Pirates of the Plastic Ocean, plus LonConnery

I can finally fully announce some very agreeable publications news: my story “Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico” appears in this year’s Twelve Tomorrows, which is MIT Technology Review‘s annual all-fiction special. (On Stateside newsstands in August, I believe — though I know next to nothing about UK/Europe/global availability. You can sign up on that page to be alerted when copies go on sale, though.)

Cover art for Twelve Tomorrows-2014

It’s an astonishing list of names to see myself alongside, and no mistake: Bruce Sterling (who took the editorial chair, and shoulders any blame for inviting yours truly to play alongside the grown-ups), William Gibson, Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan, Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown), Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis. Receiving the invitation to contribute prompted the most intense burst of Imposter Syndrome I think I’ve ever had; it’s still not quite faded away, either.

Like most of my writing (yeah, yeah, I know), “Los Piratas… ” is not amenable to easy “what’s it about?” summary; that said, if you’ve read Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence, you’ll understand the choice of location (and the title ). As usual, I ended up trying to cram a novel’s worth of plot and ideas into a short story, and I’d have loved to have let it stretch out to novella length by expanding the aftermath section, which is necessarily summarised in broad strokes. But it was always intended as something of a polemic, and sometimes literary concerns have to take the back-seat when you’ve got a particular something to say to a particular audience. All that remains is to see how the audience reacts, I guess…

… and I expect I’ll get to find out at LonCon3 next month. (See? That’s how us pros make a segue, y’all.)

At the moment, it looks like I’ll be haunting the ExCel Centre (and, presumably, other significantly less monstrous venues in the same locale) in London from early afternoon Friday 15th August until the afternoon of Monday 18th. I’m on a handful of panels and giving a paper on the academic track, so if you want to come heckle a cyberhippy, these are the dates your diary needs:

  • Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “Body Modification – From Decoration to Medication and Augmentation”

“From piercings and tattoos to laser eye surgery, we now have a world where decorative or voluntary medical body modifications are common. Modifications that add to our capabilities are starting eg. magnets implanted in fingers provide a magnetic sense. What more is coming? Zoom lenses for eyes? Enhanced muscles? Who is going to be the first with these and why, and will anybody want to install Microsoft Windows for brains?”

[Justina Robson (M), Paul Graham Raven, Jude Roberts, Frauke Uhlenbruch; no prizes for guessing how I ended up on this one]

  • Saturday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “50 Years After: Asimov predicts 2014 World’s Fair”

“In 1964, Asimov wrote a set of predictions for the 2014 World’s Fair. What did he predict, what did he get right and wrong, what did he say that was useful, and what did he miss completely?”

[Gerry Webb (M), Madeline Ashby, Stephen Foulger, Paul Graham Raven, Ben Yalow; I'm guessing this'll be a bring-some-popcorn type of panel.]

  • Sunday 09:30 – 11:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL): “Science Fiction from the Outside (academic track)”

“Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. This is followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.”

Dan Smith, “Science Fiction and Outsider Art”
Paul Raven, “The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction”
Andrew Ferguson, “Zombies, Language, and Chaos”

[John Kessel (M), Paul Graham Raven, Dr. Dan Smith, Andrew Ferguson; one for the inside-baseball crowd only, probably.]

  • Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL): “Speculative Design”

“Assuming a new technology, like synthetic biology, works, what products might come out of it? Speculative design is both a new artistic approach and a way of looking at problems and issues in a different way.”

[Gary Ehrlich (M), Nic Clear, Scott Lefton, Paul Graham Raven, Sarah Demb; these are mostly new names for me, so I'm hoping to learn new things on this one.]

I’m sure I’ll attend a fair few other panels and things, too, but mostly I’m planning to keep my schedule open and flexible; I’ve done enough cons now to know how best to make them work for me, and it turns out that running around with a timetable isn’t it. Very much looking forward to this rare opportunity to see some long-term Stateside friends and colleagues in the flesh; if you’re one of them (or, indeed, one of anyone), do drop me a line so we can arrange to meet.

Otherwise, the best way to locate me on the fly will probably involve triangulating between Twitter, the bar, and the smoking area. See you there? Good.

Prometheanism and apocatopia

I’m not sure quite how I discovered the post-nihilist bloggings of Arran James; I think he must have written something about the Neo-Reos or the Accelerationists that someone linked me to a while back. There’s something important in this closing passage from a longer think-piece on the rise of Prometheanism, which James hopes may represent an end to the “depressive” or melancholic politics of the moment:

Have the politics of resistance and the politics of withdrawal really been a kind of stalling gesture? We have demanded infinite demands and finite demands and we have demanded unity and demanded an end to calls for unity. We have demanded ceaselessly. But while we demand we address some Other: I can’t do it, you do it. And this isn’t just a critique of electoral politics but extends to those who would drop-out or disappear, as well as those who “would prefer not to” or who wish not to get their morals dirty. All of these positions amount to the same thing: the absence of a political desire. Perhaps this is how our political cartography should begin to be carved up: those with the desire for revolution; those with the demand for revolution; those whose remain within the imaginary; those who place themselves at the infrastructural. This infrastructure may be the material infrastructure of things, but it could also be considered the psychic infrastructure of illusions. Promethean desire is first and foremost the thirst for new illusions, and a turning away from the ‘withdrawals, secessions and mere interruptions’ (Tosacano) that we’ve grown used to.

I felt like I was having a finger pointed at me. In a good way.

Worth reading alongside this here video of novelist and all-round left-intellectual dreamboat China Mieville talking at this year’s Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference on the limits and necessities of utopia in the context of ecological and social justice:

In print

I’m still not sufficiently jaded a writer that I don’t feel a thrill at seeing my name in a byline, and that goes doubly so for fiction work, and for work that appears in actual physical dead-tree media. (I know, it’s just so archaic of me.) So fiction work that appears in dead-tree media is the best byline of all:

Noir anthology: author copies

Those are my author copies of the Noir anthology from Newcon Press, which contains my story “A Boardinghouse Heart”; you can buy it for your Amazonian e-reading device for just £2.01, as a paperback for £9.99, or a signed hardcover for £15.99. (Still no sign of any direct-from-publisher options, so you may need to drop Newcon a line if that’s your preference. Or catch ‘em in the dealer’s room at pretty much any UK convention…)

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So last week I went down to That London for the Clarke Award, which was not only my first experience with 1st-Class trains both ways between Sheffield and London (1st-Class Advance tickets for midday trains are usually only a few quid more than the Standard option, so why not?), but also with AirBnB; both of which were agreeably affordable solutions to the Evening Shin-dig In London Conundrum.

The Clarke was a good bash as always; nothing quite beats catching up with literary chums (daaaahling!) while swanning around the reception rooms at the Royal Society, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice took the gong. No arguments from me with that result… nor, unusually for the Clarke, anyone else (perhaps because it seemed something of a foregone conclusion as soon as the book started turning up with reviewers and critics). One assumes everyone’s storing up their annual stock of outrage for the LonCon Hugos… *sigh*

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My late train out of London meant I had time to allow Charing Cross Road to relieve me of my money. Apparently the first step is admitting that you have a problem…

Books from Charing Cross Road

One of the downsides of starting a PhD is that it has acted as a hideous enabler of my book jones (see previous). Ah, well; better books than fast cars, hookers and blow, right? Nice bit of McLuhan (who seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, viz. this Will Self piece at Teh Graun on the senescence of the novel, which prompted just as many canonical displays of denial from the writerly twittersphere as one would expect); an intro to Adorno, who I keep bumping into in citations and notes of late; some Bookchin, who is that rarest of birds, the truly citable left-anarchist; some hermeneutics, because, well, why not; and a book that has provided me with a new pat answer to the question “so what is it you actually do?”: mappin’ the futures, man. Stand well back and hold on to your fedora!

Was wryly amused to find the GC hardback of Chairman Bruce’s The Hacker Crackdown; for that book to still exist as a prestige-format physical object is a glorious double anachronism. And Foyles had the Kathy Acker just sat there all on its lonesome in the regular fiction run… which is all the more impressive, given I thought Acker was out of print in the UK. Maybe someone ordered it in and never collected it? I dunno. I still need to get a copy of her Empire of the Senseless

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What else has been happening? All the things, it feels like. I’ve been to assorted seminars, including a fascinating talk by Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett, academic psychogeographer and penetrator of pillboxes (bring your own Jungian metaphors), and my PhD confirmation report is starting to take shape, but that’s all probs a bit too inside-baseball for blogging.

Coming up soon: this time next week I’ll be somewhere in the Lake District beyond the reach of the cellphone networks, as a bunch of folk from the Institute for Atemporal Studies conduct experiments on the successful use of Kendal mint cake as hallucinogenic ritual sacrament, and into just how long it takes internet habitués to go mad without the internet…

Sinister literature

Book-porn posts: totally acceptable when you paid for ‘em yourself. The below represents the results of a spending spree at Verso Books; they were doing a 50%-off-everything sale, and I had a sale of my own to celebrate, so…

Sinister literature haul from Verso Books

Lovely; all I need now’s the time to read ‘em. Particularly looking forward to Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, which I’ve seen cited more times than I can count, and which I’m hoping will fill a few of the theoretical potholes in my PhD work… which I should get back to, right now.

Intrusion

Being burgled for the first time is probably a great prompt for developing a hacker-esque mindset. Which isn’t to say i’d recommend it; as of last night, I’ve been burgled four times in my life, and while it’s markedly less horrible a mental experience each time out, it’s still pretty nasty — even when you’re lucky, as i was this time, and didn’t lose many things or suffer much damage.

The first thing you realise is how easy it is — not just to do, but to get away with. A lot of hackers and pen-test security types make a hobby out of lockpicking, not just because it’s good training for the pen-test mindset (or actual black-hat action), but because it’s a way to remind yourself that there is no lock that cannot be picked, or bypassed somehow. Thence flows the second realisation: that security is as much a social phenomenon as a technical one: the lock (or the password, or the security patrol, whatever) is not there to stop theft, so much as to make theft sufficiently risky or time-consuming that most folk simply won’t bother. The value of the protected goods is the other factor in play; you wouldn’t try cracking Fort Knox for last year’s flatscreen and a few hundred bucks, but for a pallet of bullion? Different story.

The third realisation is that it’s this calculus of risk and reward that allows one to distinguish the professional from the desperate amateur. My guess would be that most home break-ins are not professional jobs, in the sense that they are not done by career burglars; flogging used electronics, average jewellery and other household stuff gets a very poor return for the risk of getting caught, because no fence with sense will pay more than half what they think they can shift it for, which will almost certainly be much less than half the object’s retail value, and furthermore, anything sufficiently valuable to make the return tempting is usually hard to sell on unless you’re nicking to order.

This is how I know last night’s uninvited guests were amateurs. Going on the ratio of mess made (lots) to stuff actually taken (one 22″ TV, which is currently getting a magnesium makeover courtesy of South Yorks CID), it’s clear they were looking for cash or mass-produced consumer goods, because those are easy to move on quickly; they never so much as touched my guitars, for example, despite them being out in plain sight, because they’re a bitch to carry and easy to trace. Plus the musician community has always been pretty good at looking out for one another when it comes to fenced stuff, and the interwebs have only made that easier in recent years. Sure, stuff still walks, and channels exist — but you’d need to know the right people, and the hardware you were taking, to make it worth the hassle.

This may seem contradictory: if they knew what to take, surely they’re not amateurs? And yeah, they know the basics — but so do you, if you think about it. Stay quiet, wear gloves, drop everything and leg it if disturbed; that’s no more a professional approach than not sticking your hand in the flame while cooking on gas. Professionalism is about the long game, not the single exploit; it’s about making one job count, instead of having to take the risk time and again for the sake of a few hundred quid, maximum.

Sadly, even amateurs are hard to catch; without prints or a good visual ID to tie someone to the scene, they’re probably gonna walk. Someone on Twitter last night tried to reassure me that just one DNA sample would be enough to nail the perps, and they were technically right; problem being, CID aren’t going to test for DNA at a household burglary unless they think they’re gonna net someone big, and they know they’re unlikely to net someone big for doing a hiusehold burglary. Amateurs of this sort will usually fuck up at some point and get themselves caught, because they’re too desperate to think far ahead; my guess would be folks with some sort of junk habit. But it’ll take that fuck-up to catch them, because the cops are professionals, and they’re not interested in wasting time and resources on a case that’s not going to stick.

So here’s the fourth realisation, which is pretty innate to anyone with an underclass background, but almost unthinkable to the middle class: the cops aren’t there to prevent crime, because they know (whether consciously or not) that they can’t; they’re there to mop up afterwards. The cops protect capital, the state, and property. Protecting anything that can be picked up and carried (or driven) away is up to you. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no domestic insurance industry. QED. The best way — indeed, probably the only way — to avoid having your stuff stolen is to have nothing worth stealing. (Though of course value is context sensitive, as any homeless person who’s been beaten shitless for the sake of a damp sleeping bag with a broken zip will tell you.)

The other thing being burgled does to a bleeding-heart leftist/anarchist like myself is force them to look to their stated principles. For example, I consider myself a pacifist, but there were a good few hours last night during which I actively fantasised about the opportunity to take a six-cell security Maglite to the knuckles of my visitors. Faced with them in the flesh, I like to think I’d not have done it — I’d probably have been as scared as them, if not more so — but you never know until you’re there in the moment.

But what now of my high-minded reformism, eh? Don’t I want to see someone pay for this crime, see someone suffer in return for my suffering?
In all honesty, no; I retain my belief that the sort of people who do this sort of amateur crime do so precisely because they’ve already suffered. No one embarks on a career of burgling terraced houses in a destitute shithole like Woodhouse because they think there’s a future in it; they do it because they can’t see a future more than a month ahead of them, if that. Poverty will do that to you, as will poor education, an unstable family environment (or no family at all), and a national culture that has reminded you daily, pretty much since birth, that you’re unlikely to ever amount to anything, while also hammering hard on individualism, and the idea that you are what you own.

I’m no utopian; i don’t believe a solid welfare state or mutualist support system would eradicate crime overnight and usher in a peaceable paradise of mutual respect and cooperation. But I do believe that what those things do is give people more options, more choices — and that it really doesn’t take many alternative options to make the option of burgling for chump change look like a bad choice.

Of course, the counterargument is “but fitting better locks and security systems would have the same effect!” And yes, it would — but only for one house at a time. Security technology doesn’t prevent crime; it simply displaces it onto those least able to afford security technology. To address the disease rather than the symptoms requires a social approach.

Maybe you could even call it “social security”.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …