Monday, April 30, 2007

"ßehemoth" set free

For the last couple of years I've been subjected to chronic whelming demand for a Creative Commons release of the final rifters novel. I am relieved to announce that "ßehemoth" went live as of 2a.m. this morning, over on the Backlist page. (The first bug fixes were up by around 11, so if you downloaded the html version before then you'll find hash where "°"s, "ß"s, and the like are supposed to be.)

This is actually something of a landmark. Now, officially, my entire oeuvre is out there for anyone to pillage. "ßehemoth", like my other CC releases, is available here as a pdf, zipped html file for convenient download, or as an eyeball-burning experience to be read online, right off the site. If precedent is anything to go on, others may well pitch in and translate into other formats — but they'll have to find out about it first so, you know. Spread the word. I've done my bit.

And yes, I am presenting the damn thing as originally intended before Tor's beancounters got ahold of it: as a single self-contained entity, not the miserable abortion that was ripped in half and then thrown at the market in two soggy severed chunks, months apart, the slashed stubs of tendons once responsible for balance, arc, and thematic symmetry quivering and necrotic.

You probably haven't noticed, but I'm still a wee bit bitter over that...


Friday, April 27, 2007

Blindsight (the malady, not the book): better than the other kind?

Now here's a fascinating study: turns out that victims of blindsight can see better than so-called "healthy" individuals. At least, one fellow with a patchy version of the condition was able to detect subtler visual cues in his blind field than in his sighted one. (Here's the original paper: here's a summary.) This suggests that certain "primitive" traits in our neurological evolution didn't so much disappear as get ground beneath the boots of more recent circuitry, and that — once released from those Johnny-come-lately overlays — they come off the leash. And primitive or not, they're better than what came after.

Or in other words, once again, the reptile brain could really shine if the pointy-haired homunculus would just get the hell out of the way.

I wrote a story back in the nineties with a similar punchline — that the hindbrain was still alive in its own right, still potentially autonomous, and that only after the neocortex had died was it able to wake up, look around, and scream in those last brief moments before it too expired. But now I'm thinking I didn't go far enough — because after all, who's to say the reptile brain has to die when the upper brain does? I mean sure, we've got the Terry Schiavos and the other fleshy rutabagas of the world, clusters of organs and bed sores on life support. But we've also got the schizophrenics, who hear voices and won't meet our eyes and whose frontal lobes are smaller than most would consider normal. And most frighteningly of all, we've got these other folks, people with heads full of fluid, mid- and hindbrains intact, cerebra reduced to paper-thin layers of neurons lining the insides of empty skulls — wandering through life as engineers and schoolteachers, utterly unaware of anything at all out of the ordinary until that fateful day when some unrelated complaint sends them into an MRI machine and their white-faced doctors say, Er, well, the good news is it can't be a brain tumor because...

There's a range, in other words. You don't need anywhere near a complete brain to function in modern society (in fact, there are many obvious cases in which having a complete brain seems to be an actual disadvantage). And in a basic survival sense, the ability to write and appreciate the music of Jethro Tull and do other "civilised" things aren't really that important anyway.

So now I'm thinking, tewwowist virus: something engineered to take out higher brain functions while leaving the primitive stuff intact. Something that eats away at your cognitive faculties and lets your inner reptile off the leash, something that strips your topheavy mind down to its essentials, something that speeds your reflexes and cranks your vision even as it takes the light from your eyes.

I'm thinking zombies. Not the shuffling Romero undead or the sentient philosopher's metaphor, not even the drug-addled brain-damaged pseudoresurrectees of the real-world Caribbean. I'm thinking something faster and more rigorous and more heartbreaking, far more dangerous and far tougher to kill, and I'm thinking hey, if I can do it for vampires...

I'm also thinking of writing another book.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"It's 20 light years away. We can go there."

Now that's the kind of attitude I like to see coming from a legitimate authority-- to wit, Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quoted in today's NY Times. He was talking about Gliese 581c, a potentially earth-type planet orbiting a dim red dwarf in the constellation of Libra. 1.5 time Earth's radius; 5 times the mass. Mean temperature somewhere between 0 and 40°C, solidly in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water. A type of planet thought by Sasselov to be not only congenial to life, but more congenial than Earth.

Of course, you probably know this already. It's on boingboing, after all, and Yahoo, and and Nature, and a thousand other websites. (Science, my usual go-to source for this kind of thing, is still asleep at the wheel as of this posting.) What you probably don't know, however, is that there's a pretty specific real-world connection between Gliese 581c and Blindsight.

You see, we don't really know all that much about 581c yet. We got a mass, and we got a distance-from-primary, and we got an orbital period (11 days), and we got all of that by watching Gliese 581 wobbling slightly as its planets tugged gravitationally on its sleeve. We don't even know if 581c has an atmosphere, and if so, whether it's closer to ours or Venus's.

But there are plans to find out, and they involve the use of a suitcase-sized Canadian satellite called MOST (also known as "The Humble", by virtue of its teensy dinner-plate of a mirror). Despite its small physical size, MOST is well-suited for picking up the atmospheric signatures of extrasolar planets, and it'll be turning its glassy eye towards Libra in the near future. The Principle Investigator behind the MOST is a guy name of Jaymie Matthews, who acted as my unpaid astrophysics consultant (well, paid in pizza and beer, I guess) for Blindsight.

And now, after helping me chase aliens through my own brainstem, he's gonna be looking for real ones at Gliese 581. How cool is that?

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Another Step Towards the Maelstrom

Those of you who read Maelstrom might remember what that book was named for: the frenetic chainsaw fast-forward jungle that the Internet had evolved into, infested by the virtual predators and parasites that evolved after we gave genes to spambots and let them breed at 50 generations/sec. (Those of you who didn't read Maelstrom can still give it a shot, if you're up for the challenge.) Here's another benchmark on the way to that future: net bots competing for host machines to zombify, repairing the security holes that they themselves exploited so that competitors can't get in the same way. Imagine a beast that actually installs necessary Windows patches onto your machine-- but only after it's already built anest behind your firewall. It's vaguely reminiscent of those male insects with genitals that look like pedestals of dental instruments: once they inseminate the female, they secrete a kind of crazy glue and spatula it over her genital pore to keep competitors from messing with their sperm. Or the even cooler (albeit possibly apocryphal) case of reproductive homosexual rape in hanging flies; the really successful males don't even bother to inseminate females directly, they bugger other males. Their sperm then migrate to the gonads of their victim, and when said victim finally makes it with a female, he inseminates her with the sperm of the male who raped him. (More than one clergyman has told me that you can learn a lot about the mind of God by studying His creations. I wonder what they'd make of these guys.)

Of course, this is still special creation, not evolution. The bots are intelligently designed; nobody's given them genes yet (or perhaps the coders themselves are a kind of "extended genotyope", albeit a Lamarkian one. Life always hits you upside the head with this recursive chicken/egg stuff whenever you look too closely.) (Hey-- maybe there's a story in that...)

Still, it's another step in the right direction. It's part of the arms race. Only a matter of time before someone figures out that a random number generator and a tilt bit here and there can unleash these things to evolve on their own, without always having to get respawned from the shop.

Personally, I think they're taking way too long. I can hardly wait to see what happens.

(Thanks to Raymond Neilson and Alistair Blachford for the link.)

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Relief, Request, Reviews

Okay, well, somebody's out there. And you care. So far so good.

But can anyone tell me how to thread comments in Blogger? All I seem able to do is paste comments onto the bottom of the stack; I can't seem to post a comment in direct response to someone else's comment. There must be a way-- it happens in LJ all the time-- but I can't find reference to it on any of the Blogger help boards. Maybe I'm using the wrong keywords.

A couple more Blindsight reviews in the hopper. Alma Hromik over at SF Site finds the novel "brilliant" enough, and its ascension to Hugo nomineehood "inevitable" (which shows far more faith in it than I ever had), but can't really warm to it for all that. The ol' unsympathetic-characters problem again. And what can I say? It's a fair cop (although I do wish people found Siri a bit cuddlier than they seem to...)

Now over here we got a review by one Toni Jerrman, and I have to take his word that it's a rave because it's all in Finnish. But that's cool. The guys at Tähtivaeltaja have liked me since way back before anyone else even knew I existed; they even interviewed me after Starfish came out. So when they say that I "syöksyy ensi yrityksellään kovan avaruus-scifin eturintamaan", well, I can only shuffle my feet and thank them for the compliment.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blindsight: Locus Finalist

Oh, yeah. Blindsight is evidently a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novel. Once again, I am in august company: losing to any of these folks, I would not feel jilted.

What makes this nomination especially sweet for me is that Blindsight was evidently a write-in candidate-- at least, I've been told by a voter that my novel was not initially on the list of eligible candidates, that he had to enter it manually in the "oh, and any other book you think might be worthy" field. I can't vouch for this first-hand-- I wasn't there-- but it seems plausible in light of the fact that Locus never actually reviewed the book. So in this case at least, being nominated is more than an honor. It's a fucking victory.


Meet the New Blog. Same as the Old Blog.

Fact is, this is kind of a risk for me. One of the reasons I never went for a real blog before now was the whole Comments thing; I've seen too many bloggers ranting endlessly in the wilderness, day after day, the same fat goose-egg of "Zero Comments" lurking beneath each post to underscore just how little anyone cares. People told me I should run a blog, and their arguments were sound-- but I had no desire to advertise my complete and utter irrelevance with an unfilled comments queue. Nor did I wish to draw attention to my insecurity by explicitly disabling comments. The ol' newscrawl was a good compromise: if people wanted to comment, they could damn well write me an e-mail.

And they bloody well did. And I've been falling behind in my correspondence ever since. So now I can either continue to fall behind, or resort to one of those lameass form-letter responses-- or lighten up on the Comments issue, so that folks have an alternate avenue of approach and I can answer the same question once instead of many times. So that's what I'm doing. This is the New scrawl. And I promise to be be every bit as lackadaisical in its upkeep as I was with the other one.

But if I don't get any comments, the whole damn thing is liable to come down. I have a fragile ego.

It's up to you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Called Worse Things By Better People

I seem to be a scab. By giving my stories and novels away for free, I'm stealing bread from the mouths of all those those hardworking fellow scribes who are trying to make a real living at storytelling. It must be true, because I read it on the web.

Normally, of course, one would barely notice such a waste of ascii — drivel is bound to be everywhere on a continent where over half the population believes in angels, for chrissakes — except that this particular rant was posted by Howard Hendrix, the vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And given that he was democratically elected to his position, it follows that if his feelings don't reflect those of SFWA's membership, they must at least reflect that membership's inability to choose a competent spokesperson.

John Scalzi has already dissected Hendrix's fallacious arguments with his usual relentless skill, all the while keeping a far more civil tongue in his head than I ever could. Charlie Stross has been among those to find fault with Hendrix's inflammmatory and utterly inaccurate use of the term "scab" itself (although I can't find the appropriate link at the moment). Jo Walton has declared April 23rd "International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day", on which all and sundry are encouraged to post their writings from trivial to profound online, gratis, just to piss this reactionary Hendrix doofus off. I myself was one of those approached by Galleycat for my reaction, but since the story they ran only quoted a couple of lines, I thought I'd give you the unabridged verbiage here:

I was actually unaware that Howard Hendrix had written the various novels, essays, and short stories posted on my website. I could have sworn that I had written them, and that the only person I could be accused of undercutting would be myself. The only alternative is that Hendrix regards authors as so utterly interchangeable that a public posting of "Atlas Shrugged" would, for example, somehow compromise sales of "Harry Potter and the Overdue Bitch-Slap". It seems unlikely that anyone possessed of such idiotic perspectives could ever have been elected to the vice-presidency of any body so august as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America— or at least, if he was, it certainly doesn't reflect well on SFWA's choices.

Then again— these days, what does?

Moving on. I am tickled by these strangely Victorian elves, and honored to be lampooned in the same panels as the vastly better-known Charlie Stross. When someone can drop your name into a scenario with the obvious expectation that most of their readership will get the joke, either that writer is delusional or this one actually has some kind of public profile. And "ice-water enema" is one of those almost Nicollesque quotes that I dearly wish Tor would use as a blurb on Blindsight. (Assuming, of course, that I could get Tor to actually put any blurbs on Blindsight that weren't for some other title entirely...)

Finally, I'm pleased to announce that David Nickle, frequently cited in this column and the man most directly responsible for many of the things you don't like about my writing, has at long last, and after much prodding, constructed his own web site. It's still in its early stages, but is nonetheless rife with style, wit, and generally better prose than you're likely to find here. I recommend it highly.