Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Owl, the Pussycat and the Jetpack



We are giving away this mini-collection of short stories ("Fred," "The Invasion," "The Butteryellow Reliquary") free on the Kindle.

Robert Kiely: "You have gotten this far, you can see the elegantly shaped vessel and its invigorating contents above, why not partake? I did. Now all my wrinkles are gone and I eat fruit five times a day and veg five times too, doubling up on that shit. These stories are like the bald cry of a newborn baby, which I suppose might irritate some of you, but it shouldn't, it is beautiful, but perhaps I picked up the wrong metaphor, I am keeping it nonetheless. Deal alien goo? This is for you. Megabyte coding pastoral? Grab it by the dorsal."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Invocation

A revised edition (1.4) of Invocation is now out, correcting some minor errors. Like, I'd spelled pétanque "peutonk" (thank you, nick-e melville). The Kindle edition is also currently cheap as can be.

Meanwhile, have finally started working on something new. More SFish than fantasyish. I think this will be the epigraph:

The universe is made of atoms, not stories.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From "Touching the Void"

By Joe Simpson.

Touching the Void on Amazon. Joe Simpson's web site

Excerpts:

The voice kept urging me on, ‘Place-lift-brace-hop ... keep going. Look how far you’ve gone. Just do it, don’t think about it ...’

I did as I was told. Stumbling past and sometimes over boulders, falling, crying, swearing in a litany that matched the pattern of my hopping. I forgot why I was doing it; forgot even the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it. Running on instincts that I had never suspected were in me, and drifting down the sea of moraines in a blurred delirium of thirst, and pain and hopping, I timed myself religiously. I looked ahead to a landmark and gave myself half an hour to reach it. As I neared the mark, a furious bout of watch-glancing would ensue, until it became part of the pattern ... place-lift-brace-hop-time. If I realised I was behind time I tried to rush the last ten minutes of hopping. I fell so much more when I rushed but it had become so damned important to beat the watch. Only once did I fail to beat it, and I sobbed with annoyance. The watch became as crucial as my good leg. I had no sense of time passing, and with each fall I lay in a semi-stupor, accepting the pain and quite unaware of how long I had been there. A look at the watch would galvanise me into action, especially when I saw it had been five minutes and not the thirty seconds it had felt like.

[...]

As I gazed at the distant moraines I knew that I must at least try. I would probably die out there amid those boulders. The thought didn’t alarm me. It seemed reasonable, matter-of-fact. That was how it was. I could aim for something. If I died, well, that wasn’t so surprising, but I wouldn’t have just waited for it to happen. The horror of dying no longer affected me as it had in the crevasse. I now had the chance to confront it and struggle against it. It wasn’t a bleak dark terror any more, just fact, like my broken leg and frostbitten fingers, and I couldn’t be afraid of things like that. My leg would hurt when I fell, and when I couldn’t get up I would die. In a peculiar way it was refreshing to be faced with simple choices. It made me feel sharp and alert, and I looked ahead at the land stretching into distant haze and saw my part in it with a greater clarity and honesty than I had ever experienced before.

I had never been so entirely alone, and although this alarmed me it also gave me strength. An excited tingle ran down my spine. I was committed. The game had taken over, and I could no longer choose to walk away from it. It was ironic to have come here searching out adventure and then find myself involuntarily trapped in a challenge harder than any I had sought. For a while I felt thrilled as adrenalin boosted through me, but it couldn’t drive away the loneliness or shorten the miles of moraines tumbling towards the lakes. The sight of what lay ahead soon killed the excitement. I was abandoned to this awesome and lonely place. It sharpened my perception to see clearly and sharply the facts behind the mass of useless thoughts in my head, and to realise how vital it was just to be there, alive and conscious, and able to change things. There was silence, and snow, and a clear sky empty of life, and me, sitting there, taking it all in, accepting what I must try to achieve. There were no dark forces acting against me. A voice in my head told me that this was true, cutting through the jumble in my mind with its coldly rational sound.

It was as if there were two minds within me arguing the toss. The voice was clean and sharp and commanding. It was always right, and I listened to it when it spoke and acted on its decisions. The other mind rambled out a disconnected series of images, and memories and hopes, which I attended to in a daydream state as I set about obeying the orders of the voice. I had to get to the glacier. I would crawl on the glacier, but I didn’t think that far ahead. If my perspectives had sharpened, so too had they narrowed, until I thought only in terms of achieving predetermined aims and no further. Reaching the glacier was my aim. The voice told me exactly how to go about it, and I obeyed while my other mind jumped abstractedly from one idea to another.

[...]

A couple of times I looked back at the ice cliffs as I hobbled away down the rocks. Each time they grew smaller and I felt that I was shutting the door on something intangible but menacing that had been with me for so long. Those cliffs were the doors to the mountains. I grinned when I glanced at them. I had won a battle of some sort. I could feel it deep inside. Now it was just the patterns, and the pain, and water. Could I reach Bomb Alley tonight? Now that would be something to grin about! It wasn’t so far from here, twenty minutes’ walk, and that couldn’t be so hard! And that was my mistake. I stopped timing landmarks and set my sights on Bomb Alley and the silver floods of icy melt-water pouring down its flanks. When it became dark I had no idea how far Bomb Alley was, nor did I know how far I had crawled. Without checking my watch I had lain in stupefied exhaustion after every fall. Lain there and listened to endless stories running through the pain, watched short dreams of life in the real world, played songs to my heartbeat, licked the mud for water, and wasted countless hours in an empty dream. Now I staggered blind in the dark, obsessed with Bomb Alley, ignoring the voice which told me to sleep, and rest, and forget the alley. I got my head-torch from my sack and blundered on until the light died.

[...]

Turning towards the lakes I saw that I was a long way above the site of Bomb Alley. All that staggering in the dark had been for nothing. How stupid it had been to forget the watch-keeping yesterday, and how quickly I had lost any idea of time. Bomb Alley had then become a vague aim instead of a carefully planned objective. Without timing each stage I had drifted aimlessly with no sense of urgency. Today it had to be different. I decided that four hours would be enough to reach Bomb Alley. Twelve noon was the deadline, and I intended to break those hours into short stages, each one carefully timed. I searched ahead for the first landmark -- a tall pillar of red rock that stood out clearly above the sea of boulders. Half an hour to reach it, and then I would look for another.

[...]

I lay on my side watching them until I couldn’t fight off the appalling drowsy weakness any longer. The deterioration scared me deeply and made me wonder anxiously whether I had burnt myself out completely. It occurred to me that I was nearer to death than when I had been alone. The minute I knew help was at hand something had collapsed inside me. Whatever had been holding me together had gone. Now I could not think for myself, let alone crawl! There was nothing to fight for, no patterns to follow, no voice, and it frightened me to think that, without these, I might run out of life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

November: a few links

"With Augmented Reality You'll Always Know When No REALLY Means Yes," by Tim Maughan.  "Weakness analysis — having trouble finding chinks in her armour? Our powerful face and body analysis software will scan your target and compare her attributes to a constantly updated top ten of celebrity hotties, identifying areas where she likely feels inadequate. Make her feel a million dollars instead by complimenting her in the ways she’s desperate to hear." See also: "Collision Detection."

§

An intriguing request from Karen Lord about her novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. "What I am wondering is whether certain parts of my book are being overlooked by readers and reviewers who are not well-versed in postcolonial and Caribbean literature. I’m referring to two chapters: ‘Bacchanal’ and ‘The Master’s House’. [...] I’d be so grateful if an academic or reviewer in Caribbean and postcolonial literature could examine, assess and critique the book in general and those two chapters in particular from a position of expert knowledge. My job is to write the stuff, not explain it, and my policy is to rarely react to reviews, so I can’t guarantee any kind of ‘you’ve got it’ endorsement. I simply want to see a discussion started in an area that I feel is significant but has been barely mentioned as yet."


§

Tony Ballantyne's "If Only ... A Taste of Your Own Medicine" (Nature / Concatenation, PDF) is a seething quirky one-page parable. "'Magic?' said Sacha, her eyes suddenly shining. “You mean there’s really such a thing?' 'Of course not. But I can’t explain to you how it’s really done because you’re not allowed science any more.'"

§

Greg Egan's The Arrows of Time is hitting a shelflike direction near you. "In between the timelike and spacelike directions are those traced out by light; these are known as lightlike or null directions." Try out his worldbuilding notes, in which there is no distinction between timelike and spacelike. Plus: spot the deliberate physics mistake!

§

“Memorably described by Charles Stross as the 'fictional agitprop arm of the Technocratic movement,' science fiction has tended to do incredibly well in periods of hubristic cultural expansion when the boundaries of possibility somehow appear both endless and within easy reach. Despite this proven track record when it comes to frontier spirit and two-fisted optimism, science fiction has also displayed a remarkable capacity for re-invention that has seen it resonate in periods of intense cultural retrenchment when all thoughts naturally turn to the moral difficulties of empire and what it means to live in a culture that has definitely passed its prime.” Jonathan McCalmont's Future Interrupted column #1. Originally in Interzone.

§

Amazon nano-choppers delivering It straight to your driveway (BBC). You have a driveway, right? You want It, right?

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With 27 days still on the clock, Adam Roberts calls it for the best science fiction of 2013 (Guardian). Also: Roberts on Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam (Strange Horizons).

§

Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press publishes limited edition fiction chapbooks, with recent titles by M. John Harrison & Hilary Scudder.

My envelope arrived stiffened with cereal box cardboard: Crispy Minis and Golden Nuggets.

§

Patrick McCray on the futurism of Kaku and O'Neill.

§

Edinburgh fowk: the 17th of December is Syndicate 10: Subsong, the last Syndicate of the year, & perhaps even the last.  Why not come along (Facebook)? Advanced poetry, the possibility of scattered robot parts, even a Syngularity.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Ends of Humanity

"Now, with the death of communism and social democracy's struggle to sustain its postwar gains, the idea of the whole of humanity as a potential political subject barely exists. Socialism is dead, and its death — as Nietzsche observed of God’s — has had unexpected effects. One of the less happy consequences of the end of socialism as a mass ideology is the end of humanity as an imagined community. This has consequences in our real communities; the rise of far-right parties across Europe is one of them." Ken MacLeod on socialism and transhumanism at Aeon.

.@

Does .@ exist in science fiction?

It's a Twitter thing. Let me explain.

If your tweet begins "@so-and-so," that means it will appears in the timelines of so-and-so plus whoever follows both you and so-and-so. Your followers won't see it, unless they also follow so-and-so (or go looking for it).

That makes sense -- you're so different when you're around so-and-so :(

It's a clever piece of design, which encourages you to have one-on-one conversations on Twitter without worrying about spamming all your followers.

There's a little hack to circumvent this -- just stick any character in front of the "@" and it will appear in all your followers' timelines. (For some reason, .@ is gaining currency against the more aesthetically pleasing ж@ and ‽@). The use of .@ suggests a kind of solicited eavesdropping, or spectacle chitchat. It suggests, "I'm talking to so-and-so, but I want everybody to hear this."

Understandably getting an .@ makes some people squeamish. It can be reminiscent of the IRL situation where you're chatting with somebody who keeps glancing past you to see if there's someone more important or interesting (or less abrasively fascinating) they can talk to instead. Is my attention not good enough for you?

My hunch, by the way, is that the squeamishness will diminish, and that .@ will lose that tarnish of mild pomposity and neediness, and get assimilated into the quotidian, perhaps non-pathological practices of putting yourself out there and getting all up in everyone's shit. Posting on somebody's Facebook wall once felt weird -- you've got the message function, why do you want "the whole world" to see that you guys should really meet up for gin fizzes, or are readying the launch sequence, or whatever?

But my question is: are we seeing this kind of not-quite-private, not-quite-public speech appear in science fiction yet? It's a very common trope of postcyberpunk in particular to have characters who are permanently online (perhaps via wearable devices, perhaps via surgically-implanted neural interfaces -- a lace, a jack, a plexcore, a jewel, a cranial crest, an inlay, an e-i, a Descartes fin, a think tank, a cornoggincopia) and therefore, as it were, permanently fucking around on social media.

I can think of some science fiction that comes close. A character in Iain M. Banks's Matter hilariously makes arch, melodramatic asides to a presumed swarm of surveillance lurkers. In Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom characters sometimes hold one conversation out loud, and another subvocally ("Jesus, Lil, you are one rangy cowgirl"). There's Jennifer Egan's quasi-prescient Look at Me and innumerable tales of authenticity angst and self-fashioning under the social media gaze. People drop in on each other's consciousnesses pretty casually in an old Lorqi Blinks story of mine, "Fred." In Tim Maughan's "Limited Edition" Twitter is a ubiquitous and mandatory identity prosthesis -- for insight into a character, the ignorant gossip of online personae becomes just as important as an extended introspective soliloquy. The protagonist of Linda Nagata's The Red: First Light is a soldier who is networked not only with his squad, his spy drone, and his real time remote strategist, but is also the reluctant star of a reality TV show. The soldiers of Adam Roberts's New Model Army have naturalised their wiki-like comms medium and probably don't think of themselves as "using social media" any more than we think of ourselves as "using talking."

But I can't think of any true examples of "social living" (by analogy with social networking, social browsing, social learning, social tagging, etc.) in science fiction -- any works where the characters really seem to be surrounded by a penumbra of watchers, for whom they occasionally partly perform. Specifically, I can't think of any kind of ".@" moment.

Perhaps such moments are out there? Or perhaps they're coming?

Anyway, here's some Emma:
"Poor @MissTaylor!—I wish she were here again. What a pity it is that @MrWeston ever thought of her!"
".@Papa, I cannot agree with you; you know I cannot. @MrWeston is such a good-humoured, pleasant, excellent man, that he thoroughly deserves a good wife;—and you would not have had Miss Taylor live with us for ever, and bear all my odd humours, when she might have a house of her own?"
"@MyDear, A house of her own!—But where is the advantage of a house of her own? This is three times as large.—And you have never any odd humours."
"How often we shall be going to see them, and they coming to see us!—We shall be always meeting! We must begin; we must go and pay wedding visit very soon. #parents"
"My dear, how am I to get so far? @Randalls is such a distance. I could not walk half so far."
UPDATE: .@ruthlesscult suggests Rudy Rucker's Postsingularity (2007) is worth a look as regards living surveiled / monetising it; duly added to my TBR beard.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Wikiworld

"Imagine Bob Heinlein wearing a box-fresh leather jacket at a smart-drinks concession, speed-reading Wired from behind a pair of dime-store mirrorshades, and you're in the right neck of the woods." Over at Los Angeles Review of Books, a very distinguished review of Paul Di Fillipo's Wikiworld by Paul Graham Raven, which is also a crow's eye view (AAAARGH I DID THE JOKE WRONG) of the SF field more generally.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reviews: Watts, Martin, Roberts

Mirrors of some recent Goodreads reviews:

Peter Watts, Blindsight (2006)
★★★★

Nasty, woebegone, butch and relentless hard SF (maybe "hard" in the sense of "difficult"), with a slight pulpiness to it. If it was adapted into a high concept puppet show the puppets would all have to be constructed from beetle carapaces. Rather spooky in parts. There's a lovely sustained twistiness to the plot, without it slipping into a lot of for-the-sake-of-it Big Reveals. The characters may not be very, uh, relateable but that just assists the dizzying ricochet of readerly sympathy, bouncing off every surface. It becomes part of the twistiness: plenty of sympathy, just nothing for it to fasten to.

A kind of overarching theme -- alluded to in the title -- is the conceptual disentanglement of sentience from intelligence. The novel argues that you can have intelligence without sentience. Searle's Chinese Room and [Chalmer et al.'s] zombies are the thought experiments which supposedly demonstrate the conceivability of this notion, and neuroscientific experiments -- the selective sighted behaviours of the cortically blind, for instance, and the trollish legacy of Benjamin Libet's notorious discovery of "commands" generated in the brain slightly before conscious volitions -- supposedly furnish some empirical rudiments.

This theme has been beautifully and intricately turned out in Blindsight in a number of conceits and plot points, but my hunch is that some of this deftness involved knowing what to fudge or blur, and I wasn't always convinced that terms like sentience, intelligence, empathy, understanding, meaning, awareness, mind and sympathy were really being interrelated in a philosophically robust way, or that they together comprised a sufficiently fine-grained and rich vocabulary to pull apart the problems they raise. For instance, you might be left thinking that sociopaths don't have qualia. Or that sentience is a kind of primitive concept that can't be any further broken down (I think it kind of can -- intentionality, qualia, nonextension, self-perspectival organisation, transcendental unity of apperception, phenomenal structure, dynamic flow, affordance, all kinds of narrative, memory, self, etc.). Or, more generally, you might end up feeling that the concepts of intelligence and sentience are intelligible using only philosophy, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, without help from the humanities, social sciences and applied psychology. Watts documents his sources in the end notes: I guess I know where to look if I want to take my skepticism further!

[I do think the "Imagine you are" motif is particularly adroit, especially with the ambiguous "It-narrative"-esque permutation where "you" are a deep space probe. It might be interesting to compare Watts' approach to consciousness with Daryl Gregory's in the short story "Second Person, Present Tense" (2005), which posits a drug that -- more-or-less -- temporarily decouples sentience from intelligence.]

The disenchanted vampire conceit is ingenious. The Crucifix glitch (a sort of Langford Basilisk / Stephenson Snow Crash glyph) -- I guess that means your cleric has to hold that holy symbol VERY steady? Or rotate it till the seizure clicks into place. Are vampires OK with tall straight trees on the horizon? [Watts doesn't secularise the aversion to garlic or running water, or provide a scientific rationale for why the Cullen family are so cool, so there's everything to play for.]

It's also an excellent touch having the super-linguist tasked with first contact tell the ominous aliens they can suck her big fat hairy dick. [I really felt like I was there on the mission.]

Good evil aliens with gassy bones and no genes.

Four stars and an Oasa Emitter.

[Blindsight is available free under a Creative Commons license].

Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorised Biography (2013) 
★★★

Maybe I was a little harsh on this book, having just finished David Graeber's excellent Debt, The First 5,000 Years, which has a few overlapping themes. Martin doesn't quite have Graeber's knack for making the water visible to the fish who swim around in it. But this is still an engaging and sometimes captivating account of a potentially dull and inaccessible subject.

I most enjoyed the early chapters (about the origins and conceptual prerequisites of money) and the later chapters (about the shifting relationships between policymakers and the disciplines of finance and macroeconomics, and about the economic crises of the past few years).

In the middle, I would have liked to hear a bit more about the links between money, value and precious metals. I'm not 100% sure I understood John Locke's monetary naturalism -- I got the sense (especially after the final chapter) that it was intended as some kind of antidote to seignorage, but I couldn't place my finger on how or why, and Locke just came across as a bit stupid. My hunch is that the Locke episode is a rare instance of Martin allowing the storytelling to get out of control -- a convenient villain is invited to move the plot forward.

Very busy bees may just want to look at the last chapter, which is a dialogue with an imaginary skeptic and summarises the whole book, making it feel a bit less like a history and a bit more like an argument. The skeptic accuses the author of being a revolutionary; the author says the changes he endorses may be radical, but that they are to prevent revolution, not to start it.

Minor niggle: most of the endnote links didn't work on my Kindle edition. [Kindle might not be the best way to read this, TBQH. It's a bit of a flip-back-and-forth-fest].

UPDATE: Having read quite a few more books about money now, I feel inclined to give this one an extra star after all. ★

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass (2012) 
★★★★★

I wanted to write a more substantial review (or even a big post on detective fiction and SF alas), but other stuff is piling up, so here’s a quick impression. V. v. slight spoilers ahead.

This is something of a concept novel, pursued with much acuity and panache. Roberts claims to be braiding together the two so-called Golden Ages of genre fiction: the Golden Age of crime fiction (roughly the interwar period) and the Golden Age of science fiction (roughly just afterwards). The Golden Ages are here to inspire, not to invigilate – Jack Glass does contain much which would be anachronistic in either period, and overall the feel is quite contemporary.

Just for instance: the Jac of the first, rather gruesome act, is a pretty much a stock figure of TV and Hollywood’s “stuck in this hellhole” trope. He’s the quiet, isolated scrawny one who survives because of his smarts and his audacious will to survive. He is stubborn (as stubborn as a jackglass).

He’s Omar Little in The Wire proactively ass-shanking an inmate in the luncheon line. He’s anyone who survives a Saw puzzle. He is Hannibal Lector escaping his maximum security asylum in Silence of the Lambs in a mask made from a guard’s face, or cleavering off his cuffed hand in Hannibal. He’s Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects. He is Rorschach in The Watchmen growling, “None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me.”

Jac is also legless: compare for instance the immolating longbow of hitherto soft touch Gizmo in Gremlins II, plus also any number of physically disabled badass ninjas from Hop-Frog to Forrest Gump to Peeta Mellark.

After the first arc resolves itself, the tone lightens, and the book begins to bristle with jokes, little lyrical set-pieces and charming allusions, both overt and deniable.

For instance. Jac was to be stuck on the asteroid for eleven years. Why eleven? The book's gorgeous (prize-winning) cover – stained glass rocket ships – reminds me a bit of a playing card. Jacks carry a rather tricksy aura in cards. Hesitate, as you scoop that cityscape of poker chips into your chest, and ask what the heck something called a “Jack” is doing next in line to a Queen – shouldn’t it be a Pope or a Princess or something? He’s not exactly the royal fool – i’faith, the Joker fills that role. So what is he? Jacks used to be Knaves. It’s possible “Jack” comes from Jass, the Dutch word for Knave. Posh English people called Jacks Knaves until quite recently. Maybe some still do. Jacks blend in disquietingly well with the royal party. Indeed, the name change was partly driven by desire to disambiguate King and Knave – previously indicated by the letters “K” and “Kn.” Jack-of-all-trades – even the regal trade of no trade at all? Anyway: I reckon eleven years because the official value of the Jack card is between that of a Ten and a Queen.

Later on there seems to be a sort of pun on "red hair ring."

There are three main puzzles in the novel, fairly ingenious, and relying on outlandish technology and circumstances to varying degrees. I wasn’t completely convinced by the dream sequences, although there are precedents for that sort of thing in the crime fiction of the interwar period. Indeed, Roberts checks some very well-known boxes – the locked room, the clearly demarcated list of suspects, the missing murder weapon, the multiplicity of motives – but he has obviously read widely within the genre, and his devices and allusions are not confined to the impoverished view of the genre as a set of camp, arid formulae, uninterested in realism and hermetically isolated from psychological and socio-economic categories (check out e.g. Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944)).

I was particularly interested in the central role of revolutionary upheaval in Jack Glass, a theme fits neatly on the end of interwar crime fiction’s tendency to question the validity of officially available forms of legal justice and social reconciliation. Roberts confesses that his emphasis was upon Golden Age crime fiction. That makes sense to me, because although this is obviously science fiction – there are lasers and so forth – is it really Golden Age? The shibboleths were probably hushed and a little garbled here. The "eat your severed penis!" bit breaks the 1950s mood. We do see some problem-solving of a technological nature, and Roberts does evince a judiciously respectful attitude for physics, and in particularly does not lightly transgress the speed of light. The action does takes place on a grand scale, and features techno-scientific achievements of a sort associated with a sense of wonder in among gullible ingénues. But there just weren’t quite enough details of science and engineering to persuade me that this really was “hard SF,” and the “worldbuilding” bit (OK, that's a 1970s term) seemed to depend too much on an appendix which, rather inevitably, felt a bit tacked on at the end.

That’s not to say I necessarily wanted more technoscientific data or sociological exposition. They might have spoiled the crime side of things. Perhaps Roberts is sloshing together two immiscible substances? Among Ronald Knox’s rules of fair play, we find: “No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.” It's a bold attempt nonetheless. There are also some moments where the two genre’s characteristic epistemological preoccupations interact in intriguing ways. For instance, one of science fiction’s preoccupations is the mental life of the radically (or just very) Other, and one of crime fiction’s preoccupations is the relations among the everyday, the uncanny and the impossible. When a character who is unused to gravity comes across a corpse, she is shocked by the way the blood presses flat against the ground, rather than hanging in the air in spheres as it normally would. This functions as a sort of clue, since gravity turns out to be a key feature of the murder ...

All in all, gimmicky, but I wished it would never end.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Speculoofah Loofahction

Another fascinating squidgy squib from Adam Roberts about worldbuildingSpongeBob WorldBuild.
It is the distinction between those fans who read texts only on the level of in-show content on the one hand, and those who read texts according to their codes of representation on the other. [...] When Doctor Who swaps actors, it has to be written into the text on the level of content, it has to be rationalised and explained. The problem with this attitude (widespread in SF, I'd say) is that it treats us, readers and viewers, as if we are all as idiotic as Hugh Laurie's Prince George at the Theatre ('Look behind you Mr Caesar!'). 
(If you watch the deleted scenes of Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire there are actually eleven different sequences in which one of the two actors playing Conchita gets metamorphosed into the other by means of full brain emulation and resleeving in vat-grown clones, glittering jade regeneration beams and so on. The original cut is 43 minutes longer and a far better film. At least it makes sense. In terms of 90s sitcoms, Roseanne makes deft use of a service hatch in the fourth wall to note that the actor playing Becky has changed, and Game On gets meta-meta with that. OK).

I guess there may be two things here. (1) The main one is about how SF communities can be oddly matter-of-fact and literal-minded -- about those moments when we suspend our suspension of disbelief, and raise objections which are already (obviously, you'd think) sorted out, at the level of representational convention, simply by fiat or by tradition. Stories teach us how they should be read. Even BYOGI stories (Bring Your Own Grid of Intelligibility) charge corkage.

Because of the nifty features of any fiction is that you can just make stuff up. Perhaps SF creators spend too much time catering to fans with narrow and permanent ideas about what you can and can't just make up, and perhaps our SF would be more fun, fascinating, funny, beautiful -- even more moving and wise -- if we didn't. It would probably be easier to write, anyway!

The stereotypical hard SF fan is one example. Things you can't just make up: ballistic coefficient, air drag and propellant to payload mass ratio. Things you can just make up: episodes and impulses of the human heart.

(2) Then again, there's something quite appealing about the ornery, persnickety quality of some hard SF and of some worldbuilding or worlddemolishing. The second drift, perpendicular to the first, suggests that maybe it should be way harder to write SF. Perhaps even impossible (see note).
I can imagine people who would not regard the second as an inconsistency of worldbuilding (based upon doesn't mean same as; no reason why this imaginary land might not be a monarchy; Neptune a recognised maritime mythic figure; and so on). Nonetheless, I am these days more put out by the second inconsistency than the first.
So there's a hint of a principle of consistency based around cultural logic, around codes of representation, not just content. I'm not 100% sure, but I think this means: not just "what happens in the story," but also what the story is about in a very broad way: its themes, its contexts, its precedents, its analogues, its affinities, its intertextuality etc. And also how it is a story, how it is about whatever it's about: its rhetoric, its devices, its discursive landscape, its interpellations, its literary, cultural and sociological forms, etc.

Because when you make stuff up, you never just make stuff up. It comes from somewhere, and it goes somewhere. No matter how original your thought, its ingredients already exist elsewhere. No matter how dry your sponge, it is totally soaking with the tincture of the honey-lipped wordsmiths who have babbled before you and go on babbling still. Similarly, it's never just you who makes it up. Sentence by sentence, you minutely adjust which vast, complicated team you are on. Every linguistic or imaginative decision takes up innumerable minuscule ideological stances, makes innumerable individually futile allegiances.

So perhaps -- just as hard SF creators scrupulously include the real laws of nature (to our best knowledge) in their fiction, even when they are not convenient -- there is (or could be) a kind of SF creator who scrupulously includes the history and culture which we really happen to have (to our best knowledge) even when that is totally awkward. I don't think Adam Roberts is really advising that every particle of SF should be in constant vigilant harmony with her countless sisters in citation. But the extreme case is intriguing. What might it look like? Every existing field of study, and new bespoke fields, treated with reverence sometimes given to physics, engineering, chemistry and biology? Or How to Do Things With Science Fiction? -- or rather, SSA (Science Speech Acts) with some important part of an audience -- King Claudius in Hamlet or Hugh Laurie -- driven by resonant verisimilitude to reveal something? Or Alexis de Tocqueville photo-bombing every SpongeBob SquarePants lunch box? Part of what I like about SF is that it can forget it is fiction, and try to be science. I'm still trying to work out what it might be the science of.

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Note: Or perhaps, impossible for one person? I'm interested in continuity-building as a/the function of criticism. Normally you might suppose a reader suspends disbelief, but a critic does not. Perhaps the fan who fails to entangle themself sufficiently intricately into the text's codes (and so makes inappropriate interruptions etc.) could also be the critic who is capable of thinking and writing about a text which is "active," a text in which they are partly still immersed. The text's world is still real -- but its codes can be selectively shut down or stunned to allow the reader wiggle room to compensate for what it lacks?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

September: executive summary

Recent blog posts:
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Interzone 248 is out, including my review of Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy, ed. Jonathan Strahan, plus a friendly and interesting review of Invocation -- a fantasy book I wrote, 11.5% of the print run of which I now always wear in this specially 3D-printed diadem-cum-rack -- by Peter Loftus. The issue also includes fiction by Carole Johnstone, James Van Pelt, Greg Kurzawail, Ken Altabef, Sean McMullen; John Howard interviewing Christopher Priest; Jonathan McCalmont's Future Interrupted column; David Langford's news and tidbits; and loads of book, film and DVD/Blu Ray reviews.

Andy Hedgecock editorialises:
"In times of social uncertainty and psychological hazard readers need new ideas, new ways of making sense of their world. There’s an appetite for prophecy and truthful exploration of the mess we’re making, politically, ecologically and economically."
An early review of the issue by Lois Tilton.

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Phonebloks: modular phones that snap together as easily as Lego. You could have really big "phones," right? Phones that weren't really phones? Looks like some sort of nebulous new computing revolution waiting to happen. It's mostly just a concept right now: they want a day of crowdsourced clamor at the end of October. Whose side are you on? The future's side? Is that it?

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Precarity is in the news (BBC)! In a way, bizarrely, so is science fiction. Tim Maughan's low key and completely on-point new #Pretpunk tale "Zero Hours" (Medium) is definitely worth a read. See also Future Londoners (Nesta).

It would be misleading to call this story "dystopian"  or "chilling plausible," it's just straight plausible, really. But it does make me want to come up with a utopian B-side. (Spoilers, sort of). Is the bad stuff the story depicts -- the obvious one being untrained, dispirited, gratuitously sad and lonely and knackered retail staff travelling illegally to work to give bad customer service, nick stuff and snitch on each other -- is that inevitable within its basic, you know, techno-social set-up? Or is some of it down to bad gamification? In what ways has this retail sector been mis-gamified, under-gamified? See also: ten tales of gamification.

Bruce Sterling notes the arrest of a school pupil who uploaded his virtual massacre to YouTube. "Augmented Reality: American teenager arrested for using augmented gun app" (Wired). See how the ad implies that this augmented reality game is so addictive, even when you become a real soldier in a real firefight you're still just gonna wanna keep playing!


Is the solution here that law enforcement officers get some app of their own, so they only need to arrest the kid in augmented reality, which in underlying reality corresponds to this completely prudent but completely sensitive and discreet tête-à-tête? Hmm. Some action structures may have no corresponding game structures; they would be ungamifiable. More on that later, maybe.

Strange Horizons fund drive. Achievement unlocked! I really think one of the bonus levels should be Strange Horizons getting a Hex or two just to noodle around the sky, perhaps with a tiny "Strange Horizons" banner attached. It wouldn't be visible from the ground but it would be visible from other Hexes and pretty soon just about everything will be other Hexes.

Gamified, hypothecated tax. Imagine tax worked a bit like the Strange Horizons fund drive. Citizens and companies pay as much tax as they like (or in another scenario, must pay a certain level, but distribute it how they like) into various funds. Get to this level to build a new hospital ward, get to this level to equip it for dialysis, etc. One interesting aspect of this set-up is the potential for a kind of out-in-the-open corruption. If the top is tier is something everyone desperately wants, they give tacit consent to the intermediary tiers. "If we raise $100,000,000, mayor gets a sweet ass yacht and a maybe bunch of them Hexes. If we raise $200,000,000, we'll keep the ambulances on the roads and a bunch more Hexes."

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Disney threatens to make your fingertips into little speakers (BBC).

Tom Kaneshige thinks the world is too weary for Google Glass (CIO). More like wear-y, amirite?! Yeah!

Guillotine simulator.

3-Sweep, extracting editable objects from a single photo (YouTube).

Tommy Edison, blind since birth, has a go at explaining his perceptions of "things that sighted people see all the time" (YouTube).

New study on the cost of using cash.

Britain's 50 new radicals (mostly companies and other organisations): a list by Nesta.

Earth's selfie. "Our pick of the best space-related imagery includes the birth of a star that will one day be 100 times the mass of the sun, lava flows from the largest volcano in the solar system, a picture of Earth from 1.44bn kilometres away and plans for the next Mars rover" (The Guardian).

"Scientists used to scan the skies for messages from alien civilisations. Now they go looking for their ruins." Distant Ruins (Aeon). See also Lavie Tidhar's comments.

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Chris Lough ponders Red Dead Redemption and whether people who have grown up as gamers have a different sense of what counts as legitimate narrative. "To see others protesting this ending left me wondering—very much in a thinking-out-loud way—if the very concept of narrative, or cause and effect, is simply broken in maturing gamers who have spent their lives absorbing narrative as it is constructed through games." Does the End of Red Dead Redemption Underscore How Fractured Game Narratives Are? (Tor.com)

Monica Valentinelli expresses her number one wish for the SF&F community, which happens to be a mentorship program. "To varying degrees, I feel what’s happening today in the science fiction and fantasy genre is the same thing that has happened before. [...] It’s 'You haven’t been around long enough to understand how changes are implemented' versus 'You’ve been around so long you aren’t willing to change.'"

Joseph Tomaras looks at genre as a function of market segmentation of the ontologies of fiction. "The ontologies of fantasy cluster around the thesis that 'all things that can be imagined are possible.' This is quite distinct from the thesis of horror ontologies, for which things are not as potentialities but as actualities, independent of their being known or even imagined."

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay on Anglocentrism. "These planetary imaginings are set at the dawn of European colonialism. Is it such a coincidence? Note that Clute’s insistence on the Western view systematically evades any narrative history which may highlight the role of colonial imagination in the origins of the fantastic, in spite of the fact that science fiction and fantasy critics have, before him, often noticed the close ways in which the representations of the colonized Other informs and influences the development of science fiction themes and tropes—that science fiction is a genre of systematic Othering in the Anglo-American world." Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic: What would a non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy look like? (Strange Horizons).
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"[...] the world view that underpins hard sf conforms structurally to the world view that underpins right wing ideologies. It is a narrowly prescribed world where obedience to the laws is essential for survival, far outweighing in importance the individual needs and desires of any of the inhabitants of that world. It tends to be conservative: if the law of nature is a universal limitation on any action, revolution or even gradual change must be resisted. And it is a set-up in which great men are fated to emerge as leaders because they know best, and the masses should bend to their will for the good of all." A reprint of "Hard Right" by Paul Kincaid, his follow-up post, and another post on Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations."

Ian Sales has a hard think about hard science fiction, authoritarianism, and whether that classic example of the hardness of Golden Age science fiction, "The Cold Equations," really counts as hard science fiction. "Hard sf generally [...] presents dilemmas predicated on fixed natural limits, and then finds solutions using human ingenuity [...] Certainly a lot of hard sf is right-wing, especially the near-future variant. But that’s a characteristic brought to it by the writers, not something innate to the subgenre."

One quick suggestion: perhaps it's not that hard science fiction is inherently right wing, but that right wing politics are an example of hard science fiction? The slippage between conformity with nature and conformity with society is nowhere more pronounced than in right wing mythology. The obvious example is the conviction that markets arise spontaneously from human nature, like anchovies from sea foam in Athenaeus's account, or bookworms from codices blown with certain southerly or westerly winds according to Vitruvius's view. Insofar as the peculiar compound of economic laissez faire and social conservativism is hard science fiction, it is hard science fiction which fits pretty well with Kincaid's analysis -- but as an example of the subgenre, not as its model or its teleology. (I'm not sure I really mean this. Anchovies? Teleology?)

Another quick thought: where is the reader in all this? Star Trek seemed like pretty hard science fiction to me, till I got my PhD in Oscillating Variable Quantum Neutrino Inversions. Do different levels of readerly expertise matter? Do they matter in different ways in the 1950s and in the 2010s, when readers can connect online form a provisional public, sharing expertise, contending and assessing the rigour of a story?

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Me: reading Twenty-First Century Science Fiction anthology ed. Hartwell & Hayden. Saw Sharpe, Seventh Seal, Argo. Syndicate featured Ian Davidson, Sandra Alland, s i n k and Steve Willey. Lotta Hix Eros admin, deadlines in flux (not Mike's cat Flux & not Jimmy & Rachel's dog Flux. Leave them alone). Submitted abstract to Stage the Future: "Rhinopotamuses in the Blooper-Verbatim Utopias of Chris Goode" (title subject to increase). Beckettcrit proofing. FTL: answered every distress call, unlocked "No Redshirts Here" & uninstalled. Lent a helping poet to nick-e melville's Dole Kind at Forest+ & Goodnight Press's Caesura at Artisan: nick-e, Sam, Will Rowe, Steven Fowler, Tom Jenks, Rob Mackenzie, Hal Duncan. Will read at the new Newport music & poetry festival this Friday. Rumbled undercover in Londres & en route to Arundel to mangle hymns & epithalamiumise postmodern Glenmorangie detective. Have YP railcard ha ha ha ha ha. No Spacebook yet eek.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Speculative fiction of gamification

Wait, what is this gamification?
"[...] online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action—these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and 'free' gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to 'level up.'" 
Gamification: experts expect 'game layers' to expand in the future, with positive and negative results (PDF: Pew Research Center).
Or here's Dilbert's take:


I hereby present Tales of Gamification.

Future Londoner Nicki (c) Arup

(1) Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013), free to read on Medium.com. "Zero Hours" is a spin-off of a collaborative project to imagine ten Londoners in ten years' time. The story presents a grim and eminently plausible vision of a young woman's typical day working in the retail sector, picking up a couple hours here, a couple hours there, and unlocking achievements like Shelf Stacker Pro Level 2 and Shop-Cop Pro.

Best read together with Maughan's "With Augmented Reality, You'll Always Know When No Means Yes" (2014), also on Medium.com. To steady your nerves, you may need a stiff glass of the gushing hype of innumerable well-meaning gamification gurus. See also Maughan's "Limited Edition" (2012) and also possibly "Havana Augmented" (2009) in Paintwork. Earlier on this blog: a review of Paintwork. Elsewhere: Today, Tomorrow: my short talk on near future sf.


(2) Charles Stross, "Life's a Game" (2015) in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. Minor spoilers ahead. "See, gamification is good!" It's somewhat expositional, but I think Stross is on form here: there is polymath erudition and cleversticks wit, and the kind of brio and drive that lets you hurtle over the speed-bumps without necessarily getting every reference or fully unpacking every dense little thesis. "Life's a Game" is full of zingers. "Tribalism is the ground state of identity politics in the network age."  "What if Napoleon's, like, following from in front?" "Keep Britain British, for noncommunist values of British." "Hitler was the Boss Nazi in the Cross of Iron game. They don't teach history in British schools, we have real problems now, terrorists, class warfare. Nobody learns history and lands some expert job in history development. There's no business model for that." "You'll realize you'll lose all your guild followers if we do that?" (OK that one needs the context). The narrator is also a satirical portrait of the UK's answer to Red Piller gamer bro types, although I felt like Stross soft-pedals that aspect a bit.

As the story opens, we learn about Peelers, a monetized, massively multiplayer AR game (with integrated social currency) for snitching and vigilantism. Points for detaining shoplifters, points for helping drunk women home, points for persecuting the profane worshippers of Termagant ... you know, the kind of thing which would turn a racist kidnapper like the Farminator into the leader of the biggest guild in under a week.

But Peelers is just laying the groundwork for Stross's real thought experiment, the Movement, a universal gamification model. (The Movement supposedly implements Kant's categorical imperative, which something I would like to write about properly one day. Maybe once I've read Adam Roberts's new Kantfic too). The Movement mines your data footprint and assigns you clan membership and class features. (Or it lurks in wait next to the space where you should appear -- "If you didn't have a Facebook account, Facebook still knew about you from the hole in their network"). Then it starts to procedurally generate missions and scenarios, built out of the kinds of things you'd be doing anyway. Or perhaps, the kind of things you want to be doing or should be doing -- in fact the point of this gamification is to craftily blur together want to and should in all aspects of life, and ramp up the belligerence of that blurred motive. So your missions could involve anything from green activism to trade unionism to financial speculation to bringing back hanging one way or another.

I now almost feel like I could do with some more stories set in this same future history -- one of the most intriguing threads is all about how the Movement decides who you are in the first place. ("We went deep tribal on the players' media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity.") If these identities really were built bottom-up from data, how closely would they coincide with the kind of taxonomies we already use? And could there be micro-classes with different kinds of reflexivity built into them, i.e. what motivates them is learning and changing per se? And/or an anti-tribalism tribe? And what would it be like if you were one of those people (almost everybody to some extent, right?) feeling like you haven't been perfectly modeled, that the essence which the Movement has inveigled from your digital footprint isn't the real you, and that the conditions you are being thrust into are uncannily awry, like a gargantuan circumambient targeted ad?


(3) Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988), for its game Azad. "Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." See also Consider Phlebas (1987) for the game Damage, where play involves direct manipulation of players' moods. See also Feersum Endjinn (1994), especially the assaults on the princess in her tower. Earlier on this blog: a post about Banks and games.

You know, this is as good a place as any to ask a question I've yet to find any answers to: what is out there, or in the works, in terms of sophisticated computer modelling of human society, that doesn't take anything for granted, doesn't start with a fixed preconception of the human? Any suggestions, people?


(4) Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). I suppose this is a rare example of -- more-or-less -- a positive presentation of gamification. In Doctorow's post-scarcity Bitchun Society, Whuffie, a kind of public esteem metric, has replaced money.
"[...] they called him Keep-A-Movin’ Dan [...] he somehow grew to take over every conversation I had for the next six months. I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met. [...] I’d expended all the respect anyone had ever afforded me. All except Dan, who, for some reason, stood me to regular beers and meals and movies. [...] I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other. [...] I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace." 
Reviews (Craphound). I compare Whuffie & DRM in the last part of this review-essay.


(5) Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Lucifer's Dragon (2004). Nicely oblique, but it seems like the constitution and political order of New Venice is gamified: see review by Lara Buckerton (Quiche Straight from the Bucket), review by Nathan Brazil (SF Site).


(6) Bruce Sterling, "Maneki Neko" (1998), free reprint available at Lightspeed Magazine, or collected in A Good Old-Fashioned Future (2001). Included in the list mainly for the way it plays with crowdsourcing. "'I’ve been studying your outfit for a long time now. We computer cops have names for your kind of people. Digital panarchies. Segmented, polycephalous, integrated influence networks. What about all these free goods and services you’re getting all this time?'"


(7) Diana Wynne Jones, The Homeward Bounders (1981). Immortal hoodies nudging us around in some sort of cosmic Jenga or Carcassonne or Operation R2-D2 or Jellychess or cross-stitched Final Fantasy-themed limited edition Monopoly or whatever is a venerable and pervasive trope. Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic (1983), Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-1996), The Iliad etc. But perhaps we can only talk about gamification proper to the extent that there is a confusion between heavenly and worldly events -- when mortals are invited to pull up a chair and perhaps set a hand on their own shiny little head. See also Jones's Hexwood (1993).


(8) Adam Roberts, New Model Army (2010).  When you think about the gamification of war, you probably think "drones" before you think "e-democracy." Perhaps what's going on in New Model Army is probably more like social soldiering (by analogy with social browsing etc.) than gamification per se. See Nader Elhefnawy's review (Strange Horizons), Jonathan McCalmont's review (Ruthless Culture), Lara Buckerton's review (PDF: originally in Vector).

For dronepunk BTW, see Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game (1985), Francis Crot, Hax (2011), & Miriam A. Cherry's essay on some legal implications of the gamification of work, which talks a bit about Ender's Game.


(9) Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995). This seminal work of postcyberpunk and of steampunk is also a seminal work of gamification SF. All the ingredients of a utopian vision of a comprehensively gamified society are present in the story, but connected and motivated in messy, subtle and unexpected ways.

For instance, we've got these "ractors" (actors in interactive media entertainment), who receive work via a kind of ThespRabbit. An individual employment may go on for years, or be as brief as a few seconds. Crucially, the human inputs are mapped onto avatars: if you were to take over from Jennifer Lawrence for a bit in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, the media system would autocorrect your voice and perhaps your walrus mustache. (Apologies to the community who are Jennifer Lawrence, who must feel confused and left out by this example). Why is this so important? The general point is that what workers feel that they are doing, and what they are objectively doing in terms of the production chain, can be interfered with at an intimate grain. The necessary unity of any task can be interrogated: is there another way to tease this task apart, to give a bit more of it (or perhaps, a bit less of it) to the machines?

There's plenty more in the book related to gamification: Nell's Night Friends -- Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple -- have an aura of a small primitive social media site; the ecstatic Drummers are a kind of grotesque example of "flow," of loss of ego through immersion in action; there's that stuff about the street vs. the telephone switchboard.

But. The altar piece is clearly the Primer itself -- a majestic technological tome, with shades of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a splendid illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated maxim that "Any sufficiently magical magic is indistinguishable from magic" -- which somehow floats into the hands of a poor and vulnerable four-year-old girl called Nell. The Primer mediates Nell's world for her, spinning her an epic interactive fairytale (starring "Princess Nell") which allegorises her various violent, abusive and increasingly philosophical predicaments, whilst teaching her all she needs to survive and existentially flourish (martial arts, decorum, hacking, obviously). As The Diamond Age progresses, Nell's book begins to feel more and more like a computer game (clearly influenced by 90s point-and-click adventure games). The convention of using a different font to represent the Primer's text becomes more scarce.

Like most good allegories, the Primer's allegory is a slippery one. The Primer's Queen of the Dark Castle is clearly a correlate of Nell's mother, but the Queen does plenty of significant stuff which doesn't seem inspired by Nell's mother, and vice-versa. Nell's brother Harv appears in the Primer as just Harv, but also seems to have a connection with Peter Rabbit (they disappear around the same time, for instance). There's not a one-to-one cipher: correlations come and go. You get the impression that the allegory might work a bit like the racting: 'let's see what's available at the moment.'

Likewise, Nell doesn't simply unlock achievements in her Primer or advance to the next story by demonstrating she has mastered some real world skill. Nor does the Primer elide its fairytale with her surroundings so that winning the game is indistinguishable from winning life. The Primer informs and incentivises, it provokes action, but it also comforts, cares, offers the solaces of shrouds and distortions, and immersive escapism. The relations between game and extra-game world can be just as slippery and mercurial as the relations of allegory.


(10) Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008). Why Collins and not JK Rowling's Triwizard Tournament, for instance? What exactly is gamified here? Well, perhaps governmentality is. Extremely-high-stakes reality TV, and the gladiatorial model welfare state: that's another slippery slope into a huge list . . . compare perhaps Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999), Stephen King's The Running Man (1982) and The Long Walk (1979), Matthew Stover's Acts of Caine series, Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars (1922).

& a few honourable mentions:


(11) Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). I mean the bit where Tom gets the fence painted. (Compare this essay (Quid PDF) on the poet John Wilkinson. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tom sort of gamifies springing Jim from imprisonment).


(12) Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010). Game theory gets its own reality-mangling super-army. (Game theory seems to be SF's favourite piece of economics (Charles Stross's Singularity Sky and Peter Watts's Blindsight also spring to mind). Economists, typically, don't see fun as in any way essential to the concept of a game. For game theorist economists, a game is simply a class of multi-agent mathematical model within which all motivations must be axiomatic -- you can posit an agent who rationally pursues happiness, sure, or one who wants misery or funereal squalor all the time. GG economist dudes).


(13) Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (2011). This is futurism and polemic, not fiction. "What if we used everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality? [...] I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality." The book fizzes with neologisms, some of which are probably useful. One of the great things about McGonigal's book is that it attempts a distinct account of what a game actually is for the purposes of gamification -- an account grounded in psychology and a bit of armchair (/ beanbag) anthropology of gamers. (Sorry, Prisoner's Dilemma, I don't think you qualify. Your fiero sucks).

(14) The Blog Monetiser's Daughter (2013). Not a real book though.

(15) Roberto Benigni's 1997 film Life is Beautiful.

(16) Newb Maps of Hell (2014). Again, issue is this book doesn't exist. (UPDATE: OK, now it does, I made it).

(17) Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), for Richard Macduff's all-singing, all-dancing spreadsheet software, capable of representing data as music.

(18) Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). Language-gamified philosophy.

(19) Neil Strauss's The Game (2007). Sexually predatory misogyny is often fairly game-like to start with; the Pick Up Artist phenomenon pushes it a little further.

(20) Joe Simpson's memoir about climbing down a gigantic mountain with a broken leg, Touching the Void (1988). Have a look at these excerpts.

(21) Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943). The Game is "a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property -- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe."

(22) Yoon Ha Lee's "The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" (2013). I think it's a pretty splendid adventure fable, with a jewelly-type pistol you could whip out in any bar in Beerlight and everything. It has a really weird ontology to do with a continuum of wars, the sum war of which is fought for the universe's laws, and a tower which leads underground to every possible game -- games have to be mined before they can be played. I can't spot gamification per se, but there are themes (that you also get in a lot of Banks) which get pretty close: themes of linked games, of moves which exist in multiple games at once, of games which are themselves pieces nested inside larger games, etc.

(23) Catherynne M. Valente's "The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World" (2013).

(24) Rose Biggin's "A Game Proposition" (2014) collected in Irregularity. I like the voice here, and the way it keeps slightly telling you off for slightly wrongly imagining things. And I'm a little nervous to ever read it again, in case the text is different. "Now then, you haven't understood Reader Response Theory at all, dear reader," I think it begins. There is a board game which serves as a kind of control panel, kind of like Wynne Jones / Pratchett q.v., and there is a rather beautiful inter-nesting of games, or of interpretations of what "the game" is, which results in losing one of them perhaps being a element of winning another of them. It also makes me think that more instruments of command and control probably should be explicitly ludic objects.

(25) If something influences a game, and the game becomes very popular, does the original thing become more game-like, more gameful? See Advanced Readings in D&D.

(26) I've just bought Press Start to Play (2015) ed. John Joseph Adams and Daniel H. Wilson, so perhaps I'll get to add a few more tales of gamification soon. Cory Doctorow's "Anda's Game" isn't about gamification in a strict sense (this isn't a very strict listicle!), but it is about gaming, gold-farming, and those circuits of reality that integrate in-game and IRL components. Also, it's a subtle response to -- an updating of, maybe? -- Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Ender, you may recall, thinks he's playing a game, but he's really a prodigal supergeneral conducting genocide on behalf of Mankind. It's a twist so obvious, you can't help but think Ender partly knows all along, but doesn't want to break the spell. In "Anda's Game," Anda and Lucy are even more actively complicit than Ender. They ignore the glaring signs that their in-game massacres have real-world consequences. (Eventually Anda wises up, and there's a kind of happy-ish ending. Kind of). The story made me wonder if you could apply game design principles (feedback loops etc.) to the analysis of ideology. Like a lot of Doctorow's near future stuff, it feels like science fiction, but sends you Googling to work out what, if anything, has actually been made up.

(27) Gamified tax return cartoon.

(28) Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Episode "15 Million Merits."

(29) Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2011).

(30) "The Internet of Things Your Momma Never Told You" and "Marta and the Demons" by me. Cf. Jamie MacDonald's Movement in Stross's "Life's a Game" q.v. and Encarl's Smart Singularity from "The Internet of ..." in the same volume.

(31) The Uncanny Valley, a short film about VR addiction.



Hexwood (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), The Diamond Age (1995), Life is Beautiful (1997): is it just me, or does the mid-90s have a bumper crop of beautifully achieved, high-concept works about the endless possibilities of data visualisation, and about immersive fantasy which remains closely moored to an underlying reality, enabling acts whose significance unfolds in two realms simultaneously?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Songs of Innocence & Experience

Partly in a response to an OUP blog post by Bob Eaglestone, Adam Roberts gives the Man Booker shortlist a dressing down for failing to valorise YA fiction, and also tending to overlook SF and crime. Actually it's way more interesting than that summary suggests.
"Really what I want to think-aloud-about is childhood. This, you’ve guessed it, is my third big thing. Not childhood as a biological category, which of course has always been with us; but childhood as a new cultural idiom. By this I mean more than that the concept of the ‘teenager’ was invented in the 50s (although I think that’s broadly true). I mean the way that concept has mushroomed into this defining feature of a vast amount of cultural production. It's not just that there is now this new thing, a transition period from being 10-or-so to being ‘grown up’; and it's not just the way that this transition has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 48 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’). It's that this category now determines almost all contemporary cultural production."  
Sibilant Frictives: On YA.
response from Nina Allan focuses on Roberts' conspicuously dodgy The Clash--Twilight analogy. I have consulted the big authoritative list of which bands are which books and all I can say is that yes, that is not accurate.
"[...] most of the most popular YA series are – like the manufactured pop that dates even as you download it – anodyne and half baked even in cultural terms, let alone in literary terms. [...] Let me make myself clear: it is not YA as such that I’m objecting to (much though I personally dislike the rather pointless label that has been slapped on it) but Adam’s (devil’s advocate? can he really be serious?) insistence on the lowest common denominator, on his confusion here of the popular with the excellent or culturally significant." 
The Spider's House: On YA.
I do think that, in order to make an incisive and complex case for why YA is really pretty interesting right now, it's necessary to wrestle with market populism. But I also agree that Roberts' blog post doesn't quite pin it down or shake it off for long enough to be able to make that case forcefully.
"Of these I’d like to make the case for Pullman as the most significant, because he’s the best writer of the lot—but though I’d like to make the case, I can’t, really. Because Potter and Twilight were just orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not just that vast numbers of children read them. Vast numbers did; but so did vast numbers of adults. These books have had a much larger cultural impact than all the Man Booker shortlisted novels over the same period combined; and they have done so for reasons that speak to crucial concerns of the moment."
Sibilant Frictives: On YA. 
Another response, by Martin McGrath, makes comparisons with Jonathan Frazen's pervasively ridiculed article, cosplaying Karl Kraus to critique our "insatiable technoconsumerism".
"It is the likes of Austen and Dickens and Carroll who prosper over the longer term, not their more artistically praised contemporaries. This is not, as some have suggested in the comments on Adam Roberts’ post, about advocating a race to the bottom. The simply populist doesn’t necessarily survive any better than the deliberately obscurantist. Edward Bulwer-Lyttle, though selling by the bucket load in his day, is now remembered (if he is remembered) for the competition bearing his name [...] I sense that a writer like Jeffrey Archer (who, Wikipedia reckons, may have sold up to 250 million books in his career) is being forgotten even as he continues to write." 
Welcome to my World: Which Culture? Roberts vs. Franzen ... sort of
See also e.g. You Wouldn't Like Jonathan Franzen When He's Angry. So can we discover what part of YA speaks to the crucial concerns of the moment, without becoming too distracted by how whatever it is is implicated in YA's popularity or its survival?

In a not-quite-finished review of Cory Doctorow's YA novel Pirate Cinema I'm trying to make a suggestion about that: perhaps YA is peculiarly invested in communicative simplicity as such? And perhaps what it mostly speaks to is anomie, or some distinct phase or transformation of anomie? I think this might be a fruitful line, especially insofar as it (a) reserves a big role for addictive and overwhelming passion, as a tremendously clarifying force, and (b) reserves a big role for popularity, since what counts as familiar or unfamiliar can be contested by a widely read and/or influential work.

See also Jonathan McCalmont's 2008 article on SF & YA, "A Virus with Space Shoes: SF, YA, all that"; his more recent "How to Fix (Discussion of) The Hugo Awards"; also Adam Roberts' Booker commentary in 2009, fighting SF's coroner; his 2001 "Man Booker Prize: Crunching the Numbers"; also Are You Down With the Kids?carefuck your age: academia is the greatest fandom on earth; also Patrick Nielson Hayden's "Regarding a YA category for the Hugo awards";  Farah Mendlesohn's recent "Why I am currently agnostic re the YA [Hugo] Award."

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"The blue carpet underfoot was embroiled with the CyberTech Defence Systems insignia every five meters or so."
Adam Roberts' recent post finding the most amusingly badly-written bits of R S Johnson's The Genesis Project: the Children of CS-13 (2011) makes a good comparison: "the lesson is that many readers couldn't recognise good writing if it walked up and embroiled them on the arse." There is quite possibly some sock puppetry afoot, or foot puppetry asock, in the reviews section of Genesis. But if this book is anything like the work of, say, Dan Brown, or a lot of John Grisham, then perhaps its badness is as much an effect of the reader's incompetence as it is of the author's. A literary critic, after all, should be able to shapeshift to become all the kinds of reader demanded by the text (and more besides). But how many critics have the reader-who-enjoys-The Genesis Project in their morph repertoire? What does it feel like to enjoy this book? What does it feel like not to notice the inadvertent wordplay, the crazycam shifts of perspective, the disintegration of description into faulty syllogisms, the dead metaphors coming lurchingly to life, the unnecessary poetry, the howlingly indecorous diction? If these things swim out of focus, what swims into focus?

Also on literary "badness," and whether or not it is bad, check out Travis Tea's Atlantis Nights (PDF); also Keston Sutherland's 2001 article on bathos in poetry. "Every feature of language identified by Pope as bathetic, is now a defining and admired feature of our poetry. What more can we ask for?"