April 2013 Archives

Every so often it amuses me to come up with ideas, conceits, and props upon which a story may hinge, even if I have no intention of ever writing such a story. Sometimes I have to brainstorm them, and sometimes they simply tap me on the shoulder politely.

Case in point: while out and about shopping with my spouse, we happened to pass an off-license (liquor store, to those of you in the US) which had a window display of amusing beverages. One of which was a bottle of vodka in the shape of a human skull. "Cool bottle!" Remarked herself; "I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks?" (Said with the cynical tone of one who recognizes marketing aimed at late-teen goths when she sees it.) "I doubt it," I began to reply. And then my muse grabbed me by the ear. (My muse is not a frail willowy thing; they're a bit like this (NSFW cartoon) when they're not AWOL and engaged on a massive bender. But I digress.) "Oi!" roared the Muse, "Get down and gimme an Iain Banks style black comedy plot trope, and do it now!"

"Got it," I said. "Opening chapter of novel: our protagonist has got hold of one of those skull-shaped bottles. He's a bit depressive and is considering suicide, so he fills it up with Polish 80% spirit and then adds mushrooms to make a liqueur. Using Death Cap—Amanita Phalloides. Then in the last chapter someone else drinks it by mistake."

"They misread the label as Liberty Cap!" Suggested she who can read my mind too damned well after all these years. (Psilocybe.)

Well, okay. If I was planning on writing a noir Iain Banks mainstream novel, that bottle would find a way into it for sure, now. But anyway, this prompts me to suggest a blog game. To those of you who can be arsed playing: pick an everyday object you see in your day to day routine, be it shopping or cooking or at work or at play. Then try to come up with a grand guignol story idea anchored by it! C'mon. Show me what you can do ...

I'm a child of the 1970s and 1980s; I grew up under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Prior to the end of the cold war in 1989-91, I don't believe I ever lived more than 10 kilometres from a strategic nuclear target. (I grew up down the road from the biggest tank factory in Europe; went to university in London: subsequently lived and worked within the blast radius of the M62/M1 motorway junction and a regional airport.)

Trying to explain the psychological effects of this period to the young is difficult—all I can do is point then at Threads. However, despite the Lovecraftian horror lurking in the background—the constant awareness that coolly calculating intellects in distant countries might at any time decide out of game-theoretic considerations to rain thunderbolts and earthquakes on my world, effectively destroying it—I was not a supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

But times have changed and I'm reconsidering my position on that subject. Here's why.

I'm back home from a month on the road, with a whole lot of washing to do: in the meantime, I have an announcement which is, I hope, going to be welcome to some.

People periodically ask me about audiobooks—mostly in the UK (Audible do spoken editions of most of my books in the US). The UK is a smaller market than the USA, and it costs quite a bit to pay a voice actor and a sound engineer to go over an entire novel: consequently many of my books haven't been issued in audio editions so far. However, Orbit are doing a refresh of the covers of "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" this summer, and to go with the reissue, they're planning a first UK/Commonwealth audiobook release of these titles! They'll be unabridged, and available as download-only releases from Audible.co.uk and iTunes in early July (sadly, demand for CD audiobooks is too low to make a CD release practical). I believe they'll also be available in Australia, New Zealand, and a few other places (but not the USA or Canada—where a different audiobook edition is already available).

I'll add links to the buy my books page as and when they become available for pre-order.

While wandering around the Internet I discovered an archived story from National Public Radio in the US called "Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?" The reporter referenced psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis, citing his idea that those who are "eminent"—defined as those who had been quite successful early in life—tended to be locked into the patterns of early life, while those who are, ahem, "late bloomers" tend to remain more open to new ideas in middle age.

This sounded like pop psychology to me, but interesting enough to send me scurrying around the Internet looking for more. I couldn't find any other mention of Professor Simonton's theory of eminence and a decline in creativity, but I did go on to read several articles on creativity and novelty-seeking in middle age.

When I was growing up, "middle aged" was a synonym for "boring." Looking ahead across the gulf of years it appeared to me to be a time of life inhabited by people content with a dull routine, with little interest in the new.

Having reached the respectable middle age of fifty-two, I'm happy to report the reality I've experienced is quite a bit different from that.

Just a brief reminder that news is bad for you. No, seriously: publicly available news media in the 21st century exist solely to get eyeballs on advertisements. That is its only real purpose. The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what's going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics. As there's an arms race going on between advertising sales departments, the major news outlets are constantly trying to make their product more addictive. And like most other addictive substance, news is a depressant, one fine-tuned to make you keep coming back for more.

When a particular incident like today's bombing of the Boston marathon kicks off a news cycle, a common pattern asserts itself. First, there's photographic evidence and rumour. Then there's some initial information—immediate numbers of dead and injured, scary photographs. But the amount of new information coming out tapers off rapidly after the first hour or two, and gives way to rumour and speculation. There probably won't be any meaningful updates for a couple of days: but the TV channels and newpapers have to fill the dead air somehow, to keep the eyeballs they've attracted on the advertisements, so they cobble together anything they can grab—usually talking heads speculating without benefit of actual information. Such speculation in turn increases anxiety levels and causes depression, bringing the onlookers back for more.

Which is why I am about to back away from the keyboard, stop looking for more updated news from Boston, and go swimming. Terrible though the bombings may be, we won't learn anything significant about the responsible parties for some time: and in the meantime I see no reason to allow my emotional state to be manipulated for the benefit of advertisers. (And neither should you, unless you're a Bostonian or a relative or friend of someone directly affected, in which case, you have my deepest sympathy. This goes for you, Dan.)

Update: And here's Bruce Schneier with some words of sense.

Additional update: The comments on this blog entry are not intended for wild speculation about the identity and motivation of the bombers; comments on those lines may be deleted, especially if I think they amount to hate speech directed against minorities.

Aloha again, everyone. While Charlie's off on vacation in the tropics, I thought I'd talk a little about my own near-tropical home of Hawaii, looking at it from a writer's point of view. I've lived in Hawaii since I was ten years old and, while I can safely say it's no utopia, overall, things are pretty decent here and as a general rule, people are helpful and friendly. We've been designated the happiest state in the USA for the fourth year running, for good reason.

But is Hawaii a good place to grow a science fiction career? The lack of working SFF novelists here seems to indicate otherwise. The two that I know of are myself and Kate Elliott, and we're on different islands.

Another negative indicator—as much as I hate to say it—is that there isn't a big fan base here, especially for the kind of extrapolative SF I like best. When was the last time you attended a science fiction convention in Hawaii, right? (For those interested, there is a big and growing anime convention called Kawaii-kon... but that isn't quite what I'm talking about.)

So Hawaii lacks SFF writers as well as active fans, and traveling anywhere else to meet them requires at minimum a five-hour plane flight, because we are a long way from anywhere. Professionally then, it's an isolated existence. Still, there are advantages to living here. Metaphorically speaking, Hawaii has a multitude of worlds.

You couldn't make this shit up:


Margaret Thatcher's funeral will have a Falklands War theme, Downing Street reveals
: The Independent break the news that 700 armed forces personnel from units which served in the Falklands conflict will take part in the funeral.

Family veto Argentine officials at funeral.

Police ask Margaret Thatcher protesters to identify themselves (according to The Independent, so that their "right to protest can be upheld".)

I'm very glad to be overseas for the next week and a half. I fully expected Cameron et al to use the Maggon's funeral as a rallying point for their clan, but I wasn't expecting a full-blown Nuremberg Rally. Disgraceful.

Just a brief note: I'll be hanging out this evening (that's Wednesday 10th) again on the evening of Wednesday 17th in Taps beer bar in Kuala Lumpur from 7pm; all welcome. They've got a good range of craft beers, food, and are about fifty metres from Raja Chulan monorail station, at ground level in One Residency on Jalan Nagasari. (If you're not sure what I look like, look for the table with a large plush Cthulhu holding court.)

Update: For those who couldn't make it at short notice, there will be a repeat: same time, same place, on Wednesday 17th.

Aloha, everyone. When Charlie gave me this opportunity to guest-blog, I asked him if it'd be okay if I did a counter-post to his March 21 entry Why I Don't Self-Publish. Charlie readily agreed.

First, it feels necessary to say that there is no best path in this business of writing fiction and every author's career is different. I started in the usual way, with traditional publishing, and had six science fiction novels published by New York houses between '95 and 2003. My work garnered good reviews and there were a couple of awards, but despite my best efforts no meaningful amount of money was going into the family coffers. Economically, I was wasting my time. Emotionally I was inhabited by a deep, dark sense of failure, with no viable means to turn things around. So circa 2000 I more or less walked away from the field for almost ten years. I did not stop writing entirely, but it was close.

In 2009 I woke up to the ebook revolution.

My background and situation let me jump right into self-publishing. I'd worked in web development for nine years, so I knew how to handle the HTML behind ebooks, I was familiar with Photoshop, I'd learned the basics of InDesign, I had the rights back to all my novels, and I had time to devote, since the recession had ended my programming job. So I became my own publisher and reissued the novels, first as ebooks and then in print-on-demand editions.

I found that I loved this new business, because I was in control.

Okay, it's all over the news; no point in ignoring it.

I'm on vacation and I am not going to waste a valuable tourism day venting a third of a century of bile at a person who is, in any case, no longer present. But I'd like to draw your attention to Hugo Young's epitaph; as Thatcher's biographer and sometime interviewer he gives a fairly balanced appraisal. (And I'd like to remind non-Brits that strong leaders are more popular abroad than in their home land, because foreigners don't get to see the skulls that were smashed in the process of building that reputation for "strength".)

Besides, I'm in a contemplative, listening frame of mind right now. So if you have any particular memories of Thatcher, feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

Attention, British readers!

(Administrative note: Yes, I heard the big news. Comments on the subject of today's celebrity death will be un-published. This is not that topic!)

((Aus/NZ readers: see below for an important note.))

Charlie here. I've got two books coming out in the UK this week, and it'd make me extremely happy if you'd consider reading them:

Rapture of the Nerds UK cover Bloodline Feud UK cover

One is The Rapture of the Nerds, Cory Doctorow and my crazed exegesis on the eschatological implications of the Singularity (complete with slapstick chase action and embarrassing incidents in posthuman bathrooms).

And the other is The Bloodline Feud; the first volume of the re-assembled, re-written, as-originally-intended-by-the-author, paratime technothriller Merchant Princes series. (Oh, and the Kindle ebook should be DRM-free, this being a Tor title. Ahem.)

Go on, read them if you haven't already. You know you want to!

Aus/NZ readers: Yes, I know Amazon's region locking sucks. (And yes, it's Amazon, not the publisher.) You can't buy the ebooks from amazon.co.uk. But, weirdly, I am told you can buy them from amazon.com. Click here. (Could somebody who does so please let me know how it went, via the comments? And what land mass you're buying it from? Because I'm in Malaysia right now, and Amazon won't let me see prices at any of these links.)

While I (Charlie) am on vacation for most of a month, you might have noticed some familiar faces popping up to guest-blog here. But variety is good, and so I have a new guest blogger for you: Linda Nagata.

Linda Nagata is the author of multiple novels and short stories including The Bohr Maker, winner of the Locus Award for best first novel, and the novella "Goddesses," the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her "scoundrel lit" series Stories of the Puzzle Lands. Her newest science fiction novel is The Red: First Light, a near-future military thriller published under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Linda has spent most of her life in Hawaii, where she's been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and lately a publisher and book designer. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui.

(I nearly missed her books completely — they have barely been published in the UK. By some freakish accident I stumbled across a copy of "Vast" a few years ago, began reading—and was hooked; first by the chutzpah of the concept presented in the first few pages (how you keep the crew of a slower-than-light starship working for years on end) and then by the rest of her far-future vision. Which seems to me to be unjustly neglected, as it compares well to the works of, for example, Al Reynolds.)

Anyway, I invite you to give a big welcome to Linda Nagata!

Someone told me last weekend that I'm a good listener. My reaction to this was both to be flattered and to be rather surprised -- my inner self is convinced it talks far too much and to far little avail. But in the midst of my surprise I could feel myself nodding, just slightly. Because, you see, I like to listen. I like the sound of voices. Voices matter. They can make all the difference.

The soundtrack to my life is BBC Radio 4. Having spent most of my working life as an educator, I'm used to voice-heavy environments. Indeed, they feel normal to me, and I find it easier to work while others are speaking than I do in silence or to music. I'm not exactly listening to the content -- I frequently realise that I have effectively tuned out an entire show and have little idea what it was about -- but I do hear the voices. And, apart from jazz (sorry, jazz fans, I just don't like jazz, despite extensive exposure), the one thing that is most likely to pull me from the writing fugue is the sound of posh Conservative politicians on my radio. I rise from my concentration like a particularly cranky kraken, and, uttering dire imprecations, change the station.

Because, you see, to me, voice is all about class, and Conservative politicos telling me what's good for me just hits me on a hot button. I'm a first generation lower middle class mostly-Welsh woman from Coventry, and upper class southerners often sound, to me, like they aim to patronise and control. A Chinese colleague once asked me to teach him how to tell what social class background British people came from, and I realised that, although I can identify the social class of people I meet -- and people I hear -- pretty quickly and accurately, it wasn't an ability I could explain or teach easily or quickly. It's something I acquired in early childhood, growing up with the accents of Coventry and Birmingham and the Black Country, with Herefordshire (my father's family) and South Wales (my mother's). Strongly accented voices were the comforting norm; the less marked sounds of the upper classes and the south belonged to outsiders, and outsiders with power at that. The first prime minister I remember was Harold Wilson, a man with a marked regional accent, and the leader of the party my parents supported. When he was replaced in the 1970 election by the Conservative leader Edward Heath, the latter sounded all wrong -- and he made my father, in particular, very irritated. Heath came, in fact, from a working class background, but he had acculturated upwards: he sounded like the class he had joined and represented. The distinction I made between them, as a very young child, was purely rooted in my parents' preferences, but, as with many such early experiences, it's deeply bound into me. Scrolling down many years, I never felt safe with or about Tony Blair -- he sounded too much like the smooth-talking types I associated with the upper classes and the right. But Gordon Brown -- he sounded fine to me, and I was far more willing to trust him, partly because of that.

I would be the last person to say that my prejudices about voice are rational. But underneath it, I remain aware that voice matters, and that it is one of the core ways we British tell each other apart and make judgements about each other. If I list a few regional accents at you -- Geordie, estuary, Liverpool, Home Counties, Edinburgh -- what do you think and who do you think of? The voices we approve -- and the ones we distrust or dislike -- speak volumes about how we see ourselves and where we think we fit within the UK. If you heard me speak -- and I know a number of you who are regulars on Charlie's blog know me or have met me -- I suspect I sound fairly neutral -- between Welsh mother and Herefordshire father, and living all over the Midlands as a child my accent has evened out, until you hear me say the words math and path and castle. Those mark me out at once as someone not from Southern Britain and raised in the social ranks of lower middle and below. I pronounce all those words with a short 'a' (like the initial one in 'ass'), rather than the longer 'ah' sound, and when I arrived at university aged 18, my lower-than-average class origin was there for all to hear -- and to comment on and make assumptions about. I drew conclusions about them from their voices, too, I will add, and I realised fairly early that there weren't that many people at this particular institution who sounded like me and had my social class background. (There was another student from the same area in my college, but they came from much higher up the social ladder and didn't register where I came from until I told them -- and socially we had nothing in common.) I married (well, moved in to live in sin) into a higher social class than the one I come from, and much of my social circle were born posher than me. Most of them don't seem to notice the difference -- we operate mainly according to their set of familiar social behaviours and rules -- or even claim that there is no class any more. But every once in a while, my friend Y (who is also first generation lower middle class) go and drink coffee together and shake our heads over the ways of those from higher echelons.

And my Chinese friend? I thought long an hard about how to answer him, and in the end suggested he look at what people ate and when and how, which is clumsy and wide-ranging, but a lot easier to explain than the tiny variations in voice.
Kari

Iain Banks diagnosed with cancer. (Stage IV, inoperable, months to live.)

I first met Iain about 25 years ago. I am not only an unabashed fan; I consider him an object of emulation, one of the celestial lights I steer my own course by. He's also a very nice guy when you get to know him, if a little bit difficult to buy a pint for. This news has me about as personally upset as you might expect. Cancer: just fuck off, OK?

Greetings. The financial agreements having been finalized, I am now at liberty to publicly announce my big new media project for 2013 — my first movie deal!

Many of you have asked me, "when are we going to see a movie of one of your books?" Secrecy and a non-disclosure agreement have forced me to evade and misdirect callers, but I can now reveal the surprising truth; it could well be on a screen near you as early as fall 2014! However, it's not going to be based on one of my existing novels. My existing long-form fiction has always been problematic from a cinematographic perspective; plot complexity is not an obstacle, but too much introspection and time spent inside my characters' heads is, and unreliable narrators are notoriously hard to convey in film — especially with today's pressure to deliver an action-packed adventure for the short attention span generation. Films are made or broken in their first weekend box-office receipts, and I see no reason to make my first movie my last. So I'm determined to start my new career as a producer with a property that is so hot it glows in the dark.

Producer?

Yes, I'm going into production. Scriptwriting is not my strong point, but thanks to a happy accident of fate I have connections in the financial sector (notably former colleagues from Datacash PLC who now operate the fund processing infrastructure for online casinos based in Cyprus. These businesses are bankrolled by the offshore asset management vehicles of Russian investors, who are now urgently seeking opportunities to realize a return on their assets that take them out of the reach of the Cypriot banking sector). I have the ideas, and I have entered into a strategic partnership with Machinima/CGI special effects house Strange Company to leverage our business synergies in pursuit of this project.

The success of "Iron Sky" demonstrated that kickstarter assisted low to medium budget SFX-dominated movies with a largely unknown cast can achieve cult success and a decent ROI via streaming download distribution without access to the usual studio-dominated theatrical release cycle and retail DVD channels. The existence and enduring popularity of the low-budget gorefest horror sector with plausible non-supernatural monster threats also suggests an option. My analysis of the sector, conducted with the assistance of my agent and production associates, suggests that one particular area is oversubscribed and ripe for creative disruption.

There is a glut of Shark-related wildlife horror on the market at present, from "Megalodon" to "Shark vs. Giant Octopus" and "Sharktopus", not to mention the immortal "Sharks vs. Tanks". Why sharks? Well, they have teeth, and they inspire primal fear of being eaten — especially when accompanied by a John Williams score. So I'm not going to produce a shark movie; instead I'm going to go back to basics, with another popular wildlife phobia. Take a primal threat, inflate it to massive proportions, riff off a parasitic life-cycle that Ridley Scott used to great effect in his most enduring horror creation, and add a high concept. I present to you ...

Specials

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