November 2017 Archives

Dark State

I have a new book coming out in less than eight weeks' time.

Which means the reviews are beginning to show up, starting with the trade publications bookstores and librarians read to see what's coming and what to stock.

Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say about "Dark State" in their starred review:

This sequel to Empire Games (2017), set in the same world as Stross' Merchant Princes series, plunges us deep into a nightmarish clash of arms, politics, and wills between near-future governments in alternate timelines. In timeline No. 2, which chillingly resembles our own, the United States has morphed into a full-blown police state in which surveillance is universal and inescapable and the paranoid powers that be are willing to use, and have used, nuclear weapons to achieve their aims. Timeline No. 3 presents a bizarre fun-house-mirror world in which the U.S. never existed; instead, a corrupt, despotic British empire persisted until its recent overthrow by the revolutionary, democratic New American Commonwealth. The U.S. desperately wants to learn what's happening in this less technologically advanced but nuclear-armed timeline, so the Department of Homeland Security's Col. Smith coerces people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines, into becoming spies. Critically, recruit Rita Douglas happens to be the estranged daughter of Commonwealth biggie Miriam Burgeson, herself a refugee from the radioactive wasteland of timeline No. 1 and now guiding the rapid development of the Commonwealth with technology purloined from the U.S. The Commonwealth faces challenges from counterrevolutionaries and the huge, powerful French empire, while the U.S., terrified of nuclear weapons in any hands but its own, probes yet another timeline where the hostile remnants of a still more advanced civilization lurk.

Tension crackles from every page as readers grapple with the horrifying sociological and political implications, the looming threat of another intratime nuclear war, and the fates of individual characters embroiled in disturbing intrigues. Even the fact that every scenario ends in a cliffhanger isn't too annoying given the enormous care and skill Stross expends on getting the details right and rendering meticulous accounts of complex, intersecting events. Not to mention the real-world implications.

Sheer brilliance: when Stross is in this mood, nobody else comes close.

(Mind you, this is the middle book of a trilogy. Middle books are always weak—it's a tradition or an old charter or something—and Kirkus' reviewers are famously curmudgeonly. So I'm inordinately proud of this review.)

Anyway, if this captures your interest you can preorder the book via these links:

[US Hardcover] [UK Trade paperback] [US Kindle ebook] [UK Kindle ebook]

Empire Games

Attention, British readers: Empire Games is on special offer this week from the Amazon.co.uk Kindle store! It's just 99 pence, until Sunday 26th, so if you've wanted to dip a toe in the water, this is your chance!

(This offer is not valid in North America; different publishers, different Amazon sales teams.)


This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

In the discussion of my last post, Philippa Cowderoy and Geoff Hart brought up an interesting question around esports in VR. Will e-sports in VR ever become a thing?

I was actually there at the start of the dawn of esports as a whole - I ran "News From The Front", a website which covered the competitive Quake scene back in 1996. (It may actually have been the first dedicated esports news site in the world.) And more recently, I've gotten back into PvP games and esports with the game DOTA2, which has consumed an enormous amount of my time over the last year or so.

And, of course, I'm a virtual reality developer by trade - my first VR game, the horror/rpg Left-Hand Path, left Early Access and entered full release last Friday. I should stress at this point that I don't have a professional dog in the esports race: I'm mostly interested in creating single-player experiences, often with heavy RPG bents. Whilst Left-Hand Path is certainly difficult, inspired as it is by Dark Souls, it's not PvP, and my next major game will probably also be a single-player experience. So I have no financial interest in pushing the whole VR esport concept.

Nonetheless, the esport question is fascinating to me. In five years, will we be seeing the equivalent of The International in VR?

We're further along than you might think

Well, in actual fact you could have watched this year's International in VR. DOTA2 has had a VR spectator mode available for some time. It's not quite ready for prime time yet - I still prefer the big-screen-with-snacks approach to DOTA game watching - but it's evidence that VR's advancing on the esport thing much faster than you might think.

In fact, there's been an esport tournament in VR in just the last week.


People sometimes ask me why I'm so keen on VR - keen enough to drop a 20-year career to move into it - and I always give the same response.

"I get to make worlds".

That's... quite the sales pitch. And I don't mean "making worlds" as a novelist or even a filmmaker (my former career) does it. I mean creating worlds you can walk into, explore, interact with, and get murdered by hideous creatures brought back to life by the blasphemous rules of the magical place you now inhabit.

(My creative approach - latest output of which is the VR horror/rpg Left-Hand Path - definitely tends in a certain direction, and that direction is deep, complex magic systems and disturbing consequences therof. Plus I was really inspired by Dark Souls this time around.)

And if I was speaking to someone whom I suspected might have watched Star Trek - you know, about 80% of the population - I might follow that up with "basically, I have a holodeck".

Horror On The Holodeck

If you don't know - the "holodeck" was the invention of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ostensibly a recreational tool, it could conjure in perfect detail any environment its user could dream of. For plot reasons, the utility's obvious - as Wikipedia says,

From a storytelling point of view, it permits the introduction of a greater variety of locations and characters that might not otherwise be possible, such as events and persons in the Earth's past, and is often used as a way to pose philosophical questions.

(Wikipedia: Holodeck)

(Also, for storytelling reasons, it bugged out more often than Internet Explorer 6. I'm pleased to say current VR tech, including Left-Hand Path, doesn't have quite that problem.)

Ever since its introduction, a lot of people have regarded the Holodeck as the ultimate goal of games or virtual reality. A tool that can create a completely convincing world in which you can be anything you want to be.

The new wave of VR is a huge step in that direction. By "The New Wave" here I mean the Vive, the Oculus Rift, and - if reports are to be believed - Microsoft's Mixed Reality. Phone VR with no positional tracking or motion-tracked controllers is not the same thing at all, and should really not be taken as a representation of current VR. If the VR system doesn't allow you to get up (using your IRL body, not a controller), walk around a bit, and pick things up with your hands (mediated by controllers like Oculus Touch or the Vive wand) I would argue it's not "real" VR, and it's certainly not what I'm talking about here.

But there are still plenty of limitations to it, and you may well be listing them in your head as you read this.

"What? Lol. It's not anything like a holodeck. You can only walk about six feet! You can't feel objects, there's no wind, there's no smells, you've got a damn great cable attached to your head, and the other characters are just computer game NPCs!"

All true.

But for how much longer?


This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

I've always had a problem with Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".

This may have something to do with my career for a long time involving both magic and technology. Magic's a perennial fiction obsession of mine, and my media of choice have always been highly technological.

Most recently, I just released Left-Hand Path. It's a Virtual Reality game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive - obviously fairly technological - whose central conceit is that in it, you learn the skills to cast spells. And I don't just mean you select spells from a spellbook and then press a button: I mean you have to learn the gestures necessary to create the magic, and on occasion go through a complex system of ritual magic to create the effects you desire, flipping through your grimoire to remember exactly how you summon your ancient powers.


Now, all that makes for a great game. There's a sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the powers of magic to your advantage and remember how to cast the "Vis" spell as something nasty is closing on you. There's a sense of discovery as you learn more about the world, the way magic works, and find powerful new spells. And there's a sense of pant-crapping terror as you realise that the things your new ritual summons to eat your foes will cheerfully eat you as well.

(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")

Now, none of that description of magic sounds very much like the technology I use in 2017.

I don't have to imprecate dark and terrible forces in order to use my PS4, unless you count Sony's latest privacy policy. My lovely new iPad is famously intuitive, not a quality one would ascribe to The Lesser Key Of Solomon.

But.

And this is a big but. (I cannot lie.)

None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use. That's not so much the case for the other technology I interact with.

And I think that distinction - and the points where Clarke's Third Law does still apply - may explain a lot about why technologists are increasingly becoming hated in many circles.

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