The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, May 29, 2009


Divisions, the second half of the Fall Revolution books, is out. (Following on, logically enough, from Fractions.) It comprises The Cassini Division and The Sky Road, and it looks good, with a very classy cover.

Readers new to the Fall Revo books may like to know that the second book in this volume takes place in an alternate future to the first.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Does Genomics Need Darwin?

Darwin's legacy and its relevance to genomics, as well as the hot topic of New Scientist's 'Darwin Was Wrong' cover splash, are among the issues discussed in the Genomics Network's latest newsletter - available for download here. If you'd like a hard copy, just ask. My own piece on Sociology, Genomics and Science Fiction is there too, stylishly presented and illustrated.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On a lighter note ...

... and belatedly, here's a link to this year's Locus April 1 story, in which I get a passing mention. Fame at last! Sending it to me, Lawrence Person wrote: 'P.S. I would totally read those novels.' To which I replied that I'd totally write the second one.

Don't miss the other spoof stories in the Locus sidebar.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Invasion Dream


The details vary, but it's always the same dream.

I'm outside my home, or in some other familiar place, and the sky fills with flying machines that engage in slow or sudden movement. Within the dream I remember previous instances of the dream, as dreams, and feel surprised that I'm now seeing it in reality. A few nights ago I saw bursts and trails of sparks in a twilight sky, like fireworks, but far bigger, and silent. I remember thinking that this was like the recurrent dream I have, of a sky filled with machines that sometimes look like ghostly outlines of gigantic military aircraft, and sometimes blocky shapes of complex alien spacecraft.

I feel no fear; at most, some apprehension. The main feeling is awe, and a sense of anticipation.

I wake and, as usual, I haven't had enough sleep. Many years ago I read of an experiment where volunteers lived in a cave without any information as to whether it was day or night. The object was to see whether they would continue to show evidence of a diurnal cycle. Sure enough, their bodies settled in to a circadian rhythm, but for a twenty-five hour day.

I miss the longer days of the home planet.


On the home planet there are enough hours in the day. You remember this. You know what I'm talking about. You recognise the suspicion. Have you ever felt at home here? Doesn't the word 'home' mean someplace other than 'Earth' to you? Maybe not, in which case I envy you, and intend to avoid you. To ca' canny, to evade, to back off. In fact I have never met anyone who knows what I'm talking about. I'm looking for you here, now. This is what this is about: SETI.

Some banal music does it. 'Sailing' by Rod Stewart. That's a good one. It's diagnostic. It's like hearing a chord or a bar from your national anthem in a foreign country.

Nostalgia was originally classified as a disease. People died of it. It has been bred out. Perhaps we are adapting. There are insects whose eyes are most sensitive to wavelengths not present in the spectrum of the sun. They can't have been here long.


Still missing the home planet, I get a coffee and a cigarette and connect to It's a terrible way to start the day. I should start with some science site, or NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. I might recognise something. What I find on is always familiar.

Outside, overhead, I hear the heavy choppers. Peering through the window as the sound gets louder, I see them. Black helicopters, in real life. Other military aircraft will fly over at some point today. If they are loud enough I might go outside and look. It's childish, I know, but I always go outside and look. I used to think I could predict upcoming wars by upticks in local military activity: low-flying aircraft, army trucks refuelling at Tesco. These days it's harder. The baseline has moved up. It's like background radiation.

I walk to the local co-operative supermarket and buy the broadsheet for myself and the tabloid for my wife. She's still asleep when I get back. I make a bacon sandwich and eat it over the paper. I skip. I've read most of the interesting articles already, on I've read the science news in this week's New Scientist. Being the science correspondent of a British quality newspaper must be the easiest job in the world. On the evidence I see I could file a week's stories every Friday before breakfast. And I wouldn't perpetrate stupid errors, like saying that nanotechnology deals with particles so small that they are not affected by the laws of physics. Sometimes this thought drives me to flashes of berserk rage.

Calmer now, I take the red-top and the cereal up to my wife, kiss her and disappear for the day. I bound up the steps from the back of our street to the main road, in time to smoke a cigarette at the bus stop. A white van from Environmental Services loiters, engine idling, a few yards away. When I finish the cigarette I walk to the litter bin, stub out the cigarette and drop it in. The white van moves off. I wonder if they were waiting to slap a fine on me for littering. (You think I'm paranoid? This really happened.) A black helicopter labours across the sky from north to south, like a water-boatman rowing itself across the surface tension.

There's a lot of surface tension these days. The bus arrives and I take the front seat on the top deck. When I was a child I used to sit in that same seat and imagine that I was gliding above the street on a gravity sled. I still do.


Flying three metres above the surface of the planet, I arrive in Edinburgh. At Festival time players and promoters pester passers-by like cults. I once had an idea for a story about a play at the Festival that started a cult. A real cult, not a cult hit. It was a science fiction play called Mine! All Mine! The idea presented in the play was that we are a lost mining colony. 'Face it,' the play's promotional leaflets would say, 'we never liked the place. That's why we've messed it up.' We are alien visitors inserted into the genes of a promising hominid species, warping it to our own ends, which are to dig up all the metals of the planet. When we have fulfilled this function the mining corporation fleet will arrive with our pay packets and return tickets. Then we can all go home and at last get enough sleep. This proves to be so popular that the protagonist sees it take off and become a real movement to strip-mine the earth. At the end we see him very old, waiting on a ruined Earth for the great ships that will carry him home. We know that they are not coming.

What distinguishes his situation from ours?


Around the city centre I orbit widdershins. I go up Lothian Road and left along Bread Street to the West Port and the Grassmarket. There I describe three epicycles, around Armstrong's, Transreal, and Mr Woods' Fossils. In the first I find costumes for my characters. In the second I find science fiction. In the third I find aliens.

From this lowest point of the Old Town there are short cuts through space-time to any part of the city I want to visit. Through a wormhole gate I arrive at the Library. I sit down at the information terminal and search the index, then go to a shelf for a book. On the home planet, great racks of shelves of books index the information stored on the computer network: a much more rational system. I leave the Library and walk to Word Power, where I scan shelves of books on anarchist spirituality, feminist quantum mechanics, holistic terrorism, and pesticide resistance.


Sometimes I think resistance is futile. The next war is pencilled in like a summer holiday. The aircraft are booked, the cargoes are loaded and the sunshine is packed.

'How do you avoid being worried all the time?'

My daughter needs a lift, in more senses than one. During wars our family car becomes a tiny revolutionary cell.

'For one thing,' I said, 'I do worry a bit. But, yeah. Well, I have other interests. There are things to get on with. Anyway, in the long run I'm not all that worried. People want control over their working lives and they don't want to be thrown out of work by forces they have no control over, and so on and so on. Now we could get that - not without struggle, but without a violent revolution. As for war, well, I think there'll be some more wars, but there's no reason why there should be a world war. Once this mad American and British project to conquer the Middle East is defeated, there'll just be different powers. Their interests could clash, but that doesn't have to lead to war. Lenin said it did, but that was before nuclear weapons and television and the Internet.'

'So you're quite hopeful really?'

'Sure,' I say. 'In the long run.'

She grins and hops out and disappears into her block of flats. I wave and drive away. The Bridge is bright in the evening. Burn-off gas flares from the refinery beyond the horizon. Landing lights come on over the North Sea, staying still in the air for minutes on end. I drive past the hill where her brother and I watched the New Year fireworks light up the horizon from Leith to Grangemouth. We walked back between the wooden walls of gardens. The Ferry with its trees and houses, its noisy peace, the faded covenant in the museum, the Covenanter Lane between the war memorial and the harbour, is surrounded by a great wheel of engineering work - the bridges, the airport, the motorways, the naval yard, the refinery - like a space habitat or a generation ship. It carries me home.

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Apardion! It sounds like the name of a city from the Hyborian Age, and it nearly is: it's the Old Norse name for Aberdeen. I only learned this at the opening session of Word 09, which was a launch with readings for Silver: An Aberdeen Anthology, edited by Alan Spence and Hazel Hutchison. The earliest poetic reference to the city that they found was an account by Einarr Skulason of its sacking in 1153. Several of the contributors were on stage, to read one of their own poems and one other.

The 'Granite City' cliche is true: almost every building seems to be grey, with edges you could cut yourself on. It's like living in high-definition monochrome. Poets have noticed.

Thursday, the evening before the opening, saw the launch party and a concert by the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, a quite astonishingly energetic performance preceded by Alan Spence's readings of a few of his Japanese-inspired poems and haiku:

sudden gust -
the seagull scudding

My Wednesday talk, chaired by Ken Skeldon, for Cafe Scientifique went well, as did my festival event, with journalist Susan Mansfield as able and friendly interlocutor. I thoroughly enjoyed them and the rest of the festival, where all the writers were made welcome and were well looked after: thanks to Carley Williams, Karen Scaife, and Kelly, among others. Word 09 had a strong science thread, including a display of photos with text behind them, 'Fifty Words on Science'.

At a session titled 'The Evolution of Evolution' Ralph O'Connor, author of The Earth on Show, talked about the lively popular discussion and eventual widespread acceptance of the antiquity of the Earth and life, and even of evolution, in the half-century before Darwin published the Origin. Stuart Piertney followed this up with an account of the development of evolutionary theory from 1859 to the publication of Julian Huxley's Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) - which according to Dr Piertney was intended as a popularization. There were giants in those days. At the end of the session we all got to marvel at some of the books from the university library's Special collections, including first editions of the Origin and of Vestiges of Creation.

The same evening, the King's College Centre was packed out to hear Joan Bakewell talk about her first novel, All the Nice Girls. As a nice girl in 1942 herself, Bakewell did a very good job of explaining how different the Britain of that time was.

Afterwards, I joined journalist Fiona Lang and poet Kelley Swain in the nearest pub. On the strength of a fascinating conversation I bought Kelley's book of wondrous poems, Darwin's Microscope, the following day, and Kelley was kind enough to sign it. Matter has a new singer.

Another really good science talk was an interview with Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending:The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which I've just started reading and which looks great.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Evolution is True

I've recently read Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, and it's as good as everyone is saying. One point the book hammers home is that evolutionary theory makes predictions, and that these predictions are regularly and reliably borne out. A particularly elegant example is the discovery of marsupial fossils in Antarctica. Marsupial fossils, in rocks of a particular age, were predicted, searched for, and found in the right place. Coyne's account of this is interwoven with the tale of another triumph, of geology (plate tectonics and continental drift) in making sense of the distribution of not only fossils but also the scrapes left by ancient glaciers in the southern continents. In South Africa, the marks on the rocks seem to show that glaciers once flowed uphill and inland, from the sea. Once the past positions of Africa, Antarctica, and Australia are worked out, all these marks fall into place as downhill, seaward, and outward from the South Pole.

You can read more about this book, and about evolution, at Jerry Coyne's blog.

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I have two gigs in Aberdeen this week: Wednesday 13 May, 7.30 p.m. at Cafe Scientifique (Waterstones, Union Bridge Branch, Union Street, Aberdeen), where I'll be talking about SF and public understanding of science; and Friday 15 May, 2.30 p.m. at the Talisman Theatre, King's College, on how my background in zoology and IT has influenced my writing. Both events are part of the University of Aberdeen Writers' Festival, Word 09.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Jura for Julia

Last week I was on Jura, the Scottish island where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, at a workshop on surveillance organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies. Most of the dozen or so present were associated with the journal Surveillance and Society. From a variety of backgrounds - in sociology, criminology, organization theory, law - they've all contributed to the small but fast-growing field of surveillance studies, which Kirstie Ball in the opening session rather wittily described as a 'trans-disciplinary sub-discipline'. She went on to show that the standard sociological definition of surveillance coincides with the standard organization theory definition of management. So - does that make management sinister, or surveillance banal? Or does it point to some lack of precision in the definitions?

Just what constitutes surveillance, and whether defining a situation as one of surveillance is necessarily to take a critical or oppositional view of it - and, indeed, whether the activity of surveillance studies might itself sometimes have harmful consequences - was discussed quite thoroughly at several sessions and workshops. This was more interesting and more productive than it sounds.

I was there to give a presentation on surveillance in science fiction. The convener of the workshop, Mike Nellis, preceded me with a talk based on his chapter on surveillance in fiction in the just-published New Directions in Surveillance and Privacy. In the written version he covers SF and other popular genres with respect and expertise, but in his presentation he left SF to me.

What I said was something like this.

There are a couple of paradoxes in the relationship of science fiction with our understanding of surveillance. One is that science fiction has provided the language and framework for discussion of surveillance - Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, being top of the list. What's paradoxical about that is that no society has had, or even attempted, the sort of universal technological surveillance we see in Orwell's book - even the most repressive socialist states relied (and those in existence still rely) on secret police and informers far more than on bugging. And if we read Nineteen Eighty-Four as SF we can see certain problems with its world-building. For instance, just as pervasive surveillance breaks down trust, maybe pervasive propaganda breeds skepticism. Even in the book, we see Julia convinced (rather like a 9/11 Truther) that 'the rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, "just to keep people frightened".' For these and other reasons I once wrote a short story whose best bit was the title: 'Nineteen Eighty-Nine'.

The second paradox is that there isn't much SF specifically focused on the issue. Rather, SF and related genres shape our concerns about surveillance by imagining scenarios of coups and conspiracies and so on which have so far at least been a lot rarer in real life in the advanced countries, and which often don't relate very well to how government agencies, multinational corporations and other such usual suspects actually work, even when they do terrible things in secret.

To summarise what I then went on to say about surveillance in SF: we can identify three phases: pressing down, spreading out, and hacking back. In the first phase, pervasive surveillance is a feature of dystopia. In the second, it becomes a default feature of most imagined future industrial societies. In the third, the emphasis is on ways in which citizens can subvert rather than evade surveillance (the perfect example being Cory Doctorow's Little Brother - I can't remember whether I put Paul McAuley's Whole Wide World, perhaps the most thorough recent SF exploration of surveillance, in the second or the third group).

In the course of the talk I mentioned some relevant bits of my own work, for instance the significance of small cheap video cameras, referred to in The Star Fraction as making torture difficult to keep secret. I hadn't, however, predicted that the torturers would use the cameras to make their own home movies.

It was only after I'd finished the presentation that I realised that the three phases could be neatly mapped to the increasing cheapness and availability of the technology of surveillance and data processing: from being only available to states, to being available to large companies, to being mass consumer items. As Teresa Neilsen Hayden once said of Photoshop: 'The tools of dictators! In the hands of the people!'

The discussion was followed by David Murakami Wood (who blogs here) giving a presentation on surveillance in the work of Philip K. Dick, and Michael Nagenborg talking about surveillance in video games. Both talks were interesting and well-informed.

The symposium got down to brass tacks about databases and DNA and electronic tagging and so on in the subsequent two days, which I wasn't able to attend. It'll all be in a book some day.

Meanwhile, there's some excellent discussion on Nineteen Eighty Four in the latest issue (PDF), guest edited by Pete Young, of James Bacon et al's fanzine Journey Planet. I was particularly taken by Tony Keen's '"If there is hope ...": An optimistic reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four', which makes a case that the Appendix on 'The Principles of Newspeak' is the book's real, and happy, ending - and, even more intriguingly, that Oceania's end is foreshadowed in the very chapter where we see Winston Smith finally broken and learning to love Big Brother. I like to think that some day - perhaps sooner than we might expect, maybe even by 1989 - in the Chestnut Tree, a bottle of Jura replaced the Victory Gin.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Informed Book

Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment has been a voice of reason, and an indispensable news portal, on the Middle East for the past six years. Cole's new book, Engaging the Muslim World, deals with the issues in greater depth. Cole's approach and recommendations are far from radical, being pitched as advice to the new US administration, but his arguments and evidence amount to a serious and sustained demolition of the commonplace notion that what's going on is a war between 'the West' and Islam.


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