toy fix

I don't know about you, but every now and then - okay, every couple of months or so - I get a severe rash of technolust usually focused on some financially-as-yet-unavailable toy that would probably have every Marxist on the planet tutting and shaking their head at my unbridled desire for gadget consumption. On the other hand, there's my parallel mental self-flagellation for even thinking of spending such money when I don't have a day job and the income from a writing career is sporadic by nature. Basically, I have to get my hands on an E-ink reader so I can decide I don't really want one or, worse, buy one of the damn things.

I had a moment a bit like that on my last visit to Taipei, when I finally got to play with an Asus EEEpc, the relatively inexpensive mini-laptop that's apparently shifting by the bucketload in the States. I'd read a lot about it and did indeed engage in a fair bit of pre-emptory technolust which was finally sated by playing with one in a gigantic computer store in the centre of Taipei and realising it wasn't really quite for me. Don't get me wrong, it's very cool and for a lot of people I'd recommend it, but it was just so teensy-weensy I couldn't see me getting a great deal of practical use out of it.

Now if I can only hypnotise myself into developing a desire for things that are cheap and easily available, like cardboard boxes and interestingly shaped pebbles, except that's not really the point of unreasonable material desire, is it ...


Stealing Dakota

On writing Stealing Fire, a direct follow-up to Stealing Light; it's about halfway there, and so far I don't expect to be doing any major structural alterations when I go through it for the next draft. It's pretty much all there.

Like I mentioned before, the idea was to call the three books Stealing Light, Stealing Fire and Stealing Time, with a nice uniformity to the titles. As names go, Stealing Time isn't really the greatest option because it doesn't really mean anything ... at least not yet. Then I took a look at the basic structure of the first third of Stealing Fire, which goes something like this:

Dakota gets kidnapped,
Dakota escapes.
Dakota gets kidnapped again,
Dakota escapes again.

Crudely speaking, of course. But it did rather lead to the temptation, instead of calling the new book Stealing Fire, to call it 'Stealing Dakota'. Eh, maybe I'll think on it.

web designs

It's been a while since I screwed around with HTML web design in any significant way, so I was pretty pleased with myself when I managed to modify a CSS-heavy blogger page design for the Stealing Light Excerpt (specifically, I spent half a day figuring out how to get that left hand column in with the help of a couple of online tutorials). Pleased enough I'm thinking of having a go at giving this here blog page a similar makeover. It's been needing it for a while, though I'll probably put some other kind of image in the background when it comes to that.

Along with that, I'll be putting together opening excerpts for Angel Stations and Against Gravity using very similar templates, and expanding things a bit to include info on upcoming books and the like. Bit of a New Year makeover, if you like.

When I look at the Stealing Light page, I see the image below. If what *you* see looks literally nothing like this - if it's got columns sitting one on top of the other, that kind of thing ... let me know, so I can fix it.


Hoover's Ghost

Back when I was writing my second book Against Gravity, I thought it would take terrorists nuking Los Angeles to persuade the US government of the late 21st Century to carry out mass arrests of its own citizens. Apparently it doesn't take that much at all, if the details of a newly declassified account (found via Boing Boing) are anything to go by:

"Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, 12 days after the Korean War began. It envisioned putting suspect Americans in military prisons.

Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.” The F.B.I would “apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous” to national security, Hoover’s proposal said. The arrests would be carried out under “a master warrant attached to a list of names” provided by the bureau.

The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years. “The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States,” he wrote."


In a fit of unprecedented procrastination, and at least partly motivated by a discussion over at David Louis Edelman's blog on what people look for in a writer's online presence, I have finally - finally - put together an online excerpt of Stealing Light, being the first couple of chapters thereof. Somehow it seemed the right thing to do. There's already an excerpt up at Pan Macmillan's website, but it's very small. I figure something slightly more substantial might be a better idea. So here it is. I'll be linking it into my main blog here at some point ... soon-ish.



I read a review of the book Moondust, which consists of interviews with post-Apollo astronauts, on Ian Sales' blog where he makes the following comment:
"In one telling scene in the book, Smith goes to see Dick Gordon (Apollo 12 CMP) at a Star Trek convention. Gordon is sat alone in a corner of the signing room, while long queues stretch before the tables of TV actors. Gordon, a man who really went to the Moon, is ignored. I know which person's signature I would treasure more..."
Which strikes me as one one of the saddest things I've ever heard. It's the kind of scene you wish could be somehow retroactively inserted into the film Space Cowboys.


writing update

Book update: the sequel to Stealing Light is almost at the halfway mark on the first, rough-ish draft. Draft is a misleading word in some ways, since it creates an image of an author bashing away on a manual typewriter until he has a complete manuscript, then marking it with a pen and then typing it out again, with appropriate adjustments. On a computer, things are much more organic, in that as you add new details into a constantly growing text file, you often take a step back into earlier parts of the story, adjusting them to fit the new material, and making various minor or major tweaks as you go (at one point during the writing of Stealing Light, I ripped out twelve thousand words of Dakota backstory that weren't working for me and brainstormed a brand new backstory over the next couple of days. It's easier than you think, once you get some practice: just open up a new file, call it 'rough notes' and type out whatever ideas come to mind until you have the germ of an interesting subplot).

I'd say there's about three phases a modern manuscript goes through - there's a first 'draft' of the appropriate length. Then you rework it from the start, chopping and changing sentences and paragraphs, trying to make everything clearer and more dramatic. Then a third run-through just to see what you missed the first two times. Then you find someone foolish enough to volunteer to read it and make comments. Phil Raines was one of the few people who read Stealing Light before it got emailed to the publishers, and the suggestions and comments he made definitely influenced the final shape and outline of the book. So then there was another short period of making adjustments, and then off to Pan/Tor.

In terms of time, you've got: full rough manuscript, eight to ten months. Redraft, maybe two months. Final redraft, two weeks, tops. Post-comment adjustments, two to ten days.

And then the publisher reads it, and you're into the unique hell that is the editing process. Word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. I'm very glad to say I'm a long way from that on the new book.


A personal take on the distinction between sf and fantasy

When I work on a story, I've got three main concerns. 1: It has to be strong in terms of plot and action, because that keeps my publishers happy. 2: It has to have some thematic depth, something that fleshes it out and makes it more round and whole (because that makes me happy). 3: It has to have a certain level of plausibility.

By 'certain level of plausibility', I mean: it might contain an idea or concept entirely fantastic and/or impossible within our current understanding of the laws of physics and the universe as we know it (force fields, FTL etc), but contained within that idea or concept is the notion that our understanding of the universe is sufficiently incomplete that new paradigms might, maybe, some day make the apparently impossible possible, or at least potentially achievable. When you live in a universe where once-impossible things like atomic bombs and space travel have since become everyday, where the instantaneous teleportation of information is well researched, and where concepts such as multiple alternate universes are regarded as entirely plausible by people incredibly better qualified than me to hold such opinions, the act of suspension of disbelief becomes rather more easily achievable. In fact, for me to say that something is either possible or impossible when I am unqualified to hold any such opinion (by dint of not being a physicist or a scientist) strikes me as entirely foolish.

Yes, personal force fields that let you hit a mountain and the mountain breaks (as in Stealing Light) are completely fantastic, but try and tell me Hugh Everett's Many Worlds theory is any less bizarre (or his theory of quantum immortality, for that matter). And yes, I am aware there's vastly more evidence for Everett's notion of multiple universes than there is or likely ever will be for personal force fields. But that's one of the fun things about being a science fiction writer.

Now to my primary concern here: it has on occasion been suggested to me that science fiction is a branch of fantasy. I disagree, and here's why.

Science Fiction is largely driven by the idea that the universe and its workings are still largely unknown. The human mind is driven to enquire into its nature in order to understand it. That understanding, though incomplete, is increasing. Science Fiction, then, is a form of writing that allows one to speculate on the apparently impossible, given that history is littered with incidents in which the impossible has been shown to be, in fact, possible. It's this latter point that allows for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a reader (or this reader, anyway).

This is not to say that all things impossible will eventually prove to be possible; but the incompleteness of our knowledge allows some of us to freely speculate, and to imagine the impossible made possible without feeling too guilty about it. This is particularly rewarding for those who, like me, lack any scientific training and yet have a fascination for the achievements of modern science. Given that scientific history is primarily composed of a series of paradigms giving way to each other as successive generations of enquiring minds throw up new questions with the aid of constantly improving tools, one might feel further justified in speculating on a world in which the current paradigms could perhaps also be superseded.

If we take 'fantasy' in its purest form - which to me usually means elves, magic swords and orcs - I think it's fair to say these are things which neither exist nor are going to exist, ever. One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon. Let's be clear: I do not say this to denigrate fantasy in any way, and I also acknowledge that as definitions go, it's an appallingly crude one. However, it is very much my contention that a work of 'fantasy' in this particular sense offers a fundamentally different form of experience from that provided by the majority of works of science fiction. Let me repeat: this is not the same thing as suggesting either form is intrinsically superior or inferior to the other; it is not to suggest a lack of equivalence in the writing skills necessary to produce either. I merely want to make clear my opinion that the suggestion one is somehow a branch of the other is, to my mind, incorrect.

I know there are probably countless examples and counter-examples. I don't lay any claims to impartiality in my reading tastes either, because I've generally avoided books with elves, orcs and magic swords like the plague throughout my life. I have never in my life picked up a book with a dragon on the cover and thought, 'gee, I really want to read that'. So why do I feel the need to make this distinction?

Because I get a bit annoyed when people tell me I write fantasy in such a way that the implication is (to my ears, anyway) that a work of fiction containing aliens and space craft is somehow the same as one featuring magic swords, elves and dragons. They're different forms, with different aims and different appeals. One might as well say science fiction shares many traits with, say, the detective genre, because both are bodies of fiction. It's a statement that is equally, on analysis, both true and untrue.

For me, sf and fantasy (within the very narrow definitions I've used here) merely are what they are; different things with different aims living in different boxes, that sometimes share the same audience - but not always.


cranky geeks

If you slide over to crankygeeks.com, a web-based video discussion show about tech and arts, you'll find the current show has some good advice for would-be writers. A quick search on the site reveals an earlier episode featuring Neil Gaiman as a guest, who also has similarly good advice on the life of a writer.

The filming for the short drama I wrote (co-wrote, really, given it turned into a collaboration between myself, a script editor and a director) for a BBC mini-project has had its filming date moved back to late January, which is a shame because I'll be out of the country at the time. But, it is getting filmed, which is the main thing: I have no idea how it's going to come out, since there's a big difference between a written script and a filmed script (as I discovered during a workshop earlier this year run by a TV director). But I should get a copy of the finished film sometime, I think, in February.

Kindle: last words. Probably. Ish.

Okay - I promise I'll shut up about the Kindle ebook reader. Soon. Probably. Or at least until I actually get the chance to play with one. However, some final-ish thoughts on the matter.

Yes, there are issues relating to the storing of personal data. Amazon, however, appear to have a reputation for telling lawyers and US governmental bodies exactly where to get off when it comes to trying to obtain customer data. And while it's true that some data could potentially be used to aid human rights violations in the near or more distant future - and already has been in some parts of the world (hello, Yahoo) - a government sufficiently determined and willing to ignore individual human rights will always find a means to entrap those it considers a threat, whether real or imagined. Evidence, after all, can be manufactured, exaggerated, implied or outright falsified, and a lack of evidence has never been a barrier to injustice and harassment anywhere in the world. I appreciate there are arguments and counter-arguments and complications beyond my crude analysis, but if it gets to the point where this becomes a serious issue and our rights are sufficiently eroded then, frankly, we're all fucked. And I speak as a citizen of a nation with more CCTV cameras per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Most people who've seen the Kindle pictured online think it's 'fugly', but only a few who've bought it and started out with that opinion appear to have stuck to their guns. Many appear to find it more appealing once it's in their hands, but certainly not all.

Unfortunately, it's still too expensive to use in the bath. But then, more and more houses appear to have only showers, and no baths. Guess I'm just old fashioned.

As of writing, the Kindle - currently sold out on US Amazon - is going for insane prices on Ebay, often twice or more the retail price, and in some cases upwards of or even over a thousand dollars. I can only scratch my head in wonder.

Ebook readers mean the whole concept of a book being 'in print' or 'out of print' will soon become completely and absolutely meaningless.

People are entirely correct when they say ebook readers will never replace the printed word - in much the same way photography never 'replaced' the art of painting. Instead, the new technology encouraged the growth of new art forms and freed painters from purely representative depictions of the world, allowing for greater experimentation. E-ink readers are a complement to traditional books, not a replacement. Evolution, not stagnation.

And finally - I wondered just how many books I could get for free, CC-licensed and legal, that I could read on an ebook reader of whatever flavour, to help justify the cost of buying one when the time came. The results were surprising. I'm being very selective here - listing only books I want to read that are either out of print, or for sale in hardcopy but also available for free electronically. And I mean books I want to read. Here's a brief list of likely titles I came up with during one of my frequent bouts of procrastination:

Rudy Rucker - Postsingular
Peter Watts - Starfish
Jeffrey Thomas - Deadstock
Richard Kadrey - Metrophage
Nick Mamatas - Move Underground
Marc Horne - Tokyo Zero
Rick Dakan - Geek Mafia
Karl Schroeder - Ventus
Kelly Link - Stranger Things Happen
Robert Shea - All Things are Lights
Chris Roberson - Set the Seas on Fire
Michael Flynn - Eifelheim

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the current state of the genre will recognise most of these titles. They will also recognise the list is far from comprehensive, but certainly subjective. These are mostly books by authors I've never read but would like to read, and haven't yet read because of an unfortunate imbalance between the number of books I would like to buy, and the number of books I can afford to buy. Some of these are authors who write material I'm not sure would appeal to my tastes, but would be willing to sample in the form of a free download. All are freely and legally available for download. There isn't one I want to read on a normal computer screen. But I'd be happy to read them in e-ink.

There are some titles I've not included here I might otherwise have, because I already own them in hardcopy - Charlie Stross' Accelerando, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End and Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I did some sums and figured out a rough cost of buying the remaining titles in hardcopy - not all in print - came to just about eighty quid, including post and packing for the few that wouldn't have free delivery through Amazon. In other words, almost half the cost of a device like the Kindle when translated into British currency. A few are award-nominated or award-winning novels, or else very well-regarded, plus there's a smattering of non-genre titles I stumbled across that piqued my interest but I wouldn't otherwise have bought because of that whole poverty/cost interface. With the exception of Rucker, I'm familiar with the work of none of these writers. Some off the rest might well turn out not to be of appeal to me. One, for all I know, might turn into my new favourite writer, leading me to buy the rest of their work in hardcopy or paid e-format.

The argument that really swung me around to the idea of perhaps myself putting some work free on the net some time in the future was Doctorow's argument that a writer's greatest enemy is not piracy, but obscurity. I personally wouldn't go so far as putting all my work for free on the net, especially not in an age when the electronic reading experience is beginning to so closely mimic the printed reading experience, but a portion of it? Sure, especially since the evidence appears to be it boosts rather than diminishes sales.

The strength of the argument came to me while in Taiwan; plenty of bookshops, not much in English - and even the translated works of sf, or even of Western fiction in general, were very few in number. A free book out of an author's body of work can be downloaded anywhere, from Brazil to Timbuktoo to Shanghai; any place where books are either scarcely available, or the cost of postage plus that of a book is particularly prohibitive. I found myself considering the usefulness of ebook readers quite a lot during my weeks in Taipei when I realised just how hard it can be to easily get hold of a lot of books outside of a few English-speaking nations (unsurprising really, but you don't think about it until you're confronted with it) without being forced to part with rather more cash than I'm comfortable with.


Kindle on Ebay

Just doing a little late night browsing on the British Ebay, and I decided to jump over to the American site. On a whim I typed in 'Amazon Kindle' to see what came up.

Well, colour me flabbergasted, lots of them for sale, brand new - frequently for up to or even over twice the price of the item as available on Amazon's own site, and with lots of bids. Clearly all those negative reviews on the U.S. Amazon site aren't putting anyone off, especially in the run-up to Christmas.


Kindle Redux

It's quite amazing the arguments and controversy that have surrounded, and continue to surround, Amazon's Kindle e-ink electronic book reader since its launch a few weeks back. Charlie Stross has weighed in with his own, largely skeptical argument concerning the device. Charlie makes some good points, and although I'd be prepared to argue with some of those points, one he does make I wasn't previously aware is the potential misuse of personal data, more particularly the revelation that the Kindle stores details on Amazon's own servers concerning the specific reading habits of a Kindle owner.

Centrally stored personal data is always open to abuse. Just look at the recent debacle of 25 million people's personal data being lost by a UK government department in the post. Or the recent apology the founder of Facebook had to make to his site's users when data relating to their online shopping habits was made visible to other account holders. There is of course the more insidious fear of being spied upon by your own, or someone else's, government. So the fact that data is being stored about what you're reading on a Kindle, and possibly even what pages of a book you spend the most time on, is of real concern.

Charlie is not the only one to point out that it would have been wiser to allow Kindle users the option of storing bookmarks etc. solely on the Kindle rather than on Amazon's own servers, thereby offering some degree of privacy. This kind of thing can be of particular concern to a writer, if they're working - say - on a book that requires research on militant Islam, bomb making, and methods of terrorism; it's the kind of information that you don't want being used against you in a political environment now or in the near future where free speech might not be a given.

However, it's also worth reading the hundred or so comments at the end of Charlie's post, which are full of comments and counter arguments of some interest. Again, it's worth restating that the Kindle is a particular implementation of e-ink technology, and an early adopter one at that. If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that there will be many more e-ink readers to come.

In relation to the aforementioned post, it's also worth taking a look at an online article on the Publisher's Weekly website, in which we find the following paragraph:
"Among other things, the (Amazon.com Privacy) Notice says: “We release account and other personal information when we believe release is appropriate to comply with the law…” In fairness to Amazon and Bezos, his company has laudably fought snooping. But with all the new snoop fodder Jeff is creating, one wonders if he’ll always be successful. In the end the big question is, Can you imagine Jeff risking his billions someday in a major way to protect your rights? Bottom line: If you want a novice-friendly machine as perceived by most reviewers, by all means consider the Kindle. If you want a more privacy-friendly alternative, look elsewhere ... should consumers and the book industry trust Amazon with long-term storage of e-books, not to mention such a prominent role in their distribution?"
That 'account and personal information' bit relates to "information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service."

Hmm. On the plus side, from this article in news.com -
"Amazon.com won an important legal fight to preserve its customers' privacy by persuading a court to reject requests for 24,000 customer records made by federal prosecutors in Madison, Wisconsin ... Two years earlier (in 2000), a judge denied the Drug Enforcement Administration's attempts to get sales records from a Borders bookstore as part of a grand jury investigation. And perhaps the most famous case came when independent counsel Kenneth Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky's purchase records from Kramerbooks, a popular neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C."
"Amazon is following the tradition of other booksellers, which have a tradition of--individually and through the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression--opposing requests from overzealous prosecutors."
Unfortunately, these kinds of issues aren't going to go away for a long time. Most publishers are certainly going to hold onto DRM for as long as possible (with a few notable exceptions like Baen, and individual novelists who post commercially available works online for free), partly because of their fear of piracy, and partly because many people in the publishing industry are of a generation that is not entirely au fait with the online world and computers. The whole issue of DRM and copyright is part and parcel of an ongoing paradigm shift in the developed Western countries regarding the means of distribution of music, art, films and writing that'll take years to settle down, if ever.

However, on a lighter note; I tripped across this video clip - it's entirely on French so I can't understand a word that's being said, but it's worth watching nonetheless since it appears to offer a 'day after tomorrow' glimpse into what a world of cheaply available, second or third generation e-book readers might be like.

And a final note; one of the first complaints regarding the Kindle was its ugliness - curiously enough, some of those who found it ugly after seeing it online have apparently retracted this concern after actually purchasing one. In the end, nobody apparently really knows what they think of one of these things (including me) until they actually get their hands on one, at which point all bets appear to be off ...


The other day, I was checking out a magazine based in Taiwan aimed at expats that looked fairly glossy and professional. There were ads for paid staff to take care of things like advertising, marketing, sales and so forth. Everyone but the writers; they had to write for free. Everyone else got paid - just not the writers. And how can you have a magazine without writers?


Kindle continued

I've been keeping tabs on the whole Amazon Kindle thing, and as new(ish) technologies go, the whole thing's turned out to be rather contentious. If you go to the US Amazon site there are literally several hundred negative reviews of the device; a quick scan soon makes it clear that most of those commenting - and clicking on the review button while they're at it - haven't actually either bought one, seen one or used one or understood the fundamental difference between Kindle-like machines and anything else with a screen. But I turned out to be wrong about my prediction it might take up to a week or two to hack the device; according to a friend in the games industry, it took less than forty-eight hours.

I don't want to come across like some kind of Amazon groupie here because I'm in the position of never having been able to get my hands on one myself, but the whole idea of the Kindle is a remarkable one. And, like I said in a previous entry, the Kindle is only one particular implementation of a technology, not the final item, and as yet still very much at the early adopter stage - mostly because of the cost.

I've stumbled across two reviews of the Kindle which are interesting because they're so entirely polarised in each reviewer's response to it. One is a video review at scobleizer.com, and the chap concerned really, really doesn't like it. While attempting myself to remain as impartial as possible at this stage, I felt the review was perhaps not as fair as it could have been; but take a look and see for yourselves. The other review (on computerworld.com), which is far more glowing, presents a list of things Amazon say you can (and can't) do with the Kindle - and then backs it up with a list of things you can do with your Kindle, that Amazon aren't talking about too loudly.

In fact, it appears that the Kindle is hack-able to about the same degree that Apple's Iphone isn't. And the implication to some is that back-doors to the device's software have been more or less left deliberately left wide-open. Not only that, but many of the purported limitations - you can only read books downloaded through Amazon's website, you can't copy books, it doesn't work as a web browser - are, according to some, manifestly not true. For instance, the majority of blogs you purportedly have to pay to be able to read are accessible for free using RSS feeds through the Kindle's basic web browser, as in fact are the free online contents of many of the newspapers now selling Kindle subscriptions.

The latter review goes on to make some very salient points that simply hadn't occurred to me:
"What you didn't know: You can just surf the Web in general. Kindle comes with a Web browser called Basic Web, which supports cookies, JavaScript and SSL, but doesn't support plug-ins like Flash or Shockwave or Java applets. Basic Web lets you type in a URL, click on links and generally surf the Web like you would on a PC."
Now, the Kindle connects over a free, mobile-phone based network in the States primarily intended to give you instant access to Amazon's online store. That means you get to browse the net for free, without paying for the connection, a service that is presumably intended to spread to the UK and all other points. When you think about it, this is actually quite radical, once you factor in the minor revelation it can be used to a certain extent as a web browser - one that functions without being dependent on the availability of wifi hotspots. It makes me wonder if this is perhaps Amazon (or rather, Jeff Bezo's) intention - to create a device that does in fact slip somewhat under the radar of certain legal issues relating to DRM, distribution and networking - or to put it more simply, the problems that eternally spring up in relation to supply and demand where creativity is involved: someone creates something that people want (music, books, art), while someone else altogether creates the means by which that product is distributed; one feeds off the other. I have little doubt that a company as big as Amazon would have to develop such a device under any number of binding legal restrictions; but for there to be so many back-doors that allow those who look a little deeper a means to bypass many of those restrictions does rather make you wonder.

... of course, all that said, there is still that one humongous problem to date; you can't read a Kindle in the bath ...