trolling atlas

I’ve been watching this again and again – there’s something deeply hypnotic about seeing this little biped navigate the world. Also, I suspect that the human-on-robot trolling that begins at about 1:30 is probably some sort of Skynet origins moment.

I was intrigued to feel myself reacting so strongly to it. I was very put out on the robot’s behalf – which is odd, because what you really see here is someone demonstrating how well a piece of machinery deals with disruption. There’s nothing to be upset about.

Or is there? We’re at the very beginning of the robotization of the world. Perhaps what I felt was something constructive – a sense that the tools we make for ourselves, and that will increasingly come to sustain us, should be treated with a basic level of respect. That looking like being alive is in some way equivalent to actually being alive.

Or perhaps I was just being sentimental. After all, no matter how human it looks, machinery doesn’t live. Perhaps that’s going to be one of the big challenges of the coming century – learning a new set of reactions to units that act like organic creatures, but aren’t.

That objectification will bring its own dangers, of course – if we start transferring it back into our reactions to each other, then our society will become a much darker, less empathetic place. But then again, in many ways that’s where we are right now.

And perhaps that’s what’s really scary about this little film. It blurs the categories, leaving us reacting to a machine as if it were a human. And that forces us to think about the reverse – about all the people, all around us, whose humanity has been tossed aside as easily and casually as this machine is trolled in this film.

bowie’s in space

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

summertime and the reading is easy

It’s summer time, so the paper are full of people talking about the books they’re taking on holiday. I’ve found all the various lists rather frustrating as – with the exception of (of course) the New Scientist and a couple of mentions of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven – nobody’s recommended any science fiction, fantasy or horror at all.

So, to balance that out, here’s my list of holiday books. Oh, and it seems that, when writing this kind of thing, you have to mention where you’re heading to. So, there’s a certain amount of destination boasting in there too.

Anyway, first of all I’m going to be packing Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. Here’s the blurb:

Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, Imaginary Cities charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. A work of creative nonfiction, the book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.

It’s a wonderful, substantial tome and looks absolutely fantastic. Darran’s twitter feed is also well worth checking out, it’s a cornucopia of imaginary wonderments. I’m planning a long weekend tucked away in London’s Alsacia – it’ll be the perfect companion.

I’m going to follow that with some fiction. I’ve been meaning to check out Naomi Mitchison for a while – she seems to be both a very wondrous writer and someone who’s been rather unfairly written out of genre history. The Corn King and the Spring Queen looks like a great starting point:

Set over two thousand years ago on the calm and fertile shores of the Black Sea, Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen tells of ancient civilisations where tenderness, beauty and love vie with brutality and dark magic.

Ms Allumination and I are off to Summerisle for a long weekend, it’ll be a great read on those endless Western Isle evenings. Sadly we’ve missed this year’s May Day celebration but at least there’ll those marvellous apples to try! And of course I’ll snag one of their famous “I went to Summer Isle and all I came back with was an understanding of the true meaning of sacrifice” t-shirts.

After that, it’s going to be time for a bit of a change of pace. Business is taking me to Neo-Tokyo – apparently the tech scene out there is about to explode. I’ll be stopping off in Hong Kong along the way, so Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City will be the perfect traveling companion

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections–“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”–the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

And once I’m back, we’ve finally got a couple of weeks away for a proper summer holiday. We’re spending it in a rather snug bolthole somewhere in Sussex. Apparently Arran sweaters are de rigueur and I’m assured that the aga is in full working order. So, we should be able to avoid the local ambulant plant life, keep under the radar of any passing military survivalist cults and basically stay cosy in the face of any catastrophes.

While we’re there, I’ll be snuggling down with Aliette de Bodard’s by all acounts stunning The House of Shattered Wings:

A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

I can’t wait! Though of course, family holidays aren’t just about reading. We’ll be passing the evenings performing Hamlet. In the original Klingon, of course.

Happy holidays everyone! Oh, and if you’ve got any summer reading recommendations, do share them (plus any strange and interesting destinations you’re heading to) in the comments…

a weekend at nine worlds

Much excitement as I’m doing a panel and reading at Nine Worlds next week, plus a Google Hangout and some Courtly Fantasising beforehand.

So, on the Thursday 6th August at 3pm I’ll be doing the hangout with Alex Lamb, Aliette de Bodard and Anna Caltabiano – I’ll post a link when I have it. Then I’ll be hitting Fantasy in the Court. It’s a friendly meetup for genre folk in Cecil Court, should be lovely. You do need a ticket though, details are on the website.

And then on Friday I’m at Nine Worlds, doing a panel and a reading:

Architecture of a great character
Room 38, 10:00am – 11:15am
Al Robertson, Leila Abu el Hawa, Lucy Hounsom, Danie Ware, Sebastien de Castell, Liesel Schwarz

A good character can be timeless but what does it take to build this character and what jigsaw pieces make up the things that make our characters live on?

New Voices
Royal C&D, 10:15pm – 11:30pm

Readings from Francesca Haig, Lucy Hounsom, Zen Cho, Tom Toner, Al Robertson and Stark Holborn

The official schedule details are here. Apart from the reading and panel, I’ll be there all day Saturday too, taking everything in. So, it looks like it’s going to be a lovely, chatty, literary weekend. See you there!

sounding heavenly

Crashing Heaven is hitting the streets tomorrow. To celebrate, I thought I’d write a bit about some of the sounds that helped me write it. Finding the right soundtrack was very important – it helped me pin down the mood I was after for Jack and Fist’s adventures and imagine the world they were moving through.

So, here are some of the most important musical inspirations for Crashing Heaven. It’s just general soundtrack stuff – there’ll be more on some specific character related music in a bit. Oh, and it’s the music that worked for me as I was writing, but it’s definitely not the only possible CH soundtrack. If there’s anything completely different that’s in your mind as you read it, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

John Foxx / My Lost City / The Garden

John Foxx’s “My Lost City” was a very big inspiration. There’s something hauntingly elegiac about it. That resonated very strongly with Jack’s feelings as he returned to a place that was no longer his home. It’s also a very numinous album, shot through with choral tones that hark back to Foxx’s childhood. I felt the distant presence of the gods in it.

“The Garden” was very important too. As soon as I heard the album, I knew that I’d found a very important part of the book’s soundtrack. “Europe After The Rain” and “Swimmer 2” stood out in particular. Both of them are wonderfully propulsive, but both also have a deep undertow of dream, sadness and loss. Their very 80s synth sound also give them a lovely retro-futuristic feeling.

The Black Dog / Music for Real Airports

The Black Dog’s wonderful album was mostly composed in transit. It captures the bland anonymity of modern non-places perfectly. They’re the kind of places that Jack and Fist spend a lot of time exploring – industrial estates, corporate lobbies, customs facilities, transit stops, shopping malls and service corridors.

In particular, I often had “Wait Behind This Line” on repeat play, hammering at the keyboard in sync with its slow, stately, droning build. It nails the sense of vast, impersonal power that suffuses Station. The strings that grow through it add something achingly human. It helped me imagine Jack and Fist’s fraught, determined progress towards the truth.

Brian Lavelle / Fallen Are The Domes Of Green Amber

A few years ago, Brian Lavelle put out this lovely album. It’s made up of two long, slow, stately drones, both rich with evocative majesty and uncluttered enough to set your imagination working hard. It’s great to write to. Unfortunately, it’s not available online.

So, instead, here’s “Suburban Electrification”, which is also a very evocative listen, though in a slightly different way:

Slowdive / Pygmalion

I wish I’d picked up on Slowdive’s majestic album when it first came out, back in 1995. As it is, I only came across it while I was editing “Crashing Heaven”. Listening to it was an amazing experience – it’s a wonderful soundtrack for late night in Docklands, when the gods are dormant, the spinelights have dimmed almost to nothing and the hard rain has managed all but the most determined nighthawks off the streets.

talking & reading at eastercon

Much excitement at Allumination Towers as the programme for Dysprosium, this year’s Eastercon, has been released! I’m doing a very exciting panel and a reading with the mighty Ed Cox. Here are the details of each:

Watching the Detectives
Private dicks, gumshoes,shamuses, pinkertons, consulting detectives – we love them all but aren’t they even better with a supernatural second job? Moderated by Alice Lawson, with Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and (of course) me. It’s on Saturday morning, from 11.15am to 12.15pm, in Discovery.

Ed and I reading
Edward Cox will read from The Cathedral of Known Things and I’ll read from Crashing Heaven. We’re on on Saturday evening, from 8-9pm, in Johnson.

Hopefully see you there! Of course I’ll also be wandering around in general, do say “hi” if you fancy a chat. And now I’m off to ready my reading voice and brush up on some of my favourite occult detectives…

on the outskirts of infinity

It’s been a couple of weeks since I had the deep pleasure of seeing Dominic Harman‘s stunning cover for Crashing Heaven for the first time. Here it is:

Crashing Heaven

First of all, I spent a lot of time just looking at it and being thrilled. Crashing Heaven’s set on a giant orbital habitat called Station – Dominic’s image captures both its oppressive crush and the numinous light of its gods’ presence beautifully.

Then, it set me thinking about some of the inspiration behind Station. Before I started writing Crashing Heaven, I spent a lot of time pondering space stations. As part of that, I went back to images from my childhood guides to the future:

A space station

I found them fascinating. In particular, I was struck by the way that they overlaid the bleakly hostile wastes of space with such a secure, cosy, comfortable world. There was something so very suburban about them.

A cosmic suburb

Perhaps humanity’s spacefaring dreams will indeed reach their apotheosis with the recreation of late 20th century dormitory towns around as yet unreachable suns, as yet unimagined planets. And perhaps that’s very natural.

A buffet of tomorrow

Space is deep – far deeper than we can reasonably comprehend. Perhaps some nice drinks with the neighbours on a lovely sward-edged patio, while the buffet steams in the background, are an essential hedge against the cosmos’ punishing, inhuman vastness.

But the suburbs bring their own problems. Thinking about that took me on to J. G. Ballard’s simultaneous fear of and fascination with them. Here he is on the subject in a 1982 interview with V. Vale:

They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading to these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul. And I thought, My God, this is the prison the planet is being turned into… if you have a world like that, without any kind of real freedom of spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom.

Those two ideas – of a space station as a suburb, and of suburbs as very problematic places – clicked together, becoming a key inspiration for Station. But of course Station’s been continuously occupied for about 700 years. So I started thinking about how it has evolved.

Its population has increased. Its economy has grown. Space within it is limited. So, its architects have built upwards. Green space has been lost. Population density has shot up. The shopping malls and business parks and habitation units have metastasized.

CRASHING-HEAVEN-final2

Dominic’s cover art catches that beautifully, across the image as a whole and in every detail. Looking at it I see a fully mature orbital habitat that’s turned right in on itself, going to seed along the way. The physical and psychic repression that Ballard describes has increased to unbearable levels. And so, as always, repression leads to overflow.

Crashing Heaven’s heroes – battle-scarred accountant Jack Forster and virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist – are one manifestation of that overflow. In Station terms they’re mad, because they question the corporate gods that rule it.

Crashing Heaven cover detail

But that madness liberates them, driving them to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. And so, the action of the book begins, leaping straight out of a beautiful cover that captures its mood and setting perfectly and resonates wonderfully with the visions that inspired it.

Finally, two links, both with a little more about the cover. Here’s Gollancz’s blog post officially revealing it, and here’s Niall Alexander talking about it over at Tor.com.

machine cycle upgrade

image

“Expelled as commander to be integrated as connector, the human is transformed by its own works from a brain legislating life to a ligament binding machine cycles.”

Brian Massumi, quoted by Pierre Joris in “Nomad Poetics”

I stayed in a Mercure Hotel last night (the picture’s the view from my room), and was struck by the contrast between its lovely staff and its ineffective IT and management systems. If I’d stayed in a more expensive hotel, I wouldn’t have been paying for better people but for better organisation and technology.

A walk with Zali Krishna

Zali and I went for a walk the other day. We started at Thamesmead, then moved down the Thames past City Airport. Halfway through, we stopped and dug random quotes out of some books we had with us. I took several pictures. Here’s some of them, plus the quotes we found:

Dark water, distant towers

‘You will never know what just happened, or you will always know what is going to happen.’

Unbroken landscape

‘Here, once again, the machine could be used as a real liberator.’

Breakers pause

‘Inside the apartment, Coltrane played ‘My Favourite Things’. Outside, the builders shouted at one another.’

Fence in bloom

‘As I came through the desert, thus it was.’

Broken quay

‘As I came through the desert: all was black.’

Private sky

Here are the rest of the pictures I took. Here are Zali’s. And here’s a documentary about life in Thamesmead during the 70s: