The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, December 31, 2009


Some mercifully lost diary records my excitement at the first decade rollover I was old enough to be aware of, in 1969. I remember being excited about it, because I'd read enough science fiction set in or referring to the 1970s to think of the 1970s as the beginning of the scientifictional future. I wondered where I'd be in 1979: maybe fighting for king and country against China? (Why king? Possibly because some near-future political novel by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond - The Smile on the Face of the Tiger? Scotch on the Rocks? - had Elizabeth making a graceful handover to Charles. Why China? Well, that was probably in the novel too, but it was also in the geopolitical wisdom of the age, which saw the big war to come as pitting an alliance of the US/UK, Europe and Russia against China and its allies in the Third World.)

Within a couple of years, of course, Nixon went to China and Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

In 1979, the war with Eurasia had just turned hot in a cold place. My new girlfriend, Carol, rather aptly impressed my family by winning a game of Risk, though that wasn't why they took her to their hearts.

My recollections of late 1989 include watching the BBC news from Romania in the cafteria of a shopping centre with Carol and our children, just before or just after Christmas. I quit smoking on Christmas day, had one cigarette at Hogmanay, and then none for a couple of months. Some time in February or March I took our daughter on a Woodcraft Folk weekend. Woodcraft Folk kids tend to be free range. By the time the adults had some time on their own on the first evening I was cadging roll-ups.

In 1999 we all went into Edinburgh for the big century rollover. I had flu and was a bit feverish, but it still felt joyful. We'd made it out of the twentieth century alive! Firework residue and drops of sprayed beer fell on happy upturned faces. I had an elated hope that the new century might develop unencumbered by the ideologies that had dominated the old. Hah!

Here in the last day of 2009, I have absolutely no idea what the world will be like in 2019, or what we can expect in the ten years ahead. All I know is that 2019 seems a lot farther in the future than 2009 seemed in 1999.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

What I did in 2009

I've had a really good year as a Writer in Residence for the Genomics Forum: generous facilities, total creative freedom, friendly and helpful colleagues. Blog posts about my activities, and/or relevant (however tangentially) to the Forum's concerns, are grouped here. Although my half-time employment has come to an end, my residency (and Pippa's) hasn't, for which we're grateful. Until further notice we're free to use the office, and we'll continue to develop (and expand into other media- watch this space!) the Human Genre Project, and to promote and participate in events, such as Base Pairs and Couplets, the third of our Social Sessions - this one, on Jan 13, is on science and poetry, and we're privileged to have a very fine line-up indeed: Ron Butlin, Brian McCabe, Tracey S. Rosenberg, Kelley Swain and Ryan Van Winkle.

Finished one novel, The Restoration Game, due out March 2010. Well ahead of the curve of writing science fiction set in the nearer and nearer future, this novel is set in 2008 AD. Except for the flashbacks. From another viewpoint, though, it's set in AUC 2248, which makes it science fiction. (Classicists will notice that the Year of the City 2248 is not the equivalent of the Year of Our Lord 2008.)

Wrote three short stories: 'Death Knocks', for Geoff Ryman's anthology When It Changed: Science Into Fiction, 'Sidewinders', for Ian Watson and Ian Whates' anthology The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, and 'A Tulip for Lucretius' (dissected here), for Subterranean. One flash fiction, 'Reflective Surfaces" for New Scientist's Sci-Fi Special.

I've just started writing my next novel, provisionally titled Sin Bio. Drawing heavily on the good old English traditions of the cosy catastrophe and the Aga saga, it's set in the near future and has a genomics theme.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season's Greetings

Happy Christmas, Hannukah, Yuletide, or other solstice festival of your choice to you all!


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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Working in the spaceship yards, for real

On Tuesday I gave a talk at Strathclyde University's Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory's seminar series. Professor Colin McInnes (who I'd met at Satellite 2, and whose talk there was recently summarised in an article in The Herald) and Dr Malcolm Macdonald had invited me, and they showed me around the labs and took me out for a few drinks, a meal and a very stimulating conversation afterwards - for all of which, much thanks.

You can see the seminar here - there's an opening sample on the page, and buttons for streaming or downloading if you want to see and hear the whole talk and discussion. Here's the (slightly tongue in cheek) abstract:
"The Imaginary Engine: notes for a research proposal on the 1990s private space space opera boom in science fiction".

Abstract: The relationship between scientific-technological advance and science fiction has often been assumed and celebrated but seldom rigorously examined. A possible theoretical framework for doing this has emerged in the discipline of Science and Technology Studies (STS): 'the political economy of promise'. Usually applied in the context of biotechnology, this framework looks at the ways in which the 'promise' of new technologies or scientific breakthroughs is used to mobilise resources – of labour, capital, research grants, political credibility, public acceptance – in the real world. Imaginary representations of promising developments play an integral part in this process, acting as (almost literally) 'fictitious capital' in the boom phase of an economic cycle.

It is suggested that science fiction, by treating future possibilities as actualities, may function as an even more literal fictitious capital. In the second half of the 1990s, rapid technological development in, and the ever-widening application of, information technology and the consequent dot-com boom was accompanied by a surge of technological optimism – albeit combined, often, with social pessimism – in science fiction. One such area of optimism concerned the near prospect of large-scale private space exploration and settlement. Records of this period exist in the archives of numerous newsgroups and semi-public mailing lists such as,, and the Extropians email list. A mapping of discussion on these lists with influential works of written SF of that period and with speculative investment in a number of fields is outlined and further research proposed.
Though my delivery, as usual, gives the impression that I am painfully dredging words from the vast shallows of my mind, and the camera and mic are unforgiving of my tics (fiddling with my glasses, clicking my pen, pushing up my sleeves), I had the benefit of an involved and SF-savvy audience whose questions and comments contributed a great deal.

I was well impressed by the scale and scope of the engineering department, by the enthusiasm of the staff and the research students I met, and by the work of the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, which is collaborating with local space industry and other partners in numerous fields, including the exciting field of microspacecraft.

They're building spaceships on the Clyde! Who knew? As one of the builders points out, there are a lot of young people in Scotland who really need to know, and he's doing something about it.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Canadian SF writer beaten, arrested, and charged with assault by US border police

Canadian SF writer Peter Watts is in serious legal trouble, after making the mistake, on his way back to the free world, of asking US border guards why they were searching his car. His friends and colleagues are rallying round, and so can you, via the PayPal button on this page and of course by spreading the word.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

How knowing about our DNA changes our sense of who we are

Genomics Forum deputy director Steve Sturdy has an article on the new twists that genomics has given to ideas of biological, social, ethnic, family and personal identity - reinforcing some, undermining others, and leaving few untouched - in the current issue of The Philospher's Magazine.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

New fiction on the Human Genre Project

First, on the Y chromosome, we have a Speciation: the Day REDE OS Forked by Tasmanian sculptor Meika Loofs Samorzewski. Second, on chromosome 4, we're proud to have a brief extract from The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, by well-known science-and-fiction writer-and-speaker Ann Lingard.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Why Kepler's Somnium is (or isn't) hard SF, and other more interesting questions

Last month BBC producer Louise Yeoman invited me to the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh to contribute to a 20-minute BBC radio programme about Kepler's Somnium, which also featured Andrew Brown, the observatory's Professor Avery Meiksin, and science historian James Connor.

You can now hear it on the BBC iPlayer, and it's worth a listen. Prof Meiksin is a joy to listen to. As for me, well ... I sound a lot more coherent and fluent than I sounded to myself at the time. (Good editing, probably.) Whatever argument I may (or may not) have made to justify the fine distinction I drew between Kepler's speculation and hard SF (some ramble about Gernsback, I suspect) is lost to my memory as much as to the recording, if it was ever there in the first place. Also, I got Hal Clement's name slightly wrong - from nervousness rather than ignorance.

Andrew Brown evidently enjoyed his visit, particularly to the library:

So there I was on Tuesday, touching the vellum of a 13th century manuscript of Alhazen, another of Aristotle, and then a first edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus and one of Kepler's Nova Astronomia. In the shelves on the wall were Galileo's works.

We were meant to be making a radio programme – an interval talk for Radio 3 – but the producer and I and our guest Ken MacLeod just frolicked round that room of priceless books like salmon woken by a spate. Serious work was impossible for a while. There was nothing to say that was adequate in the face of so much beauty and so much history; for anyone who writes, the feel of a physical object which has been read for 800 years is a quite extraordinary thrill.
'Oh monks, monks, monks,' I heard him murmur, looking at a volume of hundreds of pages of minute invariant uncial script, 'that this labour of yours should be used as a cheap analogy for DNA replication!'

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Human Genre Project updates

Three new poems at the Human Genre Project: Dave Lordan's Surviving the recession is a fine rant, but not at first glance obviously about genetics. Dave explains: 'It hasn't got to do with a specific gene, but with the overall idea of socio-environmental adaptation.' It scores. John Morris's Crazy Quilt makes a point about DNA, and Inchoate Origins by Karen Booth speculates on a possible ancestor of us all.

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