish line!

I'm 87K words deep into a novel that looks like it'll top out around 150K, so I still have a little ways to go.

The protagonists are mostly non-violent, even though they frequently find themselves in situations where violence by others is a direct result of their actions. This makes them profoundly uncomfortable, especially when they end up forcing others to be violent on their behalf (such as a surgically augmented Gorilla, who is a Buddhist). Their passive-aggressive violence has become one of those unforseen but intriguing themes that develops during the writing process.


Charlie @ 22
Always excepting MetPlod's firarms unit, who seem horribly trigger-happy to me ......


Oh, KSR's malevolent activists massacred people in fair numbers; it just happened off stage and involved impoverished Earthicans who it is ok to kill in the cause of rewilding.


If Neo had taken the other pill and we'd carried on watching his dull life as a cubicle drone he wouldn't have killed anyone - but would we have watched the film?

This would be a much more interesting film. Neo takes the blue pill and when he wakes, he is still aware that the world in which he lives is an illusion (he is the One after all, so the pill-program might not effect him the way it does everyone else). He goes about his life, attempting to subvert the machines from within, non-violently. Perhaps he founds a group opposed to Morpheus and the Zionists (who, after all, are basically religious terrorists). Neo and his group act more like the Merry Pranksters, trying to wake people up through shocks of beauty and surreal humor.

This version of the Matrix would be directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.


Pratchett's "Unseen Academicals", ongoing. Before that was a collection of Sprague de Camp's short stories a month or two ago. Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat stories also come to mind, as do Turtledove's juveniles and Spider Robinson's work. Other examples are fiction without a single protagonist, so they don't count.

I suggest that this reflects the decline of SF other than pulp adventure after the 1970s. A certain kind of story is quite hard to find right now, perhaps because SF of ideas is traditionally a short story form not a novel form. That was one reason I was glad to find one more living SF author worth reading in our generous host!


" Neo and his group act more like the Merry Pranksters, trying to wake people up through shocks of beauty and surreal humor." ..

and it would have been called " Alice in Wonderland " or possibly ' Neos Adventures Underground ' with Neo as Alice and Morpheus as either the White Rabbit or maybe the Cat

" Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.
The Cat: Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.
Alice: How do you know I'm mad?
The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here.
Alice: And how do you know that you're mad?
The Cat: To begin with, a dog's not mad. You grant that?
Alice: I suppose so,
The Cat: Well, then, you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."


I am so looking forward to "Neptune's Brood". Did you use Krugman's thoughts on interstellar trade and economics as a framework at all?


In the 3rd matrix movie there's a climactic battle scene in which machines attack and are destroyed almost continuously for 15 or 20 minutes. I was watching it on a NetFlix DVD at home; a few minutes into that scene I paused the disc and went into the kitchen to make a snack and a cup of tea. When I came back, I fast-forwarded through the battle, because I was bored to tears by it. There was an 18 minute car chase in the 2nd movie that I fast-forwarded through the last 5 minutes or so of for similar reasons. Violence does not equal excitement. I would much rather have watched the alternate "Neo's Adventures Underground".

Much of my reaction to killing in SF has to do with the reaction of the protagonist to it. If they simply accept it and go with it, I'm usually annoyed, because to my mind the tension between the perceived need to commit undesirable acts and the character's ethical standards is one of the few reasons I can think of to include that level of violence. See the recent internet discussions about the use of rape as a character-driver in fiction for just about all of the arguments that can be raised either way about killing as a trope.

One of the reasons I like Lois Bujold's "Vorkosigan" stories is that the main characters are all people with military training and experience in combat, including the killing of their enemies, yet they all recognize the need to limit killing as much as possible, as much for pragmatic reasons of limiting the damage war does to society as for ethical reasons. And they are all aware of the fact that there's no guarantee that only the bad guys die, even when the situation allows you to know who the "bad guys" are.


I read 'Chocky' today and no one was killed in that (although Matthew did probably feel like killing his little sister at times) :)

Looking forward to reading TAC.


Well, I vividly remember that Blue Mars began with the Kakaze (Firestorm - the native martian radicals/terrorists) attacking the elevator.

The revolution of 2121 didn't stay peaceful for long.

Then again, I probably won't read it again. I stopped re-reading the trilogy when I finally didn't just notice but got annoyed with the fact that KSR was shouting from the top of his political soapbox all the way through. (Mind you, there is half my life between the first time I read it and this time.)


IIRC Martin doesn't kill anyone in Singularity Sky. This is the only book of yours that I've read. Is it a common theme for your protagonists to be non-violent?

P.S. Looking forward to reading Iron Sunrise and Accelerando.


Perhaps I'll rephrase that... I am disturbed by the tendency of humans throughout history, including yours truly, to be entertained by violence both real and fictitious. I suspect it indicates something deeply wrong with the way we're raised, and possibly the way we're wired (particularly us men).

Though I'll grant you things have gotten much better lately, at least in some parts of the world; watching Takishi Kovacs machine-gun villainous types in the privacy of one's brain is a big improvement on watching actual human beings get their heads chopped off.

That people used to be perfectly fine with seeing others die, and now would for the most part be nauseated by it... I think that, at least, says something good.

(And speaking of Takishi Kovacs, I think I'll mention that IMO "Altered Carbon" would have benefited hugely from keeping more of the violence off-screen, so to speak. Not all that is violent is entertaining, nor is all that is entertaining violent.)


Non-violent protagonist doesn't mean "nobody dies". It also doesn't mean that nobody else is violent.

There are lots of violent people in Elizabeth Moon's "Remnant Population", for example, but the protagonist is not one of them.

It's telling that a book from the 90s is the first one that came to mind.


You had me at "communist space squids".


The protagonist of Among Others does kill at least one person, albeit unwittingly.


Thanks for the Amazon link to 5000 Years of Debt, have a few crisps on me.

Perhaps you could post Charlie's Recommended Reading every now and then. Unless you've already done that. I'm going to look.


John Brunner's The Long Result.


That's Lawrence Watt-Evans -- no S on Watt, and Evans at the end.

I started out writing sword & sorcery, with lots of deaths and protagonists killing their enemies, and then somewhere in the mid-'80s I decided to move away from that. I was very pleased when I first managed to write a fantasy adventure novel where no one died -- I think it was around 1987. I haven't kept track since then, but I'm pretty sure I've written several now, and most of my protagonists aren't killers.


The rule of no faster than light travel really never made much sense to me. It seems such an arbitrary rule to follow. Even assuming relativity is correct, which it isn't, there have been proposed a number of ways around the c-limit which certainly fall within the range of possibility when you are talking about settings that take place many hundreds of years in the future, or more.
Frankly, I'd be more concerned about the coming serial computing slow down. We can do embarassingly parallel computing easily, or even typical multi-threading, but a "firm" limit on serial processes is going to hinder those super gizmos that future people will be using (not to mention what the heck is powering them).
Sorry, for the rant. The whole "can't break c" thing always bugged me since it seemed, if anything, to imply that the writer is embarrased to be working in the genre and thus they will be grownup and work with these rather random restrictions in place.
Regardless, I very much enjoy your works and hope you have a chance to rest your wrists for an extended time soon.


liam, if you can prove relativity isn't correct there is a Nobel Prize waiting for you. Perhaps two. Actually, if you could shake relativity's foundations just a little bit you would probably win a Nobel.

But I think most of us would say you can't just say 'relativity isn't correct' as if that were established fact or even plausible. Many, many clever scientists have tried to tear holes in it for 100 years and as far as I know they have all failed. Relativity is _THE_ cornerstone of physics because it works: we have all the experimental evidence one could wish.

You can write novels with FTL spaceships, galactic empires and huge merchant fleets carrying grain and livestock daily to the Core Worlds, and with wizards, orcs and trolls too. And great novels they can be... but odds are, such things can't exist. In my humble opinion they are phantasy, not science fiction.


Charlie, have you done anything about the keyboard you use? A buddy of mine had the fingerworks touch keyboard back in the day, basically two touch panels with silk screened keys on it instead of mechanical switches. Zero effort to type. You lose accuracy and speed of course, but minimal impact on your body parts he claimed.


Why I read these articles:
(1) The violence thread...oh my yes! Doeasn't the body count seem to be increasing - along with other collateral damage.
(2) The research and reading assignments needed to keep up with Charlie. (You make it look easy mate, that's the mark of a professional.)


Charlie, have you done anything about the keyboard you use? A buddy of mine had the fingerworks touch keyboard back in the day, basically two touch panels with silk screened keys on it instead of mechanical switches. Zero effort to type. You lose accuracy and speed of course, but minimal impact on your body parts he claimed.


GR is demonstrably not correct, and the best example of how it's not correct is quantum mechanics.

GR just happens to be our best theory (so far) for describing the very large, but it's useless at the very small.

Even if we never manage to improve on it, it no more reflects 'reality' than any of the theories that went before it.

Just like Camelot, it's only a model.


Back when it was written and published, E.E. Smith, in The Skylark of Space could get away with having the scientist-hero saying, when FTL just happens, "Observation beats theory." Back then, there wasn't anything like as much observation that supported relativity.

The thing is, FTL doesn't stop you telling interesting stories. But it is maybe one of a set of tools which lets you avoid other uncomfortable ideas. If you don't use FTL, what alternatives are there? Do you have your heroes on a ship, looping through repeated 1812s? Do you write Trafalgar with dragons, instead of a distant colony world with dragons? Do you hope that the reader gets the idea of Alternate History?

Yes, FTL has problems. But everyone has heard of Star Trek. It doesn't get in the way of telling a story.


GR demonstrably is correct it just doesn't apply to everything. As with any theory it explains everything before it and a good deal more but it doesn't explain everything, and it doesn't have to.

Regardless there is no theory that suggests FTL communicaton or travel is possible (with the exception of highly speculative wormhole and warp proposals that rely on energy condition violating matter that probably doesn't exist) and if it were then we would be living in a world with time travel.


I'm still waiting for a computer game made by a big publisher where the protagonist doesn't become a serial killer in the first ten minutes, and proceeds to murder hundreds or even thousands during the next hours.


@Kdansky: Every sports game or racing game in the last 25 years? Nearly every adventure game. Sims games if you didn't lock your Sims up to starve them to death.


@ 58 / 59
The problem is that Relativity works, and appears entirely correct.
Quantum Mechanics also works and appears entirely correct.
They disagree, violently.
Erm, err ......
This is an ongoing problem.
Definitely the Nobel in Physics for whoever sorts that little difficulty out.

Violence or lack of it (not killing a Human, specifically)
LotR ... lots of killing, except for the main protagonist - Frodo never kills anyone, does he?
Even Sam, the Gardener, kills a couple of Orcs, but Frodo does not.
Heinlein - "Glory Road" .. Mr Gordon, the hero, kills non-humans and consructs, but no other real human being ....

Incidentally, I posted earlier, about #post 21 (just before the one that begins "Oops!"), and the system eat it - held for moderation ...
No internal links, or did I unexpectedly use a key/trip-word that triggered a cache-response, or what?


I don't think Miles has killed anyone in most of Lois Bujold's recent Vorkosigan books - there were occasional deaths due to negligence, but the focus is now purely on politics and intrigue, not on big battles and spaceships.


On the carpal tunnel issue, rule #1 is, "if you do something repetitive and your hands begin to hurt, STOP DOING IT AT ONCE." Rule #2 seems to be, "if you did something that made your hands hurt, stopped doing it, and they aren't getting better, SEE WHAT ELSE YOU'RE DOING (and stop doing it)".

I've had various run-ins with RSI over the years. A bad office chair is a classic cause -- and most chairs die after a few years (I used to get a signal to this effect from shooting pains in my wrists: final cure was to switch to Aerons, which are great until they suddenly go BANG and the frame snaps, at which point you procure a replacement part and everything is great again).

This attack was caused by an unavoidable 12-hour work day in a hotel room -- hotel desk/chair combinations are an ergonomic disaster. Then I discovered it wasn't getting better. Cause: the combination of my office desk at home with the slope of the floor in my office (it's 190 years old and bows in the middle). Temporary cure: laptop on sofa. Things are now improving. Long-term cure: look into better shims for the desk (it's a 1960s Scandinavian bureau that I have no intention of ditching), and/or continuous variation of position (desk/sofa/standing migration every few hours).

But there's no permanent cure for RSI, because our bodies change over time; what works when you're 35 may not work when you're 45. So stay alert!


SO19 are trigger-happy, but the flip side of that is that they exist to cover that kind of situation for the rest of the London Met, who don't have the tools with which to be trigger-happy. I think you really have to average out their shooting score across the whole of that rather large police force to get an accurate picture.


There is a complication with series novels. The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold - where characters are born, grow up, mature. A character might kill somebody as a younger person, but change later in life.

Is there a distinction to be made from somebody who actually kills somebody else, vs. somebody who orders a killing, or orders actions that he or she knows, will result in deaths?

In Bujold's novel, Barrayar, there is a civil war going on. Most of the main characters all kill somebody, or order a killing, or really want to kill. All are pretty sick about it afterwards.

In Bujold's "Warrior's Apprentice" - hero gets involved in a civil war, and while he does not kill anybody - he allows others, or orders them to battle, and takes responsibility.

In her "Komarr" - a man gets killed by accident - but the terrorists are actually fairly peaceful, and dealt with in a peacable manner - they are carefully persuaded to give up. No killings wanted!

In "A Civil Campaign" - people get beaten up - and threatened - nobody dies. I will say, that as courtships and wedding plans go - it involes more than normal mayhem. NO killing, though

So question is - how do you consider Miriam who starts out as quite a different individual as a reporter, from the tough person that she ends up as? Do you consider individual books in a series, or the series as a whole?


Did you use Krugman's thoughts on interstellar trade and economics as a framework at all?

No (although I re-read it). Reason: he speculates about relativistic interstellar travel, while the fastest starship in the Freyaverse is limited to about 1% of lightspeed: trade is information, transmitted via laser/microwave beacon. (Information which can include serialized robot minds for download into bodies at the other end: minds with skills and knowledge ...)


para 3 - I'd suggest, if you accept that Nexus 7 Replicants are concious (sp) beings, Deckard is a killer (whether he's a Replicant himself or not).


The rule of no faster than light travel really never made much sense to me. It seems such an arbitrary rule to follow.

Alas, if you don't follow it you're writing fantasy. While general relativity doesn't definitively exclude FTL, the universe we observe doesn't appear to exhibit it. Sticking it in your fiction makes as much sense as assuming the reality of an immaterial but immortal human soul; and it's usually used as a magic wand to permit certain types of plot to work. (One of the few exceptions I can think of is "Timescape" by Gregory Benford ...)


I was thinking in terms of "Remnant Population" too; also Elizabeth's "Speed of Dark" (If you've not read SoD and enjoyed RP, I strongly suggest reading SoD), and Joan Slonczewski's "The Highest Frontier".


It was possible to play "Deus Ex" (the first one) without killing anyone (it was believed you had to kill one character for years, but one of the dev team corrected the impression a couple of years ago). For a game that you can play as if you're piloting an Arnold Schwarzenegger character, that's kind of impressive.


Well, the last statement on the subject of relativity that Stephen Hawking made paraphrases as "I think there may be a hole in GR that you can fly a warp-drive starship through".

If you have a contra statement from an equally authoratative source, I'd like to know who, what and about when.


Greg: you missed the protagonist's human-killing activities in "Glory Road". It's too long since I read LoTR but I vaguely recall Frodo being involved in more than one fight with intent to kill. And so on.

The trouble is, violence is so pervasive in genre fiction that we get inured to it. Like too much salt in fast food.


Despite my comment in #75, I'd agree with you that it is scarily rare for people to not get killed in genre fiction.


Enough FTL arguments, Charlie, Scrivener for real world long novels - lessons learnt?


Frodo could reasonably be said to have killed Gollum. Sure, the proximate cause was volcano, but they were fighting pretty viciously at the time.


Scrivener for real world novels, lessons learned:

I think that's a separate blog entry, don't you?

(When my hands recover, i.e. tomorrow.)


Excuse me, but first of all shouldn't you provide a where, when and how about that astounding Stephen Hawking's statement?

Besides, in real life(TM) practical FTL spaceships would be very bad news. That they were possible would make Fermi's Paradox implications 100 times more terrifying... and they already are more than enough terrifying for my taste.


At that point Frodo was well under the influence of the ring, and fighting for his life against someone who bit his finger off. It'd be manslaughter at the most :)

Pratchett and Baxter's The Long Earth has nonviolent protagonists. Joseph is described as killing the alpha male of a tribe of violent primates in a report but it's self defense and the creature is described as an animal.

Videogame violence... I think in most of the metal gear games you can get by without killing anyone, there's a particular scene in Snake Eater where you will walk in a near death scene along a river that is filled with the walking corpses of all the people you have killed in the game, all moaning and complaining about the specific injuries you inflicted. Hideo Kojima is always playing these kinds of meta games with his audience.

Mirror's edge is a mostly parkour chase game so you can get by avoiding the police and security officers that chase you. Grabbing their guns and drilling them is always an option but the game gives you an achievement if you don't kill anyone.


violence is so pervasive in genre fiction that we get inured to it

Part of this is probably that in the US centric media industry, violence is endemic and acceptable while sex is christian and hidden. In other worldly media, the ratios change, and so do the stories.

Another thing is that I think we're often seeing stories from history or other genres translated into SF with little alteration. David Drake based something like 90% of his work on Roman and Greek battles, events and stories that resonate down the years. Much of the Baen stable is basically the plots of penny dreadful WWII thrillers and westerns with Pew Pew Lasers And Aliens.
And they tap into a market that is probably rather jaded of the lack of any real progress into the FUTURE of the Fifties and Sixties when anything seems possible combined with the far more cynical bent to the world since 2001.

Look at the movies - compare how often you see a thoughtful SF film like Gattaca compared with the Boom Boom Pow of Battleship or Transformers. All are clearly SF, but the populace simply doesn't reward investment in thinking works to the same extent.
Compare the well receieved in Japan popularity of something thoughtful like Planetes with the shrugs it got in the US.


"Sticking it in your fiction makes as much sense as assuming the reality of an immaterial but immortal human soul;"

Better stay away from the Simulation Argument then, otherwise it's synonymous with a backup. And you don't get much more immaterial than software.


Huh? There's nothing immaterial about software. Or am I missing the point?

Personally, I think that the discovery of a causality-violating FTL "short cut" is more likely than feasible relativistic travel; given, with the latter, the sheer energy requirement to get to where time dilation helps you. But I rate both possibilities as pretty much infinitesimal. Eventual colonization of the solar system I rate as a good deal more likely, barring a collapse of civilization; but as far as I'm concerned, we had better make our peace with this planet, because we're going to be stuck here for a long, long time.


The simulation argument is deeply, annoyingly, difficult to refute. It's the post-Turing equivalent of Pascal's Wager.

However, we refute Pascal's Wager these days by pointing to the many gods objection. The weakness in the wager is that Pascal formulated it within an assumed Christian framework; he assumed a binary choice ("God exists/God does not exist") rather than a continuum of possible creators including a vast number of non-Christian ones (in which case worshipping the Christian god doesn't buy you salvation).

So, too, with the ancestor simulation hypothesis: we're making the mistake of assuming that we are among the ancestral forms of interest to the simulation operators. This is a baseless assumption because we have no information about the likely ancestry of creatures capable of running such a simulation; nor do we know that we or our descendants will be capable of creating such a sim.

So, by analogy with objections to Pascal's Wager, I think disbelief in the simulation hypothesis makes most sense at this time (although I wouldn't mind being proven wrong, I think).


I think it quite reasonable to assume that ancestor simulations will begin as soon as the capability exists, which is probably within a century. And the reasons why *now* is the most likely era to be simulated are:
a) Sufficient records exist to allow plausible reconstructions eg medical records, blogs, videos etc.
b) Those doing the simulating will likely remember their dead parents/grandparents and will want to bring them back.
It also gives us an indication of the number of simulations likely to be run - probably in the billions.
There was a question I once asked on extrobritannia list a few years ago:
"If, when I have such simulation capabilities, I resolve to runs what-if simulations of my past life is it more likely that I am now living in such a simulation?"


As a corollary - the closer we get to such capability the more likely it is that we live in such a simulation. Assuming, of course, that the amount of information needed for running such a sim increases right up to the point where the capability exists.
One might also posit that the older a person is as that capability nears the more likely it is that they are in an ancestor simulation given that they die before it arrives.


Software is inherently immaterial, since it is pure information encoded into various forms of matter and energy.


Au contraire, I think ancestor sims are likely to be a fuckton harder to create than you imagine. It's clearly an AI-complete problem, and then some: it requires running full simulations of intelligent minds, by the billion, along with a sufficiently accurate simulation of their world that they can't pick holes in it. It's extremely unlikely unless we really are on the run-up to an AI singularity.


Assuming, of course, that the amount of information needed for running such a sim increases right up to the point where the capability exists.

Here's a point, Dick: plausible subjects for a targeted - rather than more expensive global - simulation project would be well known people with very well documented personal thoughts, such as verbose bloggers. If the people aren't remembered nobody will fund the simulation, and if their records aren't accurate (like politicians' sanitized biographies and public statements) the data is worthless. Bonus points for someone who worked in a field where an AI simulation could extend the original's work, knowingly or not. Does that sound like anyone you know?

Among the support features would be commenting personalities on the blog, but they wouldn't need to be fully simulated or even AIs most of the time; a moderately advanced chatbot will do just fine. are you feeling?


Information only exists as far as it is encoded in [i]stuff.[/i] There's no such thing as "pure information," any more than there is "pure energy"; the idea that the information has an existence in and of itself is just a layer of abstraction that's convenient for human brains.


The real question is: who will want to run such simulations? Do I want to bring some blogger back from the dead in a sim? Personally, I would rather bring back my parents, grandparents and friends who have died.
Anyway, I discuss all of this in my new book which you can find on the URL attached to my name above. No Kindle version yet since mobi is turning out to be a real PITA wrt formatting correctly.


First off, I think simulating the real world will be rather easy. After all nobody in their right mind will simulate atoms at the center of the Earth. All that has to be simulated is the stuff necessary for feeding the Human senses, which probably amounts to low megabits persecond or less. It may even be that the interior of objects are not simulated either until there is an interaction with a mind in the Sim.

As for general brain emulation, there are a couple of plans for running high level whole brain simulations by 2020 already, so we should know a lot more later. In general though, I supect you are correct and it will take some serious posthuman AI to actually reconstruct a mind. However, even if it take 200 years I expect that there are people alive now who will be alive then, and they will certainly have motivation in terms of family reunions etc.


Grr, forgot I can't use BBCode here.

Anyway, I consider the whole concept of a thing with an "immaterial" existence in its own right to be absurd.

As for the simulation argument, it seems to me that assuming by default that one is in a simulation doesn't help anyone; so why assume it in the absence of positive evidence? It's an interesting question, but barring evidence its practical import is essentially nil.


One should assume it because there are presumably a whole lot of people who will *not* be resurrected, allowed to pass go or offered tea and biscuits with the gods. Ted Bundy springs to mind, but he is hardly alone.


If you're saying what I think you're saying... That's assuming the Maintainers of the simulation are benevolent, and willing to resurrect anyone for any reason whatsoever. Which we have no reason at all to believe, IMHO, given the state of the universe we live in.


a) I tend to side with Bertrand Russell on such things. If the top layer of oranges are rotten, they're probably rotten all the way down.

b) Belief in a Cosmic Punisher has not stopped people from committing atrocities historically, and will not stop people from committing atrocities any time soon.


The real question is: who will want to run such simulations? Do I want to bring some blogger back from the dead in a sim? Personally, I would rather bring back my parents, grandparents and friends who have died.

Sure. And if there's the technology to simulate the whole Earth someone will come up with reasons why we should do it. What about before that, when it's a marginal technology?

Here's one that might get funded early. How about cornering George Lucas at the wrap party for Return of the Jedi and getting him started on the next trilogy then? Instead of screwing around for a few decades, he might have started work on the next movie then, when his skills were still sharp. How many people would chip in to fund a new Star Wars movie made by the George Lucas who was still hot off of the first three? (It's not a wholly original idea; there was a story involving time travel and cloning wherein the backers wanted new Shakespeare plays.) Yes, I'd like to talk to my late grandmother - but there's more money for a fourth Star Wars movie that was actually good, particularly once the sysadmins point out that they can just hit the reset button any time Lucas 2.0 starts thinking Jar-Jar Binks would be a good idea.


The self-domestication argument is fun, and I'll admit that I even played with it a while back on my blog, when I noted the similarities between island species and domesticated species.

There are some good aspects and some bad aspects to this argument. On the good side, the anatomic and fossil evidence seems to suggest that we're undergoing domestication: there's more of us (typically domestic species are far more common than their wild ancestors, and our demonstrably wild ancestors and congeners are all extinct), our brains are getting smaller (a common anatomical feature of domestication), and we're arguably more prone to juvenile activity (another common factor in domestication). We may also be seeing sexual maturity at a younger developmental age (neoteny, another frequent sign of domestication), but that's more likely to be due to changes in diet and the increased hormone mimics we're pumping into the environment. In fact, the characteristics of domestic mammals (ranging from horses to cats and silver foxes) are so similar that I suspect it's part of a whole gene complex bound up with evolutionary selection for increased sociability.

On the bad side, domestic doesn't mean non-violent. Dogs, horses, and pigs maim and kill many more people than do wolves, wild horses, and wild boar, although the latter may be more dangerous on a per animal basis. They also tend to actively avoid us, unlike domestic dogs, horses, and pigs, and unsocialized domestic animals are certainly a threat. Domesticated humans are not intrinsically non-violent. Rather, we're strongly socialized not to be physically violent, and it's an imperfect process that takes decades.

Getting back to Aaron and Dirk's original point, it's worth pointing out that there's a tremendous spectrum of violence, from attacking someone's reputation online to engaging them on Wall Street or in court, to punching them in a bar, to nuking them to plasma. These forms of violence are not at all the same thing. I'd go so far as to say that no one can specialize in all forms of violence, and that even so-called non-violent people simply simply refuse to engage in physical violence, not to forgo conflict in all its myriad forms.

As for non-violent characters, I don't recall Sue Smith (Halting State, Rule 34) ever killing anyone, and I'm pretty sure that if Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax ever killed someone, it was by accident, even though both are pretty combative. Then there's Pratchett's DEATH, who kills everyone, but seems to be entirely non-violent unless seriously provoked.


What's more violent - smashing in someone's head with a baseball bat or pushing a button?


>I'm pretty sure that if Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax ever killed someone, it was by accident

Vimes kills the lead werewolf, Angua's brother, in the fifth elephant. It's quite deliberate. He's of the opinion that dangerous, predatory people need to be put down.

Granny Weatherwax I can imagine having similar motives and making it look like an accident but definitely not "accidentally".

Hmm, the vampire eaten by Greebo in Witches abroad might count, though maybe he should be credited to Nanny Ogg, it's her cat after all.

Vetinari's secretary in Guards! Guards! was killed by Carrot interpeting the order to "throw the book at him" a bit too literally. I think we can chalk that one to accident too...


And after killing the werewolf, Vimes very carefully refrains from making any pithy one liners, despite thinking of a few, because that would make it murder.

But Vimes in interesting - he's emphatically not a pacifist - throughout his books he uses violence frequently. He just won't do anything outside the bounds of the law* and a sense of justice, and his own psyche rigidly holds himself to that idea.

*Indeed in Night Watch iirc he explicitly forbids his men to consider the range of products of Mrs Goodbody at such-and-such address and if asked quietly he emphatically would not demonstrate a range of special blows suitable for said equipment.


Granny Weatherwax has deliberately chosen to kill the infant rather than the mother during a long labour which she judged they could not both survive. Start of Carpe Jugulum, I think.


Vimes also mercy kills some folks in Night Watch. And Carrot has deliberately killed at least one person.

On that topic - I don't believe any of the protagonists in Scalzi's last two books kill anyone.

On the simulation topic - if this reality is a simulation, why assume that it's anywhere as detailed as the real reality? Maybe this is the dumb, less resource intensive version.


It is almost inevitably nowhere near as detailed as baseline reality. Why simulated the core of Neptune down to the subatomic level?


As I recall, in "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell", one of the protagonists spent several months supporting Arthur Wellesley in his Peninsular Campaign...

As for non-violent, I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned Arthur C. Clarke. I can't think of a single violent protagonist in any of his books; they were notable for their ambitions rather than their physiques, and they attacked social or engineering problems, not people.

I suppose this is an excuse to retread the "what is SF for" debate of weeks gone by. If a metaphor for a hoped-for and golden future, then non-violence makes much more sense. If a metaphor for the messy and violent world we live in, then it's harder.

If you're selling a 19th-century sailing drama to a target audience of young male geeky types, then a heroic protagonist who beats up the bullies and dates the cheerleaders makes a certain degree of sense. In contrast, I prefer my protagonists more like OGH, and less like Wilbur Smith...


While it's true that Clarke was in general strongly against war and the use of violence (see his short story "Second Dawn"), the novel "Earthlight" is about a (short but violent) interplanetary war in which people do get killed.


ANd there's "Glide Slope", in which none of the protagonists do anything more violent than possibly a drunken fist fight, but they are engaged in developing a blind landing system for use by returning bombers in WW2, so are certainly enabling violence.


"ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn't kill someone"

Blue Remembered Earth, few weeks ago.


As wars go, the one in "Earthlight" was extremely mild. I think casualties on each side were in the several hundreds, all of them combatants.

Few enough that all names (both sides) fit on one not particularly large monument.


"Neptune's Brood" is interesting in its implied violence.

The protagonist is not the universe.


Two SF works I've (re)read recently, where the protagonist kills nobody:

- Bujold's excellent novella, The Mountains of Mourning, a couple of weeks ago. There's one death, off camera, which is the subject of a murder investigation. After due process of law, Miles Vorkosigan finds the killer guilty, and decides not to apply the death penalty.

(I think my favorite Miles moment is where he shows an 8-foot-tall, genetically-engineered supersoldier how to destroy a criminal empire: Place one fingertip on a thermostat, and push gently. A bare minimum of force, applied at the appropriate point.)

- Greg Egan's excellent Incandescence. Several characters die while saving their species from a natural disaster. But out of the three civilizations in the novel, I can't think of a single character who's even impolite. In fact, much of the novel's drama involves finding ethical answers to extraordinary situations.



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