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.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Buddy, can you spare some change?

'Course you can, what with the peace dividend that Trump's triumphant diplomacy is bringing to the world (I'm bargaining that'll either look satirical or prescient in a year or two).

Anyway, after bagging yourself a copy of my novel 2084, you'll want to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for Timeshifts, a time travel anthology that'll carry my story They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol’n the Scraps, which originally appeared on Daily Science Fiction.  It's a little different from most anthologies in that it'll only have reprints that originally appeared in pro or semi-pro venues.  So, minimal chances of it being crap...

And there's always Tales of Ruma, which carries my story Stormwarning, for which I stumbled across this touching review by fellow contributor Jon Ficke, which concludes: "Bagnall captures the “fairy tale” voice extremely well in this sad story."  I'll take that.

And the Chronos Chronicles is also finally out, which carries my story Litterpicking on the Moon.  Except it's been unilaterally re-titled Picking Litter on the Moon, and never having been sent proofs to check, I can't say what else has been done to it.  And as, unusually, contributors only get a copy (and, unusually, only soft copy, at that) three months after publication, which is when we also get paid, I won't be able to tell you until August.

You can find Chronos Chronicles on Amazon, whether you like your behemoth waterway with a .com or a .co.uk.  Or you could always go back and find its first outing in PunksWritePoemsPress' anthology Don't Open 'Til Doomsday, which I can guarantee was as written by me.

Lastly, I see that my story The Trouble with Vacations, podcast last year as Overcast 54 (go back and listen!), has been nominated for a Parsec Award.  Which is nice

Oh, did I mention I've written a novel?

Friday, 18 May 2018

I have seen the future and it looks like the 1300s. But with better dentistry

Science fiction isn't really science fiction at all.  It's future fiction.  Except when it's alternate history, but let's park that one.  And there's far more that defines the future than science.  Unless you count social science as science.  Which I don't.

Not that I'm saying the social sciences aren't relevant.  They're central to this argument.  Science is just the T in a PESTLE analysis, but a good strong cup of T at that.  Two sugars, and make the spoon stand up.

What the future looks like depends as much, if not more, on the values we adopt and how we organise ourselves.  Not just on when (when?!) somebody will finally get around to inventing hoverboots.

Recently, Bernie Sanders has been getting himself in hot water suggesting the state should ensure all Americans have jobs at $15 an hour.  It makes a lot of sense, unless you happen to be numerate.  And think about it.  There's no way that the plan could work; indeed, by stifling productivity it's destined to make us all poorer.

But the criticism only makes sense if your paradigm is that economic, and therefore social, progress is defined by making the world more efficient, producing more with less, and that, on balance, makes life better.

Well, duh, I hear a lot of you say.  A lot?  Okay, everybody.

But consider this: surely progress has to mean things getting better for all, not just the lucky winners?  If we're born with nothing and die with nothing, just surely it would be better to try to fill in the brief gap in the middle with lives that hold autonomy, mastery and purpose for all?

I know the arguments.  One man on a combine brings in hundreds of times more grain than an army in a field with scythes.  It makes my cornflakes cheaper.  It makes everything cheaper.  And don't forget the people designing and making the combines, the supply chain that supports.  If we reverted to blacksmiths making hand tools then China or Korea or someplace else would fill the gap and provide the world with the combines it wants.

And China or Korea or someplace else would give the world the cheap cornflakes it needs, because it would still be using combines.

And we haven't even got on to agrochemicals increasing yields so that rich white people don't need to starve.

The trouble is that, whilst the man on the combine or the people designing and building it are now highly skilled, highly paid professionals, the descendants on the army of scythe-wielding oiks are now on sofas consuming corn oil in various forms, watching TV.  Their lives are empty, devoid of prospects, devoid of a meaningful future.  So empty that occasionally they find the scythes at the back of the wardrobe and riot.  (Can I find a way of dropping in Eric Hobsbawm's phrase 'collective bargaining by riot' - not sure how... oh, I already seem to have done so).

It strikes me that in our calculations we don't give enough weight to the social costs of progress.  Not just the health costs of corn oil and cleaning up after the scythe-wielding riot or turning people to terrorism as a last resort, but the value of autonomy, mastery and purpose for each and every individual.  Those things are not easy to measure, not like EBITA and RoI.

I think there's a yawning chasm between those popping out for a latte around Silicon Roundabout before brainstorming the monetisation of the gamification of healthcare, and those sleeping rough on real roundabouts, and no matter how much life gets better for the former, arguing that life has got better overall starts to sound churlish.

And, yes, I know that there are innumerable academic studies that are trying to analyse just those things, but I'm talking about a Kuhnian paradigm shift towards us as individuals judging whether a change is welcome based on how it affects everybody.  A shift towards a utilitarian hive mentality.  In each of us.  Which means changing how we view the world.  Like, say, waiting fifteen minutes more for the taxi with a human driver than the driverless Uber.  (Oh, I think I may have lost your sympathy there...) 

Maybe, just maybe, the industrial revolution was the fresh faced child's watered down wine that turned out out be the gateway drug to us sleeping in doorways drinking something blue out of a paper bag whilst shouting at strangers.  Metaphorically, of course, although literally for some of us.

It's no coincidence that I'm blogging this during Mental Health Awareness Week; that guy in the combine, the one dong the job of a hundred with hand tools, chances are that he's leading a life of quiet desperation.  Our wonderful workplace tools that allow us to never go home seem to be sucking away the balance of human happiness.  Would he have been happier in a field with a scythe and a hundred fellows?  Discuss.

I'm not advocating full fat Luddite extremism.  I'm not going to smash the combines, nor pretend that they were never invented.  We have to find a middle route.  We don't need to get rid of healthcare and energy from renewables and life's luxuries.  Mao's collectivisation of the farms didn't work; I'm not suggesting it did.

I see a lot of science fiction that subscribes to the dystopian terminal of the journey we're on - I caught up with Elysium the other week, which has a starving, sprawling human population, but also has humans building the robots, which struck me as naive - but very little with a Utopian world where we're happily scything away.  Perhaps that's just what's needed.

At the same time as these thoughts have been flitting through my mind, I've been hearing the idea that our economy has evolved from agrarian to industrial to knowledge, and the next step is creative.  Sounds wonderful, but also sounds like so much more winner-takes-all economics, where the second best struggles to raise its head above EL James and Dan Brown (did I say best? I meant most popular).  For my part, I'll be combing these two ideas by employing a couple of dozen locals to illuminate manuscripts of my next story rather than sending them out electronically.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

I think I've discovered a portal

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I think I've discovered a portal.  To idiocy.

You see, like most - actually, I assume virtually all - writers, I use the internet constantly and continually, not just to submit material, but to check facts, spellings, and names.  Not to do real research, mind.  A long time ago, having reluctantly revealed I wrote, I was asked what I wrote about.  I gave my stock answer: death.  Why?  Because it required no research.

And, whilst science fiction by no means defies research, I tend to see something worth knowing and riff off of that, rather than actually dig into, say, recombinant memetics or neuroparasitology.*

No, my fact checking is there to give a gloss of authenticity.  I think of it as finessing.  If a character can relate a couple of ideas about the Punic Wars, then he probably has a dozen, even if the author stopping reading the wikipedia entry when he'd collected his brace. 

I have a story that, like one or two houses I've owned, I've just finished extending.  It's called 'Knights of the Spherical Table'.  The story has existed as a flash piece for about three years and has been a near miss a couple of times.  Some really nice feedback from Avily Jerome at Havok Magazine included the thought that she'd really like to know what happens next.  As is my want, on reflection, the story fell into the trap of stopping after act 1, at the point the main character is just waking up to their predicament.

So, it's now a far more rounded 3000 word piece.  

As well as checking basics - in this instance, what postcode is Chingford in? what's the nearest hospital? - I always check my names to see if they actually exist; I'm quite capable of naming my protagonist or antagonist Britney Spears without realising the significance.

In this case I didn't expect 'Knights of the Spherical Table' to fail to register any hits; indeed, it's not even my phrase.  It came up in a sermon at church, as a a throwaway quip about taking King Arthur's Round Table to a whole new dimension.  But, putting the phrase into Google, I was surprised at how few hits there were, and how dumb most were: some tosh about role playing characters, some more similar tosh, and even more dwarf-tossing here, worth quoting in full:

A new King has taken the thrown and everyone in my Kingdom must like and obey me. IF you disrespect the King or question the King you shall have your head chopped off IMMEDIATELY by one of the Knights of my spherical table. I will also have Jester's, a Queen, Slaves, a Mighty Castle with a moat with crocodiles in it that eat people i don't like. I will have women beckoning to have intercourse with me, because i am the King. Anyone that try's to overtake the thrown will be killed immediately, or if i suspect a take-over incoming i will barricade my walls and my my Archers shoot you in the face, we will find you and if you live you will be banished from King Thilz's Kingdom forever.! 

Best is this hideousness, which puts any bad purchase around the $300 mark you've ever made into context.

All of this leaves me wondering whether these have been written by real people - who, somehow, know the more technical word 'spherical' but have somehow mistakenly used it for 'round' - or algorithms.  I had settled on code, possibly real English translated into Korean and back again, until I remembered (whisper it) that half of the population is of below average intelligence.  Scary, huh?

And that's the moral of this posting: without gatekeepers, what's out there represents the total spectrum of human intelligence.

Yes, of course, there are representatives of those above the arithmetic mean.  Okay, as far as I could see there's only this cartoon, which does show an understanding of the English language:

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and there's also this video, which I flicked through on mute, so there may a quip-a-minute commentary that puts it all in context, but otherwise it just seems to be children hitting each other.  Which we're all fully in favour of...

All of which implies that, maybe, the monarch above with jester's and women beckoning for intercourse may also be above average.  Even more scary.  Or, perhaps, this is just a phrase around which the dumb cluster.  Like 'President of the United States' or 'low-fat'.

I'll ponder on.

* Just to illustrate my whole big thing point, these phrases were gleaned just be Googling for lists of obscure scientific disciplines, not by any real knowledge on my part.  Just how shallow am I...

Friday, 13 April 2018

And that's the worst that can happen?

I was thinking of titling this post 'Meditations on editorial correspondence III', or some such, as it seems to fit into that thread.  But, unlike earlier postings, nobody's wearing a black hat; everybody appears to be on the side of the angels.  And the worst that anybody can be accused of is over-complication.

It concerns my dealings with Vice Media and its web-based publishing venture, Terraform.  Which, on the whole, have been perfectly pleasurable.  If complicated.


I'd submitted four stories to them previously.  All of them were received with a wall of silence; but that's okay, they make it clear that they only respond in order to accept and you should assume the worst after four months.  It's not the typical way to run a publishing endeavour, but that's their privilege, and the important thing is that they make the process crystal clear up front.


My fifth story, A Second Opinion, hit the target.  A story that either is "difficult... quiet but fascinating" or "doesn't actually seem to do much", depending on which side of the critical bed you got out.  It was accepted in January and ran the next month, all without edits being asked for.  From the outside looking in, all very smooth.


But this hides a somewhat odd process, which ended up kicking up a bit of dust on Absolute Write.


You see, the way the contractual/purchasing (rather than editing) side typically works is that the writer gets an email accepting the work, followed by a contract, which will set out rights and payments.  Sign, scan and return, assuming all is well.


Not with Terraform.  Sure, they send out a contract but, as far as the bespoke bits particular to you and your story, it's blank.  Yep, blank.  You even get to fill in the payment amount.


And publication isn't dependent on signing and returning the contract.  Mine is still somewhere in a pile of papers on my desk.  Why?  Well, partially a stereotypical writer's way with paperwork, but mainly having been put through the wringer with Terraform's invoicing process.


They ask you to send an invoice - remember, after you, the writer, have specified the amount, even though they specify the payment per word.  Given virtually every small publisher I've dealt with insists on payment via PayPal, I sent a PayPal invoice.


No, no.  Not PayPal, they said, and sent me an email address specifically for invoices.  So I ran one up in the style of my non-writing working life.


Only at this point did they send me their invoicing requirements, needing IBAN numbers and W-8BEN forms.  So, a morning was spent finding out what an IBAN number was and, more specifically, what mine is.  Quite why they need to make matters so complicated is beyond me.  Are they paranoid lawyers, seeing litigation at every turn?  Have they been bruised by the IRS before and are playing it with an absolutely straight bat?  Maybe everybody else is getting it wrong?


That bureaucratic dragon slayed, the important thing to stress is that payment was made exactly as they said it would be.  My story was published, and I got paid - at $0.20 per word, well above the 'professional' minimum.  What's not to like?  Like I said, what's the worst that can happen?


Well, Victoria Strauss of the SFWA, gave me an answer:


Thanks for sharing the contract and the emails. I really appreciate it.


It's a poor contract, and not just because of the blanks. You were right to ask for something to be added to address the possibility that Vice wound up not publishing the story--as the contract is written, if that happens there is no provision at all for the grant of rights to terminate. They just kind of slid over that point without addressing it. They are also incorrect in stating that "all rights revert to you" three months after publication. After the three months, Vice retains non-exclusive rights "in perpetuity," which means they could produce any number of reprints or anthologies with your story in them and never pay you another penny.  They can also assign those rights to any third party they please. You're getting paid, and you retain copyright and the right to re-publish your story, but you are also losing control of it, given the wide-ranging publication and assignment rights that Vice retains.

I also find it bizarre, and not at all professional, that they would publish your story without a signed contract in hand. That's just foolish. Contracts also protect a publisher.

Obviously that is a worst case scenario, and what is much more likely to happen is that Vice displays your story, maybe puts it in an anthology somewhere down the road, and that's it. But in evaluating publishing contracts, you always need to consider the worst-case scenario that's presented by the literal contract language, and ask yourself if you're comfortable with that, even if it's a remote possibility.

I've already, after a great deal of thought, turned down an offer of publication of a story on the grounds that the publisher was so under the radar that I didn't believe anybody would get to read it.  It made me question my professional approach to writing short fiction, and I decided that it was to draw people to my longer works, such as '2084'.  Short fiction, I concluded after that experience, is merely a means to an end - did somebody say 'starvation' at the back? - no, I mean, drawing readers into your wider storyverse.


So, the worst that could happen is that... Vice Media may run it again and... more people may read it...


As long as it still has my name on it and, ideally, a bio and a mention of my other works, that sounds like wins all round to me.


PS - and, yes, that kill fee from Carrie Cuinn's still outstanding...



Friday, 23 March 2018

Victorian Dad

As regular readers will be aware, my interpretation of my own rules is so fast and loose that I'm happy to jump from the premise that science fiction encompasses stories, any story, set in the future, to include any idea about how the present will transmute into the time yet to pass.

From there, it's a short jump to musing on how the past has become the present, as how else do we learn what direction we're heading in?  And this is all in the context of my rejection of the teleological approach to history, the idea that we're progressing towards something or someplace.  Rather, I firmly hold that we're running around in circles, repeating ourselves, learning from our mistakes and, to quote my fellow Torquinian, Peter Cook, repeating them exactly.

Such as the Pilgrim Fathers being proto-Taliban, too puritan to live in England, therefore they had to find a big empty (more or less) space to be narrow-minded and bigoted in.  Or Isis' destruction of Palmyra?  Henry VIII's Reformation of the Church just coming around again.  We just don't have much of a record of all the iconography and art that his soldiers burnt and broke, just a countryside littered with the broken remains of monasteries like bleached whale skeletons washed up on the beach.

If we're going anywhere, it's with a drunk's walk at best, stumbling on sights that look all too familiar because we've been here before.

So, today's sermon is about Victorian parenting.

When I had kids I imagined a house of footsteps, laughter, shouting, loud music.  Okay, with me in the background yelling for quiet, with the same hope Cnut must have felt standing on the shingle.  Instead, in the early stages of the twenty-first century, I have a house of silence.  Like a library or a monastery.  Except with less reading or illuminating of manuscripts.  Instead, pixelated footballers, racing drivers or gunmen are being manipulated, or videos of sharks are being watched.  All with headphones over teenage ears.

Children should be seen and not heard, the saying goes.  I don't think this is what was intended.

If they ever picked up a book and stumbled across a Victorian reference to children being sent to their rooms, they'd be mystified.  That's exactly where they gravitate to.  In a world of central heating and wifi, they can't compute the very idea that bedrooms were cold and lonely spaces, away from the hearth and welcome hubbub of family life.  We all die alone, the cliche goes; I seem to be watching a social experiment that suggests we all wish to live alone as well.

We went to visit my father-in-law in hospital yesterday; I noticed the occupant on the next bed and his visitor, young marrieds, whether literally or figuratively, lay and sat, respectively, in silence, staring at their screens.  That would have been dystopian sci-fi ten years ago; now it's just everyday.

And in fifty years?  Don't be surprised if we're all living in individual pods in tower blocks, a beehive writ large, in-eye VR technology giving us the illusion of space or a sea view, as well as all the information, entertainment and networking we demand.  Action-at-a-distance (A3D) technology will enable us to do any job from the comfort of own pod, a robotic avatar reproducing the movements of our hands exactly, whether polishing a diamond or signing a contract.  Drones will bring us food; 3D printers will provide our shoes and clothes.

Maybe the only hope for the planet is that we forget to come together to procreate.

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Friday, 9 March 2018

Bookends to a car journey

Yesterday, I spent seven and a half hours out of ten and a half driving, on a round trip that should have taken five.  On the outward leg, I listened to a podcast of Kermode and Mayo's Film Review covering Star Wars: The Last Jedi (yes, as usual, I'll get to the their Christmas special around Easter).  On the way back I caught, amongst many other things, the first half of the new Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase.

I think the former may go some way to explain my views of the latter.

You see, I have history with Hitchhikers', having played Arthur Dent in a school drama production some 31 years ago this month.  My first writing - well, 'with additional material by' - credit, as well.  It was very much in the ether during my youth, the original fits playing incongruously on the kitchen radio whilst my mother cooked lunch.  I read the first books when I was eleven, twelve, something like that, around when the TV series aired.  Basically, I was at that impressionable age when fads become obsessions, and Hitchhikers' could have been custom made for my academic, wordy, somewhat gauche former self.

And, vitally, I had somebody's dressing-gown tails to hang on to.  Arthur Dent's.  It's not just that there's a facet on me that's very Arthur: confused and pompous middle management, writing complaining letters to local newspapers.  It's that he's the classic everyman character, giving us our way into the fictional world, our bridge.  All of Adams' bizarre flights of fancy can be packaged and sold to us because Arthur has to take them at face value.  And, for the purposes of story, we are Arthur.

That's why Harry Potter works so wonderfully, but Urusla LeGuinn is somewhat more obtuse - sorry, where's my way into Earthsea?  It's why the Doctor has companions, not just to have somebody to talk to but for us to relate to.  It's why, contrary to what I was originally taught, the most interesting character is not necessarily always the hero of your story.

But that was all then.  Now?  Perhaps I'm jaded with age, but I found the new Hitchhikers' a mess of smart-cum-silly ideas, ridiculousness and daft names without any kind of framework.  Yes, it's not fair judging on half an episode (if only pedestrians playing with the traffic had closed the Brynglas Tunnels in both directions I may have caught all of it), but god knows I know that editors reading my stuff won't turn the first digital page over unless I give them reason to do so.  But I couldn't tell whose story it was, and if story is journey, where they needed to go.

I think it may have been John Cleese (and, remember, Douglas Adams was in the Python's circle) who said British comedy is silly things done straight, American is straight things done silly.  The original Hitchhiker's fits that mould: there's a very intelligent story structure behind it, which grounds the space-Dada.  The new stuff: silly done silly.  A natural clown only in the sense that its nose is red and bulbous before it sits in front of the make-up mirror.

(There's a separate but related note, on stories being key journeys that characters take only once; resurrect a character for a sequel and there's a feeling of artificiality, that he's completed this before.  The clear exception is police procedurals: cops keep being thrown problems in the real world, hence a constant grind of story doesn't ring false).

And this is what Kermode had said earlier that day that rang so true about Hitchhikers' in his review of The Last Jedi.  That character is story.  That protagonists do things, make the decisions which decree the way the story arcs, dependent on their characters.  Put well-defined characters in a situation and story will play out as a natural consequence.  Put simply, no other narrative will be possible: the writer is simply reporting what occurs, without losing sight of his cast as they race ahead.

I'm not sure I fully sign up to The Last Jedi being a masterpiece or for it being a glowing example of story progressing within the tight constraints of characters' beliefs, abilities and preferences.  But I think it hits the nail on the head of why I won't be seeking out the second half of that first episode of the Hexagonal Phase.

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