Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Partial Recall

I re-watched Total Recall, the 1990 incarnation, the other night.  Didn't remember a damn thing about it.


Sorry.  That came out more like a tired sub-Vegas stand-up routine than it was intended to.  I meant what I said literally: I re-watched fresh faced Arnie finding out who he was and what Mars meant to him, knowing that I'd seen it before, but not having the slightest idea what was going to happen next, none of the scenes ringing the faintest bell.

When I really, really wring my brain out to establish what little there is in the drawer marked 'Total Recall', all I can muster up is a sort of warm memory of enjoying it.  It makes me wonder what sort of memory that is, whether it even counts as a memory.  It's more meta than that, a recollection of an opinion of an experience, a footprint in the dust from which I extrapolate where I've been.

I've always found philosophers' analogies for how the mind works unsatisfactory.  We used to be told that the mind worked like a library; nowadays it's like a computer.  Whatever the technology of the day, it seems to boil down to a big bucket of black and white data that we can dip into.  And that seems to sit very uncomfortably with the merry dance my neurons had been engaged in.

On the library analogy, the way I've always seen it presented is that we (our soul? our essence? our ego? what exactly?) are prowling the shelves, pulling down tomes and verifying facts.  It strikes me that that's fundamentally flawed.  For a start, how do you account for the difficulty, the uncomfortable feeling, at times the impossibility of holding views and opinions that don't quite mesh?  For that matter, how do account for views and opinions at all?

If there's any mileage in the analogy, I think we are the library, and it's the library itself that is opening volumes, bringing the knowledge to the fore, but with all the other stuff in the background.  But we're also the librarian, having a say over what makes it onto the shelves, making sure that they have an editorial stance that is us.  But that all feels like I'm trying to make something fit that was never intended to.

The computer analogy does little other than reduce books to ebooks; same analogy, different technology.  Neural nets appears to offer better models for learning, but less so for memories and knowledge - or intelligence and consciousness overall.  What exactly are at the junctions in the net in those cases?  Or is the net, in effect, your entire personality, memories, attitudes and aptitudes.  If I'm a racist who's good at needlework, is it my neural net that pulls me towards doing a damn fine quilt.  Just with a swastika in the middle.

Sci-fi has brought the absurdity of the mind as a box of facts to the fore many times over with computer-says-no logic engines like Spock and Data.  After all, an orrery is not the universe (I'd like to see that on a t-shirt, please).*

When Babbage thought up his difference engine, one of the key controversies was putting what God had put into Man and Man alone - the ability to reason - into a machine.  Where did that leave us?  Where was our special status?  I think that worry missed a fundamental.  Calculations are actually the easy bit, the - pun intended - mechanical bit.  The grey area is doubting, misremembering, having an uncanny feeling about, mild bigotry, Machiavellian scheming and the rest.

Whatever model works for all of that I'm sure of two things - it won't be a box of facts, and we we're nowhere near stumbling on it.

* Yes, yes, I know that an orrery is a model of the solar system, not the universe, but somehow that doesn't have the same ring.


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

One story, two guvnors

A long time ago, maybe six summers ago, I wrote a story whilst walking on the Devon or Cornwall coast.

When I say 'wrote a story', I, of course, mean that my mind wandered as I trod the narrow cliff path, a narrative slowly taking shape in my mind.  I can't help it; I can't stop it.  That, to me, is writing.  All the rest is writing down: the slightly tedious heavy lifting, which rarely proves - but occasionally, wonderfully does - to leave a tale behind as elegant as you imagined.

In the case of that story the writing down didn't take place for some months, perhaps a year or so.  There are so many stories that I've written that are waiting to be written down.  Form an orderly queue, please...

That particular story became 'Litter Picking on the Moon', just shy of 4000 words, and it may be instructive for me to relate what happened to it after that.

I'll skip the fifteen rejections the story received, and dwell on its two successes.  The first was when I submitted it to PunkWritePoems Press for their anthology "Don't Open 'til Doomsday".  I submitted the story on 5 November 2015, and it was accepted on 6 February 2016.   Amazon shows the book as having been published on 27 June 2016.  I was paid on 18 July 2016, without any chasing, and a copy arrived around the same time and sits on my bookshelf.

All in all, a pleasure doing business with PunksWritePoems and Jason Bates, Founding Editor.  I tried to see what he's doing now on the interweb, without success, but did stumble across an interview with him from 2016, which included this nugget: "I work in aerospace quality management. It is the opposite of the creativity of writing and publishing. Everything is controlled by specifications and regulations."  No, I think you carry that business-like approach into your creative ventures, Jason.

Contrast this experience with my sale of "Litter Picking" as a reprint with Indie Authors Press for their anthology, The Chronos Chronicles.  It was submitted on 29 September 2016, and accepted 17 October 2016.  I responded the next day, confirming my PayPal address and querying the lack of a contributor (hard) copy of the anthology.  Jason was happy to post my copy of Don't Open 'til Doomsday from the US; Indie Authors are fellow Brits.

26 October 2016, I chase for a contract, receive a holding reply, and chase again March 2017, when it comes through (there's a family illness involved somewhere, so I'm mellow about the delay).  I turn it around in a couple of days, but do put this is in the covering email:

...I just wanted to raise an eyebrow at the length and complexity of the contract, in particular your taking 50% of future sales of the work - of a reprint, at that, for which you are paying $10 and not even providing authors with a print copy of the anthology.  Seems a bit lopsided to me.  When this story was sold the first time around the legalese was covered in the following seventeen words: "We are seeking first print rights. Compensation is one contributor copy and $15. No contract to sign."  Didn't see any reason to make it more complicated than that.

That's right: Jason Bates was happy to have our contractual relationship covered in seventeen words.  As was I.  But Indie Authors Press stipulated a contract of over a thousand words.  If you want to have a look at it, its here.  As you'll see, it contains some cracking legalese, but possibly it's most smoke and mirrors - or, perhaps, wolf in sheep's clothing - section is the one on subsidiary rights:

The  further  and  additional  rights  referred  to  in  this  agreement  are  hereby  defined  to  include  the subsidiary  rights  enumerated  below,  net  proceeds  to  be  shared by  the  Author(s)  and  the  Publisher equally  (50/50),  less  only  such  direct  expenses,  including  agent’s  commissions,  as  shall  be  incurred  by the  Publisher  in  disposing  of  such  rights: 
  • Abridgment,  condensation,  or  digest
  • Anthology  or  quotation
  • Book  clubs  or  similar  organizations
  • Reprint
  • Special  editions
  • Second  serial  and  syndication  (including  reproduction  in  compilations,  magazines,  newspapers,  or books) 
All  revenue  derived  from  the  sale  of  rights  not  specifically  enumerated,  whether  now  in  existence  or hereinafter  coming  into  existence,  shall  be  shared  equally  by  the  Author(s)  and  the  Publisher. 

All  such  rights  shall  be  disposed  of  by  the  sale,  lease,  license,  or  otherwise  by  the  Publisher  who  for that  purpose  is  constituted  the  agent  of  the  Author(s).  The  Author(s)  agrees  to  sign,  make,  execute, deliver  and  acknowledge  all  such  papers,  documents  and  agreements  as  may  be  necessary  to effectuate  the  grants  herein  above  contemplated.  In  the  event  that the  Author(s)  shall  fail  to  do  so, they  may  be  signed,  executed,  delivered  and  acknowledged  by  the  Publisher  as  the  agent  of  the Author(s)  with  the  same  full  force  and  effect  as  if  signed  by  the  Author(s).  All  sums  due  under  this Agreement  shall  be  paid  to  the  Author(s)  [by the  Publisher] who  shall  act  with  the  authority  of  the  Author(s)  in  all  matters  arising  out  of  this  agreement.  

Yes, you've read that correctly.  Not only have I got a publisher, I've got an agent who can market and monetize my story, take fifty percent, and agree to sales that I may not wish to make otherwise.  Given that this was just a short story, unlikely to be resold without my efforts, I was happy for it to go over the barricades a second time and wave a flag for my novel, 2084.  But if it had been a novel, no way I would have been signing up for those terms...

The Chronos Chronicles eventually stumbled off the presses on 8 May 2018, over eighteen months after submission, with the publisher sending hysterical requests such as:

PLEASE share the links to where people can buy the book. Not just ONCE, ALL THE TIME, ALL OVER SOCIAL MEDIA!  (Their emphasis)

But, as in any morality tale, there's a twist.  Payment terms as set out in their contact was three months after publication.  I've chased for payment this month - and was asked to confirm my PayPal address, first confirmed back in 2016.  Curiously enough, no payment has been made at the time of writing - which luckily constitutes a breach of contract that, in turn, under their clause XI.B, terminates the contract.  So, that's all that tosh about subsidiary rights kicked into the long grass.  If you can't play to your own rules...

It also absolves me, as author, of the responsibility to "self-promote the Work to the best of his/her ability".  Therefore, my sincere advice is, if you want to read 'Litter Picking on the Moon', follow the links to Jason Bates' "Don't Open 'til Doomsday" and support both common sense and publishers who wish to work with authors on a level playing field.  'Nuff said.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

We've joined a cult and we didn't even realise

I always like to base my thinkings out loud on fact, and can generally cite my sources, but I've struggled to find where I saw this nugget of apparent truth that I'm going to riff off.  But as this posting depends on its veracity I'm just going to assume that my recall is accurate and that somebody else has fact checked.  Hopefully somebody outside of the Trump administration.

And this fact is that people (I assume Americans, it normally is) would pay $30,000 to keep the services provided by the likes of Google and Facebook if the threat of their removal, nay disappearance, was to be waved in front of them.  Presumably between them and their screens.

Yes, you read that right.  $30,000.  All depending on whether I've remembered rightly but, to be honest, that was element of the story that stuck in my mind.

Let's just unpack that.  Social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin - and the services that the FANGS provide are now so entwined, enmeshed in our everyday lives that we would happily pay half our income on never having to see the words 'wait 28 days for delivery' again.  So that we don't have to go back to waiting to see a TV show when it's scheduled.  So we don't have to actually travel to a shop to buy a CD.  So that a cat video is never more than a couple of clicks away, assuming we don't get distracted by a picture of a friend of a friend's dinner.

Half our salary.  Even the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God only takes 10%, although apparently Alpha won't bat an eyelid at the 50%.

I'm not sure that I'd pay anything if the whole interweb thing turned out to be a vivid dream after an especially good Stilton.  As long as it was a level playing field and we were all in the same boat.  It would be irritating, sure, but if the web were removed for me. and only me..  Actually, isn't that the same as being burgled and having your laptop stolen?  Would I pay anything in that scenario?  Of course not: I'm insured.  Or maybe it would mean that I'm Julian Assange...

I've implied that Amazon, Facebook, Google and the rest have formed a cult-like status, and if that's the case, then that's probably to their credit, a reflection on us not them, and thoroughly deserved.  But the image that forms in my mind, more than a cult is that of the pusher.  They've got us hooked on their wares.  But if they were to stop giving it out for free, where does that leave us?  Sweaty, pale and shaky.  And wanting our toys back.

Now, I don't want to paint a picture of Zuckerberg and the rest leaning out of the window of an ice cream van handing out single cigarettes to school children as a reality (mainly because I suspect they have some fairly decent lawyers), but as a dystopian what-if thought experiment, it's worth considering.

Like, what if the good and great of the web (and Zuckerberg - hey, only joking) have already formed a shady cartel, meeting Illuminati-like, and there's a date red-circled in their diaries and on that date, everything gets pulled unless we stump up.  Half our income.  Half global GDP.  That's about $67 trillion.  A year.  That puts the schemes of most Bond villains in the shade.  And the scary thing is that it has a stronger basis in reality than most sci-fi visions, utopian or dystopian. 

In the 60's we all believed love was free.  But there was a price to pay.  The 80's made us think the markets would rise forever, but they just came toppling down from on high.  Why the hell should we think all that information and functionality slopping back and forth on the net for free will last forever.  I'm sure it'll end; I'm only curious how.


Postscript - found my source; now I can sleep easy...

Friday, 6 July 2018

133, or number 7

Blink and miss it as it speeds by, you'll find my seventh story acceptance of the year, all twenty-seven words of it, as the 133rd microfiction on the ever-scrolling Story Seed Vault site.

Meanwhile, my longest work is still available...


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Half-term report

Halfway through the year and, as I've already flagged, I'm gunning for a submission a day.  So, how am I doing?

  • 188 submissions
  • 154 rejections
  • 6 acceptances
In terms of stories out, I'm on track; and I've reached my basic goal of three sales.  So far, so good.

Half of those acceptances came in the first six weeks of the year, a veritable avalanche.  'A Second Opinion' has already appeared on Terraform; New Shoes in Third Flatiron's Monstrosities; and Product Recall reprinted in NewCon Press' Best of British Sci-Fi 2017.  I'm sure all three grace your shelves, actual and virtual.

I had to wait until May for the fourth, another reprint, with 'They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol’n the Scraps' getting a second airing in Timeshift.  Many thanks if you helped out with its Kickstarter.

The fifth was a drabble, 'General Katutian Surveys her Triumph', which has been accepted by Martian (both this as Timeshift are the brainchildren of Eric S Fomley).  A curious exercise in that I wrote five, four of which were very 'me' and this fifth one, redolent in style to a bloke in a rubber suit waving a sink plunger around calling it a ray gun.  But that's the one that sold.  I think the writing gods may be telling me something.

I also invited my children to compose and submit, but their phones turned out to be more inviting.

The sixth acceptance is hot off the press: my flash about technology and ageing, Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message, has been taken by NewMyths.com.  Another interesting gestation, in that the story was originally rejected, albeit as a near miss with some very heartfelt feedback from editor Susan Shell Winston, last September.  When  Passages, an anthology of stories about coming-of-age at all ages, was announced I pointed out that it would be an excellent fit, and its resubmission was very generously accepted.  But not to the anthology, just the ezine for which it was originally a near miss, curiously.  Hence I've rather screwed up NewMyth's response turnaround chart on The Grinder with a 393 day acceptance, but it's another sale either way.

This contrasts with my somewhat bitter experience of Parsec's short story contest, for which I sent in two stories, one of which seemed to fit their theme perfectly.  My hopes were raised when the deadline for notification of results passed with only a rejection of the weaker tale.  I chased, a couple of times - perhaps they were trying to boil four down for the three winning slots, or debating gold, silver and bronze.  No, turns out that they'd simply forgotten to send me both rejections.  Ho hum.

Putting such typical experiences aside, but adding in a rewrite request from James Gunn's Ad Astra, and another submission shortlisted by Abyss and Apex, and 2018 is shaping up to be a pretty good year.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Some passing thoughts on God

I have a fanciful target to send out 365 short story submissions this calendar year; I suspect my next posting will be an update at how I'm performing against that goal.

In trying not to scrape through the bottom of the barrel just to keep some arbitrary numbers up, I've gone back to previously published works, like my noir-ish desert-set thriller Death of a Medicine Man, which appeared in Crimson Fog in 2012, a publication so obscure I could probably pass my story off as unpublished.  If I hadn't just typed those words, of course.  Doh!

I went back to my mss and the comments the editorial team had on it.  Here's a line from that story: "Half-Moon thought for a moment, the voice of Rosemary Clooney drifting out of an open window farther down the sidewalk."

This elicited the following comment: Very weird image, until I realized he was talking about music; and response from the editor-in-chief: Agreed with Andrea. I don't know Rosemary Clooney, and our readers might not either, but a simple addition here solves the problem, I think.

I know this isn't exactly what they're saying, but there is an implication of editor as God: that the knowledge, experience, and literary & cultural references of readers should be a subset of the editors.  If the editors get the reference or joke, then so will the readers.  If they don't, then please explain for the hard of understanding.  Doesn't matter that (and this is the crucial point to me), given the milieu, Rosemary Clooney would be well known to the narrator and he wouldn't need to, or even think to, spell it out.

I'm not sure if I ever did rewrite that line, but I've always worked on the basis that readers are clever, especially en masse, much cleverer than writers.  Or editors.  I actually enjoy a clear reference that I don't get; it makes me explore, find out what the author was getting at, find out things that I didn't know.  Or when I do get it - I still have a very soft spot for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, for the moment when the reading of the second and stranger part of Coleridge's Kubla Khan begins.  Not a tricky joke to get, granted, but it does give you the feeling of privileged access.  

I'm currently rewriting a story for James Gunn's Ad Astra (which doesn't mean that it's sold by any means), which involves an alcoholic taking refuge on a dry colony.  Offered a drink, he is surprised that the reasons for his escaping Earth are not known.  The response comes, “Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man."

The line is, of course, from Casablanca.  I haven't credited it - but the speaker is described as an aesthete given to literary quotations - and may even cut it down to the last part to make it less on the nose and less problematic, copyright-wise.  But the point is, Rick then goes on to say that he came to Casablanca for the waters, exactly the same reason my alcoholic travels to Titan.  It a subtlety that'll be lost on ninety-nine out of a hundred readers.  But I'm writing for the one percent who will smile, their thought process echoing mine.

There is a flip-side to this, which is readers telling you your story is an allegory for man's inhumanity to man; or the politics of the Philippines; or how they're feeling right then, right there, whereas it's actually a simple story about a personality clash on a faraway planet.  I have no idea of the state of your soul, honest.  I only make the mirror, not the visions you see in it. 

Of course, we all know that the writer is God, pulling the strings, making the puppets dance, but only within the world of the story.  Outside, in the bigger, scarier real world, it's you, the reader.  And I'll continue to try to treat you are as clever as the cleverest amongst you, not on a par with the dumbest.  It's the only way I know.

Friday, 15 June 2018

You too can be a museum piece

A few weeks ago the family paid a visit to Big Pit, Wales' National Coal Museum.  It's really worth a detour, but only if you're already in Wales.  Obviously.

The Three Day Week sits at the very edge of my memory, candles joining bog-roll on that short list of items that you never, ever, ever, EVER run out of.  But the English Civil War of 1984/85... oh, sorry, it says Miners' Strike here... sits firmly in my formative years.  I may have grown up without a mine for a hundred miles, but it really mattered.  There was a sense of the country pulling itself apart.

Three things surprised me.  The first was that all watches have to be removed when you go underground (and you do, for a good hour or so), even my wind-up one.  Given that I bought it on eBay as 'in need of a new battery', I understand their stance that somebody will take a battery-driven watch down thinking that it's an old school model.  They're very sensitive about anything that could cause a spark.  Which I appreciate.

The second was how much we, as a country, paid for the nationalisation of the mines.  In 1947 £164,660,000 was paid to the owners for almost 1000 collieries and £78,457,000 for other assets such as coke ovens, brickworks and smokeless fuel plants.  That's almost £10bn at today's prices.  And we treated the industry like Pete Townsend treated his guitars, smashing it to pieces within a working lifetime.  Except Pete, apparently, used to creep back onto stage, collect up the bits, and glue them back together.  Unlike Thatcher and Ian McGregor.

Thirdly, and a natural consequence of the second, it was how quickly the industry has become, quite literally, a museum piece.  Miners were real people when I grew up.  Now they're categorised with knocker-uppers and those blokes who carried red flags in front of horseless carriages; shiny lamps are on sale as souvenirs for £55.  It got me thinking: what other industries and jobs that we take for granted?  What real jobs today could be museum pieces themselves before today's graduate trainee retires?

We can all list the easy ones with our eyes closed.  Cashiers: we'll just be walking into shops, filling our bags, and walking out and it won't be stealing because it'll all be recorded on our phones with our accounts instantly debited.  Taxi drivers: driverless Uber a-go-go.

I think you can extend the latter concept to pilots, too, both military and civil.  Planes are on auto-pilot more often than they're not; and why complicate instrument-only flying by adding an underpowered, fallible human into the process flowchart?  My guess is that the only time human intervention has any real value is at landing, and even then I'd prefer the faster reactions and collective experience of a million touchdowns of the computer.  Driverless cars will all get us used to having nobody up front, and first class could get to have a big windscreen.  And all those sci-fi movies, where every spaceship has a pilot, which are all essentially WW2-in-space, will look so anachronistic.  Except for Star Wars, of course, which was a long, long time ago, so they have yet to invent any of this technology.   

What about prostitutes?  It must be a fairly soul-less experience, and doesn't all that repetitive movement add up to a robotic experience already?  (Not sure if this one counts, because it's a robot replicating human action, rather than superseding it).

Politicians?  Our political views are influenced by the media, and much of the content in the media is already generated by AI, if not by Russians.  So, by that measure, they're already being voted in by software.  Going the whole hog will just enable them to make best use of continual online referenda and the wisdom of crowds and not be swayed by the last person to speak.  Just don't say 'Skynet'.

Actually, it may be easier to list the jobs that remain: pig masturbators, pickers of soft fruit, plumbers, electricians... and creative writers.  Maybe, for once, I've picked a winner, and without the need to jerk off a pig.