Today’s Paranoia is Tomorrow’s Future

Eight months ago when I started on the current novel-in-progress,[1] I thought I was going to have to do some heavy lifting to explain how an AI could be birthed from Google Labs, and how a secretive government agency could get away with having a massive panopticon that allowed them backdoor access to mobile phones and CCTV.

Now? Not so much.

In between the time it took me to imagine those scenes and actually write them, they have gone from science fiction to mundane fact. I no longer have to explain how the Spook Show can track our heroes, because it’s a punch line on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This is kinda weird, to say the least.

We’re used to the idea of science fiction having some sort of prognostication value, however inaccurate[2] but this is just silly. Good thing my novel still has parallel universes, ray guns and biomechanical plant people from the distant future to keep things good and weird, else I’d end up writing literary romance novels.

1. This iteration of the novel anyway. 8 months ago I tossed out two thirds of the novel, replotted and basically started over, salvaging a handful of key scenes. Essentially, it’s a new novel with some of the same characters and ideas, just completely redone and with a different tone and ending. Shit happens.

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  famously predicted nuclear submarines a century before they were a reality, while Nuromancer is widely considered to have predicted the Internet, it missed out on the omnipresence of mobile phones, though Albert Robida actually got that one right, in aweird way.

Everything is Connected

In between feeding and changing a 2 month old’s diapers, here’s a couple of things that have caught my eye around the old Interweb thingy:

The World In Deeper Inspection is a n intriguing web comic by Ashel, which is amazing and beautiful and strange in all the right ways.


Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. ‘Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.’ ”


And another webcomic, this one John Rogers’ Arcanum, from Thrillbent. I like this one not just because Rogers is a fantastic story teller, but because it overlaps a bit in a thematic oblique way, with my own interests  especially the current novel in progress (and even more with the next one I plan to start this Fall). More on both of those projects later but for now, check out all th elinks above. Fun stuff.

I’ve Clearly Been Watching Too much TV Before Bed

I had a dream that they found forgotten in some vault on the Paramount lot an entire 4th season of Star Trek (TOS) that never aired. Episodes included a 2 parter where Khan and 2 of his rivals escaped from their banishment on Ceti Alpha VI and each took over a planet’s civilization, waging a massive interstellar war with Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise caught between them. There was also a 3 part story arc that was basically a retelling of Macbeth with Klingons (only they were the wrinkly forehead Klingons from the movies and TNG era, not the guys in bronzer from TOS era). There was also an episode where they found floating in space a disembodied head that came to life when they beamed it aboard. The head had Q-like powers and made the crew’s life hell until Kirk agreed to help it find all it’s missing body parts and reassemble it.

Last night I dreamed

The city of Portland built a  subway system and I took it all the way to the end, through the mountains, to the coast. The last stop was a platform on a sheer rock cliff overlooking the Haystacks. I walked down a set of steps carved into the side of the cliff and stood in the surf. Then I woke up.

Lament For The Iranian Space Monkey

This week, Iran announced that they had successfully launched a monkey into orbit and returned him safely to Earth. And the rest of the world went WTF, Iran? Because really, it’s not 1961. We have a space station, Iran, and I know we don’t let you play on it, but that’s because you do things like launch monkeys into space in 2013.

Only, it turns out that they did no such thing.

It was all a hoax. Which, as baffling as that fact remains, is a second order problem, right behind the assumption that Iran had some legitimate need to launch a monkey into space. They did not, and here’s why: Back in 1961, the US sent Ham the Astrochimp into orbit and safely retrieved him. They did this to see if it was possible to bring a living creature back from orbit safely, because no one had ever done it before. But now that we do it on a regular basis, there’s no need for that data point. This is like North Korea announcing they’ve invented the wheel, only it’s slightly oval and was faked with CG. What do they gain by doing this?

It’s been suggested that they did it (well, not really, but wanted us to think they had done it) in order to test their tech, presumably before they faked a launch with humans. But again, ignoring the hoax, this line of reasoning still doesn’t work. The science for putting a spacecraft into LEO has already been published and made freely available. That’s why Burt Rutan was able to build Spaceship One without having to completely recreate Project Mercury.

Go to your local library (assuming it has access to Eric or Web of Science) and the reference librarian can help you find hundreds of papers detailing the math and specifications for building a spacecraft. you still won’t be able to do it, unless you have a few extra billion dollars laying around, but the hurdle for a manned space mission is no longer a technical concern, it’s one of finances and resources.

In 1999, the Chinese put a taikonaut into orbit. But what they didn’t do was first shoot monkeys at the sky. They looked at where the US and Russians were at, then built their own version. Shenzhou is basically a half step between the Russian Soyuz and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Nothing glamorous, but as first steps go, it made sense from a technical standpoint. Also, it was still impressive. The Chinese went from 0 to Yuri Gagarin in seven years.

Any way you slice it, lobbing monkeys into space is amateur hour. Its usefulness was dubious 60 years ago and today it’d be laughable, if it weren’t so fucking cruel.

Recreating that particular step in the process doesn’t get the Iranians anywhere. It’s not science, it’s sympathetic magic, imitating the steps in the hope that you’ll get the same results.

But of course they didn’t even do that. The Iranian government faked the result, which drives right by sympathetic magic and drops us off in cargo cult territory. They’re building fake monkey rockets in order to impress upon the world that they are making progress in a space program they don’t even have.

I almost feel sorry for the Iranians. Wait, scratch that. I feel sorry for the Iranian Space Monkey, even though she doesn’t exist.


I’ve been hard at work over the last 2 weeks, revising the novel-in-progress (among other things*) and thought I’d write up a post describing what this looks like to the objective observer, namely, me reading a bunch of weird stuff on the internet:

Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword” is a classic essay by John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons, who was both an acolyte of Aleister Crowley and founder of NASA’s jet Propulsion laboratory.this essay serves as background for the novel but it’s an interesting read on its own, as it pretty handily paints a portrait of the sort of person who doesn’t make a distinction between rocket science and the occult. Parsons hearkens back to the old day, before science and mysticism had completely separated. He was a modern day alchemist. Shame he blew himself up in a lab accident.

Phantom Circuit is in it’s own words:

Phantom Circuit is a programme of strange and wonderful sound waves that you can hear streamed over the internet.

Since October 2008 Phantom Circuit has promoted and supported music that is alien, electronic, exotic, essential.… plus familiar objects viewed from unusual angles… All of it is worth a try, so we hope you will listen in.

They play everything from “coastal slurtronic folk” like Kemper Norton to 96 tears by Question Mark & the Mysterions. I’ve been listening to their mixes for a few days now and they add a nice ambiance of the weird to my dreams at night.

I’ve also ran across this rather exhaustive article on Wikipedia about an old TV show called UFO that is both British and weird and from that bizarre cusp time between the 1960s and 1970s. It was Garry Anderson’s first foray into live action TV, and as he recently passed, his shows are getting some fond remembrances. This one sounds like its right up my alley, with unnamed aliens stealing human organs being fought by the stylish mod heroes of an achronymed agency on the Moon. Besides being a nifty sounding program, click around through the links on the actors and you’ll find that one of the fuchsia wigged, catsuit wearing stars was Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother. Connections are all around, man.

And lastly, for my down time, when I need a bit more grounded and earthly entertainment, I’ve been making my way through all 8 seasons of Magnum PI, now streaming on Netflix. Watching almost 150 episodes strikes me as a bit much, so I did some poking around and found this list of the 40 best episodes. So far, I’m impressed at how edgy and dark a show it actually was, considering it was A) made in the 80s and B) set in Hawaii. Like everybody else, I remember the cheesy jokes and late 70s fashions, the Ferrari and the awesome helicopter shots of the islands, but there’s a surprising bit of existential drama simmering just below the surface. You have an absentee god in the form of Robin masters (a globetrotting novelist who is never there), and a lot of angst centered around the three main characters, Magnum, TC and Rick, who were all special opps vets in Vietnam. The pacing is a bit slow by today’s standards but the stories are surprisingly varied in tone and subject matter. One episode, Magnum will be chasing down the ugliest dog in Hawaii, the next, helping TC save his smack-addled army buddy. Breadth, not necessarily depth but it’s still a surprising find. There are even a few episodes with a bit of weird, supernatural edge to them, like one where a kahuna curses Rick’s club. Definitely worth checking out.

* Like getting ready for baby. We went to a birthing class last Saturday which was thankfully more informative than we thought it would be.

Structure, Time, and Pacing

Continuing this blog’s decent into irrelevance by writing nothing but meandering posts about writing once every 2 or 3 weeks, I thought I’d share a discovery I’ve made while writing.

When I set out to extract the corn kernels from the lumpy turd of my science fiction manuscript and string those together into a new, perfectly crafted and well-honed masterpiece of prose and plot, I found the going, shall we say, tough. It wasn’t that it was hard to find the good scenes. Those were actually easy to spot. But once I had extracted them, hosed them off and lined them up one next to another, they started to dictate an internal structure that I hadn’t noticed before. One decidedly more n line with the book I wanted to write, thankfully, but also a structure that I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for this story.

My initial impulse was to dismiss this self-generated structure and impose the one I wanted. I am after all the author, isn’t that how it works? I may have zero control over anything in the real world, but in the imaginary ones that exist just as marks on a piece of paper (or ones and zeros on a screen) I am the word and the law, right?

Not necessarily.

I had wanted to run with a 3rd person-limitted POV, alternating chapters between the two primary characters. But this wasn’t working out. The good bits of the story — the ones I extracted from the lumpy mess and wanted to shape into a new story — they were all from the main character’s POV. Trying to shoehorn another POV character into the story led inexorably to unimportant digressions, unnecessary scene set-ups and multiplying sub plots involving minor characters, leading ultimately to the very same  story bloat I was trying to escape. So I embraced the single POV character, remaining firmly in 3rd person limited.[1] This created an interesting side effect in the story structure. If the main character needed to be present for something to happen, I had to get hi there organically. This slows the pace, which is fine, as this allows me to create the sort of dreamlike, weird tale/hauntological atmosphere. But what it also does is make the chapters longer.

Now, I don’t know how other writers determine their chapter structures. Some have arbitrary rules[2] while others seem to have more organic rules.[3] Since I decided to just stick to one character POV, this means in effect, there’s nothing stopping me form just foregoing chapters altogether, like in a short story or novella. After all, chapters are just a convention form the days when novels were serialized. However, if I handed an agent or editor a 300 page manuscript with nothing but scene breaks, they’d look at me like I was mad.

Seems readers like convenient starting and stopping points, regardless of how the story is being told. Sort of like how you could watch all 10 episodes of season 1 of Game of Thrones back to back like a single 10 hour movie, but it would probably drive you to commit bloody acts of sexposition.

Anyway, I started looking at the plot outline, and realized it segmented into episodes divided by breaks in time and location. Whenever an episode reaches it’s denouement, there would be a cut in time before we picked up the story again. This allows me to juggle subplots and structure each episode like a short story, so that you feel, by the end of each chapter, like both you and the characters have discovered something. After a few chapters, you (and the characters), start to pick up connections between the disparate subplots and they start to gel into a whole. What this does is create longer, more intricately structured chapters that allow me to play around with time in fun and interesting ways. Since this is a time travel story, this opens up opportunities that weren’t necessarily there with a more tightly wound plot, especially when it comes to pacing. No longer bound by the need to run headlong through the plot, I’ve got a little elbow room to set up the sort of slow tempo build-up you want from an atmospheric mystery-driven story.

So if you ever wondered why some books were made up of long rambling chapters while others were made up of short pithy chapters, that’s kinda sorta how that works.

1. This isn’t quite as limited as you might think. There are interesting little ways around this. In order to get glimpses into other character’s motives and head space, I decided to borrow a classic from the world of stage drama, the “French scene,” in which new characters enter and the characters already present hand the action over to them and then exit. This was developed as a way to maximize time and use small stages to better effect. One of the most famous French scenes is actually English, when Ophelia enters durring Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Moliere was a master of the French scene—Tartuffe uses it almost exclusively.
2. Chuck Palhanik has said a chapter should be no more than 7 pages long. For his  minimalist, hyperreal style, that works. But I’m not writing one of those. John Rogers has said that the ideal length for a chapter in a pulp novel is 2500 words, as it forces you to discard anything not related to the plot and sprint on to the next scene as quickly as possible. Again, great for pulp novels. But I’m not writing one of those either.
3. If you do have multiple POV characters and are following them around in limited 3rd person, alternating chapters between them makes sense. Especially if you’re writing a Martin-esque multi volume doorstopper series. But even if you aren’t, your characters or plot should dictate soem sort of inherent structure. maybe time is a structuring device, and so each chapter is a different day.