The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 30, 2009

'The Competition for Immortality'

My colleague and fellow Genomics Forum Writer in Residence Pippa Goldschmidt's short story 'The Competition for Immortality' is now online at LabLit.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

For the mathematically inclined Buffy fan

I'm so ignorant about vampires that I once publicly asked Kim Newman (who is the opposite of ignorant on the subject) where the theology of vampires came from: did the Catholic or the Orthodox churches, I wondered, have a position on the souls of the undead? On the efficacy of garlic and crucifixes and stakes through the heart?

Newman had to politely explain that the traditional view of vampires, in so far as it isn't simply made up by the writers, is based on nothing more than peasant superstition.

Science, however, has stepped in where even theology recoils, and given us the ecology of vampires. (Via.)

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Monday, April 20, 2009

J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

J.G. Ballard has died. Tributes and obituaries are linked to here. Obits in the mainstream press from within SF: the FT's, by Christopher Priest, and the Guardian's, by David Pringle, [and The Independent, by John Clute.]

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Ballard discovered something of the world we still live in.


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Friday, April 17, 2009

Existence Proof of Von Neumann Machine, Placing Imaginary Bets, and other Cultural Learnings

This year's Eastercon, LX 2009 was a blast. (For anyone who doesn't know: Eastercon is the largest annual British SF convention. A science fiction convention isn't - contrary to popular misconception - a gathering of people dressed as Klingons (not that there's anything wrong with that). It's a gathering of people dressed as Victorians. (Actually, that's an exaggeration too. A couple of nice photosets by Mark Bukumunhe and Ian Sales give a fair idea of what an Eastercon crowd looks like.))

The Night Sessions (just out in paperback, by the way) won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2008, and the awards are, as usual, works of art. I totally didn't expect this, given the strength of the list. I'd already read out the short-list and presented the Award for best non-fiction, and was delighted that it went to Farah Mendlesohn for her brilliant and original Rhetorics of Fantasy. Congratulations to all the winners.

Thanks to my cunning plan inveterate procrastination, I didn't register for the con until I arrived, so I wasn't on any other programme events. As a result I saw far more of the programme, and far more of the people there, than usual. Another advantage was that my badge had my name on both sides.

The Science Fiction Foundation's annual George Hay Lecture was presented Adrian Bowyer, on the RepRap machine, an attempt to build a useful self-replicating desktop factory. The lecture was perfectly pitched to a scientifictional audience (Bowyer had told Cory Doctorow: 'You write novels about what I'm doing!') and I was sold on the whole thing the moment I handled one of its products, a chunky and robust plastic coat-hook. RepRap ain't a Von Neumann machine just yet - it only makes all the plastic parts needed for another copy of itself - but the mad scientists are already working on a version that makes its own electrical circuits, and after that, who knows?

The very first BSFA lecture (the intended series will complement the Hay lectures by being on the humanities, rather than science) was given by historian Shana Worthen, on 'Visualising Time in the Middle Ages', and was about calendars and clocks. She began by wishing us a happy new year - one calendar, the Gallic, had the year starting, most inconveniently, on the moveable feast of Easter Sunday. Much that we take for granted had to be invented: the twenty-four hour day dates back to Babylon, but the length of an hour as measured by a sundial varied with the length of the day - and the first mechanical clocks tried to reproduce this. It's kind of heartening to know that the classic mistake of designing the solution before specifying the problem didn't start with IT departments.

Tim Powers was author Guest of Honour, and he was great. In his GoH interview, conducted by his bibliographer John Berlyne, Powers told lots of entertaining tales about his life and gave lots of advice about writing, including a method for finding or inventing weird events in history by looking for clues in biographies of historical characters: watch out for when the biographer says something like 'and then, inexplicably ...'; combine the subject's timetable with someone else's timetable or a known series of events (like Bordeaux good and bad years), spot any coincidences and ask 'Can this be coincidence?'; and always say 'Yes, but why did he really do that?' In short, write your own conspiracy theories! A consequence of doing this, Powers said, was that he could never take conspiracy theories seriously. It's like, hey man, making this stuff up is my day job. Go bother someone else.

In his talk on 'How to Plot a Novel', Powers gave a masterclass on the subject, which I can't begin to reproduce here (but may attempt some other time). One memorable tip was to start with 'placing imaginary bets' - to write down every idea that occurs to you, without editing (a process he said was inspired by a ridiculous system for winning at games of chance by first losing ten thousand dollars on imaginary bets, thus using up all your bad luck) and then critically examining the ideas: questioning them, reversing them, often enough rejecting them. As he pointed out, 'But I thought of it!' is not a good reason for keeping an idea.

Lots of other panels, mostly good. Kari ended one on 'Re-creating History' by revealing a closely-guarded secret of medieval historians: 'People knew how to hem.' Clute said the genres of the fantastic were born of ruins and futurity. At the panel on 'Alternate Socialist Britains' I kept my mouth shut, perhaps wisely. At 'SF as Protest Literature' artist GoH David Lloyd said that the Watchmen film was 'pretty good' and that he didn't mind surveillance cameras. On 'Bad Biology' Paul McAuley remarked that silicon-based life 'could be squishy'.

The panel convened by Farah Mendlesohn on 'Pacifism and Non-Violence in SF' benefited from being on a subject on which there is a manageably small amount of source material. The discussion led me to make one of my very few comments from the floor. A more articulate and argued version of that comment would be this:

We already know how to have peace over large areas of the Earth, and that is by having large states covering those areas. (The combat death rate for men of military age in typical stateless societies far exceeds that in inter-state wars, including world wars.) SF has in its default assumptions a way to get to peace without pacifism, and that is the World State. Even Starship Troopers gives this answer, just as much as Star Trek or anything by H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein's Federation is a World State, and (consequently) there is peace within the human species. It just has wars with aliens.

But there are no aliens. So we could have peace.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Tulip for Lucretius

My short story, 'A Tulip for Lucretius', is now online at the Spring 2009 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine.

Erudite critics may detect a subtle element of homage to Roger Zelazny's classic 1964 short story, 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes'. True, but mine has genomics! And total depravity!

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Dark Skies

What could possibly go wrong, Matthew Yglesias asks rhetorically, with a huge deployment of flying killer robots?
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Friday, April 03, 2009

Souls in Steel

At 6.30 p.m. on Monday 6 April I'm giving a talk on robots and AI in SF at Heriot-Watt University, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The University of Edinburgh is hosting lots of cool events, including guest appearances over Saturday and Sunday by ASIMO, 'the world's most advanced humanoid robot', at the McEwan Hall.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Winged With Death, by John Baker

John Baker is doing a virtual tour with this book, and today he's here with me. I've read the book, and can warmly recommend it. Like Peter Dorward's Nightingale, this is a literary crime novel literary novel that links the armed radicalism of the 1970s with a protagonist's complex situation in the present, to disturbing effect. In Baker's novel, the past is Montevideo, where urban guerillas confront a grim military dictatorship. The present is the disappearance of a teenage girl in York. The prose is colourful and precise, sometimes almost clipped, and the tensions wind to induce in the reader a state of mind analogous to that of the narrator and create a novel whose end you don't want to reach, but must.

[Update 5 April: Re 'literary crime novel' see comments - KMM]

If the tour is going according to plan, you can talk to the author today in the comments below. Meanwhile, here's a taster:

What follows is an extract from John Baker's latest novel, Winged with Death (Flambard Press £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-906601-02-7).

I dreamed about soldiers. My dreams often contain people in uniform. I have dreams about order, or so it seems when they begin. I was jerked awake at 4.30 in the morning. Must’ve been unconscious for nearly half-an-hour. Whatever had occupied my sleeping mind was already dissolving like Alka-Seltzer in a glass. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and pulled on my dressing gown. I had a piss and drank a glass of cold water and headed for the kitchen.

It takes a while to retrieve the dream. And even then I don’t get all the details, just a distilled essence. The narrative is lost and I’m left with the conclusions. It’s like a lesson, like being in school.

There were soldiers looking for glory and finding bloody stumps where they used to have arms and legs. This was what pulled me awake. The broken bodies of these young men, the quality of their horrified screams. And the sheer numbers of them, uncountable, multitudes, stretching back to the horizon, seeming to taper away but continuing to fill the frame of my vision.

I know exactly what has happened to them, they are the products of lies and liars. They were young men looking to be valued as human beings but they found only ruptured stomachs and gaping mouths. They followed the wrong signs, listened to the wrong voices.

They didn’t care, not really, who gave them their orders, who told them lies. It could have been the Pope or the President, a fascist, a communist, a religious zealot, a democrat. It didn’t matter when your life blood was running into the mud of a battle-field.

The insignia on the armband or the chest, whatever it was that gave their commanding officers the ultimate authority, it was there to mask another psychopath.

Back in Montevideo, when people asked, I would say I was a dancer. But when I first arrived there, in extreme youth, I told them I was an existentialist. I’d read Sartre and skimmed Camus and I had a little book of quotations from Kierkegaard: Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.

‘Existentialism, what’s that,’ Fanny asked me.

‘It’s a path to discovering your own individual essence by acts of free will.’

‘Gonna take a long time, then.’

‘It’s the only way. We’re not predetermined.’

‘Tell that to the death squads.’

Existentialism is one of those things that keep coming back at me. I don’t live it. But it won’t leave me alone.

There is another part of me which stands back from my emotions and judgements, which seeks to find a comprehensible framework to put them in. And that is the way I live my life. I am allowed to live that way because I have dance, I have the tango and the ability to surrender to my emotions in an attempt to live by the spirit. I can tramp between the two.

My existentialism has become a place to go. It is a dance hall. It is not enough, I know that. But it is what I have.

This is what my dream was about. It was one of my identities reminding the others to be conscious. I am not unusual. Like every other person I am afraid of knowing the enormity of my capabilities. What I can do and become is awesome.
There are further extracts on John Baker’s site, and you can catch up with other people’s opinions of the book through the author’s virtual tour.
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