How far will we go to protect animals from suffering - and how will those decisions shape our future? Arc partnered with The Institute of Art and Ideas (@IAI_TV) for this discussion, featuring Greenpeace’s UK executive director John Sauven, bioethicist Sarah Chan and novelist and broadcaster Marcel Theroux.
- The future always wins
- | Post human conditions |
- Afterparty overdrive
- | Forever alone drone |
- Exit strategies
- Postcards from Uncanny Valley
the journal of the future
Miranda Sherry does the Monster Mash.
Arrow, PPB 38.99
What do a Boer trekker girl, a serial killer, and a giant mechanical octopus have in common? Well nothing, obviously. However, in his debut novel, Apocalypse Now Now, Charlie Human deftly convinces us that they’re part of an intricate plot to bring about the end of the world. His concise, unfussy writing style, riotous dialogue and sharply drawn characters ensure that, however implausible, you’re only too happy to go along for the ride.
Drawing on (or rather, scribbling wild black crayon all over) the market’s apparently bottomless need for stories featuring sanitized teen romance with vapid occult beings, Human creates a mythology of his own that’s just the right blend of delightful and disgusting. The world he invents is edgy, weird, and steeped in obscure South African history. It offers a perfect antidote to the flaccid role that the B-grade horror monsters of old have been forced to play in much of today’s fiction. Oh, and he’s funny. Very funny.
My parents are in their room attempting to put a Band-Aid on the third degree burn that is their marriage. There’s no more screaming which means they’ll probably end up having gross middle-aged sex to a song by Toto and won’t leave their room for the rest of the night. Bless the rains down in Africa all you want, old people, I’m going to get some real action.
The tale is narrated by the cynical, instantly likeable sixteen-year-old Baxter Zevcenko who takes time out from selling porn to the kids at school and tormenting his autistic brother in order to rescue the girl he thinks he might just be in love with. Believing her to have been kidnapped, possibly by the notorious Mountain Killer who’s stalking the streets of Cape Town, Baxter follows a trail of peculiar clues until he finds himself in the dubious company of Ronin, an alcohol-fuelled, sword-wielding “supernatural bounty hunter” with diabetes.
Perhaps it’s the finely-crafted character of Baxter that makes this debut novel such an absorbing read. Through him, we’re plugged directly into that buried part of ourselves that remembers what teenage-dom is actually like: a constricted little world that spins on a hunger for power and attention, a constant, unfulfilled craving for revenge at each humiliating injustice, and a yearning to be connected to something big, something important. When we’re sixteen, we dream of being the hero in our own life-story, only in Baxter’s case, he’s starting to worry that he might just turn out to be the villain.
In Apocalypse Now Now the boundaries between dark and light, reality and psychosis are constantly being tested and blurred. Both fictional character and reader are never quite sure where they stand:
A quick glance around shows we’re in some kind of arachnid-zombie-dominatrix sex dungeon, which, it turns out, is not nearly as cool as it sounds.
Alongside refreshing characters and a carnival-ride of a plot, Human has furnished his Cape Town with a hidden, mystical, filth-ridden underworld of monster porn and insalubrious quasi-human beasts that pull government department strings behind the scenes. It’s beyond far-fetched, but I went along with it all quite effortlessly, perhaps because I’d find real human behaviour a lot less baffling if a bunch of spider-zombies was revealed to be operating beneath the surface.
Despite there being a lot of mythology to take in, there are no indigestible chunks of it that you must dutifully chew through to get on with the story. The plentiful servings of Boer history, San mysticism and obscure martial arts are cleverly sprinkled throughout the narrative. The further in you go, the less time there is to stand back and say: “OK, hang on, how does the scary electricity-monster thing fit in with the giant mantis thing and the shape-shifting crow things?” Best if you just gulp it down and enjoy the trip.
Through the lashings of made-up madness, I kept getting gratifying glimpses of that awkward, dissonant energy that seems to pulse through all things South African. Even in the face of its appalling history, its crackpot contemporary politics, its fallen heroes, and its “always-looking-over-the-shoulder” danger, I’m dogged by a gut-wrenching love for the place. This particular love is not for sissies. It’s hard-won and always aching, and I get the sense that Charlie Human is a fellow sufferer. I can only admire and thank him for restoring a little fun to the tip of Africa through this manic, uber-wacky work of fiction.
Joanna Kavenna learns to mistrust Al Gore’s first-person plural, and M. John Harrison examines the special weapons and tactics of English Heritage, in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now.
Also on the blog: Robert Morgan explores COMICS UNMASKED at the British Library.
Joe Vaz feels invaded
You have no idea what to make of this.
You meet Lieutenant “Lucky” Quinto as he leads a platoon to uncover a cache of military weapons hidden ages ago beneath the ground in an abandoned mine. It seems as though you’re reading a piece of military SF. You’re in Starship Troopers territory, or that’s what you assume: army guys battle aliens.
Except that a few pages later you realise that Quinto’s platoon is lacking in true soldiers. The war has been going for so long, and so badly, that the only soldiers are the leftovers - the ones who would never have been chosen to fight in the first place. They include a 76 year-old woman and a 14 year-old boy. They’re raiding the cache of old weapons because they’ve run out of everything else. Humanity is losing this war, and losing it badly.
So what is wiping out the world?
Luyten; weird starfish-looking telepathic beings that are impossible to fight. How do you plan against a creature that knows exactly what you’re thinking?
Six pages later and everyone you’ve been introduced to is dead.
Defenders is not your usual, “good guys always prevail” kind of book, it’s more of a “no matter what they do, good guys keep getting the shit kicked out of them” kind of book.
The Luyten, with their tentacles, superior weaponry, speed and strength, not to mention their ability to read minds, are impossible to defeat. And that’s where we start - with humanity beginning to figure this out, and realising they need to pull something out of the hat soon, or there won’t be a humanity left.
Perhaps Defenders are the answer the answer: a race of bio-engineered super soldiers, designed so that the Luyten cannot read their minds, 12 feet tall and supported on three long legs with massive faces, they’re monsters, but they’re our monsters. Aren’t they?
Defenders is a book about survival in wartime, about mistakes and their consequences. It is gripping, exciting, at times even funny – and it pushes its characters into places no one would wish on their worst enemies.
It is unputdownable.
Once you’ve read the book you might enjoy the short story on which it was based, and the author interview Lightspeed Magazine conducted with McIntosh after publication. Don’t read them first because they give away a lot of the plot. And, if you don’t already, do pick up some Lightspeed, it’s a great magazine.
In Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now, original stories scratch and scuff the oh-so-shiny prediction business. Ned Beauman plays the markets, Jane Rogers puts a market price on identity, Tim Maughan games the art market, and Matthew De Abaitua wonders what happens when creatives get destructive.
Also on the blog: She’s the new Stephen King - but you might not find her in airports. Joe Vaz brings Sarah Lotz’s eerie new blockbuster in to land.
What’s the good of virtue, asks Nan Craig
The Borough Press, £16.99
No harm can come to a good man, said Aristotle, and the hero of James Smythe’s latest novel, Lawrence Walker, is a Good Man. So say (repeatedly) his family, his campaign manager, the people in the small town where he lives and the people he represents as a Senator. So when a video prediction of his chances as a Presidential candidate appears to show him threatening his terrified family, it’s something of a surprise to everyone, not to mention a PR bomb that his campaign has to neutralise.
James Smythe’s book rests on the foundation of big data: its great promise, and simultaneous threat. Although it’s been a buzzword in business for a while, big data didn’t hit the political world until 2012, when Nate Silver predicted Barack Obama’s second-term win – calling not just the big victories and defeats, but also the margins, right down to individual wards. Psephology, never the sexiest hobby, was suddenly big news.
Big data thrives in politics, for the same reason it works well in baseball: we already have the numbers. Votes are, by definition, obsessively counted, and the saturation of polling around elections gives a wealth of statistics to work with. Also like baseball, it has plenty of geeks to get excited and crunch the numbers, and a lot of big money riding on it.
Cultural paranoia around the political use of big data is inevitable, even had it not turned out that the NSA was collecting anonymised metadata on virtually everyone. In 2011, well before Edward Snowden set foot inside the NSA, a near-future drama series called Person of Interest pretty much laid out the entire story, along with the idea that the future can be predicted by an algorithm scraping data from the internet. At the same time, governments are berated for missing the boat on big data – last week, for instance, Carl Miller of Demos and Sureyya Cansoy of TechUK assured the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that government could provide better services if it used large data sets and social media more effectively to keep track of and manage the population. (Go biopower!) Despite such promises, since the financial crash we seem to have a growing fear of mathematics itself – and a growing suspicion that algorithms are magical incantations rather than knowable human constructs.
All this would seem to make the setting of an election campaign a perfect vehicle to look at big data and our fears of prediction, which means it’s a bit of a surprise when you settle into Smythe’s novel and find, not the nitty-gritty of political manoeuvre, but an intimate story of grief, family disintegration, media intrusion and small-town intrigue. Smythe makes it clear that the fear of the future is not the fear of what might happen to us, but of what we might become: what prediction can tell us about ourselves, and to what extent predictions are self-fulfilling. In No Harm… a company called ClearVista has harnessed big data and algorithms to offer predictions in every area of life, from which route to take to work, to who will win the next presidential election. Like Google, it’s a daily tool that everyone relies on, and everyone trusts.
No Harm… is a book full of big ideas about politics, the media and technology, but these issues are frequently set to one side to make room for deeply personal and psychological matters: reactions to grief, the struggles of holding a marriage and a family together, and the effect of intense media attention on individuals and families. Since this is the focus, it’s vital that the characters’ relationships and emotional struggles seem authentic and well-developed, and unfortunately this aspect of Smythe’s book not as strong as it could be. The Walkers start off a cookie-cutter American family, so the author has to work hard to give them psychological reality. To be frank, I’m not convinced they never quite get beyond their cliched beginnings.
The most interesting character is Lawrence’s wife Deanna. A novelist, she was born in the small town where they live, and is fiercely protected by its townspeople. She has decidedly mixed feelings about Lawrence’s political ambitions. Lawrence’s backstory sits on shakier foundations. The news he suffered torture as a soldier is introduced only after he is already creaking under pressure, so it feels more like a post hoc justification instead of an organic part of his personality. The whole premise of the novel rests on what it means to be “a good man”, and whether a sense of honour or a vague well-meaningness can give any protection against tragedy, or fortitude in dealing with it. It’s about the fragility of being a good man, and how love and honour can be twisted. However, although the whole story rests on Lawrence’s psychological state, the novel almost seems to step back from him as it goes on, jumping to other viewpoints, including those of quite minor characters, and the changes Lawrence goes through as the story progresses don’t always ring true.
Other elements sometimes fail to convince, too. The idea that ClearVista – a company with the financial and political heft of Google or Apple – could be shrouded in mystery is implausible. Where are the voracious tech industry bloggers that we have today? The ones who want to know what Sergey Brin eats for breakfast? And the financial journalists? If they’ve disappeared, there ought to be some explanation why.
On the other hand, Smythe is very good on the claustrophobia and faux-friendliness of small town or village life, where everyone knows everyone else, but relationships aren’t necessarily as trusting as they first appear. He’s also great on the contradictions in our fears around big data and prediction. We want prediction. Creatures of habit, we don’t want to be surprised. We want to turn up at a hotel and know the tone in which we’ll be greeted, and that the TV will be tuned to our favourite channel. God forbid that anything should be able to shock us.
Ambitious and full of interesting ideas – more than I can do justice to here – No Harm… tries to ground its speculations about our present and our future in an intimate, personal story of grief and psychological pain. The intention was admirable. The execution is honest. Smythe is in pursuit of something important. He just hasn’t caught it yet.
Read Nan Craig’s story “Scrapmetal” in Afterparty Overdrive (Arc 1.3)
Also on the blog: Tim Maughan gets caught up in Princeton University’s Data Drama.
Christopher Priest contemplates acts of violence.
There’s a general principle of book reviewing, set out originally by, I believe, Cyril Connolly. He advised reviewers that they should write for the reader when reviewing a book they like, but if they dislike it they should address the author instead. This creates a distinction between a public recommendation, which pleases the author and possibly makes readers interested, and a more personal discourse intended for the author, but which is likely to be discouraging and disappointing. Worse, although it is addressed to the author, and he or she will hope everyone else will lose interest and drift away, it is also in public, or in semi-public.
Well then, Mr Wallace, what are we to say to each other in this semi-public place?
You are already alerted to some of what follows, but let’s dive in. It is of course your first novel, and a set of protocols immediately apply. First novels are traditionally given a gentle ride by reviewers. Maybe those protocols have been abandoned in these days of free-wheeling internet abuse from anonymous and anonymous’s dog? I still feel bound by them, if only to a certain extent. You no doubt know that I am a colleague of yours, a fellow writer, and so I too once had a first novel out. I enjoyed the cushioning effect of those protocols, even though from the vantage point of some four-and-a-half decades I might reflect that perhaps I got away with quite a lot back then. Would I have benefited more from a thoroughgoing kicking from my elders and betters? We’ll never know. There were a few mild warning noises in those now elderly reviews, and several phrases of cautious encouragement (which of course I lapped up but soon forgot, as you do). A good and well-deserved duffing up might have been more memorable, and in the end more useful.
So let’s stay with the protocols and start with a few words of praise for Barricade, which maybe you’ll see nervously as a preliminary to something worse. There’s no avoiding that.
Your story and its background have a refreshingly callous quality – life is cheap in the world of the Barricades. A new form of intelligent life has emerged, the ‘Ficials’, genetically enhanced human derivatives. Although vulnerable to nausea, pain and injury, they are capable of being healed and restored by a swarm of implanted nanobots, rendering them more or less indestructible in a long and apparently never-ending battle for supremacy with the “Reals” - the remnants of normal humanity. The setting is Great Britain, the time is unstated. Things are pretty bad all over the world: there are hints of poisonous clouds, threats from unshielded radiation, horrific and disgusting diseases which have sprung up to affect the humans, and in general life has become violent and cheap. A taxi driver named Kenstibec is given the job of driving a photojournalist called Starvie from Edinburgh to London. They are both Ficials, and they are in an armed and armoured Land Rover, which is called a Landy. The armour is made of the impermeable compound known as Gronts Alloy.
(An interjection. What sort of a name is “Kenstibec”? It doesn’t seem to have any obvious etymology. And what on earth is ‘Gronts’? I reluctantly assume the latter is an anagram of ‘strong’ and the character’s name disentangles to ‘Steinbeck’. For a moment I wondered if there was a clue here, a mad reference perhaps to The Grapes of Wrath, the famous road novel, a journey from one hellish landscape to another. Then I thought not.)
Your story begins. Kenstibec and Starvie journey south through a hellish landscape, fighting and killing Reals as becomes necessary (which is regularly and often). They capture a Real called Fatty, who eventually, and grudgingly, becomes an ally of Kenstibec. Starvie, who has been fashioned to resemble a sex-goddess named Jennifer E, turns out to be an enemy of the Ficial cause, and is later revealed to be the Queen of a local autocrat called the King. In a scene like something out of Mad Max 2, she unleashes a deadly weapon against Kenstibec and Fatty, who nevertheless make it in the end to London (or at least to Brixton), although by then they are both in a bad physical state. This main story is interleaved with a number of shorter passages, printed in italics, which appear to fill in some of Kenstibec’s background.
I hope I have this right, or nearly right – I found your narrative confusing and elliptical, because it is repeatedly interested in distracting side issues. The dialogue is often flippant, the physical descriptions hasty. However, when you concentrate on telling the story things aren’t too bad, although your plainspeak tends to reveal a lack of genuinely imagined or fresh images. Much of the book reads like an inverse zombie novel: the engineered Ficials are the normals, while the Reals, who appear to spend their days wandering around in groups and attacking the Ficials, are of course the substitute zombies. I assume this was intended to be funny or paradoxical? It is in fact neither.
The story is grim, consisting of an apparently endless sequence of violent acts, with a studied lack of interest in the consequences of violence. The novel is full of bashings, shootings, bombings, mutilations, woundings. In this violent age of ours, in which films routinely depict many similar acts, and of which there is much more and much worse in many console games, we the readers, the audiences, are becoming fairly immune to such scenes. Either we take them for granted and are unmoved by them, or in some cases we seek more and worse graphic action to satisfy appetites already numbed by lesser scenes. Writing plausibly and well about violence these days is difficult. Like all descriptive writing it requires skill, discrimination and originality.
Here’s a typical piece of your writing about violence (from pages 108-109):
Fatty threw himself on the nearest Real, jabbing the knife straight into his gut. For a second the others froze. I took the opportunity to grab the nearest guy’s neck in my good right hand. I squeezed hard, meeting my thumb and fingers in his windpipe. He looked me in the eye, full of questions, until I found his spine and twisted. He dropped to the ground. The third sentry levelled his gun at me and got off a shot, which missed. I grabbed the rifle, pushed the muzzle up into his chin, and forced his finger back on the trigger, blowing his head almost clean off. Fatty pulled the knife out of his victim’s belly and swung it across the fourth guy’s ankles. He shrieked in pain and tumbled onto Fatty. I stamped on the neck of the first guy, who was still gurgling and reaching for his pistol. Then, just as the fourth managed to jam the muzzle of his gun into Fatty’s face, I kicked him sharp in the head, and he fell down, unconscious.
This is a tired, pointless passage, a dull description of an unbelievable fight. It lacks story, characters, pain. There is not even an impression of action or a sense of danger. Look at those verbs you have chosen: “threw”, “froze”, “grab”, “squeezed”, “looked”, “twisted”, “dropped”, “levelled”, “got”. They are the familiar first-thought choices of a hack writer, speedily typing words, filling up a page. Surely you should be aiming higher than that?
This sort of passage raises the whole general question of the need to include descriptions of violence in fiction, and if violence is included how that should be written. Since your entire novel is pitched at action, damage, destruction, cruelty, injuries, don’t you think you should be confronting the question in a serious way?
Your writing is often inattentive and imprecise. In a single paragraph on page 90 you tell us that some buildings were “untouched”, but then contradict this by describing a roof “shorn away”, a sign hanging “at a dangerous angle”, a car park “littered with wrecks”, a truck “half melted” into the tarmac. There’s a huge fire blazing away at the back. Eight pages later you do it again, in a similar contradictory passage about contamination.
There’s also a distinctly dodgy passage in the middle of the book, when the unappealing Fatty and the unemotional Kenstibec plan to send a compliant Starvie out as a sexual lure for a gang of randy Reals. “Listen,” Fatty says to Starvie, after he has bound her wrists with plastic cuffs, “I know you’re upset about having to go whoring, but no more of your looks, okay?” Her response is to tilt her head, and say sweetly, “You don’t like the way I look at you?” Soon the Real sentries are predictably drooling over her, as only men can do when a shackled sex goddess is dragged past. The sequence goes on in the same lacklustre way for several inconsequential pages. The whole of this scene seems likely to start an argument I don’t want to get drawn into, but I think when your book has been read by a few more people you might well be.
In case you are thinking otherwise, I was not scouring the text for these solecisms, setting out to set you up, but like all people who are preparing a review I was keeping notes throughout the reading. The protocols around a first novel by a young writer do matter. I kept noting all the bad stuff (much more than reported here), but I was looking for good bits with which to try to encourage you. I found none. It gradually dawned on me that I was wasting my time. Barricade was unyielding in its awfulness. It was a book I did not wish to write about.
You are spared the rest.
Also on the blog: THE THREE.
She’s the new Stephen King - but you might not find her in airports. Joe Vaz brings Sarah Lotz’s eerie new blockbuster in to land.
No amount of literary motley can save a bad premise, says Nina Allan
Noria Kaitio lives in a small village in the north of what has become known as the Scandinavian Union. Her story takes place several centuries in our future, at a time where global warming has melted the polar ice caps and the world’s political and environmental geography has been permanently and dramatically altered as a result. Fresh water is a precious commodity, and strictly rationed. Noria’s material security is based on her privileged social position as the daughter of the village tea master, a venerated role that is passed down through generations, usually from father to son, although for particularly gifted daughters exceptions can be made. Noria has secrets to keep, secrets that, if revealed, may jeopardise not only her own wellbeing but that of her entire village. When her father dies, Noria finds herself torn between protecting herself, and doing what she can to help the people of her community survive the increasing predations of war and the catastrophe of climate change.
I used to distrust the term “literary SF” as a coinage employed pejoratively by SF militants, implying that as science fiction writers we should concentrate on turning out gristly, tech-based novels packed with abstruse conceits, since questions of character, language or formal aesthetics were irrelevant side-issues best left to the namby-pambies of the literary mainstream.
Recently, though, I’ve found this epithet creeping into my discourse more and more. If there is a better shorthand for describing a novel that uses the trappings of science fiction as fashionable upholstery rather than as an engine then I wish someone would enlighten me. I for one would have hoped that the increasingly widespread adoption of science-fictional concepts into the mainstream lexicon might have led to an integration of all the talents, a proliferation of novels in which literary excellence and speculative curiosity performed equal roles, thus opening the genre up to wider recognition and more broadly informed debate. What we seem to have instead is a steep rise in the number of hand-wavy novels that attempt to hide their literary blandness behind the woo factor of commercially commodified tropes, and in terms of their science fiction do absolutely nothing. Emmi Itäranta’s debut, Memory of Water, is a clear example of this unfortunate trend.
"Worldbuilding" is another science fictional term I have previously shied away from as representing a Tolkeinian ideal I would naturally react against. Yet the fact remains that if as a writer you are intent on constructing a literary polemic about an imagined future (or past, or alternate reality), then without a convincingly realised backdrop your argument is likely to flounder.
The worldbuilding in Memory of Water is unconvincing in every way. Noria lives in a world where advanced use of solar power, a 3G-type ‘pod’ communications network and an integrated public transport system are all everyday realities. There are universities, cities, complex bureaucracies. Plenty of books survive from the ‘past-world’ as repositories of information about it. And yet we are asked to believe that in this technologically developed society, both our protagonist and her more tech-savvy best friend Sanja would accord the status of buried treasure to the CDs, videos, and other remnants of past they excavate from the waste dumps. Why? Because this is what people in post-catastrophe novels do.
Similarly, the first thing we learn about Noria’s world is that fresh water is scarce enough for it to be strictly rationed – and yet casual references to characters taking a bath, washing their clothes, even watering the garden are scattered liberally throughout the text. On a more macro level, we are asked to take it on trust that the whole of Europe (and the rest of the world too? We never find out) now exists under military rule by a Far Eastern super-state. Soldiers of the occupying army are everywhere and summary executions for “water crime” may be brutally carried out at a moment’s notice:
I tried not to imagine the scene, but my mind leapt ahead of me: the glistening metal pressing into the fragile skin and reflecting the colour of the earth, the movement of a blue-clad arm, the pool of blood spreading on the pale sand of the yard and the sunlight shattering in it. (p163)
The languor of this description felt strange to me, at odds with (and therefore diminishing of) the brutal act it is intended to describe. And of course no post-catastrophe novel would be complete without a brutal, foreign occupying army, even when the geographical isolation of the villagers the novel centers upon would most likely preclude the regular presence of footsoldiers.
Perhaps the most unlikely imaginative leap Itäranta demands we perform relates to the central role of the tea ceremony within her narrative. I found it unlikely that this custom would have become so thoroughly integrated into the cultural ethos of the Scandinavian Union within such a relatively short time-frame. I also found myself unable to believe in a system where extreme water scarcity and the privileging of an inherited hierarchy – in the world Itäranta imagines, tea masters and their families live in better houses, receive greatly enhanced water rations, and are allowed to tend their gardens without restriction – could exist so peacefully. Few of the other villagers seem to question, much less resent, Noria’s family’s privileged position, at least not until the latter stages of the novel, and by then, for me at least, it was too little, too late.
The tradition and underlying philosophy involved in the tea ceremony are fascinating subjects, providing a richness of metaphor and imagery that, had this particular strand been more realistically attuned to the broader sweep of the narrative, might well have provided an interesting and original approach to a science fiction story. As things are, we get diversions like this:
The greenness of the third tea was silver-brushed and its leaves were twisted into the shape of drops. What determined it, however, was the scent. The scent of the third tea flowed. That is the only way I can describe it. It was the scent of freshly picked tea, but it was also the scent of humid earth and of wind sweeping shrubs, and it wavered like light waves on water, or shadow; one moment it was strong in my nostrils, the next it fled nearly out of reach only to return again. (p83)
Passages like these provide a contrast between the intense spiritual life of the novel’s protagonist and the harsh daily realities of the society she is born into. They are also, and in the same moment, infuriatingly off-kilter. In a world where rain seldom falls, Noria’s casual reference to ‘humid earth’ is jarring. I could also not help wondering how easy it would be to cultivate so many different varieties of tea – a luxury commodity, surely – so easily where water supplies are so limited.
There is no rationale for any of this – no argument. I felt so frustrated by this illogic, I found myself positing that tired old science-fictional interrogative: how the hell did we get there from here?
The only excuse that might reasonably be put forward for such sketchy and unfocused worldbuilding would be that the writer had other ambitions for her novel, that the plot was acting merely an armature on which to build a more elaborate aesthetic, philosophical or formal construction. But in Memory of Water the basic story is all there is – a story I found almost entirely uninvolving because of the half-baked rationale that underpinned it. By the same logic it’s hard to care much about the people that inhabit Itäranta’s world. Their characterisation is thin, in any case – no one falls in love or nurtures an enmity; even previously established relationships (between Noria’s mother and father, for example) are barely described. All we really ever know about Noria is that she’s going to be a tea master. Meanwhile, those parts of the story that did grab me – Noria’s attempts to discover the fate of the lost Jansson expedition, for example – are left woefully underexploited.
What it this book for? It’s a pleasant enough read. It passes the time. Yet as a confrontation of our possible fate as a planet and as human beings it is a pallid failure. Itäranta’s vision of a world in crisis should threaten and challenge us. Instead it meanders along: non-invasive, static, poorly imagined. As literature, Memory of Water is competent but unremarkable. As science fiction, this novel does nothing that has not been done before, and done better – John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, almost sixty years old now and treading similar territory, still feels more frightening and more rigorous.
Also on the blog: COMICS UNMASKED at the British Library, London.
Writer and game designer Robert Morgan explores an exhibition that time forgot.
Arc’s editor Simon Ings wonders why there wasn’t more dancing.
The meetngreet staff at NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, have a lot invested in the idea that their bulgy Fetter Lane new-build is larger and more complex than it actually is.
There’s an open-plan space with a desk and two meeting pods made of safety glass and egg boxes. The cloakroom is to the left of the right-hand pod and the room where they’re launching the 2014 Longitude Prize is to the right. You go left (there isn’t a cloakroom as such, just a cupboard) and immediately you’re intercepted by a meetngreet following a clockwise orbit around the left-hand pod. “You must be lost,” she says, pointing you in a direction you don’t want to go. All this in a space about 400-foot square.
Inside the room, the brains behind the revivification of the British government’s Longitude Prize of 1714 are taking it in turns to downplay the significance of the enterprise. Iain Grey, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, worries at the value of prize before jettisoning the word entirely in favour of “challenge-led agendas”, whatever the hell they are.
Honestly, it’s as if the X-Prize had never happened. The razzmatazz, the music, the black T shirts. The working laptop presentations. Here it’s all apologies and self-deprecation and a recalcitrant Windows 7 install making everyone look like a bit of a tit.
The canapes were excellent but there should have been bunting, damn it. There should have been flags. A good, worthwhile prize is always welcome. True, there’s a world of difficulty to be got through, making a prize good and worthwhile. But so far, NESTA seem to have paid their dues, and anyone who watched the BBC’s Horizon documentary last night may reasonably conclude that they’ve come up with a winner.
Until June 25, the public can vote for one of six challenges which, if met, would go some way to changing the world for the better. Do you want ecologically sustainable air travel, nutrition sufficient to keep the world’s population going, something to replace defunct antibiotics, machines to ameliorate paralysis, clean water, or independent lives for those with dementia?
As a piece of public engagement with science, it’s a triumph - and that’s before the competition proper gets started. The winning challenge stands for a decade or so, and whoever meets it wins ten million quid. The expectation, I presume, is that consortiums representing commercial and academic interests will spend much, much more than they could possibly be recouped from the prize money. The victory’s the thing, after all. The kudos. The column inches, and venture capitalists waving their chequebooks outside the door.
"This prize, on it’s own, won’t change the world," says the prize’s lead, health entrepreneur Tamar Ghosh, underselling all her hard work. She should read more aviation history. These sorts of prizes can, and do, precisely that.
Simon Ings parties like there’s no tomorrow (because there isn’t) in “Dancing on the ruins”. Read it in Afterparty Overdrive (Arc1.3), out now.
Also on the blog: Becky Hogge accompanies Jeremy Rifkin back to the future.
Tim Maughan takes a bus into the Cloud.
Spread over two days in April at Princeton’s School of Architecture, Data Drama was the latest attempt to try and capture the post-Snowden, paranoia-infested, panic-overloaded, drone-struck global Zeitgeist - if such a thing even exists. Which academic disciplines are most applicable for trying to fathom where our collective networked neurosis is leading us? Data Drama’s curator Liam Young, known for his work at Princeton and London’s Architecture Association and also his Under Tomorrow’s Sky project, thinks architecture is up for the job - as displayed by the first day’s opening session looking at the “weight of data”, an attempt to place the internet in a more physical context, as if being able to visualise its hidden, invisible systems might allow us all to come to terms with the existential crisis. What it actually did was to give us even more to be terrified by. Princeton’s own Forrest Meggers showed us how much useful data was being lost by our un-smart buildings; data centre architect Neil Sheehan scared us with the news that cloud computing consumes more electricity than India (yes India. The country. The one with the population of 1.27 billion); while ex-BERG now-Google Labs designer Matt Jones showed how you can use Google Maps to drop the World Trade Center onto your own neighbourhood. It’s easy to lose our sense of scale in this compressed, post-geographical era - but it might be what we need to keep our heads above the rising tide.
The rest of the day was spent trying to seize this sense of scale more firmly. More precisely, it was spent trying to envisage that which few of us never see, with a field trip into deepest, darkest New Jersey to hunt down the physicality of the internet in a series of visits to data centres. The Garden State lies just above one of the United States’ oldest and busiest communication hubs - a main pipeline once possessed by AT&T - which, combined with its relative vicinity to Manhattan’s financial centre, makes it perfect server-hosting country. Led by author Andrew Blum, our tour took in three separate and quite different sites. The first was Princeton’s own data centre, used to host everything from student emails and departmental web pages up to quantum physics modelling supercomputers Next came uber-corporate enterprise hosting solution Io, who - we learned, after an hour of security checks and photo taking - convert shipping containers into private, self supporting server farms stored in vast, Kubrickian white-space warehouses hidden behind mazes of security and “man-trap” airlocks.
The head of the final site we visited assured us that Io’s approach was little more than security theatre designed to impress customers. He warned us not to trip over the cables and to step around the standing fans that littered a much more DIY approach to hosting. Here, space-station white gave way to 1970s office beige. The site (once owned by Samsung, who discovered it’s far cheaper to sell off a data centre than to decommission one) hosts some of the biggest porn sites on the net.
What did this jaunt teach us about data centres? Well, the stand-out facts seemed to be, first, that they look surprisingly like chemical factories on the inside. (The mass of pipes all that coolant requires reminded me of the industrial-scale brewery I worked in one university summer break, more than the tape-based data centres my dad showed me as a child.) And second, that they use a lot of power. An awful lot. And they’re very obsessed with this never failing. Our guide at the Princeton lab told us, with a certain amount of glee, that thanks to its multiple levels of redundant back-up power generation, it was able to power itself for five days during hurricane Sandy when the surrounding area had no electricity. Which sounds impressive so long as you’re not one of those NJ families who went for weeks without any power at all, in which case you’re probably wondering if anyone cares as much about you as they do about student emails. Whether the tour gave us a feel for the scale and physicality of the invisible internet I’m unsure; it certainly gave me a feel for the scale of New Jersey after spending so much time on the bus. Spoiler: it’s really big.
By Day Two, paranoia and dislocated confusion were back in the driving seat. Microsoft Research’s excellent Kate Crawford kicked us off, with a fascinating and witty comparison of Snowden’s recently leaked GCHQ powerpoint slides and the flash-hyped fashion movement “normcore”. The connection might not be obvious at first, but her argument that the digital surveilance state creates anxiety on both sides - for both the watched and the watcher - made startling sense.
Normcore’s bland aesthetic is more about not wanting to stand out from the panopticon crowd, than merely nonchalantly slumming in it. For those watching over us, meanwhile, there’s the fear that there’s never enough data, that the scale is unfathomable, and that if you commit to total oversight, how can you ever be really sure you’re getting everything?
Artists James Bridle and Julian Oliver ramped up the unease, the former with his tales of licence-plate recognition cameras, and how the UK government’s nationality-cancelling laws seem to end in drone-strike assassinations for the majority of those affected, while the latter thrilled and unnerved with art installations ranging from a crystal hand grenade that captures wifi data, through a covert wall plug that re-edits news stories, to a remote-control toy tank that crushes your wireless internet access when it comes close to you. Then Adam Harvey showed us how fashion can help us fool facial recognition. (Honestly, it’s bad enough worrying that the machines can identify and track us; must we now worry about whether we’re hip and beautiful, too?)
Joanne McNeil brought the room back to the all-too-real world again by reminding us about Chelsea Manning: a real human story all too often lost amongst the hype, paranoia and male-dominated egotistical jousting of both the Wikileaks and Snowden dramas. From a technological perspective the event’s strongest demo came via London’s Scanlabs, whose LIDAR-based reality scanning kit - used for everything from archaeological surveys to art projects - literally captures the physical structures of reality to create near 1:1 3D models. This technology leaves you excited at the possibilities quite as much as it brings back the creeping, oppressive dread that the conference was so adept at capturing. How much more anxiety can you take, knowing that big data will inevitably consume not just all your personal information, but also the physical space of your surrounding environment?
It was a tough act for a science fiction writer to follow, but your humble author gave it a stab, telling stories and showing movies about how life in the smart-city hype might play out for those too far down the social scale to appear in the glossy corporate concept videos. I was heading up the final session, centered on speculative approaches, and following me was design guru Ivan Poupyrev - ex-Disney now, somehow appropriately, Google - who showed us videos on how a few simple pieces of electronic circuitry can turn any surface or object that can carry a current into a device that can detect human touch - a point he demonstrated by turning the leaves of plants into multi-touch interfaces.
If Poupyrev was hinting that Google wants to change the natural world into a jungle of touch pads, then film maker Ben Lewis was suggesting that they want to change the internet - via the world’s libraries - into a singularity-level artificial intelligence. Showing clips from his documentary Google and The World Brain about the company’s controversial book scanning project, Lewis described how the world’s biggest search engine managed to upset French librarians and most living authors, but also how the whole scheme seemed to have some agenda beyond just making the history of the written world searchable - because hey, if you’re an emerging superintelligence you need something to read, right?
Did Data Drama manage to capture that elusive Zeitgeist in the end? Well, if it’s a permanent state of simultaneous angst-ridden panic and nonchalant, eye-rolling resignation you’re after, then yes. There’s only so much existential fear the human brain can take before it just shrugs apathetically and accepts that the best way of coping with it all is apathetic shrugging. And that’s nothing new - you can call it the blitz spirit, the thousand-yard stare, or generation X, but for centuries, humans have been dealing with massive social change and threats to their basic freedoms by pretending they don’t exist. That’s the problem with events like Data Drama; how to walk the thin line between inspiring thought and debate and overloading your audience into submission. And this weekend, somehow, got the balance just right.
In Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now: Brendan Byrne revisits Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net,
She’s the new Stephen King - but you might not find her in airports. Joe Vaz brings Sarah Lotz’s eerie new blockbuster in to land.
Hodder & Stoughton, HB £14.99
I first became interested in South Africa’s genre fiction scene when I started Something Wicked, a magazine for SF and horror short stories, in July 2006.
To grow interest in the magazine, we launched with a competition. One of the entries we received came from an unknown author named Sarah Lotz; her story, “The Perfect Man”, went on to win.
Over the years I have become both a fan and a friend of Sarah’s, so I expected The Three^to be good. What I didn’t anticipate was how dense, epic and yet intimate this book is.
The Three starts with a simple, yet immediately disturbing premise:
Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.
There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt - but not unchanged. And the fourth is Pamela May Donald, who lives just long enough to record a voice message on her phone: a message that will change the world.
The Three is written as a book within a book, a documentary of sorts, as world-renowned biographer Elspeth Martins pieces together dozens of interviews from people around the world. Her story of the plane crashes and their aftermath begins with the personal experiences of those involved - the relatives of the victims of the crashes - and quickly spirals into an enormous narrative with epic consequences.
The use of Martins’ biography as a framing device puts the reader at a distance from the events themselves - and it becomes clear that the various narrators are very subjective. How much of what you’re reading is true? How much has each interviewee made up to get their fifteen minutes of fame? How much has Martins sensationalised to sell her book? What is actually going on? Why did these planes fall? Was it freak coincidence or nefarious design? Lotz keeps you second-guessing your readerly responses from start to finish, creating a quilt-work of individual case files, pieced together in a disconcerting and shifting landscape that will have you questioning everything, or maybe just hiding under the covers.
There are chapters here that will tear your heart out (the Khayelitsha crash site), and others that will keep you up at night (lizards). And in the end, it gets you thinking about how much of what we’re fed through the news and the internet is based on fact, and how much on prejudice.
Lotz has woven horror, dread, sorrow and satire expertly into what is likely to prove one of the better books of the year. And Her own career path - from short-story writer for indie mags, to scriptwriter for an animated kid’s TV show (headed up by Lauren Beukes), to crime novelist, then YA zombie novelist, and finally back to her roots as a horror novelist - ought to keep the blogosphere churning.
Quite right, too. It’s not too much of a stretch to compare her to early Stephen King. There’s the sheer size of her cast and the complexity of how they all connect. But more than that: there’s that growing sense of dread as the implications of each testimony combine and come clear.
The Three is not a scary book but, to quote Lotz herself, it is “creepy as fuck”.
South African authors are having a bit of a ‘golden age’ right now, and if Lotz and Buekes are anything to go by, you should definitely look out for other work from Louis Greenberg, Sam Wilson, Charlie Human, Cat Hellisen, S A Partridge, Miranda Sherry and Abi Godsell
Why live, when you can rent? Read Jane Rogers’ chilling new story “Body tourist” in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now.
but as Tim Maughan discovers, this is easier said than done.
One thing every sane, sensible science fiction writer swears they’ll never do is try and accurately predict the future. It’s an especially unwise idea if you work on short, near-future timescales. Most likely you’re going to get it wrong, and your work is going to look dated and naive. Worse, you might actually get it right - but way too early, making your work look conservative, your predictions blunted by a cowardly imagination. No: best to deny everything. To not even try. To scoff at the idea and waffle on about how you’ve no interest in making predictions, it’s all about the story and characters, and anyway science fiction is never about the future, it’s about the present. But. Occasionally, when you’re looking at all the pieces, you can just squint and see some patterns emerge in between. I wrote Ghost Hardware about 18 months ago now, in a blur of collapsing marriages, tight deadlines, late-night filmmaking, and traditional Bristolian skunk smoke. Now it’s finally out and I’m sat on the other side of the Atlantic, quietly proud to see it out in the open. I’m quite pleased with it. Or I was. Before the internet crept up behind me and in the space of a few tweets pointed out that the present was way ahead of my conservative little future. From “Ghost hardware”, 2013:
Developed by Amsterdam-based Quartier Latin Studios, the Urban Archaeology spex app has already made headlines with its revolutionary, if often controversial, data mining technology. By cross-referencing archive imagery from Google Street View with publicly accessible web and social media content, it allows the wearer to step back in time while observing the urban environment around them. Particularly popular with street-art aficionados, its gesture interface allows users to peel away architectural surfaces to expose long-lost, painted-over or removed murals.
In Excavating 3Cube, Anika Berhardt will be unveiling the app’s new “Ghost Mode”, currently in beta, which allows the user to see moving, 3D imagery of past events reconstructed from the unearthed data, in an attempt to finally reveal the identity of the elusive artist.
The sky above Oudezijds Voorburgwal darkens, the canal’s waters turning black, neon reflections shimmering on the surface. She’s punched herself in at the date the clock was showing when she pulled the final layer away, 2am. Too early, but best to come in too soon. Her hand works an imaginary jog wheel and everything goes time-lapse - ghost figures walk up and down the pathways, moving impossibly fast, stopping too suddenly, blinking in and out of existence. 3 AM. The dark cloudscape above her shifts like water churned up by propellers. 3.45. The reflections on the canal start to strobe. 3.58.
She releases the jog wheel as a ghostly figure appears in front of her, its translucent bulk blocking her view of the billboard. It’s him, she knows. His hands hang at his sides, fingers flecked with black and white, holding splattered cans. She follows one stormsuited arm – the weatherproof, boilersuit-like one-piece so baggy, it makes him seem amorphous, barely humanoid, limbs highlighted principally by the three-stripe Adidas branding that runs their length. She follows the arm up to his shoulders, but from behind. His head is hidden by a fur-lined hood.
Beyond him, on the billboard, hang three shapes, insectoid and mechanical. Billboard beetles, his most infamous of tools, graffiti clean-up robots re-purposed, hacked into living paintbrushes, autonomous spray cans. They scurry away on the surface, their movement an unsettling melange of mechanical precision and animal eccentricity. In their wake they leave sections of the yet unfinished drone image, in the same black and white that has been painted onto their plastic shells in patterns that simultaneously evoke both barcodes and savannah grassland camouflage.
She pauses time. Edges around the figure to try and catch his face, two of the micro-drones following her, but no luck. It’s unpixelised at least, but hidden by tinted spex and a bulky, paint-splattered industrial respirator mask that looks like a prop from a pre-millennial science fiction movie: nostalgia for a lost industrial future.
Google has turned its Google Maps Street View into a time machine to let users travel back in time and see how places have changed.
The new feature will let users track changes in landscape, buildings, roads and entire neighbourhoods from around the world since the Street View mapping program began in 2007.
Users can now click on a new clock icon that will appear in the corner of the screen when using Street View on Google Maps on a desktop or laptop computer, firing up scrollbar-controlled time machine, changing the year and even season of the area or building they are currently looking at to see how it has changed over time.
“This new feature can also serve as a digital timeline of recent history, like the reconstruction after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Onagawa, Japan. You can even experience different seasons and see what it would be like to cruise Italian roadways in both summer and winter,” he said.
Street View has primarily been used as a way of visualising directions to help users find and identify locations they are looking for, but the service has become increasingly popular among “armchair explorers”, who have used Street View to discover far away parts of the world without ever leaving home.
From “Ghost hardware”, 2013:
There’s a rumble from Anika’s right as a semi-transparent VW camper van skids into the ancient square; it’s an old one, rusted and patched in places, glinting in sun. The neon solar panels on the roof are the only indication she hasn’t accidentally dialled back decades instead of hours. At first she can’t place where the rumbling is come from – the roof panels suggest the van has been retrofitted enough to discard the diesel engine. When the side doors pop open the origin of the sound is clear: sub-bass stabs vibrating through her spex’s bone-conductors and drilling into her skull. There’s a muffled shout and the music cuts out, not wanting to attract attention, as two figures disembark. There’s no time to fuck around, they have to work quickly.
In less than a minute they’ve unloaded four large but low-walled boxes from the van, arranging them in a simple grid in front of the American Hotel. Lids are removed, but in the early morning gloom Anika still can’t see what’s inside. She doesn’t have to wait long, as one of the figures – him, she presumes – air-types at a virtual keypad.
Things are rising out of the first box. Then the second, third, fourth. It takes Anika a second to realise what they are: micro-drones, tiny ones, half the size of the ones she’s broadcasting with today, probably 3D-printed. As the four groups lift into the sky they merge into one massive swarm, hundreds strong, dancing around each other in huge swirls, forming tighter, more solid shapes as they group together, spacing out into a wide net as they separate. There’s something joyous about it, something she recognises – at first she thinks it’s a quantum particle modelling simulation she saw at that tepid CERN art-meets-science conference, but then it’s all too obvious where she’s really seen this before – starlings flocking over Central Station in the fading daylight, thousands of them tagging the grey sky with graceful, ever shifting graf.
The figure, him, is air-typing again. The swarm rises higher into the sky, then drops again, dive-bombing the hotel with a singular purpose, sweeping impossibly close to the huge IBM billboard. As it passes the grid of panels, each member unleashes its payload of paint-guano, splattering it white. It seems at first like an impossibly large space to fill, but after the fourth co-ordinated fly-by the whole area has been blotted out, colourless.
More ghostly air-typing: the drones momentarily regroup above the deserted square, before another strafing run begins, quickly followed by a second, third. Each one leaves behind more and more black over the top of the white, the pattern slowly appearing, like a strangely, disturbingly organic ink-jet printer leaving its mark on the walls of a pristine paper castle.
When the swarm rises into the air for the last time, the image is complete, just a few quad-rotor hummingbird stragglers left behind, spitting pressurised green ink into the olive branch shape. As elegantly as it rose, the swarm falls back into its boxes, and silence.
For street artists who don’t have a head for heights, or who just can’t be bothered to scale drainpipes, scamper along rooftops and dangle from parapets, help may now be at hand for tagging those hard to reach spots – in the form of a spray-paint wielding drone.
Developed by New York graffiti artist, Katsu, who rose to fame in the 1990s by peppering the streets with his iconic skull tag, the device is the latest step in his pursuit to paint bigger than anyone else in the city.
“Drones allow me to do what I had always yearned to do,” he told Bard College’s Centre for the Study of the Drone. “I’ve always looked at a building or looked at a canvas and stretched my arms out with my eyes. My eyes have always been able to reach it but my limbs have never been able to touch and reach these spaces.”
Lacking go-go-gadget arms, in the past he has used fire extinguishers to blast vast quantities of paint across huge areas, obliterating rivals’ puny tags with building-sized letters. Now he hopes his pet paint-spraying drone will let him get to places others can only dream of reaching.
“I have this little video game-inspired fantasy of lying in my bed, sending my drones out my bedroom window,” he said, “having them render my tags all over the city and then flying back home to me, like, in my bed.”
"Ghost hardware" is published in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now.
Also in Chromewash (Arc 2.2): Steven Zorn set out to create software that addressed timeless human desires. What could possibly go wrong? By Adam Rothstein.