Tuesday 27 September 2011

Support Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is one of the best places on the web to find intelligent discussion about science fiction - as well as SF itself. The magazine is free to read but still manages to pay its contributors. In order to keep afloat it relies on fund drives. Along with many other writers and SF people, I've offered a prize in this year's drive.

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Monday 26 September 2011

Can the Camm

This man:

Contributed to the design of this:

The Hawker P1127, prototype for the Harrier jump jet, the AV-8B derivatives of which were still being manufactured in 2003, and remain in service.

Camm also designed the RAF's first monoplane, the Hawker Hurricane. Not bad for a career...

Saturday 24 September 2011

Fifty years (redux)

As a science fiction writer, I'm as equally interested in the stuff that won't change, as the stuff that will. Many of the technologies in our day to day lives are ephemeral: my camera is not the same one I had ten years ago. My television is not the same one. My main car is not the same one (although we still own one made in 1989; we just don't drive it anywhere). My kettle is not the same one. My mobile phone is not even the same one I had two years ago. My PC is nine years old, but that's because I'm freakishly uninterested in computers other than as tools to do a given job.

There are of course classes of technology that don't change very rapidly, like furniture, houses, common tools and simple appliances, as well as cheap, mass-produced consumer goods like biros and paperclips. But actual branded models of things, such as makes of cars, are perceived to have woefully short lifespans. This is something that SF seems to accept unquestioningly, with a few notable exceptions. An SF novel set 50 years in the future might refer to a "Jeep" or a "BMW" but it's implicitly not the same Jeeps or BMWs we know today - unless the author makes a point about the protagonist being a classic car enthusiast, with his lovingly tended period roadster from 2011. Bladerunner, which got so much else right, was also one of the first films to show a future in which old stuff was still hanging around - although with the fish-tailed cars, it was strangely stuff that was already quite elderly at the time the film was made.

As we slide into the second decade of the 21st century, though, it's interesting to take stock of things that not only haven't changed radically in the last few decades, but show every sign of sticking around for a few more. I'll restrict myself to two examples, both from the world of aviation. The B52 is now a very old design indeed. It's been in operational service since 1956, flying since 1952, and the program dates back to 1948. The "youngest" B52s now flying are a mere half a century old. What's interesting, to me at least, is that there is no reason for them not to keep flying for much, much longer - possibly until the middle years of this century. Granted, the operational B52s have had various bits swapped and improved over their service lives, and may yet see more changes - but they'll still be B52s, and recognisable as such to anyone who witnessed the birth of the program six decades ago.

The other example is the 747 - now well into its fifth decade - and they're still building them. Granted, the 747s we see flying around today, or perhaps even fly in ourselves, do not date back to the 1960s. But, stretched and modified as they are, they are recognisably the same machines. By the same token, passenger or freight 747s will still be flying somewhere in the world decades from now, even if they aren't the dominant long-haul carriers that is now the case.

It would have been a brave SF writer who wrote a book in 1970, set in 2020, in which people were still flying around in 747s and in which a major element of the USA's bomber capability was still vested in B52s. But did anyone get it right, I wonder? Are there SF novels that correctly nailed the fact that, while lots of other things change, some major technologies just stick around?

And are there any other examples of very long lived, familiar technologies that ought to be part of the background furniture of any SF novel set in the mid 21st century?

Friday 23 September 2011

Fifty years

I wrote Pushing Ice in 2005, setting the main action in 2057 - a little over fifty years from the time of writing. When I started developing the book, mid way through 2004, the story took place a good century further into the future. But I quickly got bogged down in stuff that, while interesting, was a sideline to the main event - this rapidly moving tale of space exploration and first contact. By moving the action much closer to the present, I was free to assume that a lot of stuff had not changed greatly in the intervening years. Spacesuits were still more or less as we know them. Medicine had progressed, but it was not magically advanced compared to our own time. Computers were squishier, but there was no AI or matter-transforming nanotech. People still listened to rock music, played poker and watched global news channels. I was happy with these choices, as they allowed me to present the protagonists as being people much like ourselves. If I could have set it even earlier, I would have.

I did get (and continue to receive) criticism, though, for presuming that there would be huge nuclear powered mining ships scooting around the solar system a mere 50 years from now. Here's a recent example:


"I found Reynolds' timeline a bit absurd, though. I'll be impressed if we've managed a manned mission to Mars by 2057 - for humans to be mining comets on an industrial scale by then would require an incredible revolution in space travel."

Now, I have no problem with that criticism - it's a perfectly valid point of debate. And yes, from the standpoint of 2011, I'm markedly less sanguine about our chances of establishing an extensive human presence off-Earth by the middle of the century. Blue Remembered Earth is purposefully vague about the next couple of decades, but I do state that there will have been one hundred people on Mars by the year 2059 (and despite the similarity of those two dates, it's not remotely the same future).

But really - 50 years. That's a long old time. It's enough to go from:


To this:

Which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. Even more so when you appreciate that many of the key technologies of the Apollo program were essentially mature by the start of the 1960s. The Saturn F1 main engines were part of a program that originated in 1955, a full 14 years before the Moon landings - and a mere 36 after Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy.

So you can do quite a lot in 50 years, if you put your mind to it.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Check one, check two

Atul Gawande is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. A surgeon, he writes with unsparing honesty and insight about the realities of modern day medical treatment - with particular emphasis on the things we get wrong, and the things that, with little effort, we could easily improve. I picked up his first book, Complications (2002), in a Boston airport bookstore and found it compulsive and fascinating. I'm a sucker for medical case histories, especially when they're recounted in such lucid, humane terms. What I found instantly refreshing about Gawande's work was his willingness to document his own errors and fallibilities, even when they had had potentially fatal or debilitating consequences for those under his care. He's the opposite of the Surgeon-as-God: Gawande is simply a normal human being trying to do his best in a staggeringly complex and ever-evolving field. His second book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (2007) was just as interesting, although it broadened the scope of discussion far beyond Gawande's own case histories. If you're a reader of the New Yorker, you'll likely already have encountered some of Gawande's lengthy and engrossing essays on modern medicare.

If you have been keeping up with Gawande's writings, his third book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009) can't help but feel over-familiar in places. But it's worthwhile all the same: it;s a book about an amazingly simple and yet potentially world-changing idea: the notion that the checklist is one of the most powerful tools we've yet designed to enable us to cope with complex tasks. Gawande talks about the introduction of the checklist in aviation circles as a consequence of the sheer difficulty involved in flying the B-17, which at the time of its development was by far the most complicated aircraft ever developed. When the best pilots in the military couldn't cope with the number of tasks needed to get the thing in the air without crashing, there was no option but to define the necessary actions in a written-down sequence. After the introduction of the checklist, Gawande notes, B-17s proved extraordinarily reliable and airworthy. But they were almost unflyable without it. The checklist culture - involving not only physical lists, but also the devolution of responsibility to many individuals, not just one big, all-powerful boss - has infiltrated many walks of life, from building construction (modern buildings are amazingly safe, but only because of the culture involved in their construction and assembly) to high-end restaurants. Strangely, though, it had not been widely implemented in the medical world - at least not at the level of surgeons and anaesthetists (Nurses, apparently, were much better at realising the value of this tool). Gawande's book is essentially a document of the slow process of persuading medical professionals that checklists not only have value, but can lead to astonishing improvements in basic care. It can be as simple as making sure everyone really has washed their hands, or that the lines fed into patients really have been changed when they're meant to be.

It's fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, and as always it's a model of clarity, elegance and the basic understanding that patients are people, not black boxes.

Monday 19 September 2011


I remember (or think I remember) reading a description of Colson Whitehead's first novel over on Rick Kleffel's The Agony Column. At the time, as is so often the case, I thought "wow, that sounds right up my street ..." and then promptly forgot all about it. The Intuitionist appeared in 1999, so I'm guessing I heard about the book around ten years ago, give or take. I should pay more attention: it was on Rick's site, for instance, that I first saw mention of David Mitchell's first novel.

In the intervening years, as it is wont to do, my ailing brain began to insert Caleb Carr's The Alienist in the mental slot that should have been reserved for Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist - clearly not comparable books at all, other than in their vaguely similar titles and the "C" in the author's forename. But at some point in the last few months I chanced upon a reference to The Intuitonist, alluding to its theme, and I immediately remembered that this was a book I very much wanted to read. Although I still couldn't remember the name of the author, I broke my usual conditioning to ask a question in a bookstore. It turned out they had a copy of The Intuitonist. I bought it, and I'm glad I did. It's a marvellous novel.

The premise is genius, the kind of gobsmackingly brilliant idea you could spend a lifetime searching for and not get anywhere close. In a nameless American city, seemingly around the middle of the twentieth century, elevators have become so central to modern life, so vital to its smooth and efficient functioning, that elevator inspectors have taken on something of the authority and stature of police officers, complete with uniforms, cars, internal affairs divisions, and ruthless factional warfare. There are two competing schools of elevator inspectors: the Empiricists, who make all their checks by the book, using tools and rigidly defined methods, and the Intuitionists, who basically just feel their way into a diagnosis of an elevator's safe functioning, in an approach akin to meditation. When the book opens, the heroine - Lila Mae Watson - is an Intuitionist with an unblemished record. But Lila Mae isn't just the youngest female inspector in the department. She's also black - "coloured" - and as an Intuitionist she's about to be set up for a fall, when an elevator she's just signed off as being in perfect working order undergoes an inexplicable malfunction. In order to clear her name, Lila Mae has to dig back into the history of elevator inspection - and the Intuitionist school.

On the surface, The Intuitionist is a stunningly rendered slice of noir-drenched alternate history - think Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or the Coen brother's The Hudsucker Proxy, and you'll have some idea of the grey, midcentury sheen so effectively conveyed here. It's all rain, skyscrapers, hats and radios. But it's much more than this. The Intuitionist is also a clever examination of race and the prospects for "elevation", or lack thereof, faced by someone of Lila Mae's status in the real twentieth century. It's also slyly funny, and the writing is never less than magnificent. In terms of its evocation of the textures and perspectives of urban life, the only thing it came close to reminding me of was China Mieville's The City and the City, another novel where the detective structure is both the point and not the point.

I liked The Intuitonist enough to rush off and order some more Colson Whitehead, and I'm intrigued by the news that Zone One, his next book, is basically a post-apocalyptic zombie novel. It'll be interesting to see whether it picks up much discussion within genre spheres, because one senses that The Intuitonist, were it to be published now, would make a considerable splash in the SF&F world.

Monday 12 September 2011


Just a minor heads up to say that I've given the website a dust over and will be looking at adding some additional content over coming weeks. Not sure how many people actually read author websites these days, but hopefully there's some vaguely useful stuff there. As always, I'm not looking for help with running or designing the site (I know it's not slick, but that's kind of the point - it's mine, all mine, and has been for 16 years), but any suggestions will be taken on onboard.


Friday 2 September 2011

Back in the saddle

I'm back on a horse! It's been far too long - about 18 months since the last time, and maybe as long again before that - and I do miss it terribly. My wife and I used to ride regularly in Holland, but for various reasons found it difficult to keep up the habit once we relocated to Wales (even though we imagined that the exact opposite would be the case). It's even longer since I rode Western, although again I used to do a fair bit of it. This is Tonto, a quarter horse. And I suspect I may be the only person in LA modelling a T-shirt proclaiming the virtues of "Barry, the bracing South Wales resort".

Sod-all relevance to SF, of course, although I have had some good ideas while in the saddle. It's a great place to let your mind wander.

Once again, thanks to Barbara Bella (who rode with my wife and I) for the photo.