November 2010


Grain of Salt disclaimer: I’ve been on a Charlie Stross bender– this is #4 in a few weeks, plus playing catchup on his blog— and that tends to be a bad idea.  You start to notice recurring tropes, for instance, like “canned primates” and “orthohumans” and  “megaseconds”. 

Anyway, Accelerando is absorbing and you should read it, but I think it’s the weakest of his books.  It’s about the singularity, the rapture of the nerds.  Humanity creates AIs, then uploads itself into cyberspace, then converts the mass of the solar system into computronium, basically creating a hyperintelligent Dyson sphere.  As the resulting “weakly godlike” intelligences are inscrutable, the story focusses on the semi-rejects who choose to remain merely post-human, who spend most of their time in augmented meat bodies.

The middle section of the book is best.  It has the strongest character, Amber, and she has the most intriguing story: a mid-21C girl fully at home with augmented minds, she escapes her domineering mother, founds the Ring Imperium, and rides a starwisp out to an alien router with a bunch of friends, falls into and escapes an alien trap. 

The first part starts just past the present, and it tries so hard to be hip and up-to-date that it’s already hopelessly dated.  (For example, he refers to Microsoft several times but not Google; and the timeline is already ludicrous; it’s 2010 and we don’t even have cool exocomputational shells.)  Plus his hero of this section, Amber’s father, is a soulless nerd a la Gibson who never amounts to much more than his obsession with being transhuman.  What, playing Second Life wasn’t enough?

And the third part concentrates on wrapping up the family story, ending up with Amber’s son– only the real story has gone somewhere else.  No character speaks for the post-intelligences in the computronium, so they simply become a threat without clear motivation.  (It’s never really explained what they’ll accomplish if they eat up Saturn as well as Jupiter.)  And the book ends on a cheat, hinting at new developments with the aliens and never delivering.  I think Stross got too tied up with his symmetrical structure.  Tthe last chapters are a continual family reunion: death is never final, so the cast continually grows and no one gets enough screen time.

Plus the last chapters sound like the Star Trek writers used to write scripts:

KIRK: Why can’t we TECH?

SCOTTY: We can’t TECH because of TECH.  We’ll have to TECH.

The TECH would be filled in later with plausible-sounding nonsense.  Not that Stross ever just spits out jargon, but it does read sometimes like he’s trying to give techno-wet dreams to Wired readers.  I think he does much better when he focusses on a single viewpoint character and a somewhat less abstract predicament.  (“Why are people trying to kill me?” works pretty well in Saturn’s Children and Glasshouse.)

There was a period when the grand dreams of classic sf were sidelined in favor of slightly dystopian near-future stuff.  Stross is good news, in that a huge perspective, megaprojects, and space opera are back in style.  He reminds me of Niven, except with more biological savvy and less recourse to unobtainium.  And a dash of socialism.

Republicans have a crackpot theory, called “starve the beast“, that lowering taxes will somehow reduce the size of government.  The facts say otherwise; what cutting taxes does is balloon the deficit, and it’s perfectly compatible with ballooning spending, as George W Bush showed.

But Kevin Drum puts this in a novel way that makes a lot of sense:

If you raise taxes to pay for government programs, you’re essentially making them expensive. Conversely, if you cut taxes, you’re making government spending cheaper. So what does Econ 101 say happens when you reduce the price of something? Answer: demand for it goes up.

Cutting taxes makes government spending less expensive for taxpayers, which makes them want more of it. And politicians, obliging creatures that they are, are eager to give the people what they want. Result: lots of spending and lots of deficits.

If you want to reduce spending, the best way to do it is to raise taxes so that registered voters actually have to pay for the services they get.

So cutting taxes is precisely the wrong thing to do if what you really want is to reduce government.  You’re making big government more popular.

(Doesn’t the deficit bite us in the ass sometime?  Yes, but only sometime years in the future, which is something Americans don’t really believe in.  In practice Americans want low taxes and high spending now.  They don’t act or vote as if deficits will really have to be paid for.)

I finished my read-through of On the 50th Century, or (Against) Peace and Freedom, or Frontier Planet Blues, or How Agent Morgan Tired of Tea, or whatever I end up calling this book.  To my surprise, the structural problem I was anticipating failed to show up.  The plot more or less makes sense.  I think.

Some bits are over very quickly, which I have to think about.  In general I think it’s a greater sin for a novel to drag than to be breezy.

There’s a few chapters that need reworking, which is annoying because it’s much harder than revising.  Some of these are the very beginning… there’s a big lump of exposition I have to figure out what to do with.

I also probably have to reinforce some key ideas.   One question the more annoying sort of reader may have is, why is the protagonist sent out with laughably insufficient resources?  The answer is that in an age when bodies can be scanned at the molecular level and brains neuron by neuron, you can’t sneak in weapons or a weaponized human; you rely on low-tech prodding and poking.  But I should explain that earlier.

I should probably start worrying about the cover illustration.  I have an idea which is probably way beyond my artistic abilities, but we’ll see.  I could always go back to having a big unlikely spaceship doing something exciting like orbiting a planet.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through revising.  I’m happy that most of the jokes work.  The first half… mmm… reflects its earliest incarnation as a game, but I don’t think that’s a problem.  I’ve had a nagging feeling that the last third of the book has a ghastly structural problem, but I can’t say yet.

So far the problems are two:

1. Thoroughness of artifice.  To be clearer, it needs a bit more conworlding.  It’s not at all a story about the gadgets, but the tech level should hit the reader a bit more.

2. The politics.  Some of the book is satirical, and bits where this is most explicit and most tied to our own era don’t work so well.  Plus I understand the targets better than when I wrote the book.

I’m reading Stross’s Accelerando, and it’s instructive because I think he has the same problem in the first chapter.  He’s furiously dropping brand names and contemporary references, and the effect is to make sound it excruciatingly dated even though it came out just five years ago.

Still need a new title.  The antagonists are the Peace Party and the Freedom Movement, so I considered Against Peace and Freedom, but eh.

I should have done this a long time ago, but today I put my sf novel into the book template and started going over it.

Its working title is AD 4901, and I’ve only recently realized how bad that title sucks.  Titles should ideally be clever and intriguing, and this one is not only dull, it’s pretty much dishonest.  The book starts in AD 4901, but within two chapters the main character is off to Fomalhaut and it’s AD 4924.   Einstein rules, you see.

Charlie Stross will tell you that STL travel makes interstellar colonies problematic.  And it does, but lifetimes in my timeline approach a thousand years; a 23-year journey in stasis is just a blip in your lifetime.  So humanity has spread out over 50 light years or so.  There’s no way to keep all the colonies in a single state and barely an economy; instead there’s the Incatena, which can’t bend the planets to its will but can try to influence them.

Our protagonist is an Agent, a diplomat/spy who does the influencing.  The problem in this case is out on Okura, a colony planet that’s reinvented the totalitarian dictatorship, and seems moreover to be collaborating with an interstellar financier who’s disappeared for freewheeling New Bharat.

Oh, and it’s a comedy.

You may know that I have a fantasy world, and a novel that’s also waiting to appear, so why am I looking to publish this one first?  Well, because it’s better, I think, and a whole lot more fun.

I will probably put up some material on the universe and some sample chapters, hopefully to build interest.  Feel free to ask questions and begin eagerly anticipating the release.

The immediate question is: is it as good and fun as I remembered?  So far, yeah, but I’m doing a good bit of tweaking as I re-read.  Some early chapters are too exposition-heavy, so some structural tinkering may be needed.  And I’ve been rethinking and updating some of the tech, as well as that key sf concept, the names.  In the best modern sf, you know, you can’t just take a car to the office and read the newspaper; you have to take a transpod to the ergozone while spooling out the feed.  Don’t worry, I just made those terms up.  But getting words to sound different yet right is something of a trick, and many of the attempts I made at the time sound terrible.

A great article by Yegor Gaidar, once acting prime minister of Russia, on why the Soviet Union fell apart:

http://www.aei.org/issue/25991

Gaidar is writing largely to combat popular folklore in Russia right now, that reformers somehow sabotaged a system that was working fine.  But it’s equally a rebuke to the folklore in America that Ronald Reagan somehow did it.  The collapse had nothing to do with the reformers or Reagan.

Very briefly, the Soviet system was doomed with the collectivization of agriculture back in the 1930s, at Stalin’s insistence.  Collectivization greatly reduced grain production and destroyed any capacity for increased productivity.  Yet the cities kept growing, increasing the need for grain.  In the ’50s a program of utilizing marginal land was begun, but this only solved the problem temporarily. 

In the ’70s the system got another reprieve, via the discovery of oil.  But the price of a resource-based economy is instability and backwardness.  When oil prices collapsed in the mid -1980s, the USSR suddenly faced a $20 billion per year shortfall in revenues.  Several difficult solutions were available, but the leadership decided instead to just borrow the money from foreign banks. 

And this in turn tied the Soviets’ hands when the satellites and the Baltics started rebelling.  In 1991 the Soviets were negotiating a desperatedly needed $100 billion loan; it was understood that the money would not be available if (say) the USSR repressed the Baltics by force.

The coup in August 1991 failed largely because it was soon realized that the plotters, though able to push Gorbachev out, had no plan of their own.  They could not produce grain for the cities, or reestablish military control over the satellites, or secure that loan.  Stalinism couldn’t be reimposed by a wish.

On August 22, 1991, the story of the Soviet Union came to an end. A state that does not control its borders or military forces and has no revenue simply cannot exist. The document which effectively concluded the history of the Soviet Union was a letter from the Vneshekonombank in November 1991 to the Soviet leadership, informing them that the Soviet state had not a cent in its coffers.

Oil prices are up again, which is providing a boost for the Medvedev/Putin regime, which is smart enough to save some of the revenues… but only enough to provide a few years’ buffer in case of emergency.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that the greatest avowedly Marxist state was undone by pure economics– as Gaidar points out, by the same factors that ground down Spain from the most powerful country in Europe to one of the weakest.

The Munkhâshi grammar is up.  This and “A Munkhashi Life” were fun exercises in getting into the heads of the planet’s main antagonists.  It’s a little musty and nasty in there, but frankly some humans’ heads are worse.

I’ve been updating the Historical Atlas, and had to take a huge detour to work out Munkhâshi and Dhekhnami, which after all are responsible for huge chunks of the map.  Dhekhnami is largely done, but I will probably wait a bit till the atlas catches up to it.  If you’re curious what the update looks like, this map was derived from the atlas, though it combines labels from three separate maps (terrain, political, cities).

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