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


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

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