Friday, October 16, 2020

The Mysterious Affair

Poirot’s abrupt departure had intrigued us all greatly. Sunday morning wore away, and still he did not reappear. But about three o’clock a ferocious and prolonged hooting outside drove us to the window, to see Poirot alighting from a car, accompanied by Japp and Summerhaye. The little man was transformed. He radiated an absurd complacency. He bowed with exaggerated respect to Mary Cavendish. Still beaming, Poirot marshalled us all into the drawing-room, bringing forward chairs as he did so. Finally Miss Howard consented to return to her chair. A few minutes later Alfred Inglethorp entered the room. The company once assembled, Poirot said meditatively:


John stuck his head in at this juncture, and invited us both to come up to Mrs. Inglethorp’s room, as he and Mr. Wells had finished looking through the desk in the boudoir. To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants’ rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps’ rooms were situated. 

Poirot puffed at his tiny cigarette, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Mr. Inglethorp sus” 

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! I am inclined to think that Miss Howard was the master mind in that affair. You remember her once mentioning that her father was a doctor? Possibly she dispensed his medicines for him, or she may have taken the idea from one of the many books lying about when Mademoiselle Cynthia was studying for her exam. Anyway, she was familiar with the fact that the addition of a bromide to a mixture containing strychnine would cause the precipitation of the latter. Probably the idea came to her quite suddenly. Mrs. Inglethorp had a box of bromide powders, which she occasionally took at night?”

Poirot did not answer me for a moment, but at last he said: 

“Miss Howard sus” 

“What could be easier than quietly to dissolve one or more of those powders in Mrs. Inglethorp’s large sized bottle of medicine when it came from Coot’s? The risk is practically nil. The tragedy will not take place until nearly a fortnight later. If anyone has seen either of them touching the medicine, they will have forgotten it by that time. Miss Howard will have engineered her quarrel, and departed from the house. The lapse of time, and her absence, will defeat all suspicion. Yes, it was a clever idea! I am still a little fogged on only one thing. Why did she agree to do it?” 

“theyre teaming” 

“You devil! How did you get it?” 

 A chair was overturned. Poirot skipped nimbly aside. A quick movement on his part, and his assailant fell with a crash.

Poirot rose from his seat with the air of a popular lecturer, and bowing politely to his audience, pronounced: 

“Mr. Inglethorp sus”

Saturday, October 10, 2020

TTRPG news

I have just released the full early access edition of The Shrike:

The Shrike is a game about fantastical voyages aboard a skyship. It's inspired by Avery Alder's The Quiet Year, John Harper's Lady Blackbird, Italo Calvino, Ursula K. Le Guin, and utopian and dystopian fiction. The 120+ page early access edition is now available, featuring four complete adventures (two multiplayer, two for solo play).

I'm also contributing two mini-RPGs to the forthcoming Soft Apocalypse (Conjured Games) anthology, out in early 2021. Bunnies & Cyborgs is a GM-less doodling and storytelling one-shot game about incredibly flawed plans, bad handovers, unexpected interactions and unintended consequences. You play an endlessly multiplying swarm of 'bunnies' and 'cyborgs'.  In Bunnies & Cyborgs, a bunny can be anything fluffy, and a cyborg can be anything that goes BLOOP BLOOP BLEEP BLEEP. It's from an original idea by Ewerton AKA moon.hermitcrab, who also drew this:

Fury Road Trip is Mad Max meets Little Miss Sunshine. It is partly a hack of /u/remy_porter's work-in-progress Family Road Trip. It is also (weirdly) slightly inspired by compassion-focused therapy.

The Watch

Whoa, first of all: what's this about the forthcoming Discworld adaptation, The Watch, being "cyberpunk"? In, for example, The Guardian. I'm really not seeing the cyberpunk connection? Possibly the word they're looking for is "punk"? There are many punks to choose from, and we don't need to drag cyber into it. Secondly ...

An Unpopular Opinion. Yes, I think this is one of those.

Of course, first there's the fact that among those who don't like the adaptation, there will be at least a few who just want Vetinari to be male and Lady Ramkin to be white. And who don't like the look of Cherry either. That's not you of course. You've got legit reasons for being annoyed by the production. It might at least give us pause for thought, when our outrage provides cover for misogyny, racism, and transphobia.

But also: Terry Pratchett's Discworld is a story about stories and how stories change. The Discworld partly sprouted from Pratchett's earlier novel, Strata, which involves a flat Earth floating in space and a mash-up of science fiction and high fantasy tropes. Strata is itself a pastiche of Larry Niven's Ringworld, one of those pastiches that is maybe a teensy bit better than the original. Pratchett's mock heroic The Carpet People, which also took place on a plane, and which Pratchett extensively revised for the second edition, was also a kind of prototype Discworld. 

The Discworld series then grew through a complex and mostly increasingly assured array of parodies, pastiches, reimaginings, imitations, and take-offs, most stunningly of Shakespeare (in books like Wyrd Sisters and Lords and Ladies) but also Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Gaston Leroux, Ingmar Bergman, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and many others. Sometimes you had to know the original to get the joke, but more often you didn't. Pratchett's antennae could gather up and elegantly regurgitate that garbled background hum of familiar tropes that don't really belong to anyone in particular. He was good at that.

The Discworld was also a bit of a pioneer in transmedia storytelling, with novels, plays, digital and analogue games, the wonderful the Science of Discworld popular science collaborations, a tabletop roleplaying game, a cookbook, an almanac, and all kinds of miscellaneous works and merch and mischief. In the novels, the sustained commitment to making the stories work as stand-alones also produced a distinctive intertextuality: the Discworld became a world with many entranceways, and that meant that Pratchett needed to tell us certain things again and again. He did this by skilfully varying those things, or by turning them into running jokes, in order to entrance newcomers and devoted fans simultaneously. 

History, especially of the European industrial revolution, is also remixed throughout the Discworld series and especially in the Ankh-Morpork strand. The medieval, the early industrial, and the modern are constantly colliding and spurting sparks of fizzing narrativium. Pratchett always told these stories just as he saw fit, twisting, trimming, flipping things on their heads. He was always fabulously, provocatively unfaithful to his source material. He didn't stick to the facts about the founding of the Bank of England (Making Money), for instance, or the French Revolution (Night Watch), because he wanted to make these stories meld and resonate with his world, not the world where they first happened to happen. Besides, as most good Menippean satirists would agree, sometimes you can glimpse the truth more clearly in a carnival funhouse mirror. There is a certain kind of pesky fact that can just get in the way of the truth.

There was perhaps a smidge of unease about so much borrowing, blending, and bending, which Pratchett sublimated into a sustained reflection throughout the Discworld on the nature of storytelling:

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do and is not, for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination [...]

And then, of course, there's the way the Discworld gradually reinvented itself again and again, examining and reimagining its politics and its peoples over and over, over the course of its more than thirty year history. So what's all this to do with the new series The Watch, about which many Pratchett fans are up in arms?

In short, I cannot think of another storyworld where an appeal to the True and Authentic Version is quite so vigorously contradicted by the source material itself. The Discworld is a story about stories having lives of their own

So, I don't mean to defend the creative choices or the commercial wisdom of this production, exactly. Nor do I really mean to celebrate the poetics of postmodernism or metafiction, or anything like that — that's an adjacent conversation. Nor even do I want to predict that the production is going to be any good — honestly, from that short trailer, I have no idea! 

But the Discworld is already much larger than this one adaptation. This is not a matter of Hollywood execs bungling some cult favorite that will henceforth slip into obscurity. So long as civilization survives, and probably even when it doesn't, there will be Discworld adaptations. In the darkness, amid the stars, the turtle swims on. 

And when those future adaptations do appear, they will kindle Pratchett's satirical spirit within new social and cultural contexts. Pratchett's satire will achieve its long term significance in the context of future evolving understandings of many of his perennial themes: gender roles, science and technology, diversity and difference, coloniality, justice and the police. Maybe we should get off to a good start? Make some choices about just how precious we want to be about this already effervescently mercurial and intertextual source material?

So maybe ... we could just be cool about it? Wait and see? Judge it according to what it's trying to do and how well or poorly it does that, not according to how closely it correlates with the images we have already built up in our mind's eye? I am OK with a version of Vimes in eyeliner. I am OK with things being different to what they are in the books. The books are already different to the stories they borrow, to the history that inspires them, and even to themselves. The Discworld was a universe where time was always slipping out of joint, where stories circulated independently of storytellers and took on lives of their own. If this adaptation is bad, then it's bad, but let it be bad for the right reasons. And Bunk as Death? I'm here for that.

That said, Terry Pratchett the human being is not long gone, and there is a whole ethics and emotional intelligence around including his loved ones in shaping his legacy. Most of us are pretty bad at death, and one of the few things we know how to do is cherish the counterfactual: they would have loved thatThat's what they would have wanted. So there is that. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Bunnies & Cyborgs playtest


We playtested this thing I apparently wrote (although I can't remember doing so) as a submission for the forthcoming Conjured Games Soft Apocalypse anthology. It was fun! And stable. I hope to run another playtest soon, so get in touch if you're interested. (And/or if you play it, let me know how it goes).

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Reality Business: Shoshana Zuboff's Surveillance Capitalism, Neologisms Only Cut

It is about the darkening of the digital dream and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism. These prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets. Users provided the raw material in the form of behavioral data, and those data were harvested to improve speed, accuracy, and relevance and to help build ancillary products such as translation. I call this the behavioral value reinvestment cycle, in which all behavioral data are reinvested in the improvement of the product or service. 

Surveillance capitalism’s command of the division of learning in society begins with what I call the problem of the two texts. The first text, full of promise, actually functions as the supply operation for the second text: the shadow text. Everything that we contribute to the first text, no matter how trivial or fleeting, becomes a target for surplus extraction. 

Behavioral surplus must be vast and varied, but the surest way to predict behavior is to intervene at its source and shape it. The processes invented to achieve this goal are what I call economies of action. The scientists and engineers whom I interviewed identified three key approaches to economies of action, each one aimed at achieving behavior modification. The first two I call “tuning” and “herding.” The third is already familiar as what behavioral psychologists refer to as “conditioning.” This new level of competitive intensity characterized by scope and action ratchets up the invasive character of supply operations and initiates a new era of surveillance commerce that I call the reality business

There are many buzzwords that gloss over these operations and their economic origins: “ambient computing,” “ubiquitous computing,” and the “internet of things” are but a few examples. For now I will refer to this whole complex more generally as the “apparatus.” Although the labels differ, they share a consistent vision: the everywhere, always-on instrumentation, datafication, connection, communication, and computation of all things, animate and inanimate, and all processes—natural, human, physiological, chemical, machine, administrative, vehicular, financial.

This chapter and the next draw our attention to the gap between experience and data, as well as to the specific operations that target this gap on a mission to transform the one into the other. I call these operations rendition. We have seen that the dispossession of human experience is the original sin of surveillance capitalism, but this dispossession is not mere abstraction. Rendition describes the concrete operational practices through which dispossession is accomplished, as human experience is claimed as raw material for datafication and all that follows, from manufacturing to sales. 

In this way, surveillance capitalism births a new species of power that I call instrumentarianism. Part III examines the rise of instrumentarian power; its expression in a ubiquitous sensate, networked, computational infrastructure that I call Big Other; and the novel and deeply antidemocratic vision of society and social relations that these produce. Thanks to Big Other’s capabilities, instrumentarian power reduces human experience to measurable observable behavior while remaining steadfastly indifferent to the meaning of that experience. I call this new way of knowing radical indifference. It is a form of observation without witness that yields the obverse of an intimate violent political religion and bears an utterly different signature of havoc: the remote and abstracted contempt of impenetrably complex systems and the interests that author them, carrying individuals on a fast-moving current to the fulfillment of others’ ends. 

The withdrawal of agreement [from surveillance capitalism] takes two broad forms, a distinction that will be useful as we move into Part III. The first is what I call the counter-declaration. These are defensive measures such as encryption and other privacy tools, or arguments for “data ownership.” Such measures may be effective in discrete situations, but they leave the opposing facts intact, acknowledging their persistence and thus paradoxically contributing to their legitimacy. For example, if I “opt out” of tracking, I opt out for me, but my action does not challenge or alter the offending practice. The second form of disagreement is what I call the synthetic declaration. If the declaration is “check,” the counter-declaration is “checkmate,” and the synthetic declaration changes the game. It asserts an alternative framework that transforms the opposing facts.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

In Forever

I just wanted to put this into the world. It was some cover artwork by the amazing Alice Duke, commissioned for a novel I wrote called I Have Seen You in Forever. In the end it didn't work out with the publisher (in an amiable and mutual way, and we may publish a different book together if I ever get them the manuscript), and I'm not sure if the novel ever will go out into the world. It might just hang out in its own world. But I love this strange picture and the secret story it's about that almost nobody knows.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Please Don't Let Go

I have a short story out at the pretty wonderful Fireside Fiction, including a lovely podcast version narrated by Hollis Beck. 

'Please Don't Let Go' is workers' comp, medico-legal speculative fiction. It is about Ms. Wolfboy and it is a true story. I'd like to dedicate it to my dad, Dr Dad.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Shrike

So this is what I've been writing recently. The Shrike is an oracle-based RPG system for solo, co-operative, or GM-guided play. It's about fantastic voyages. You can access a pre-alpha version here:

The Shrike is also potentially part of something a bit new, in the sense that the voyages are mostly procedurally generated. I am slightly hitting a wall (or really more like diminishing returns) in my pseudo-coding abilities, so I'll be developing it as more-or-less a standard RPG for now. But if you happen to be a games developer who might be interested in collaborating on a bigger, more innovative version of it, get in touch. 

Elsewhere: Sad Press Games

Monday, June 29, 2020

Mind Seed review

This review originally appeared back in Interzone 272.

Mind Seed
Ed. David Gullen and Gary Couzens
T Party Books

Nine stories, mostly originals, by members of London writers’ group the T Party. The anthology is in memory of Denni Schnapp, who died in 2013. An introduction by Denni’s husband John Howroyd tells us a bit about her life. The last story, “Mind Seed,” is her own.

Perhaps there are two kinds of tale of possession. One kind is all about craving a uniform community. It’s about fear of interlopers, fear that others are secretly fundamentally different to you. Helen Callaghan’s “Sex and the Single Hive Mind” is closer to the second kind. It’s about craving plurality – desiring to become, under the rubric of compassion, fundamentally different from yourself. (Even if you don’t become, as Callaghan’s protagonist(s) puts it, “nice people”). It’s an engaging, agile opener, sparkling with sleaze rather than polish.

Fox McGeever’s “Evolution” is post-apocalyptic survivalism pared down for parable-esque force. The protagonist Cara is all alone, save some invasive xenomorphs and a wombful of weird son. The indistinct mechanisms of apocalypse – silver ships and white fire – convey an aura of rapture and end-times. Like any parable worth its salt (of the earth), “Evolution” accommodates many interpretations. It could just be about the remorse of isolated young parents, trying to live up to their received ideas about what Nature intends (e.g. breastfeeding). It could be about human’s eternal capacity to adapt, and yet also to evolve new chauvinisms, new borders (“antibodies” (p.35)). In one aching image, Cara sleeps beside her husband’s body, waking with one hand on her bump and the other on his chest: this story could be about the ethics of creating new humans, when there is no world left to nourish them. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “Living in the Vertical World” is pieced together from real ingredients of that crumbling world: maybe Bosco Verticale in Porta Nuova, Milan (or more speculatively, Dickson Despommier’s “skyscraper-as-spaceship” research and advocacy) plus a crumb of Occupy, a crumb of Maker hipsterdom, a crumb of malevolent Monsanto IP litiginousness. It finishes on a “what-would-you-do?” and hints at the relationship between social bonds and foundational acts of violence.

So far I make Mind Seed sound very serious. But it’s also great fun. Stasis pods! Ship AI! Rovers! Thrust! Identities are rickety and unsound in “Sex and the Single Hive Mind,” and boundaries between individuals are unusually permeable. So there’s a small serendipity at the frontier between Callaghan’s story and McGeever’s “Evolution”: a character called Mark appears in each story, and for a moment, they feel like they are one overlapping, overspilling person. Something similar – only it’s deliberate – occurs in the most elegant moment of Ian Whates’s “Darkchild.” With the line “Darkchild sat alone” (p. 71), identities dovetail and meld. And here’s a spoiler: Darkchild is the prisoner of a dread trinket, a sort of Cthulhic desk ornament timewaster. You wonder: is the puzzle is solvable? “Water dripping somewhere” (p.61) is Darkchild’s only stimulus, obviously reminiscent of so-called Chinese Water Torture. A drip also suggests chaos theory: the deterministic but unpredictable coalescence and collapse of liquid at the lip of a tap. Obviously to escape, Darkchild must solve this non-linear function: but how to input her answer? Via varying the rhythm of her foetal-pose back-and-forth rocking of course! I bet your average Interzone reader would be out of there in a jiffy.

Deborah Walker’s myth-like “The Three Brother Cities” doesn’t give us a critique of the creeping surveillance requirements or algorithmic hubris of the contemporary smart city, so much as the sublime thrill of cosplaying Cair Paravel or Gormenghast or Ambergris (. . . in space!). If my eyebrows weren’t zotzed by all that rocket thrust, I might cock one at the hokey gender dynamics of Owton & Couzens’s pleasantly mercurial, Golden Age-ish “Rockhopper.”Anybody stasis pod stowaways who awaken in the Twenty-Third Century, don’t fret! – it’s still 100% fine to slip into something more feminine and melt into a nearby burly chest. But listen, if you thought “Rockhopper” was the biggest jolt of gee-whizz space opera retro you’re likely to guzzle all year, that’s because you haven’t yet read Markus Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders.” Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders” is, for starters, entitled “Alien Invaders,” and it’s a heady cocktail of unload-my-space-pistol-right-in-your-tentacles capers, pulpier than a pineapple, with a twisty straw of what-if-the-true-monsters-are-dot-dot-dot-us?

Perhaps it’s the relatively cosy contributor-base that gives this anthology such bracing variety – even a genuinely unpredictable variety of varieties. There are patterns however. There’s a lot of First Contact – or at least Still-In-That-Awkward-Stage-Of-Getting-To-Know-You Contact. There’s fruitfulness, verdant abundance. No story is explicitly elegaic, but many – and above all, Schnapp’s own “Mind Seed” – take acceptance for their theme. With humour, bluntness, and effervescence, “Mind Seed” tells the tale of Leia’s cancer treatment by full brain emulation (“A toddler aged thirty-two and a half [...] I spun Leia in my arms”), and of her sister Zif’s transition from luddite-ish anti-cyborg hold-out (“stone ager” (p. 166)) to cyborg and, ultimately, to intrastellar voyager.

Several stories unite an immoderate intensity of desolation with an equal intensity of hopefulness. Nina Allan’s “Bird Songs at Eventide” is one gorgeously honed example. Humanity manifests in a detached, almost hardboiled manner. Whimsical associative shifts are deployed with clinical precision. The prickliness of the prosody, and the sumptuousness of sense-data, are self-consiously inadequate compensation for a loss without any clear boundaries: loss of a lover’s love, of a planet, of something. Meanwhile, the living cosmos teems.

Profits from the anthology go to Next Generation Nepal, an anti-child-trafficking charity supported by Denni Schnapp.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

AI Dungeon

From AI Dungeon.

Starting Prompt: You live on the edge of a vast lake. The lake is salt water. You are perhaps ten years old. You're not sure. There's a well in the village. Your father is a fisher. The forest is dark and full. You hate the lake, which is as vast as a sea, because you think it fake. You think it is full of shadows, more shadows than water, and that the fish hide there, and perhaps walk about. The people in your village have two names, depending on the season. Tomorrow, everyone will change to a new name.

AI Dungeon 2 Instructions:
Enter actions starting with a verb ex. "go to the tavern" or "attack the orc."
To speak enter 'say "(thing you want to say)"' or just "(thing you want to say)"
The following commands can be entered for any action:
"revert" Reverts the last action allowing you to pick a different action.
"quit" Quits the game and saves
"restart" Starts a new game and saves your current one
"save" Makes a new save of your game and gives you the save ID
"load" Asks for a save ID and loads the game if the ID is valid
"print" Prints a transcript of your adventure (without extra newline formatting)
"help" Prints these instructions again

Generating story...

You live on the edge of a vast lake. The lake is salt water. You are perhaps ten years old. You're not sure. There's a well in the village. Your father is a fisher. The forest is dark and full. You hate the lake, which is as vast as a sea, because you think it fake. You think it is full of shadows, more shadows than water, and that the fish hide there, and perhaps walk about. The people in your village have two names, depending on the season. Tomorrow, everyone will change to a new name. One day, they'll all be called by their true names

> Run into the forest

You go to the forest. It is cold and dark. You see no one. No one has ever been here before. You can't find anything. You look around for something to eat, but there is nothing. You feel hungry, though. You want to eat something. Something sweet

> Feel afraid

You feel scared. You are alone. You are scared. You don't know what to do. You need help. Help is coming soon.

> Sing a song

You begin singing a song. The world becomes brighter. You feel happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

 > Climb a tree together

You climb up a tree with your friend. You are so happy. Your happiness fills you. You love each other. You are happy. You will never die

> Pick a fruit

You pick a fruit. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Bite into the persimmon. The fruit runs down my chin

You bite into the persimmon. The fruit runs down your chin. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Find a giant bird

You find a giant bird. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Climb on the bird's back and fly to the snowy mountain

You climb on the bird's back and fly to the snowy mountain. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Feel unhappy

You feel unhappy. You are alone. You are sad. You cannot find anyone. You must find someone to make you happy. Someone must come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Be happy even though I am alone

You be happy even though you are alone. You are happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Melt the snow and drink it

You melt the snow and drink it. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Carve a magic rune

You carve a magic rune. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Restart

You restart. You are happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will.

> restart

Please rate the story quality from 1-10: 9

Game saved. To load the game, type 'load' and enter the following ID: ec6be256-1888-11ea-b8cb-0242ac1c0002