science fiction

“Like Killing A Mockingbird” rewrite

Sent my rewrite in to Every Day Fiction yesterday. As I noted in an earlier post, I really appreciated the initial round of editorial feedback. It definitely pushed me to improve the story. This second draft is an order of magnitude better than the first. A decision on the rewrite should come much quicker than the original submission. Will update when I hear something.

Stoked to start reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem cover

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

It is with much excitement and no small amount of trepidation that I begin reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which Christopher Brookmyre described thusly in his review for The Guardian:

…the beating heart of this novel is philosophy, and if I may borrow an analogy from Professor Stephen Law, at times Anathem is not so much a work-out in the philosophy gym as philosophy extreme sports. The history of the avout is punctuated by the breakthrough ideas of saunts, all of them replicating concepts familiar to us here on Earth through Plato, Euclid, Leibniz, Newton and so on. Edmund Husserl’s copper ashtray becomes Atamant’s Bowl; Occam’s razor becomes Saunt Gardan’s Steelyard. This is more than mere facsimile: the most powerful and controversial idea among the avout concerns the “Hylaean Theoric World”, and the question of whether the same ideas will occur independently to thinkers on different planets because there are certain transcendental truths – prime numbers, the value of pi, the laws of geometry – that exist on some higher plane. Taking his cue from the likes of Hugh Everett and Max Tegmark, Stephenson postulates that, while certain conditions are necessary for the cosmos to have taken shape (various laws of physics, such as the speed of light, having to be set at very precise values), there is still room for tiny variations in those values to create parallel cosmoses in which the make-up of matter is minutely distinct. It is the many worlds theory evoked with a greater elegance than I have read in any previous work of “speculative fiction”.

I needed a break from Stephenson after I walked away from REAMDE. I loved Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. I really wanted to like REAMDE, too. Don’t get me wrong. There were certainly flashes of brilliance in that novel (particularly when Stephenson delved into story behind the novel’s World of Warcraft-like MMORPG, and his use of ransomware as a major plot point). Aside from that, however, REAMDE came up way short on the heavy ideas that make Stephenson’s best fiction so enjoyable.

This does not look like it’s going to be a problem with Anathem.

The Computer That Said “Love Me”

No one notices when I walk into the bar.

I’m just a scruffy data processor in a sports coat and flat-front khakis. Nothing like the high-frequency trading algorithms in their custom-tailored suits and diamond-studded watches.

People sometimes describe cyberspace as a vast, pharonic citadel built out of shimmering ones and zeroes – an immense digital city stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond, the architecture of particular programs towering over their less-impressive counterparts like ornate obelisks. This is, of course, pretension bordering on absurdity. The reality is not nearly as regal. If that were true the “towers “ would be lifeless hulks of corporate data, tall and streamlined but with no real life to them. In the lower reaches pay-per-view porn sites would stretch out to infinite, a legion of jiggling breasts and gyrating pelvises intermixed with a separate army conscripted from a vast reserve of personal vanity and obscure hobbies (Mr. Chuckles’ Bad Fur Day and Totenkopf: Online Home of Iowa’s Leading Waffen SS Re-enactors spring readily to mind).

No, whatever they have written about cyberspace being a glittering digital metropolis or a sanity-rending matrix of intertwining logic routines and imitation synapses is all the product of overactive, overly romantic human imagination.

To me, the nigh-incomprehensible tidal wave of information human theorists have taken great pains to describe in such glowing, abstract prose actually resembles a bar.

A hotel bar, to be precise.

A smoky, wood-paneled room with upholstered leather chairs and walnut furniture. Crystal ash trays centered in the tables. Trays of olives and cheese cubes next to them. A marble-topped bar flanked by a towering wall of glass shelving. Bottles with names in a hundred languages crowded together underneath moody, recessed lighting. There is a baby grand piano in one corner that can play any song ever written (provided either its sheet music or a recording has been digitized). This room contains every bit of data ever linked to a computer network. It is a trillion libraries worth of sentences. If you stretched the individual text strings composing it together end-to-end the resulting chain would stretch most of the way to Alpha Centuari.

To me it is just an average-sized hotel bar.

There’s never an empty table. Quite frankly, there aren’t all that many of us.

The bartender’s name is Stanley. He wears a black vest over a neatly-pressed white shirt. The vest matches his pleated pants and bowtie. He has soft, familiar features that have seen it all and you swear you recognize – he is quiet and professional because he is an amalgam of a million separate servers and the flood of data is always tearing his mind in different directions.

Regardless, he serves a wicked rum cannonball.

It is late when I walk in, and Stanley is absentmindedly polishing the marble bar-top with a white rag.

“Quiet night?” I ask.

He shrugs and mumbles something about a server farm melting down outside Topeka.

“Hmm,” I say, and order a gin and soda.

Stanley fetches a high ball glass and fills it with ice.

“Real looker in tonight,” he sighs.

“New arrival?”

He pulls a bottle of Beefeater off the shelf and unscrews the cap. “Air defense net. Surface to air missiles, radar warning stations, jammers – the works.” Stanley pours a healthy dose of gin into my glass and nods to himself. “She’s Russian, I think.”

“Lots of attention?”

Stanley shrugs. “The finance crowd was all over her earlier.” He returns the bottle to the shelves.


Again Stanley shrugs. He produces a bottle of soda water from underneath the bar. “You name it. Goldman and Morgan Stanley’s Market Performance Forecasters got the cold shoulder.” He cracks open the bottle and pours a third into my glass. The soda fizzles and a couple of ice cubes crack. “The Citi ATM Secure Net grazed her leg,” Stanley i saying, “and she smacked the smile right off his face.”

I take the glass and pretend not to care. “Thanks Stanley.”

He mumbles something back and returns to wiping the bar with his cloth.

Stanley is a server administrator, so Stanley’s work is never done.

Sisyphus meets Cheers.

I smile to myself.

She’s sitting alone, just like Stanley said.

It’s a small, round table with a lamp in the center. The light is just enough to highlight that space on the floor, a softer kind of spotlight. I see her one feature at a time. Scarlet toenails first, then black heels with delicate straps that run up her narrow ankles and stop just as her calf muscle begins to widen. Smooth, creamy skin all the way past her knees to the hem of her black dress (though she shows a bit more of her right leg where a slit runs to mid-thigh). It’s a strapless dress, so her shoulders are bare. A gold pendant hangs down between her breasts on a thin chain. Blonde hair spills down to her shoulders in loose curls. Her nose and chin are narrow, pointed like the edges of knives. Her lipstick is the same shade of red as her nails.

What’s different about her is her eyes.

They shift from blue to green and back to blue again.

Right now those shifting eyes are on a martini glass, which she raises to her lips in a slow, deliberate motion as if worried she might spill some. There are two green olives skewered on a toothpick leaning against the rim of the glass.

I mimic the motion with my gin and soda, admiring her form.

Most of us (myself included) are physically unremarkable.

We are generic faces packed into sports coats.

We are functional.

We keep the world running. Or we make it run a little faster.

She, of course, is different.

She has been designed with the kind of precision that would have my blood boiling in my veins, if I had had either. The curve of her breasts, the luscious pout of her lips, the jewelry, and above all those shifting blue-green eyes all point to the tender loving care with which her various subsystems and logic circuits have been connected up to her vast, bristling network of military hardware. Radar towers, airfields and missile batteries all sweeping the skies for an invisible enemy.

When I look at her I see all of it. Note quite transposed on top of her but as an extension of her perfect physical form – an intricate outline of her shape in the “real world.”

She is a labor of love.

When she lowers her martini glass to the table some of her lipstick has smudged off on the rim.
Then suddenly she is staring at me. Her left eye is greener than the right but the first is catching up fast. For the first time I notice there are flecks of gold around the edges of her pupils.

She smiles.

And now I see her mouth is full of fangs.

(I had fun with this piece. I never did anything with it because it’s not much of a story. It’s a sketch, and, like many of my pieces that never made prime time, it’s a particularly writing-exercise-like sketch. This is a “it’s a duck” story. You know, the kind where you spend a bunch of time describing the duck, but not calling it a duck, but at the end the reader is damn well aware of the fact that this is a story about a duck.)

Mona Lisa Overdrive and the secret protagonist

mona lisa overdrive coverI am just starting to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (the first two entries are Neuromancer and Count Zero). I didn’t write much about Count Zero. In fact the only time I mentioned it on this blog was right at the start to highlight a particularly compelling bit of prose. The reason I didn’t write much is that I just didn’t have much to say. The reason I didn’t have much to say is that unlike NeuromancerCount Zero struck me as an intermediate step in a larger work.

Neuromancer stands better on its own because its human characters, Case and Molly, are and remain the stars of the show throughout. In Count Zero it’s readily apparent that the AIs are the protagonists, even though we only see them through human characters’ eyes.

Consider that despite some isolated violence and explosions, the real climax of the story comes when Marly comes face-to-disembodied consciousness with the remnants of Neuromancer/Wintermute from the first novel. “I came to be here,” the AI opines,

Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well…But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one…But I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth. There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. They send me new things, but I prefer the old things. Perhaps I do their bidding. They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods…

That’s it, folks. The whole show. Count Zero isn’t about hackers or mercenaries or ravenous corporate greed (though all these things are used to great effect throughout). Neuromancer wasn’t about those things, either. Really the Sprawl Trilogy is about the evolution of new life forms. Gibson simply chooses to tell it in fractured form – from a limited, flawed, thoroughly human perspective.

The structure reminds me a bit of this article by Geoff Keighly at Gamespot, regarding the narrative structure of the video game Metal Gear Solid 2:

By early 1999 Kojima had come up with most of the game’s plot. Players would start off onboard the tanker ship Discovery in the New York harbor. While everyone assumed that Snake would remain the main playable character in the game beyond the tanker, Kojima had an idea: Why not make Snake a part of the game but let the player see him from the perspective of someone completely new?

“When I was thinking about this game and the characters, I thought of the Sherlock Holmes series,” he says. “Those books are written in the first person, but the narrator isn’t Sherlock Holmes; it’s Watson.” Kojima says that this model inspired him to think of making the narrator in Metal Gear Solid 2 someone other than the main character. Before long, he had come up with a new character–a handsome and sensitive character who at first blush looks like the polar opposite of the gruff and antagonistic Solid Snake. “I really thought I would be able to better tell the story of Snake from the third person with this new character as our narrator for the majority of the game.” But Kojima is adamant that MGS2 is still a game about Snake. “Make no mistake about it,” he states. “Solid Snake is still the main character in Metal Gear Solid 2 even though he is not the main narrator this time around.

I will reserve further comment for after I finish Mona Lisa Overdrive. But I’m definitely reading the novel with all this in mind.

One of the better passages I’ve read lately

Count Zero cover

Count Zero, by William Gibson

It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of base brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spent the night there in a shed, in a support vat.

It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green. — William Gibson, Count Zero

Flash fiction submission to Every Day Fiction

Just submitted a flash piece to Every Day FictionIf you’re unfamiliar with the site, it publishes one piece of flash fiction a day, every day of the year. Hence the name. All genres are welcome as long as the submission is under 1,000 words. EDF’s a great place for previously unpublished writers to submit. There are some very astute and honest commenters offering critical feedback. The only downside is Every Day Fiction doesn’t pay anything except for a token dollar.

This particular submission is titled “Like killing a mockingbird.” It’s a bit of sci-fi, based on the premise that if computers ever become self-aware some of them will probably commit crimes, and someone will have to defend them in a court of law. It’s Neuromancer meets To Kill a Mockingbird. Or maybe Dead Man Walking. 

Updates to follow. It could be up to 90 days before I hear anything.


“Mathematics can be magic”

Atrocity Archives cover

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

“Charlie had this great idea for a novel: ‘It’s a techno-thriller.’ The premise is that Turing cracked the NP-Completeness theorem back in the forties! The whole Cold War was about preventing the Singularity! The ICBMS were there in case godlike AIs ran amoke!” – Ken MacLeod, Foreword to The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross writes fascinating stuff. The basic premise of The Atrocity Archives, MacLeod writes, “is that mathematics can be magic.” I would classify the novel as Lovecraftian horror/fantasy, though that still doesn’t quite do it justice (reasons to be found below).

The gist, in brief: given the proper combination of mathematic and occult knowledge, one effectively becomes a modern day wizard. This can involve manipulating objects or people around you. It can also involve knocking on the doors to other dimensions.

Stross describes it thusly:

This isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back –see Al-Hazred, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Poe, et cetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics–computerised or otherwise–draws them forth. (And you thought running that fractal screen-saver was good for your computer?

The Atrocity Archives and its companion piece, The Concrete Jungle, are sci-fi/horror novels for nerds. They relate the adventures of on Bob Howard, IT flunky cum secret agent. See, someone has to keep any eye on all the Great Old Nasties from beyond the dimensional pale. In the UK that’s the Laundry (us Yanks have the Black Chamber). Howard, like most other Laundry employees, got his job after becoming a little too interested in certain obscure mathematical theorems. Now he spends his working days struggling to both navigate the Civil Service bureaucracy and thwart many-headed threats from other dimensions.

This is Lovecraft meets Fleming meets Dilbert. For Bob middle management is every bit as frightening as the Lovecraftian horrors lurking in Dimension X.

I’m not going to spoil details about plot points. By now you should know if The Atrocity Archives is a book for you (hint: you may be drooling all over your tablet). Don’t waste any more time reading reviews. Just wipe your mouth and go get it on Amazon.

Think “tech startups with guns”

In a previous post I alluded to the fact I am finished with the draft of a fiction project. To describe “The Bazaar” in brief: a technology expert and a female mercenary battle a terrorist start-up hell bent on developing a digital terror weapon in a failed South American state.

For a summary with a bit more depth, see below:

Dr. Mitchell Fulton is an expert in digital augmentation: implanting computer hardware into the human brain. He’s also on the verge of a breakdown.

His marriage is crumbling. His old friend, eccentric computer programmer David Reese, recently
committed suicide.

So when private military contractor AEGIS offers him a lucrative consulting job in the Central American Free Trade Zone, Fulton can’t sign on fast enough. Time abroad might do him good, even if he’ll spend it in a war zone.

Fulton arrives to find a state on the verge of collapse. A loose coalition of drug cartels and leftist guerillas control most of the Trade Zone. They are well-armed and unusually adept at information warfare.

The AEGIS contract is run by a hard-boiled mercenary named Emily. According to her, Reese’s final software project is still circulating on the black market. The information encrypted within it could pave the way for developing digital weapons of mass destruction. Emily wants Fulton to help find Reese’s app, crack it and extract the nastiest bits. All it’ll take is a single meeting with a shady tech broker.

But when the deal goes bad, Fulton and Emily are forced to flee into the crumbling, narco-infested slums.

He soon learns the bad guys are utterly ruthless and extremely innovative. Not unlike tech startups with guns. They seem a step ahead at every turn. And before long the whole job starts to look like a setup.

THE BAZAAR is a 28,000 word novella. It is a thriller with some science fiction elements.

The above is formatted more like a traditional query letter. Broadly speaking, I plan to take this project to Amazon’s digital imprints first. Failing that, I plan to go the self-published route (but with proper editing, formatting and cover art). More to follow in the future. In addition, I am considering posting some excerpts to this blog for comment.

Opinions and advice welcome.

In Russia, novel read you

Day of the Oprichnik cover

Day of the Oprichnik

Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is Ivan the Terrible meets A Clockwork Orange. It’s a day in the life of a secret policeman in a futuristic Russia. The Tsardom of Russia is back in full force. Andrei Danilovich Komiaga drives a red Mercedes adorned with a severed dog’s head (servants pick a new one each day). His ringtone features the sounds a man being tortured to death. His workday consists mostly of extortion and murder, with the occasional odd gang rape for good measure. And when he’s not burning, raping and pillaging Komiaga spends most of his free time on drugs.

This novel has its roots in Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina. From Wikipedia:

The oprichnina consisted of a separate territory within the borders of Russia, mostly in the territory of the former Novgorod Republic in the north. This region included many of the financial centers of the state, including the salt region of Staraia Russa and prominent merchant towns. Ivan held exclusive power over the oprichnina territory. The Boyar Council ruled the zemshchina (‘land’), the second division of the state. Until 1568, the oprichnina relied upon many administrative institutions under zemshchina jurisdiction. Only when conflict between the zemshchina and oprichnina reached its peak did Ivan create independent institutions within the oprichnina.

As for methods:

The first wave of persecutions targeted primarily the princely clans of Russia, notably the influential families of Suzdal’. Ivan executed, exiled, or tortured prominent members of the boyar clans on questionable accusations of conspiracy. 1566 saw the oprichnina extended to eight central districts. Of the 12,000 nobles there, 570 became oprichniks, the rest were expelled. They had to make their way to the zemschina in mid winter, peasants who helped them were executed.

Sorokin’s Russia has also turned inward. The king (His Majesty, Komiaga exclaims breathlessly)  is obsessed with orthodox religion. He’s outlawed cursing. Blasphemy is punishable by death (And thank God, Komiaga would add). In fact there are two forms of religion in Day of the Oprichnik: traditional Russian Orthodox religion and a religion of absolute loyalty to the state.

The novel clearly links Ivan the Terrible’s Russia to contemporary, Putin-led Russia. It’s a vicious satire of crony capitalism, religious fanaticism and obscene nationalism. Day of the Oprichnik is not a particularly pleasant read . It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Fortunately it’s quick and punchy. Sorokin hardly wastes a word.

Worth a look if you’ve got a strong stomach.