Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Warren Ellis' Planetary

Why it rocks: 1) Stylish exploration of the pulp-fiction and 19th Century roots of the superhero genre. This includes a loving look at early and mid-century speculative fiction and the influences of manned space flight on 20th Century culture. 2) Kick-ass cosmology.

Before the current fifteen-year obsession with the nature of human thought, what rocked my world in literary science fiction were stories with cool cosmologies. And that would be cosmologies in the sense of the branch of science that deals with the origins, large-scale structures, and relativistic speeds of our universe.

If a book put forth a remotely plausible and mind-bending explanation of universe's underlying properties and incorporated this model into the plot through fantastic technology or even unusual mental powers, chances are it kept me up all night reading to the end. Whether it was the information-based physics and the ability of the right technology to grant access to the universe's privileged bandwidth of particle communication and reprogram local reality in Greg Bears Moving Mars and Anvil of Stars, or the sweeping mulitverse-spanning confederation of Robert Heinlein's Glory Road in which the laws of physics and their impact on human culture vary with locality.

That and anything that referenced the sublime paradoxes and intuition-defying subatomic-scale models of quantum mechanics.

Uncertainty is built into the fabric of the universe at small-enough scale

Photons, electrons and other force carriers can be simultaneously fixed-point particles and distributed waves

As a wave-particle duality, a photon can take every possible route from its origin to its destination, and even cause wave-interference patterns when some of those routes would cause it to cancel out itself

The more isolated a particle is from interaction, the more uncertain its probable location

Quantum tunneling, when that uncertainty causes a particle to spontaneously disappear and reappear on the far side of a barrier

Entanglement and the instantaneous sharing of a single quantum state by two particles anywhere in the universe, in defiance of Relativity and the absence of any universal time

And so on...

In Planetary not only are there plenty of quantum mechanics refernces, but Ellis also skillfully makes use of the holographic universe model, in which our two-dimensional universe only appear to be three-dimensional to those of us within it due to the information generated by the interactions of the existing two axises. That and our 2D universe is a facet of a snowflake-like configuration of hundreds of thousands of other 2D existences. And all of this matters to the technologies and superhuman abilities and alien lifeforms that appear in the story.

Aside from Niel Gaiman's Sand Man only a handful of series or graphic novels have ever hooked my interest. Among those were the original Crow and the graphic adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg. Superheros have never interested me in the least.

So color me surprised that Ellis and illustrator John Cassaday's pulp series Planetary is about one of the coolest speculative fiction pieces that I've read during the past twelve months. I'm kicking myself that I haven't picked up Planetary before now, especially after being surprised earlier by how fun Ellis' ongoing Freak Angels has been.

But that's why we have friends to give us literary recommendations and load us down with their favorite graphic novels when we're down and out in the world.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

BBC News - Quantum physics explanation for smell gains traction

The nose as an electron detector that infers previous states of captured electrons. Ah quantum mechanics, is there anything that isn't spooky or spooky cool about you?

BBC News - Quantum physics explanation for smell gains traction

Saturday, March 26, 2011

One of cinema's finest speculative fiction scenes

Speaking of big concepts and important ideas in science fiction:

This is the scene in which the epistemological angst hits home for Major Kusanagi as her worry over still being human blossoms into anxiety over whether she was ever human to begin with. Beautifully executed through atmosphere and facial expression with no expository dialog whatsoever.

The second Ghost in the Shell film, Innocence also features a similar urban atmosphere scene at it's midpoint. Here, however, the focus is on Chinese immigration and integration of these people who are foreigners yet come from the same East Asian cultural civilization.

The marvelous thing about both of these films is how the intellectual themes underlie the plot, paralleling and giving to the support to character development without bogging down the narrative.

I prefer the first film, but that's purely due to my obsession with human thought and its ongoing evolution.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From goth glam back to the chill

It's seems to have been forever and a day since I mentioned music on this blog.

For some reason my iPod's shuffle random feature developed a pleasant but intense infatuation with Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees last month. That got me listening to 80s mod/goth/alt music that I haven't paid much attention to for years. Even some goofy 80s goth-glam rock:

Now it's back to the electronica and chill that seems to have become my norm.

Revisiting the roots of the alternative 90s music scene that I so loved has made for some good literary insperation. Sometime down the line I'd love to write 90s style modern fantasy. Or rather, urban fantasy in the way that I wished it had evolved from the 90s onward rather than the way it actually went in the age of Pairs Hilton and G. W. Bush.

I don't suppose we can get a do-over on the entire past decade, can we?*

*Excepting indie rock, post-rock, and the rest of the fringe.

Hmmm...You know what? At times it feels like the more banal the decade, the more intense the mainstream alternatives. It would make sense then that the dreariest brick-and-stone industrial cities of Great Britain in the early 80s were ground zero for punk and new wave.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Infographic of the Day: A Mind-Blowing History of Sci-Fi | Co.Design

Infographic of the Day: A Mind-Blowing History of Sci-Fi | Co.Design

Coolest infographic ever! Ward Shelly's flowchart of the history of science fiction places speculative fiction in the context early human thought's evolution as well as the western history of ideas. Very, very cool (and colorful)!

Many thanks to fellow Writers of the Future 26 winner Jason Fischer for sharing this one via the WOTF26 discussion group.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Keeping busy

Manual labor, it helps maintain the equipoise

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Plug-and-play machine learning

To belabor a point, science fiction is fun in part because of the big-picture concepts that are its province. Things like the emergence of synthetic minds, alternative mentalities, and alien modes of thoughts. It’s also an intriguing genre because when it’s done right it’s a preview of potential coming attractions for our reality. We might not have sentient software at the moment, but software is growing smarter all the time. That and it’s not just moving out into our flesh-and-blood world in the form of armed combat drones and vehicles that drive themselves, but the very platforms that run our software continue to grow increasingly capable. By some predictions we will have laptops in another twenty years that each posses the raw processing power of a human brain.

In my story “Lisa with Child” I look at a world in which the difference between biological life and machinery is growing increasingly blurry, and in which a decommissioned cyberwarfare platform lives out her existence in an intimate mental relationship with the woman who is the center of her being. So how might we get from here to there, to an era in which machines have not replaced humanity but are very much an extension of being human? What are the some of the actual steps already moving us forward into a future of symbiotic dreams or invasive nightmares?

I came across one such component of the future while do research for a Cyber Stride blog post on Microsoft’s Infer.Net library of algorithms earlier this year. That particular element of the world to come is the field of machine learning: The development of software that can compare, make judgments, and reach conclusions with incomplete information and do so in situations in which there is more than one possible interpretation of the existing data.

How does software go about doing this? One way is machine learning software that uses the same basic epistemological operation that the human mind does: Inference. In other words, it compares two probabilities to in a multi-variable situation to determine likely outcomes. Such an inference problem could be something as arcane and grim as comparing the known rates of a type of cancer to the rates of reliability for cancer tests to figure out the odds of actually having that cancer in the event of a positive test result. Or the odds of actually having it despite a negative result. Or inferencing can be employed in more delightful and intuitive deliberations such as attempting to determine how likely it is that a friend might enjoy album A, and given that probability what’s the likely-hood if her also enjoying album B.

The mathematical formulation of this process of conditional probabilities is known as Bayesian inference. The algorithms for working out these operations are complex and bulky. The only reason the human brain can rapidly power through such inference judgments is because it is a massively parallel data processing system.

Needless to say writing code for silicon-based computers to carryout such procedures is daunting. Especially when it comes to internet-scale problems like trying to determine relationships or shared tastes within social network groups with millions of members, hundreds of millions of possible connections between them, and who knows how many potential communities or sub-networks with common interests and likes. A similar level of difficulty is faced by online game hosting companies who’d like to match players of similar ability in groups that are based on multiple performance variables, or in detecting spam as part of junk mail email filters. Other large-scale inference problems also arise in the studies of complex ecologies and economies.

Traditionally, creating an analytical engine capable of taking on such problems has involved software developers coding thousands of lines of code in order to carryout millions of statistical analysis runs. But programmers are nothing if not clever as a group, and so inference engines have gotten modular.

Or to put it differently: The ability for machines to infer has now become a plug and play application.

Microsoft Research has created a rather impressive algorithm library that allows a developer working with on of its .Net programing languages to graft in twenty to thirty lines of customizable code that makes use of the most suitable algorithm in the library to tackle the problem. And it does so by using Bayesian inference to calculate statistical probability distributions for the entire system being modeled in a single operation, rather than running millions of time and process power-consuming brute force analytics to analyze the contingent probabilities of each data point set in the system.

Rather than needing weeks or months, a developer can now create and integrate a powerful machine learning function for large-scale systems analysis in just a few hours.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Underneath It All

A creative and cool piece of 8-bit art!

Underneath It All

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Podcast�|�Diabolical Plots

The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Podcast�|�Diabolical Plots

Reviewer David Steffen has included fellow WOTF 26er Tom Crosshill's lovely story "Waiting for Number Five" in his list of the best of the online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies' podcasts. If you have a few minutes, you should take a brief pause from the hustle and bustle of bouncing around the internet to check out Tom's tale of how a tiny teakettle-dwelling automaton dancer comes to find love: "Waiting for Number Five"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thinking about the emergence of symbolic thought

Something that came to mind while updating the Human Thought document this weekend:

Words as stand-ins for concepts in symbolic thought might be conceived of as the Paleolithic mindware equivalent of graphic user interface icons in modern computing. Rather than entering command lines to launch specific software operations, we now routinely manipulate icons that activate applications or multi-functional programs without having to think about the cascades of dozens of subcommands that then automatically propagate through a data-processing system. Likewise, words allow us to rapidly string together and communicate dozens of concepts in grammatical structures without having to dwell on each of those concepts. Additionally, the syntax itself adds an entirely new layer of implied conceptual meaning. Words carry meanings, and sentences create composite meanings built from the structured combinations of multiple words, whether when used in internal thought or external acts of communications. Thus the evolved sophistication of speech cortices in the human brain may have blurred the acts of thinking and communicating to a degree not seen elsewhere in the natural world.

The impact of the addition of words as complex conveyors of concepts in a visually oriented species likely opened novel avenues of thought, even as it complimented existing visual-based imaginaton and reasoning.

The above is the a mid-stage example of an ongoing stream of synthesis that turns a body of diffuse scientific concepts into story fodder. Essentially it works like this for me:

1) The pattern recognition phase, in which a number of concepts found in various scientific articles and books suddenly resolve into a coherent picture.

2) Write a clear explanation of the phenomenon, like the one above.

3) Wait, and storytelling ideas will blossom from it. For example, the bit at the end about adding words to the thought process of a visually oriented species and opening up new avenues of thought. What can we do with that.

Idea 1) A post-human offshoot species of humanity innovates a new method of symbolic thought even more comprehensive than our current system of thought. It lets them reason about comprehend quantum mechanics, string theory, and the counter-intuitive math that describes higher physics as easily as we think about composing a grocery list or handling routine tasks at work.

Idea 2) An alien species with color-changing camouflage skin that evolved the ability to think and communicate in highly symbolic graphic images as easily as we do with words. This makes both communications and understanding their mentality extremely difficult for humanity. Yet humankind and this species excel in different areas of science or technology because of their differences. Wars result, and later an attempt to overcome the vast gulf between alien psychologies and past suspicions for the benefit of both species.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Only localized Tsunami damage on the Oregon coast

Tsunami in Brookings: 'It was absolutely unstoppable' | OregonLive.com

But it's a another reminder one day it will be our turn with a 9.0+ subduction zone event an accompanying tsunami along the length of the Pacific Northwest coast.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Saga of Björn

A funny tale of polytheistically inappropriate rewards. Skojigt, as the Swedes would say :D

Monday, March 07, 2011

Review: Writers of the Future XXVI�|�Diabolical Plots

Review: Writers of the Future XXVI | Diabolical Plots

Nice! A very kind review of "Lisa with Child" by Frank Dutkiewicz of Diabolical Plots. It's a nice pick-me-up in another long afternoon of post-graduation job hunting, and it's certainly good to hear that the story worked on a conceptual level. A lot of work went into getting the "big concept" ideas to mesh with the plot.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

People who used to read science fiction: Legacy fans and young adults

One worry that haunts me with regards to trying to revitalize original literary science fiction goes as follows: Is it too late? Our readership has been in decline for several decades, and that does leave us faced with the possibility that we've already passed a critical numbers threshold. So many have been disinterested for so long that we simply no longer a viable fan base to reconnect with. Or on a more selfish level, will there ever again be a body of readers who can symbiotically support of a corps of talented professional writers? Especially now that there are so many alternative outlets for speculative fiction gratification. Outlets in other media that are far more stimulating than books, such as epic video games with strong stories and high production values.

That and we're not just competing against individual works in other mediums anymore, but rather with whole bodies. When I was a child, I had about a dozen science fiction movies on ratty VHS tapes, which I watched over and over and over again. Who knows how many times I lingered over the worn cityscape opening of Blade Runner or watched a faded Ripley call the Alien queen a bitch right to her jaw popping face. The collections in the local video stores were pretty dismal, and all of this left me perpetually hungry something new in the genre. Something affordable, which was more often than not, books.

Nowadays, fans in all age groups have cheap or even free access to the collective cinematic best works of several decades, 24/7. And in high quality formats. Online game venues like Steam similarly make available an array of compelling, well-scripted older video games at prices ranging from three dollars to $9.99.

The worst case scenario is that we literary writers might be left with handful of individuals whom fellow WOTF 26er Brad Torgersen pithily termed "legacy fans." A relatively small group of long-time followers with a strong sentimental attachments to the genre, who continue to shift through new publications looking for something that reminds that of literary science fiction when it still connected with a sizable audience.

And while these are most definitely individuals with whom I'd like to reconnect with, they are small in number.

So, what hope for the future?

In part, a broad one that if we produce works that are entertaining, relevant, and engaging we can draw in fans from other media. Our value added comes from the introspection and ideas that are the strong point of literature. In other words, to be not only emotionally engaging, but intellectually fulfilling in away books are well suited to.

An even more specific hope lies in the success of Young Adult speculative fiction.

If nothing else, the success or the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and even Twlight series demonstrates that there are new generations who crave the intimate in-your-head storytelling style that goes with text. Legions of readers who enjoy stories set in alternate or future versions of our reality that are--in the end--optimistic in nature.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Publishing plan

After having spent the past few months preparing for the process of landing an agent, I've decided instead to go the digital publishing rout on Amazon and other online bookseller sites. It's a decision that stems from having followed developments in the publishing industry for the past few years, as well as the successes of other writers I know. At the moment, it seems as though a profound shift is underway. One that is fast approaching its tipping point.

E-book Sales Up 164% as Other Trade Segments Fall

Orbit acquires self-published ebook bestseller

In some ways this shift feels similar to the advent of iTunes--the arrival of a virtual marketplace where indie artists can have their products on the 'shelves' right next to those of major corporations, and potentially enjoy access to global audiences with some savvy self-marketing. Likewise, it's happening at a time in which the traditional brick-and-mortar arm of the industry continues with its decades-long decline.

For me, the future of literary publishing looks like it's going to be 1) find success in online digital venues such as Amazon.com, Barns and Nobel Online, Apple's iBook Store, 2) get picked up by a major publishing house for hardback copies. The paperback novel will most likely continue its decline, with only book lovers actually purchasing physical novels to put on the shelf at home. This is a process that will likely accelerate once easy-on-the-eyes ereaders drop below sixty dollars.

What this process does for book publishers is it allows them to put the risk of taking a chance on new authors on the writers themselves. Right now, most novels never make a profit, and most promising new authors never earn out on their advances. That means that publishers lose more often than not when placing bets on promising new talent. Picking writers who have already made a name for themselves with the reading public reduces much of that risk. It's is also being driven in part by new sales-tracking services like BookScan, which have made sales figures less opaque.

For us writers, digital publishing is a mixed bag. On one hand, it means that we can bypass the industry's gatekeepers. In science fiction there are thousands of on spec novels written each year that chase after fewer than two hundred or so publishing slots with the print houses. Landing one of those slots means reaching an editor who already has several proposals from established authors on his or her desk, and a couple of office interns who are each buried under a slush pile of a dozen unsolicited manuscripts on any given day. Even for those of us who are Writers of the Future winners, the odds are slim in the current environment.

The direct audience access made possible by new digital publishing venues and the accompanying ereader platforms is something like connecting a lake to the ocean through a water main rather than a straw. Even better, we writers keep 70% of the sales price, as opposed to the 14% that is the norm for works in the medium of print. Then there is the fact that Amazon is a global market for English readers, while getting picked up by a major publishing house means just Canada and the United States. Publishing in the age of globalization and the internet remains something like collection of feudal kingdoms that are starkly delineated by geographic borders rather than being intercontinental nodes of interaction.

There are downsides of course. Opening the floodgates of aspiring authors has meant unleashing flood of badly written science fiction and fantasy on the markets. So it will be difficult to stand out. Quality and intelligent self promotion will be key, and the latter will likely resemble a hybrid of traditional social networking and online search-engine optimization schemes. Eventually it will also probably mean active selection and promotion on the part of digital publishers like Amazon, as well as the rise of a new constellation of book bloggers whose tastes are more inline with the reading public's than the New York publishing industry.

The current plan is to have the following three works for sale on the sites of major online book retailers next month:

Phase Line Escher: An approximately five-hundred page military science fiction novel, in which a young, idealistic covert operative pursues the world-weary captain of a smuggling vessel, who has accidentally acquired a bleeding-edge experimental communications device meant for use in the shadowy world of espionage. Lot's of juicy combat, human mind augmentation, and alien intelligences, as well as questions of perception and the complex nature of human sapience. US $2.99.

"Lisa with Child": My winning Writers of the Future post-human love story of trauma, symbiosis, a pregnant robot, and the hard road to back to emotional sanity. US $1.00.

"Ashfall": A novella in which the astronaut who was to have been the first man on Mars helps to lead an expedition across the post-supervolcano United States in the year 2048. Bandits, environmental devastation, a sense of community, and the accidents of history fuel a plot of sacrifice and heroism. US $1.00.