Monday, December 22, 2014

A New SFF Award (plan for)

Super quickly, this is how it'll work:

1) 100 or so Big Name Authors automatically entered
2) Everybody else self-nominates (indie authorship fine, & assumed to make up the bulk of entrants)
3) Entrants also act as slushpile readers: everyone who self-nominates is committed to reading & rating three books (& their own eligibility depends on delivering those ratings, except in the case of the BNAs)
4) Books are assigned randomly (& I think anonymously), & each book gets read twice
5) Certain administrative & audit procedures (waves hands arcanely)
6) The ratings generate a shortlist
7) Perhaps a panel of great judges picks the winner from the shortlist
8) Glory!
9) Interesting to see whether / which of the Big Name Authors flourish
10) The glory of the award comes because of its wide participation, BTW, not its huge purse

So lots of implementation nitty-gritty necessary, but that's the outline anyway.

No time to actually try to make this happen now! Or to give a detailed rationale. But putting it out there. Maybe one day? What do you think?


Would it gain traction? Would the shortlist be way too long? Is three books the right number? (Remember, we need some spare capacity to read those 100 or so BNAs. Maybe there should just be 10 BNAs). What's the risk that people just rate their two assigned books without actually reading them? (Perhaps the rating system involves five drop-down categories, three of which pertain to whether the book makes the shortlist, and the other two have a sort of checksum-esque function: qualities that people who have read the book are much more likely to agree on than people who haven't; if there's no match the slushpile judges don't automatically lose their eligibility, but the book does get reassigned to a third reader, and then its rating will be the mean (or hell, maybe the square? Should we do squares?) of the two rating sets that most closely resemble each other). What kind of systemic biases are we likely to encounter? (Could there be an algorithmic counterweighting to existing visibility biases?) What do we call it? Should the statue be the sploodgy head of a racist or not? What would actually be involved in step (6) -- just "the highest wins," or might we get a more interesting shortlist if we allow really divisive books? Is there a risk everyone rates really low, because they think they might stand a better chance of winning? Are there nudges & prompts we can use to minimize the "wasted" reading of books whose authors vanish into the ether & never deliver their own ratings? Could we use a credit system instead so you could read lots & lots in one year & be eligible for several years? Could there be an iterative, weighted aspect to it e.g. if an author who has historically tended to rate low suddenly rates something really high one year, it "counts" for more than if they were consistently positive about everything? Should the entry criterion be say "slushpile judge c.200,000 words each" rather than "slushpile judge three books each"? Should we get rid of that word "slushpile" because it has the wrong connotations? Would it be a better / more interestingly risky idea to have prizes not for "best book" but "[probably complimentary but ambiguous adjective] book"? What about other categories of prizes that are a bit more like the Oscars, and/or start to edge into crowdsourced literary criticism, e.g. "Best Character," "Best Twist," "Best Relationship Between Two Characters," "Best Non-Romantic Non-Nemesis Relationship Between Two Characters," "Best Cinematography," "Best Subversion of Well-Known Trope," "Best Non-Subversion of Well-Known Trope," "Most Cri," "Best Book With Really Objectionable Politics That Is Somehow Really Good Anyway," "Best Moral Complexity," "Best Texture Impervious to Commodification," "Spookiest Scene," "Good Sex Awards," "Best Page," "Actual LOL," "Best Attempt to Decisively Destroy Some Trope or Subgenre That Will Probably Just Revivify It," etc.? Who would be good to partner with -- maybe an established award like the Clarke or the Kitschies, as an extra category? Or maybe some kind of indie authorship hub? Or a con that isn't yet associated with an award? Could there somehow be a cash prize? What are we all going to wear?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tea & Jeopardy

"Little chickens, would you be able to sing 'Everything You Know is Wrong' by Weird Al Yankovich? Then Momo can see how clever you are, and we can record it for Frances, as I understand it's one of her favourite songs."

Tea and Jeopardy Advent Calendar Day 17.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From "How to Behave: a pocket manual of Etiquette, and guide to correct personal habits, etc" (1865)

November: A Few Links

Formal Announcement of Intention to Neglect.

It may be a little while before I get back to any serious blogging (I am spending November to February sharpening my face). But in the meanwhile:

1) I have a longish review of Peter F. Hamilton's Geordie procedural space opera Great North Road in Foundation #118. Haven't seen that issue yet but it's a large & interesting contents page.

(BTW meant to say in review that it says on the stargate stop on Market Street that the last stargate is 11:28 but actually the last one is 10:54. Don't stand there in the rain).

2) I've written a novelette tie-in for the alt history near future cyberpunk board game Tokyo Yakuza. It's not out just yet, but you can follow Godan Takami on Twitter for news of the series: I think I'm about #27ish or so. (And there will be other short fiction before long. Working title, "Actually, It's About Ethics In Grand Juryism.")

3) Look at Darius Kazemi's semi-random scratching OCR appeasement bot! Reverse OCR.

4) Have you noticed that Nina Allan is posting story-by-story responses to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women ed. Alex Daly MacFarlane? Twitter has weaned itself off Jonathan McCalmont so fingers crossed for the ascendancy of "the long tweet" over at Ruthless Culture. & Amal El-Mohtar has started a weekly review of short fiction, Rich and Strange. So yeah, we can't all blog at once, can we?

5) And by now there is more than enough nonsense on this blog already to keep you pickled in nonsense at least until I return. E.g.:


Reviews (originally published in Interzone) of anthologies including 21st Century Science Fiction and Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy.

Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation (on SF Signal).

Waaay too long review of Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. The last bits try to make a connection between a certain kind of idealised copyright and the reputation currency Whuffie from Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom.

& OK it's still not quite finished, but long review of my namesake Jo Walton's Among Others, which ruminates on immersiveness, words & worlds.

&/or use the label: reviews.

Other SFF:

Underappreciated Authors: a short piece sort-of-in-defence-of continuing to underappreciate them.

Storytelling & Sludge. I think progressive & radical stories are harder to tell than conservative & reactionary ones. (& it's easy to convince ourselves we're telling them when we're not).

Kicking Asphalt & Taking Names: some thoughts on urban fantasy, names, & Tom Pollock's Parva "Pen" Khan. (w/ links to other blog posts about names in SFF).

The SF of gamification (a list). Economic speculative fiction (another list).

Some made-up drones.

Social media:

Thoughts lightly touching algorithmic curation, & what it's like following thousands of people on Twitter: Why I Am So Uncool, by me Nietzsche.

Also a thought experiment about crowdfunding, online collaboration, and the future of the book. (Imagine the "spine" as an n-dimensional virtual object, the "binding" as an intricate system of nested pledges of finance, labour and consumption ...)

A wee thought occasioned by the rise of Glass & other wearables. Always lurking, always performing: is there an equivalent in SF literature (or any culture) of .@?


I am still trying to work out, for myself at least, this: what is money? Old blog post about imagining money without numbers, among other things.

& for other round-ups & links lists, try the executive summaries.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

From "The Reduced Racine Yakuza Co."

A sword embeds in a slot machine, which starts to pay out everything.

Yes, thinks Eitsu, this is something special. She senses motion behind the curtains and leaps off the edge of the stage, slipping down her smartglasses, firing up her combat augs for the first time in ages. An AR tag tells her:

Please wait. Installing vital cyberware updates. Do not shut down or reboot. 

Oh well. The huge armored arm surges. Metal groans, wood splinters, and the hill in the centre of the casino buckles and cants more steeply.


A snippet from a novelette I recently wrote as a rickety strut to the Tokyo Yakuza boardgame. (I should mention that there is currently a Kickstarter).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: Own Up

Because meaning is generated relationally, and every text conditions every other text, no writer is responsible solely for the meaning of their own writing, but every writer is instead responsible for the meaning of it all.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: Reasons not to Publish

If you are straight, cis, white, male, financially comfortable, middle or upper class, and you are a cornucopia of physical and mental abilities for coping with what life throws at you, and if you support diversity in fiction, you should, all other things being equal, publish no fiction of your own.

Bonus hypothesis: if you match aspects of this description, but not others, then to the extent that you support diversity in fiction within the categories which you do match, you should, all other things being equal, publish no fiction of your own.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Slumberstream

I'll call today's genre "slumberstream." It takes some explaining.

I think it's Fredric Jameson who makes the ingenious link between SF storytelling and the idea that, when somebody describes this dream they had, it's incredibly boring. The work of telling a story is always the work of masking some dream, of telling it so that it's listenable.

(Or, you could say, so that it's relatable).

And perhaps there's a relationship between such story-work and what Freud called dream-work, the process of disguising repressed desires, of distorting them into legitimate ingredients for the dream narrative. Perhaps story-work takes over where dream-work leaves off, allowing a kind of dreaming to spill out of mouths into society.

But anyway, who sleeps nowadays lol? Sleeping is over. Nobody has been able to find anybody who still sleeps in any of these febrile and alert interlacing circles -- hammering and effete with their morning Fair Trade, their mid-morning artisan slow roast, their pre-lunch-just-one-moist-fingertip-out-the-emergency-speed-wrap (alternatively: "meth hath murdered sleep") -- that we call Twitter, Ello, the village, the economy.

Nobody can sleep so nobody can dream. Which implies a more modest mode of creation -- a step back in the value chain, if you like -- not the work of disguising a kernel of dream for the sake of the social, but rather, the work of disguising the deranged fantasies and ruminations of the small hours, of disguising the confused and lapsing consciousness of the pre-dawn, as a kernel of dream.

Back when your friends dreamed, you resented them for telling you their dreams. But there was always another kind of resentment too, and with the distractions removed now, it's become more clear what that was all along. You resented them for telling you dreams which, you suspected, weren't truly dreams.

This is the resentment toward the conscious will which is always mixed with the dream. The suspicion of a thinker and storyteller who overlaps with a dreamer, of a responsible agent portraying themself as a passive visionary. At its most extreme pitch, the resentment becomes a hysterical witch-hunt for agency, a murderous rage toward the figure who claims the full status of dream for their mere daydream.

So that's this Wednesday's genre. Stay up all night, think some weird stuff, and convince someone it was a dream.

Otter. Pic via @nelleficent

Really this Wednesday's genre is all an excuse to tell you about my "dream"!

First, my "dream" was very much pre-alpha, a sort of proof-of-concept thing with hardly any content. It was kind of like a Tony Hawk game but in a muted early modern European landscape. It seemed to go on for hours.

Then in the morning there was a sort of theological interlude. I was probably thinking about dreaming and/or dreaming about thinking. I was piecing together a vision of how the mind couldn't possibly supervene on the brain in the way that is commonly claimed. For some reason the person I held responsible for the counterargument was Nina Allan, or at least, her blog. I have no idea why, maybe something to do with networks and spiders, but I'm sorry. My vision didn't adopt the normal form of dualist intuition, by which mental reality possesses certain features which can't be explained by anything in the brain (qualia or whatever). This was the reverse. I was convinced that the physical structure of the brain entailed features of mental reality much larger and more layered than anything we really experience. That was why the standard accounts couldn't possibly be true.

In my vision this conviction was mangled together with a sort of layered panpsychism, the sort where a single physical particle might be vibrating within the engines of multiple mental realities simultaneously, suggestive of Greg Egan's beautiful SF fairytale about consciousness "finding itself in the dust" or Jaron Lanier's reductio of zombie computational functionalism. But for some reason this panpsychism was only applicable bounded within a nutshell. Within the skull -- or perhaps, within the body -- we must accept that every possible conscious network which could be "read into" the matter there, no matter how weird the function you'd have to apply to the matter in order to find it, was in fact instantiated by that matter, and was in fact conscious, and all these translucent dimensionless consciousnesses were furled together within that matter.

This was possibly not true of the universe at large, and the reason for that had something to do with the geographical individuation of consciousnesses, a kind of mysterious law about how a conscious system must necessarily bud off into separate viewpoints when the matter which instantiates it is physically spread beyond a certain limit. Something to do with why I am here and you are there -- basically, for some reason, it would have been ridiculous, whereas the arbitrary privileging of the skull's trove was not.

I finished the altercation with a slightly sneering bon mot about how the pun of "be" and "bee" in Allan's work (please, none of this is true) might be sufficient for most folk to solve the mind-body problem, but some of us preferred to look further afield. Maybe this bit related to swarms and emergent complexity but really it just made no sense.

The whole time I considered myself awake, and knew I was in bed with the pillow folded around my head against the lamplight.

But what I really wanted to tell you about was the family of otters.

I wanted to tell you about the family of otters, and not just because they are cute and likely to be popular if I commend them to you. This was after the theological interlude described above, at a moment when I was even more awake. In fact I would say I was fully awake.

My eyes were open and I may have listened to and spoken what passes for intelligibly with another person in the room (I've forgotten now, but at the time I did know). Really, if it wasn't for the family of otters, I would definitely have been awake in every way. I could move my arms and legs and I was thinking about the day ahead.

It was these otters who slipped me a secret sign that in fact I could not possibly be called awake. If it wasn't for the otters I could never have known. Because they were there. They had no waking reason to be there but they were. But they were there as barely as possible, so perhaps I was as barely dreaming as it is possible to be. They were not there as language or imagery, but only as raw availability, as an unqualified and unstructured salience.

(I don't know, maybe I discovered a new collective noun, a relevance of dream otters. Maybe I discovered the true unit of measurement in which to plumb the depth of dreaming. It couldn't all be measured in that family of otters, obviously: but it rings true that the unit of measurement of depth of dreaming would change every time the amount increased).


Of course, the relevance of the family of otters quickly did become the language and image of a family of otters, rearing to go. But not quickly enough that I couldn't catch them the moment before they were either of those things.

I'm telling you, they were there.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hustley Tuesdays: Strange Horizons

STRANGE HORIZONS fund drive! You can also "embed their progress rocket."

All That Is Solid maintains a policy of never giving in to crowdfunders' demands, but will shortly be launching special ops to exfil the following corpuscles promising excellence & intrigue:

$15,000—Stretch goal: an extra 18,000 words of fiction!
$13,500—Bonus fiction and podcast! Part two of "She Commands Me and I Obey" by Ann Leckie—and fund drive goal!
$12,000—Bonus column! John Clute on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
$10,500—Bonus poem and podcast! "Salamander Song" by Rose Lemberg and Emily Jiang
$9,000—Bonus fiction and podcast! Part one of "She Commands Me and I Obey" by Ann Leckie
$7,500—Bonus review! Apocalypse Now Now and Kill Baxter, by Charlie Human, reviewed by Cassandra Khaw.
$6,000—Bonus article! Iain Banks interviewed by Jude Roberts
$4,500—Bonus fiction and podcast! "Because I Prayed This Word" by Alex Dally MacFarlane
$3,000—Bonus poem! "Cloud Wall" by Arkady Martine
$1,500—Bonus review! The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, reviewed by Adam Roberts

Note: Network for Good doesn't seem to have an option for non-US addresses?


Pimp this ride: Hedgespoken.

Pay someone's water bill in Detroit.

Latino/a Rising anthology (the reward level for the print anthology has come down since this Kickstarter was launched).

Also it's that time when Whinge-ipedia starts looking for a fucking handout. What my data not good enough for you? Too high & mighty to show me ads relating to Turkey-PKK conflict, Epicanthic fold, List of collective nouns in English, Real-life experience (transgender), Petrarchan sonnet, Feminine rhyme, and Poop deck?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Mid-Future Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian YA Fiction

Dystopic fiction where everyone is dead. YA love triangle narrated entirely in the subjunctive. No characters, although there definitely could have been.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: intertextuality

One excellent way of reading any book is to imagine that it is the only book its author ever wrote, and that its author knew in advance it would be so.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: [insert emotion] rant

Today's genre is "[insert emotion] rant"!

Maybe writing itself is an emotion? Jiminy-Cricket-on-a-nip-tuck, I can't believe I just wrote that.

Let me try again. Anger seems to be the default emotion of every social justice practice. Not that people are actually literally angry all the time. But if an emotion is needed, anger is high up on the list.

Anger is certainly ascribed by the media even in the midst of the most wonkish issues and motives -- "they're taking to the streets because they're furious about moderator bias in PwC's debate on country-by-country tax reporting!"

The compromise by which radicals, wannabe centrists, and reactionaries alike so easily agree to call the same activities "angry" is certainly weird and deserves more attention. (See note). But that's not what this post is for! This is New Genre Wednesdays, and the genre is "[insert emotion] rant"!

To be fair, there are probably quite a few fearful rants, paranoid rants, disgusted rants, horny rants, vigilant rants, euphoric rants, nostalgic rants, mournful rants, besotted rants and fascinated rants out there already. But other emotions tend to be neglected. For instance, what about:

Avaricious rant
Surprised rant
Trusting rant
Serene rant
Grateful rant
Polite rant
Ashamed rant
Relieved rant
Chilled rant
Amused rant
Curious rant
Embarrassed rant
Feeling overdressed rant
Bored rant
Hiccups-based rant
Knight er-rant
... and then one for every emoticon (every possible emoticon, not just every emoticon ever used)

(Are hiccups an emotion or am I thinking of hiccoughs?)

Remember, just as the angry rant is refueled by anger whenever it starts to flag, so the surprised rant must be constantly driven by surprise, and so on.


Note: Perhaps when our opponents call us angry they often mean hysterical and/or aggressive, whereas when we assent to being called angry we often mean powerless and/or courageous? Even when anger is not that neatly divided, radicals are deeply suspicious of the principle that the angrier you are, the less valid everything you say is. There is a long history of using anger -- real and/or ascribed -- as a pretext to exclude people from participating in public discussion about their own lives. On the other hand, when radical collectives reject the inverse relationship between anger and legitimacy, it doesn't mean that we automatically develop alternative versions of various integrative and epistemological advantages that come from treating angry discourse as invalid discource. So perhaps what needs attention, specifically, is whatever useful work the insistence on polite serenity is doing within enemy communities. Is such work important? Do we have ways of doing it? If not, can we dream some up?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Old Child

It's like Young Adult but instead of appealing to literal young adults as well as adults it appeals to nobody. FKA YAAA.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hustley Tuesdays: Latino/a Rising

This week, consider gambling your vast Highland real estate equity on the Latino/a Rising Kickstarter. The anthology is ed. Matthew David Gordon, to feature fiction and artwork from Kathleen Alcalá, Giannina Braschi, Pablo Brescia, Ana Castillo, Daína Chaviano, Junot Díaz, Carlos Hernandez, Ernest Hogan, Adál Maldonado, Carmen Maria Machado, Alejandro Morales, Daniel José Older, Edmundo Paz-Soldán, Alex Rivera, & Sabrina Vourvoulias.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Speculative Superstructure

The basic rules of this genre are: no economic facts about the real world can be changed, and all cultural facts should be changed as wildly as possible.

For instance, you could think of ways for the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite could be regularly justified without invoking market efficiency, incentives to individual productivity and technological progress, rewards due to talent and hard work, or the prospect of trickle-down prosperity.

So it tacitly adopts a kind of determinist "base-superstructure" model in which the superstructure supervenes upon, but is otherwise causally isolated from, the base.

As it is above all a principle of worldbuilding, this genre may coexist fairly easily with others.


Elsewhere: Jonathan McCalmont's headcanon of Twentieth Century SF.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hustley Tuesdays: Boy & His Pup Kickstarter

Last few days for an indie game offering "a new perspective on tower defense." I'm kind of in two minds about this -- is it one of those ones where it removes exactly the thing which makes the genre work? Shouldn't there be some kind of crafting booby-trap puzzler feature for a Home Alone-ish vibe? But its ludic virtues are also obviously manifold, & I hope they hit their target.

Monday, September 15, 2014

SFF names #5: Parva 'Pen' Khan

SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Perhaps urban fantasy has two kinds of foundational logic. One has to do with pre-modern myth that lingers on into modernity. By pre-modern myth I mean more-or-less Legolas.

The lingering on is done, in particular, in the cracks, the shadows, the margins of modernity. Who better to occupy the role of disenchanted private eye than a disenchanted (and probably fairly private) elf? -- that kind of thing.

Shapeshifting raccoon in Isao Takahata's Pom Poko (1994)

Part of why the elf fetching her e-cig refills in Nisa feels like she belongs to another time and place is because she belongs to another book. A great many stock fantasy conceits can be traced to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and for that reason, maybe what I'm describing here could be called urban fantasy's "post-Tolkienian logic." Alternatively you might call it urban fantasy's "philological logic," since the priority is textual lineage. Transmission, transformation: there will always be trolls, elves, nymphs, faeries etc., just a little different every time (compare TV Tropes's "Our Monsters Are Different"). The label "philological logic" also captures that sense of fragments embedded where they shouldn't be, of lost context.

But such fragmentation shouldn't be overstated. It always exists in the context of implicit, potentially discoverable continuity. Perhaps it's not about cut-and-pasting archaistic mid-C20th fantasy conceits into a contemporary background -- Gimli, say hello to climate chaos, 3D printing, drones, cut-and-paste, for that matter -- so much as it is about exacerbating the untimeliness which already exists in those earlier texts.

Discovering the anachronistic sparks and fanning them. As if C.S. Lewis's Narnia portal fantasy, for instance, was already a little bit inside-out -- the ever-burning gas lamppost in Narnia's snow-filled forest, already actually a wink-and-a-nudge about Narnia being plugged into the National Grid, about Narnia being not so much an alterity as a park.

The quintessential public good
non-excludable & non-rivalrous

Or as if Gandalf were to arrive at a Shire which is not just a little genteel -- not merely, as in Tolkien's novels, a little more suggestive of eighteenth century Europe than of fifteenth century -- but to arrive in a full-on Beijing-scale Shire: a megacity whose hobbit malls, hobbit subways and hobbit industrial parks swallow up Gandalf's cosmological struggle, which dwindles into a provincial squabble best left to run its course, or into the bathetic tall tales of an elderly, confused rural eccentric.


But I don't think such philological logic is really the primary logic of Tom Pollock's YA urban fantasy The City's Son.

Pollock's fantasy owes more to the pre-Tolkien/Lewis/Peake children's fantasy tradition of toys coming to life (see Farah Mendlesohn's essay) than it does to myths lingering on the chequered shade of skyscraper scaffolding layering up and up and up. Part of what is at stake here is an ingeniousness of vision, in particular an ingenious perception of what can and cannot be imagined as alive.

It's not a bestiary of elves and witches, angels and vampires, all agitating -- on the basis of philological precedents -- for the civil right of suspended disbelief, even outside Zara or wherever. Instead, this is a fantasy driven by its more-or-less original monsters.

Pollock's monsters owe their existence to a kind of wittily exploited serendipity. What can and cannot be imagined as alive is sometimes do with wordplay and prosody. Pollock sees scaffolding going up and can see the snicker-snacking haunches of the scaffwolf -- where a bungling monster-maker like me would obviously have seen the legs of the dreaded scaffinch.

But mostly I think urban fantasy's second logic is to do with the serendipity of the visual pun.

Grandma Caterpillar putting on lipstick
— Faces in Things (@FacesPics) September 8, 2014

This could plausibly be designated "urban fantasy as squinting at things." Or it could be called the "serendipitous logic" of urban fantasy. Perhaps the word serendipity does somewhat downplay the importance of statistical inevitability here. The corner of your eye is, after all, the tail of a bell curve . . .

A fleeting apparition of a figure inscribed in the angled clutter of the cityscape. Chalk it up to incorrigible whimsy, or no, be realistic, to unshakable anxiety . . .

Or, highly strung, you're startled by litter scuttling at you like a critter. "Oh, Kinder Bueno -- it's you . . ."

Or else it's you -- you're the one deliberately deranging your  perceptions: soliciting some tenuous, frilled personage, with your squinting, your POV-doodles, as you wait for your bus or tube . . .

Or else it's something you can't see but your friend can. It's apophenia, particularly pareidolia. It's the "things with faces" meme (TumblrTwitter).

Somewhere in all that is the second foundational logic of the urban fantasy genre. The serendipity logic of the visual pun gets all the more engrained in the genre when it can't be disconnected from a logic of layering or palimpsestThe City's Son is a tale of London town. That is, it is a tale about a city constructed atop innumerable cities constructed atop of innumerable tales about a city constructed atop innumerable cities.

Space grows scarce, relationality itself grows scarce, as the dense skein of overwritten overwriting risks filling out to illegibility. The visual pun becomes like a special kind of layering, in which precisely the same strokes are traced over many times with completely different intentions.


The City's Son translates, into text, the teeming secrecy of an intricately etched cityscape. The more closely you look, the more antagonists you can spot. It is a helpful hyperbole to consider it Where's Lord Waldo-mort? Here comes Gutterglass. Perhaps a friendly presence?
He's nabbed a tyre from somewhere and his waist dissolves into a single wheel instead of his usual legs. Lithe brown rodents race around the inside, rolling him backwards. (18)
Or perhaps not?

Anyway, chief among the antagonists in The City's Son is certainly Reach, the Crane King. I'll very likely return to the names Glas and Reach next time (late October maybe: why Glas and not Glass? That interests me), but for now I only want to mention that Crane King recalls the Fisher King of Arthurian legend.

Everyone always pigeonholes the Fisher King as either "the king with the grail" or "the king with the wounded 'thigh,'" so. I would never do that.

But The City's Son is subtly irrigated by Arthuriana, opportunistically drinking in its atmosphere of an absent spiritual aristocracy. And down the same veins, the name of one of the story's young protagonists, Pen, draws the blood of Uther Pendragon.

Uther Pendragon is an ambiguous figure, sympathetic yet associated with slaughter, substitution, and betrayal. We seldom hear Parva "Pencil" Khan's full name, but the relation of the soundscapes of Crane King and Khan is not insignificant: for much of the novel, she is the Crane King's instrument's instrument: Crane King feels like it can fold clickety-clack into Khan.

Khan itself is just a mildly paradoxical name, synthesising bland ubiquity -- there are ever-so-many Khans -- with leadership -- one of them was Genghis Khan; there is just enough echo between "Pencil" and "Genghis" (the vowels are the same) to ensure he never quite goes away. Furthermore, if Pen forever longs to have DRAGON next to it, then those implicit letters, bubbling and ghostly, also promise to more-or-less anagrammatize GOLDEN: whereupon connotations of the Khanate of the Golden Horde pour into the picture. Perhaps the POC pretender-to-protagonist-status is a smidge objectified through this hallucinated golden glow, and the hallucinated echo of pecan in "Pen" Khan. Elsewhere: a thread about food, skin, fantasy.

What's sure is this: whenever the logic of fantastic exceptionalism kicks in, it may at first be hard to work out who is its real focus. Having a best friend who is a protagonist, one may briefly mistake oneself for a protagonist.

Such an effect perhaps explains this thin aura of militaristic aristocracy which clings to Pen in The City's Son. But parva in Latin also means "small" or "lesser," as in two Latin phrases which may just appear in English: multum in parvo (saying a lot with a little), and sic parvis magna (greatness from small beginnings; compare French loanword parvenu). Parva is the feminine form. The Latin parva is common enough in English place-names, signifying the lesser of two related settlements: for instance, Thornham Magna and Thornham Parva. We have Beth "Magna" Bradley and Pen "Parva" Khan. So it is a bit like calling her Ethbay's Idekickus, really.

In Urdu -- which Pen actually speaks -- parwa may perhaps suggest care or caution. Such prudence may be healthy prudence. At one point Pen claims she's related to a squillion doctors, and Khan is indeed, the most common surname for a doctor in the UK. Caution also jives nicely with Pen's job as judiciary: Pen is the pensive one in the Beth-and-Pen duo, the one who tempers that duo's doings from reckless to merely valiant. (The Khan who looms largest in my consciousness, by the way, is Sal, so perhaps there's a suggestion of studiousness there too).

As a Sanskrit word, parva also has poetic associations: for instance, each book of the Mahābhārata is a parva.

Poetry is also the story's reason -- the diegetic reason, you could say -- that Pen is called Pen. In the division of artistic and revolutionary labour which is already becoming obsolete as the novel opens, Beth Bradley is the visual artist and Pen is the poet.

Perhaps, in line with the antique doctrine of the Sister Arts, the associations here are a little more criss-crossed: the bard of Bradley, the ink and crayon of Khan.

The sounds which comprise an author's name will often occupy a privileged position within the ecosystems of sound and affect which that author writes. One small fact about Tom Pollock may have bearing on the painterly aspects of The City's Son: he shares a surname with the well-known abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. That Pollock's paintscapes tended to exist just the far side of figurative expressionism, but sufficiently figuratively-patterned that a watcher can feel a certain representational force, and may be tempted to see crowds, nudes, architectures, flora, texts. Such ascriptions can be indulged in, but never completely suppressed. The painting has your eye cornered.

Jackson Pollock mainly drips, pours, splatters, drags, squirts, scrapes. Beth Bradley mainly tags: paint cans and stencils. There is an affinity between some of Jackson Pollock's art and some graffiti, especially stuff towards the Wildstyle end of the spectrum.

I have no idea how deep this affinity goes, or whether there's any actual genetic influence involved, although it would be handy for this post if it were a superficial and serendipitous affinity.

(Here's Summertime 9a, BTW, which has been prominent in London's Tate Modern for quite a few years).

At any rate, this affinity allows Beth and Pen to repay their author. He writes them, so they write him. The virtual city derived from Pollock is vandalised back towards Pollock, albeit a different Pollock, after the substituting, camouflaging, punning manner of dreams. (Spoiler: this city's "son" is also a changeling, not quite the abandoned scion, but rather stolen (AKA jacked) and throne-groomed). The book is aware it involves an exchange relation with ontologically disruptive implications, and supplies it in more than one guise -- a death collected as a contractual consideration, for instance.

But anyway . . .  yeah, mostly Parva "Pen" Khan just goes by Pen.

The syllable pen is an area of natural beauty in English. Or perhaps not of beauty but of sublimity. As sometimes happens in a language, several unrelated etymologies happen to draw together senses whose logical structures are already profoundly open to one another. That is, if the urban fantasy genre can be concentrated onto this single syllable of the book, it remains an urban fantasy of the serendipitous kind, not of the philological.

That which correlates with pen is elusive: some kind of aloft, pent reservoir, partly latent, with a certain propensity or inclination, but also a fleetness which skitters away from advance determination.

From the Latin pendere, to hang or to weigh, come pendant, penduloussuspend, perpendicular. (Perhaps pentacle and pentagram also have some relation, via the pentacle-amulet, though also compare the Greek pentagrammon, a five-lined device).

Then from the Latin penna, feather, plume or wing, come the quill pen, as well as pinpennon and perhaps pennant.

From the Latin paene, almost, comes peninsula.

And from the Old English penne, a fold, an enclosure, related to pinn, a pin, a peg, come penpenned, and pent.

Pen is a syllable in which, in other words, the modes of liquid, solid and air are implied together in a moment of grace, reserve, extension, energy and fragility.

(Wait. What are we even talking about though? How can it be classed? It is not quite a concept. It is a notional infrastructure distributed across a constellation of concepts; we may think of Peer and Kate, in Greg Egan's Permutation City, the stowaway computational consciousnesses inscribed into a much larger population of like souls; or, closer to the topic at hand, of the aesthetic puns, perhaps the functional puns too, that insist during a morning commute, before a proper cup of coffee, on the dialectic play of artifice and nature, vitalising urban territory with faces, and tracks and traces of animals. Or vice-versa, forest puns: the "castle" or "factory" thrown together by an outcrop of rock and a tree-cluster. Suspended in a constellation of concepts, the ideality to which the syllable pen corresponds may enjoy some special exemptions from the mainstream dialectic of materiality and ideality in which those concepts themselves are suspended. Historical materialism is categorically less true for this than for concepts. Détournement sometimes demands this quality of official culture: what it is or is not possible to détourne must in part be completely left to chance. Glad we've sorted that out).

When approached along these paths, the pen-syllable does not only denote the physicality of the well in the sky, but also a state of social, intellectual or juridic suspension and kinetic potentiality.

From the Latin penis, penis or tail, comes penis. And from the Latin penetrabilis, vulnerable, come penetration, penetrating, penetrable, impenetrable. Words of thought as well as words of sex, as the critique of phallogocentrism reminded us.

From pendere also come pensivedependpropensitypenchant. From paene also comes penultimate. From the Latin paenitentia, repentence, come penitencepenitent and penance, and from the Latin poenalis comes penalty.

Also from the Greek penta- comes Pentecost, the manifestation of Holy Spirit in wind and gifts. From the Old English pening comes penny, which drops, or pays for the thoughts of one occasion exactly.

At the periphery is the word pint, particularly the beer raised in toast, or the pouch of blood pinned up high to help transfusion. There is also pawn, from Medieval Latin pedonem, foot soldier, particularly when it is lifted over a new square but not yet placed on it, as well as pawn from Old French pant, a possession left as a security. There is end and in particular the end of a line of poetry, as in William Carlos Williams's line, "so much depends". And there is pounce.

Is Pen like what I've just described? And/or does she meaningfully encounter it? And/or, is Pen like a ballpoint pen?

Consider your ballpoint pen, solid without, flowing within, open at the base, though if you raise it up the ink won't spill out. It is as if it is plugged by a bead of air. Still, the ideal orientation is towards the heart of the gravity well and perpendicular to the page. With pressure, the small turning ball of brass, or some other material, dissipates the flow of a thin reservoir of ink across the paper. The vulnerable pore in which the ball sits, the peninsular jut of structure into flow, the tall slender dam that cups the ink, may all be disclosed by the name pen, though they are etymologically independent, and indeed were technologies entirely absent from the birds' wings from where the first pens were taken.

A small well in the sky grasped between forefinger and thumb and put to work may well suggest a pipette -- from "little pipe" -- and thereby the way in which every pen is like a puppet.

Pen certainly is. Puppet: from Latin, girl or doll.

Pen the penned-in pen.

What happens to Pen over the course of The City's Son is completely horrible. A case can be made, on the basis of Pen's subplot, that The City's Son is not YA urban fantasy at all, but torture porn horror.

Barbed wire coils round Pen and controls all her activity in detail. Pen is penned in for the bulk of the book, powerless, in pain, and complicit. All her activity is governed from outside, but an ambiguity begins to creep in. Pen becomes pliant to the Wire Mistress who grips her. She begins to crave what she is supposed to crave. Does the Wire Mistress influence her mind directly? And/or does Pen confabulate, does Pen ascribe her own willpower to activity "really" determined by an instinctive panic to keep her skin intact? Does Pen's consciousness arise from her material practices?

Barbed wire is suggestive of detention rather than incarceration, of camp rather than prison. Iconographically, Pen's fantastical penning suggests the obscenity of Gitmo and ambiguous personhood, and of dehumanising humiliation and sexual abuse of Abu Ghraib, more than it does the prison-industrial complex and the contemporary slave labour economy.

There is one other literary character I know of called Pen. He appears in Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose (1941), where his volition is as thorny as that of Pollock's Pen. He is a murderer who does not know that he murders, and must ultimately more-or-less play murderer-fingering detective, and dashing murderer-thwarting man of action.
'I'm mad!' he thought. 'God forgive me, I'm mad and I'm murdering Fran. I did this to Grace Morland and I did it to Pippi le May and now I'm doing it to Fran and I can't stop myself'. He had a memory of those bleeding stumps of necks, of the swing of the hatchet and the sickening scythe of the train; and above all, of the body of the girl in the wood, lying so quietly with the flashy little brooch laid neatly on her breast. 'Her neck … her neck … I couldn't get it out of my mind. The thought of it, the sight of it, the terrible smell of the blood …' (212)
Pen is never referred to as a pen or a puppet. She is usually called the "host" of the Wire Mistress. The Wire Mistress's barbed wire is what moves Pen, but she also seems oddly dependent on Pen. And if the Wire Mistress moves Pen, what moves the Wire Mistress? There is sometimes the subtlest suggestion of some third principle, Reach.

How should we think of the implied hand that Reaches for the Pen? The authorial hand asserting itself is one possible answer. I don't think it's right. The thorns of wire cross like a downward sloping demand curve meeting an upward sloping supply curve to fix the price of a commodity. Pen's torture appears to be the superlative case of structure, or, more sharply put, of incentive. I think the symbiosis of Pen and the Wire Mistress make visible the movement of Adam Smith's invisible hand.

The barbs even weave around Pen's tongue. One could whimsically extend the conceit further: imagining Pen wreathed at the cellular scale by nanoscale barbed wire, tugging open the phospholipid bilayer here, jabbing and prodding the production of a protein there. The conceit begins to collapse: would Pen's consciousness be created by action potentials escorted across synapses with knives at their backs?

Incentive is the city's wittiest visual pun, a palimpsest of agency and structure. A person scraped away, preparing the manuscript for the superimposition of the same person. Because we are unshakably anxious -- be real! Because we are incorrigibly whimsical -- we cannot but hallucinate, in sidelong glimpses, feeling, wanting, human beings superimposed on market forces.

To be continued!

Sunday, September 14, 2014


By Franz Kafka.

There are four legends concerning Prometheus:

According to the first, he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.

According to the second, Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.

According to the third, his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, the gods forgotten, the eagles, he himself forgotten.

According to the fourth, everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.

There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: (r)

What is mistaken for a crisis in the speculative fiction of extrapolation and prediction is actually often confined to speculative fiction's power of naming. Again and again, speculative fiction is confronted with its fantasies becoming reality, bearing names different to those under which it fantasised them.

What is worse, the new and real names -- which are not only a little different, but completely separate, with neither grateful allusions nor anxiety of influence -- are frequently the proprietary trademarks of companies, or originate as the slang of subcultures, collectives which can only appear in their correlative speculative fiction traditions as a bathetic viral toxins, utterly lethal to all the most enduring assumptions and aspirations of those traditions, and to their mechanisms of subsistence and aggrandizement.

Earlier: names in SFF #1.

UPDATE: Elsewhere: Normalcy is the Future.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Bildungsresume

A genre focusing on the growth of a protagonist from youth to maturity, with an emphasis on employability skills. Through successive encounters, the protagonist gradually builds up a not-verifiably-false CV. The Bildungsresume often begins with its youthful protagonist embarking on a long and hazardous journal.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hustley Tuesdays: Sibilant Fricatives

Did you know that Adam Roberts's book Sibilant Fricatives, which collects his essays and reviews of science fiction and fantasy books and movies, is completely different from his blog Sibilant Fricatives, where he posts essays and reviews of science fiction and fantasy books and movies? I didn't!

The ebook is a snip at £3.42. It includes, for instance, the David Blaine-ish endurance magic of reviewing the entire of Robert Jordon's Wheel of Time cycle, without ever being made to, or wanting to; it includes a review of The Hobbit which delves into the nitty-gritty of the rewriting Tolkien did himself, long before Peter Jackson started messing with canon; it includes an emulsion-wistful review which Greg Egan was inspired to anatomise as a Hatchet Job; and it includes an introduction by Paul Kincaid: "[...] I like to think I was invited to introduce this collection of his reviews because of those disagreements, not in spite of them."

The title relates to Roberts's tacit suggestion that fandom should refer to the object of our love with a sort of pervasive hissing, as if we didn't already:
'SF', when spoken aloud [...] is never, I think, pronounced as it is spelled, in part because there is something tongue-twistish about the cramming together of a sibilant and a fricative after this fashion. [...] But the difficulty of juxtaposing sibilant and fricative appeals to me as a small symbol of the larger, creative difficulty of the genre as a whole. SF ought to be difficult. The melding of science (technology, philosophy) and fiction (aesthetics and narrative) best not be facile, and SF in which this blend is too painlessly presented is generally bad SF.
Compare one of Stephen Sondheim's harrowing "love arse" masterclasses (YouTube):

Hustley Tuesdays: Accessing the Future

Another shout-out for The Future Fire's Accessing the Future Indiegogo. From the futuristic furnaces whence came Outlaw Bodies and We See A Different Frontier anthologies.

Over at Paper Knife, a conversation between the editors and Maureen Kincaid Speller about how not to do disability SF.

Hustley Tuesdays: Growstuff

Support a free and open worldwide food-growing database.

Monday, September 8, 2014

SFF names #4: Beth Bradley

The name Beth Bradley appears to be a bid for innocuousness -- a bit of a humblebradley, maybe -- and it has all the hallmarks of a particular school of YA heroine-naming. You are going for a kind of Austenian inscrutability and vague pleasantness. Think of Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Charlotte LucasCatherine Morland, or Elizabeth Bennett, how neutral, collected and deadpan they sound to modern ears. Perhaps to contemporary ears, alas that none now prick.

First, you should probably choose a plausibly common surname, plausibly white and British or American, plausibly middle class or lower-middle-class. Perhaps, as C.S. Lewis did with the name Pevensie, choose a toponymic surname. Bradley is in fact one of those. Otherwise, get her an occupational surname, but archaic enough that the toil it might imply has mostly crumbled away, picturesquely, and been ruffled over, quaintly, by moss: Miller, Weaver, Fletcher, Potter. (Or just choose Moss, or Morris: as in Myfanwy Morris). Too much work in Farmer, so it doesn't quite work.

Second, choose a plausibly common first name as well. Of course it does not literally have to be common: it just has to be plausibly common, which approximates to "common in recentish English literature." Clearly, you can get away with a less plausibly common first name if your surname manages to look very plausibly common, and vice-versa.

Beth Bradley. Not Elizabeth Bradley. Three to four syllables, over the full name, is your sweet spot. Anapestic prosody nice but not essential. (Is "Beth Bradly" the elusive antibacchius, BTW?)

Useful associations: any associations of poise, of petiteness, of balance, of warmth, of leafiness (the place-name Bradley meant "broad wood"), of mousiness, of chastity, of castles (Lewis's "Pevensie" is castle-ish by virtue of its appearance in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill; also compare Bradley Fighting Vehicle), of domestic interiors, of charity, of economic preciousness, and of prettiness. But don't overdo any of those associations: you want to be on the Sally Lockhart, Kitty Jones, Holly Short, Nora GreyNancy Drew side of Wendy Darling and Bella Swan.

Of course, if a somewhat stern first name can abbreviate into something fun, that's a plus: hence too many YA Cats. Hence for that matter Myffy Morris.

Hence Alexandra to Alex, Al, Lex. If Jane Austen had only known: Em Woodhouse, Cat Morland -- there, another Cat already -- Lottie Lucas, Beth Bennett. Yes, Lottie and Beth, not Charlie and Liz: because above all, you must alliterate.

Alliteration recalls perhaps a world of comics. Liz Bradley would not correctly evoke the feats of heroes like Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel, the sniveling mediocrity of their everywoman alter egos like Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Susan Storm or Kamala Khan, the dastardly schemes of their antagonists like Lex Luthor, the love of their love interests like Lois Lane and Pepper Potts, or even the forgettable interventions of forgettable bit parts like -- well I truly believe they are out there too.

Jupiter Jones and Peter Pan will tell you the alliterative thing is not just down to Stan Lee.

Is that it? Is that all there is to the name Beth Bradley?

To be continued!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tribal Loyalty

"This is because our predictions are about the future only in the most superficial way. They are really advertisements, conversation pieces, declarations of tribal loyalty – or, as with Irving Fisher, statements of profound conviction about the logical structure of the world." Tim Harford at the FT on superforecasting.

From "Invasion of the Space Invaders" (1982)

By Martis Amis.

Lunar Lander is a game for owlish adolescents and gentle old hippies. It is qualitatively different from any other game. Most video creations stress a certain sort of game-activity. Missile Command is a game of interception, Lunar Rescue of dodging, PacMan of munch-accumulation (which perhaps explains why it is the only video game with any kind of following among women). Most games, of course, are games of blasting, wasting, creaming, smashing. Lunar Lander, on the other hand, is simply a game of landing.

No ghouls or hellcats lurk on the rocky moon where Lander lands; no rockets, photons or zipships buzz its slow descent. This is a game without aliens, without adversaries. The only enemy is the player’s own hamfistedness.

Like Asteroids, the Lunar screen is simply a matter of outline, white on black. The effect is well-defined, pristine, classy: it makes many of the more colourful games look like an infant’s paintbox or a cutprice carpet. The Lander’s module comes bleeping in over the spiky terrain. Various landing sites are indicated – graded according to difficulty (though I confess that I’ve never really seen the difference: once you get down to Landing, they’re all pretty much the same). Rotating right or left, and steadying the pod with deft surges on the reverse-thrust console, the Lander picks his spot and gingerly / descends, counteracting the simulated gravitational pull, friction and momentum.

As you home in on the flat landing-pad, the game pulls its best stunt: you switch to close-up. The landing then becomes a question of ticklish fine-tuning, as you adjust and correct and over-correct and re-adjust for touchdown. There are several grades of landing (good, hard, crash), as indeed there are four grades of ‘mission’ (Training, Cadet, Prime and Command – selectable at the beginning of the game), and points are awarded accordingly. The controls are beautifully responsive, though on any mission more advanced than Training you are going to have frequent recourse to the Abort button, which gives you escape thrust and resets the display for a fresh attempt. That little pod goes twirling out of control very easily, and no amount of thrust will tame it back into line. The top of the screen is adorned with altimeters and speedos and fuel readings, most of which can be safely ignored. Don’t bother with the readouts: just put more money in the slot.

Elsewhere: Mark O'Connell, "The Arcades Project."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: Don't Imagine That

What is sometimes called speculative fiction or imaginative literature can just as easily operate through the suppression of some speculative or imaginative element which is ordinarily active in everyday life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hustley Tuesdays: Accessing the Future

Consider supporting Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction, on Indiegogo. They've hit the target, but at $7000 they go pro market. Some juicy story / novella crit perks still available too.

Elsewhere: The Future Fire.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Executive Summary: August

 Marta & the Demons

Marta & the Demons -- a novelette about getting out at the top. I guess it's design fiction? Designtopic YA? Currently Kindle only, 99p only. Stars & advice gratefully swallowed.

I've expanded an enormous review of Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema (with some notes on Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom too). A bit rough in parts, but I think basically done. It talks about copyright, YA fiction, utopia, design fiction, reputation currencies, etc.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hypothesis Thursdays: A Muddiest Proposal

When you weigh up the pros and cons, genre writing would be way better off without any prizes at all.

Earlier: underappreciated authors

Underappreciated Authors

Underappreciated authors: over at SF Signal, some interesting-sounding leads to chase up. I'm stunned-not-stunned nobody mentioned the great Steve Aylett, who makes "impervious to popularity" his USP. Also, Cheryl Morgan's Eurocon recommended reading includes a lot of names new to me.

It is probably true that genre readership has a top-heavy structure: there's way too much attention, desire, intelligence and resourcefulness, focused on a few superauthors. Some of that stock of fervent, sentient energy could be more justly housed in the accomplishments of midlisters and weirdos.

What if there were no underappreciated authors, no underrated authors? What if everyone were appreciated just the amount they deserved? Would there be a downside?

One of the unique virtues of genre fiction -- in particular, of science fiction (and its quasi-realist concomitants like design fiction and some YA) -- is a capability which relies on a certain amount of top-heaviness, a certain superficially excessive focus on a small number of writers and texts. I think the downside would be diffusion, and an associated degradation of this capability which is peculiar to genre fiction.

It is the capability of second-order extrapolation. It seems impossible to get anywhere significant in the imagination with only one extrapalatory leap: no matter how ingenious you are with your leap, no matter how you twist and contort in the air, there's simply nowhere interesting within range. That is a fact about the historical moment we're living through.

But when you have a gigantic readership who are periodically funneled together through the bottlenecks, such as avidly devouring a superauthor's Latest Awesomeness, or such as reading all the works nominated for a particular award, then you get the possibility of creating a special kind of public. It's a public that periodically naturalises the novum. That is, there's a regular cycle of absorbing a set of extrapolations (and other cognitive estrangements) and codifying them as genre literacy, something which can now be taken for granted ... perhaps opening the way for other authors (or the same authors) to build on the baseline!

In other words, having underappreciated authors is part of what gives genre fiction its real avant-garde potential (assuming the only avant-garde worth bothering with is actually the avant-avant-garde).

Of course, that theory does rather rely on the superauthors and the prize nominees occupying an avant-garde and/or marginal position in the first place, rather than just being adept centrist synthesizers, which isn't usually how they Rowl ...

(Get it, like JK Rowling?)


Adversarial compatibility

Cory Doctorow on sunk costs and adversarial compatibility.

"There are two groups of people who especially rely on this kind of thing: poor people – especially the global poor – and people with disabilities."

Side note: makes me think about how we may see a rise in flexible platforms (or, more generally, of symbolic steering media), which hug the contours of existing behaviours, awaiting moments when they can poach users, cloaking or displacing sunk costs and making a switch appear like it's just a minor reconfiguration of preferences, rather than a categorical leap. (There are tiny hints of this kind of thing already: "I don't think I really need a MySp-- oh, I can sign in with my Twitter? Okay." "I can't be bothered using Google+; what the hell, all my images are there already ...?")

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Genre Wednesdays: Fan-fic

Can't really think of any new genres this Wednesday. Maybe this should be the last of New Genre Wednesdays. Here's the first (last Wednesday).

Fan-fic, maybe?

No, not fanfic. Fan-fic. Fiction about science fiction fans, fiction told from the perspective of those steeped in science fiction. It doesn't really matter if fan-fic is set in our universe or another universe. If science fiction is a way of reading, these protagonists read their world in a way which makes it into science fiction.

Monday, August 25, 2014

SFF names #3: Rumplestiltskin

Collected in the Brothers Grimm, the story of Rumplestiltskin revolves around a wager to guess the name of an imp, in order to escape an earlier bargain.

Rumplestiltskin has nothing to gain by offering this wager. Why do it?

Perhaps because the original bargain is already illegitimate? -- because you cannot have a proper contract with the nameless?

But if this happens to you, don't guess Rumplestiltskin right away. Consider some of the variants.

Rumplestiltskin is taxonomized as Aarne-Thompson #500: the Name of the Helper.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blogcon: absence makes the heart grow fandomer

[UPDATE: Martin Wisse's gigantic links roundup!]

Some WorldCon posts etc.:

"ON SUNDAY, 17 August, I toasted the memory of Iain Banks next to a chair made of human bones. Single malt, of course. [...] Banks was born in 1954 and published 27 novels over his career, alongside a short story collection and Raw Spirit, a tour of Scotland's distilleries. His unparalleled dual career as a writer of science fiction, published with the middle initial M (for Menzies), and of literary fiction, published without, made him one of the most popular and critically acclaimed British authors of the last thirty years." Martin Petto: In the Wake of the British Boom: The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention.

"Well, here I am, back from London and Loncon, with much to tell. I combined my third foray to Worldcon (and my first as a Hugo nominee) with a family vacation, both of which were delightful if a little tiring--a classic "I need a vacation after this vacation" situation. The experiences of both convention and city are already swirling in my head, so I'd better get them down while it's still possible to make sense of them [...]" Abigail Nussbaum: London and LonCon.

"LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, was happening too close to me this year for me to be able to resist temptation. So last Saturday I got up at an ungodly hour, got on a train to London, and spent the day at the ExCel Convention Centre attending panels where writers and critics I admire discussed various aspects of speculative fiction and fandom, going to readings by some of my favourite authors, and wandering around [...]" Ana S: LonCon3 Report.

"When I’m at conventions I am so fully immersed it takes me a long time to be able to order my thoughts well enough for a blog post. Sometimes I never get round to writing about the particularly intense cons because there’s simply too much trying to get out of the narrow funnel from my brain to my fingers. As I said to a friend earlier, trying to write about Nine Worlds and Loncon 3 back to back is like trying to stuff a pillow down the nib of a pen." Emma Newman: Nine Worlds and Loncon 3.

"I asked a question at the Queer Desires in Fandom panel about whether different types of fandom attracted fans with different types of queer identities, but realised later that it was the wrong question. What I should have asked was whether the panellists found that their personal experiences of queerness affected how they engaged with fandom and even which sort of fandom they preferred to engage with [...]" Not By Its Cover: Queerness and Fandom, Reading the Other, A Singularity for the Rest of Us.

"This weekend I've been to LonCon3, my second WorldCon. I went last year and had a lot of misgivings. This year erased those misgivings entirely. What a great experience. What a great con. Let me count the ways." Andrea Phillips: Loncon3, A Retrospective.

"You may or may not recall, dear readers, that I was traveling to foreign English lands all last week, in order to attend Nine Worlds 2014, and LonCon3: the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention. Many were the adventures of your intrepid correspondent! Much did she travel! Far did she wander on untrodden paths [...] Well, maybe not so much with the untrodden [...]" Liz Bourke: Adventures in Visiting England and Conventions, Parts I, II, III, IV, V, final thoughts.

"We registered at Loncon late today, so we missed the huge lines (I don't know if that suggests any problem with the con itself or is just inevitable). The convention center that the con is in one end of is certainly very, very long. But on the bright side, that means lots of mall-food-court type food and lots of tables with chairs where people can hang out, which Chad & I did after our program items. Anyway, my first panel was today [...]" Kate Nepveu: Loncon: The Superhero-Industrial Complex, Loncon: Translating Genre, Loncon: Fallen London: Recreating London in Games, Loncon: Content and Form: Writing SF/F in non-Western Modes, Loncon: Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding, Loncon: Welcome to Night Vale, Loncon: some general stuff, Loncon: Fan Activism, Loncon: Feminism and Sexism in Fandom, Loncon: the Canon is Dead. What Now?, Loncon: I Before They, Except After You, Loncon: the Gendered AI, Loncon: Quick Follow-ups.

"For my followers who aren't SF/F fans, Worldcon is the annual World Science Fiction Convention, which is held in a different city each year (local convention groups bid to run it). It's mostly stateside, but gets out to the UK about once a decade. This year the 72nd Worldcon was LonCon3, being held at the Excel centre in Dockland from 14th to 18th August. [...] For SF/F fans who don't otherwise know me, I'm also a disability rights activist, so I probably came at Worldcon from a slightly different angle to most people - about two feet lower and on wheels <g> [...]" David: Worldcon on Wheels.

"I’m home! With books galore! [...] And con crud. But books!! [...]" Lisa: Con Report: Loncon 3.

"I headed to London straight from the studio to be in time to catch up with Rina & Jacob from Tachyon Publications, and Rani Graff from Israel, for dinner. There was a party at Rina & Jacob’s apartment last night, at which I managed to catch up with a bunch of people, including Pat Murphy whom I have not seen in ages. Her work in progress sounds very interesting. Also John Kessel told me he has a novel that he’s almost ready to shop around, which is excellent news. [...]" Cheryl Morgan: Day 0, Day 1, The Trans Stuff at Worldcon, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Worldcon Wrap, A Few Brief Hugo Stat Comments, Academics at Worldcon -- What Went Wrong? (argh that's me).

"Having worked and attended a select handful of 'Geek' events, I was hugely excited as I headed to LonCon3, this year’s WorldCon host. Before I begin, I want to say the biggest Thank You to Kate Nepveu, and her excellent “Con or Bust” project, any spare money I have goes to promoting Chinese culture, and without the project, I would have been unable to attend [...]" Xueting Ni: A Recapitulation of Loncon3.

"Only a week after the event, here’s my event report. Just like back in school. The short version: a great time was had and lots of new and interesting people were met, including some heroes of mine in within fiction writing. Can’t say fairer than that [...]" R.A. Smith: Fun and Games at Loncon3.

"The dust has settled and I’m peering over the precipice of a new job which begins September 1st, so I thought it would be a good time as any to get this pesky con-report-blog thing out of my way." J.D. YangConventionally speaking.

& Madeline Ashby's report -- but has it disappeared for now ... ?

& Prince Jvstin's pics on Pinterest. & Gemma Thomson's pics, & Gemma's storification of the re-creation of Iain M. Banks's one-game-to-rule-them-all, Azad.

& some Hugo winners: Mary Robinette Kowal, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, Charlie Stross ...

& Gene's convention survival guide.

& Jonathan McCalmont on the future of WorldCons: make them conventions held all over the world!

& @Hello_Tailor (I think) on Worldcon, Nine Worlds, & the generation gap.

Earlier: My Loncon schedule.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Badge Fic


Twitter has a blue verified account tick badge. It shows that somebody is really who they say they are.

It's time we have another kind of badge: one that shows that you're really listening.

The Mute function is more-or-less pernicious, but perhaps it has its place in a lively, flourishing online attention ecology.

But there needs to be something that reassures us someone isn't abusing it. Perhaps this badge appears on your profile -- discreetly of course -- so long as you haven't muted more than 10% of the people you're following?

Otherwise we've just gone from connecting with people to collecting people.


But there is a more general, and slightly inevitably melodramatic, point to be made.

Twitter, by all means, have our tweets algorithmically sorted, enhanced and monetised. But please, let us turn it down, or tailor it, or switch it off. And let us be able to connect with others who have the good sense to turn it down or tailor it or switch it off.

Twitter is the greatest social media site that has ever lived. I bet I'm not the only one who senses imminent decline. Twitter is tottering and twembling.

Twitter wants to make money, to make as much money as it can. OK. But even within that constraint, it has a lot of options. And it has ethical obligations about how it uses those options. I hope Twitter will think not just about what users want, and not just about monetisation, but also about the different kinds of online culture which different choices will cultivate.

I hope that Twitter will give its users the opportunity to tailor their own social media architectures (creating a possibility space, in other words, which includes (for instance) the Twitter we have today as one of its possible configurations), and that Twitter will decide what needs to be private, and what needs to be public, about users' individual set-ups on the basis of what is most conducive to the construction of a real public sphere.


(Alternative suggestions to the "I'm really listening badge": make muting temporary, or replace it with a "Less From This User" button).


(Earlier: What It's Like Following Thousands of People. The right way to incorporate algorithmic sorting into Twitter).

Badge Fin

New Genre Wednesdays: Metafuturism (FIVE DRONES)

UPDATE: Check out SUPERFLUX Issue 1: editorial by Warren Ellis and drone fictions (not, to be fair, "predictions") by Tim Maughan.

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What is metafuturism?

First, that's "-futurism" not as in futurismo, but as in futurology: sifting the present for traces of the future, just as historians sift the present for traces of the past.

Metafuturism Manifesto

Metafuturism morphs from futurism through the so-called Timidity Turn. It doesn't make predictions about the future. It just makes predictions about predictions about the future.

Metafuturism Sampler Exposure Draft: FIVE DRONES

E.g. I predict Tim Maughan's forthcoming bestiary of drones project may include the following drones:

1. Beats Moth

Autonomous hexacopters with superdirectional mics, the Beats Moth flock is all about providing the perfect tailored soundtrack to your day ... and night! Basically you walk around, and the drones play music that suits whatever it is they think you're doing. At first a novelty and a nuisance, Beats Moths unlocked new funding flows when it became obvious that some spots in the city are, in the long run, just way happier than others. Soon it became all about creating positive associations ... and negative ones! Now the sponsor's commercial jingle, slightly morphed for deniability, and perhaps algorithmically blended into the diffuse circumference of a recent chart hit, gets beamed into the ears pedestrians who are, all else being equal, probably ecstatic. Likewise a competitors' soundscape, stripped to its bare essentials, gets associated with instants of glare, stress, jostle, honk and stink. This is Muzak 2.0, or at least, 1.01. These drones even link up to a facial recognition database and a perpetually seething analysis of who might perv / shyly crush upon / actually fully-fledged fall in love with whom -- and what that falling-in-love should sound like, commercially speaking. Your eyes meet across a crowded room, just as Big Data suspected that they might. If ad priming be the food of love ...

2. MePee

These drones are taking the piss. Small, fleet, minty total-genital-possibility-space floating urinals skirr city centres of a Saturday night, guarding the wheelie bins and alley edges, drifting into the urb-suburban peripheries as dawn approaches scouring the homeward stumbleways. One-off use is extortionate so subscription is recommended. Also you don't have to watch the ads ("You may skip to urination in 10 seconds") and you get a free basic urinalysis with a huge array of paid upgrades: seriously, subscribe. Drones' onboard promotional equipment includes webcams linked to facial recognition software, 4.3V800MA searchlight, and speakers broadcasting helpful reminders of case-law relating to the Public Order Act 1986 and relevant local bylaws. Two main malware threats are both ransomware. The first -- varieties include PissCam Police, Piss2PotIn -- uses basic GC-MS analysis to look for prohibited substances, but a small fee will keep your positive results ex-directory if that's a desirable in your industry (the database of positives is generally used more by employers and insurers than law enforcement). The second form of ransomware, known as Clamp, relies on certain hardware mods, and has a more direct tactic.

3. Pronoun Pterygota

These are pretty self-explanatory. Small, lightweight, originally colour-coded but -- following controversy -- now generally colourless with a ticker (e.g. "they / them"). Pronoun Pterygota slip forward when they decipher a fresh contact in process, and soon retreat to the discreetest dynamic labyrinth of the dronethick air you could wish for; but should you ignore the datum they've provided, they'll swiftly turn as loyal to your fucking eyes as the summer wasp swarm is to its cider. A cheap, flexible, swarm-based pronomial decorum solution. Pronoun Pterygota are a thing.

4. Face Manager Bat

This winged familiar obsesses over your looks so you don't have to! Not only will you never again futz your Cute Meet with a crumb of tuna on your chin or a dead fly in your side-burn: the real benefits roll in when you install a free ambiance and line-of-sight optimisation ap such as TomTom Nano. Swipe your Face Manager Bat in Mirror Mode, apply one of thousands of fun filters like MySpace Angle or Shadow-Dappled Shepherdess, or just manipulate your cheekbones manually by dragging on the touch-mirror, and simply tap the "What My Crush Sees" button. You'll get real time data via Glass or headphones on how to jut your jaw or incline your nape. No known malware, though certain forms of complex love polygons run the risk of falling into feedback loops from which arise processes like arms races or bidding wars for optimally cute angles. You move, your crushes or transitive crushes move in response, so you move again, and so on. Like sunflowers following a time-lapse Big Bang of all the suns in the universe, you will loll and twirl, your bodies perhaps contorted and laced together, tugged by your elegant questing faces into a tangle, and in a few extremely rare cases, your very bones torn apart, and at the edge of your crush's vision, the light extinguished from your brooding, exquisite, enigmatic eyes.

5. Copatrice

It's not exactly clear where these come from, but they keep coming. They do one thing: follow cops around and broadcast what they're doing. The name is weird: maybe the idea is to turn cops to stone by overwhelming them with their own imagery. Following a series of futile countermeasures, cops just stopped looking like cops. Now anybody could be a cop.

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UPDATE: Check out SUPERFLUX Issue 1: editorial by Warren Ellis and drone fictions by Tim Maughan. Looks intense. See also Superflux's The Drone Aviary at the V&A.