- 2014 was a lousy year for adult fiction and nonfiction sales both. SF was down 7%; fantasy down 13%; computer books down 12%. To sell anything at all, you need to be chasing all those bookish kids who are supposedly all off somewhere playing computer games. Or something.
- A “fix-up” in the SFF universe is a novel constructed out of shorter works, with some edge-smoothing to make the whole thing hang together. Having seen the big list of SFF fix-ups on Wikipedia, I realize that I’ve read a fair number of them without ever realizing that they were in fact fix-ups. So I guess the techniques work. Should I perhaps begin The Everything Machine with a slightly modified “Drumlin Boiler”? I’m now seriously considering it. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
- Too much salt may kill you. So may too little. And it may not kill you at all, in any quantity. So why all the kvetching about salt?
- We may live in a much bigger galaxy than we thought–and a corrugated one, at that,
- A new class of drugs called orexin antagonists have begun to be marketed as sleeping pills, but may also confer resistance to Alzheimer’s Disease. New and still tentative studies suggest that orexin antagonists may also be used to reduce appetite. (PDF; Read the whole paper, or at least find the section on orexin.)
- The first 3-D printer for metal is about ready to mass-produce. It’s an odd system in that it uses metal clay, which must then be…yes indeed…baked. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- Tom Naughton of Fat Head fame reviews Malcolm Kendrick’s book Doctoring Data, and if you’ve ever had a suspicion that medical studies are a stretch (or in some cases completely bogus…remember Ancel Keyes, the consummate medical fraudster?) it sounds like a great read.
- A guy snuck into several Ivy League universities and acted like a student for four years without being noticed. It’s unclear how much he learned, but the article makes the (to me, obvious) case that today an American college education has far less to do with education and almost everything to do with credentialing, and sorting Americans into populations of winners and losers.
- And he didn’t invent the concept. There was a TV sitcom in 1965 called Hank, about a good-natured campus food-truck guy with a secret life sneaking into classes, so he could someday have a better job than driving a food truck. I followed the series, and remember it fondly. Alas, Dick Kallman, the lead, was murdered in 1980.
- Now that I know they’re out there, I’m going to start watching for abandoned microwave towers. So is this primarily a California thing? Ever seen any east of Nevada?
To summarize this series so far:
1. There is a monoculture problem in the traditional science fiction and fantasy (SFF) print industry, and sales are shrinking. The number of publishers is stagnant or falling. Advances are dropping and contract terms have gotten insane. For contrast, the SFF media industry (typefied by its conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon) is exploding in popularity.
2. This monoculture problem has several components, but from a height, it’s a sort of “channel capture” effect: The SFF convention and awards infrastructure has embraced the notion that literary SFF–especially that focused on race/gender identity themes–is the “worthiest” sort of SFF and the sort that we all ought to read if we’re to be taken seriously as cultured beings.
3. People who used to read a great deal of SFF are rejecting this “message pie” fiction (by which I mean fiction that puts message and/or polemic first and story elements second) and are either re-reading older works, moving off to other genres, or out of recreational reading entirely.
4. Sarah Hoyt and several other writers have proposed a category called The Human Wave, which would stand in opposition to the current conventions of literary SFF, especially polemical literary SFF. The Human Wave emphasizes SFF as entertainment, celebration rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future entries.
5. Basically, there are too few hands on the levers of power in the SFF universe. It’s time to start disconnecting those levers and dispersing that power. It’s time to inject some genuine diversity into SFF–not of authorship (we’re already there) but of theme and technique.
Part of that disconnection has been going on for some years: Independent and self-publishing, enabled by improving ebook technology and online stores like Kindle, are expanding their share of the SFF market. In defiance of conventional wisdom, many indie authors are making money, sometimes a lot of it. In fact, print publishers have begun seeing the indies as a sort of farm team, from which they call up the most popular players and offer them print contracts. About month ago, SFWA announced some rule changes allowing indie authors to become full members if they can prove that they’ve sold a certain amount of work for a certain amount of money.
So change is happening, and indie publishing is behind most of the change we’ve seen so far.
Which brings us at last to the matter of Sad Puppies. It’s an ancient question: whether to operate outside the current culture, or from the inside. Reforming anything from the inside is tough, because the Insider Alphas tend to arrange things so that change is difficult, as well as the tendency for reformers to simply be absorbed unless they arrive in overwhelming numbers.
Back in January 2013, Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, in the context of a tongue-in-cheek rant about how he and other pulp-ish authors never get noticed by critics or awards committees, said this:
For as little as $60 you can become a voting member of WorldCon and nominate something awesome and filled with dragons, explosions, guns, heroism, actual good and evil, and a plot where stuff actually happens. And unlike Sarah McLachlan’s sad puppy commercial, your donation also gets you a whole big ton of free eBooks and all of the nominated works, worth more than the cost of joining.
For the next couple of months, Larry recommended a lot of works he felt should be considered for the Hugos, not excluding his own. He caught some predictable shit for that. It’s unclear how much the informal campaign changed the winners at LoneStarCon 3, but Larry got some people on the ballot who’d never been there before (like the formidable Toni Weisskkopf) and raised awareness of a lot of very good stories that would not otherwise have been on anybody’s radar. Every one of these stories that I hunted down would qualify as Human Wave SFF.
What Larry did is neither unique nor new. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember Mike Resnick sending MM paperbacks of his books to literally every name in the SFWA directory. He wasn’t constantly chanting, “Vote for my books!” but he made damned sure that anybody who was in a position to vote for him had one. I had no trouble with that, and although I never voted for him, I did read his books.
Fast forward a year. The Sad Puppies concept grew legs, got a first-shot logo (Pugs! Why does it always have to be pugs!) and became a serious and semi-organized thing rather than a wisecrack in somebody’s rant. According to Mike Glyer, Sad Puppies 2 placed seven of its twelve recommendations on the final Hugo ballot. To me, that’s not mere success…that’s beyond astonishing.
And another year, bringing us to the current day. Sad Puppies 3 now has a logo you can put on a patch (see above) created by Lee W. “Artraccoon” Madison. The slate is much larger, and its coordinator is now Brad R. Torgersen. Alas, I stumbled on all this right about the deadline for memberships qualified to nominate for the 2015 Hugos at Sasquan in Spokane, so don’t run off to try and get in on it. (I’m generally too late or too early for things, so I’m doubly not a wizard.) However, if before January 31 you were a member of LonCon 3 (last year) Sasquan (this year) or MidAmericon II (next year) you can recommend. Recommendations themselves are open until March 10.
This is a classic example of reform attempted from the inside. For all the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of logrolling and ballot box stuffing, nothing about the Sad Puppies campaign violates the rules. What Larry and Brad are doing is in fact keeping a shrinking Worldcon alive by bringing in both money and new blood. An award with the prestige of the Hugos should not be decided by a few hundred people, but by tens of thousands of people. Otherwise it reflects neither quality nor popularity, but is rather a straw poll by an in-crowd heavily influenced by a handful of Insider Alphas.
Will it work? Depends on what you want from it. Seen as a publicity stunt (as many do) it’s already working, bigtime. Seen as genuine reform, well, I’m less sure, as much as I’d like to see that reform happen. Maybe it just needs a few more years to cook. Many things do. I certainly wish it all success. It’s already tipped my decision in favor of attending MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City in 2016.
However, if the goal is to popularize Human Wave SFF, there may be better ways. I’ll throw out some ideas when I continue this series. For the time being, I need to take a breather.
I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn’t paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don’t think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)
But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.
I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah’s manifesto (perhaps twice) but I’ll summarize for those in a hurry:
The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It’s a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it’s about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That’s what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They’re just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle…)
Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:
- Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
- Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
- Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
- Write fiction in which the message doesn’t overpower the rest of the story.
- Write fiction that isn’t eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
- Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it’s at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
- Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don’t let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
- Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
- Write fiction that isn’t boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
- Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!
That’s the best synopsis I can provide. I’ve broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second “F” in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah’s intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:
11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.
What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it’s how I’ve always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That’s why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I’m an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There’s nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.
I’ll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I’ve read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that’s worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn’t work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let’s just not insist it’s the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.
So. Where do we go from here? I’d certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it, I’ve already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.
Maybe it’s finally time to bring hardsf.com to life.
Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I’m not done yet. I’m a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we’ll wrap this series up.
As I expected, I’m getting some pushback on the notion that SFF has a monoculture problem. So here’s the deal: If you like what’s on offer in SFF right now, there’s no problem…for you. I think it’s a problem, and I’ve begun to hear from other people who also think it’s a problem, along with reading a great many people online (whom I don’t know) saying it’s a problem, and for pretty much the same reasons.
If enough people think it’s a problem, then we really do have an objective problem. Lots of people who used to buy lots of SFF aren’t buying it anymore. Too much of that, and the genre goes into a kind of death spiral. Publishers consolidate, distribution shrinks (and shrinks faster than shrinkage of the retail book business generally) and fewer people find anything that appeals to them, so they drop out. The cycle then continues. We can argue about why this is happening, but it’s happening. I think it’s about monoculture. I’ll hear your explanation if you have one.
What I call social monoculture comes into play here. I encounter it when I go to cons, especially in the midwest: I see the same people I was seeing in the mid-1970s, when I discovered cons. We’re older, grayer, and (alas) more likely to be sick or dead. Young people are scarce. Fandom has no lock on this, by the way. Ham radio suffers from a similar monoculture, though it’s improving now, probably because Morse code has been out of the picture since 2007 and young people are coming to hamming through the Maker movement. ($35 HTs sure don’t hurt!)
SFF fandom has always tended toward cliquishness. Sam Moskowitz nailed it with his old but fascinating book The Immortal Storm, which documents all the fannish palace coups and nerdy attempts to draw lines between True Fans and Mundanes Who Sometimes Read SF, back in the Elder Days from the 1920s to WWII. Half of what I saw in fanzines in the 70s and 80s rehashed all that same material, and SFWA has been obsessed with who qualifies as a “real” SFF writer for decades, which is one reason why I no longer belong to SFWA. (There are others.) I never saw many attempts to welcome obvious newcomers. I have to grin to recall speaking briefly with a young woman at (I think) Windycon 1980, who complained that nobody would talk to her. I spotted her several more times that weekend, wandering around by herself, looking wide-eyed and lost. My guess is that she thought SF conventions were about SF. Well, um, not really…
The problem with social monoculture, especially one dominated by people at middle age or beyond, is that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable. Without a steady stream of new people to challenge the influence of social alphas, uniformity rules, boundaries contract, tribalism emerges, nonconformists are marginalized, and the overall population of the culture collapses.
Industry monoculture may in fact be a consequence of social monoculture. (Certainly, the two feed on one another.) When social alphas work at publishing companies, they become gatekeepers, and their tastes become holes of very specific shapes through which all published work must pass.
Well, there’s a timer running on industry monoculture. Publishing is no longer capital-intensive, and as print book retailers drop off the edge, it’s become less and less distribution-constrained. (Just getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem in Coriolis’ early years. If we hadn’t had a magazine to do direct sales with, we might not have survived to the Internet era.) Publishing requires skills but not credentials, and those skills aren’t string theory. People I know personally are making money self-publishing, and some here and there are making a lot of money. Obviously, a writer has to produce material that readers want to buy. (Getting your work noticed by those readers is a separate challenge, one I’ll take up over time.) But once you step outside the conventional NYC-dominated world of print publishing, constraints imposed by social alpha gatekeepers pretty much vanish.
So: A spectre is haunting monoculture: the spectre of the Human Wave.
Stay tuned, kids.
A spectre is haunting fandom: the specter of monoculture.
I haven’t done much in SF for almost two years, having spent a great deal of time learning some new technology and then writing about it. (That saga is painful and may end badly, as I’ll explain when it does end, one way or another.) So I come back and begin preparing several things for publication on Amazon, including Firejammer, The Cunning Blood, Drumlin Circus, and a number of my longer stories. As I flip around the screamosphere seeing what’s up after my two-year absence, wow: A rumble has begat a manifesto that begat an attempt to break out of the worst rut the SFF world has ever seen. “Monoculture” is the polite word for a rut so deep that it threatens the viability of an industry. That’s what we’re up against in SFF, and that’s what I’m going to be discussing for a few entries here on Contra.
One warning: This issue makes people of certain psychologies slobberingly, incoherently, hatefully, murderously, roll-eyes-back-in-the-head angry. If that’s you, well, about face, forward march. You are not allowed to be angry here, and if anger is your hobby, you won’t find much to enjoy.
To begin: I read a lot of SFF. I’ve been reading it for over fifty years. Recently, instead of new fiction, I find myself increasingly reaching back to the 90s and prior for things I’ve read not just once or several, but often many times. I do try new fiction, but I rarely finish it. These are the primary reasons:
- It’s depressing. Depressed characters with depressing 10,000-word backstories wander around depressing worlds through depressing situations where nothing is learned, no one is redeemed, and in truth nothing of consequence ever actually happens. (Sarah Hoyt calls these “grey goo stories.”)
- It’s preachy. Good polemic is hard, and should be subversive, not in-your-face. Clever writers can preach via story without being too obvious about it, but sermons in story costumes are dull, off-putting, and in many cases excuses for scapegoating and tribal hatred.
- It’s slow, and talky. I don’t necessarily demand fistfights and explosions on every other page. Still, shut up, put those coffee cups down and do something!
- It lacks ideas. I may be peculiar in this, but to me a story without interesting ideas lacks an SFF soul.
- Humor is nowhere in sight. I like funny SFF. As best I can tell, it’s now extinct.
- From a height, it just isn’t fun. Fun is what we do this for. Fun is subjective, and hard to define, but damn, I know it when I read it.
When I begin reading a new work of SFF, I start a mental timer. If at some point the fun doesn’t start (and that point depends on my current mood and available time) I put the book down and go on to something else. Such books rarely get second chances. I gave Bowl of Heaven a second chance because it’s an idea story by authors with good records, but the fun took a long time to start and really didn’t go anywhere coherent. I haven’t given it away yet, so a third chance is possible, but as it’s the first volume in a saga, I may wait until the second volume actually appears.
I’ve been slowly drifting away from SFF for a number of years. Discussions with people I know suggest that I’m not alone.We’re all still reading as voraciously as ever, but the reading has gone over to other things, especially nonfiction. Nonfiction matters: I’ve noticed that I’ve become a better fiction writer since I’ve become an insatiable nonfiction reader. Fiction, especially SFF, is not 100% imagination. On the other hand, when you set aside a recent Hugo-award winning novel for being tedious and generally lame, well, that says something.
Note well (especially you hotheads) what I’m saying and not saying here: I’m saying that the SFF universe is losing readers because of a steadily narrowing focus on dark, dull, misanthropic, idea-free titles. I am pointedly not saying that such titles should not be published, nor read. What I want is a broad selection. What I am against is monoculture.
Having given it a great deal of thought, I see the monoculture issue in four parts:
- Political monoculture. I hate politics and loathe talking about it, so I’ll let others handle this one. It’s just an extension of the monkeyshit tribal wars that seem to dominate our culture right now.
- Social monoculture. This is tricky, and has to do with the fact that the SFF fan community is aging and grouchy, and young people are for the most part going elsewhere. For example, how many people go to Worldcon? How many to Dragoncon? From what I can see, the dragons have it twenty to one.
- Industry monoculture. SFF publishing has become a reflection of NYC publishing as smaller presses are engulfed and devoured by conglomerates or simply go under. It’s the same people and the same companies working in more or less the same place, with fewer and fewer gatekeepers who are mostly all alike. There’s a time limit on this one, as anybody who’s paying attention can tell. (Much more on this in future entries.)
- Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show.
Whew. That should be enough to get me in serious trouble for the rest of my next three lives. Heh. See if I care, as I go more deeply into these points in future entries.
- Scott Adams reminds us that science has failed us on diet and health so often that some people assume that science itself is unreliable. His point is good: Being wrong is part of the scientific method, but humans see patterns in things, and that pattern simply means that science is slower than we’d like, and refines knowledge over time by identifying our mistakes. We forget this at our peril.
- Intel’s latest rev of its NUC (Next Unit of Computing) has a Broadwell CPU and a swappable lid that provides a standard form factor for 3rd party extensions. The only big mistake is the total lack of SD card slots. We’re well along toward my 15-year-old prediction that computers will ultimately be swellings on the backs of monitors.
- Why the Feds are terrified of hobby helicopters. (Drones? No, you’ve got it backwards. Those are the Feds.) This is nonsense, and the whole thing is a dodge. I made this point some time back: Governments do not want to be watched. No governments, anywhere. That’s what the whole “drones” thing is about, top to bottom.
- Wired staffers bid farewell to Radio Shack. Me too. I considered a TRS-80 in 1978, and occasionally regretted not getting one once my friend Jim Dunn bought one in 1979.
- Radio Shack, yes. We also forget how the Model 100 (noisily) transformed tech journalism. In 1984 Xerox tried to field a competitor to the Model 100, which I evaluated for our department. It was hideous, and (worse) cost $2500, which would be $5700 today!
- Here’s the mother lode of scanned and browsable Radio Shack catalogs. I still have a few of these. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.) As an example, here’s the page describing the stereo I bought the first Christmas Carol and I were married, 38 years ago. It still works, and we still use it.
- Very cool physics demo on YouTube: An AA battery and four disk magnets pull themselves around inside a tube made of coiled copper wire. (Thanks to Bob Fegert for the link.)
- A supercapacitor made from nanoelectrodes and a kitchen sponge. (Again, thanks to Bob Fegert for the link.)
- Tides do not seem to affect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The discussion is plainly written and I think anybody can follow it.
- I hadn’t heard of the Sad Puppies before a few days ago. (Whatever you may think of the concept, they have a great logo.) I guess I’ve been away from Fandom for awhile.
- Lileks has a feed on Tumblr. Worth following, as is Weird Vintage.
- Verizon refuses to stop using tower-side cookies (which can’t be deleted by mobile device users) even as AT&T has caved on the issue. The solution is to stop using Verizon. That’s what Carol and I are about to do.
- Relax. Microsoft did not pull the plug on Win7 updates on 1/13. That won’t happen until 2020. What’s going away are new OS features and phone support, two things I don’t think the world desperately needs.
- I like molten lava as much as the next guy. (Just wait until you read my novella Firejammer, coming out–finally–this spring.) That said, I’m not sure I like it quite this much…
- With January only half over, the Great Lakes ice cover is now up to 34%. Lake Erie has pretty much iced over completely.
- Britain’s Royal Society has published some evidence that people born during solar maxima do not live as long as people born during solar minima. It may be folate depletion by UV. Or something else. However, the correlation appears to be real. (Thanks to Neil Rest for the link.) Carol and I are solar minima babies, whew.
- Discovered two very good red wines recently: Menage a Trois Red, and Menage a Trois Midnight. Both are dry reds, both are fruit-forward, and (in contradiction of the vintner’s Web writeups) neither has any detectable oak. I guess if you’re going to get the hipster market you have to claim oak, even if you lie about it. In this case, nothing of value was lost.
- I doubt that my readers are dumb enough to think you can lose weight by ingesting chemistry sets like Slim-Fast. But just in case, read what Tom Naughton says about recent diet rankings in content-free publications like US News. Hint: The same doofi who bleat endlessly against “processed foods” (which now means “any foods I don’t like”) are endorsing fructose cocktails like Slim-Fast over Atkins and paleo.
- Popular Mechanics lists the 14 best cities in America for startups. None are in Silicon Valley, and all are in relatively low-cost areas. Maybe hipster city cachet is finally starting to lose its cachet. Or so we can hope.
- Lots has happened in CPU architectures since the 1980s, when a lot of us learned it. (I started a little earlier, but the IBM PC brought most of us to a new starting gate at the same time.) Here’s a decent summary. One consequence of all this is that human-written assembly language is less of a win over compilers, and the best reason to learn assembly these days is to understand what your damned compilers are up to in there.
- Before he broke into the SF business, Keith Laumer was an ace model airplane designer. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- Physically small, fanless PCs have been around for awhile, and I was bullish on them until I began using Dell USFF (ultra-small form factor) machines like the Optiplex 780, which are pretty small and almost entirely silent. Should we settle for 1.6 GHz? Only if there’s a specific application in mind, like education (think RPi) or embeddedness.
- Bill Cherepy sends us news of a thermostatic butter keeper that can keep a stick of butter (block? It’s a form factor we don’t make in the US) at any arbitrary temp from 15 to 23 degrees C. Butter is definitely coming back into its own, bravo halleluia!
People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.
There is no shortage of possibilities:
- Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
- The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
- The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
- The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
- Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
- The Molten Flesh. See below.
- The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
- The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!
Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.
That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!
Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.
I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:
Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.
(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:
God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.
Let there be spite!
Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.
This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.
Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.
On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.
I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.
Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)
Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.
Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.
ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)
Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.
Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)
- A guy is working on 3D printing with molten steel, via TIG welding.
- I’m really good with words. Maybe that’s why a college friend said 40-odd years ago: “The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you’re too damned happy!” Everything is connected, I guess, and now there’s science indicating that human language is biased toward happiness.
- More research on ice ages: They may be made possible by the isolation of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by the Ithsmus of Panama. (Full paper here.) I’ve heard this before, but there’s more data behind it now.
- Some recently discovered fossilized poop in Spain suggests that I’m not really a Neanderthal after all. Bummer.
- I’ve always been of two minds about Mensa, for reasons I really can’t talk about here. Now there’s a Mensa dating site. I think I’m of three minds about that. Maybe five.
- There’s an exploitable software flaw in the Curiosity rover, stemming from arcane math in the Lempel-Ziv-Oberhumer compression algorithm. I hope the rover isn’t running XP, or (judging by the hype) it would have been totally pnwed since April 10. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- This guy says he could tornado-proof the Midwest with a couple of 1,000-foot-high walls. Me, I say, implement STORMY. Then stand back.
- Meditation may not always be the unalloyed good that its proponents insist it is. I’m researching this further and will do a full entry on it at some point, as it’s a matter of serious interest to me. I have a theory that meditation is only one half of a single effective psychiatric process, and without its other half it can aggravate psychosis and even cause a drift toward schizophrenia.
- Here’s a terrific collection of photos of steampunk gear from Dark Roasted Blend. Follow the links to the mechanical calculators page if you haven’t seen it before. (It’s old, and I linked it from here some years back.)
- DRB publishes periodic “feel good” collections of visual odd lots that are mostly 50s and 60s nostalgia. Here’s the latest. Too many actresses, not enough classic cars. But if you like classic actresses, well, wow.