The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dark Eden

Monday evening's 'Scary Fururistic Fictions' chaired by Stuart Kelly and featuring Chris Beckett and me, was one of the last events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It went well, with Stuart steering our discussion in interesting directions, and plenty of good questions coming from the floor. I met Chris for the first time an hour or two before, in the Authors' Yurt (the festival's spacious, imaginative and civilized version of a Green Room) and liked him a lot. We'd received copies of each other's books a fortnight or so earlier, and Chris had already responded to reading mine with a thoughtful and appreciative review. By Monday I was about half-way through my copy of his book Dark Eden (which he kindly signed) but that was already enough for me to be enthusiastic about it and to comment on it in the discussion.

I finished reading it a couple of days ago. The main reason it took me about a week to read is that I kept stopping to think. It's one of those books like The Left Hand of Darkness that gets you so convinced by and immersed in its world that you come out of it looking at the real world in a new way. By imagining realistically a planet without a sun, and its ecosystem that runs on geothermal energy, Beckett gives us picture after vivid picture of alien beauty that highlights the different wonder of Earth.

As its title suggests, Dark Eden takes an SF trope so tired nobody uses it any more: what if an isolated man and woman on an alien planet were to become the Adam and Eve of a new world?

Well, for a start, their descendants would have lots of genetic defects ...

The rest of the outcome is likewise logical, and ruthless. The echoes of the Old Testament are there, and deliberate, but the tale also recapitulates the more recent origin myths told by Freud and Engels: the small society we start with is a primeval, promiscuous matriarchal horde, into which the actions of the main character - and reactions to them - begin to introduce patriarchy, and with it the family, private property and the state.

Myth and its meanings are themes of the story, and often darkly funny: one of the legends of the mismatched founding couple re-enacted by their descendants unto the third and fourth generation is called The Big Row. Regular readers of hard SF may feel that the back-story's Earth and its nascent starfaring but troubled society are too crudely sketched - until the late, chilling moment where we glimpse them as they were, and remember through whose eyes we've seen them hitherto.

All that's just the background. The story itself is gripping, full of character, incident and adventure.

Now I find myself in an awkward situation. Like I said, Chris has reviewed my book, and we got on well when we met. If I were to give Dark Eden a rave review, it would look like the sort of mutual authorial back-scratching that Private Eye annually skewers with damning quotes from 'Book of the Year' features. No one would take it seriously.

Fortunately, I don't need to do that, because Dark Eden already has many rave reviews, from an impressively wide range of critics and readers, in the genre and out. Read them, then read the book.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Edinburgh International Book Festival notes

Next Monday (27 August, 8:30pm - 9:30pm) I'm doing a Book Festival event, Scary Futuristic Fictions, at Peppers Theatre with Chris Beckett. (Tickets £10.00, £8.00 conc.) I've received (courtesy of the Book Festival) a copy of Chris's latest book, the widely praised Dark Eden, and I can't wait to read it.

Chris is replacing G. Willow Wilson, an author I was greatly looking forward to meeting and who regretfully had to cancel. Her new novel, Alif the Unseen, looks intriguing - a supernatural post-cyberpunk thriller from the storm centre of the Arab revolution. I hope Willow can be a guest at the festival (and/or a British science fiction convention - she has a deep background in comics fandom, comics writing, and political commentary) in the future. Meanwhile, best wishes to her from me and Chris.

In other news, the Genomics Forum again has a team covering the festival for Genotype. Because of work I couldn't commit to being on the reporting team myself, but has that stopped me blogging events for Genotype? No! My latest contribution is on last Saturday's appearance by Jennifer Rohn and Neal Stephenson, and contains enough controversial remarks to incite (I hope) a few comments - if so, over on Genotype, please, not here.

The third and last of Forum's own Book Festival events, The Scientist in Fiction: Creative or Crazed Genius? is on tomorrow Wednesday) at 7 pm.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I have a new job!

I'm delighted to say that my appointment as Writer in Residence at Edinburgh Napier University has just been officially announced. The university's innovative MA in Creative Writing course, open to full-time and part-time students, is both practical and challenging, with a strong genre component. Over the past few years, I've met and been greatly impressed by its lecturers, course leaders and students, and I very much look forward to working with them.

The 2010-2011 Writer in Residence, Robert Shearman, has some interesting and slightly scary things to say about what the job involves. For more, equally enlightening and entertaining information about the course and its objectives, take a look through the blog - and expect to see some contributions there from me in the coming months.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

When the Force really is with you

It's not every day you get to shake hands with someone whose name will be remembered on the starships. Today I did, unexpectedly. Participants in the Edinburgh International Book Festival can choose up to ten free tickets. One of mine was for Frank Close on his new book The Infinity Puzzle, about the search for the Higgs Boson. I sat down in the packed-out Scottish Power Theatre tent, and saw on the screen that the event was to be chaired by Peter Higgs.

Chaired! By Peter Higgs!

In reality, of course, nothing of the sort took place. The session was introduced by the Festival Director, Nick Barley, who made it very clear how amazing this was. Frank Close outlined the physics, conducted a free-wheeling interview with Professor Higgs, then caught and passed on questions from the audience.

While this was going on I tried to figure out just why the tent was so packed and I was so excited. Like everyone in else in the entire world (obviously) I'd spent the morning of July 4th watching the live feed from the Cern press conference and tweeting madly about it. It was the best Big Science white-knuckle ride until the Curiosity landing last week. But in reality, what I know about physics could be written in biro on the back of my hand, and probably was at some point because I passed the first year physics exam at Glasgow University, albeit on the resit.

I stopped believing physics lectures when they got to electricity. That bit about holes moving where electrons could be but aren't? It might as well have been the poetry of Ezra Pound for all the sense I could make of it. Quantum mechanics? Relativity? I know the Standard Model works and I don't doubt for a moment that it's true to a trillion decimal places and explains, as Close said, 'seven percent of everything' (the rest being dark matter and all that) but there I walk by GPS and not by sight.

And, judging by the questions from the floor, I'm far from alone in this. But we were all thrilled to be there and I think I know why. We were in the presence of a man who has deservedly become the icon of understanding this stuff, and who advanced an idea about something so fundamental to the fabric of reality that we have to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang to test it. And just seeing him, right there in the flesh, gives us a sense of connection to that fundamental force, the Higgs field.

The signing tent was mobbed. All copies of The Infinity Puzzle were gone in seconds, or maybe picoseconds. I picked up a copy of Close's earlier paperback, Neutrino, and joined the queue. I sort of babbled when I asked Professor Higgs to add his signature to the author's.

On top of everything else, the man's a gent.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Landings and crashes

Curiosity landed successfully this morning. In perspective:

See where spacecraft from Earth have landed on Mars, in this infographic.
Source All about our solar system, outer space and exploration


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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Fantastic grow the evening gowns. Agents of the fisc pursue

Jo Walton recently wrote about how the future, and particularly the future we can imagine ourselves or our children living into, has darkened or is avoided in current SF. Along the way she linked to an earlier piece, on the dystopian future Earths, over-populated and over-regulated, that backdropped so many of Robert A. Heinlein's novels for young readers. She points out that we don't usually see these futures as dystopias, wonders why not, and asks:
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?
Well, I bought into it. It wasn't just Heinlein, and it wasn't just juveniles (as SF for young readers was called before YA, a category that has a whole 'nother passel of problems, as Farah Mendlesohn will tell you). A hefty proportion of the SF I read in my teens had dystopia or disaster as default for the fairly near future, say the first decade or two of the 21st century. It gave me the impression that the world I was going to grow up in was doomed to something like The Fall of Rome.

A bad influence on the young, I'm sure you'll agree, and no preparation for the challenges of real life in a world that is making fitful, unevenly distributed, but nevertheless significant progress.

Today in the Sunday Herald there's an opinion piece by Ian MacWhirter about the ongoing financial crisis, and a column by Trevor Royle, the paper's diplomatic editor, on the ongoing confrontation of the US and Israel with Iran.

MacWhirter suggests that if a Eurozone state (Spain, to pluck an example from the air) defaults or otherwise goes bust, UK (and other) banks might be so exposed that the only way to keep them functioning would be outright nationalization of the financial system, 'this time for keeps'.

Royle's article assumes without evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon - but never mind that, the point is that he discusses the prospect of an attack on Iran by the US or Israel within the next year or so. Russia and China, he says in passing, would not stand idly by. We've heard all this before, of course, and I've sometimes been too quick to take such talk seriously.

What strikes me, however, is how strange normality has become. I don't expect to see, next Sunday, a single letter telling the paper's editors that two of their respected writers have lost the plot. The crisis has become the spectacle. We've all got used to a situation where we don't know, from day to day, if the world we know will be here in the morning. We could wake up and find the ATM doesn't work, and be living by lunch-time in a West gone redder than China. Or we could turn on the weather forecast to find ourselves looking in disbelief at fallout patterns from wrecked nuclear reactors.

There's no question that either of these (or both) would be a bit of a downer. Twitter would be in meltdown, I'll tell you that for nothing, all OMG #banks or Holy Shit #Iran #Russia. What not enough people appreciate, however, is the suffering these possibilities are causing right now. How many, reflecting on how war and crisis have become always-imminent, spare a moment's thought for science fiction writers?

It's all very well for those of us writing all that talking squids in outer space rubbish. What if you're trying to write realistic, socially relevant, near-future SF? I'm working on a novel whose back-story starts, oh, a few years from now, and one of the key points in that back-story is a moment where, as an emergency measure to deal pragmatically with economic collapse, the financial systems of the West get nationalised almost overnight. I came up with that bold idea a year ago. Now I have to consider it possible that something like it might actually happen before I've finished the first draft.

If I could write a novel that centred on that problem, the problem of the radical uncertainty of the near future, I'd be getting somewhere.

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