Monday, 26 November 2018

Stop staring out the window - we have reached our destination

Recently, my mind has been turning to the idea of the meshing of soft flesh and sharp-edged technology, the enhancement of the body with the products of engineering.

Bizarrely, at first glance, it doesn't fit comfortably with any of Wikipedia's list of science fiction themes - I had expected some Latin-derived catch-all term - but I suppose it's covered by artificial organs.  However, that's slightly narrower than I had in mind as, to me, it implies a like-for-like exchange for what you're (meant to be) born with, functionality-wise.  Whereas I'm thinking of implanted and integrated devices that give you more than you started with.  Or, maybe, organs cover more ground than I'd usually credit.

I did follow the links to biohacking, in case that was the bon mot I was seeking, but that instead took me to lots of interesting things that can be done with the penis.  Genital bisection, inversion or headsplitting, anybody?

Why this mental meander?  Perhaps it's a byproduct of the challenge of making 365 story submissions in the year (day 329, and I'm only at 318!), that I end up reading virtually every set of submission guidelines, and things like Blood Bound Book's 'Crash Code' ("Let’s talk voluntary amputations so we can wear cybernetic limbs as fashion statements") stick in the mind.

Or possibly I've been considering the themes that crop up in my own writing; I find myself often dropping the word 'corneascreen', alluding to some in-eye head-up display, Google Glass-cum-contact lenses arrangement providing all sorts of data and information, hosed straight to the eyeball.  Curiosuly, Google doesn't give any results for 'corneascreen' as one word, so I guess that makes it copyright little 'ol me.  You read it here first.

It's also one of the few sci-fi tropes that we have in the real world; one that had a major red letter day on 2nd December 1982 when William DeVries carried out the first artificial heart transplant - or, at least, the first where the new organ stuck around for any length of time.  Pacemakers and prosthetics came before, of course.  And now, in 2018, we have the microchips Three Square Market have been implanting into employees.  I thought that was our Orwellian future - no, turns out it's our Orwellian present.

I've struggled to think of examples in sci-fi where the enhancement is used voluntarily, to put the human body ahead of the pack, rather than, repairing what's been lost or disabled.  I did find these examples, all of which, apart from Dune, were unknown to me.  Not quite sure where, say, Steve Austin or Robocop would fit in that spectrum; bit like taking your Ford Focus to the garage to find they've put an F1 engine under the bonnet.

So, what's the point that I'm stumbling towards?  Well, here's a trope that I think should be more common than it is, because we've already made advances in the real world unlike, say, faster than light travel, but isn't.  Why?  You'd think we'd be able to push the direction of travel forward, take it to its logical conclusion.  You'd think that characters having parts of their body lopped off and replaced and upgraded would be all over the genre.

But I've realised that the direction of travel that I'm string up is a blind alley.  And I suspect that's what any sci-fi author realises as soon as he tries to put flesh on his story.

If you haven't worked it out for yourself yet, ask yourself why integrated televisions and DVD players fell flat on their face?  Why do you only find washer/dryers in poky student flats?   For a variety of reasons, but mainly because when one element fails you don't want to throw the whole thing away.  Likewise, people want the freedom and flexibility to upgrade one element without needing to trade-in the rest.  Imagine now having had the functionality of a bleeding edge iPhone integrated into your body in 2010.  You'd be a laughing stock.

That sci-fi genre stalwart, the sweating surgeon carefully joining wires to neurons, is as weak a link as the ones he's making.  Why?  Because we already have magnificent interfaces between technology and wetware.  They're called our fingers and eyes.

Just take a walk around any city as we head towards the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Thousands of 'em, staring at their screens as they walk, many with headphones.  This is what the melding of flesh and technology looks like.  Really looks like.  It's already here, integrated through our existing, superbly adapted interfaces: fingertip, eyeball and eardrum.

So, unless you're dealing with somebody who doesn't have use of those interfaces - and all hail those working in biomedical engineering, with the possible exception of the ones who made Oscar Pistorius rich and famous and able to afford firearms - the future is here.  So, stop staring out the window, we've reached our destination: we've perfected the integration of carbon-based flesh and silicon-based technology.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Nice buns!

Sat the kids down the other week and made them watch The Dam Busters.  It's part of their heritage, and their grandfather was in the RAF during that little local difficulty between '39 and '45.  (Not, '41, pur-lease.)

My sales pitch was that this is one of the key sources for Star Wars, but I didn't elaborate, wanting them to spot the parallels between the bombing runs on the dams and the rebels' attack on the Death Star for themselves.

But, in reality, I think they may have thought I was merely referring to Mrs Molly Wallis' hairstyle, Barnes' missus clearly a distant descendant of Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan.


Princess Leia's characteristic hairstyle.jpg

In fairness, I'm not the first to spot this, (but I can't find any proof that I'm not the second - surely not?!).  The only other reference Google led me to was this excellent blog posting, which provides an analysis of the genesis of Star Wars from movies like The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron, and signs off on exactly the same coiffure-related point.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Don't count your chickens until their published

As the millions of you (if I could address you in terms of your constituent cells, multiple personalities, and gut bacteria) that follow this blog know, my aim is to submit 365 stories this year, one a day.  Being roughly on track, it’s hardly surprising to report that, occasionally, the blancmange sticks to the ceiling.

But I’m uncertain as to how much of it will stay, and how much is already peeling off onto my upturned face.

Let me explain.  My story ‘Farndale’s Revelation’, which first appeared in DomainSF, has been selected for Nexxis Fantasy’s Corporate Shadows’ anthology.  I’ve even signed a contract.  However, it’s been utter radio silence since, to the extent that the book should have hit the shelves last month.  (Maybe the publication date of ‘31 September 2018’ on their Marie Celeste of a website should have alerted me to something bigger than a typo).  Can’t get anything out of them, even though they appear to be actively seeking submissions for their next work.  Odd.

Secondly, my sci-fi noir ‘The Fool’ will (hopefully) appear in ‘Deductions, Delinquents, and Detectives’ by Banjaxed Books.  Again, communication here is intermittent.  I only received acceptance of the tale when I chased, long after writing this market off, receiving an exceptionally charming and apologetic email.  But then, nothing.  Confusingly, the website talks about the high number of high-quality submissions received, but that they’ve held the doors open for a bit longer so as to publish two volumes of genre-melding mysteries.  I have more faith in this one appearing, particularly as they successfully published their first anthology, Chaos of Hard Clay, although I haven’t seen a contract as yet.

Thirdly, and I think this will happen because there’s more than just a book going on, my space-trucker fable ‘The Loimaa Protocol’ has been selected for the anthology to be published alongside WhimsyCon, Denver’s steampunk and cosplay convention.  Odd, really, given the story isn’t steampunk, and there’s little potential for dressing up to it.  Apart from space helmets.  We’ll see what the good burghers of Colorado make of it next March.

Plus, I've delivered my rewrites to James Gunn's Ad Astra, and I have a drabble that's made it over the first hurdle at Daily Science Fiction

So, all is rosy?  Well, only if roses are the main thing.  And these roses generate very little in the way of magic beans.  To me, short fiction is a signpost to my longer works, which pay their way on purchase, not on publication (did I mention my novel ‘2084’ is still available?).  But the cornfields are, to be honest, neglected; my current novel having been hardly pushed forward this year.

It will be, I keep telling myself.  But only when I’ve written that story about ghosts from the future, of course.  And the human origin story involving multidimensional beings.  And the Victorian steampunk tale that may be the imaginings of a tortured mind in the here and now.  And the one about the jester and the creature that absorbs malice or goodness...

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Something Star Trek got right

The criticisms levelled at Star Trek are legion: the, at best paternalistic, at worst imperialistic, politics; James Tiberius Kirk's continuous and continual sexual harassment, particularly of those to whom he has safeguarding responsibilities; and, most heinously, Scottie's accent.

However, I'm beginning to think that one accusation made at the show may actually be prescient.  And it's not just a gripe people have with Star Trek; you can find this trope across all of science fiction.

It's that, whilst cultures between planets may be very different (you guys get the prosthetic limbs; you, we'll paint blue; you... where do you want the fur?) each planet is a strict monoculture (everybody with furry kneecaps with me, the six-limbed over there to that planet).  Diversity is strictly interplanetary, not intraplanetary.  With Star Trek, it's always struck me as particularly surprising that, given the deliberate rainbow nation-nature of the crewing of the Enterprise, this never strikes any of them at the time as surprising.

As a writer, I can understand the shorthand; the fact is that if every fictional planet had as rich and heady a mix of cultures as Earth then it would act as a brake on the momentum of the story as you try to remember all the made-up ethnicities and groupings.  Except when diversity becomes the issue, and then it's dealt with in a heavy-handed, black and white (pun intended) way, just to get the point across.

But I'm beginning to wonder if it's not the Earthlings which are ultimately going to be misrepresented.  You see, we're living in an increasingly homogenised, monocultural world.  And I can only see this heading in one direction.

It's wonderful that you can go on to a London street and eat European, Asian, American.  But that's true (I suspect) of Berlin, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, New York and the rest, and where's the fun in that?  There are KFCs and McDonalds on the streets of Beijing and Moscow, unthinkable when I was growing up during the fun, fun, fun Cold War - indeed, KFC is apparently the most popular fast food brand in China.  We're all becoming a bit samey, as we may realise if we bothered to look up from Facebook on our iPhones, that is.

This news story didn't inspire this posting - there's basically something like this weekly - but we learnt this week that IKEA is looking to follow the mouse, the clown, and the jolly man with whiskers who enjoys killing chickens, by expanding globally.  Brilliant.  Now everybody the world over can file their shit Dan Brown novels on shit Billy bookcases.

On one level, fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist capitalism are both trying to make the world homogeneous.  It's just a choice between burkas for everyone or lattes all round.  It makes you want to go huzzah for North Korea, which has fewer websites than you can access via your avatar on Grand Theft Auto, as remaining one of the last bastions of heterogony, albeit mainly through the brutal curtailment of freedom of choice.  Though, if plans come to pass, they'll be a unified Olympic nation by 2032.  So, that'll be Coke, Mickey Ds and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts all round.  Another nation brought into line, blandification-wise.

But, maybe, this is what progress looks like.  Coming from Bedfordshire, there was a time when people from Cambridgeshire would have appeared strange and alien.  And as for those from Norfolk...  People read this blog in Ukraine and Israel - to you guys, Brits are Brits, pretty much the same.  Just push this process forward a few hundred years.  One day Earthlings will all be pretty much the same, whether you're from Earth yourself or you stopped off for a leak and a sandwich at Barnard's Star on your way here.

Perhaps, that total blandification, that cultural reversion to the mean as everything, everywhere is shaken together, is a necessary condition for us to achieve the next step in our evolution.  Like having to perform to a certain level in order to move on to the next level in a game, we have to become a beige monoculture before the gods allow us to reach for the stars.

Why not?  They're out there, aren't they?  Watching.  What are they waiting for?  Who's to say I haven't got the answer...

So, here's my manifesto to you: black, white, brown or yellow (which, after all, is only skin deep and will mix together to a single shade over the next, oh, thirty or forty generations) grab your Starbucks or Coke, your smartphones and your buckets of chicken or BigMacs, sit down to watch Premiership football or read Fifty Shades.  Only when an independent observer can no longer tell where you come from or the qualities that used to set you apart, only then will the aliens come and show us the way to the stars... 


Friday, 28 September 2018

HR AI WTF

You may be, but probably won't be, aware that, outside of writing science and speculative fiction, I'm a fully paid-up card-carrying (quite literally) human resources professional.  There's an old maxim: write what you know.  Well, other than the occasional character who works in HR ('The Lodeon Situation') or a scene around a conference table ('Farndale's Revelation'), I've tended not to write about the world of office life generally or personnel management specifically.  Possibly because editors don't have to read beyond the first page or two of anything duller than dark matter.

Well, I thought that I'd combine these two interests in this posting, the glue that binds being the prospect of a dystopian future, in degree of awfulness somewhere between The Handmaid's Tale and Man City winning the title each season without challenge for the next thirty years.  And I'll be taking as my starting point, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's People Management's July/August 2018 edition, focusing on technology and what it's going to do for us all within the profession.  Or with us, all depending.

Now, don't get me wrong: technology is not just useful - I couldn't run either my working or writing life without it, and I suspect you couldn't either (if you're a Unabomber-style off-grid hermit but also reading this, let me know how, I'm curious).  I've just pinged off a slide pack for a colleague's presentation, having picked up a draft from another colleague to polish.  We're all at our various homes, none at the client's offices.  We couldn't do this without the internet, the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, Google and the rest.  That's the prosaic everyday stuff.

But there's some developments going on at the edges that genuinely scare me.  Like ThriveMap, which uses people analytics to ensure employers select candidates that have the best cultural fit.  That's a phrase which sounds innocent, attractive even.  Why on earth would you not want cultural fit?  But I bet eugenics sounded like a similar no-brainer to many between the wars.  And I think they are not without parallels.

Yes, I know the arguments, that cultural fit doesn't mean everybody being the same sex, race, or religion.  It means looking at attitudes and propensities rather than skin colour and church of choice.  (Which begs the question, how much diversity is here?  How many companies don't want intelligent, initiative-taking team-workers, able to communicate, problem solve, and face customers?)  But that hides the fact that there are cultural nuances to communication, hierarchy and the rest.  Issues like deference: one culture's talking around the issue having been issued with instructions is another's insubordination.  Lack of eye contact doesn't always mean a lack of engagement.  I'm struggling to see how this encourages diversity rather than embeds a, say, a white, Anglo, first-world, perspective. 

And what about Olivia, your recruitment chatbot?  She'll screen, sift and longlist candidates so you don't have to.  Sounds great, but we all remember how Tay went off the rails on her first day, don't we.  Just saying...

And as for 'Put an end to harassment with the power of blockchain' (Vault), that just felt like a headline hanging off the side of a skyship in a Phil Dick novel.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any darker I came across this nugget from Nicola Strong, MD of a 'virtual learning, leadership and communication skills consultancy': "I believe that when AI is able to do the more mundane parts of our jobs for us, we'll have more work than ever."  What the fuck?  More work than ever?  What's the point of technology if it's simply going to replace nine-to-five drudgery with the need to be on-message and ready to rumble eight-to-seven?

If you've ever looked into deathbed regrets, even cursorily, you'll find that consistently in the top three is the regret of prioritising work over family, of missing the kids growing up, of not maintaining familial relationships.  Well, luckily, Ms Strong seems to be suggesting that after the march of the machines none of us will have the time to have a family.

I knew there had to be an upside.

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.

Thankyouthankyouhereallweekdon'tforgettotipyourwaitress...

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.

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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.