Saturday, June 22, 2013

Links 22/07/13

'On October 24, 2012, Bibi Mamana and her grandchildren were gathering firewood or picking okra outside their home. They may have been in a field. Perhaps it was a militant compound with a weapons depot. 2 missiles were fired, killing Mamana and up to 5 other people, injuring 6 to 8 of the children. Some other men, maybe 3, maybe militants, may have been caught in the blast. A house and a car may or may not have been destroyed. Either 3 cows or 1 buffalo and 2 goats were also killed. The drones remained overhead and 5 to 7 minutes after the first strike more missiles fell.

'This moment—the drones, the missiles, the people, the livestock—is a node in a vast network. It spans the globe, connecting villages to secret installations to office parks to seats of government. It reaches backwards for millenia and will resonate forwards for untold centuries. To trace it out completely is impossible. We are hampered by its size and by the fact that much of it is hidden behind classified protections and some of the rest is barely recorded at all.

'This is an attempt to understand the geography of a drone strike.'

'Mike's morning commute to the battlefield begins with his usual Egg McMuffin and black coffee from a McDonald's drive-through window in Alamogordo, New Mexico. After driving out of town in his Ford pickup, clearing a security checkpoint, and attending a daily briefing, he will be remote-controlling an MQ-9 Reaper drone 10,000 feet above Afghanistan.' Elijah Solomon Hurwitz's photo essay on the mundane lives of drone pilots.

'The United States’ entrance into the First World War in April 1917 marked Americans’ first truly organized attempt at keeping watch on its citizens.'

The graveyard of New York's old telephone booths.

'A sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery.'  Ideal for your ecoconscious robots.

'3D printing can now be used to print lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand.' Ideal for your nanobots.

Friday, June 21, 2013

In Which I Get Reviewed

The first review of Evening's Empires, by Gary Wolfe, published in Locus Magazine (any typos down to me and my scanning software):
Paul McAuley's Quiet War series (The Quiet War, 2008; Gardens of the Sun, 2009; plus the discontinuous but related In the Mouth of the Whale in 2012, and a bunch of stories) are among the defining works of the notable renascence of solar system fiction in the last decade or so, and McAuley's evident passion for extrapolating the surface and subsurface details of the various gas-giant moons and myriad artificial habitats he calls "gardens" is a good indicator of the appeal of such settings: we have just enough hard astronomical data to understand the challenges for a hard SF writer, but with plenty of room for narrative tooling around. In Benford's playing-with-the-net-up metaphor, we at least have a good idea of where the net is, and writing planetary fiction about worlds that we know something about must seem like a kind of formal constraint, a kind of hard-SF version of sonnets or villanelles. At times, McAuley appeared so enamored with working out these settings that the detailed planetology interrupted his already complex, multiviewpoint narratives, but in Evening's Empires he uses the settings quite effectively as a backdrop for a classic revenge-and-redemption space opera focusing on a single character's quest, and which pointedly pays tribute to a broad swath of SF history. Part of the fun of reading it is name-checking those homages - section titles borrowed from Asimov, Clarke, Godwin, and Silverberg, locations named Trantor and Tannhauser Gate, a scene of man-apes capering before a giant monolith, even a couple of swooping flying-scooter chases worthy of Star Wars set pieces . . .
McAuley is having a good deal of fun laying out what amounts to a tribute to classic space opera, and Evening's Empires, while not lacking in the snazzy mise-en-scene spectacle or the philosophical debates of the earlier novels, is the most purely enjoyable straight adventure tale in the Quiet War series so far.

Extra special bonus from the same issue, Gardner Dozois on my short story collection A Very British History:
I won't even pretend to be impartial about the work of Paul McAuley. I bought and published lots of it when I was editor of Asimov's and reprinted other stories in my Best of the Year series, both before and after my stint at Asimov's. Suffice it to say that I consider McAuley to be one of the two or three best writers working in SF today, and believe some of the stories collected in A Very British History: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Paul McAuley, 1985-2011, especially "The Temporary King", "Gene Wars", "Recording Angel", "Second Skin", "17", "Sea Change, With Monsters", "City of the Dead", and "The Choice" to be among the best science fiction stories published by anyone in this period, not just the best of Paul McAuley.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Dr Gagarian

If you haven't already noticed, hey, I have a new novel, Evening's Empires, coming out in a bit under a month, and I'll be mentioning it here, now and then. Not only because I earn my living writing novels, but also because I'm pretty excited by this one, and want as many people as possible to read it. It's out on July 18, and while it would be a great idea to support your local bookshop, you can already preorder it on Amazon. Both the Kindle edition and the hardback are pretty good deals, but I don't mind if you order the trade paperback. What the heck.

It's not only an end (maybe not the end, but definitely an end, for now), after almost two decades or more, to my exploration of the universe of the Quiet War. It was written in rather special and difficult circumstances, as the acknowledgements at the end makes clear. But I'll talk about that another time. Next week, maybe. Meanwhile, here's a short extract about one of the characters.
Dr Gagarian was a tall skinny tick-tock person some three hundred years old. His jointed carapace of black fibrogen resembled an ambulatory pressure suit or an animated man-sized insect; his major organs had been replaced by machine equivalents; his brain was laced with neural nets that formed a kind of shadow mind that stored his every thought and reaction; his eyes were dull white stones in a leathery inexpressive face. A remote, forbidding figure. Inhuman, barely mammalian. In an age where there was very little philosophical investigation, and most of that was theoretical, he was an incredibly rare beast: an experimental physicist. For the past twenty years, he and his small crew of collaborators had been attempting to identify, measure and define changes in the fine grain of space-time caused by the passing of the Bright Moment. Pabuji’s Gift, whose exploration of remote ruins often took it far from the background noise of human civilisation, was an ideal platform for his latest experiments, and its store of ancient machines and the debris of half a hundred clades and cultures provided useful components for his experiment apparatus.

Nabhomani believed that Dr Gagarian was a charlatan. A magician disguised as a philosopher, consumed by a fantasy of mastering secret powers. Nabhoj and Agrata had little time for Dr Gagarian’s experiments, either. But Aakash was convinced that the tick-tock philosopher and his collaborators were engaged on a hugely important project.

‘We are able to make a living from mining the past because so many of the old technologies have been forgotten,’ he told Hari. ‘Baseliners have given up on philosophy, and posthuman clades prefer theory to application.  We live in an age that cannibalises its past because it has lost faith in its future. But with our help, Dr Gagarian and his friends will change that. We will be at the root of a great new flowering of practical philosophy. Think of what we will be able to do, once we master the principles that created the Bright Moment! New kinds of communication devices. Unlimited computational capacity within the metrical frame of space-time. New technologies, Hari.  New technologies and new ideas.’

'Will we be rich?’ Hari said.

‘Everyone will be enriched,’ Aakash said. ‘That’s the important thing. Everyone will benefit, and everyone will be enriched.’

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Shaw And Superman

Before you start reading, and if you haven't yet seen the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Almost obscured by Man of Steel's very long, loud, and explody slugfest is a dialogue with a play more than a century old. That play, George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, is a verbose, mostly action-free romantic comedy with an examination of Nietzsche's ideas about the Ubermensche and the future evolution of mankind at its centre. Through the mouthpiece of the play's hotheaded hero, and a long dialogue between Don Juan and the Devil, Shaw argued that Supermen, with their superior intellects and ability to circumvent ordinary moral codes, could either become tyrants and dominate the mass of ordinary people, or do their best to elevate everyone. And the best way of elevating the entire human race was to use the same kind of selective breeding used to improve plants and animals. To that end, the institution of marriage should be abolished, so that men and women would be free to choose their ideal mate (oh, and property should be abolished too). The only true race of Supermen would be born from a collective utopia.

In Man of Steel's long prologue, we're shown that the inhabitants of Superman's home planet, Krypton, use cloning and selective breeding to maintain the purity of their race rather than improve it; towards the end of the film, Superman's nemesis, General Zod, forcefully declares that he was specifically bred to defend the ideal of Krypton, and will do anything in his power towards that end. Superman, however, is the first natural birth in millennia, the product of his parents' belief that chance and Shaw's version of free love may cure their society's static decadence.

According to his natural father, Superman's unique birthright may allow him to become a bridge between Kryptonians and humans, and produce something greater than either of them could produce by themselves. And although he's hobbled by his foster-father's warning to hide his unique powers, Superman wanders America, trying his best to do good - shown in flashbacks, these episodes, and those from Superman's childhood as he grows into his powers and absorbs human values, are the best part of the film. Clever, complex, and with some fine imagery, and a nice montage that shows Lois Lane doggedly uncovering the truth. Zod, on the other hand, claims to be above petty human morality; he's willing to commit genocide and found a new version of Krypton on a planet-wide pile of skulls. He's an unfettered exemplar of the popular conception of the Nietzschean Superman, ruthlessly pursuing ideals of racial purity and Lebensraum.

And this is where the film devolves into a grim and joyless empty spectacle; where Superman departs from Shaw's ideal. After the arrival of Zod and his crew, Superman must prove to the US military that he isn't just another enemy alien, and is soon embedded in the military-industrial complex. Zod should be pitiable - he can't help doing what he does because he was born that way - but instead his pulp villainy is cartoonishly one-dimensional, and his apocalyptic threat is an excuse to stage all-out warfare in Superman's home town of Smallville, and in Metropolis. At the end, Superman cops out and commits murder, and may also have committed genocide too. Just as it became necessary to destroy the town to save it, it becomes necessary for Superman to break his moral code to achieve a neat, uplifting ending for the film, and (having swept the mother of all 9/11s under the rug) a shameless reversion to the Golden Age romance.
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