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Short Story: Bit Rot

Neptune's Brood is due on bookshelves in just over two weeks' time. (And some of you lucky people will probably be able to get your hands on paper copies of it a bit earlier.)

It's set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but a whole lot later. That one was originally written as a stand-alone novel, so why am I going back to the setting?

Well, "Saturn's Children" was indeed a stand-alone when I wrote it, but over the next couple of years I didn't notice any huge holes in the world-building. I had no plans to re-visit it, mind you, but unlike the Eschaton series there was no reason why I couldn't go back there in principle.

Then Jonathan Strahan got in touch. Jonathan is a talented editor, and among the things he edits is a series of theme anthologies. In this case, he wanted to commission a story for an anthology titled Engineering Infinity. "I want hard SF stories, for a new century," he said (I'm going from memory here). Which gave me a headache thinking about it, but then I realized I had a loose end left over from "Saturn's Children", and read a write-up of a funky new phenomenon in high-energy astrophysics in "New Scientist", and suddenly ... bingo! I had "Bit Rot". And more importantly, I had the realization that there was room for another novel in this universe—because if I could write a short story, I could tackle a more ambitious project.

So, without further ado, here's the missing link between "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood":

Bit Rot (epub format ebook)

Bit Rot (Kindle format ebook)

Bit Rot (read it online as HTML)



At least in the HTML version you have

"You, Lamashtu, and I, Lilith, worked out butts off and bought our way into the Lansford Hastings"



Oh, I didn't realise until I reach the bottom that I could comment on the HTML version directly, two more copyedits there.


Don't bother: I'm too busy to fix them.


Thanks for putting this up, it's appreciated. I really like this setting.

Also, even if you don't fix any errors, a list is handy for those of us willing and able to fix our own copies (I use Sigil for ePub & calibre to convert to any other format)


Very enjoyable :) I'm looking forward to reading Neptunes Brood in a few weeks.


" "I want hard SF stories, for a new century," he said (I'm going from memory here). "

Hum which point most people would be backing away ever so gradually from his Enthusiasm - Gradually so as not to cause offence lest he begin to foam at the mouth and display signs that he might drop to all fours and hurtle about the room biting people on the leg. Not that he would of Course, oh Dearie Me no!!

Its the test of the True Professional Writer though isn't it? Konwing when a proposition is being put by a sensible -albeit Enthusiastic - Prospect or by someone of questionable Mental Stability who may well be staring at your left ear as he proclaims that ..insert wacky Theory of Choice?


Huh. So Freya goes all the way to Tau Ceti, and recreates the society she hates? How depressing.


While understanding that OGH doesn't have time for this and it's surely not at all his fault, I can't help noting that on my Kindle Paperwhite with software 5.3.5, the .mobi version is wrapping text in the middle of words, not between words. The same happens when I convert epub->mobi via calibre so either the problem's on my end or we're (the original mobi producer and I) being bitten by the same bug. html->mobi got me something usable and it's a short read anyhow, so I'm not sweating it.


I used Calibre to produce the .mobi file (the epub comes from Apple's Pages).

I have just re-run it through Calibre with some settings tweaked, and re-uploaded it. Someone tell me if there are still hyphenation errors on the Kindle version ...


I refuse to read this without a cover image suitable for US consumption. You think I read these books for the text or something?


Hi Charlie. I just tried the new .mobi file on Kindle Android and there are still hyphenation errors I'm afraid.


Better use the HTML, then. I'm too busy to spend time on conversion artifacts.

(Got a book to write ...)


It's (sort of) Apple Pages fault apparently. A little Googling turned up this page

wherein it is revealed that a search & destroy on style="white-space:pre-wrap" will solve the problem. Maybe Calibre is getting confused between white-space:pre and white-space:pre-wrap?

Thanks for the short Charlie!


There is almost nothing in the story about the society of Tau Ceti. But I suppose the fact that people can build starships in their spare time is a good sign.


BTW Charlie, what's the joke with "Lansford Hastings" name? Simply a reference to Donner Party and cannibalism or something deeper?

And why would they name the ship like that?


Note: I am screamingly busy -- book wants out bad.


Given that the bots are functionally immortal, how much time does it take to become a person alien to your former self? And given that she's stripped her new daughters down to bare metal mentally, back to when they were young, how accurately did she reconstruct her former self?

I think of how bad idealism rot affects us standard humans. You listen to the silly love songs from musicians talking about how all we need is love and money doesn't mean anything and they age into different people, no longer holding those ideals, selling off their artistic catalog for money as they sit in their mansions, cut off from the lives they once lived. Though much of the change in human temper can come from aging and deteriorating bodies. None can hate and envy youth as thoroughly as the old.

These posthumans are effectively immortal but I'd imagine old habits, biases and cussedness would accumulate like barnacles on the mind even as the physical body remains strong and capable.


old habits, biases and cussedness would accumulate like barnacles on the mind even as the physical body remains strong and capable.

That was actually pointed out several times in "Saturn's Children".


I would not be surprised. I have a harder and harder time differentiating between what are fresh ideas and ideas from others I've internalized and am regurgitating. To paraphrase Dan Quayle, "A mind is a terrible thing."


I processed the epub with Kindlegen to make a properly formatted mobi file and uploaded it to my dropbox.


Oh, will we find out their fate in Neptune's Brood? Or is that a wait and see?


Charlie, if that's a request for something to cut+paste, then

ebook-convert "Bit Rot.epub" "Bit" --output-profile=kindle --sr1-search='style="white-space:pre-wrap"' --sr1-replace=''

(ebook-convert will be inside the Calibre distribution somewhere if you're on OSX)

is the command you want. If it's a "nothing is going to happen because of reasons" then no problem :)


If you want reasons right now, check comment #16.


The threat in Bit Rot is not part of the story in Neptune's Brood. Don't expect much connection between Saturn's Children, Bit Rot and Neptune's Brood - all three are standalone, and though it's probably best to read them in that order, it's not (IMO) vital.


Oh I realise that. I'm just hoping for a mention such as Lilith or a descendant being in the background somewhere or a passing reference to "the near disaster" (implying they made it) or "the disappearance" (implying they didn't)


The version printed in "Engineering Infinity" is fine, no mistakes ;-)

But then, I paid for it


You want an illustration for Bit Rot? I could hack one out for you. Have you got any art direction for me, or shall I just plunge ahead?


Hah! That's certainly one downside of posthumanism I hadn't anticipated. Nice pun too.

I think an accurate cover illustration would be a tricky thing. Too much info gives away the ending, not enough looks rather sterile.

Hyphenation on my Kindle app was totally random, looks like this one was a formatting fail. But hey, it was free. And fun. Thanks, Charlie!

And everyone: July 11 at Pulp Fiction Books, Edinburgh, Charlie will be speaking on how to get your SF book published. see for details as they evolve.


Which pun? The story seems to have several.


You may have high standards of what makes an interesting cover illo, but our narrator is a robot who works in a water tank lit by Cerenkov radiation on a starship! If I can't make that look interesting, I'll eat my pixel-stained smock.

As for Charlie's talk, I shall worry about publishing when I succeed in writing something....


@29 ilya187: I just meant the title. 'bits' need not be digital. @30 Interesting, sure, but still pretty sterile! In the sense of 'looking kinda like a futuristic dolphin tank/fission coolant tank/dental hygienist's office' or something.

Come see the talk anyway, it looks like a nice followup on the CMAP series with practical applications if you do plan to submit a MS someday. :D


The story also exists at .I saw it there September last year. A case of link rot perhaps ?


I should try that. Shout "I want hard science fiction for a new century" at random people on the street until one of my favorite authors writes me a short story (or I get carted away).


Verra nice. I've got Neptune's Brood on pre-order.

BTW, it read fine (except a few typos) on Safari Reader, which I believe (ahem) ingests epub format.


No: a case of me planning to release it, deciding I needed to first re-design the index page for my short fiction, then getting distracted by OOH LOOK SHINY!

Like now. (I've been scarce around these parts because I'm in the process of proving empirically that it's almost impossible to win NaNoWriMo in one week.((Eight days, perhaps ...))


I, for one, welcome our Cannibal Robot Space Zombie Masters. Nut, it occurs to me that, if the Universe is so gosh-darned inconveniently radioactive, perhaps these androids - especially the more xenomorphic - would be looking for a material substrate of consciousness that laughed in the face of gamma ray bursters, sneered at galactic cosmic rays, and chuckled at a fierce storm of neutrino flux? Might be an idea there for someone.


Problem is that consciousness in electronic terms is state changes, bits flipping, voltage levels changing etc. Either you move to kilovolt or megavolt DC on-off levels which would in fact laugh at the mere tens or hundreds of volts of induced noise that such events generate or you change the paradigm and go back to mechanical adding machines and Mylar punched tape or Jacquard card looms. Makes slow-time easy-peasy, realtime gets a bit bogged down without that useful speed-of-light propagation time.

Electrochemically-powered meatsacks like me and thee wouldn't suffer the degradation of consciousness exhibited by Freya and her Android Jelly Baby chums but the instant overproduction of cancerous cells and destruction of our immune system would cause us to shut down quite quickly afterwards absent miracletech medical repair functions, something which would itself probably be wiped out by the same pulse of radiation and particles that randomised us in the first place.


I see. Static klingons, then.

(Sorry. No really. Sorry about that).


perhaps these androids - especially the more xenomorphic - would be looking for a material substrate of consciousness that laughed in the face of gamma ray bursters

Yeah, like the substrate of Deinococcus radiodurans, Thermococcus gammatolerans, tardigrades and the rest of the organic radioresistant folk.

If you ask me, Charlie seriously underestimates the power of biological enhancement. As I said before, people who could create cell-like "mechanocytes" could also make themselves radioresistant.


Electrochemically-powered meatsacks like me and thee wouldn't suffer the degradation of consciousness exhibited by Freya and her Android Jelly Baby chums but the instant overproduction of cancerous cells and destruction of our immune system would cause us to shut down quite quickly afterwards absent miracletech medical repair functions.

That's what the crew in Peter Watts' Blindsight have to do to explore a hellishly radio and magneto active alien structure that keeps frying all their drones. The book is online to read under CC on the author's site, btw

It's a bit hard to find so here's a direct link


OGH: (I've been scarce around these parts because I'm in the process of proving empirically that it's almost impossible to win NaNoWriMo in one week.((Eight days, perhaps ...))

10 years ago, I did ~ 9,500 fiction novel-start words in 12 hours, but I don't think I could keep that up for a week.

(2003 talk.bizarre Fail to Suck Day entry...)


Oh, I should add... I did 9,500 words in 12 hours in vi...


It would not surprise me if the robots of the early-interstellar period of Bitrot have been supplanted by improved technology by the time of Neptune's Brood. I think you can infer that from some elements of the plot. And Bitrot is an extreme situation, possibly with no survivors. Any improvements may be inadequate for such a situation.


Well, yeah, but it's possible that this is one of those upper limits on the tech. You want to survive a gamma burst? The tech says you can do that . . . but only if you're prepared to accept vastly degraded thought processes. You don't want to have your wits scrambled by a gamma burst? You can engineer for that too. But you'll be dead weeks to months later.


I succeeded in writing 50,800 words in 167 hours 20 minutes. Just under the wire. (Now to write the other 49,200 words ...)

WRT interstellar colonization, it's fairly obviously a highly risky job, in a universe that doesn't supply us with magic wands (faster than light drives, or cheap and easy conversion of mass into directed energy, for example).

The Freyaverse is just sufficiently hospitable to permit interstellar travel -- largely because humanity 2.0 is a hell of a lot more robust than we are -- with about the difficulty level of a 17th or early-to-mid 18th century circumnavigation of the globe. In other words, a 20% hull loss rate is to be expected (with no survivors, under these circumstances). Roughly equivalent to Apollo Program levels of risk.

I will note that the Magnetar pulse that hits the Lansford Hastings is a less-than-a-billion-to-one contingency -- far less likely than a nearby supernova, which is itself pretty improbable. If the ship carried human beings, they'd all be killed instantly: cause of death wouldn't be ribonucleotide cross-linkage and breakage but actual gross disruption of tertiary and quaternary structure of enzymes. The crew would be pretty much coagulated like hard boiled eggs. (Very hot hard boiled eggs: 30 kilograys corresponds to dumping 30 kJ of energy into each kilogram of their bodies.) Moreover, the specified radiation dose -- 30,000 grays on the hull surface -- would be sufficient to kill the gut bacteria carried by the human 1.0 meatsacks; to kill tardigrades: to kill over 90% of a sample Deinococcus Radiodurans bacteria.


Very hot hard boiled eggs

Only seven degrees C hotter (30 kJ is approximately 7 kCal). Agreed, it's very evenly delivered heat, and I can quite expect proteins to be coagulated all the way through and you or I would be very dead as a result. But overall, it's only a few hours output of normal metabolism — the real problem is that it's instantaneous with no chance for cooling before it's too late.


Ionizing radiation is a lot more efficient at denaturating proteins than heat is. This should be the very first thing you wonder about radiation effects: is the photon energy by itself high enough to do real damage, or can we reasonably average the effect over a representative volume element? The second thing to remember about radiation effects is that small amounts of damage are repaired. Therefore, there is no good reason to assume that effects at doses where the effects are easily noticed can be linearly extrapolated to much lower doses. But high doses of ionizing radiation are really bad.


Hmm. The radiation dose is enough to instantaneously raise a human's core body temperature to about 45C, which temperature is almost always lethal in its own right. On the other hand, outside nuclear incidents, everyone who has reached that core temperature has taken an appreciable time to get there and whatever that cause was, it will have been trying to keep them there. So on an energy flow x time basis, a lot more energy has gone in.

(Ignoring poor sods being cooked in industrial microwaves and the like - but their surface energy is a lot higher.)

Without that long-slope damage, I guess the body's own cooling mechanisms might to be able to get the temperature under control fast enough to save the life.

But this is a little like saying that someone falling 10 km into the ocean should be OK if they can swim - as you point out, the protein degradation due to the ionising radiation is going to be the biggie.

I wonder: has anyone considered using this for cooking? The concept of the 'cold boiled egg' is one that might interest Heston Blumenthal.


AIUI that level of radiation flux is about what you'd get if you stood within 10 metres of a nuclear weapon when it detonated. You'd have other problems ...

You could probably pick up that dose if you stood in the beam line of a serious particle accelerator like the LHC: the amount of energy in a pulse from the LHC is allegedly sufficient to blow a hole in the evacuated cryogenically cooled pipeline it runs in if one of the superconducting electromagnets fails.

But most conditions which would expose you to that level of radiation will be very rapidly fatal from other causes.


very rapidly fatal from other causes.

Like the person worrying about swimming home after dropping from an airliner at cruise altitude.

We're into perfect spherical cow territory here, trying to divorce the pulse's effect on the body from secondary issues like how much induced radioactivity there'll be in the surrounding material.

Though there is Anatoli Bugorski:

As it was believed that he had received far in excess of the radiation dose that would normally kill a person, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow where the doctors could observe his expected demise. However, Bugorski survived and even completed his Ph.D

Despite which, it is still considered generally inadvisable to stick your head in the path of a particle accelerator.


The threat in Bit Rot is not part of the story in Neptune's Brood

Turns out, it is. One of the characters in "Neptune's Brood" suffers from the same fate (loss of higher mental functions, ravenous hunger) as the crew in "Bit Rot", and it is mentioned as a known condition. And page 163 of US edition has a direct reference to events of "Bit Rot" -- calling them a "memorable incident". Which means something had survived.


Though I guess standing in the path of a magnetar pulse means quite likely fried toast at close quarters, I'm having some problems with the actual numbers involved in the story.

First of, I guess we're talking about "soft gamma repeaters", as explained in:

There is an article about those at:

As we can see on page 7, there is hardly any radiation left above 300 keV, where

says the minimum for induced radioactivity by gamma rays is 2 MeV, which would mean the gamma rays are not a likely source for transmuting radiation. Of course, there are quite some neutrons, alpha rays and heavy nuclei around, problem is, the have mass, so the will be somewhat slower than light. Let's assume the have 99.999%, which for a proton would mean something like 2.10 TeV according to

I guess for lead nuclei, it would be in excess of the 574 TeV the LHC reaches.

That still means that the gamma rays are about 1.00001 times as fast as the nucleons. So, let's assume the magnetar is 100 light years away. This means the nucleons reach the ship after 100.001 years, about 0.001 years later than the mostly harmless gamma pulse. Or 0.00136524 = 8.76 hours later. Plenty of time to get people into the water tanks. If we get further away, the time becomes longer, closer up, time for preparations goes down. So maybe I'm wrong, but I guess the sudden exposition means the source was somewhat closer than 9000 light years, pre-strike warning about a month before.

Actually, the same might be true for the radiation dose; if we go for the most energetic gamma burst in 2004,

there is a calculation in an amateur astronomical magazine

with the solution in

which says the dosage for the ISS was about 0.02 mSv.

Now the ISS is quite close to earth, and if we want to show hownig the exposition might have been on an interstellar spaceship, it might help looking at comparative radiation hazards in space

the exposition per year is 150 mSv for the ISS, while Apollo and Skylab got about three times the radiation the ISS gets. Going to Mars would leave the protection by earth's magnetic field etc. behind, but we would still be somewhat below one sievert a year.

And in the interstellar medium, according to

for a non-relativistic spaceship, we get about 35 rads/year, or about 350 mSv/year, which is lower than the estimate for the Mars mission.

So, to get some big numbers, let's say the the ISS gets 100 mSv/year, while in interstellar medium it's about 1 Sv/year. Which means a factor of 10 for protection by the heliosphere, earth magnetosphere etc.

Which means that without those, dosage for the ISS would have been 0.2 mSv. which is high, but not that high, about the amount of an X-ray, according to

Now, the burst in question was 50,000 light years away.

At 9000 light years, or 9000/50000 of this distance, we'd get about (50000/9000)^2 = 31 times this amount, or 6 mSv. Or a chest CT.

To get into Deinococcus radiodurans territory or the 30,000 grays mentioned, well, let's assume 30,000 grays are 30,000 Sievert, so we would need about 150,000,000 times the dosage at 50,000 light years. Or about 122478^2 the dosage, which mea.s we'd have to be about 4 light years away.

Which fits somewhat with the idea a soft gamma repeater in 10 light years distance would doom the earth by destroying the ozone layer.

BTW, 4 light years gives you about 0.00004 years warning time, or about 21 minutes. Not enough to get all hand on deck, I suppose.

Er, as always, biologist speaking here, if any mathematicians or physicist or whatever want to flay me over this, no hesitation...


The magnetar was offset to their flight path so it's possible that the gamma pulse passed in front of them and they ran into the side of the particle blast following it.

The story does mention the ship being hit from an angle that more harshly irradiated one side than the other.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 16, 2013 10:06 AM.

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