Charles Stross's Blog

March 26, 2017

So I occasionally get mail via the feedback form on this blog. And I usually try to reply to it (when I get a reply-able email address and it seems to expect a reply and I have something to say), and I certainly don't publish email without getting permission first ... unless it's like this (i.e. the sender is unidentified and unidentifiable from the content, which is copypasta of someone else's out-of-copyright rant):

Subject: Fear the Lord!!!

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?
Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

(James 4:1-6 KJV)

To which the holy spirit[*] led me to reply:

My imaginary friends have more fun than your imaginary friends.

Moral of this story: assuming someone else shares your beliefs—or even understands them well enough to respond to your attempt at evangelism other than with baffled amusement—is a bad idea.

Also: what is it that leads people to believe that an all-powerful omniscient creator, who is presumably responsible for the fine structure constant, neutron stars, and Sacculina carcini, is nevertheless obsessively interested in where and what hairless African plains apes rub their genitalia against?

[*]The memory of last night's very nice single malt whisky

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Published on March 26, 2017 09:47 • 83 views

March 22, 2017

So yesterday I got to type THE END, at (oddly enough) the end of a book I've been writing since last April. "Ghost Engine" is due out in July 2018, so having a complete draft is a bit of a relief, to put it mildly. (It takes 12 months for a book to work through the production pipeline, because publishers don't publish books, they operate a workflow process that runs in lockstep across multiple books in a pipeline.) Typing THE END doesn't mean it's finished, of course. It's currently with various trusted readers for comment, and I'm probably going to have to rewrite chunks of it. However, experience suggests that most of the work is now done. My books usually expand slightly as a result of the editing after they've emerged in draft, so it's pretty much a dead certainty that this will be my second-longest delivered novel (just longer than "Accelerando", at 145,100 words, shorter than the original Merchant Princes doorstep which finally saw the light of day in its original shape as "The Bloodline Feud", at 197,800 words). (For comparison, "Dune" weighs in at 188,000 words; one paperback page is approximately 330-350 words.)

Here's the funny thing about too much work: it feels as if you're spinning your wheels and not making progress at all. This year so far, I redrafted two novels, wrote about 45,000 words of fiction, checked one set of copy edits, checked two sets of page proofs, did a bunch of promotion for a book launch, and went on a one week business trip to New York and Boston. But until I typed THE END, yesterday, it felt as if I was losing ground and not getting anything done at all. Those two words, however significant they may look, are absolutely trivial: but psychologically, being able to draw a line through a to-do item (write GHOST ENGINE) makes all the difference, and I finally feel I can relax a little.

So, what am I doing next?

Well, "Dark State" (the second Empire Games book) should be in production imminently, which means I have to check copy edits and page proofs. And by the end of this year I need to deliver a final version of "Invisible Sun", the third book in the trilogy. (It's written, but the ending needs tightening up. Not to worry, I have a plan.) I've also got a short story to write for Wild Cards because that's been on my to-do list for, oh, only a decade.

But the manic to-do list (five books in production!) that has been my constant companion and cause of sleepless nights since 2013 is finally coming to an end (three books in production, dropping to two by August) and I can finally think about new projects again for the first time in about five years. After I take the rest of this week off work to recover—time off in lieu for working over the Christmas/New Year holidays, I guess.

Here's a lesson I learned the hard way: once you're over 40, you should never commit to work-overload five years in advance. You'll be five years older, with worse health and less stamina, trying to keep up a pace dictated by your younger self. Over-work is fine—in brief doses. But as a continuous lifestyle for half a decade, it really sucks.

Meanwhile, I've got a bunch of convention travel commitments coming up this summer, including Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and possibly even Nottingham, England! I've also got speaking gigs at the Edinburgh Science Festival and possibly the Edinburgh Book Festival, and there might just be some sort of launch event for "The Delirium Brief" in July. I'm going to put together an omnibus announcement on Friday (I'm awaiting an announcement from one of the conventions in question first).

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Published on March 22, 2017 04:36 • 136 views

March 15, 2017

I've gone dark again on the blog because I'm still wrestling with the space opera that refuses to die (it's due out in July 2018, instead of your regular scheduled Laundry Files novel, so getting it ready for my editors is climbing my priority list). Meanwhile, if I was blogging, I'd be blogging about the high political drama of the past week in the UK.

First, rumors began spreading that, with the Brexit Bill passing parliament and due to get the Royal Asset this Thursday, Theresa May is planning to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before the end of the month. (Great timing, that: right on the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.) Jumping the gun a little bit, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention of seeking a second Scottish independence referendum during the Brexit negotiations. This, predictably, provoked an angry reaction from the Prime Minister, who had hitherto been utterly ignoring Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh, and other regional requests for some input on the process: a second independence referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time for Britain said a spokesman for the woman trying to implement divisive policies causing huge economic uncertainty as the result of a referendum question (which Scotland comprehensively rejected).

Negotiations with Scotland are still possible, it seems, but it looks as if Sturgeon has a game plan and is playing at a much higher level than the Conservative Cabinet in London, who are so feckless that they hadn't bothered with contingency planning for what to do if they can't strike a trade deal with the EU despite having isolated themselves diplomatically and pissed off the people they'll have to negotiate with from a position of weakness.

This time round, the referendum (I'm calling it a near certainty that there'll be one: the only real question is whether it'll be before or after Britain exits the EU in, probably, April 2019) is going to be rather interesting. There's a sharp demographic split between young and old in Scotland, with support for leaving the UK at 72% in the 16-24 age range (who get to vote, if they want to) and as low as 26% among the over-65s (pensioners, who do vote). Overall, support for independence per the Social Attitudes survey is at its highest ever level, and still climbing: probably a more accurate view of the picture than snapshot polls commissioned by the news media.

The arguments are different, too. Scotland's economic outlook today looks a lot bleaker than it did in 2014, and that's not good: but the big factor that swayed voters to the "remain" camp back then—better the devil you know than the devil you don't—has been shattered by the spectacle of the lunatic fringe of the Conservative party in full Brexit hue and cry. There are sucky economic prospects in both directions. Meanwhile, Scotland is increasingly out of step with England on a political and cultural level, but pretty typical of the rest of Northern Europe: if anything it's England that's the weird outlier. The question is, which shit sandwich is less unpalatable? England seems set on driving off a cliff; should Scotland ride along in the passenger seat or take its chances elsewhere?

Meanwhile, the IndyRef campaigning can't not start during the Brexit negotiations—arguably, it has already unofficially started: it's certainly going to dominate political debate in Scotland for the next couple of years—so the government in Westminster will be put in the impossible position of simultaneously defending the right of a nation to leave a larger federation, regardless of the economic and social uncertainty this causes, while opposing exactly that position in another context.

This of course assumes that we're looking at a two-way Prisoner's Dilemma game. Obviously, we're not: it's a 27-going-on-28-way game (Sturgeon has implicitly dealt herself a hand of cards at the table) and it's going to be interesting to see whether the various EU members decide to use Scotland as a club to beat Westminster with, or if Westminster positions Scotland as its cherished sickly child in a cynical game of Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy. And of course we can expect lots of FUD rhetoric about how Scotland will have to reapply for EU membership and go to the back of the queue (clue: there is no queue—nations seeking membership proceed independently of one another).

If I didn't live here, it'd be hilarious! Except I live here and Brexit has so far devalued my savings and pension assets by, oh, about 20%, and I stand to lose another 20% on top as Sterling loses its unofficial status as the EU's reserve currency after the Euro, because the brainless flag-frotting morons on the Conservative back benches think that they can go back to the rosy days of the 1920s with some batshit plan to build Empire 2.0 out of the former Commonwealth (Planet Earth calling: the Commonwealth only put up with us 'cause we were a gateway to the EU: as an imperial power we were no less hated and loathed than all the rest) and rule the world by exporting tea, jam, and biscuits (US: cookies).

So I'm putting my head down and working for the rest of the day. At least I mostly get paid in US dollars, and President Tantrum hasn't (yet) managed to crash the greenback.

(Final: moderation note: Greg Tingey, I'm banning you from commenting on this topic because I know your opinions on Scottish independence and your grasp on the reality of what it's like up here (hint: in the nation I've lived in for over two decades) is so bizarrely warped that I don't think you're capable of contributing anything worthwhile to the discussion. Sorry. You're not banned from the rest of the blog; just here.)

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Published on March 15, 2017 03:58 • 159 views

March 8, 2017

The internet as we know it is nearly 25 years old (that's the world wide web: the pre-web internet is a lot older, and not far off its 50th birthday, but would be unrecognizable to most people today). We're using it for purposes the designers never anticipated, and a myriad of hopeful experiments flourish on the web ... and sooner or later die, or crumble into gentle decline and benign neglect.

And sometimes the neglect is not so benign.

Recently the news broke that internet-connected toys were being hacked. CloudPet stuffed animals have a web connection that allows kids and their parents to send and receive voice messages; they're sold as "a message you can hug". But it turns out that their login database was unsecured and discoverable via Shodan, "the search engine for the internet of things", and huge numbers of logins have allegedly leaked (they didn't password protect the password database—or encrypt/hash/salt the passwords in it). Voice messages for CloudPet users were stored on Amazon's AWS cloud service without authentication, so I leave the mis-applications of this service to your imagination.

The worrying part is that the toy manufacturer was extremely difficult to contact and doesn't seem to have any timely process for monitoring or fixing defects in the service (not to mention probably being in violation of the Data Protection Act if the toys are sold in the UK). And of course the toys will probably out-live the company; the half-life of a corporation is 15 years (for a start-up it's about 18 months) but the half-life of a beloved toy may well be considerably longer.

Note that Shodan isn't to blame for the sloppy security practices of a novelty toy manufacturer, any more than Google is to blame for the existence of child pornography on the internet. But there are a lot of novelty toy manufacturers out there, and more and more of them are going to go bust every year, leaving broken toys behind them with no internet connection ... or worse: be taken over by larger corporations who will simply fold the developers into their own teams, continuing to pay the rental on unattended and unpatched servers for the obsolescent product lines until nobody screams when they turn them off. (Google, Nest, Jawbone, I'm looking at you.) Then there are the unattended child monitoring cameras with microcontrollers running unpatched ancient linux distributions with default passwords. And the home security systems/burglar alarms. Internet-controlled smart front door locks (there'll be an app to break that). Network-controlled drones probably aren't a thing yet (unless you're the USAF), but they're doubtless on their way. Internet-connected vibrators have already triggered lawsuits; if you put the data from a We-Vibe together with the owner's NetFlix or smart TV watching habits, or PornTube click-trail, you can probably build up an interesting picture of their predilections. And so on.

What are the unanticipated downsides of the decay of the internet of things, combined with poor security practices and developers going bust and leaving infrastructure in place as abandonware? You probably know I've got a vivid imagination by now—what haven't I anticipated?

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Published on March 08, 2017 03:29 • 175 views

February 28, 2017

I suspect the UK might lose its nuclear deterrent (and with it, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council) before 2020, thanks to Donald Trump. Here's why.

Background: The UK was the third country to test a nuclear weapon, in October 1952; it's one of the five recognized nuclear armed states under the non-proliferation treaty, and since the 1958 UK-USA Mutual Defense Agreement it has cooperated closely with the USA.

The stated goal of the British strategic nuclear deterrent since the mid-1950s has been to deter a Soviet nuclear strike on the UK (and, rather more murkily since 1991, a Russian attack). As such, the stated mission was to be able to wipe Moscow and surroundings off the map in the event that the UK was attacked and the USA declined to get involved in a strategic nuclear pissing match on behalf of its ally. (Whether or not this scenario makes any sense whatsoever is a moot point. Less controversially, the acknowledged strategic nuclear force is pointed to as an argument for the UK's continuing permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.) During the 1950s-1980s the Royal Air Force maintained a strategic bomber capability in the shape of the V-Force, while from the mid-1960s onwards the Royal Navy operated Polaris SSBNs, but air-delivered nuclear weapons were phased out from the early 1980s onwards, along with all tactical nuclear weapons.

Since the 1990s, the British nuclear deterrent capability has relied exclusively on the Trident program. The UK built and operates four Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (equivalent to but slightly smaller than the corresponding US Ohio Class SSBN), carrying UGM-133 Trident II ballistic missiles leased from a common pool with those of the US Navy, but with warheads built in the UK. As SLBMs can't easily be serviced inside the cramped launch tubes on board a submarine (unlike land-based ICBMs, which have rather more spacious accommodation), they are returned to the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic for regular maintenance and replacement; it is believed warheads are removed and reinstalled at HMNB Clyde on Faslane, 25 miles from Glasgow.

As the Vanguard-class submarines entered service in the early 1990s, they've been operating for 20 years already. The Atlantic ocean is a harsh environment, and nuclear submarines aren't immortal; the British government therefore committed in 2016 to procuring four new Dreadnought-class SSBNs, which are intended to carry updated Trident D-5 missiles and to enter service from 2028.

Here are two possible reasons why this won't happen.

Working hypothesis #1: Donald Trump is an agent of influence of Moscow. Less alarmingly: Putin's people have got blackmail material on the current President and this explains his willingness to pursue policies favourable to the Kremlin. Russian foreign policy is no longer ideologically dominated by communism, but focusses on narrow Russian interests as a regional hegemonic power and primary oil and gas exporter.

Clearly, it is not in Russia's geopolitical interest to allow a small, belligerent neighbor to point strategic nuclear missiles at Moscow. But this neighbor's nuclear capability has a single point of failure in the shape of the resupply arrangements under the 1958 UK-USA Agreement. Donald Trump has made no bones about his willingness to renegotiate existing treaties in the USA's favor, and has indicated that he wants to modernise and expand the US strategic nuclear capability. Existing nuclear weapons modernization programs make the first goal pointless (thanks, Obama!) but he might plausibly try to withdraw British access to Trident D-5 in order to justify commissioning four new US Navy SSBNs to carry the same missiles and warheads.

(Yes, this would break the "special relationship" between the USA and the UK for good—but remember, this is Donald Trump we're talking about: the original diplomatic bull in a china shop who decapitated the state department in his first month in office.)

Trump could present this as delivering on his promise to expand the US nuclear capability, while handing his buddy a gift-wrapped geopolitical easter egg.

Working hypothesis #2: Let us suppose that Donald Trump isn't a Russian agent of influence. He might still withdraw, or threaten, British access to Trident as a negotiation lever in search of a better trade deal with the UK, when Theresa May or her successor comes cap-in-hand to Washington DC in the wake of Brexit. It's a clear negative sum game for the British negotiating side—you can have a nuclear deterrent, or a slightly less unpalatable trade deal, but not both.

In this scenario, Trump wouldn't be following any geopolitical agenda; he'd just be using the British Trident renewal program as a handy stick to beat an opponent with, because Trump doesn't understand allies: he only understands supporters and enemies.

As for how fast the British Trident force might go away ...

Missiles don't have an indefinite shelf-life: they need regular servicing and maintenance. By abrogating the 1958 agreement, or banning Royal Navy warships from retrieving or delivering UGM-133s from the common stockpile at King's Bay, POTUS could rely on the currently-loaded missiles becoming unreliable or unsafe to launch within a relatively short period of time—enough for trade negotiations, perhaps, but too short to design and procure even a temporary replacement. It's unlikely that French M51 missiles) could be carried aboard Dreadnought-class SSBNs without major design changes to the submarines, even if they were a politically viable replacement (which, in the wake of Brexit, they might well not be).


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Published on February 28, 2017 02:51 • 154 views

February 24, 2017

I got home from a business trip on Tuesday morning, was a jet-lagged zombie for 24 hours, and between Wednesday morning and now (Friday morning) I have learned:

A new way of exfiltrating data from an air-gapped computer potentially uses malware to modulate the drive activity LED on a PC, which can then be monitored by a drone hovering outside the office window: this is apparently capable of getting up to 6kbps of data off a computer without any physical connection or leaving any signs in device access logs (because it relies on the timing of drive i/o activity).

The North Korean assassins who killed Kim Jong-nam allegedly used VX nerve agent by getting local women who thought they were working for a comedy show to smear it on his face. (Secondary reports say that it was a binary agent, and each woman applied a different precursor: given the nature of VX precursors this seems unlikely, but VX itself could have plausibly been applied by hand. (If confirmed, this falls into the "Polonium 210 is so mundane!" school of baroque state assassination tools.)

Finally, for your delectation, there are people who think this is a good way to deal with Donald Trump (well, if it makes them feel better) ... my only question is, which open source license are they using?

Really, 2017 so far feels like it's fallen out of a novel I wrote in an alternate time line round about 2005, while evidently depressed and suffering from unstabilized hypertension. Or maybe it's just that we swapped out the scriptwriters who showed up in 2001—the ghosts of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick—for a crew led by John Sladek and John Brunner.

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Published on February 24, 2017 02:53 • 179 views

February 21, 2017

Yeah, so I haven't been blogging for more than a week. Sorry 'bout that; I had a guest blogger lined up for while I was traveling, but they turned out to be a no-show and I was too busy to take time out from work.

This week's excuse is that "The Delirium Brief" is being typeset twice—separately for the US and UK releases—and the US page proofs landed in my inbox with a thud and a very short deadline which is going to keep me busy for the rest of this week once I'm over the jetlag.

Note that this isn't a separate edit; the US and UK editions were edited and copy-edited in a common process and share the same spelling, grammar, and word-shaped objects. But the US and UK publishers (who are two different companies who just happened to buy the respective territorial rights to publish the work on their own patch) decided to typeset the copy-edited manuscript independently of one another, which means I need to check a second set of page proofs for errors. It a while to plough through a 400 page book; even if you're just treating it as a reading text and can read at a page a minute, that's nearly seven hours—and checking page proofs for typos and errors is somewhat slower and more laborious. (Normally one publisher takes the lead on production and the others just buy in the typesetting files, but because of [REDACTED] that ain't viable this time round, hence the last-minute round of extra work.)

So normal blogging will probably wait until next week, and I'm going to be scarce in the comments for a bit.

Oh, that reminds me: some of you are wondering if I had any trouble entering the United States, right?

The answer to that is "not really"—the usual questions asked by the Immigration officer at the airport has merely grown by one ("Have you visited any of these countries: Syria, Iraq ..."), and by the time my interrogator got to "Afghanistan" I was visibly finding it so hard not to snigger that he just shrugged and waved me through.

But leaving the United States was a little more troubling.

I always opt out of being scanned by a body scanner on general principle; I think it's an annoying, ineffective, intrusive waste of time and I want to signal my disapproval by not cooperating. The TSA have a set theatrical routine for dealing with opt-outs that requires you to stand in the naughty corner while someone shouts "we've gotta male opt-out!" and some other poor guy has to pull on latex gloves and give you a massage.

It turns out that a couple of weeks ago the TSA rolled out a new pat down process that seems designed to ... well, some folks would pay good money for it, but the main effect seems to be intended to embarrass and deter body-shy people from opting out. I am not body-shy, at least in well-understood/controlled circumstances like a search at a security checkpoint or a naturist club, so the main effect in my case was to embarrass the dude following the orders to pat down my crotch.

But I think it's highly suggestive that this idiotic measure surfaced while everyone was agitated over Trump's ban on people entering the USA from majority-muslim countries that weren't major Trump business partners, and I am now wondering: what other low-key "administrative measures" slid by under the radar while we were all distracted by one act or another in the Washington DC puppet show?

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Published on February 21, 2017 11:15 • 170 views

February 10, 2017

Assuming nothing goes too horribly wrong, on Monday I'm flying out to New York for a few days of meetings—my regular annual business trip, basically. (My agent and my publishers are all based in NYC so it makes sense to visit from time to time; Skype chats are all very well, but there's no substitute for serendipitously bumping into someone you've never heard of who works on your books in a back office job ...)

Anyway, I have two public things happening while I'm over there, and neither of them are in New York.

Thursday 16th is Pandemonium at Pandemonium—a multi-author evening event at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA. I often do readings at Pandemonium when I'm in Boston, but this time's special: you can expect to find me along with Elizabeth Bear, Max Gladstone, Scott Lynch, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton and Fran Wilde, answering questions, doing an extremely silly storytelling game, and generally having fun.

Friday 17th-19th is Boskone 54, the regular Boston SF convention I've been going to for far too many years. I'm on the program, and if you search the program for my name, you'll find my fixtures. (One update: I won't be taking part in the First Contact/Close Encounters program item on Friday afternoon.)

See you around! (Or not.) And don't expect much blogging before I get home again on Tuesday 21st.

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Published on February 10, 2017 11:41 • 85 views

February 8, 2017

There's a lot of concern about health care on both sides of the pond these days, with the recent worries about the National Health Service, and regime change in America bent on rolling back the benefits his predecessor put in place. In fact, one editorial to my regional newspaper had a headline that feared a return to the Dark Ages.

I write the Dark Apostle series for DAW books, dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery, which continues today with new release, Elisha Mancer. As a researcher into the history of medicine, all I could think was, they don't know much about the Dark Ages, do they? So here, for those who would like to make their comparisons more apt, is a basic primer to medical care through the 14th century.

Elisha Mancer mini.jpg

1. Medical practitioners were highly educated professionals.

Aside from those who needed the midwife (a specialist even then), most patients sought one of three levels of care, depending, then as now, on their location and their level of income (about which, more later).

Physicians were considered minor clergy. They traveled to study at prestigious schools like Paris, Bologna and Salerno, where they learned from famous practitioners and memorized or transcribed important texts--often texts that were a thousand years out of date, such as the works of first century Roman physician, Galen, who passed along the theory of the four humors. Physicians generally worked with members of nobility, attached to the court of one monarch or cardinal or another, dispensing invaluable advice, such as the pope who died of eating too many ground emeralds on the advice of his doctor. Well, that advice was valuable to the gem merchant, anyhow.

Surgeons might also attend medical school, though their training tended to the practical. They often apprenticed to a master surgeon for seven years to develop their craft. Considered by the physicians as mere craftsmen, surgeons performed a variety of operations, from removing injured or diseased extremities to treating cataracts and the complaints of the knightly class, like anal fistula, a problem developing from too long in the saddle. They wrote and exchanged treatises on these specialized surgeries, and often maintained lively correspondence to share medical advances with their fellows.

As for barbers like Elisha, the protagonist of my books, they were considered the lowest form of practitioner. Like the surgeons, barbers apprenticed to learn their trade, but were much more plentiful, and thus accessible to a wide range of patients. Treating wounds, cutting hair, and bleeding patients on the order of the physician or surgeon, not to mention the occasional amputation or simple surgery.

medieval surgical tools smaller.jpg

2. Treatment depended on your finances.

Not everyone can afford to retain their own personal physician to prescribe emeralds or prepare a bath of mother's milk. Fortunately, many cities had charity hospitals where the poor could seek treatment from physicians and herbalists retained by donation. Alas, these institutions were often (then, as now) the source of as many sicknesses as they hoped to cure, and only the desperate sought them out, to be tended by nuns in large wards where they lay three to a bed and hoped for the best.

London is home to St. Bartholomew's the Great--the church, and its accompanying hospital, founded in 1122 by Rahere, King Henry's retired royal fool. Here in America, we have St. Jude's, founded by comedic actor Danny Thomas.

Rahere tomb.jpg

Tradesmen had another avenue to pay for their treatment. Many merchant and craftsmen's guilds offered group insurance to their members, covering medical care, or funeral expenses as the need arose. So the Middle Ages are perhaps the origin of what in America we term the dreaded "socialized medicine," in which people band together to care for each other. Not such a novel concept after all.

3. A humorous notion?

The four humors--black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm--were said to travel through the body and to be accessible at certain points. Many illnesses were thought to be related to an imbalance of the humors, which could be cured by bleeding the patient to remove some of that particular humor being carried in the blood. Elaborate charts showed where to cut and during what season (because the humors could be more or less aroused due to the season, especially given a person's astrological sign). Although bleeding as a treatment has, thankfully, fallen by the wayside, the idea of the humors remains, whenever someone is described as Sanguine (too much blood), Bilious (too much bile), or Phlegmatic.

4. Alternative Medicine

Many people simply relied on ancient cures--charms, prayers and superstitions--to defend themselves from disease. Some of these cures depended on ideas of sympathetic magic--like spreading a special ointment on the weapon that caused a wound in the impression that this would cure the wound itself, or that the shape of a particular plant resembles the body part it is intended to treat. Others depended on effective herbs available locally or grown in one's own backyard. Willowbark, which contains Salicylic Acid, AKA Aspirin, was known to be good for a variety of aches and pains. In the absence of access to medical care, people made due with whatever they had on hand, and the advice of friends and neighbors. Fortunately, about half of all medical concerns will resolve themselves in relatively short order: either with the patient's unaided recovery, or with their death.

5. Honey, maggots and leeches

And of course, some of those old cures have returned to us today. Maggots, often used during the Middle Ages to debride wounds of rotting flesh, are being used once more for the same purpose--but they are now grown in special laboratories, and distributed in a dressing which prevents them from roaming about unsupervised, a great relief to the squeamish. Leeches have a unique enzyme for maintaining blood flow, and are handy for certain kinds of surgical procedures, especially the re-attachment of limbs and skin grafting. As for honey, it has antiseptic properties which make it handy for minor injuries and burns. But please, don't attempt any of this at home, especially this next one.


6. Like you need a hole in the head

Finally, let me say a word about the most infamous of medieval operations, trepanation. Some will tell you that trepanation was performed to "let out demons" or other such foolishness. In fact, if you look at the surgical texts and records of the day, this operation was advised to relieve pressure on the brain from an injury (often received in battle), and survival rates, based on bone re-growth shown in skulls from cemeteries, were as high as 90% (with the caveat that a number of potential patients likely died before they ever reached the surgeon's care). The source for this slander against the medieval surgeon comes from a sociologist who saw a skull with such a piercing at an archaeological site, and was asked to speculate on why such an operation might be performed. From what we can tell, like many outsiders commenting on the treatments of others, he had no idea what he was talking about.

So perhaps the letter-writer has made their mistake, not in thinking we are returning to an earlier era of medical treatment, but in failing to recognize that the medicine of the Middle Ages had ever left us.

If you'd like to know more about the Dark Apostle series of fantasy novels about medieval surgery including sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit

E. C. Ambrose's blog about the intersections between fantasy and history or follow me on Twitter or Facebook

Elisha Barber cover 3 inch.jpg

If you haven't started reading The Dark Apostle, pick up volume one, Elisha Barber, wherever books are sold, includingIndiebound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon

The fourth volume, Elisha Mancer, from DAW books, is now available!

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Published on February 08, 2017 08:00 • 88 views

February 7, 2017

As you probably noticed, I (me, Charlie) am a bit busy right now. (Actually, I'm in a three-book production deadline pile-up, and next Monday I'm off to New York for a bunch of meetings.) So you'll be unsurprised to learn that I'm lining up guest bloggers to keep you entertained and educated while I'm elsewhere! And first up is E. C. Ambrose, who has some interesting things to say about the history of surgery ...

E. C. Ambrose writes "The Dark Apostle" historical fantasy series about medieval surgery, which began with Elisha Barber and continues with Elisha Magus, Elisha Rex, Elisha Mancer, and a final forthcoming volume. Other published works include "The Romance of Ruins" in Clarkesworld, and "Custom of the Sea," winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012.

As Elaine Isaak, she is also the author of The Singer's Crown and its sequels, The Eunuch's Heir, and The Bastard Queen. Elaine quite enjoys her alternate identity, aside from a strong desire to start arguments with herself on social media. A former professional costumer specializing in animal mascots, Elaine lives in New Hampshire with her family where she works part-time as an adventure guide. In addition to writing and teaching, Elaine enjoys taiko drumming, kayaking, rock climbing, and all manner of fiber arts.

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Published on February 07, 2017 04:57 • 33 views