Charles Stross's Blog, page 2
June 26, 2016
So, I have some preliminary winners to announce!
If you're the author of one of the entries listed below the fold, please drop me an email with your real-world name and a postal address where you can receive a package?
No Laundry operatives will turn up on your doorstep with an arrest warrant, honest.
Our first winner is Death Star by "Susan"; a very credible stab at an ultimate weapon, and a pleasing example of why messing up the laws of physics is a bad idea.
TURTLE SHELL by Martin, because it exhibits brilliantly the failure mode of most Bond gadgets, Laundry-style.
An honourable mention goes to Thomas Jorgensen for Meta-Versal Internet Router Project (which would have been a runner-up if not withdrawn — please drop me an email anyway).
ETLA2 by Ian Mackenzie carries the authentic stench of bureaucratic procedures: are you sure you don't work for the government?
Rapid Response Motorcycle by Phil gets to be a runner-up by virtue of Case LITTLE BLUE BASTARD alone, and nearly scooped the top prize.
MALCOINS by ecotax (please confirm that you're eligible for the competition?) —Okay, here's an idea I actually wish I'd come up with for the series!
And finally LETHE by Megpie71, Because it should have been obvious!
As previously: would all winners please drop me an email at charlie.stross via gmail.com, confirming that you live in the UK, Australia, NZ, or EU, that you're over 16, and that you're not an employee of Little, Brown Book Group ... and remember to let me know your postal address.
June 25, 2016
Contrary to popular belief, the UK does have a written constitution—it's just scattered across roughly 25 different pieces of legislation, subject to amendment on the fly whenever Parliament damn well pleases.
And since devolution came in, more than one parliament has to be convinced to amend the constitutional framework before it can be changed.
It is becoming apparent that The Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly may have veto power over BRexit per the House of Lords European Union Committee (11th Report of Session 2015-16,
"The process of withdrawing from the European Union"). See paras 70-71, "The role of the devolved legislatures in implementing the withdrawal agreement" -- section 29 of the Scotland Act 1998 binds the Scottish Parliament to act in a manner compatible with EU law, and Scottish parliamentary consent would be required to amend this. (A similar provision underpins the devolution settlements of Wales—which voted for Brexit—and Northern Ireland—which voted against it.)
So we have a royal mess coming down the pipeline.
Firstly, the referendum is non-binding on parliament. Voting "leave" did not automatically trigger UK departure from the EU, it just sent the sitting parliament a strong demand signal. It's up to them to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, or not, in a monumentally stupid game of international diplomatic chicken. (Also, a large majority of MPs in the House of Commons are actively opposed to Brexit. Absent the referendum, a free vote on Brexit in the Commons would have been defeated by a 2:1 majority.)
Secondly, both Scotland and NI voted to stay: in the case of Scotland by a stomping 62/38 margin. The European Communities Act 1972 is effectively baked into Scottish constitutional law, per the House of Lords report, and can't be amended without the active cooperation of the Scottish parliament. Trying to override this in Westminster would trigger a new and excitingly different constitutional crisis and almost certainly lead to Scottish secession on the fast track.
Meanwhile, Scotland is already lobbying the European Commission to protect Scotland's EU membership, and it looks likely that right now the final say in whether Brexit happens lies with Nicola Sturgeon, who is First Minister of a nation that voted to stay (and leads a strongly pro-European government). Taking Scotland out of the EU against the will of the voters and their elected government would also put Scottish independence back on the fast track—and this time previously staunch supporters of the union such as J. K. Rowling are already changing their tune.
I now confess to having run out of clues. I have got no idea where this is all going to end up. If the next leader of the Conservative Party in Westminster (presumptively Bojo, although I am having nightmares about Theresa May getting the job) wants a fig-leaf for switching to "remain", Oor Nicola is about the best that they could hope for. On the other hand, if the Commission are serious about wanting the UK out, they could insist on keeping Scotland as a separate member state, just to add to the pain. The possibilities are endless, within limits. I do not expect the Queen to stick her finger in the buzzing, sparking, shorting constitutional mains socket: she's not that stupid. But that's about all I can rule out at this point.
June 24, 2016
Okay, so the idiots did it; they broke the UK.
This is a book launch month and I should really be blogging about "The Nightmare Stacks" but British politics has just entered a nightmarish alignment and we're in CASE NIGHTMARE TWEED territory. So book-related business as usual will resume tomorrow, after I've vented.
The Brexit referendum was initially a red herring; a proxy struggle for control of the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson suddenly turning his coat to march in front of the Leave campaign because it offered his best -- arguably his only -- chance of winkling David Cameron out of Downing Street before his scheduled retirement in 2020, by which time Boris would be 59 (and by British standards too old to be a first-term Prime Minister).
But in the process of squabbling over their own party the euroskeptic Conservatives opened the door to the goose-stepping hate-filled morons of the extreme right. The results include the first assassination of an MP -- unconnected with the Irish independence struggle -- in nearly two centuries, an upsurge in racist attacks on minorities and the disabled, and finally a demented protest vote by the elderly (voters under 25 broke 75% for remain; the over-60s voted over 66% for leave).
I'm not patting myself on the back for calling out the consequences. Sterling has tanked to its lowest level in 31 years, the stock market has crashed by 10% already, and we're likely to see international repercussions as all the sovereign wealth funds that had invested in the London property market see 30% wiped off their investments in a matter of days.
Longer term, this may well be the beginning of the end for the UK as a nation. (Watch who's standing on the sidelines praising the result: Donald Trump, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Marine le Pen -- a who's who of international fascismus.) The EU was the guarantor of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland peace process must thus be presumed to be broken, and it's anybody's guess what happens next. Scotland voted by a 62%/38% margin to remain in the EU and is being dragged out against its will; we are already seeing the first moves towards a second Independence referendum, and on the basis of pre-Brexit opinion polls it looks highly likely that Scotland will vote for independence within the EU. (When asked how they'd vote on an independence referendum if the UK had voted to leave the EU, Scottish voter intentions registered a 6% swing towards independence -- a hypothetical that would deliver an absolute majority.) The enabling legislation for IndyRef 2 is apparently already being drafted in Holyrood, and the Scottish government, despite being an SNP minority group, can count on an absolute parliamentary majority in moving for another referendum because the Scottish Green Party will vote with them (being officially for independence); it's likely that in 2-5 years Scotland will have split from the UK and applied to re-admission to the EU. As for Northern Ireland there will be urgent negotiations for some sort of federal arrangement with the Republic that allows them to retain EU access (the Republic of Ireland being an EU member and Northern Ireland having voted to remain in the EU by a significant margin).
What happens to England and Wales now?
Short version: economic turmoil caused by the uncertainty. An upswing in right-wing xenophobia as the utterly odious crypto-fascist Nigel Farage makes hay while the Sun shines on his project. Divorce negotiations ...the Brexiters have been selling a lie; that they'd get a no-fault divorce and keep the house. Reality is somewhat less convenient and Brussels has no alternative but to play hardball if it is to deter other loosely-bound members from following England's example. Most likely England will end up losing the house, the CD collection, and the cat and having to sleep in the car. For example, the biggest chunk of the UK economy today is the banking sector, and London is the global number one market for euro-denominated derivatives trading. But London, as a non-euro zone market, is only allowed to trade in euros because it's the capital of an EU member state. A London that is out in the cold will lose that business. Expect much of the British financial sector to decamp to Frankfurt, Paris, and Brussels. And there will be other ghastly economic consequences; if the UK is allowed to get a no-fault divorce, when why should Greece put up with the Troika's demands?
This is only just beginning, but I think it's safe to say we're back in the Scottish Political Singularity, with a disturbing undercurrent of violent jingoistic xenophobia down south -- the Scottish divorce from Englandshire won't be uncontested or fault-free either -- and meanwhile the smirking fascist in the corner is hoisting his pint glass and humming "tomorrow belongs to me."
June 21, 2016
So, while this week sees the first publication of "The Nightmare Stacks", it also sees the paperback publication (on both sides of the Atlantic!) of "The Annihilation Score". And as is my custom these days, I figure it's time to post a brief essay about the novel. Keep reading below the fold if you dare; here be spoilers!
There comes a point in every series of books when the author has to ask whether the series is about a single person (the protagonist) or the setting. The Laundry Files are no different. While the first book was very clearly about Bob Howard, hapless geek and accidental occult counterintelligence agent, an ensemble cast slowly assembled itself around him and then intermittently stole the show. And after five books in a row about Bob, narrated in the first person/present tense from his point of view, I thought it would be a good idea to step outside his skin and show the reader what the back of his head looks like, so to speak.
A point that was becoming clear by book 3 or book 4 is that Bob is an unreliable narrator. This was (spoiler!) originally an accident, but then a bonus. When I began writing "The Atrocity Archive" I had no plan to write a series; the book unpacked itself organically, and a lot of what came out was played deliberately for laughs. About four years later I was called on (ahem, paid money to) write a sequel, "The Jennifer Morgue", and I decided that it'd be fun to make Bob four years older, wiser, and a bit more senior. And of course I'd forgotten some minor details, and I'm terrible about re-reading my own work and remembering what I'd done. So inconsistencies began to creep in.
How do you deal with inconsistencies? Well, in "The Fuller Memorandum" I introduced a framing conceit, that these first-person narratives are Bob's working journals, kept by his employer so that if he dies in the line of duty you, the postulated reader, the person stepping into his still-warm boots, have access to some of his hard-won knowledge. This is also a neat way of sidestepping the essential loss of tension implicit in a first-person narrative (you know that the narrator survives to the end—unless, as in "Glasshouse" or Mira Grant's "Feed", they're murdered part-way through recording their experiences). Bob is ageing and learning his place in the institution as he is promoted, and sometimes he learns that what he was told, or inferred, as a junior employee, is flat-out wrong. But Bob is also ageing and maturing; we start the series with him as a callow twenty-something, and by the time we reach THE ANNIHILATION SCORE he's nearly forty, married, much more cynical, and thinks he's a grown-up now.
Boy is he wrong.
Like most of us, Bob has a near-infinite capacity for self-deception. (We're all the heroes of our inner narrative, after all.) He's also been getting increasingly powerful throughout the series. With great power comes great self-delusion, and all is not well in Bob's world; in particular his spouse, Dr Dominique O'Brien, aka Agent CANDID—who has been levelling up alarmingly herself—is having trouble controlling her ill-omened and murderously inclined violin, not to mention coping with Bob's increasing necromantic abilities. For the first few years they've got along by carefully ignoring the more dangerous aspects of each other's life, and by providing mutual support: but when two monsters live together, the question to ask is, how long will it be before one of them tries to eat the other?
Which brings us to the red wedding sequence at the end of "The Rhesus Chart" and the set-up for "The Annihilation Score", which is there to give us a whole different perspective on Mo, on Bob, and on what's going on in the background that Bob is oblivious to.
Now, I will note that quite a few readers seemed to absolutely hate "The Annihilation Score"; they specifically disliked Mo, accusing her of being bitchy, nasty, aggressive, self-centered ... all the epithets that get hurled at assertive, competent, strong women (and especially managers) in day to day life. Previously the series focussed on Bob, a cuddly (if somewhat lethal) turbo-geek everyman with a neat line in self-deprecating humor. Mo, in contrast, is caught in the career woman trap: required to be a pretty adornment to her husband or partner, but expected to be vastly more proficient and competent than a man in the same occupational niche just to be seen as average. She is, if anything, the Ginger Rogers to Bob's Fred Astaire: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." The stress is grinding her into the dirt, so much so that she's riding a bobsleigh down a run towards an explosion or a breakdown, or both. In other words, she's not written to be a nice person, or even one the reader necessarily empathizes with (if the reader is wanting a warm bath of self-congratulatory affirmation): she's written to be a professional, trapped in a deadly situation and trying to make the best of the desperately bad hand she's been dealt by fate. (And when she develops a superpower, by way of dramatic irony it turns out to be a paranormally enhanced version of one that women over 40 usually find themselves suffering from whether they want it or not.)
Lest you think this is a rather brutal treatment of her, let me remind you that Agent CANDID was the James Bond figure of "The Jennifer Morgue", and Bond was not a spy—he was a state-sanctioned executioner. This is the position Mo effectively starts from in the series (after I realized with a big "oops" that I'd written her as a girl in the tower cliche, but had also given her a plausible motivation for making something more of herself). Anyway, throughout the entire series Bob's wife is not a helpmeet: she's a professional killer and arguably even deadlier than he is. She props Bob up and provides a shoulder for crying on from time to time, as he does for her in return, but the domestic tranquility Bob thinks he's found at home with her is a comforting illusion they both connive at and when the disguise is ripped away the reality turns out to be somewhat darker. Think "Mr and Mrs Smith" with vampires, zombies, and ... superheroes ...
So, to "The Annihilation Score" itself.
I've long had a fondness for superhero fic, but my background lore in the field was warped by growing up in 1970s Britain. Marvel and DC Comics were not widely distributed and din't show up in the sort of newsagent I had access to. Instead, my reading was skewed towards 2000AD, and biased by British TV—including interminable re-runs of the Adam West "Batman" series. Oh, and a dose of Greek and Roman mythology, which taps into the same deep wellsprings as the modern superhero mythos—asking questions about the limits of human agency and the archetypes of human existence and the effects of granting limitless power to limited, flawed personalities. Given the Laundry Universe has it's own post-Lovecraftian eschatological imperative—as the stars come into alignment magic becomes easier and there are random outbreaks of power—it's easy enough to see how someone who wakes up invisible one morning might think herself possessed by a demon, or cursed by an evil magician ... or become a superhero.
The current cycle of Laundry Files novels is exploring and pastiching different contemporary fantasy subgenres, from unicorns ("Equoid") to vampires ("The Rhesus Chart") and elves ("The Nightmare Stacks"). "The Annihilation Score" is the superhero novel. With increasing numbers of people waking up with superpowers, a subset turn to crime while others—presumably educated on superhero comics and contemporary culture—turn to vigilantism: lycra body suits, punching out alleged criminals, damaging the evidence and crime scenes, intimidating witnesses, resulting in mistrials. The Home Office—the British interior ministry in charge of policing and prisons—hates that sort of thing. And so Mo, still reeling from her first encounter with a supervillain in public and the loss of her cover identity, is detached from the Laundry, reassigned to the Home Office under cover, and set to establishing the Transhuman Police Coordination Force—an under-budgeted over-worked public-relations-oriented excuse for a superhero police team, established to take the more tractable vigs in hand and find a lawful and acceptable outlet for their enthusiasm. Mo is given three months and a fraction of the necessary resources to set up an agency that will field the official government superhero team as special constables (normal duration of training: two years) ... and meanwhile she comes under enormous pressure to hunt down and apprehend the ominously super-competent criminal mastermind whose calling card, left at the scene of their crimes, is tagged "Professor Freudstein".
So you probably won't be surprised to learn that the original elevator pitch for the book was "a pessimistic downbeat literary exploration of one woman's simultaneous mid-life, career, marital, and nervous breakdown (with superheroes)". Although it's leavened a bit by the comedy element that runs through the Laundry files: Mo herself doesn't have the same sense of humour as Bob (although over almost a decade together lots of Bob-isms have rubbed off on her), so she isn't consciously aware of it, but she's fallen into a classic Ragtag Bunch of Misfits plot with an entirely different elevator pitch: "Bob's exes form a superhero team and Fight Crime".
Finally, there's a serious (ish) memo embedded in the background conceit: that the age of the Mad Scientist is over. In the 20th, and even more the 21st century, Mad Science is a team effort, not something that can be left to one guy (or gal) and their minion in a leaky castle; rather than look for a Mad Scientist, you should always look for a Mad Science Multinational ... or a shadowy quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization with special powers to do something unspeakable in the name of the Defense of the Realm. Because by the time "The Annihilation Score" takes place the onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is becoming noticable to government agencies other than the Laundry, and even if they don't quite understand what's going on they know that they disapprove strongly, and want it to stop, and will stop at nothing to make it go away.
Real spoilers, now: Bob and Mo don't really feature in "The Nightmare Stacks" (which comes out this week, and is mostly about Alex the PHANG, a girl named Cassie, and something called CASE NIGHTMARE RED). You'll have to wait for "The Delirium Brief" in June 2017 to find out how their relationship counseling sessions go down and whether they manage to get over each other's problems before the end of the world.
Incidentally, you can buy "The Annihilation Score" here:
June 19, 2016
This week I'm doing appearances in the UK to launch The Nightmare Stacks—and can I take this opportunity to plug my local Edinburgh SF specialist bookstore, Transreal Fiction, who can supply signed copies of my work all year round?—but on June 27th I'm off to the USA for a few weeks in Portland and the Bay Area.
Here's what I'm getting up to:
I'm arriving in Portland on Tuesday the 28th, and will be hanging out in a pub that evening in order to get onto local time because bright lights and conversation are really helpful. All welcome! (Location to come.)
On Thursday the 30th, at 7:30pm I'll be reading and signing "The Nightmare Stacks" at Powell's City of Books (and you can order signed copies for mailing after the event if you're not able to be there). Note that I'm doing this at the big downtown mothership, not one of the outlying branches.
From Friday 1st to Monday 4th I'm appearing as a special guest at Westercon 69, a big-ass SF convention, at the Portland Doubletree hotel, along with John Scalzi, Theresa Mather, David Levine, and various others. If you're attending the convention, check the program book for my up-to-the-minute itinerary.
(From the 5th to the 8th my wife and I will be driving from Portland to the Bay Area. Yes, we've done it before. This time we're not going to try and do the coastal highway in a Lincoln Town Car. Nor do we plan on hitting any bears.)
On Saturday the 9th I'll be appearing at Writers with Drinks in San Francisco at The Make Out Room, 3225 22nd St., from 7:30pm.
On Sunday the 10th I'll be reading and signing at Borderlands Books, at 866 Valencia Street, from 3:00pm.
On Friday the 15th I'm doing a reading and signing at Copperfield's Books (140 Kentucky St, Petaluma, CA 94952) from 7pm.
On Monday the 18th I'm doing a (sorry, Google employees only—not open to the public) reading and signing at Google HQ in Mountain View from 1-2pm.
Sorry, but I won't be making any appearances in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, or anywhere else on this trip. It was actually meant to be just WesterCon and my summer vacation, only things got a bit out of hand: it's not an official signing tour as such, and once I get home I have a stack of deadlines to deal with, so keeping a few days back for R&R is important.
June 16, 2016
British people don't like to talk about racism, much less admit that their fellow Brits—much less they, themselves—are racists. It's far too easy to point to other bad examples in foreign lands, from Jim Crow and segregation in the Deep South to men with Hugo Boss uniforms and gas chambers in the Nazi Reich. But racism is a thing in the UK, with deep-running currents that occasionally bubble to the surface. And right now we're getting a most unwelcome but richly deserved reminder of what it's about.
(Text below the cut contains strong language)
British racism is subtly different from American racism, because there is no long-standing internal sub-population who are visually distinctive and the target for racist hatred. One can point to the traditional English hatred and contempt for the Irish—it's still within living memory that boarding houses proudly displayed signs saying "no dogs or Irishmen"—but people of Irish descent aren't visually identifiable at a distance, unlike African-Americans. So the most visible expression of racism wears a different name: the primary epithet isn't "nigger" but "immigrant".
(Discursive point: this isn't to say that anti-immigrant racism isn't a thing in the United States. But it's not the primus inter pares expression of racism. That dishonourable status belongs to the generationally-installed white phobia of the descendants of the slaves they systematically raped and kidnapped over centuries, and whose bloody uprising the slaveowning caste were deathly afraid of.)
The UK is different because the black community established here mostly immigrated voluntarily in the 1950s to 1970s: for many years, British racists used the word "immigrant" as a synonym for "black", and kept with it because it was so useful for describing other groups.
Which brings me rapidly back to the current ongoing campaign over the BRexit referendum: a ballot asking the public if Britain should leave the EU. The vote is due to be held next Thursday, and I already blogged about it back in April. What I didn't say back then, because I didn't fully anticipate it, was that the "Leave" campaign (with the knowing connivance of most of the UK's media, owned for the most part by right-wing billionaires) was going to play power chords in the key of racism, not even resorting to dog-whistle rhetoric. Britons overestimate the proportion of Muslims in the UK by a factor of four and think there are more than twice as many immigrants in the UK as is actually the case—and the Leave campaign's rhetoric, when challenged on how leaving the EU would improve things for the UK, has focussed unerringly on reducing immigration, because that's what the voters respond to—not abstractions about trade deals or tax rises or interest rates, but the folks they see on the street who talk the wrong talk or follow the wrong dress code or look different.
And the Leave campaign have been pushing that lever so hard that UKIP have been rolling out material indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda posters of the 1940s.
Now, if your election campaigning material is only distinguishable from films emitted by Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda by your use of Photoshop and color separation technology, then you might want to ask yourself why you are peddling warmed-over Nazi propaganda. (Also: the white faces in the foreground of the UKIP "immigrant" poster have been conveniently obscured. Fun, huh?) But that's not the most important point.
The unspeakable truth is that right now British politics is in a Naked Lunch situation: the "frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork", as William Burroughs put it:
Points you need to know, for the full context of this vile murder:
Jo Cox was an activist for the Remain campaign
Jo Cox was the former head of policy for Oxfam and an anti-slavery campaigner
Britain First is a far-right movement founded by former members of the (defunct) British National Party, a fascist movement. It takes inspiration from Ulster loyalist terrorist groups and has a vigilante wing that engages in direct action campaigns. Their policies include a total ban on Islam.
Britain First is strongly opposed to EU membership and supports the Leave campaign. Their primary campaign focus is against immigration, multiculturalism, and "the islamisation of the United Kingdom".
Britain First has threatened to target elected politicians for direct action earlier this year (specifically: Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London): "Britain First now considers all Muslim elected officials as 'occupiers' and will start to oppose their strategy of entryism and take-over of our political system."
The Leave campaign are recycling Nazi propaganda and directing it at "immigrants", pouring gasoline on the flames of British racism. They are doing so in a politically charged climate where mainstream conservative politicians have legitimized talk of "cutting immigration" as they run to the right to reduce the risk of losing their voters to UKIP, who are merely one dog-whistle away from being an explicitly racist party. They do so with the connivance of The Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the other right-wing newspapers that peddle racism (because outrage captures eyeballs and eyeballs sell advertising)—whose every front page loaded with a hate-filled message about "immigrant scroungers". Britain First are an explicitly racist fringe party, and it now looks as if one of their followers may have conducted the first politically motivated murder of a sitting MP (other than in the context of Ireland) since Spencer Perceval in 1812.
I've been saying a while that when fascism comes to Britain it will be wearing a tweed jacket and a cheeky grin, holding a pint of beer in one hand and a noose in the other.
I wasn't expecting to be proven right so soon.
Just a quick reminder: the UK Laundry Files competition from last month is closing next Tuesday! If you want to enter for the chance to win some free swag, you've got about four days and some hours left.
Note that announcing the winners may take a few days—I'm going to be in London next week (List of events here) and there are a lot of entries to sort through!
And in other news: audiobooks of THE RHESUS CHART and THE ANNIHILATION SCORE are now available in the UK from the usual sources. (Just don't ask me about THE FULLER MEMORANDUM and THE APOCALYPSE CODEX: they fell through the cracks a few years ago, dammit.)
June 12, 2016
So "The Nightmare Stacks" is just 11 days away in the UK (and 18 in the USA) and my UK publisher, Orbit, have kindly posted an extract from the first chapter:
A vampire is haunting Whitby; it's traditional.
It's an hour after dusk on a Saturday evening four weeks before the spring gothic festival. Alex the Vampire strolls along the sea front, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his tweed jacket. There's a chill breeze blowing onshore, and he has the pavement to himself as he walks, eyes downcast and chin tucked into his chest, lost in thought. What profound insight does the creature of the night contemplate as he paces along the North Promenade beside the beach, opposite a row of moonlit houses? What ancient wisdom, what hideous secrets haunt the conscience of the undying?
Let's take a look inside his head ...
In case you were wondering where to buy it, here are some handy links:
June 10, 2016
There's an old saying that only two things are unavoidable: death and taxes. I think this is wrong—the two unavoidable things are politics, and it's seldom-admitted offspring, bureaucracy. (Their Titan parent is of course economics.)
Politics: you may not like it but you can't ignore it because whenever two or more people have ideas about how to do something requiring the participation of two or more people there's going to be an argument about how to do it. Bureaucracy: because once the argument is settled you need to coordinate the tasks, and once your community exceeds Dunbar's number you need to develop mechanisms for managing work and social relationships between people who don't know each other.
It's fairly obvious that technology affects the implementation details of politics and bureaucracy (and there's feedback involved too, via market regulators and command economies). And there are scale issues too. Back in the 1670s and 1680s century when Samuel Pepys served as Secretary for the Admiralty, administration for the Royal Navy ran on a handful of staff and relied on disbursement of funds—in cash—to ships' captains to see to their maintenance and the pay of their sailors. Today it's hard to imagine a modern defense ministry running on cash-in-hand: even Da'esh have accountants and an org chart. But the ability to run a modern bureaucratic defense procurement and supply organization is required due to the capital-intensive nature of modern warfare (you try buying an Aircraft Carrier with cash) and relies in turn on availability of modern tools: not just computers, but accounting procedures, project management, quality assurance, process control, and a host of other specialities that simply didn't exist back in the age of sail. On the other hand, back in the 17th century ships and squadrons might be commanded by officers weeks or months from the nearest political point of control and operating on the basis of orders which, although obsolete, had not been countermanded (and it wasn't just at sea: for example, the Battle of New Orleans took place in 1815, weeks after the treaty ending hostilities had been signed).
So. Taking the space cadets seriously for once ...
What are the political problems that would arise from the extension of an Earth-based political framework to governance of off-world space colonies? And what kind of bureaucratic mechanisms might be developed to deal with the arising issues?
Most SF centering on near-future space colonization is regrettably polluted by rose-tinted libertarian bullshit. Let's face it: in the really short term, outposts like the ISS or a near-term return-to-Moon or expedition-to-Mars will be governed by existing legal arrangements made by the national government with jurisdiction over the crew. In practice this means the 1998 ISS agreement, the Outer Space Treaty, and customary international law. And the "colonists" aren't; they're typically highly trained middle-aged scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats-with-other-skills (note how many of NASA's retired astronauts go on to careers in space program senior management or even seats in the Senate or Congress).
Looking further ahead—by which I mean out past 2030 at the very earliest—we might see encampments with a handful of people living and working off-planet semi-permanently, along the lines of an Antarctic research station (albeit in a vastly more hostile environment). "Law enforcement" overlaps messily with psychological healthcare, and generally is a matter of shipping the unruly home for treatment and diagnosis (and, optionally, restraining them en route). Money? Hah! While informal economies eventually emerge once you have a population in double or triple digits (things like trading extra shifts worked, or food, or homebrewed moonshine) it takes a long time to get to the point where "money" is internally useful for anything other than keeping track of interpersonal exchanges of obligations. And as for "no taxation without representation", that's a really long way in the future, and becomes highly problematic when the polity of 3000 who are objecting to remote governance and taxation is reliant on a distant polity of 300,000,000 who built the metal world they live in.
But by the time we look as far as self-sufficient comet-mining or terraforming colonies, a century or two in the future, the questions of political coordination and local vs. remote administration will become pressing. And these questions also apply to long-term colonies and generation ships. Assuming the (huge) obstacles to these are overcome (notably: deleterious medical radiological and microgravity effects of long-duration spaceflight; economic framework for repaying the cost of foundation; ability to maintain a large-scale closed cycle life support ecosystem; ability to replicate all necessary infrastructure components and consumer goods; ability to care for, educate, and train new members of the population and to sustain those who can no longer work or who aren't suitable for work at core survival tasks) ... what, realistically, happens?
I have some starting assumptions. Notably: the traditional right-wing American vision of settlers in space is utterly untenable because it assumes people can "walk away" from local market failures, and that individuals are solely responsible for their own errors. Libertarianism won't fly in space where any "market adjustment" is likely to prove lethal to a significant proportion of the population. Indeed, the American formulation of rugged individualism is horrifically dangerous in such a setting: imagine the mind-set that gives rise to schoolyard shooters, and put it in an environment where the only things holding in the atmosphere are the walls.
Secondly: in the absence of magical scientific breakthroughs, getting home from a fucked-up colony will be hard to impossible. If you colonize the Gobi desert or Phoenix, Arizona, you can probably escape if you have a gassed-up SUV, some cash, and enough water. If you colonize Mars, though, you're going to need a spaceship capable of reaching orbit and at least three months (more likely 18 months) of air and supplies. That's a whole different ball game, and once you realize you're living in a failed world, you're going to be far too late: it makes the plight of the people in the European migrant crisis today look trivial. Space colonies exist, of necessity, in a kind of liminal Gene Cernan voiced "failure is not an option" territory: and this is not a good place to live, much less to raise a family and expect a peaceful retirement.
So I don't see our contemporary interpersonal or cultural relationships working. Some sort of tribal organizational structure might work, by which people could work with distant or unrelated "relatives" within a web of familial obligations; it's a way of diffusing relationships to allow larger groups to work together for joint survival. Look at parts of the middle east for cultures adapted to that way of life ... or better still, don't (if you're attached to the idea of personal autonomy, choosing your own sexual partners, and deciding whether or not to have children or how to work for yourself). I'm only half-kidding: obviously iron-age tribal practices won't help cultures in brittle, high-risk environments mediated by high technology survive ... but neither will what we've got now on the sleepwalking, neoliberalalism-dominated west.
Nor are our current political representative structures, adapted to heterogeneous nations sharing an open, relatively resilient world, necessarily going to work well in a closed system. A space colony can't afford to be governed by ideology in the absence of feedback from instrumentation. But technocracy isn't the answer either; technocracy has nothing to say by way of answering the core questions of human existence, such as "what is best in life?" much less "what is right?" And a space colony probably can't survive a revolution that turns violent.
Any workable form of government for such a fragile environment is going to have to provide mechanisms for prompt and non ideologically-biased responses to deviations from the baseline. It's going to have to provide solutions that work for everybody, because the environment is a lifeboat and if you give up on someone they will die (or worse, having no expectation of living may choose to take everybody else with them). It's going to have to provide a framework for settling arguments where there is no obvious "best" solution without pissing off one faction or the other, and a framework for orderly and non-violent transfers of power (because shaved apes are addicted to up-ending their social hierarchies). The bureaucracy it comes with is going to have to offer mechanisms for delegating authority across vast gulfs of space and time, be relatively lightweight (at least in the early decades of a colony), and should arguably satisfy Rawls' philosophical notion of justice as fairness and provide distributive justice, lest it give rise to grievances leading to instability or revolution. (As a propensity for fairness seems to be wired into primates at a very low level, running on an administrative system that optimizes for fairness seems like an appropriate way to minimize friction.)
Anyway. What other angles am I missing here? You, too, can help design a constitution for a space colony! Just remember two things: it has to be somewhere you'd be comfortable living the rest of your life as an ordinary citizen, and if you get it wrong, you can't walk away.
June 8, 2016
We interrupt this blog to bring you a news flash: somewhere in Scotland, an author just got home from a trip (hence the recent quiet) to discover a crate on his doorstep! A crate of nightmares! Grimoires bound in lurid magenta-on-black sleeves, pulsing and squirming to escape into the wild!
(The American edition is somewhat more discreet, and is probably a week behind.)
Publishers always ship authors a box of books right before publication. It's evidence that the thing has been printed and over the next few days cartons like this will be winging their way to warehouses, distribution hubs, and the stock rooms of bookstores who have pre-ordered it. It's not due to go on sale until June 23rd in the UK, and the 28th in the USA, but it takes a couple of weeks to filter through the supply chain so that stock is on hand everywhere.
I'm going to be in London on the 22nd, where Professor Ed James will be interviewing me on behalf of the British Science Fiction Association from 6pm; all are welcome. (Hopefully there'll be video of the event afterwards.)
The next day (the 23rd) I'm doing a launch/signing at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore at 6pm! Again, all are welcome, and FP are taking pre-orders (via that link).
And on Friday 24th I'm doing a reading and signing at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh from 6:30pm!
(These bookshops—and Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh—will have some signed copies for sale afterwards as well; they're generally happy to sell via mail order.)
The following week I am off to the west coast of the USA, for a number of events starting with the launch of the US edition, which comes out five days later (because supply chain reasons). I'll put up a separate itinerary on the blog in due course.