The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, January 31, 2011

Everything in your genome, it's all in the chromosome

From New Scientist:

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Poetry links for Burns Night

The winners of the Genomics Forum's poetry competition, launched last year by Pippa Goldschmidt, will be annnounced - and will be giving readings of their work - on Saturday afternoon at a free event, 2- 4 pm at the Scottish Poetry Library. All welcome.

In other genomics poetry news: three new poems, all by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal, have been added today to The Human Genre Project.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Sin Bio: writing a democratic dystopia

Last Thursday I finished the first draft of Sin Bio, the novel I've been writing since late last year. I haven't felt so relieved at finishing a novel since the first draft of The Star Fraction - possibly because this is the first novel I've written since then without having written a fairly detailed outline in advance. All those wise old novelists who assured me they wrote like that, making it up as they went along, a few hundred words a day, can go take a running jump. I have no intention of going through this ever again.

On the other hand, it has worked. The book's more interesting than what I'd have devised if I'd planned it, and a lot more interesting than my vague imagining of how it was going to go. I never expected that barbarian to walk across a hallway and through the wall. I'm sure my then editor didn't either, when we brainstormed my next book last year. 'All we want you to do, Ken,' he explained, 'is write the next Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451.' Oh fine, I said. Why didn't I think of that? I had all kinds of ideas, none of which he liked, until I said: 'What if genetic engineering became so common that not having it was like not having vaccinations?' As soon as he said 'Yes!' I thought oh no what have I done?

And then I thought and scribbled and talked with my agent and came up with an outline for a novel about just that, with vast geopolitical conspiracies involving selective viral weaponry, and was told that this wasn't what they wanted at all. Then my agent suggested I read Children of Men, and focus on the woman and the child. So I read that book and didn't like it, but it gave me a sense of what mainstream authors writing SF can get away with.

The book I've ended up writing is not at all like any of the books I've mentioned, and not very like anything I've written before. No date is given. The technological advances in synthetic biology are perhaps faster than the developments shown in other areas. There's no big political change in it. No new ideology, no new system. There have been geopolitical shifts. If the society shown is a dystopia, it's a democratic dystopia. It's what we have, a decade or three down the line.

At the moment it seems like the best thing I've ever written. I'm enjoying the feeling while it lasts. By the time I've been through the revision, the copy-edit, and the proofs, it'll seem the worst thing I've ever read, let alone written. But for the moment, I'm happy with it. The rest is up to the readers, some time in the not too distant future.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

A lesson from the classics

Hector was first to speak. "I will-no longer fly you, son of Peleus," said he, "as I have been doing hitherto. Three times have I fled round the mighty city of Priam, without daring to withstand you, but now, let me either slay or be slain, for I am in the mind to face you. Let us, then, give pledges to one another by our gods, who are the fittest witnesses and guardians of all covenants; let it be agreed between us that if Jove vouchsafes me the longer stay and I take your life, I am not to treat your dead body in any unseemly fashion, but when I have stripped you of your armour, I am to give up your body to the Achaeans. And do you likewise."

Achilles glared at him and answered, "Fool, prate not to me about covenants. There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out an through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall and glut grim Mars with his life's blood." The Illiad

[Added for clarification: What a shit!]

Never make nice.


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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

From the Old Space Age

The latest issue of Redstone Science Fiction has, among other delights, a reprint of my 2008-Hugo-shortlisted story Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?. First published in the anthology The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (Eos Books, Harvester, 2006) the story is set in the same universe as my novel Learning the World. In that universe, the common notion of prehistory is of a time when people lived in caves, on the Moon.

But let's not knock the people of the Old Space Age! Take a look at this striking image of the solar transit of the International Space Station during yesterday's partial eclipse, and marvel.

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Jim Cannon's socialist hope

Speaking of optimism, here's the peroration of a speech that James P. Cannon, an American socialist, made in 1953.
All will be artists. All will be workers and students, builders and creators. All will be free and equal. Human solidarity will encircle the globe and conquer it and subordinate it to the uses of man.

That, my friends, is not an idle speculation. That is the realistic perspective of our great movement. We ourselves are not privileged to live in the socialist society of the future, which Jack London, in his far-reaching aspiration, called the Golden Future. It is our destiny, here and now, to live in the time of the decay and death agony of capitalism. It is our task to wade through the blood and filth of this outmoded, dying system. Our mission is to clear it away. That is our struggle, our law of life.

We cannot be citizens of the socialist future, except by anticipation. But it is precisely this anticipation, this vision of the future, that fits us for our role as soldiers of the revolution, soldiers of the liberation war of humanity. And that, I think, is the highest privilege today, the occupation most worthy of a civilised man. No matter whether we personally see the dawn of socialism or not, no matter what our personal fate may be, the cause for which we fight has social evolution on its side and is therefore invincible. It will conquer and bring all mankind a new day.

It is enough for us, I think, if we do our part to hasten on the day. That’s what we’re here for. That’s all the incentive we need. And the confidence that we are right and that our cause will prevail, is all the reward we need. That’s what the socialist poet, William Morris, had in mind, when he called us to

Join in the only battle
wherein no man can fail
for whoso fadeth and dieth
yet his deeds shall still prevail.
Cannon's deeds have prevailed all right. You may never have heard of him, but the world we live in would be noticeably different if Cannon had never lived, or had made different choices. Ignazio Silone once said that the final conflict would be between the communists and the ex-communists. One less-than-final but still significant conflict today, that over the left's response to war, is between those who work and think along the lines that Cannon laid down and those - the inheritors, whether they know it or not, of Shachtman on the one hand and of Stalinism on the other - who don't. Without Cannon, there wouldn't be an antiwar movement. There would be a 'peace' movement, begging the warmakers to see sense. There would be a 'Decent left', cheering the warmakers on. And that - give or take a few fringe intransigents - would be that.

How did Cannon acquire the confidence that the cause for which he fought had 'social evolution' on its side? As a youth he walked into a meeting to hear a lecture on 'Marx and Darwin'. That lecture, and further study, convinced him 'theoretically - and that is the firmest conviction there is' that capitalism is inseparable from crises and wars, that the great majority of working people would sooner or later be compelled to move into action against these crises and wars, and that they would establish as capitalism's successor system one of global co-operation for abundance, peace, and freedom. 'The victory of Socialist America is already written in the stars.'

Nothing that has happened since his death in 1974 would have surprised him if he'd lived to see it, or disillusioned him. He had no illusions. Cannon's theoretical conviction allowed him to face unflinchingly the terrible realities of the 20th Century: World War, the rise of Stalinism, the Depression, the Yezhovschina, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings, the Stalinist labour camps, the Cold War and the colonial wars. Unlike some, he faced and fought them all while they happened, in real time. He never gave an inch.

We're all so much more sophisticated now.

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011 - Year of Hope

It's all true, you know: Scottish writers do sometimes meet in a pub, where over a few pints we share our plans for world domination. We don't call ourselves the mafia for nothing, you know.

So I'm explaining the novel I'm writing and Ian Rankin says:

'Tell me Ken, is anyone writing a hopeful novel about the future?'

'That's my next,' I tell him.

It seems to be a trend. Charlie has a hopeful novel in the works, Alastair Reynolds has a whole series outlined, and I've heard the same question from some actual scientists.

One of the side-effects of writing a dystopian novel is that you start to look for the bright side, like that phone app that shows you what stars you're looking at and when you turn it towards the ground you see the sun on the other side of the Earth.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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