The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sputnik Caledonia: or, the parallel worlds of SF and literary fiction

This isn't a review of Sputnik Caledonia, the very fine novel by Andrew Crumey, who chaired and spoke at the Newcastle Parallel Worlds event a couple of months ago. It's had some very good reviews already, and I have nothing but my own enthusiastic recommendation to add.

I'm just thinking about why it isn't SF.

An outline can make it look like SF. Here's a novel that starts in early-60s Scotland, in the life of an imaginative, space-and-SF-obsessed boy whose father is a factory worker, a socialist, self-taught and firmly opinionated. One subject the father holds forth on is the contingency of history. After some strange experiences hinting at alien contact, and after a sort of blackout, the boy finds himself a few years older, a young soldier, in an alternate Scotland which has become part of a communist-ruled socialist Britain in the course of the Second World War. He's a volunteer for a secret space programme, which is even more secretly preparing to contact an alien intelligence that has just entered the solar system. Intrigues, betrayals, contacts with dissidents, and an ascent into space follow, with an unexpected and satisfying ending that ties the strands together and enough unexplained to leave us thinking.

So, yes, it looks like SF. But it can't be read as SF.

For a start, the text denies us almost all of the specific pleasures of alternate history. It does eventually reveal the hinge on which history turned, and it's the only place where I heard an echo of an SF text, in a possible allusion to a specific incident and a general mood in Graham Dunstan Martin's Time-Slip. But it doesn't elaborate on this history. There's plenty of detail about daily life in this alternate socialist Britain, convincingly grim and shabby and riddled with secret privilege, but there's no time-line to reconstruct from planted clues, and hardly any figures from our history to recognise (ah-ha!) in new roles.

SF examples of all this abound, but to take another book published as mainstream: In Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, set in a 1970s world where the Reformation failed, there's some sly fun with a Cardinal Berlinguer, a Monsignor Sartre, and numerous other likewise impossible historical characters, and a purely SFnal delight in imagining subtle consequences.

Or, to lower the tone (and the bar) a lot: my novella The Human Front has some of the same themes as Sputnik Caledonia: Scotland, aliens, 1960s boyhood, alternate post WW2 history, socialism. It's a far slighter work than Crumey's in every way, but it has more of the above alternate-history tropes in its seventy pages than Sputnik Caledonia has in over five hundred, and it does more to rationalise its blatantly handwaved (flying saucers, come on) physics. Crumey could easily do that - he knows a hundred times more physics than I've ever forgotten - but he doesn't. He uses physics in a quite different way, as metaphor.

And that's the key. SF literalises metaphor. Literary fiction uses science as metaphor. In Sputnik Caledonia, the parallel world is a metaphor of what is lost in every choice. That's why the book is literary fiction and not SF, and is all the better for it. 'What might have been' functions in SF as a speculation. In Sputnik Caledonia, as in life, it's a reflection that we seldom have occasion to make without a sense of loss.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Scotland at standstill as strange white substance falls from sky

Transport links across Scotland have been severely disrupted today by an overnight fall of an unknown substance from the atmosphere. Lying several centimetres deep over much of the country, it has made roads, railways and airport runways dangerously slippery and often impassable. As an emergency interim measure while authorities and scientists struggle to identify the phenomenon, schools have been closed.

The mystery material is initially white in colour, and is said to sometimes resemble salt. Attempts at closer comparison have failed because salt has - also overnight and unexpectedly - disappeared from all retail outlets.

Local sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod, who had to cancel plans to meet his daughter for lunch because of the transport chaos, blamed the lack of preparedness on 'cultural snobbery towards science fiction'.

'I'm not asking for some sort of instant readiness for anything,' he said. 'That would be utopian. But I do think that reading a few catastrophe novels or even watching the odd disaster movie on TV would open minds to the possibility of unprecedented events.'

A source at Edinburgh City Council accused the writer of having his head in the clouds. 'All we can do now is wait for the scientists to come up with something, which could take months. And keep watching the skies.'

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

'I split the universe!' Prof's shock claim divides audience

I haven't been blogging much lately because I'm busy writing Sin Bio, a novel set in a near-future dystopia where citizens can be casually and clinically tortured, wars are as endless as they're senseless, and winters keep getting longer and colder because of global warming. It takes a lot of work to make such a society remotely plausible. But in between racking my every imaginative resource, I've been taking part in a few events.

The most alarming, perhaps, was at the Newscastle Arts event on Parallel Worlds, where Professor Ian Moss gave a very informative lecture on different physical theories of parallel worlds: island universes, M-theory, Many Worlds, etc. Towards the end he explained that he had two different possible final sections of the lecture, and he was going to deliver both simultaneously: one in one universe, one in another. He asked an audience member to look up an online site which delivers random numbers (it may have been some quantum random number generator, or what Moss called the most dangerous book ever published, A Million Random Digits, which apart from generating many amusing Amazon reviews creates a new universe every time someone bases a decision on it). He then based a choice on this number, using some simple algorithm, and told us which of the two alternative concluding sections he was going for. In another universe, of course, he delivered the other.

I'm not sure how well this dangerous demonstration of macro-scale quantum effects came across, but it could fairly be said that the audience was evenly divided.

The most surprising and encouraging was Cockermouth Cafe Sci, where I gave a talk on why Craig Venter's synthetic cell was, on balance, a good thing. I came along prepared for the usual objections, and dealt with them in my talk, but nobody from the audience followed these up or raised any of their own. Instead they took all that for granted and asked mostly technical questions. I was very glad to have retired cell biologist John Lackie, who chaired the event, standing by to give the answers. Later he and his wife Ann told me that as the audience for Cockermouth Cafe Sci are mostly farmers (who use reproductive technology all the time) or nuclear workers, there ain't much of a hearing for alarmism in these here parts. Maybe the countryside will surround the cities after all.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

What if the equations are the fire?

I'm feeling metaphysically happy, having come across a complete explanation of life, the universe and everything. I encountered it first as a quick-and-dirty outline at the atheist blog AIG busted, and mulled it for a few days until I came up with a formulation that made intuitive sense to me. Me being me, it's probably wrong, but here's how it went:

Valid equations are trivially and necessarily true.
There is a system of equations that describes every physical interaction.
Including those in our brains.
That system of equations is a timeless necessary truth.
Yada, yada.
Therefore we necessarily exist.
Hail you, necessarily existent being!

Today I looked for more on the work of Gary Drescher and found that the basic idea is called the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, and has been elaborated by real philosophers and physicists with degrees and everything.

I think this hypothesis is what Spinoza was getting at, so that's another ground for confidence. Greg Egan probably agrees too. I'm not saying I completely understand it, but throw in some blind faith and fanatical enthusiasm, and the world is ours.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New on Human Genre Project

Just up on the Human Genre Project: a piece of light verse by Enid Nicholson, Let's swap genes, and Joyce Swan's reflection on growing up ginger, Simply red.

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sense of wonder

How well I remember sitting up late one night in March 1986 to see the first images of a cometary nucleus from Giotto. The TV screen slowly filled with inch-wide pixels giving an image whose shape and colours resembled a Cubist rendering of a fried egg. 'Well, I reckon little Giotto's had it,' a friend remarked, somewhat prematurely, after the image had stayed the same for what seemed like hours.

Now look at this! (Via, surprisingly.)

The mission has its own website, cleverly titled The Daily Comet.


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The uncanny valley just became a gravity well

NASA is about to send up the first humanoid robot in space.

'Feel free to recall your favourite sci-fi robots,' says the BBC's science correspondent, Jonathan Amos.

Well, yes.

The rationale for specifically humanoid robots in space given in The Night Sessions - that they're ergonomically suited to the same tasks as humans, while being better suited (so to speak) to the conditions - is much the same as that given by NASA. I have to admit though that in the novel it was more a case of a solution looking for a problem: the society already had humanoid robots, and they turned out to be unwelcome almost everywhere, so they were desperately searching for a useful niche.

There are, of course, darker possibilities, which Charles Stross has had fun with.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

'Without the Martians, who would have heard of Woking?'

'The Future Will Happen Here, Too', my apologia for all the catastrophes, wars, revolutions and runaway Stross singularities I've fictionally inflicted on Scotland, has just been published in The Bottle Imp, online magazine of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, in an issue devoted to science fiction and fantasy in Scottish literature.

Highlights of the issue include Stuart Kelly on David Lindsay, Hamish Whyte on the SF poetry of Edwin Morgan, Martyn Colebrook on the dichotomies of Iain (M.) Banks, and Caroline McCracken-Flesher giving a critical take on Scotland as Science Fiction.

All in all, a very welcome acknowledgement and celebration of SF/F as part of the main stream of Scottish literature.

I still feel a little embarrassed at the tally of awful things I've done to Lochcarron.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The One O'Clock Gun Anthology

The One O'Clock Gun is a familiar fixture of the Edinburgh scene, more regular than clockwork, but that doesn't stop it now and again making visitors to the capital jump out of their skins when they come across it in the pub. I refer, of course, to the free quarterly A2 broadsheet, ingeniously folded, charmingly illustrated (by the internationally renowned artist Lucy McKenzie) and minutely printed. It always made a diverting read on the bus or train home, and for all the days afterwards it took to finish it.

The house style was mannered, sometimes to the point of archness, but the style and substance of the contributions ranged widely, and the contributors came to include many famous names. Now there's an anthology, handsomely produced, of the Gun's first four years (2004 - 2008), from Leamington Books. Readers will differ on which item or items - from obituaries to squibs via short stories and poems - make it worth the tenner, but most will agree that some significant subset does. This is a collection for dipping into and sampling according to mood, like the single malts in a well-stocked bar.

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