Friday, 20 December 2019

The Safety Shelf

You know how it is, fellas.  You've met a great girl.  Second date, third date, and you go back to her place.  There are buy-signals, but you want to remain respectful.  You've had a few drinks, but no way are you drunk.  You've just eased the tensions and are getting on really well.  In short, you're both looking forward to the fumbling.

She opens the front door, drops her keys - does that mean she's more drunk than you, or just more nervous?  She's just gone to open some wine.  You're temporarily alone.

This is the moment that you spring, nay leap, to check her CDs, blu-rays and books.  Will it be Katy Perry, Now That's What I Call Music and auto-tune merchants?  Sex in the City - 1 and 2, Maid in Manhattan, Leap Year?  On the bookshelf, tomes with airbrush soft-as-snow-porn art on the cover by authors you've never heard of: Sarah J Maas, Bethany Griffin, Cindy Flores Martinez?

If so, your heart sinks and you plan an exit strategy.  You know that, however much you think she's the one, you'll have to co-exist with a TV and cinematic diet of a gay friend that works in publishing, with an over-bearing mother, a back-stabbing boss, and a significant birthday coming up necessitating a trip to Europe.  On hard repeat, even if the faces and names change.  She'll probably expect to watch it in her PJs.  Or, worse, a onesie.

You're not asking for there to be, I don't know, Anna Meredith, obscure Paisley Underground and Lenny Kaye's NuggetsTale of Tales or The Lobster or Garth Merenghi.  Maybe just some Radiohead and Chris Nolan to show that there's common ground, a zone of potential agreement.  Some Stephen King in amongst the Helen Fielding.  '2084' by your truly would be nice, but highly unusual - I see the sales figures.

At least that's how the world used to work.  It was called the 'safety shelf'.

But now?  It's all on the cloud, via apps, viewed on a tablet, listened to on a phone.  How far into a relationship do you have to get before you discover your future is more Nicolas Sparks than Werner Herzog?  How deep do you have to wade?  How close to drowning do you need to come?

I agree with the reactionaries.  The modern world is just so much more dangerous than it ever used to be.

2084 by [Bagnall, Robert]

Thursday, 12 December 2019

How many sleeps to go?

Before then: An advent calendar, how nice.

Then:  Ah, this one's called a 'chocolate advent calendar'.  It has chocolates in it every time you open a window.  Just so you know its different.

Now: It says it's an advent calendar.  Where's the bloody chocolate?

Progress, huh?

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Back in your kennel, PETA

...and the PDSA and RSPCA, and the rest of you.

I've been enjoying the BBC's luscious adaptation of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials.  I've even managed to keep one teenager engaged, although the other was lost after the first episode.  The daemons are particularly well rendered - there is a moment when Mrs Coulter's golden monkey jumps from the car and the seat gives in response.  Practically seamless.

But, am I the only one to notice that in Lyra's world, even if everybody has a daemon, nobody has a pet?

2084 on,, .in or direct from Double Dragon

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Ad astra, just not very fast

It's a long way to the stars, particularly when your one concession to hard sci-fi is the rejection on principle of faster than light travel.

But I have it on good authority that the uber-tardy issue 7 of James Gunn's Ad Astra, containing a little something from me, will be a thing of the 2010s, not the 2020s, come hell or high water.  Hmm... we've heard that before, but I have faith.

Apparently the issue has been with gathering material of a sufficient quality.  

I'll confess, I found this odd.  I like to think that my writing is of some quality - finalist and double silver honorables in Writers of the Future, two appearances in the Best of British Sci-Fi, 30 stories published - and I still fall short of Asimov's and Clarkesworld every time.  I'm good, but there are a whole army of scribblers who are obviously great.

The Grinder records 267168 submissions (since it opened, I assume? which was when? in the last decade, I guess).  That'll encompass a lot of multiple submissions, but that over-recording will be balanced by writers who don't use the Grinder at all.  There must be a five-figure number of stories in circulation, let's say 10,000 which fall under sci-fi and speculative.

Even an infinite number of monkeys would churn out something decent with those odds.  Surely.

But there is another way of looking at this.  I've blogged before than I am not a voracious reader of science fiction.  Some of the stuff that rises to the top certainty gets its turn on my bedside table - Ann Leckie, Hugh Howey - or classic Dick, Gibson, Vonnegut.  But it's rare that I'll be truly startled by the contributor's copy of whatever I'm in.  

I rationalise not reading widely within the confines of the genre as not wanting to end up parroting the voices or story arcs of other writers in the genre.  But, perhaps, subconsciously I can tell that there's genuinely a great deal of unreadable shit out there...

Friday, 18 October 2019

What? No hoover on the Millennium Falcon?

I was going to blog about how distracting and off-putting in general references in fantasy to things rooted in the real world are, and specifically a reference to 'French sleeves' in a recent (to me, that is - I think it may have been season 3) episode of Game of Thrones.  However, I've decided against it as a) it's already out there, b) apparently it's a mishearing - like hell, it is!, and c) I'm six years behind the curve.  As ever.

So, instead, I'll stick to news hot off the press that my story 'The Root Canals of Mars' has gone live on Harbinger Press website.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Regular readers will be aware that few of these posts relate to my so-called writing career, for the simple reason that I tend to only blog narcissistically when I have something to announce, such as the publication of a new piece.  Which leads to a distinct paucity of postings of that nature.

I thought I'd make the punchline clear to save you the bother.

If you're in the short genre fiction game you have to be resilient.  It's a school of hard knocks - or, rather, frequent, short, bland rejection emails.  I'll cover the numbers in my end of year report, but I'm currently running at 4 acceptances for 154 submissions.  And that's off the back of a year when I tried to average a submission a day, so there was a surge of pitches from me in 2018 that were only ever due to fall back to earth, regardless of their fate, in 2019.

Most of the time I'm sanguine about the knock-backs, and philosophical about the scattering of successes - even they don't always bear fruit.  (God knows what's happened to James Gunn's Ad Astra.  It was slated for March, then August.  It's now October, and the home page is just a banner and a blank screen.  I've been paid for my story, which went through innumerable rewrites, that's due to appear there, but that's not the point.)

But, I'll be honest: I'm having a difficult October.  Seven rejections already (it's only the 2nd as I type), plus another than can be assumed as rejected according to the guidelines in a day or so.  AnalogAsimov's, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod; all apart form Analog and DSF within a day or so.  Throw in rejections from Clarkesworld and Fantasy & Science Fiction in the last few hours of September and you have some macabre professional-rate royal flush.

I'd make the classic error of getting my hopes up.  I'd just had my second consecutive silver honorable from Writers of the Future: a 14,300 word tale of the madness that can be caused by innocently taking a cutting of an unfamiliar plant; a triptych set in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries.  I'd written it to win Writers of the Future, and I know that I should take heart in being in the top 25 out of thousands, but all I sense is missing that rope that coulda pulled me up by my fingertips and falling back into the abyss.

I completely hold my hand up to the fact that that length of story is a tricky sell.  The Grinder only lists nine markets for sci-fi that pay over $0.03 per word at that length, some of which don't fit the story.  A lot of investment for very few tickets in the lottery.  And suddenly three are already used up - Asimov's and Clarkesworld both passed in a day.  It clearly didn't even pique their interest. 

It's enough to make you wonder why you bother: statistically, the chance of my laughing about this posting in a year with Letterman, Corden or Noah is remote.  But, to give up is to guarantee failure.

To quote Beckett, "No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."


Sunday, 22 September 2019

Plate me up something vernacular

I've recently returned from a most excellent holiday piloting a narrowboat at sub-walking speeds up and down a small sliver of Yorkshire, before continuing North by road as far as Newcastle.  About as far from sci-fi as it's possible to get.

One small disappointment was that this did not constitute the first step in my proposed 'offal tour of the North'.  It's long been my plan to sample traditional bovine or porcine innards served up by plain women with ham hock arms and flat vowels in their proper place - partly as a gastronomic mission, but mainly as a way of scaring the kids.

I'm sure just a few years ago you could sample the tripe at market stalls (maybe I was hallucinating myself into an LS Lowry painting?) but, a stottie cake in Newcastle apart, I discovered the cuisine was almost exactly the same as down south.  I did try hard at a baker's stall in Halifax, asking what she had that I wouldn't find outside Yorkshire, but she just looked at me as though I'd asked her to check the structural calcs on the first elements of the International Space Station replacement before it gets blasted up there.  I immediately changed my order to a Danish, the irony striking home a moment later, like the pain after you've hit your thumb with a hammer.

I find it sad.  We're losing a granularity that made for a rich variety, a tapestry of different accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles, proverbs, ways of doing business.  Wind the clock back five hundred years and every English town, every Welsh valley, every Scottish glen would have had something that set it apart, even if it was just a preference for pie crust or a way of calling your neighbour an idiot.

But now, the heterogeneous has become homogeneous, and I'm not even sure how well differentiated the UK is from the USA or many other English-speaking (imposed homogeneity again!) parts of the planet.  Competition gives winners scale and scale gives winners dominance and then we all find ourselves wearing Nike on our feet and eating Big Macs because there's no other choice.

But back up a bit there!  There's a flaw in this argument.  

Five hundred years ago you wouldn't have found yourself casually travelling from one corner of the country to the other.  You probably wouldn't have made it very far out of your English town or Welsh valley or Scottish glen.  Unless you went to war, you would have spent your life around the same accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles and proverbs.  You probably wouldn't have realised that there was any other way of doing business.  You would have replaced your clogs with identical clogs from the one clog maker within walking distance, and bought your offal and bread from the never-changing village monopolies.

What we have is a problem of scale.  I'm not seeing any less vernacular than I would have seen centuries ago; I'm just seeing less differentiation spread over a vastly larger area.

We'll, that's okay, isn't it?

Unfortunately not, methinks, because life's rich tapestry is woven on a frame that's limited by the size of the planet.  There's only so much room (about 500 million square kilometres, since you ask) to display all the colours of the rainbow of human culture.  And we're turning a life-affirming mosaic into grubby dentist's waiting room wall of pastel ordinariness - pink or pale green, with a few smutty bon mots biro-ed on to break up the monotony.

Until we find ourselves in a sci-fi future where we flit from planet to planet, from alien culture to alien culture (I'll lay my cards on the table: ain't never gonna happen), which will provide a bigger loom onto which to weave our myriad differences, we're going to have to accept that we're turning Earth greige.  We've explored every corner of the world; there's nothing new to see.  And pretty soon we'll have put a McDonald's and a Starbucks there too.


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

A funny thing happened on the way to the Kremlin

God bless America, and all the things that it's given us.  Like the computer, and the world wide web.  Although, turns out, that has a lot more to do with Tommy Flowers, Alan Turing and Sir Tim Berners Lee.  Whoops.

Putting that aside, one of the ways that all this joined up communication has changed our lives is through blogs just like this one.  Not that I couldn't just sound off previously; that was what that stool in the corner of the pub that the regulars would avoid was for.  Or, I suppose, I could pin my opinions to a wall, and come back a few days later to to see how abusive the graffiti was.

But what the tree wouldn't be able to give me was chapter and verse on who was reading my missive, where and when.  Which is what a site like blogger, and many more, does.

A few weeks ago I was heartened to see a spike in my readership (yes, gentle reader, you are not alone.  I wouldn't book a big venue for a get together, but you are not alone).  But there was something odd about it.

Being a blog in the English language, you wouldn't be surprised to find out that the majority of my readers are in the US of A, with about half as many again on my side of the pond in Great Britain.  After that it's a mish-mash of nations, although Ukraine seems disproportionately high up the rankings (greetings Kyiv!).  But all of my new readers - or, possibly, a single reader making a lot of hits - appeared to come from Russia.

Now, why should that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up?  Russia has a great history of science fiction, even if I found Tarkovsky unmitigated arse.  Why shouldn't this be some Soviet sci-fi maven having stumbled across a recent story or my novel 2084 and wanting to know more?

Because Russia, in the eyes of the West, is associated with hacking, cybercrime and data theft.  That's why.

Now, that may all be a product of media-led groupthink, but it did lead me to wonder just how exposed I am.  I am, quite deliberately, a light user of social media.  I don't tweet or facebook (is that a verb? with or without a capital?) or pin, regardless of interest.  It's been pointed out to me, despite denials, that I have a YouTube channel, not that much gets channelled.  But I do have this blog.

And from this blog you can locate my email address, and it wouldn't take a lot of work to find my company, which would give you my home address and date of birth.  The bio from my earliest stories gives my place of birth, although I'd lied to create more interest and said I was from Zanzibar or Sierra Leone or somesuch, so feel free to use that at your leisure to hack into my life.  I like to think that's where the trail goes cold: there's nothing on this blog to suggest any passwords, not pet's names or favourite animals or teams supported or roads grown up on, but can I be sure I haven't left a nugget on my digital trail at some point?

A simple record of who's been looking at me gave me cause to worry, and I have a far smaller digital footprint than many, including my teenage children.  Dwell on that a moment.  And as we move to a cashless society am I the only one who can see some time in the future when we all wake up one morning to find our accounts wiped?  Am I the only one who wonders whether the criminals already have the means out there to empty our digital wallets and they're just waiting until some scale is reached?

Just think of what that would mean (although I think Mr Robot already has).  If you were robbed, that's one thing, but what if everybody were robbed?  What if money were simply removed from the equation?  Nobody had anything.  And that includes the banks and businesses.  We'd have to find another way.  Bartering or battering?  Social equality imposed deus ex machina, or anarchy?  I don't know.

But what I do know is that you don't see the edge of the cliff until it's too late.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Mark Zuckerberg, you total cnut

The BBC's popular science strand, Horizon, recently covered Facebook and its struggles with the monster that they have created, following "teams across the globe as they attempt to tackle a string of issues from hate speech to scams".

It was an impressive piece, with the behemoth coming across as human, caring and genuinely wringing its hands over the unintended consequences of all the good that it has brought to the world.  And now slap yourself good and proper with something twentieth century and physical, like an encyclopedia or a shovel, to remind yourself that you're seeing exactly what the avaricious bastards want you to see.

That said, I have sympathy for what they're having to do, what they've been forced into doing.  However, I'm not sure as the whole approach isn't wrongheaded.  

Although I have no recollection of it, at some point in my life I signed up to Quora.  It's a brilliant rabbit-hole to get lost down, particularly because my feed seems to consist of hilariously patronising nuggets such as "Are the doctors in the United Kingdom as skilled compared to doctors in the United States?", "Why doesn't the British monarchy become a democracy like America?" and "How do people travel around England?"  

It also brilliantly illustrates the slippery slope that ranges from cultural differences, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions, often based on rumour, myth or newsworthy outliers being taken as representative (I mean, not all Americans can be that fat and stupid, can they?), through cultural gaucheness, linguistic faux pas - even when nations share a common language - to full on offence.  And this is just from the people minded to ask out loud.

And now that intention doesn't seem to come into it, you can no longer use what the speaker intended in the definition; it can still be hate speech even if the only thing you hate is hate itself.  It also puts a great deal of British comedy in a difficult position, particularly with the majority of the planet too dumb to get it (for a rather inelegant example, see previous clause).

If the game is to find the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, then it's a game with no winner because there is no single objective line.  I have my line and you have yours.  What's acceptable, even trivial, for me may be deeply offensive to you.  My Quora examples compare two very similar cultures.  Try the democratic west versus the fundamentalist Islamic world.  There are areas with very little overlap; necessary rights here are basic transgressions there.

The only way to play the game is to pretend that we (or you, from whatever cultural or religious point of view you're reading this from) have a monopoly on what's right and what's wrong.  That assumes objective ethical truths and deplores cultural relativism.  But even that fundamental basis of the whole exercise will be, by definition, offensive to those who don't sign up to that philosophical point of view.  What to do?

And, anyway, who's the 'we' here?  I posed it in the trappings of a generic western, democratic, market economy-leaning society.  As if the west can have a common set of standards that those in the west, at least, are happy with.  But I've just said that no two individuals can share the same lines in the sand as to what is offensive or not.  And, I'm not sure as mine don't shift according to context - mood, even.  So, it would have to be up to government, 'society', whatever higher power, to set the standards.  Which is what is happening.  Hello groupthink.  Welcome back, Stasi.  Your Orwellian hell is ready and waiting.  God help you if you think at all differently.  And doesn't progress rely on people thinking differently, thinking the unthinkable?

Like King Cnut holding back the waves, I think Facebook is being asked to attempt the impossible.

Here's a minority view - just thinking it probably means that I've crossed the line already - but perhaps the real issue is our ability to hide behind anonymous usernames and cartoon avatars.  If you can't see me and I can't see you then I can say what I really think.  That's freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, nothing apart from the fact that we seem to be reduced to a primal desire to scream from the trees, display our genitals, throw shit.  Perhaps it's human society's dependence on relationships that keeps things offline in check, a dependence that social media does away with.  What if our posts, our comments, our views had our real names, our actual faces, our telephone numbers attached?  Our addresses?  What if we could see exactly which bridge the trolls live under?

Polite thoughts and comments only, please, with your real names.  


(I was contemplating entitling this post 'Mark Zuckerberg, you total cunt' on the grounds that, whilst studying the Vikings at the age of six or seven, I unthinkingly wrote reams and reams on 'King Cunt'.  Years later, I found my lower school exercise books, my feelings a salad of of disbelief, incomprehension... and hilarity.  However, I thought the tale may prove difficult to bring across as a defence against defamation on the stand of some Californian court...)

Monday, 22 July 2019

I am second generation - and you’re not even first

A bold claim, but I would wager, in the majority of cases, an accurate one.

I refer, of course, to doorbells.  Wireless, internet enabled, internet-of-things doorbells.  Not those simple press-a-button, hit-a-bell arrangements.  Or a Neanderthal, one-moving-part door knocker. 

Oh no, a proper lights-up-your-smartphone twenty-first century visitor-alerter.  Space age, if the space age wasn’t all gas guzzlers with phallic fins and gills, buzzcuts and pork pie hats, church burnings and lynchings.

Buy cheap, buy twice, as the saying goes.  Which is exactly what I did, hence the need to buy my second whizzy doorbell.  The first was a £70 or so Amazon purchase.  The instructions appeared to have been translated via Martian and needed to be pondered over like deep poetry to extract meaning.  It worked well initially, even if speaking to visitors was somewhat fiddly – by the time you’d worked out what to press and whether to keep it pressed when talking or listening (still can’t remember) they’d invariably have gone, leaving you with a summons to the sorting office.  I did manage a conversation whilst wandering around a harbour with a person looking to buy the car parked outside my house.  Which wasn’t my car.  I was happy to negotiate, nonetheless.

But it drained our batteries, and at some point the ability to converse fell off; when it rang we’d simply go to the front door rather than ‘answer’ it on our phones.  When we were out we rarely had the app on.  It had evolved back into a simple press-and-it-rings doorbell.  And then, after our teenaged IT department decided to unilaterally reset our router (or do I mean hub? how are they different? or are they the same thing?) it stopped working altogether.

I did a lot of research into a replacement.  There are a few more providers out there than previously.  My doorbell, which appeared in almost identical guise under a number of different names, is no longer on the market.  Nest and Ring dominate, as they did before, but I didn’t like the need to subscribe to services to get full functionality out to them last time and nothing had changed on that front as far as I was concerned.  The one genuinely new bell or whistle out there seemed to be facial recognition software.

Let’s just pause and unpack that for a moment.  Facial recognition software.  Your doorbell’s pressed and your smartphone rings and shows you the view from a camera at your doorstep.  And at the same time, it uses software to measure distances between eyes, mouth, nose, whatever, to tell you who’s at the door.  Even though you’re looking at the image that it’s seeing as well.  Even though you’ve evolved over aeons to be able to recognise faces.  It’s something the average human is stunningly good at.

I don’t think it tells you who it is if you don’t know them; it’s not plugged into Langley or the Pentagon or anything.  That could be genuinely useful.   Neither does it pop the locks when it recognises your phizog, though that would be a small step away.  As would be getting cleared out by that twin that you fell out with and no longer talk to.

My understanding is that it uses your previous visitors, who you have to tag or identify somehow, presumably, to tell you who’s here, now.  Even though we can tell just by looking.  It’s like a dog standing on its hind legs.  Why do we need it?

I've come to a number of alternative conclusions.  One is that it's not about Langley telling you who's at the door, but you telling Langley.  Facial recognition is the facet of the informational revolution that people are only whispering about.  You've heard of Facebook, but have you heard of DeepFace?  The Chinese government plans to be able to identify “anyone, anytime, anywhere in China within three seconds”.  Think about it, your own private property is where they can't scan your face.  Unless you do it for them.

But, perhaps, even more fundamentally for the species there’s a working assumption that we’re all going to give up recognising faces.  Yes, it’s a skill that we’re so adept at that we’ve virtually forgotten how great we are at it.  But, hey, there’s an app for that, so free up some bandwidth and hand over the responsibility for facial recognition to Apple, Google, Huawei or whoever.  I know that I’ve written on the theme of outsourcing mental abilities if not common sense to the machines in our hands, on our laps, on our desks before.  But this is plain silly.  We’ve arrived at a genuine, full–on reductio ad absurdum.

I’m willing to concede that the view from the top of a slippery slope is likely to be magnificent.  And the journey may be initially pleasant before the speed builds up and you see yourself hurtling towards the edge of the abyss.  Hold on tight, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.


Tuesday, 9 July 2019

It's the end of the world as I'm genetically incapable of knowing, and I feel fine

Two things happened in the last few weeks that even the most tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist will find hard to link.

Elon Musk caused an alien invasion panic after launching 60 mini satellites to give us better access to porn.  Sorry, I mean the internet.  And I finished reading Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kahneman's book is not new, and elements have been well covered elsewhere; various pop science documentaries spring to mind.  But, even so, you really should read it if you haven't already.  It covers a great deal of ground in breadth and depth, and shouldn't be mistaken for a Malcolm Gladwell-style thinking person's beach read.  It's denser than that, and a modicum drier as a result.  Which makes it sound overbaked Dundee cake.  Without marzipan and icing.  Or a plastic reindeer on top.

But it isn't like that at all.  Think more of a quality bakewell, or a cheesecake, but not one of those foamy ones.  A real cheesecake, with some density to it.  Raspberries.  Maybe clotted cream on the side.

I may have wandered off topic.  Sorry.

One of Kahneman's opening plays is the idea of your brain having a System 1 and a System 2.  These aren't separate parallel processing units, like the petrol and electric motors in a hybrid car; this is your brain employing two separate strategies simultaneously on the same wetware.

(His book also covers loss aversion, which tallies with what I was stumbling towards in my proposal for an anti-bezzle, but enough of that).

Don't think these are options at your disposal; they're not.  You can't help triggering System 1, it's innate; whereas System 2 is the 'If you think about it' bit of your brain.  And you need both.  System 1 is constantly seeing a tiger in the shadows, because one day there will be one, and only by seeing the tiger all the time do you get to live to tell the tale.  System 2 plays chess, but it's System 1 that jumps when a spider drops from the ceiling and lands on the board.

It's System 1 that people are employing when they see aliens in the, admittedly alien, sight of SpaceX's 60 Starlink satellite's entering orbit.  (Except in the case of those with the tin foil hats, who verify it to themselves through complex conspiracies involving the lizard people who really rule us, who have also employed System 2 in their thinking.  I'm not going to take the piss too much; may turn out that they've been right all along). 

My point is this.  The idea of alien invasion is relatively new, at least in evolutionary time.  We're well past the point of seeing tigers in the shadows.  We've tamed the world.  System 1 should have become redundant, the information-processing equivalent of the appendix.  But, no: we're simply applying System 1 to new paradigms.  It's hardwired in.  

We're bright enough to design the world we want, but not to spot the unintended consequences.  We're bright enough to invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives, but not to map out the rabbit holes down which they could take us before it's too late and we're falling down them.

This is one of the ignored aspects of Mankind's re-engineering of the world, that threats are no longer predominantly blink-and-you-miss-it.  Our influence is long term and strategic.  And, with it, the risks, personal and species-wide, move from here-and-now, claws-out and screaming, to silent, creeping and glacial in pace.  Yes, there are still in-the-moment threats against which System 1 protects us.  They still get us as individuals.  But it'll be the biggies that we need System 2 to combat that'll get us as a species in the end.

The greatest threat to humanity (let's stop saying 'to the planet'; the planet will recover) is global warming and the various flavours of eco-disaster that'll come with it.  That's not news, but it was never newsworthy, because it's System 1 that decrees newsworthyness.  It's not a spider dropping from the ceiling or a tiger in the shadows - or, it's modern equivalent, aliens in the sky.  We don't jump.  And, because we don't jump, we think the biggest threat to humanity is the Chinese, or the Americans, or Islam, or terrorism, or the stock market crashing.

And because it doesn't make us jump, we won't do anything until Attenborough tells us that the bees have all gone.  And, even then, what we'll consider first is the lack of bloody honey for breakfast.

Most days I think this is everybody's fault.  But, today, with Kahneman's ideas front and centre in my mind, I'm inclined to think the whole thing is inevitable.  We've simply evolved to a point at which our physiology cannot keep up.  We're trying to run Grand Theft Auto 6 on an Apollo Guidance Computer, blindsided to the fact that we're sub-optimal by all the smart things we can do (like land on the Moon in the case of the AGC, or, for us, invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives).  We don't know the level we're failing to operate at, because if we could think in those terms we wouldn't be failing.

This may be the end point of evolution.  We've hit our limit.  And it's our operating system that makes it a self-limiting point.  What protected us from tigers in the shadows will bring our ultimate destruction, because we're watching the skies for aliens instead of recognising the scale of the real threat.

Time to give the insects a chance, methinks.  In the meantime, could I suggest a book to read?


Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Handmaid's Tale - an amateur economist writes...

The Handmaid's Tale is back on our tellyboxes for a third series (or 'season' for those that can't spell 'colour').

All credit to it for maintaining its status as event TV; I well remember a woman on an exercise bike at the gym giving an air punch when the silent screens showed a trailer for the second series.  Wonderfully well written and acted, I suspect she reacted exactly the same to this one's impending arrival.

Of course, it's left Margaret Atwood's storyline far behind, keeping up the momentum as it becomes ever darker, even if I couldn't quite believe Mrs Punch's decision-making at the very end of the second series, which could only be best explained if she was under the delusion that she was a fictional character tasked with setting up another storyline as best she could*.  That is Mrs Punch we're watching, isn't it?

However, there's something else that I don't quite buy about life in Gilead in a world of limited fertility.  I'm no economist, but my understanding is that as the availability of something desirable goes down, its value goes up.  It becomes sought after, coveted.  In Gilead, I'll accept that fertile women are rare, but they're certainly not treated as something valuable at all

For those unaware, the males of Gilead's ruling elite are allocated a fertile concubine tasked with producing an heir.  It involves a sort of live-in au pair arrangement consisting in a lot of deference and ritualised rape.

Why?  The arrangement seems designed to bring shame on to everybody, not least the infertile wife.  You may be a big man, but you're ploughing a barren field there, mate.  Put a handmaid in your spare room

But why not just put a handmaid in your marriage bed?  These people seem eminently able to put what their orthodoxy tells them is right before what natural justice or normal human emotion tells them.  It would be easy, surely; a justifiable cause for divorce with a little rewriting of immutable laws.  Producing children is so important for them they've created a whole new social strata.  But this way it'd be just like replacing a faulty component in a machine.  I'm sure they'd feel a pang of remorse but a good night's praying and they'll put it behind them by sun-up.

Simple economics decree that a fertile Judy Punch is better than a barren Serena Joy, and the market adjusts accordingly.

Or, if it's just about ensuring that Gilead is populated by the children of the elite, then a more realistic scenario is some centralised brothel where the Freds of the world can knock up a fertile one and take back a Fredette or Frederina nine months later.  Let Serena Joy pretend its hers; it'll belong to her as far as Gilead is concerned.  No need to redecorate the spare room, and none of the risk of having a sulky bint hanging around the kitchen for months.  Praise be.

Except that would simply make it a sordid tale of sexual slavery rather than something intellectual and erudite.  Sexual slavery as it exists here and now, for real.  And that'll probably not be as award-winning.

And why create so much friction, antagonism and risk of attack?  Yes, risk of attack.  The midst of ceremonial impregnation is not the moment to find out your handmaid is a blackbelt in kick-boxing, even if the missus is holding the girl's hands down.  I'd like to see one of these in Offred's position.  I'm not sure Fred would even live to get it unzipped.

The combination of economics and human nature would create, if not the replacement of wives then, possibly, harems.  Or women wanting to come to Gilead where their fertility is valuable, where they would be happy to give themselves to the commanders in order to produce offspring.  In life's Venn diagram there must be some overlap between the fertile and the women who believe in Gilead?

And they won't all live in Gilead.  We've been living with a sort of Gilead in the form of Isis, and misguided women have been heading off there, only to find out the realities too late.  That's the route Gilead would take, not creating this weird class of joyless forced-surrogates because human nature is the same all over.

If this is a feminist tale, I wonder if the feminine victors are the Serena Joys, those who have managed to keep their elevated status as the consorts of God's chosen ones, whilst unable to bestow the gift of life.  How?  By elevating the sanctity of marriage over the ability to bear children, and finding a way to have both, even if the latter ain't yours.

Not very feminist, though, is it?  And, in twenty, thirty years time, who are the Gilead males going to choose as wives?  The few fertile women, now even more valuable, of course.  Or will proof of fertility condemn you to a life of sex slavery as a handmaid?  Will a black market in sterilisation result to avoid that fate?  Surely not; the handmaid is looking more and more like a temporary arrangement, even if it were credible at all.

Of course, for such an implausible chain of events to be played out so convincingly is a huge triumph for Atwood and those that have take her tale and run with it.  I wish June all best in escaping her nightmare.  Under his eye.

*I'm not saying that she wouldn't have come back for her daughter, just that she would have gone to Canada and come back with air support.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

SPIN on this

I'm sure I should start this posting off by noting that, on the 75th anniversary of his grandfather being shot at by Germans, albeit from the 'safety' of an Armstrong Whitworth Albermarle, my 15-year-old son gets sent home from school for falling in a bush and getting a thorn in his finger.  But where do I go from there?  Probably on some diatribe about how turning the pages of the calendar doesn't necessarily correlate with progress, how we're all going to Hell in a handcart.  And who wants to read that?

You want something about how technology and science is pushing back the boundaries.  Making it the most incredible time to be alive.  So, let's talk cybercrime.

As usual, in order to appear knowledgeable, I googled 'cybercrime' so as to drop in a few nuggets - which is a great technique for any writer, by the way: scatter a few facts restricted to those in the know and, unless you've dropped a bollock, the reader will use confirmation bias to assume your character is a real brain surgeon, rocket scientist, bondage freak.

The first site listed was '300 Terrifying Cybercrime Statistics'.

That any subject area can produce 300 terrifying stats is pretty alarming.  Serial killers, sharks, the lizard-people who really rule us; I think it would all get pretty barrel-scraping once you got past the first century of killer facts.  But with this one it's a bit of a struggle to cherry pick two or three to whet your appetite: $2m dollars are lost every three hours in e-commerce frauds (worldwide, I assume); 0.8% of global GDP is lost to cybercrime (why isn't it counted, the wag in me wonders?); $2.1tr & $1.5tr: the global annual costs of data breaches and cybercrime respectively.  Those are pretty much picked at random.

It's also added spear-phishing, whaling, and catphishing to my lexicon.  Thanks for that; wish I didn't need them.

Possibly most alarming is that, when I searched for push fraud, nothing appeared.  This, to me, is the most alarming variant of cybercrime: where the victim willingly transfers their money, pressing the buttons themselves, to fraudsters pretending to be their bank, solicitor, builder.  But especially themselves, in new 'safe' accounts the fraudsters open pretending to be their bank.  The stories can be harrowing.  And what makes it particularly galling is that these people, in the main, thought they were doing the right thing.

I trust my virus protection thingumy (and checked it as soon I started googling those links; it had been updated six minutes before), but would hold my hand up and say that I'm human and therefore quite capable of being duped to the extent that I invite the fraudsters in.  I'm sceptical, but, boy, they can be good.

So, what I think is needed is a return to the good old days.  You know, when the rent money went in one pot, the food money in another, and if you dipped into either for a few pints on a Friday night your old lady would clobber you with an iron.  You remember: it was all part of a bygone age, together with clippies on the buses, industrial accidents, and casual racism.  (Americans may wish to google irony at this stage).

But seriously, I'm talking a digital equivalent.  If the knub of authorised push payment fraud is that the victim thinks the new sort code and account number they're given are their own, or their builder's, or their solicitor's, then why can't we tag electronic money with a second layer of personal identification for significant transactions?  A PIN to access my account, and a secondary PIN to make my money yours.  Without it, I can only be transferring money to my own account if it really is my account.  And, if it's my account, why are you asking for my SPIN?  If you're really my solicitor, why are you giving me another SPIN?

Now we have open banking, with multiple accounts with multiple providers it shouldn't be beyond the whit of man to make sure that SPINs are shared across the financial landscape so I don't need to access that second layer to transfer funds from my high street bank's current account to my trading platform's investment account.

I cast these ideas out for others to run with.  All I ask is 0.01% of any and all money moved protected by a SPIN.  That's not too much to ask is it?

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Huzzah for Ian’s Shoelaces - or why I write this blog

Could it be possible that, in writing this blog, I'm already a throwback to a (not)long-passed way of life, a sort of digital bodger, treddling his way to another saucepan handle or chair leg?  That, in a matter of less than a decade, we’ve lost a way of life that we’d barely gotten used to?

Let me explain by quoting the ever excellent India Knight from her Sunday Times Magazine column earlier this year.  She, no doubt, isn’t the first to express these thoughts, but it was the first time that I felt a finger had been put on one of things ailing humanity.  Although it’s probably a long way behind poverty, starvation and cruelty, of course.

"I used to love wasting time on the internet.  I'd start off by reading a load of blogs I subscribed to, and these in turn would send me off to all sorts of other blogs and random links, and in all sorts of unpredictable directions...  The internet used to feel like an indefinite street of interesting, sometimes wildly eccentric, little independent shops.  Now it feels like a moribund clone-town high street - and half of it shut."

And that’s what this blog is.  A little independent shop with a slightly greying, podgy man behind the counter, waiting for the first customer of the day before he’ll allow himself lunch, wondering whether it’s worth it.  Whatever ‘it’ is in this instance.  A blog, not a tweet.  A thinkpiece, not a slogan.  

"I don't blame the bloggers for not blogging any more and tweeting instead... [but] what I miss is the feeling of walking about in someone else's world.  I find it less interesting to explore their snippets  - and, anyway, the hunger for things to go viral means the snippets are often contrived.  I also miss the communities that blogs used to create, none of which gave the sense that they were all foaming at the mouth."

I do occasionally wander on to Twitter but, to be honest, I’ve shyed away from tweeting for fear that my very British sense of humour may be lost in translation if the world was allowed to see my thoughts at the touch of a button.  And I did, briefly, monetise this blog, but removed the adverts as it wasn’t really what I wanted.

I’m well aware of the audience this blog generates, delighted that a few hardy souls from Israel to Ukraine stumble across it, but I write it for me as much as you.  And I’m not sure I totally agree with India Knight.  There are plenty of soundbites out there looking to go viral, but the eccentric blogs, like Ian’s Shoelaces haven’t been killed off.  Maybe you need to hunt a bit harder for them, ignore the clickbait and the echo chamber of social media, but we’re still here.  

After all, Ancient Rome had graffiti as well as great works of literature.  One didn’t kill off the other.  ‘Twas ever thus, and ever will be.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Who’s foolish now?

A story with a happy ending.  Following my wonderings whether I had a cursed story on my hands, resulting in a Mexican standoff that, admittedly, only I was aware of, probably because I’d exaggerated for comic effect, ‘The Fool’, an off-world tale of a man who once placed second in Mister New Mexico, has been published by New Accelerator.  Go on, you know you want to...

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

British science fiction and fantasy in rude health

It is with a heavy heart that I can announce that I have failed to make the cut for this year’s (or, possibly, last year’s; I’ve been dubious about their titling from the off, but they’ve rather painted themselves into a corner if they want to change it now) Best of British Science Fiction anthology.

Nor have I made it into its cousin, Best of British Fantasy, but that was something of a long shot as I neither like nor read fantasy, thought Lord of the Rings wasn’t worth labouring through just to snicker at “Nobody Tosses a Dwarf”, and have only watched two seasons of Game of Thrones.  That said, I did rather like Stormwarning, my entry for the latter.

On the sci-fi side, to be honest, I thought my entries - Charles Edward Tuckett’s Yuletide Message, New Shoes, and A Second Opinion - were good rather than great.  I therefore have to concede that, had any of them made it, I’d begin to wonder about the threshold for what I would like to see as the high water mark of speculative fiction on this damp and troubled island.  So all I can do is wish the publication and its overseer, Donna Bond, all the best for this year’s - or is it last year’s? - adventure.

Next year - or is it this year? - there’ll be How Did They Get You?, forthcoming in James Gunn's Ad Astra, and The Loimaa Protocol, at the very least, and the following year one of my personal favourites that Abyss and Apex have lined up.  Much stronger entries, much greater chance of mixing it with the greats.  Here's hoping.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

I guess that makes me Eli Wallach...

I thought it was time I gave you an update on the Mexican standoff going on between an SFWA heavyweight, a minnow publisher, and my good self.

And that update is... absolutely nothing.

Since receiving the out-of-the-blue token-payment contract offer in mid-January I've had nothing from the minnow.  Not a chase, not a reminder, nothing.  And on the submission of the self-same story to the SFWA name, three hours before the contract dropped through my electronic doorslot, I let it go the four weeks stated on the submissions page (actually, I let it go six before realising I'd got it wrong) and have chased.  Twice.  Nothing.

I suspect I'm Eli Wallach in all this, but Lee and Clint don't seem to be paying attention.  I'm beginning to wonder how long this can go on for or, more probably, whether the contract with the bottom-feeder would never have been honoured (much like you, Nexxis!) and the submission to the land of milk and honey has long since been rejected.

I'm also beginning to wonder whether this is a minor symptom of a wider malaise.  Not only have I previously signed a contract with Nexxis (which I see from the link above, has just been acquired by another publisher) which nothing (neither payment nor publication) came of, but Eric Fomley's 'Martian' also seems to have gone the way of all flesh after accepting, but not publishing a drabble of mine.  I think I waived payment for that one, so there's no issue there; Eric's published other stuff of mine and I wish him well.

I'm conscious that Ad Astra #7, which has a story of mine slated, should have been out last month but isn't yet, and Wit & Whimsy vol 2, which also has one of mine, seems to have emerged to complete internet silence.  Try googling it without being swept away in a tide of GK Chesterton - see?  I'm also sensing a slowing down of new markets opening up on the Grinder.  Plus we've also said goodbye to stalwarts such as Intergalactic Medicine Show as a place to submit.

Maybe this is one of those proxy indicators of the economy, like skirt length or magazine covers?  God knows writing this stuff is a labour of love; publishing it must be the same writ large.  As we pull in our belts stuff like this is the first to go.

On a happier note, I've stumbled across this review of Chronos Chronicles, which put my story under the ones 'the man known as SKJAM' liked.  Which is nice.


Tuesday, 26 March 2019

It's curtains for us

We caught up with Denis Villeneuve's 'Arrival' at the weekend.  I don't want to dwell on the joy of an intelligent, ideas-driven sci-fi rather than the usual effects-heavy, superhero sugar-rush.  I don't want to make a big thing out of two teenagers who had decided in advance that they were not going to like it being engaged throughout.  And I won't mention in passing that, having an MA in linguistics, the solidity of the science was palpable.

Instead, I want to focus on something not specific to Arrival, a point outside the realm of sci fi per se, but it's a question that's troubled me for some time and Arrival has been the proverbial straw that's broken the camel's back.  It's this:

Do all Americans sleep with the curtains - sorry, drapes - open?  Or does this only happen in movies?

Most readers of this blog are American so, please, help me out on this...

Or are we (and who's the 'we' here?  I assumed everybody did this, but maybe it's a uniquely British thing) the oddities for closing our curtains to keep out the dark, and only opening them to let in the light.

Actually, put like that it does sound a bit weird...

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Why can't time travel be easy?

Perhaps it's because I've just waded into Audrey Niffenegger's 'The Time Traveler's Wife' (thoughts so far: is the grooming of a six-year old Clare okay because it's perpetrated by Clare's future husband, or because it's written by a woman?), but my mind has been turning to time travel.

It's a device that I've used before, that virtually every science fiction writer has deployed at some point.  It's also - sort of - the subject of my story The Loimaa Protocol, published in Wit & Whimsy volume 2.

It's never easy, time travel.  Have you noticed?  You either need some vehicle, or some esoteric token or knowledge.  Vehicles go wrong or are lost - how many time has the Doctor slapped the console of the TARDIS?  Spells don't always work.  Potions may need obscure ingredients that the corner shop just doesn't have.  Or, when you don't need any of those things, like in The Time Traveller's Wife, it's invariably uncontrollable, fickle, capricious.

Think of a story where the hero can just go 'Battle of Waterloo' and click his fingers without problem.  Easy as wandering down the end of the garden to pull some carrots.  No need to stoke the boilers of a time machine or incant correctly.  No, me neither.

There's a story-centric reason, of course.  Story is about somebody (singular or plural) who wants something but can't get it and has to overcome those barriers.  Story, at essence, is that simple.  But the second half is vital.  Nobody wants to read a story where the goals are easy.  That's why time travel is hard.

It's also because, in the real world, time travel is hard.  Actually, scrub that.  It's impossible.  (But, if it's impossible, then it doesn't matter where you set the dial between 'easy' and 'you must be joking' in terms of implausibility).

But - and this would be the real challenge to write - what about a story where the hero can time travel with ease, just wish himself elsewhen, with no need for a TARDIS or a book of spells?  The authorial challenge then is what challenges you present your hero, where do the barriers to be overcome move to if it's not the challenge of moving in time itself?  The very ease of your character's quest becomes the author's own problem to solve.  There's something quite meta- about that, don't you think?

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Brace yourselves

Really struggling for a title for this posting, so a play on brace being two of something - although have you ever heard it used outside the context of bloodied animals held in the mouths of gundogs as they trot back to pink-faced men in tweeds with Purdeys under their armpits?

Well, you have now, because this posting is just to make you aware of a brace of stories that I'll have in circulation later this spring.  Atthisarts will have 'Five Minutes at Hotel Stormcove' out by May, and nestled in amongst 58 (yes, 58!) other stories will be my tale, 'A Room with a View'.  Not sure where I got that title from.  Looks great, even as a jpeg, I'm sure you'll agree.  Get your hands on one by clicking here.
Before that, 'How Did They Get You?', a tale of androids and Canadian whiskey on a Martian mining colony, will, hopefully, be appearing in issue number 7 - free, gratis and for nothing - of James Gunn's Ad Astra.  That'll hit your browser next month, I understand.

Both these tales are alike but very differing in that they went through a rewriting process in the light of editorial comments.   'How Did They Get You?' didn't just go through a process, but a wringer, being pitched in November 2017, chased in June 2018, with rewrites submitted in July and October 2018, and a final tweak last month.

Each redrafting was in response to detailed editorial comments questioning the science, the motives and actions of characters, the plot, everything.  Let's just say I don't think the good burghers of Ad Astra would have let Cervantes get away with Sancho Panza's donkey disappearing and reappearing in Don Quixote.  I doubt I thought as much about the story when I first wrote it as they did in reading it.  In contrast, my preference is always to keep the action moving along at a sufficient clip that you don't consider the bits that don't quite fit, hence my view of the process flip-flopped between 'oh my God, what now?' and 'good point, well made'.  To their credit, the rewrites improved the story without changing it.

Meanwhile, the edits for Hotel Stormcove were dealt with by an exchange of emails in a day.  I hope you enjoy them both, or this longer one...