The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The fruit-fly at the end of the universe

Genomics forum Playwright in Residence Peter Arnott has spent a year reading, talking and thinking about genomics, evolution, life, the universe and everything. I've seen the stacks of books on his desk and I've seen him working, and I can say he has worked hard, throwing himself into a whole new field of knowledge with admirable enthusiasm and application. Never content with received wisdom, Peter has delved deep and thought for himself, as his earlier production on the Scopes Trial showed.

Tomorrow night (7.30 pm) at the Traverse we have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his intellectual and artistic labour, with his theatrical production Talent Night in the Fly Room.
Somewhere in the far future, the last genetically engineered survivors of the human race come together one last time in the library at the end of time. Stored here in the bowels of Antarctica is the sum total of all human knowledge, as well as a DNA library of every species that has ever lived. Unfortunately, everyone has forgotten how to read.
Tickets are only £6 and can be booked by calling the box office on 0131 228 1404 or clicking the 'Book Now' button on the website.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dejah View


'Take to your paraloons!'

This bizarre speech-bubble, and a panel showing John Carter, Dejah Thoris and maybe someone else dropping from the sky hanging from balloons attached to their parachute harnesses as their stricken flyer spirals groundward, are almost my only memories of my first encounter with Barsoom. (You can see what's very likely the preceding page here.) I seem to remember also the couple gazing fondly at a large egg, from which a Carter-Thoris offspring is soon to hatch. John Carter was the first married hero I'd ever seen in a comic. That wasn't the only shock on its pages, peopled as they were by hideous entities that seemed to me almost demonic.

Years later, in my early teens, I met them again in print. This time it was my mother who made the same mistake, and expelled my borrowed Burroughs paperbacks from the manse. It's probably as well she judged the books by their covers: she'd have been far more upset if she'd looked at the pages. Just as well, also, that she never noticed that they shared an author with the Tarzan books, which she regarded as innocent enough, more or less on a par with Biggles.

Colour, adventure, and an aura of sexuality and scepticism - all these cunning priests and false gods - were what stuck in my mind. That and cliff-hanger endings, which - given the random nature of my access to the stories - left me feeling cheated. I more or less forgot Burroughs, though I smiled at the allusions I found in other, ostensibly more sober, tales set on Mars. Every respected SF writer, it seems, has to pay back that early debt. Blish's genius kid Dolph Haertel, stranded by a glitch in his home-built space-drive, notes of one of the moons that it was not 'the low-hanging, looming Deimos' of Burroughs' Mars.

So, though never a great ERB fan, I recalled the tales with enough affection that I was thrilled to see the first clip from a trailer of the John Carter movie on some film discussion programme a year or so ago. I have to see this, I said. Reviews on release were so mixed that I was reluctant to drag anyone along but my daughter, the other SF fan in my family but I still felt I had to see it for myself, and my daughter - the other SF fan in the family - was keen to see it too. [Correction instigated by said daughter - see comments.] We saw it at a mid-day screening last Wednesday. Apart from three other people, one of whom left early, we had the cinema to ourselves.

We enjoyed it. Not a dull minute. The film has flaws all right - there are plenty of daft minutes - but it's one I'd happily watch again. (For a review that strikes me as reasonably close to my own experience of the film's strengths and weaknesses, go here.)


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Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Sunday Prayer

Please God, deliver us from biologists doing theology. Of course, it's always possible that biologists doing theology only appears to be a bad thing because of our limited knowledge.

In which case, carry on as You were.

Thank You.

That will be all.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Another Practical Handbook

The other day I picked up in the library a nifty little management and self-help paperback called The Art of Always Being Right, by Arthur Schopenhauer. I read it in half an hour, with yelps of joy and pain. In the fine tradition of Machiavelli, Edward Luttwak and Darrel Huff, this book enlightens the just in the guise of instructing the wicked. (Or, just maybe, the other way round.)

You can read all about it and read the whole thing free online in several places, including a graphic version by someone fully aware of all internet traditions. (Via.)

Remember to use this power only for good.

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Intrusion book launch at Pulp Fiction

The new Edinburgh bookshop/cafe Pulp Fiction, which specialises in second-hand genre paperbacks and excellent coffee, cakes and biscuits, has a regular schedule of literary events. This Wednesday the bookshop, along with the Genomics Forum, hosted one for Intrusion. The free but ticketed event was well attended, as you can see from Chris Scott's pictures here.

After reading from the first chapter of the book, I sat down to be interviewed by Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of The Scotsman. He asked some quite probing questions, which were followed up by more from the audience. An hour went by in no time at all, and then we called a halt and let everyone loose on the cakes and wine. The party and signing session went on for another hour or so, and continued for some of us in the pub next door, the Blue Blazer.

Many thanks to Steve Rappaport at Pulp Fiction and all at the Genomics Forum, especially Alison Caldecott and Clare de Mowbray, for organising and hosting the event; to Stuart Kelly for the hard questions, and to all who turned up for making the event such a success.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Another brilliant enLIGHTen video

Michael MacLeod has made a time-lapse video that really captures this great project:

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enLIGHTen shines on, online

enLIGHTen is over, but you can still enjoy audio, video and images here, as well as photos and tweets.

Here's a time-lapse video of the installation at the Royal Society of Edinburgh:

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

He was a god, Memmius, a god indeed!

I've just read The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt: the new book (referred to below) about the chance discovery in 1417 of the last surviving copy of De Rerum Natura, a long exposition by the Roman poet Lucretius of the philosophy of the ancient Greek materialist, Epicurus.

The finder was Poggio Bracciolini, an indefatigable book-hunter, a fervent reader of Greek and Roman literature, and former secretary to several popes. His most recent pontifical employer sat not in the Vatican but in a dungeon: one of three rival pretenders to the See of Peter, the deposed John XXIII had been arrested and charged with simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture and murder. Sixteen more serious charges against him had been suppressed for fear of public scandal.

In that era the ideas of Epicurus had survived only as a slander: that he advocated the most luxurious sensual indulgence. With the recovery, copying, and eventual printing of Lucretius, this lie could no longer be repeated, though it survives in the language. Epicurus did indeed urge that pleasure was the only good. His point was that to enjoy life we need very little: food, water, shelter, good company. With that we can be satisfied. Only the desire for more than we need is insatiable. The one luxury he allowed himself was cheese.

One idea of his was mocked for much longer: that the fundamental particles of nature every so often and quite unpredictably swerve ever so slightly in their course through the void, and that this is the basis of the free will we all know by experience. The laughter has died since the discovery of quantum mechanics.

Just such an unpredictable swerve, Greenblatt suggests, deflected the course of history as Bracciolini reached for that neglected codex. The ideas expounded by Lucretius - and lucidly and enthusiastically summarised in Greenblatt's central chapter, 'The Way Things Are' - became the basis for the whole modern understanding of the world. The mantra he makes of Epicurus' teaching - 'atoms and the void and nothing else, atoms and the void and nothing else, atoms and the void and nothing else' - has liberated our bodies as well as our souls.

Greenblatt traces the ancient origins and modern influence of this sane and sensible philosophy as it passed through often underground channels, to well up in Montaigne, in Shakespeare, in Jefferson, and in Bruno who was burned in Rome.

Poggio Bracciolini remained a faithful son of the church. He lived to a ripe old age and fathered twenty children, six of them by his wife.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Intrusion: three reviews

Reviews of Intrusion in the past few days from:

Gwyneth Jones in Saturday's Guardian, Jill Murphy at The Bookbag, and Michael Flett on GEEKChocolate.

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Thursday, March 08, 2012


A great SF publishing project from the amazing Cici James (thanks, @ashkalb):

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As we are to the beasts that perish

Crooked Timber, the collective blog of some impressively clever people, has once again rotated its objective lens to focus on science fiction (as it's done several times before), this time to discuss 'libertarian paternalism' aka Nudge and related topics in the light of my novel Intrusion and Charles Stross's Rule 34.

It's an interesting take, because the discussion is largely about the ideas arising from and possibly going into the books rather than the stories themselves, and in my case the opening post focused precisely on a passage that's central to the book's implied argument while giving away nothing of the plot.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012


The present state of play in Scottish politics is summed up by crime novelist Quintin Jardine, reflecting on the Labour and LibDem Scottish party conferences:
These diminished festivals reminded me that there was a time when I knew by name, sight and reputation, every active political figure of stature in the country. I suppose I still do, but now it's no great claim to make because there are so few of them and they all belong to the same party.
Sad but true. Part of the reason, I've long thought, is that in all parties people of ability and ambition want to get to the top, which for all major parties in Scotland except the SNP means Westminster. For the SNP, of course, the Scottish Parliament is the top.

If the other parties don't watch out, it will be for all of them.


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Like some watcher of the skies

It seems to be in the nature of things that people discover Lucretius by sheer accident. Take this typical account:
'Started reading Lucretius, 'On the Nature of Things'. I'd got the book years ago but got bogged down somewhere around the refutation of Heraclitus. This time my interest and the power of the writing carry me over the drier patches without difficulty ...

Finished Lucretius. After it there is something dishonourable about being anything other than a materialist.'
Or this:
In his early teens he had read with delight the poem of Lucretius, in a tatty old paperback published by Sphere Books in 1969 with a Max Ernst picture on the cover. He'd found it in the attic of his parents's house [...] On the inside cover the pencilled words were just legible:

Here rolls
The large verse of Lucretius, who raised
His index-finger and did strike the face
Of fleeting Time, leaving a scar of thought
The rain of ages shall not wash away.

[...] It was an obscure thrill imparted by the lines that impelled him to turn over the pages of the book, and then to read it. He found a great deal in those pages that left imprints on his brain [...]
Actually, I've cheated: the first quote is from my own appallingly Molish diary from 1977, the second is from Intrusion, and I could as easily add a third, a circumstantially fictitious but emotionally accurate rendering of my own response:

For the first time in my life, I had heard good news. I drank that black gospel to the lees.

But this one (coincidentally referring to the very same edition) is genuine:
I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They were jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage until something caught my eye. On one of my forays, I was struck by an extremely odd paperback cover, a detail from a painting by the Surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs—the bodies were missing—were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book, a prose translation of Lucretius’ two-thousand-year-old poem “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”), was marked down to ten cents, and I bought it as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.

Ancient physics is not a particularly promising subject for vacation reading, but sometime over the summer I idly picked up the book. The Roman poet begins his work (in Martin Ferguson Smith’s careful rendering) with an ardent hymn to Venus [...] Startled by the intensity, I continued, past a prayer for peace, a tribute to the wisdom of the philosopher Epicurus, a resolute condemnation of superstitious fears, and into a lengthy exposition of philosophical first principles. I found the book thrilling.
This was the genesis of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, an acclaimed new book on the consequences of the accidental rediscovery of the only surviving copy of Lucretius in medieval Italy.

As an accidental consequence of reading about that book, I stumbled upon a recent translation of Lucretius that I'd never heard of: a 2007 Penguin Classics edition, translated by the distinguished poet A. E. Stallings into rhyming fourteeners - a project that she herself says 'might seem crazy in modern times'. Naturally I bought and read it straight away.

What can I say? It works, and it's a delight.

There's a lot to be said for good prose translations - the lucid, much-loved and recently-revised Penguin Classic by Ronald Latham, the aforementioned careful rendering (also recently-revised) by Martin Ferguson Smith - and modern verse translations such as Rolfe Humphries' The Way Things Are or the dogged, plodding but sometimes soaring regular metre of Palmer Bovie's long out-of-print, poorly-published but well-received 1974 paperback.

But Stallings' quaint relentless drumbeat is in a class of its own, and is the only version anyone is ever likely to memorise and recite lines from. Her handling of the one line everybody knows, the line that Voltaire said would last as long as the world, is a touchstone:

So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong.

The rhyme-scheme and metre are the same as those Chapman used for his Homer. Some day, perhaps centuries hence, another poet will write 'On First Looking Into Stallings' Lucretius'.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Jura Recovery

Today on the SFX website: an interview with me about my stay on Jura (which I wrote about earlier) and a chance to win a three-night break for two in the Jura Lodge! The pictures of the interior of the Lodge do not exaggerate its quirky splendour in the slightest - this is a prize worth winning.

There's also a direct link to the site where the story itself is now available to read, free. You have to go through a little rigmarole to get there (including affirming that you're of legal age to drink alcohol in your country of residence), but I think you'll find it's worth it - if you like tall tales inspired by an entirely imaginary Scottish space programme and by such mysterious artifacts as the one shown here.

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Interview in today's Scotsman

About ten days ago Stuart Kelly interviewed me over a cup of coffee in the Abbotsford, an Edinburgh bar that's popular with writers and journalists (and cops and criminals, according to its entirely fictitious representation in The Night Sessions) and he's turned my recorded ramblings into a coherent interview and kindly profile, for which mercy I am truly thankful, as we used to say on Lewis.

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Friday, March 02, 2012

Strong starts for Intrusion (UK) and The Night Sessions (US)

While waiting for the enLIGHTen lights to go on yesterday evening, I saw a tweet from @SpecHorizons, aka James Long, editorial assistant at Orbit:

'Intrusion by @amendlocke is being reprinted, having only been officially released today! #result'

#result, indeed. Later that evening the book's sales ranking was in the top thousand on Amazon UK and top fifty for SF/F.

And today SFX put online a very good (and perceptive) review:
As a portrait of benign tyranny, Intrusion is chillingly effective (and morbidly entertaining), not least because so many of this future state’s dystopian elements are rooted in inarguable Good Things. It takes a seriously determined – and seriously cold-blooded – libertarian ideologue to argue in favour of, say, parents’ right to condemn their children to suffer and die of preventable diseases. Where to draw the line between private life and public good is not a debate unique to our time, or to dystopian fiction, but the technology of MacLeod’s world enables him to present the issues more starkly. Here, women are not just subject to stern government health warnings – and social disapproval – about how they use their bodies during pregnancy; they are now “encouraged” to wear sensor rings that allow their local health centre to monitor every molecule they encounter. This is a society being slowly smothered by the systems and safeguards it demanded at the ballot box, and the hobby-horses of its favourite newspapers.
The Night Sessions is to be published in the US in April by Pyr, and it's already had two good reviews: in Publishers Weekly and RT Book Reviews (that one's subscription only, but my editor at Pyr, Lou Anders, has sent me a pull quote from it and it's enthusiastic).

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enLIGHTen switches on

The launch yesterday afternoon of enLIGHTen exceeded expectations. After a deal of mingling, sipping, and nibbling in one of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's splendid halls, followed by introductory speeches, I read out my own story, with additional Scottish voices and accents supplied by Gavin Inglis, and Sam Oliver doing an impression of Ben Franklin. Photos from the event are here.

Then enLIGHTen project manager Sara Grady led the crowd out to St Andrew's Square, where we waited for enough dusk to gather for the projection to be switched on. William Letford recited his evocative poem, we all counted down, and Ali Bowden threw the switch.

And then, flickering up the column in the centre of the square, came a jumble of letters that seemingly self-assembled into a quotation from David Hume: 'Truth springs from argument amongst friends.'

On the bus home I passed Charlotte Square, where the project's installation is a truly eye-filling illuminated and ever-changing globe in celebration of the most famous phrase of Hutton.

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lights! Camera! Action!

My new novel Intrusion is published today, and is available from Amazon and all good booksellers (one of which will have signed (and, if you like, personalised) copies any day now).

(Update: Cory Doctorow's enthusiastic review is now up on BoingBoing. Yay!)

The story's premise is:

A single-dose pill has been developed that corrects, without risk, many common genetic errors in a developing foetus. When a pregnant woman refuses to take The Fix, as the pill is known, she divides friends, family and even the law with a moral dilemma. Is her decision a private matter of individual choice, or is it tantamount to wilful neglect of her unborn child?

To celebrate the book and the source of some of its inspiration, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is sponsoring a launch event at Pulp Fiction (43 Bread Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AH) on 21 March, 6.30 - 8.30 pm. The event will include me reading from the book and discussing it in conversation with Stuart Kelly, literary editor for the Scotsman newspaper group. Also: free drinks!

The event is free but spaces are limited: book online here.

There's a quite different launch event today, for enLIGHTen, an ambitious celebration of the Scottish Enlightenment, and I'm delighted and very much honoured to be taking part in it by reading (with Gavin Inglis and Sam Oliver doing the voices) my flash fiction in honour of Adam Smith.

Invitation only for that one, but a full account - including a link to all the stories and readings - tomorrow, if we're spared.

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