Charles Stross's Blog, page 2

August 8, 2015

(Hoisted to top of blog because, well, I'm on the road again as of tomorrow (Monday) afternoon.)



It's that time of year again and I'm travelling and doing stuff in public on That Other Continent, so here's a preliminary list of fixtures.


On Monday the 10th I'm changing planes overnight in Amsterdam. Which means I'll be hanging out in In De Wildeman in Amsterdam from about 8pm onwards; all welcome.



If you're in Seattle, I'm going to be drinking in The Pike brewpub on the evening of Tuesday 11th of August, from 5pm: if you can read this you're welcome to turn up. (No reservations available but I'll grab the biggest table I can find before the after-work rush starts.) Directions here.



(Yes, that's two consecutive pub evenings nine time zones apart.)



On Wednesday 12th, I'm giving a reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at Microsoft Research (1:30pm, Building 99, Redmond Campus). You'll need to be an employee or escorted by one to get in. But don't worry, because if you don't know anyone ...



On Thursday 13th I'm doing an evening reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at the University Bookstore at 7pm, and you don't need a bookstore employee to accompany you.



I won't be doing much in public that weekend because I'll be attending Prologue, a small local pre-worldcon SF convention instead.



And then ...






The following week I'll be heading for Spokane, for the 2015 world science fiction convention, Sasquan. And yes, I'll be on the program there. I'm on a bunch of program items:



Before Sasquan:



Spokane Public Library are hosting a reception for Worldcon authors and artists to get acquainted with Spokane's literary fans. The reception will be held on the 2nd floor of the Downtown Library, in the "lens," the windows overlooking the beautiful Spokane River falls. The Spokane Public Library is at 906 W Main Ave, which is 2 1/2 blocks from the Davenport, 5 blocks from the Grand or 6 blocks from the DoubleTree.



(I will be there assuming travel arrangements work out.)



Steampunk, Colonialism & Imperialism Thursday 11:00 - 11:45, Bays 111B (CC)



Steampunk was inspired by a time in history when colonialism and imperialism were at their apex. As a world becomes more technological, will colornialism and imperialism always decline?



Panel: Charles Stross (Moderator), Arthur Chu, Warren Frey, Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Beth Cato



The Future of Government Thursday 17:00 - 17:45, 300B (CC)



We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government. But the world has seen many different forms of government over the centuries, and even today many different forms exist around the world. What will governments in the US and other countries be like in the next 10, 50, or 200 years? How will changing technologies and world conditions (e.g., climate change) affect those forms? Are there forms of government that have been proposed that have never existed in the real world, but might?



Panel: Karl Schroeder (Moderator), Joe Haldeman, Bradford Lyau, Ada Palmer, Charles Stross



Genre and the Global Police State Thursday 20:00 - 20:45, 300C (CC)



Thanks to the Five Eyes -- the joint intelligence sharing treaty between the USA, UK, Australia, and others -- and the total penetration of the internet by NSA/GCHQ monitoring, we now live in a society that is a secret policeman's dream. Wikileaks and then Edward Snowden blew the lid off the scandalous subversion of western democracies by unaccountable secret government agencies. In past decades, SF and fantasy provided a vehicle for trenchant social and political commentary on on-going cultural changes (consider "The Forever War" as a comment on Vietnam), but where are the genre works dealing with the global police state?



Annalee Flower Horne, Karl Schroeder, Charles Stross, Jim Wright



Reading—Charles Stross—Friday 11:00 - 11:30, 303B (CC)



Autographing—Neil Clarke, William Dietz, Rhiannon Held, Mary Soon Lee, John Picacio, Charles Stross, Jo Walton—Friday 12:00 - 12:45, Exhibit Hall B (CC)



Kaffee Klatche—Charles Stross—Saturday 11:00 - 11:45, 202A-KK2 (CC)



Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion. Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.



Requires advance sign-up



The New Space Opera Saturday 15:00 - 15:45, 302AB (CC)



We've come a long way since the days when "space opera" was a derogatory term. Many of SFs best writers over the last 20 years have written space opera. What's made the difference?



Rich Horton (Moderator), Jeffrey A. Carver, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Doug Farren

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Published on August 08, 2015 09:11 • 48 views

August 5, 2015

(Quiet at present, because I'm busy clearing my desk before next week's trip to Seattle and Spokane.)



Some of you might have noticed the acronym TTIP in the news— TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Superficially it's just another free trade deal, with corresponding trade agreements being negotiated for the Pacific Rim and other zones. It's raised a lot of concern because it has largely been negotiated under conditions of heavy secrecy, with extreme measures taken to prevent leaks—despite which, drafts of the treaty have escaped and sparked huge controversy.


In particular, TTIP and the related agreements provide for binding arbitration to be imposed in disputes between signatory states and overseas corporations or investors—in effect delegating national sovereignty to an unelected private tribunal of lawyers.



So here's my speculation: there are worrying signs that nothing has been learned since the 2007/08 fiscal crisis—or rather, that the banking and investment establishment has concluded that moral hazard is a busted flush. We're in another investment bubble, the Chinese stock market is already in free fall, we've got food/water scarcity wars in the middle east, the Fed's Quantitative Easing program has ended and the Bears are getting Bearish ... the auguries are pointing towards a sequel to 2007, or something close enough to scare the pants off everyone. Meanwhile, the UK and Germany are governed by cynics who are still slapping themselves on the back for figuring out that austerity has the inituitive appeal of kitchen-sink economics for the illiterate, making it an easy sell to stay in power. And we're seeing a scary global rise in the militarisation of police forces.



So here's my open question: is it plausible to consider the secretive binding arbitration provisions in TTIP to be a pre-emptive move to prevent an assertion of people power by angry disenfranchised electorates after the house of cards comes tumbling down at some point in the next 5 years? TTIP is due to be ratified by next year, and once locked in, it would be really difficult for a government (however popular) to move unilaterally to demand an accounting of its creditors. Think Syriza in Greece confronting its creditors with a massive democratic mandate and being told to lube up and bend over—but on a global scale, with everyone in the same boat.



It's fairly clear that one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century so far has been the creeping installation of a system optimized to exclude public opinion from the levers of power despite continuing to pay lip service to principles of democratic accountability: is this another (and big) step in ensuring that democracy can't actually threaten the interests of the global financial sector?



Am I being paranoid here? Or not paranoid enough?

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Published on August 05, 2015 05:46 • 129 views

July 31, 2015

Filmmaker and comic author Hugh Hancock here again. Charlie's currently locked in his study babbling over blasphemous and forbidden tomes, so whilst we attempt to hack down the door with a fireaxe and get counselling for the guy to whom Charlie explained the hidden meaning of the Nightmare Stacks, I'm here with another blog post.

In the last couple of posts I've made over here (thanks as always to OGH for the invitation), I've been making the point that, both through necessity and lucky happenstance, the themes and subtext of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos are still very workable in today's world. In fact, they've acquired a lot of resonance thanks to advances in technology and society that run parallel to some of their main themes.


But still, the Cthulhu Mythos' core squamous, eldrich concepts were created just under 100 years ago at this point. They reflect the concerns of the time, like the sudden discovery that the universe is mind-blowingly, terrifyingly huge. And they have a few... issues for modern readers, like inbuilt xenophobia.


So what would a Cthulhu Mythos-equivalent for today, expressing the zeitgeist terrors of 2015 society, look like?


Bloody terrifying, that's what.


Because unlike Lovecraft, in 2015 we have plenty of experience with actual gigantic, inhuman entities with agendas entirely orthogonal to the safety and security of the human race.


One note before I begin: this article is explicitly about horrifying things in our current society. As such, I'll be hitting a lot of hotbuttons during the course of this piece.


They Know What You Did Last Summer

Lovecraft's concern was vast, alien entities who have no knowledge of, or concern for, the human race.


Our modern-day concerns are about vast, alien entities who have total, invasive, privacy-destroying knowledge of the minutae of the human race - and still have no concern for us.


In the era of Google, Facebook, datamining and intelligent advertising, the problem isn't that the alien entities who scare the crap out of us have no interest in us - rather the reverse. The aliens in our midst know when we've become accidentally pregnant. They know what pornography we watch. They can predict our behaviour and influence us to do what they want.


(Some of this is more or less accurate - as someone who buys quite a lot of advertising, I know that there are a lot of myths floating around about what targeted advertising can or can't do. But zeitgeist fears aren't about what's true, they're about what we fear is true.)


And this element actually fits rather well into the Cthulhu Mythos' core concepts - and it makes them a whole lot scarier.


Let's take Cthulhu, the Big Squid himself, for example. Beyond his Godzilla-like frame and immunity to nukes, he's written as having another power that gets less screentime. He talks in peoples' dreams.


In the 2015 version of the Mythos, Cthulhu still doesn't care whether you live or die, but he knows you better than you know yourself. And when he wakes, you get visions. Visions driven by the parts of yourself that you hide from the world, and the parts of people around you that they'd rather you didn't know.


In Old Cthulhu, our heroes manage to get into the West Wing, convince the President that Cthulhu is real, launch the nukes and watch helplessly as Cthulhu emerges from the blast, not only intact but now radioactive.


But what happens in that scenario with 2015 Cthulhu is far worse. Our heroes manage to get into the West Wing, ignoring the disquieting whispering they've been hearing for weeks now. They get to the President, which is rather easier than expected, because the many, many layers of security seem to be inactive. They explain the situation, and miraculously persuade the Joint Chiefs and the President to initiate a launch.


As the President keys in the launch codes, she starts on a soliloquy about her ex-husband and his treatment of her kids, for no obvious reason. The whispering's getting stronger. One of the Joint Chiefs is staring at pictures on his phone, and then he suddenly starts smashing it against the wall. He keeps on smashing until he's broken all the fingers in his hand and is working his way up his wrist. One of the Secret Servicemen draws his gun and shoots the other two in the gut before pulling a knife and starting to gut his colleagues, screaming incoherently about his experiences at boot camp. And then, just as the President hits the button, our heroes notice that the launch coordinates aren't centred on the mid-Pacific any more: they're centred on Sao Paulo, where the President's ex-partner lives.


And then Cthulhu makes landfall and eats everyone.


Cthulhu's All Around Us, And So The Feeling Goes

And that brings us onto another point about the terrifying entities that actually concern us right now.


Most of Lovecraft's entities are a long way away. And most of them only inhabit a single space.


Azathoth is a mass of bubbling chaos, but he's a mass of bubbling chaos a long way away. Cthulhu sleeps in Rl'yeh. Hastur inhabits dread Carcosa, or Hali, or at the very least somewhere that you can't get directions to on Google Maps. Even the Shoggoth are mostly chilling - pun intended - in Antarctica.


By contrast, the terrifying entities of 2015 aren't geographically located. They're everywhere. They can see everything, or at least everything that someone uploads a picture of, which is functionally close to everything and getting closer all the time. They can hear you, thanks to the handy microphone you carry around. And they're within arm's reach almost 100% of the day.


In 20s Cthulhu Mythos, summoning things was at least hard. You needed to reach across the vastnesses of time and space to cause Azathoth to incarnate and fuck your shit up. In the 2015 version, all of these things are right here.


Cthulhu listens whilst you dream. The bubbling chaos of Azathoth is here, only seperated from the physical world by the continuous luck of quantum fluctuation. When you go down on your boyfriend, the Black Goat Of The Woods With A Thousand Young hangs above you, just out of sight in the shadows, and her fluids drip down onto the sheets.


To update the Mythos to 2015, we need to assume that the problem isn't summoning them: the problem is avoiding them turning up anyway. And if you do want to summon them, it's terrifyingly easy. A few words, the right geometric shape, and terrible, sanity-destroying power is at your fingertips.


Oh, and talking of summoning things...


We are Young, We Are Free, We Are Heading For Insanity

One of the criticisms I've heard people level at Lovecraft is that in a world where we're not all terrified of people of different skintones the whole 'hidden cult' idea just doesn't work.


And my response to that tends to be 'Wait, what? Are you even living in the same century as me?'.


Because in 2015 we don't need to imagine the existence of hidden, malefic cults dedicated to sanity-destroying ends. There's hundreds of the bastards right there on any social media service you care to name.


The wonderous thing about the internet, of course, is that it allows people who share common interests to come together, form communities and not feel like they're alone in their weird little interest.


And the horrifying thing about the internet is... exactly the same.


There's a community for everything out there. Really into poodles? There's a community for you. Really into Zen philosophy? There's a community for you. Really into fucking 5-year-olds? There's a community for you, too, and it's easily accessible.


Forget about the DarkWeb - Tor and Onion routers and Freenode, oh my - which would usually come up at this point. Studies of pedophile websites show that most of the child pornography out there is accessible via the regular old internet, if you've been given the link. Likewise violent white power movements. Likewise howto manuals on suicide or anorexia.


It doesn't take much imagination to extend that to the Lovecraftian mythos. In 2015 Cthulhu Mythos, the insane cults looking to summon their dark masters aren't hidden in deepest Africa, and they aren't easily distinguishable by skin tone.


There are five of them in your home town. You went to college with the guy responsible for sourcing their sacrifice victims. They've got a forum and a Facebook group, they're uploading YouTube videos, they're considering starting a subreddit and they've got a Meetup in Birmingham next Thursday. Can you make it? It'd be awesome - we need two more to join the bloodletting. We thought about Kickstarting it but it was against their terms of service.


(Or perhaps it wasn't. The hidden, underground Kickstarter, where talented young occultists compete for funding from jaded oligarchs...)


All of this gains added tone - that being the tone of a creature screaming - from another iron-clad rule of the internet. No matter how bad the thing you're looking at on the internet is, there's something worse behind it. For the most abusive and manipulative PUA website, there's the PUAHate guys, who encourage self-mutilation for 'attraction points'. Think the pro-anorexia communities are bad? Try the pro-rape communities, dedicated to teaching best practise and encouraging their members. And so on.


So the question doesn't just become, 'where do the insane cultists trying to summon Nyarlathotep hang out?' (The answer to that is, obviously, www.reddit.com/r/theroyalpant/ , because /r/nyarlathotep went inactive in 2012 and /r/crawlingchaos was registered by some heavy metal band.) It also becomes 'and what's the thing lurking in their shadow that's even worse?'


Greed Is Good. Absolute Greed Is Absolutely Great

Which brings me to my final sanity-blasting point.


(I'm not even going into our improved understanding of mental health here, by the way. There is literally no school of psychotherapy that does not provide enough nightmare fuel to power a Mars mission.)


The prevailing flavour of fear in 2015 is one of inequality, uncertainty and insecurity. Jobs are vanishing. Capital is accumulating at the top. The few are becoming overwhelmingly wealthy, whilst the rest get to participate in the 'Sharing Economy' of zero-hour jobs, constant hustle and zero safety net.


(Or at least, that's the perception. I'm actually quite optimistic about where society's heading in a lot of ways, but this is a fear-and-horror article, and that's certainly the fear and horror that a lot of people are feeling right now.)


Say what you like about the Cthulhu Mythos, but at least it was an equal opportunities apocalypse. The stars come right, the Old Ones rise from their slumber, and everyone either goes psychopathically insane or dies horribly, possibly one right after the other.


That seems far too nice for our 2015 Cthulhu.


So here's a thought.


What if there's some room at the top? Or at least, at the same level as other long-term viable races in the Cthulhu Mythos universe - the Great Race, the Mi-Go and so on?


What if a few humans will survive? May even, in fact, get to wield some of the science that the Old Ones possess; live forever, and have incredible wealth and power by human standards?


Of course, you'll have to work for it; work harder than everyone else. Out-compete 100,000 other people for a chance at the prize. Impress your bosses - erm, sorry, I mean 'The Old Ones'. Hustle. Do what others won't.


If you read startup advice, which I do, you'll see the phrase 'do what others won't' crop up quite frequently in regards to the path to success. And that's... rather alarming, if you think about it in a certain light.


So yes. This is the new, caring Cthulhu Mythos. You're not doomed. Your children aren't doomed.


All you have to do is prove that you're more worthy than the people you're competing against for the favour of the Elder Gods.


All you have to do is...


Do what other people won't.


Doesn't that sound better?


If you'd like to read more of my squamous, eldrich rantings, you can find me at @hughhancock on Twitter or follow my current projects via email. If you'd like a mild unicorn chaser after all that, have a watch of a slightly lighter take on startup culture meeting Cthulhu Mythos horrors, available through your friendly local horrific privacy-destroying inhuman entity right now. Or if you want to see what I do with some of these horrifying ideas, follow Carcosa, my comic, as it develops.

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Published on July 31, 2015 06:43 • 212 views

July 25, 2015

It's that time of year again and I'm travelling and doing stuff in public on That Other Continent, so here's a preliminary list of fixtures.


On Monday the 10th I'm changing planes overnight in Amsterdam. Which means I'll be hanging out in In De Wildeman in Amsterdam from about 8pm onwards; all welcome.



If you're in Seattle, I'm going to be drinking in The Pike brewpub on the evening of Tuesday 11th of August, from 5pm: if you can read this you're welcome to turn up. (No reservations available but I'll grab the biggest table I can find before the after-work rush starts.) Directions here.



(Yes, that's two consecutive pub evenings nine time zones apart.)



On Wednesday 12th, I'm giving a reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at Microsoft Research (1:30pm, Building 99, Redmond Campus). You'll need to be an employee or escorted by one to get in. But don't worry, because if you don't know anyone ...



On Thursday 13th I'm doing an evening reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at the University Bookstore at 7pm, and you don't need a bookstore employee to accompany you.



I won't be doing much in public that weekend because I'll be attending Prologue, a small local pre-worldcon SF convention instead.



And then ...






The following week I'll be heading for Spokane, for the 2015 world science fiction convention, Sasquan. And yes, I'll be on the program there. I'm on a bunch of program items:



Before Sasquan:



Spokane Public Library are hosting a reception for Worldcon authors and artists to get acquainted with Spokane's literary fans. The reception will be held on the 2nd floor of the Downtown Library, in the "lens," the windows overlooking the beautiful Spokane River falls. The Spokane Public Library is at 906 W Main Ave, which is 2 1/2 blocks from the Davenport, 5 blocks from the Grand or 6 blocks from the DoubleTree.



(I will be there assuming travel arrangements work out.)



Steampunk, Colonialism & Imperialism Thursday 11:00 - 11:45, Bays 111B (CC)



Steampunk was inspired by a time in history when colonialism and imperialism were at their apex. As a world becomes more technological, will colornialism and imperialism always decline?



Panel: Charles Stross (Moderator), Arthur Chu, Warren Frey, Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Beth Cato



The Future of Government Thursday 17:00 - 17:45, 300B (CC)



We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government. But the world has seen many different forms of government over the centuries, and even today many different forms exist around the world. What will governments in the US and other countries be like in the next 10, 50, or 200 years? How will changing technologies and world conditions (e.g., climate change) affect those forms? Are there forms of government that have been proposed that have never existed in the real world, but might?



Panel: Karl Schroeder (Moderator), Joe Haldeman, Bradford Lyau, Ada Palmer, Charles Stross



Genre and the Global Police State Thursday 20:00 - 20:45, 300C (CC)



Thanks to the Five Eyes -- the joint intelligence sharing treaty between the USA, UK, Australia, and others -- and the total penetration of the internet by NSA/GCHQ monitoring, we now live in a society that is a secret policeman's dream. Wikileaks and then Edward Snowden blew the lid off the scandalous subversion of western democracies by unaccountable secret government agencies. In past decades, SF and fantasy provided a vehicle for trenchant social and political commentary on on-going cultural changes (consider "The Forever War" as a comment on Vietnam), but where are the genre works dealing with the global police state?



Annalee Flower Horne, Karl Schroeder, Charles Stross, Jim Wright



Reading—Charles Stross—Friday 11:00 - 11:30, 303B (CC)



Autographing—Neil Clarke, William Dietz, Rhiannon Held, Mary Soon Lee, John Picacio, Charles Stross, Jo Walton—Friday 12:00 - 12:45, Exhibit Hall B (CC)



Kaffee Klatche—Charles Stross—Saturday 11:00 - 11:45, 202A-KK2 (CC)



Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion. Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.



Requires advance sign-up



The New Space Opera Saturday 15:00 - 15:45, 302AB (CC)



We've come a long way since the days when "space opera" was a derogatory term. Many of SFs best writers over the last 20 years have written space opera. What's made the difference?



Rich Horton (Moderator), Jeffrey A. Carver, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Doug Farren

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Published on July 25, 2015 09:11 • 13 views

It's that time of year again and I'm travelling and doing stuff in public on That Other Continent, so here's a preliminary list of fixtures.


If you're in Seattle, I'm going to be drinking in a microbrewery on the evening of Tuesday 11th of August: if you can read this you're welcome to turn up. (I'm awaiting confirmation that I've reserved a table before I post this: don't bother with suggestions for venues yet, just think "vicinity of Pike Place market".)



On Wednesday 12th, I'm giving a reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at Microsoft Research (1:30pm, Building 99, Redmond Campus). You'll need to be an employee or escorted by one to get in. But don't worry, because if you don't know anyone ...



On Thursday 13th I'm doing an evening reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at the University Bookstore at 7pm, and you don't need a bookstore employee to accompany you.



I won't be doing much in public that weekend because I'll be attending Prologue, a small local pre-worldcon SF convention instead.



And then ...






The following week I'll be heading for Spokane, for the 2015 world science fiction convention, Sasquan. And yes, I'll be on the program there. I'm on a bunch of program items:



Steampunk, Colonialism & Imperialism Thursday 11:00 - 11:45, Bays 111B (CC)



Steampunk was inspired by a time in history when colonialism and imperialism were at their apex. As a world becomes more technological, will colornialism and imperialism always decline?



Panel: Charles Stross (Moderator), Arthur Chu, Warren Frey, Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Beth Cato



The Future of Government Thursday 17:00 - 17:45, 300B (CC)



We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government. But the world has seen many different forms of government over the centuries, and even today many different forms exist around the world. What will governments in the US and other countries be like in the next 10, 50, or 200 years? How will changing technologies and world conditions (e.g., climate change) affect those forms? Are there forms of government that have been proposed that have never existed in the real world, but might?



Panel: Karl Schroeder (Moderator), Joe Haldeman, Bradford Lyau, Ada Palmer, Charles Stross



Genre and the Global Police State Thursday 20:00 - 20:45, 300C (CC)



Thanks to the Five Eyes -- the joint intelligence sharing treaty between the USA, UK, Australia, and others -- and the total penetration of the internet by NSA/GCHQ monitoring, we now live in a society that is a secret policeman's dream. Wikileaks and then Edward Snowden blew the lid off the scandalous subversion of western democracies by unaccountable secret government agencies. In past decades, SF and fantasy provided a vehicle for trenchant social and political commentary on on-going cultural changes (consider "The Forever War" as a comment on Vietnam), but where are the genre works dealing with the global police state?



Annalee Flower Horne, Karl Schroeder, Charles Stross, Jim Wright



Reading—Charles Stross—Friday 11:00 - 11:30, 303B (CC)



Autographing—Neil Clarke, William Dietz, Rhiannon Held, Mary Soon Lee, John Picacio, Charles Stross, Jo Walton—Friday 12:00 - 12:45, Exhibit Hall B (CC)



Kaffee Klatche—Charles Stross—Saturday 11:00 - 11:45, 202A-KK2 (CC)



Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion. Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.



Requires advance sign-up



The New Space Opera Saturday 15:00 - 15:45, 302AB (CC)



We've come a long way since the days when "space opera" was a derogatory term. Many of SFs best writers over the last 20 years have written space opera. What's made the difference?



Rich Horton (Moderator), Jeffrey A. Carver, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Doug Farren

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Published on July 25, 2015 09:11 • 91 views

July 19, 2015

As Damien Walter noted recently on twitter, some time between 1995 and 2010, the human species began to develop functional telepathy. (Actually, the first sign of this became real on October 29th, 1969, but exponential growth from a small base takes a long time to become noticeable.) We now have over a billion human beings on the internet, and so many devices that the IPv4 address space is saturated: within the next decade we can expect multiple new satellite internet constellations (such as OneWeb and rivals) to bring pervasive internet access to the globe. Smartphones are pushing down into the sub-$50 space where they're affordable even by those living just at the global poverty threshold (and the decline in global poverty over the past decade is working away at the other end). It no longer looks implausible to suggest that almost everybody will be online by 2025.


A side-effect of this process is that we're becoming used to a constant background roar—the global id in full throat, blasting us with the prejudices, rumors, superstitions, bigotry, and (less obviously) love and passion of the entire human species. Everyone being online means that anyone can in principle yell in your ear at any time, be it encouragement or rape and death threats.



So far we seem to have handled the telepathy thing relatively well. It hasn't provoked a nuclear war, or even very many social media targeting drone strikes. It has provoked total panic among authoritarian political leaders, with its concomitant ability to facilitate flash mobs, and a much quieter level of paranoia and near-panic among national security organizations, but compared with the consequences of the development of the printing press it's pretty benign. However, we're still in the early days.



More significantly: Markets. Some would say we're entering the post-capitalist era; certainly it's interesting to speculate on the effects universal functional telepathy (lies and all) are going to have on how we handle business. The internet disintermediates supply chains, but there's a catch: you have to be able to find your customers, or your root supplier, before you can cut out the middle-men. Currently we're seeing a land-rush by new middle-men trying to stake out their position as the Sultans of Search: Amazon and eBay were first wave, but the likes of Uber or AirBNB are now trying to occupy the equivalent space in vertically segmented business niches (personal transport and rented short-let accommodation respectively). The current 2015 cruel joke is that to identify a new Silicon Valley start-up opportunity you just have to figure out what your mom no longer does for you now you've moved out of her basement and productize it. But that's not going to last forever.



One of the performance drivers of an internet startup is the ability to automate and replicate a service that formerly scaled up by adding human bodies—travel agents are replaced by Hipmunk or Kayak, for example. But a side-effect of this is that there's a constant pressure to deliver the same automated search results for less money, on fewer processor cores. It's a race to the bottom and it ends when search becomes free at the point of delivery. Which might, to a first order, sound like a recipe for "sponsored search results" and biased results, but when you can open multiple browser tabs and do meta-comparison across product comparison websites for virtually zero cost, such lying informational lacunae will be found out fast.



Ultimately most of those middle-men are doomed: they simply can't add enough value to stay viable as information arbitrage brokers in a telepathic world.



So where do we go from there? (Is telepathy compatible with the continued existence of capitalism?)

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Published on July 19, 2015 12:37 • 195 views

July 13, 2015

Hugh Hancock here. Charlie is currently in a space beyond place and time, folded into manifold dimensions that ring like bone-carved bells. Or to put it another way, he's on public transport. So I'm filling in for the day - he'll be back shortly!


Our Gracious Host's supernatural comedy-thriller series is set in a Lovecraftian universe, and features a geek of the programmer variety who uses his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which he gets into a great deal of trouble.


My latest film, HOWTO: Demon Summoning (released about 25 minutes ago - watch here), is the first part of a supernatural comedy-thriller series set in a Lovecraftian universe, featuring a geek of the programmer variety who use his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which... well, spoilers. But it doesn't end in hugs and puppies.


And yet, the two universes and the two stories aren't - at least as far as I can tell - very similar. The tone's different, the magic's different.


Is "Geek Cthulhu" sufficiently broad to actually constitute a genre?


The Black Goat Of The Woods' 1001th Young

As the 21st century gets its legs under it and starts to pick up a bit of speed, the entire concept of genre seems to be changing dramatically. We're in a world where artistic output in all media has climbed astronomically and, at the same time, data-driven segmentation (a la Netflix) allows us to drill down much more into exactly what people read, watch, listen to and play.


So genres are becoming, apparently, much narrower. And yet, it's clear that there's more space in them than we might have realised.


The start of the century saw the canonical example of the phenomenon with the appearance of 'Paranormal Romance' as a mainstream genre. Now, compared to a genre like 'sci-fi', say, or 'thriller', 'Paranormal Romance' is almost laughably narrow. It's set in the modern day. The protagonist is female (99%). She ends up in romantic entanglements with one of about five potential types of partner - in order of frequency, vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies or the occasional zombie. There is a heavy mystery element.


That's pretty specific, and yet it's enough to fuel hundreds of books.


Hence my feeling that with 'Geek Cthulhu' we're seeing the seeds of another genre. Let's see. Tech- or science- savvy protagonist (gender irrelevant). Modern day. Thriller tone. Awareness of modern technology. Lovecraftian magic. Some comedic overtones. And that's all there is to it - after that we've got the entire world to roam.


Charlie's Laundry is inspired by the British civil service, spy novels and programming. HOWTO's universe centres around a shady Internet forum where people who would otherwise be doing black-hat SEO crowdsource ways to profit from demonology. And I'm sure there are dozens of other spins on the same thing.


So why does it work?


Well, for starters, the Lovecraftian universe fits extremely well with the universe as understood by geeks. It's a fundementally science-driven place, where all magic is indeed just sufficiently advanced technology. Cthulhu isn't scary because he's a big squid, he's scary because he's a Culture Mind without the sense of humour or concern for human life. Yog-Sothoth isn't a Judeo-Christian demon, it's a force of the universe like Weak Nuclear or gravity.


Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Bloody Terrifying

And that brings me to my title. The other reason that Lovecraftian horror and geek protagonist/culture fit together so well is that Lovecraftian horror revolves around a complete, horrific reversal of some of science's most basic precepts.


For starters, 'Knowledge is good'. That's pretty core to most of our belief systems. And the Cthulhu Mythos present a world where that's horribly not true - where knowledge is something that you must avoid if you wish to continue to function. Where people who learn, study and seek to understand, kill themselves or kill people close to them. Where all those idiots saying 'we should limit scientific exploration' were right.


At the same time, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' is a very scary phrase. Because whilst it might just mean 'whoa, this iPhone is like magic', it might also mean 'you only think that technology, science and the advancement of learning is good because you haven't advanced enough in it yet'.


In Lovecraft's universe, the Grand Universal Theory isn't a mathematical equation that allows us to understand everything - it's a mathematical equation that lets us understand that, in order to survive, we need to supplicate ourselves to horrible entities whose motivations we are literally not capable of understanding.


In the Lovecraftian universe, scientific progress goes fire -> smelting -> information technology -> understanding of quantum mechanics -> sacrificing innocents on a bloody stone to appease Shub-Niggurath.


Key to the assumptions of most science fiction is the idea that at no point are we going to realise that our framework - rationality, the scientific method - just doesn't work, and we're never going to hit a problem that human beings cannot ever hope to understand, even for a moment, let alone solve. That our brains are capable of anything.


And that's why Lovecraftiana works so well for geek culture in 2015; because we're starting to see those things cropping up in the real world, and they scare the crap out of us. Just as the Atomic Horror of the 60s and 70s reflected society's fears about mass destruction, and Charlie has persuasively suggested that Lovecraft's work was a reaction to the discovery of the size of the universe, Lovecraftian fiction right now echoes the lack of control we're starting to understand we have over complex, non-linear systems.


Any programmer who has suddenly realised that he can't fit all of the code he's working on into his head understands Lovecraft's concept of knowledge that the human mind can't process. And anyone who knows, say, that we literally can't untangle all the ways that Greece's debt intertwines with the rest of the financial market, or that sufficiently deep datasets in places like Google and Facebook will produce results that we are utterly incapable of truly understanding, gets the terror of realising that there's something big and alien out there that we just aren't smart enough to understand.


In the real world, we'll probably find a way to get a handle on that stuff; we'll develop better tools for understanding complex systems, and we'll untangle things that look irrevocably wrapped right now. But there's always that fear: what if we can't? What if our brains just won't do this? What if the system we're looking at is fundementally not subject to rationality?


That's a fear that programmers, scientists and geeks of all kinds can understand. And where there's a common fear, there will be a genre to tell stories about it, and to help us understand it.


Charlie's pioneered that genre, and I think we'll be seeing a lot more storytellers like me following along in his wake soon.


If you'd like to watch HOWTO: Demon Summoning, in which a disgruntled startup founder, Dave, has been screwed by his new CEO and has decided to get even via the power of demonology - and a handy YouTube tutorial on summoning dark entities to do his bidding - you can watch it on YouTube right now. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!


And if you'd like to read more of my squamous, blasphemous ranting on things Man Was Not Meant To Know, you can find me on Twitter at @hughhancock. Cheers!

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Published on July 13, 2015 08:05 • 202 views

July 9, 2015

Here's a Big Idea piece about the book that I wrote for John Scalzi's blog.



I did an AMA on Reddit's /r/books forum—lots more stuff here!



Here's a review on Tor.com.



And here's the copy editor's account of working on the book.



(I may update this entry and add more stuff as I see fit.)

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Published on July 09, 2015 05:56 • 114 views

July 7, 2015

It's US publication day for The Annihilation Score!



So here is a spoiler thread.



Feel free to discuss "The Annihilation Score" (and if you ask me a question I might show up and answer it) in the comments below.



But it would be unwise to read the comments below if you haven't read the book yet and want it to hold any surprises.

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Published on July 07, 2015 02:49 • 82 views

July 5, 2015

Some novels just don't happen when you expect them to. That was the case in mid to late 2013. I was supposed to be working on The Lambda Functionary, a third book in a thematic trilogy that started with Halting State and Rule 34, but it was turning out to be tough—much tougher than I expected. Partly I'd loaded too many ideas into it, but I was also becoming uneasily aware of the impending Scottish political singularity. The world of Halting State diverges from our own because I dreamed it up in 2005-06 as a plausible projection for the world of 2017, and we're much closer to 2017 now than we were back then: the flaws are visible. Given that the SPS will extend through 2017 (thanks to the coming referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU) it became impossible to write a third book in that universe. So I shelved it (although a bunch of those ideas will turn up, sooner rather than later, in a different near future novel).



So in August 2012 I was getting a bit panicky over the book I was failing to write. I was at the world science fiction convention, and had a date to do dinner with my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, lately of Ace. (She retired in March 2014.) So once we'd eaten, I raised the topic of The Lambda Functionary. "It's being difficult," I said: "I really need an extra year to write it."



Ever told a project manager that you're running a bit late and please can I have an extra year? Yeah, it went down about the way you might imagine: except that Ginjer had been editing me for over a decade and has my number. "You're thinking of something else," she suggested.


"Well yeah. The annoying thing is, there's this Laundry Files idea that's been bugging me. It's a bit different to the earlier novels in the series, but ..."



"How is it different?"



"Well for one thing, it begins like this: Don't be silly, Bob, said Mo, everyone knows vampires don't exist!"



And she looked at me silently for about half a minute, then nodded and said, "tell your agent to write me a deal memo."



So, yes, I can honestly say I sold The Rhesus Chart on a one-sentence proposal—an elevator pitch, in fact. (Although it really helped that it was for the fifth book in a series, and I was pitching it at an editor who'd successfully published books one through four.)



The meeting I pitched it at was in September. There were some minor contractual complications—the P&L on a Laundry novel back then was lower than for a high-profile SF novel—so I took a survivable haircut on the advance. Flip side: I sat down to work on September 15th, 2012, and wrote "THE END" on December 1st, 2012. This was a big surprise to me (the previous Laundry Files novel, The Apocalypse Codex, took me nine months to wrestle into submission), but it just came out so smoothly. Yes, it went through two subsequent redrafts: that's normal. But what's not so normal is for the first draft to come out in ten weeks flat, with no hiccups.



In part, what made it easy was the pivot I'd decided to make in the series.



The first Laundry Files stories recycled a bunch of personal experiences: my love for British cold war spy thrillers, and my experience in the IT business. But the cold war ended in 1991 (although I hear they're trying to restart it) and I last worked in IT as anything other than a peanut-gallery pundit around 2000. If you don't use a skill set you lose it, and my programming chops and workplace experience were over a decade out of date and ageing. Also, I'd run out of British spy thriller writers I really wanted to pastiche. (John LeCarre and Graham Greene are way above my pay grade, I am not touching William Le Queux with a barge pole (even if I go full retro), John Buchan bores me, and the Laundry series is fundamentally incompatible with non-British writers (although I do have a weird fondness for the work of Richard Condon which I've gotta do something about one day)).



So some time in 2012 I took the decision to switch to hitting on fantasy subgenres and tropes rather than spy thriller writers, on organizational dysfunction and politics as much as IT, to broaden my scope and use viewpoint characters other than Bob, and to work the series round slightly closer to the urban fantasy 'mainstream" in search of a broader audience.



(Note that this doesn't mean I'm abandoning Bob, bureaucracy, and devops-related lunacy. It just means I'm targeting a bunch of new material and hopefully making the books more accessible to readers with less of a technical background as well.)



Stuff that went into The Rhesus Chart: well, I did a whole bunch of background reading about the culture of banking for Neptune's Brood and some of it had to show up eventually. Added to which, back in the mists of dot-com one point zero I had far too many encounters with soi-disant "banking IT" people in the course of my day job. My opinion of them wasn't high. Over the subsequent decade, though, I ran into folks from the other end of the banking IT sector—the people who make the back end software on which investment banks run. Banks are huge IT users, and it seemed reasonable to assume that events of interest to the Laundry would be happening inside some of their more secretive software development teams.



Vampires: well, who hasn't read enough vampire books or watched enough vampire movies to claim some expertise? Maybe I'm anomalous in having a low taste for urban fantasy, but while I'm writing a novel I can't unwind by reading something similar to what I'm working on—so during my hard-SF phase in the 2000s I read far too much UF as a source of brain candy while writing books like Iron Sunrise or Saturn's Children.



There are huge inconsistencies in the vampire mythology, largely because the idea of blood-sucking corpses (or the more abstract transferrable-curse-of-vampirisim) crops up in many different cultures. Northern European vampires seem to have their origins in primitive misapprehensions about the process of decay of bodies after death, and in the way contagious diseases spread through families living in close unhygeinic conditions (such as tuberculosis). Religious trappings got layered on top early on, because religious beliefs are a way of making sense of the universe, especially its more inexplicable aspects: hence the holy water/crucifix allergy. So it occured to me that given the Laundry Files universe as a setting, it ought to be possible to come up with an "origin story" for vampirism that fits the mythology sufficiently well to explain most of the core elements and that was consistent with the previously established motifs of supernatural brain parasitism. If instead of pure parasitism (the eaters in night, the K-syndrome parasites) we posit a commensal symbiote, or a parasite that uses the host to harvest food, you end up with something like the V-parasites—and indeed, this sort of parasitism is something we see in nature.



One of my beefs with the urban fantasy genre in general is that there's a tendency for less thoughtful authors to absorb the eschatological trappings that have cohered around the monster myths they're adopting without questioning them. (Holy water and vampires would be one example.) I wrote The Apocalypse Codex in large part as a response to this problem—to underline the fact that the Laundry Files universe is not driven by Christian religious eschatology (unless Cthulhu worship really is going mainstream). Another problem I have with many UF series is that they posit a hidden world of magic and monsters coexisting with our own ... without any friction visible around the edges, even as vampires and demons rack up an impressive body count. The Rhesus Chart is part of my fix for this in the Laundry Files (although The Concrete Jungle makes some interesting observations about the true purpose of the Mass Observation programs of the 1930s to 1960s). Vampires are predators and predators are territorial. It's also not a great leap of the imagination to postulate that if vampires exist and were identified as a problem in public, the scale of the response would rival that of the reaction to terrorism: mandatory naked noonday identity parades, police patrols with mirrors and stakes, and so on. So the first rule of vampire school is: vampires don't exist ... and if you see one, kill it and dispose of the evidence because it's carelessness is a direct existential risk to your own survival.



So.



I finished the first draft and fired it at my editors. And my extremely energetic and young new British editor at Orbit pitched in with a suggestion: "can you make this a new entrypoint to the series?" She asked. "Because if so, we can really push the marketing and give it a big boost."



"Sure," I said, and wrote a boringly infodumpy prologue, which she rejected. So instead I got to rewrite the beginning again.



In the first draft, Bob manages to save Andy from his highly inadvisable 10% project before he hits the button. As my editor pointed out, this was a cop-out: "if you have him hit the button, you can then show Bob in action, and the sort of universe he lives in, really on in the book," she pointed out. It's a bit like the action sequence at the start of every James Bond movie, that sinks the hook for the story into your head and then throws special effects at you until you get the idea that yes, James Bond is some kind of Saville-Row wearing action superhero who makes problems go away, usually in a huge explosion. The action sequence at the beginning of The Rhesus Chart is there to show new readers that Bob makes supernatural problems Go Away (with a little bit of help from his mentor). All the better, then, to set him up for being out-maneuvered in committee meetings later on ...



Final note. An interviewer once asked Lois McMaster Bujold how she planned her novels. Her answer was along the lines of, "I work out what the worst possible thing I can do to my protagonist is, then I do it to them." If you're setting out as a writer this is really good advice and you should act on it. If you can't think of a "worst possible thing" to do to your protagonist short of dismemberment or death, then you don't know your protagonist well enough. By The Rhesus Chart Bob has had four books in which he's taken a level in bad-ass. But Bob has weaknesses he is unaware of. He's emotionally immature for his age (late thirties by this point). He's also, like all of us, somewhat self-deluding about other people. When Mhari re-appears, hopefully his 15-years-on reappraisal of her should make it obvious that his evaluation of her circa The Atrocity Archives was not merely highly subjective, but simply wrong: there's foreshadowing here for the revelation (at the end of The Rhesus Chart, and explored in merciless depth in The Annihilation Score) that everything he thinks he knows about his marriage is ... questionable to say the least.

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Published on July 05, 2015 09:10 • 134 views