Thursday, January 31, 2008

Job Security

We can't go home again. I already said that, didn't I?

It's true enough, most of the time. They told us going in: you will be lost in time and space. You'll be past the point of no return long before your first gig even begins. You will wake up serving people centuries dead and lightyears distant, with no hope of backup or relief.

Expect nothing, they said. We don't know what we'll be in a thousand years, or a million. We might bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age a decade from now. We're like that. But don't lose hope: we're like this too, we reach for the stars, we can fall into savagery overnight but we'll have millennia to climb back up before you check in on us again. Maybe one time you'll build a gate and nothing will come through, but the time after that you'll release angels. You never know.

Isn't that the fun part, though? Finding out?

We can't really find out. We don't dare stop long enough to get a good look. Eriophora's huge after all, she is fucking massive, she carries the weight of mountains in her cold black heart. No, it's not optional: that speck of squashed matter is what's kept us falling all these millions of years. But try maneuvering with that kind of mass. Ery flies like an eagle over interstellar distances but she steers like a pig on the short haul. We're ballistic from the moment we wake up to the moment Ery puts us down. We dive through the needle's eye at a fifth of lightspeed. Our tame singularity jump-starts the very continuum, shocks eight megatonnes of space-bending machinery to life, and by the time the readings have settled we're already too far gone to do anything but squint aft and glean what we can from the red shift.

If you really wanted to, you could stay behind. Refit a shuttle with extra shielding, decelerate during construction, keep safely distant as Eriophora dives past on its way to heat death. Wait out those scorching, radioactive birth pangs, let the newborn wormhole settle in its collar. Then, in theory, you could go home. Whatever home has become by now. And if whatever's coming the other way lets you pass.

Someone even tried it, once. I think he and I may have been close. But it was his decision. The rest of us just kept going.

We're not stupid. We've caught ocassional glimpses of the things set free in our wake. Sometimes they're the furthest thing from friendly.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Fear Me.

Look at this title-page from a recent technical publication. Look at the Institutional affiliation. Look at it, bitches:

That's right. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. The Black Ops Capital of the western hemisphere. The guys who sell their obsolete cast-offs to IMF.

Now look at this extract from the actual report (you may have to click on the image for a readable view):

Oh, yes. That's me in there. That's my books. I've got a fan in Livermore.

So if any of you should encounter me on the street, or at a con, you might want to offer to buy me a beer. Because you never know when someone might have an advanced-prototype death-ray device under their coats, courtesy of one of their eyes-only-black-ops fans. And it can never hurt to keep someone like that happy.

For example, My Elves are Different makes me happy. That guy knows what side his bread's buttered on.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Us and Them

I'm not going to dwell on the The Big Paris-Hilton Scale moment that's been all over the science blogs for the past day or two, since let's face it, Venter's new artificial genome is really just another incremental step on the path, and besides, I already mentioned that guy recently. So instead, a potpourri of peteresque and popcultural pointers:


A few developments on the writing front:
  • Recorded Books is going to release an audio rendition of Blindsight (which is especially cool since evidently these guys put out the only single-voice English language narration of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy officially approved by the Tolkien Estate). If I'm lucky, they can get Andy Serkis for the performance.
  • Heyne, the German publisher putting out the translations of Butt Plug and Down Hill, have made an offer on Maelstrom. After a bit of haggling over money and my insistence that the book's title should be an easy target of juvenile humour once translated, I accepted. (I suspect we even got more for it than Tor did for the Heyne edition of Starfish, although I don't know because Tor still hasn't told me how much that was.) (Yes, I've asked.) This almost makes up for the those one-star Amazon reader review reviews that just shot Blind Flug down from the heady days of unanimous approval it had enjoyed only yesterday (although the sales rank seems to be doing pretty well over there regardless — the book's grazed the five-hundreds a couple of times, which even accounting for the difference in national populations is probably better than it ever did over here).
  • It also looks as though a Czech edition of Blindsight is in the works from Triton Books. (On the down side, that Russian deal I mentioned a while back might be a bit shakier than I'd thought — at least, they keep telling me that the deal's still on but I haven't seen a penny of an advance that was due well before the end of last year. I'd probably push them harder if the memory of Cronenberg's Eastern Promises wasn't still so fresh in my mind...)
  • Oh yeah, and some doofus over on Futurismic says I'm all in favour of torture and everything. I'm not saying he's wrong, but jeez.


I don't usually serve up link salads, since they'd generally point to far more popular blogs than mine and thus it would probably be old news to you all anyway. But today I'm making an exception, because the following links lead to things that made me grin broadly, and that doesn't happen as often as I'd like. Also it proves that sometimes I can still "get" popular culture, which also doesn’t happen as often as I'd like:
I'm going to go work now. I'm actually writing prose these days. Some day, if you behave badly, I may share some of it with you.


"They're Really More Guidelines than Actual Rules" — or, The None That Got Away.

I know I haven't mentioned it lately, but the world is still turning to shit. The Bush administration recently gave the US Navy the go-ahead to kill as many whales as they want to in their hunt for tewwowists in diesel-powered submarines, and screw the California Supreme Court. It's finally been officially admitted that nobody's gonna do shit about protecting jaguars in the US, whether the Endangered Species Act says they have to or not. The International Underwater Spearfishing Association has been forced to reset the clock on their "world records", basically because you can't beat a record after you've exterminated all the fish in that size class. Back in ancient history, the Bali Conference ended with everyone proclaiming the need to finally get serious about climate change, while committing themselves to absolutely nothing— and the same assholes who insisted there was no such thing only a decade ago are once again proclaiming themselves the voices of reason and urging us to adapt, because it's really too late to change things now. (I've been contemplating a post which advocates waiting until "all the science is in" and then hunting down the Bushes and the Howards and Harpers of the world, and killing them — you know, because those guys are big on both "accountability" and capital punishment — but I haven't yet figured out the whole "actionable" angle. Maybe next week.)

Up here in my little corner of the world, however, things are a teeny bit brighter on the environment front because the landlord just installed low-flow toilets throughout the building. This would make me happier if the toilet's design hadn't compensated for reduced flow by increasing pressure. Now, every time I flush the damn thing it's like an F-16 is launching on full afterburners under my ass. Put that together with the fact that the new design virtually assures that the end of my dick is underwater even prior to take-off and, well, I can only say it's just as well I've already been circumcised.

Kermit was right. It's not easy being green.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A physicist walks into a bar and says "Hey, I got this particle-wave duality thing all figured out". And his buddies look over the numbers, and sure enough, they parse. "But it's still bullshit," one of them says. "It has to be." And the others all nod in agreement.

"But the numbers," the physicist says.

The naysayer takes a moment to butter his nose. "Look, according to those, those numbers," he says, as the resident bar cat starts licking, "if you put this cat into that box over there, and put this radioisotope trigger in there with him, and closed the lid, why, why — according to your numbers the cat would be alive and dead at the same time!"

And everybody agrees that this is so fucking stupid that there must be something wrong with the numbers, even if they can't find what it is.

But here's the thing: almost a century later, they still haven't. That cat's still in there, in its indeterminate catly state, and the experts still don't know what that even means for sure. Except that a reductio ad absurdum once put forth to discredit a model has instead become an icon for it.

And you know what's even scarier? It's happening again, only worse.

If I'm reading this NYT piece correctly (and I'm trusting you guys to set me straight if I'm not), a theoretical consequence of dark energy is that quantum fluctuations following universal heat death could seed the spontaneous and probabilistic reemergence of a bunch of new universes. This would be fine except that probabilistically, simple things are more likely than complex ones to arise spontaneously. (The analogy they use in the story is Scrabble letters, spilled randomly onto a table; a word is more likely to arise from that happenstance than is an entire sentence.) And any subset of a universe, by definition, is less complex than the universe as a whole, and therefore more likely to arise.

So yes, while the spontaneous reemergence of new universes is certainly called for in some cases, in far more cases you'd just be getting pieces showing up. Cats in Space. Fully-functional yet utterly disembodied brains, floating in the void. Very small rocks. And since such iterations are more likely — and hence, more numerous — then the likelihood is that I'm just a disembodied brain imagining a universe where none actually exists, and the rest of you are — well, no. The rest of you aren't. Which makes me feel a bit better about not having got laid over the past few months, but a whole lot worse about pretty much everything else.

Of course, nobody takes this seriously. The whole Disembodied-Brain thing was cooked up specifically as a a reductio ad absurdum, to show how stupid the whole idea is. Everyone seems pretty much convinced that there's something wrong with the numbers, even if they haven't found what it is. And I think we should trust them, because after all they certainly figured out Schrödinger's — oh, wait...

At this point I'll just modestly clear my throat and suggest that the thematic punchline for the five-billion-year plot of Sunflowers (or Gerbils — still open to suggestions) will resolve the whole open-universe question much more elegantly, when I get around to it. In the meantime I can only invoke the spirit of the AI in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, "bathed in his currents of liquid helium, self-contained, immobile, vastly well-informed by every mechanical sense: Shalmaneser. Every now and then there passes through his circuits a pulse which carries the cybernetic equivalent of the phrase,

Christ, what an imagination I've got."

Illo credit to Holly Stevenson.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Scramblers in the Shallows, Light in the Deeps

This is a short, stunning clip that starts with deep-sea glowsticks and segues to shallow-water cephalopods. The first part gives you a taste of Beebe Station; the second (including the Two-Faced Squid!) demonstrates some camo tricks that make scramblers look like amateurs.

No new information here, but beautiful. Try to ignore the creationist idiot in the comments.

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Friday, January 18, 2008


One of the bits of chrome I drizzled throughout the rifters books were "Tactical Contacts" ("ConTacs", in the vernacular): contact lenses that acted as a kind of personal GUI, feeding information to the wearer and using the roving eyeball itself as a kind of trackball pointer. Yves Scanlon wore them sometimes; Patricia Rowan would have rather have been caught naked in public than with her eyes unTacked. (Come to think of it, the masking of eyes was a consistent general motif throughout those books. Which is kind of an interesting inversion of the usual sort of mask, which covers everything except the eyes. But I digress.)

Anyway, the guys over at the University of Washington claim to have developed a working prototype.

I don't know if I buy this. My understanding is that a passive ConTac-type display is probably unworkable in principle because of the eye's focal length: you just can't focus clearly on anything close enough to sit on your cornea (my own whacked-out version got around this by shooting images directly onto the retina using a teensy lenticular laserium setup, but I don't remember if I actually spelled that out in the books). The UW PR flack doesn't address this issue at all, and in fact the researchers don't even seem to have generated a visible image using the technology. Their main claim to fame so far is that they've been able to embed circuits into a contact lens and plunk it down on a rabbit's eyeball for twenty minutes without killing him, which is certainly necessary albeit not sufficient. That doesn't stop them from cheerfully predicting that Terminator-vision is just around the corner, though.

But they must have solved that problem. They wouldn’t be going on like this if they hadn't addressed such an obvious hurdle. Nobody could be that dumb. I mean, that would be about as likely like a famous geneticist claiming that Human evolution had stopped because God likes us the way we ar— oh, wait...

Photo credit, as far as I can tell, is University of Washington Weekly.


Monday, January 14, 2008

A Farewell to "Gerbils"

Three bits of news today. The smallest item is that "Repeating the Past", the short-short that appeared in Nature last December, has been recruited for David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's annual Year's Best anthology. The medium item is that, after months of negotiation, I have reached an agreement with Fleuve Noir in France to produce a French translation of Blindsight. (The fact that the lady on the other side of the negotiating table has cats named after Aliens characters had no undue influence on my decision to go with these people).

The Big News is ― wait for it ―

I have renamed Gerbils, a novel I'm currently working up the outline for. It is now called Sunflowers, and the reason for the change is that I've finally figured out the punchline for the damn thing. It is epic. Seriously. It encompasses the fate of the entire universe.

I dare anyone to get more epic than that.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Church of the Buttered Nose

So you start the day as you always have: you wake up to the feel of a claw piercing your internasal septum. You get out of bed, stumble down the hall, feed the cats. Pee. Open the blinds. Wander back into the kitchen; nuke a couple of muffins; mix up a bowl of oatmeal; smear butter on your nose so Chip the Cat (waiting expectantly on top of the fridge) can lick it off with his rough, radula-like tongue. Extract muffins from microwave. Load up your RSS feeds. Put the coffee on, pour a glass of OJ...

And then one day you do a double-take, and say to yourself Wait a minute — how long have I been smearing butter on my nose so that Chip could lick it off? How did that start? And why has it never occurred to me until now?

And then, if you're especially perceptive, you may wonder How would this look to someone who hadn't been raised in the Church of the Buttered Nose?

Of course, most people aren't that perceptive. At least, not consciously; there must be some kind of subliminal subroutine asking that question, though, or they wouldn't be so quick to silence anyone who voices it aloud1. We've always buttered our noses, you see. As long as we can remember. The origins of our ways are lost in the mists of time, but surely the very antiquity of those origins confers credibility, yes? It feels right to us.

Still. Were some naïve overnight guest to catch me in flagrante dairio, their reaction might well be "What the fuck!?", even though my reaction to their reaction would merely be "What?" And I guess Communion, Baptism, and Human Sacrifice are the same sort of thing. I bet this is how religions (or at least, religious rituals) get started. We have always buttered our noses. What's the big deal?

Of course, there are similarities and there are differences. Both cats and gods seem to expect absolute subservience and constant praise. Both seem capricious, quick to anger, and prone to the holding of grudges. Both demand sacrifice.

Cats aren't omnipotent, though. That's one big difference.

Oh, and they exist. That's another.

1 I recently got a very huffy e-mail from someone who took exception to being described as "religious" rather than "spiritual", evoking fond memories of The Judean People's Front taking umbrage at being mistaken for The People's Front of Judea. Seems to me, though, that once you've drunk from the Supernatural Kool-Aid, any subordinate distinctions come down to chrome and upholstery.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Here We Go Again

Well, looky here. Blindsight is on the preliminary Nebula ballot. I don't really know much about the mechanics of that process — how "preliminary" turns into "beta", when "beta" turns into "final" — beyond the fact that the award seems a bit too in-house inbred for John Clute's many people's liking. I'm not a member of SFWA; worse, I'm one of those (how did it go again?) "pixel-stained technopeasant wretches" whose forays into the Creative Commons so pissed off certain elements in its administration. So even if these folks know who I am, I rather suspect they may not like me very much.

I'm actually kinda surprised that I even got this far; obviously somebody must like me (or at least, like my book), and I thank them for pitching on Blindsight's behalf. If I find out who you are, I'll buy you a beer next time we run into each other.

But still. Like this is ever gonna happen.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Performance Art

The good folks at Starship Sofa have posted a podcast of my longish-story "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald", read by, er, me. You can listen to it over here if you're curious about the sound of my voice, if you want to check out the shots I take at the "Mundane SF" movement in my introductory comments, or even, I suppose, if you're interested in the story. Be warned, though: it's fifty minutes of your life that you won't get back. I will not be held responsible for the crushing post-hoc realization that you could have been getting laid or drinking a V8 instead.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Bull Balls

Okay, another Crawl Cockup Call. I imagine a lot of you subscribe to the RSS feed to this thing. Has said RSS feed, over the past day or so, been feeding you pictures of bull testicles with the slogan "I am a dirty bandwidth thief" in place of real graphics?

I apologize if so. Some doof on LJ keeps hotlinking to images on my site. Other folks have got the message when I've simply renamed the hotlinked image and given them goatse guy in its place, but this idiot just keeps rejigging his own link to the original graphic so I've escalated to a .htaccess filter. I didn't think that RSS feeds would get caught in this net — my own feed to the crawl works just fine — but a new reader has just informed me that ol' bull balls constituted his formal introduction to the neighborhood. And while I can't say it's a completely inaccurate representation of the local content, it certainly isn't intentional.

So. Show of hands?


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cancer, For the Greater Good

One of my favorite monster movies of all time has got to be John Carpenter's 1982 remake of “The Thing”. It's not a perfect film by any means – there are some gaffes with the rubber fx, and if eighties-era PCs ever came preloaded with software to test whether your buddies had been taken over by shapeshifting aliens, I never saw it. (A shame. Back then I would've bought something like that in a second. These days, it's pretty much redundant.) Still, “The Thing” is one of the few movies of its type in which the Human cast isn't as dumb as a sack of Huckabees. Nobody wanders off after the ship's cat all by themselves. The moment they figure out what they're up against they burn everything that moves, start thinking about serological detection methods, and keep really close watch on each other. It's an effective study in paranoia, starring an alien that not only squirts slime and sprouts tentacles, but actually proves to be quite a bit more intelligent than the humans it preys upon. (As one might expect from a creature with interstellar technology. Am I the only one bothered by the fact that the monster in the Howard Hawkes original never did anything smarter than just kinda flailing around and roaring?) Even at the scorched-earth end of the story, you're never really sure who won.

Then there's the biology.

It's actually not as totally whacked-out as you may think. Granted, anything able to morph between body plans in the time it takes me to snarf an Egg McMuffin would have to have stores of cellular energy verging on the nuclear. (Jeff Goldblum's gradual, donut-powered transformation in “The Fly” was a lot more believable – although why those telepods got all confused at the presence of fly DNA, when they didn't seem to bat a diode at the bacteria seething on every square micron of both fly and human, remains an open question. But I digress.) Still, if you can forgive the ridiculously fast transformation, the idea of an infectious agent retooling infected cells for its own purposes is old news. Viruses have been doing it for billions on years.

Now we are too. Synthetic Life's current rock star, J. Craig Venter, is all over the lit with his artifical chromosomes and Swiss-Army cells: build a cellular chassis that carries the basic instruction set necessary for metabolism, and then top it off with genes to produce whatever you're after this week. Before long, Venter's Vats (and only Venter's vats, if the patents go through) will be churning out great masses of everything from Nutripon to Biogasoline.

But more interesting, to me, is this recent paper out of PloS Computational Biology on “Somatic Evolution”— i.e., the classic Darwinian struggle for existence among the cells of a single tissue in a single organism. And why shouldn't the rules of natural selection apply to cells as well as their owners? The cells in your liver exist in a habitat with limited food, just like populations of multicellular creatures. They jostle up against others like themselves who have their eye on the same nutrients. Given a mutation that allowed one such cell to outcompete its siblings — faster reproductive rate, lower mortality — wouldn't its offspring kick the asses of the competition? Wouldn't the whole tissue, the whole organ, evolve into something new, something where every cell was out for itself, something like —

—Well, cancer, obviously.

Don't bother pointing out the obvious. Yes, if our cells did follow the beat of their own drummer, multicellularity would never have evolved in the first place. But that's circular; there's nothing in the rules that says multicellularity had to evolve, and logically Darwin's hand should be felt down in the blood as well as out on the savannah. Something must have suppressed those processes at the cellular level before metazoans could arise; that's what this paper is about.

But now I'm thinking on a tangent. I remember our old friends the scramblers, and how it was possible for them to evolve without genes:
"I'd swear half the immune system is actively targetting the other half. It's not just the immune system, either. Parts of the nervous system seem to be trying to, well, hack each other. I think they evolve intraorganismally, as insane as that sounds. The whole organism's at war with itself on the tissue level, it's got some kind of cellular Red Queen thing happening. Like setting up a colony of interacting tumors, and counting on fierce competition to keep any one of them from getting out of hand. Seems to serve the same role as sex and mutation does for us."

And I remember MacReady in Carpenter's film, after Norris split into several different pieces to keep from burning alive, internalising the take-home lesson:

"Every part of him was a whole. Every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Y'see, when a man bleeds... it's just tissue. But blood from one of you things won't obey when it's attacked. It'll try and survive. Crawl away from a hot needle, say..."

Cancer, for the greater good.

Maybe that's where people and scramblers and MacReady-battling Things went their separate ways. We tamed our inner battles using stem cells and transient cells and differentiated tissues, just like Pepper et al. hypothesise. But maybe other worlds spawned other answers. Maybe whatever alien slime mold gave rise to our Antarctic shapeshifter decided to go with the whole cell-competition thing, decided to make it a solution instead of a problem. Maybe that's how all those cells remain totipotent even in the adult animal; or maybe some tentacle-whipping alien J. Craig Venter just figured out how to go back and retrofit his species for optimal adaptability and maximum profit. Of course they could do it, even if they didn't evolve that way. They built flying saucers, for Chrissakes. They were crossing the interstellar gulf before we'd even made it out of Africa. What better failsafe for lost and stranded travellers than to be able to take your cue from the natives, slip into a new body precustomised for its environment?

I read “Who Goes There” back in the eighties, decades after John W. Campbell wrote it and about six months before Carpenter's unjustly-maligned remake hit the theatres. I thought it was tres cool from the outset. But it never occurred to me to write a sequel until I read this paper...

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