Charlie Stross: September 2011 Archives

I'm going to be somewhat busy for the next week (travelling to and from, and attending, this conference), and am unlikely to be blogging. So I thought I'd had the podium over to a surprise guest: Professor Joan Slonczewski. In addition to teaching microbiology at Kenyon College, where her students conduct research on bacteria in extreme environments, she's been publishing SF for a quarter of a century, winning the Campbell award along the way (for "A Door Into Ocean").

Her latest novel, The Highest Frontier, (Kindle edition available here) shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security. Her best known book, "A Door into Ocean", depicts an ocean world run by genetic engineers who repel an interstellar invasion using nonviolent methods similar to Tahrir Square. In her book "Brain Plague", intelligent microbes invade human brains and establish microbial cities. (And you can find her books via Amazon here.)

If you're looking for SF informed by a sharp understanding of genomics and biology, Joan's got a lot for you! And she's also got a strong interest in space colonization — which I hope she'll share with us over the next week.

If you're regular here, you might have noticed lately that my blog entries have been structured more as triggers for discussion than as lengthy discursive essays. There's a reason for that: I've been busy working, and it's easier to occasionally pop into a discussion than to come up with a coherent, structured, defensible essay a couple of times a week. Besides, there's enough of a community here that I figured I should let you folks do some of the heavy lifting for once ...

Well, I just got to type THE END at the end of another novel. This doesn't mean the work is over; my esteemed collaborator has a chunk of tyre-kicking to do and may yet flag it up as not finished yet ... but in principle, I think we've got a workable first draft of "The Rapture of the Nerds", which is due out from Tor next September.

I really get bugged by being labelled "the singularity guy", but unfortunately there's no way out of it this time: RoTN is clearly a singularity novel, and bears some alarming parallels to Accelerando, if you can imagine me doing a mind-meld with Cory Doctorow, smoking hash until hallucinating, then feeding that earlier novel to a wood-chipper.

In other news things are going to be quiet again next week, because on Wednesday I'm off to DARPA's Hundred Year Starship symposium in Orlando. (It's only a weekend event, but the routing from Edinburgh to Orlando is baroque, so I won't be home and back on local time 'til the following Wednesday.)

To quote DARPA's intro web page:

The 100 Year Starship Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. ... This endeavor will require an understanding of questions such as: how do organizations evolve and maintain focus and momentum for 100 years or more; what models have supported long term technology development; what resources and financial structures have initiated and sustained prior settlements of "new worlds?"
This is, in my view, vital stuff; as you probably guessed (if you've been following the intermittent essays and discussions on space colonization) I think we're still at the stage of dealing with "unknown unknowns" here, trying to scope out the right questions we should be looking for answers to before we can actually evaluate whether space colonization (or even long-range exploration) is a practical proposition.

Hopefully I'll have something to report the following week ...

This blog entry is basically a placeholder for a continuation of the (fascinating) discussion of the world of the late 21st century that has taken over the previous blog entry.

We're not running out of oil in the short term. However, demand for oil is growing faster than supply, which means the price of oil is becoming increasingly volatile. (And sooner or later, the accessible deposits are going to play out and the supply is actually going to start shrinking.)

We aren't dependent on oil for energy. However, oil has a huge advantage for us in that it is easily storable and transportable, and is very energy-dense: a really efficient electrical battery can store less than a twentieth of the energy locked up in an equivalent weight of gasoline.

So what the post oil world means to me is a huge restructuring of our transport infrastructure, and everything that depends on cheap land transportation — from suburban sprawl to big box retail stores and personal vehicles, everything is up for grabs.

What other structural changes are on the cards for the late 21st century?

With the exception of sequels to existing works or stuff I already wrote blog entries about in the "Books I will not write" series:

What would you like me to write next?

(Note that even if I like your suggestion, I am already under contract for 2012 and 2013. So consider this an exercise in idle curiosity feeding in to long-term blue-sky planning ...)

Next Wednesday, I'm doing a reading and interview in Kirkcaldy in Fife, at 7:30pm in the Central Library:

Fife Libraries & Museums bring you Sci-Fife, a series of events featuring some of the best known science fiction authors based in the UK ...
Charles will be appearing at Kirkcaldy Central Library on the 21st September, with tickets costing £3.50, (£3 Presmier/Super Fifestyle). Andrew Wilson will be hosting the Charles Stross event, and has the difficult task of keeping Charles on topic, and to time for the evening.
This is part of an on-going program of readings by SF authors; next up are Ken MacLeod and Hannu Rajaniemi during October/November.

(Update: Facebook event link.)

What is horror?

I can't give you an absolute definition of the term because, like all abstractions, the term 'horror' is experienced differently by different people. What I can say is that in general it is a strong emotion, usually accompanied by disgust, distress, and aversion: that it frequently evokes the fight/flight adrenal reaction, and that involuntary exposure to actual (as opposed to simulated) and unavoidable horrific phenomena may result in long-term post-traumatic stress symptoms.

And then there's horror in fiction, which is something else.

My take on horror is that it's a tone; you can add a tint of horror to any other genre. Horror goes well with SF ("Alien"), with fantasy, with crime, with thriller, with romance, with literary realism, with just about every flavour. It's the monosodium glutamate of fiction. We add it because it's a contrast-enhancer.

Fiction may be about the study of the human condition, but the human condition under the mundane constraints of ordinary life lacks jeopardy and the attraction of drama. We attend to the dramatic because it evokes high emotions and (if you go by Aristotle) a sense of catharis, of release of tension, with the climactic resolution of the source of these emotions. Horror is a pretty extreme emotion, so evoking it gets us out of that everyday anomie pretty easily.

Furthermore, if applied correctly horror is an emotional cattle-prod that can drive all of us to empathize with the victim. Other stimuli are more ambiguous, and therefore more liable to fail. Love at first sight can easily trip up the reader if they look at the object of desire and wonder what the besotted viewpoint can possibly see in them; middle-aged restlessness seldom holds much interest for young adult readers. On the other hand, nobody looks forward to being pursued and eaten by zombies, slaughtered by serial killers, or being abducted and forced to write one more sequel to their best-selling series (unless there's a seven digit advance attached to the contract).

I will confess to using horror freely. I've got an entire series out there which, arguably, consists of horror (the Laundry books and associated stories) — horror layered on top of humorous pastiches of various British authors of spy thrillers (at least in the novel-length iterations). If you're going to use humour, it can very rapidly spin off into irrelevance unless you ground it somehow: a bit of horror goes a very long way towards keeping a humorous work from feeling light to the point of irrelevance. It makes a most effective contrast agent. Perhaps more usefully, a small dab of carefully-applied horror can force us to reconsider some dramatic conceit that we may have been tempted to take too lightly. (That's the role of the Toymaker's "sample" in "Rule 34": to jerk the reader out of any empathy for him that may have been sneakily installed in their heads by following the narrative from his viewpoint.)

There are, however, a couple of serious drawbacks to the use of horror. For starters, if over-used the readers can become habituated to it, to the detriment of the overall plot. If you've kept your characters wading through gore for five hundred pages, it's very hard to lend sufficient weight to a sensitive interpersonal denouement; similarly, if you've done the tight-and-narrow focus horror trick of magnifying a small-scale and very ordinary tragedy into something that fills the silver screen of the reader's imagination — waiting for the results of a hospital lab test, say — then you risk bathos when you snap the focus back to wide-angle. More subtly, certain types of reader respond to horror as if to an excessively strong chilli pepper; you risk losing a chunk of your audience if you push the revulsion button too hard. And finally, certain types of story just don't work with horror (although I confess I'm having difficulty thinking of a canonical example).

Do you read horror? If so, why?

Just a heads-up to anyone in the UK who hasn't been keeping a close eye on the weather; Hurricane Katia, which was a cat 4 hurricane off the North American coast last week, has decided to go walkabout, and is due to hit Ireland and the UK tonight and tomorrow.

It's unusual, but not unprecedented, for a west Atlantic hurricane to end up in the north east. By the tiume it gets here Katia will have declined from hurricane force to a strong post-tropical storm, but we're expecting gusts of up to 100mph over Ireland, and 80mph over northern and central Scotland. There is scope for structural damage, travel disruption, and flooding. Even over here on the sheltered east coast, we're looking at winds gusting to 70mph tomorrow.

If you're in the UK, keep an eye on the Met Office severe weather warnings.

I'm going to turn the TV off on September 11th. And close all the web browser tabs I have open on news sites.

This isn't to belittle the events of ten years ago, or to show disrespect for the victims and their bereaved: rather, it's to avoid the narcissistic and indecent media feeding frenzy that battens onto popular sentiment and attempts to jerk every tear from the emotional aftermath of tragedy, the better to milk the advertising revenue stream.

If the media really wanted to mark the occasion respectfully, they'd do so by holding a minutes' silence at 8:46am EST this Sunday.

My last blog post ("The Wrong Trousers") was still fresh in memory when I stumbled across a link, and because misery loves company, I feel the need to share it with you.

I understand weddings are affairs that tend to require getting dressed up.

And cosplay is, well, "a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Characters are often drawn from popular fiction in Japan, but recent trends have included American cartoons and Sci-Fi", as wikipedia so drily puts it.

Naturally, somebody was going to put the two activities together: cosplay weddings aren't that unusual these days.

However, I can't help thinking that this is going too far. (Note: link goes to Google's cache because the target web page appears to be under DDoS at present.)

What were they thinking? How on earth is history taught wherever they come from? And what, I wonder, would real Nazis make of these wedding photos?

This is an SF writer's blog, so once in a while I like to talk about what other SF authors are saying and doing.

Bruce Sterling is something of an object of emulation of mine. (Want to know where SF will be going in 20 years' time? Just read whatever Bruce is publishing this decade.) So I read his latest blog entry (yes, he blogs on WIRED) with fascination:

Since I'm a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail.
I should explain now why I have been wearing "5.11 Tactical" trousers for a decade. It's pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They're both repurposed American Western gear. I'm an American and it's common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.
Whereupon the Modern Thought-Leader Chairman Bruce launches into a fascinating exegesis on the design of outdoors wear, the role of clothing fashion in William Gibson's recent work, and the similarities between the use case for trouser choice among cops and SF writers.

Confession: I don't wear tactical assault police-pants, I wear Marks and Spencer moleskin jean-cut trousers with added elastane to better support my lardy arse when it's not plonked in the second-hand Aeron to bash out prose. Doubtless I'd look a lot less lardy-arsed if I went for the full steampunk look or wore power-assisted battle armour (the better to beat down bad reviewers), but either of those directions would make getting dressed in the morning a whole lot harder, and I'm not an early morning person. So when I'm out and about, my solution to Thought-Leader Sterling's SF writer/journalist gadget problem is a SeV Fleece 5.0 microfibre fleece with integral shoplifting system TravelSmartSystem™ — 24 pockets (some of them inside other pockets), wire management system, detachable sleeves (in case one of the gadgets' lithium ion batteries catches fire and I overheat), transparent capacitative panels so I can fondle my JesusPhone without taking it out of its compartment, and ... a user manual. Yes. A jacket that needs a user manual.

(I've been wearing it for a few months now (eeew) and am about to consult the user manual for washing instructions — sorry, sanitary maintenance protocol. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, in the brave new futuristic twenty-first century, what's your favourite example of brave new functionally futuristic clothing?

As noted previously, I'm on the road for a few days. Normal activity will resume after the weekend ...

In fiction, zombies are a metaphor: the soulless, soul-sucking horde that will never stop coming and will drag you down eventually, no matter how much ammunition you're carrying. And they'll turn you into one of them when that happens. The metaphor usually keys into xenophobic fears, such as plain old-fashioned racism (zombies offer a politically acceptable alternative to ranting about the asiatic hordes outbreeding the white master race and eventually diluting them into mongrelism and extinction), or fear of the underclass (again, it's open season on zombies). I suspect in the 1950s zombies could have stood in for Communism.

What can we do with zombies that is different?



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in September 2011.

Charlie Stross: August 2011 is the previous archive.

Charlie Stross: October 2011 is the next archive.

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