Wednesday, May 04, 2016

No Longer Novel

Into Everywhere was launched into the world a couple of weeks ago, and faint signals are beginning to return. One of which, pleased to say, is a podcast of a roundtable discussion of the book, featuring Jonathan Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe, James Bradley and Ian Mond. There are also a few reviews, mostly friendly, including a nice one in SFX that brought me up short because it mentioned my age, suggesting that I was 'shaping up to be one of those rare SF novelists -- like Christopher Priest and M John Harrison -- whose work gets better even as the bastard years go by.' Which is of course lovely, but implies that many science-fiction authors begin to burn out too early. Implies that it's an almost inevitable part of the career arc. Up like a rocket! Down like a sounding plummet!

Science fiction, ever avid for novelty, does tend to celebrate youth. Its readers often start young (famously, the Golden Age of science fiction is 12). Likewise, many authors start their careers at a relatively early age. Samuel R. Delany published his first novel when he was 19; Tanith Lee published her first novel at age 24. Michael Moorcock became the editor of Tarzan Adventures at 17 and published his debut novel five years later, by which time he was editor of New Worlds. So on.* The average age of a Hugo-winning author is 44, although the mode of the distribution (the most frequent age) is 37 (data compiled by Nicholas Whyte.) Is it all downhill from there?

In a recent interview with Don DeLillo (79), the interviewer notes that although the author eschews email, prefers to communicate by fax and writes on a typewriter, there's a scene in his latest novel where characters stab at a taxi video screen, trying and failing to turn it off its annoying infomercials -- this celebrated revenant knows about touchscreens, is still in the world. Well, we're all in the world, more or less. The trick is to stay aware of it. Especially if you're a writer of the kind of fictions that extrapolate the weirdness of the happening world into something and somewhere else. The trick, as you get older, is to stay current. And to be aware of the themes you return to, and the habits you accumulate. You can't do much about those themes, they're as much a part of your identity as your fingerprints, and losing interest in them, failing to find anything new in them, is like losing interest in yourself. But habits are a form of laziness, shortcuts, defaults, and you should try to sidestep or cut out them out, subvert them, invert them, make them into something new. Writing a novel is a little like dreaming, sometimes, It should never be like sleepwalking. And then there's the kind of damage you can only accumulate as you move through the world and time. That's an advantage you have, as you grow older: the damage. That's something you can use.



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*I started relatively late: I was 33 when Four Hundred Billion Stars was published (I did sell a story when I was 19, but before it was published the magazine folded, it wasn't a very good story anyway).

Monday, May 02, 2016

Transect: Westminster To Chelsea











Saturday, April 30, 2016

Currently Reading (5)


Some Rain Must Fall is the fifth volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's 3600 page six-volume novelistic memoir (heroically translated by Don Bartlett), and in some ways the most straightforward. An account of Knausgaard's struggle to become a serious writer, beginning with his induction into a prestigious writing course at the tender age of nineteen and ending with the success of his first novel, it also includes his first real love affair and his first real job, meeting and marrying his first wife, and the deaths of his grandmother and father (a distant but domineering figure, the immediate aftermath of his death was described in devastating detail in the first volume). All the landmarks of growth into adulthood, then, conveyed in prose that's sometimes flatly descriptive, sometimes banal, sometimes conversational, sometimes crackling with insight, that doesn't avoid cliche yet is precise, clear-sighted, and unflinching. Of all the real people who populate these pages Knausgaard is most acute and least sparing about himself, dissecting with unflinching candour the shame of private moments of selfishness, self-doubt, folly and reckless (and often drunken) foolishness.

This maximalism, larded with descriptions of the ordinary transactions of everyday life leave in all the things that most other writers leave out or dress up with flash and filigree, sometimes recalls the kind of naive science fiction worldbuilding that attempts to convey the future through endless invented details. But Knausgaard's impressionistic narrative, unconstrained by any particular pattern or plot, moving unforcedly from incident to incident, is also addictive and hypnotic. One of his themes is the nature and reliability of memory, which he believes to be an act on recreative imagination, purposively shaped, 'everything coloured by the mind,' yet his compound of memory and mimesis seems artless, flowing directly from mind to page with enviable directness and freedom, and it's in this volume that he gives some insight into his technique.

After two years hard work produces a few polished paragraphs of conventionally 'beautiful' writing that he can't take any further, he finally hits on the breakthrough that will allow him to write his first novel:
A girl parked her bike outside, performed all the necessary movements with consummate ease, in with the wheel, out with the lock, click it into position, straighten up, look around, head for the door and remove the hood of her rain jacket.

She greeted a girl at the table behind mine, ordered a cup of tea, sat down and started chatting. She talked about Jesus Christ, she'd had a religious experience.

I wrote down exactly what she said.
There, in the mingling of the mundane and the ecstatic, the entwining of the internal with the external, is the genesis of the voice that captures, in encounters with people and things, in feelings and struggles large and small, the essence of a single life and makes it universal.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wizards Of The Slime Planet

An extract from the second chapter of Into Everywhere.

When the perimeter alert slammed down the pipe Tony Okoye was lying on his command couch and one of the hands was braiding his hair. He raised a finger to still the clever fingers of the man-shaped machine and said, ‘I hope this isn’t another cosmic-ray impact.’
    ‘Not this time,’ the ship’s bridle said.
    ‘Because if it is, I swear I will modify your detection filters with an axe.’
    ‘Then I’m almost glad I’m looking at an actual intruder,’ the bridle said, and opened an arc of windows in the dim warm air.
    Tony sat up, bare-chested in lime-green ‘second skin’ shorts, pushing a fall of loose hair from his face as he studied multi-spectrum images, vectors, estimates of the intruder’s capability. She was real. She was big. A G-class frigate ten times the size of his C-class clipper, bristling with weapon pods and patches. She had come through the mirror less than two minutes ago, she was already driving straight for the slime planet, and she was displaying a police flag. CPF Dauntless.
    ‘What are the police doing here? Have they said what they want?’
    ‘They haven’t said anything. And they aren’t the police,’ the bridle said. ‘The Dauntless is a G-glass frigate, but that G-class frigate is not the Dauntless. The configuration of her assets is wrong, and her flag’s certificate is a clever fake. Clever enough to fool the average freebooter, but not quite clever enough to fool me.’
    ‘Are you certain?’
    ‘I can show you my workings.’
    Tony flicked through images of the intruder. It looked a little like a weaponised jellyfish got up from shards of charred plastic: a convex shield or hood three hundred metres across, trailing three stout tentacles ornamented with random clusters of spines. No one knew what the original function of G-class Ghajar ships had been, but plating their shields with foamed fullerene and attaching weapon pods and patches around their rims turned them into formidable combat vessels.
    ‘If they aren’t police,’ he said, ‘they must be pirates. Claim jumpers.’
    ‘The possibility is not insignificant,’ the bridle said.
    ‘A ship that size, running under a fake flag? It is the only possibility. The Red Brigade has frigates, doesn’t it?’
    ‘So do a number of other fringe-world outfits. We should challenge it,’ the bridle said. ‘You can use your notorious charm to get its crew to reveal who they really are and what they want.’
    Her personality package, presenting as a bright eager capable young woman, was the front end of the AI that interfaced with the mind and nervous system of the actual ship, which like the frigate, like all ships everywhere, had been built by the Ghajar thousands of years ago. Tony’s C-class clipper was called Abalunam’s Pride, but no one knew its real name. The name its maker had given it long before it had been extracted from a sargasso orbit, refurbished and modified, and purchased by his grandmother. The secret name it might still call itself.
    Tony said, ‘I already have a pretty good idea about what they want. And it is possible that they do not know we are here. So we will maintain radio silence and continue to monitor them. And if they contact us, we will tell them that we are just a freebooter with an exploration licence and nothing to hide.’
    ‘Which we are.’
    ‘Which we are. But my family has a history with the Red Brigade. And if that really is one of their frigates . . .’
    Tony grazed the cicatrices on his cheek with his thumb as he thought things through. He was scared, yes, shocked and sort of numb, but he also felt alert and focused. Babysitting Fred Firat and his crew of wizards while they probed the ancient secrets of the slime planet had proven to be astoundingly tedious. There were no beasties to hunt, and the scattered Elder Culture ruins weren’t anything special. Junot Johnson was supervising the wizards’ work; Lancelot Askia was keeping them in line; after completing the survey of stromatolite sites and setting his little surprises, Tony had mostly stayed aboard the ship. Now, for the first time in four weeks, he was fully awake. At last he had something to do. And if that frigate really was one the Red Brigade’s ships he would have a chance to test his skill and cunning against his family’s old nemesis.
    He said, ‘How long before it gets here?’
    ‘Nineteen point three eight hours, if it maintains its current delta vee,’ the bridle said.
    ‘We will have a lot less than that if it fires off scouting drones. What about our assets at the mirror? Has our unwelcome guest pinged them, tried to spoof them, knocked any of them out?’
    ‘Not yet.’
    ‘It could have left behind assets of its own when it came through. Have one of the drones scan the mirror and the volume around it out to five thousand kilometres, but keep the rest dark. And shoot a message to Junot, brief him on the situation and tell him that the wizards should start packing up their stuff straight away.’
    ‘Then we’re going to make a run for it,’ the bridle said.
    ‘I am not going to sit on the ground and wait to see what that frigate does next,’ Tony said. ‘Check the mirror, message Junot, and raise the ship and aim it at the wizards’ camp.’
    ‘Shall I have the hand finish braiding your hair, too?’
    The bridle had a nice line in sarcasm, but Tony took the offer at face value.
    ‘Why not?’ he said, settling back on the couch. ‘If those claim jumpers do want to talk to me face to face, I should look my best.’

Monday, April 25, 2016

Transect: The Dome To The Thames Barrier












Friday, April 22, 2016

Ghost In The Head

An extract from the first chapter of Into Everywhere.

There were some days now when she didn’t think about the ghost in her head. Or there might be a moment when she’d wonder if it was asleep or awake, if it was looking out through her eyes, and then the moment would pass and she’d get on with whatever it was she happened to be doing. It hadn’t shown itself for eight years. It had receded into the background hum of her life. But then there was the day when it returned in all its terror and glory. Black lightning snapping in the cave of her skull. A thunderous swell obliterating all thought.

Lisa’s dog was nuzzling her neck when she came back to herself. She flapped a hand, trying to push him away or gather him close, she wasn’t sure. Pete sat back on his haunches and wordlessly barked, once, twice. She was sprawled in the yard, halfway between the house and the barn, looking up at the cloudless dark blue sky. Someone had hammered a nail into her skull, right between her eyes.
    She pushed onto her elbows, managed to sit all the way up. A greasy swell of nausea washed through her and she rested her head between her knees for a minute or so. Her mouth tingled with a metallic taste like a battery’s kiss. The sharp pain in her head began to diffuse into a general skull-cramp; she noticed that her pipe wrench lay next to her. She’d been fixing something, a leak in the water supply to the hurklin pens. She’d gone to fetch the wrench from the toolbox in her pickup truck ...
    Pete told her that she had fallen over.
    ‘I’m okay now,’ Lisa said, although she was very fucking far from okay. She was frightened and confused and angry. After all this time it had happened again. After all this time her ghost had woken in thunder and lightning and had knocked her on her ass.
    Later, she told her friend Bria that she didn’t know what had triggered it.
    ‘I haven’t been handling any especially weird shit. Just the usual tesserae, sympathy stones, so forth. And anyway, I haven’t had a client for two weeks now. More like three. I haven’t eaten anything I haven’t eaten a hundred times before, I’m clean and sober . . . I can’t figure out what I did to set it off.’
    ‘You sound like you’re trying to find some way of blaming yourself,’ Bria said.
    They were sitting in Lisa’s kitchen, drinking coffee. Lisa dressed in her usual blue jeans and denim shirt, Bria in a pale green pants suit, caramel-coloured hair done up in a high curly ponytail. She’d been in a business meeting when Lisa had called, had insisted on driving over.
    The two of them went way back. They had both come up and out to First Foot on the same shuttle trip, had both started out working as coders in the Crazy 88 collective. Lisa’s freelance career had run onto the rocks, leaving her with a reputation as a brilliant eccentric whose best years were long behind her; Bria, ten years younger, with a relentless work ethic and good people skills, had founded one of the first code farms in Port of Plenty, was happily married with two kids. A rambling red-tiled house in the burbs, school runs, dinner parties, a subscription to the city’s theatre, weekends at the country club where she was attempting to reduce her golfing handicap with the focused zeal that characterised her work. The whole aspirational middle-class-professional bit. Lisa had once asked her friend if this was how she had imagined things turning out when she had won her emigration ticket; Bria had said that back in the day the so-called Wild West had opera houses and gas lighting, and wasn’t she dealing with alien shit every day, down on the code farm?
    ‘It’s been eight years since the last time. Eight years, three months, nine days. What I’m wondering,’ Lisa said, ‘is did Willie’s ghost give him a kick in the head too? I gave him a call, but it went straight to voicemail. So then I phoned around the hospitals and clinics. You know, just in case. No sign of him anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t zapped. Maybe he shrugged it off. Or he’s lying hurt somewhere ...’
    ‘Have the two of you ever been affected at the same time?’
    ‘Sure. During the Bad Trip.’
    ‘Apart from that.’
    ‘Not that I know of. But Willie and I aren’t exactly close any more.’
    Bria raised an eyebrow.
    ‘So he stops by now and then,’ Lisa said. ‘But he doesn’t tell me everything. I can’t help thinking he had some kind of accident. That maybe something happened to him and woke up his ghost, and that’s what woke up mine.’
    ‘He’s probably scratching around in the City of the Dead, out of phone range,’ Bria said. ‘Or he’s in the drunk tank after one of his parties.’
    She didn’t have much sympathy for Lisa’s ex.
    ‘If Willie had been arrested I would probably know,’ Lisa said. ‘Because he would have asked me to bail him out.’

Thursday, April 21, 2016

UK Publication Day


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Unknowability


What do we write about when we write about aliens? Of course, we mostly write about ourselves – even when we're writing about cat-aliens. Perhaps especially when we're writing about cat-aliens, because despite all the behavioural studies we don't, really, have any idea about what cats are thinking, what they feel, the nature of their sense of self. We can try to imagine all that, but whatever we imagine is a transposition of what we think cats might think, a reflection of a reflection of ourselves.

And when we try to write about actual aliens, who come to us not from the dark of our gardens but the dark between the stars, we're trying to fill, maybe, the gulf between our small little lives and the vast vacant uncaring unknown. When we're kids, we look up at the stars and imagine kids like us looking back, from some planet like our planet. Because recontextualising the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar is what kids do, that's their superpower. And then we grow up, and realise that outside Earth's thin envelope of air there's nothing human or familiar. When we look up at the stars, the unknown indifferently stares back.

Very near the beginning of one of the best, and probably the best known cinematic depictions of an alien encounter, 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's a scene where a family of man-apes huddled together at night under an overhang, wide-eyed, unsleeping, while the dark everywhere outside this inadequate shelter is resonant with murderous cries. And very near the end of the film, we see, in the eyes of an astronaut falling through a transdimensional wormhole opened by an enigmatic alien artifact, that same fearful gaze behind the reflections of impossible wonders flickering over a helmet visor.

We're still afraid of the dark.

Back in the 1990s, there was a belief that physicists were getting close to formulating a Theory of Everything – to reducing the complexity of the universe to an equation that could fit on a T-shirt. Such was the muscular optimism of the twentieth century. We know now that the universe is not only stranger than we once imagined: it could well be stranger than we can imagine. As Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has pointed out, 'there may be some aspects of reality are intrinsically beyond us – just as quantum theory was beyond the first primates.'

This doesn't mean that the universe isn't comprehensible, only that we're only just bright enough to know that we aren't bright enough to know everything. And we also know that unless we are truly alone in the universe, or unless we've reached the outer edge of some kind of limit to intelligence that's inextricably woven into the intrinsic structure of the universe, that there are almost certainly other species out there which are considerably smarter than us. Highly-evolved species of aliens which have already figured out what mere humans simply can't.

We can only guess what they might be like. Sometimes, as in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space universe or John Varley's Eight Worlds future history, they treat humans and other inferior species are troublesome infestations. Sometimes, as in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, they keep their existence hidden from mere primitives like us because they know that even the most casual contact would blow our tiny minds. And sometimes, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, David Brin's Uplift series, and Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, they want to help.

The Jackaroo in Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere want to help. Kind of. Maybe. They claim, anyway, that they are here to help, and gift humanity with fifteen habitable exoplanets and the means to reach them – but they won't explain why they want to help us, or to what end, or what happened to their many previous clients. Even more than cats, they're fundamentally unknowable. Perhaps there's a universal law: any species which can sufficiently understand and manipulate the fundamental properties of the universe to traverse a significant portion of it is incomprehensible to those species, like ours, which can't.

But while we can't understand them, aliens smart enough to understand the universe would also be smart enough to have a complete theory of everything human. We can't yet understand the minds of cats, but hyperintelligent aliens could see us whole, know us in ways we can't know ourselves. They could, if they wanted to, game and manipulate us in ways we can't begin to see, for reasons we may never be able to grasp. And even if they didn't toy with us, even if they were honest and open and completely straight forward, their innate superiority would inevitably create mistrust and resentment. They would reflect not only the unknowability of the universe, but our fear that we do not, perhaps, measure up to what it expects of us.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Transect: The Dome To Greenwich









Friday, April 15, 2016

Currently Reading (4)


 When I began my brief career as a university lecturer, there were slightly more women than men amongst the life science students. Yet the majority of postgraduates working towards their Ph.Ds were men, and of the seven lecturers in the School of Plant Sciences where I worked, only one was a woman. Hope Jahren's memoir Lab Girl is, amongst other things, a clear-sighted polemic, based her own personal experiences, about that imbalance, and the barriers and prejudices women scientists must overcome. She describes her rural Minnesotan childhood and her early interest in science, how she learned to perform lab work, and her struggle to establish a research career and her own laboratory, aided and abetted by her partner in research, Bill, whose passions and eccentricities match her own. Punctuated by lovely little essays on the life of plants, those strange machines that from sunlight, water and air create the energy that fuels life on Earth, it's a terrific exploration of the culture and practice of science, and a fierce, candid and funny account of a scientist's life.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Midnight Special


The first science-fiction film from writer/director Jeff Nichols begins, as a declaration of intent, with a scene that only partially reveals its truth. Two men, Roy (Michael Shannon, who also starred in Nichols's Take Shelter) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are watching TV in a motel room whose windows have been sealed with cardboard. The TV news reports the kidnap of a young boy, Alton Meyer; Roy is the chief suspect; Alton (Jaedon Lieberher) is in the room, reading a comic under a sheet and wearing headphones and blue goggles. The kidnap isn't a kidnap at all: Roy is Alton's biological father, and has rescued his son from a cult led by Alton's adoptive father, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, flintily uncompromising). Just after Meyer orders a follower, Doak (Bill Camp) to get the boy back by any means necessary, the cult's premises are raided by the FBI. They want the boy too.

A thriller involving car chases and shoot-outs in Louisiana back roads, motels and gas stations slowly mutates into something stranger and never quite fully explained; Nicholls backfills the story via hints and terse asides. One of the comics Alton reads is a Superman adventure, and like Superman he possesses powers fueled by the light of the sun -- he can intercept radio signals, including those deeply encrypted by the secret services, and his eyes emit rays of powerful white light that can be destructive but can also beguile (which is how Lucas, in a moment glancingly referred to rather than shown, was recruited). Unlike Superman, though, Alton has little control over his abilities, hence the cardboard-covered windows and the twilight vampiric existence of the fugitives.

The paranormal is anchored by the gritty naturalism of its Southern flatland milieu and by very human concerns: the joys, sacrifices and responsibilities of parenthood, and the nature of belief. Belief, here, is more important than understanding. Faith trumps mere facts. Roy, formerly a member of the cult, and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, who comes into her own in the final scenes) have resolved to take back their son and help him reach a place that's special for for reasons only Alton knows. Meyer and the members of his cult believe that Alton is a messiah prophesying the end times, and although Meyer is quickly sidelined, Doak and his sidekick continue to doggedly track the fugitives, possessed by grim faith ('What do I know of these things?' former electrician Doak wails at one point). The FBI believes that Alton is a threat to national security. And Alton believes that he will find enlightenment at the end of the journey, but the exact nature of that enlightenment isn't fully explained until the very end.

Roy's conviction in the necessity of what he must do appears as resolute and unchangeable as Calvin Meyer's belief in the apocalypse; his face is shuttered by a granite-jawed impassivity that only occasionally allows a glimpse of his very human self-doubt and the anguish of his parental dilemma. Lucas, Roy's childhood friend, has a more conventional character arc, an ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary, a disciple who learns to believe and in doing so achieves a state of grace. Likewise, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) a young NSA agent affiliated to the FBI, comes to true understanding of Alton's powers. As does, in the unhurried unfolding of the story, Alton himself, becoming ever more remote, ever more certain that he is not as divine as Calvin Meyer believes, but is not quite human either. The film withholds its key revelation until the last scene, an apparition that raises more questions about Alton's origin, and the nature of our reality, than it answers. Although it's a vision that's both unexpected and vividly rendered, it seems somewhat mundane, especially to those familiar with the memes of science fiction, a stab at transcendent wonder that doesn't quite convince. Fortunately, there's much else in this elliptical, enigmatic parable that does shine with an authentic light of otherworldly strangeness.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wall Of The Ancestors


Found on a walk, somewhat inelegantly positioned at the Thameside edge of Aragon Tower, Pepys Estate, Deptford: sculptor Martin Bond's Wall of the Ancestors. Faces include those of Grinling Gibbons, Queen Elizabeth I, Tsar Peter the Great, Olaudah Equiano, and Sir Frances Drake, all past residents of the area now occupied by the Pepys Estate (Pepys worked nearby, at the original Trinity House). I like the Bridget Riley-style trompe l'oeil underneath it, too.

Aragon Tower was sold by the Borough of Lewisham to developers and the proceeds used to refurbish and regenerate the rest of the Pepys Estate. Residents in the tower, mostly council tenants, were moved out and the flats were transformed into upmarket duplexes and sold on the open market. An early example of the kind of displacement now common everywhere in London. Wrong kind of faces, maybe.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Currently Reading (3)

I wonder, is it a coincidence that computers achieved their dominance at just the moment that life on earth became so cataclysmically imperilled? I wonder if that was a driver, if part of the urge to escape feeling, to plug the need for contact with the drug of perpetual attention, comes from the anxiety that we will one day be the last ones left, the last species surviving on this multifarious, flowered planet, drifting through empty space. That's the nightmare, isn't it, to be abandoned in perpetuity? Robinson Crusoe on his island, Frankenstein's monster disappearing on to the ice, Solaris, Gravity, Alien, a weeping Will Smith in I am Legend wandering the desolate, unpeopled, post-plague city of New York, begging a mannequin in an abandoned video store to please say hello to me, please say hello to me: all these horror stories revolve around the terror of solitude without the prospect of cure, loneliness without the hope of alleviation or redemption.
Olivia Laing: The Lonely City

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Slime Planet

From Into Everywhere:

It had no name, only a number assigned by a rip-and-run survey team before the rise and fall of the two empires, and it was old, about twice the age of Earth. The tectonic plates of its lithosphere had set in place after its outer core had cooled and solidified; any mountains it might once have possessed had long ago weathered to dust; after its magnetosphere had decayed most of its original atmosphere had been blown away by the solar wind of its star. It had been cold and virtually airless when the so-called Old Old Ones, said by some to have been the first of the Jackaroo’s clients, said by others to have been the Jackaroo’s precursors, had arrived, thickening its atmosphere and rebooting its hydrological cycle by bombarding the vast ice-cap on the dark side with comets diverted from the red dwarf’s threadbare Oort cloud. Now the slime planet was cloaked in a reducing atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and ammonia, and a shallow sea turbid with ferrous iron spread across its substellar hemisphere, broken by a single sodden land-mass near the terminator between light and darkness. Enormous rafts of sticky foam generated by blooms of photosynthetic bacteria floated everywhere on the sea, and colonies of stromatolites grew in a few muddy bays on the sunward edge of the lone continent.

Those colonies were what had brought Tony Okoye and the crew of wizards here, in a three-way partnership with the broker on Dry Salvages who had purchased the old survey team’s report. Unprepossessing mounds like melted candle stumps, built from layers of sediments and bacterial filaments and slime, the stromatolites contained nodes of archival genetic material and communicated with each other via a wide-bandwidth transmission system constructed from arrays of microscopic magnetic crystals. The chief wizard, Fred Firat, believed that they were the remnants of a planetary intelligence, a noosphere woven from algorithms that were the common ancestors of the various species found in active artefacts left by the Elder Cultures. A root kit or Rosetta stone that would unlock all kinds of secrets, including the causes of sleepy sickness, Smythe’s Syndrome, counting disorder, and other meme plagues.

Fred Firat had the grandstanding rhetoric and unblinking gaze of someone who carried the fire of true crazed genius, and like all the best salesmen, prophets and charlatans he was his first and best convert to his cause. He was convinced that the scant data buried in the records of that old expedition pointed towards something of fundamental importance, had sold the idea to Ayo and Aunty Jael during a virtuoso performance via q-phone. Which was how Tony had found himself embarked on what might be the biggest score of his freebooter career.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Disruption

A couple of decades ago, back when I was a scientist as well as a science-fiction writer, I worked on plant-animal symbioses. My lab spirit animal was the humble green hydra, a freshwater relative of jellyfish, sea anemones and corals. Green hydra are relatively easy to grow. So long as they are fed and kept at a constant temperature, they reproduce, like the one in the picture below, by budding off copies of themselves. You can quite quickly fill glass trays with thousands of cloned hydra derived from a single parent.


Like certain of their marine relatives, green hydra possess a population of symbiotic algae: an average of twenty or so green single-celled Chlorella lodged in vacuoles inside each of the digestive cells of the hydra's endoderm, like individually-wrapped apples in supermarket baskets. The Chlorella release to their host about half of the carbon they fix by photosynthesis, in the form of the simple sugar maltose; the hydra supplies nitrogen and phosphate. But as far as the hydra is concerned, it is not an obligate relationship. If you expose green hydra to intense light in the presence of the herbicide DCMU, which specifically disrupts the chain of reactions by which photosynthesis converts light energy to chemical energy, the Chlorella cells are internally poisoned and, dead or dying, are expelled by their hosts. The hydra are, to use the term coined by the inventor of this method, bleached. Turned into algae-free albinos that provide useful controls for experiment that probe the symbiotic relationship.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Currently, reef corals in the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere around the world are bleaching. Spitting out symbiotic algae (brown zooxanthellae rather than green Chlorella) whose photosynthetic capabilities have been adversely affected by a rise in sea temperature above the normal seasonal maximum. It's the third mass global bleaching event in less than two decades (the first, the first ever, was observed in 1998; the second in 2010). Unlike green hydra in the laboratory, reef corals need their symbionts to survive. Some corals can recover,  reacquiring zooxanthellae from the environment or from remnant populations in their tissues. The rest die. In the areas of the Great Barrier Reef affected by this bleaching event, about 50% of the reef corals are expected to be lost.

It's a signal event in global warming. It shows us that the effects of human activity can reach inside the cells of reef corals, reach into the chloroplasts of their symbiotic algae, and disrupt their normal activity. A vast uncontrolled experiment, with no planning or endpoint, in the only biosphere we possess; the biosphere we must also inhabit. There are no controls.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Currently Reading (2)

Selections of Charles Dickens's journalism, part of background research for a thing I'm working on as a break from the novel I'm supposed to be writing. I love the moments when he turns his acute perception on himself, like this, from the end of 'Gone Astray', an essay about a child's eye view of the terrors and wonders of London's densely populated maze:
The venerable man took me to the nearest watch-house; -- I say he took me, but in fact I took him, for when I think of us in the rain, I recollect that we must have made a composition, like a vignette of Infancy leading Age. He had a dreadful cough, and was obliged to lean against a wall, whenever it came on. We got at last to the watch-house, a warm and drowsy sort of place embellished with great-coats and rattles hanging up. When a paralytic messenger had been sent to make inquiries about me, I fell asleep by the fire, and awoke no more until my eyes opened on my father's face. This is literally and exactly how I went astray. They used to say I was an odd child, and I suppose I was. I am an odd man, perhaps.

Incidentally, has anyone ever analysed the influence of Dickens on Gene Wolfe, with especial reference to Severain's voice in The Book of the New Sun?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Drowned Worlds


Very pleased to be part of this -- an original anthology of stories about the Anthropocene, where we all live now. Edited by Jonathan Strahan, it's due to be published on July 12. Jonathan has some more information about it, including the table of contents, over on his blog. My story, 'Elves of Antarctica', set on the Antarctic Peninsula, is a kind of prehistory of the novel I'm presently writing.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

O Superman



There may be one or two minor spoilers ahead.


By now we know what to expect from a Zack Snyder film, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the first in a projected series of films about the superhero team that's been a staple of DC comics since 1960, doesn't disappoint. Stylised bouts of ultraviolence disrupted by slow- and fast-motion; fantastically detailed fan-pleasing set pieces; carefully composed shots rendered in the dark tones, high contrast and shadows of comic-book noir: all are present and correct. Characterisation, narrative logic and light and shade, not so much.

Still, although it's clearly less important than the apocalyptic action, there is a kind of through-line to the story of this long dark noisy film. The boss fight between Superman and General Zod that wrecks much of Metropolis towards the end of Man of Steel is shown again, this time from the point of view of Bruce Wayne. The skyscraper offices of Wayne Enterprises are demolished and many of his employees are killed; he wants to avenge them. Meanwhile, the government is trying to undermine Superman's reputation because they fear he is uncontrollable, and Lex Luthor, who bamboozles the government into giving him access to Zod's wrecked spaceship and Kryptonite technology, wants to get rid of him too. But first, he wants Superman to deal with Batman, who is causing all kinds of trouble for Luthor's criminal empire. Or maybe Luthor just wants to see a good fight -- played by with jittery malice by Jesse Eisenberg, he's given to fractured, inarticulate monologues that suggest he doesn't know himself.

Maybe, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Luthor is into chaos, but at least the Joker had a coherent ideology. And while the Joker reveled in his villainy, Luthor seems to find it a burden. One of the film's problems is that no one seems to be having much fun. Poor Superman: only his mother and Lois Lane have faith in his innate goodness. And Batman's pursuit of vengeance is similarly joyless. In the Christopher Nolan films, Bruce Wayne was driven, but he had fun playing the recklessly flamboyant billionaire. Here, he's just driven, drowning the sorrow of a joyless one-night pick-up by chugging a bottle of vintage wine. All is grim and dark and gritty. There are explicit visual references to 9/11, and as in the aftermath of 9/11, the end justifies the means, from torture to pre-emptive assassination, the government is militarised, and there is much talk of vengeance, but no sign of forgiveness. Batman has reverted to his early, gangster-slaying incarnation, torturing criminals for information and branding them so that they'll be killed in jail by the other inmates. Despite the explicit code embedded in his origins, Superman (is that a bird about to crash into that building? is it a plane? no, it's . . .) continues to kill. If we get the superheroes we deserve, then the superheroes we get here mean that we're in deep trouble.

That's not the only problem. Motivation and characterisation are mostly realised through flashbacks,  dreams, and terse statements of intent. There's much exposition via computer files, including teasing glimpses of the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Superman's dead human dad shows up in a dream to give a pep-talk, because (I guess) the dead Kryptonian dad of a previous incarnation showed up as a hologram in Superman Returns. There's a dream sequence in which Superman commands stormtroopers whose uniforms are emblazoned with his sigil: a foreshadowing of a possible future storyline that will puzzle anyone who has only a glancing knowledge of the mythos.

It isn't an entirely terrible film. The fights are nicely choreographed, and there are some lovely moments of eye-candy (not a few borrowed from Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). Both Henry Cavill (Superman) and Ben Affleck (Batman) are excellent (Affleck's chin is definitive). Amy Adams does her best as the sparky girl reporter who keeps needing to be rescued. Laurence Fishburne continues to bring gravitas to Perry White. The acid quips of Jeremy Irons' Alfred are rare glimpses of humour. And Gal Gadot is a wonderful Wonder Woman, but doesn't have much to do until the final showdown, when her crooked grin suggested that she actually enjoys being a superhero facing up to a desperate fight to the finish with a super foe.

Such a shame, then, that the film too often strains for profundity it doesn't deserve, and its muddled, ponderous story hinges on the bathos of a stupid coincidence. Its relentlessly nihilistic grim one-note tone also threatens to taint the upcoming films in the League of Justice universe, whose inception, here, is almost an afterthought to the gladiatorial excesses. So far, Marvel's Avengers won't be quaking in their boots.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Currently Reading (1)


Gaia Vince: Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made

Adapting to the Anthropocene will be as challenging as colonising Mars, so we'll need all the ingenuity we can muster.

Monday, March 21, 2016

First Lines

From the upcoming novel and four stories due to be published this or next year.


There were some days now when she didn’t think about the ghost in her head. 
Into Everywhere


The origin story we like to tell ourselves is that our little town was founded by a grumpy loner name of Joe Gordon, who one day quite early in the settlement of First Foot parked his RV at the spot where one of the ceramic roads left by an unknown long-lost Elder Culture cut across the new two-lane blacktop between Port of Plenty and the open-cast iron mine at Red Rocks. 
'Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was.' (Tor.com, 2016)


On the sixth day of every month Fernanda Wright negotiates the rings of security around the Stratford tesseract and lays a flower at the tomb of her undead husband. 
'Rats Dream of the Future' (Asimov’s Science Fiction, 2016.) 


Mike Torres saw his first elf stone three weeks after he moved to the Antarctic Peninsula. 
'Elves of Antarctica' (Drowned Worlds, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Solaris, 2016.)


It really did look like Mars. 
'Life Signs' (For an as yet unannounced anthology.)
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