Thursday, August 27, 2015

Status Update

I've now consigned the much-scribbled-on copy-edited manuscript of Into Everywhere to my long-suffering editor. Into his actual hands, after I tramped through London's implacable August weather, enough rain that it was as if the waters of a new creation &tc, to Gollancz's new offices. Where I was told, at the front desk, that they don't accept packages, presumably because it's the twenty-first century, and it's all infopipes now. But however you deliver it, there's always a feeling that you haven't finished the novel so much as abandoned it -- even though you know that there comes a point where actual improvement gives way to mere tinkering, it's hard to tell, when you've been working on something so closely for so long, where that point actually is. Next up, in the march from vague notion to thingnicity: proofs and cover art. I've seen a cover rough already, and it looks rather good.

Meanwhile, I've sold two stories, one of which, will be my hundredth in print, more or less.* One, 'Rats Dream of the Future', to Asimov's Science Fiction; the other, 'Elves of Antarctica' to an anthology of original stories about climate change, Drowned Worlds, Wild Shores, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Not so much science fiction that last; not any more.

*because amongst other things I'm counting two collaborations with Kim Newman

Friday, August 21, 2015

So Long, Dione

Although it was fairly flat compared to Iapetus, and lacked impressively large features like Tethys’s Ithica Chasma, or Rhea’s two great multi-ringed impact basins, Dione’s moonscapes were nevertheless highly differentiated. Satellite surveys and a century of exploration had not yet exhausted them; gypsy prospectors like Karyl could make a living from searching out volcanic deposits of phosphates and nitrates and sulphates, veins of breciated carbonaceous chondrite material from cometary impacts, and the remains of stony or iron meteorites.
It was a lonely life, sure, and often frustrating, with long dry spells when strike after strike uncovered nothing useful. But like all gamblers, the occasional reward drove him ever onward across Dione’s cratered plains and smooth plains, through the troughs and labyrinthine badlands. Sometimes, especially late in the afternoon, with low sunlight mingling with Saturn’s pastel glow and the moonscape curving away on every side glowing like beaten bronze and everything casting two shadows, one short and one long, like the hands of an old-fashioned clock, Karyl’s heart lifted and turned on a flood of happiness, as if he was the emperor of all he surveyed, the only witness to Dione’s pure, bleak, uncanny beauty.

Words from 'Karyl's War', Stories From The Quiet War.
Images from Cassini's last close encounter with Saturn's moon Dione, August 17, 2015. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Confluence Paperback

Published today: the hefty paperback edition of the reissued omnibus of the Confluence trilogy. Three novels and two related stories; 935 pages. As it says on the back:
Confluence - a long, narrow, man-made world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world served by countless machines, inhabited by by ten thousand bloodlines who worship their absent creators.

This is the home of Yama, destined to become a clerk until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining sion of the Builders, able to control the secret machineries of the world.

Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and discover if he is to be its saviour, or its nemesis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Two Men Looking For U.N.C.L.E.

Another day, another film that's the origin story of an old franchise rebooted for a new generation. But unlike Fantastic Four, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an action film that instead of footling around with the laborious construction of a Macguffin delivers what's expected of it from the outset. In Cold War Berlin (Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech is on the TV, so it's 1963), CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) duel over East German car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a missing atomic scientist (Udo, not the actual atomic scientist Edward). But when their bosses realise that Gaby's father is building a nuclear weapon for a gang of fascists, Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together, helping Gaby to find her father and infiltrate the fascist organisation.

The story is a nod to the central trope of the TV series, where innocents routinely became entangled with Solo and Kuryakin's espionage underworld. The odd-couple pairing between suave former art thief Solo, and Kuryakin, a by-the-rule-book strongman with severe anger management issues, is enlivened Gaby's presence - from the outset it's made clear that she has her own particular skill-set, and she gets the best of Kuryakin in their flirtatious exchanges. Elizabeth Debicki is a fine villain, by turns smouldering and icy, the mostly Italian settings burst with sumptuous colour, the costumes are achingly stylish, the soundtrack is punchy, and Guy Ritchie directs the action setpieces with the style he honed on his two Sherlock Holmes films. It's very much an homage to period action films rather than a knowing pastiche.

It's unfortunate, then, that the chemistry between the two male leads doesn't quite gel. Exchanges meant to be snappy too often fall flat; Cavill's Solo is a little too ponderous (and his American drawl is startlingly similar to Christian Bale's in American Psycho - I kept expecting him to break into a short disquisition about the merits of Burt Bacharach). Hugh Grant, as a deceptively bumbling British spy chief, gets the better of both of male leads; Alicia Vikander's nimble and witty turn as Gaby outclasses them all. And because the film concentrates on how Solo and Kuryakin met and why U.N.C.L.E. was set up, the actual plot, with its chases and confrontations with playboy villains, ex-Nazis, double agents and atomic weaponry, is somewhat exiguous and implausible. It's understandable, I guess, that the setup of a fifty-year-old TV series needs to be explained to its young core audience (the film also gives a quick, clever reprise of the basics of the Cold War in its opening credits, and later illustrates the essentials of the Second World War - Adolph Hitler had a hand in it, apparently), but it's something that the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. neither bothered with nor needed. An entertaining caper, lovely to look at, but one that left me wishing that it had spent more time on plot than setup, and found a better balance of substance and style.

Monday, August 10, 2015

New York, New York

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fantastic Four

I didn't have any great expectations when I saw a preview showing of Fantastic Four a couple of days ago, so at least I wasn't disappointed. A reboot of the 2005 film, apparently made so that Fox could hang on to the franchise, it makes some radical changes to the origin story of Marvel's first superhero team: Reed Richards, supergenius elastic man; Sue Storm, with the ability to become invisible and generate force fields; Johnny Storm, human torch; Ben Grimm, stone-clad golem. But none of the changes are improvements, and the film fails to weld together three different narrative sections into a coherent whole. It starts with a slice of Spielbergian wonder as schoolboy Reed hooks up with Ben while searching for an essential component for his teleportation device; then jumps forward a few years when Reed is recruited to a hothouse academy and falls for Sue Storm; and finally takes a turn into grimdark territory after the teleporter accesses the weird energies of an alter Earth, and transforms the four heroes and the villain (as in the comics, helpfully called Victor Von Doom).

The major problem is that this version of the Fantastic Four's origin story isn't as much fun as the original, in which Reed developed an interstellar spaceship that ran into trouble as soon as it left Earth, exposing Reed, Ben Grimm (who was piloting it) and Reed's fiance Sue and her brother Johnny to the radiation of the Van Allen belts. The 2005 film was a variation on this - exposure to cosmic radiation on Reed's privately-owned space station. In both, Reed's wealth gave them independence and allowed them to become celebrity heroes: having superpowers could be troublesome (especially for Ben Grimm, with the world's worst skin problem), and the four squabbled and fell out in the way all families do, but on the whole being one of the team was pretty swell.

Not so much in the new version (and here, I guess, mild SPOILERS), where the transformation doesn't happen until more than halfway through the film, and the four nascent superheroes become pawns of the military-industrial complex. Despite the lead actors' best efforts to breathe life into their characters, it's a disjointed mess, focusing on construction of the plot MacGuffin and gloomy moral quandaries at the expense of the bits where the superheroes strut their stuff and the crucial annealing of the four as a team. If only it would put an end to the formulaic origin story - hero gets power, fights villain they've accidentally created, establishes franchise identity - repeated across original film treatments and reboots. But it probably won't even succeed in that.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Comet Dirt

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

It looks, someone responded when I posted the above to Twitter, like my back yard. It's actually the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken from a distance of nine metres by the Philae lander, at the very end of its descent after being released by the Rosetta comet chaser. The lander failed to anchor itself and in the comet's feeble gravity bounced off the surface several times, ending up wedged in the shadow of a low cliff. Without enough sunlight falling on its solar panels the little lander went into sleep mode after its battery power ran down, but recently woke again because the intensity of sunlight has increased as the comet makes its closest approach to the sun. A short while ago it transmitted a fat batch of data, just published, including that close-up of its first, very temporary landing site. Which does, yes, look like a patch of garden dirt. Or maybe the hardcore of a building-site car park. Or the surface of Mars, or of the Moon. Which either suggests (if you hate the idea of space exploration) that travel to other planets is a waste of time, or (if, like me, you geek out on planetary science) says something interesting about the universality of dirt. That there are similar geological processes on comets and planets that grind bedrock fine, and with the aid of gravity and wind (or the eruptive jets of comets) distribute the material in a more or less even blanket. That a comet isn't a simple ball of ice, but possesses dirt and boulders, cliffs with mass-wasted talus slopes, and even what look like rippled dunes.

But even outwith the fact that it's part of the rind of a comet, the dirt in the image isn't ordinary dirt, of course. It's mostly water ice. Pebbles and shards and grains of water ice frozen hard as rock, leavened with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices, and tainted with a variety of toxic chemicals - hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon disulphide, formaldehyde, methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, acetamide . . . 'If you could smell the comet, you would probably wish that you hadn't,' as one of the Rosetta team wrote in the project's blog. But in that poisonous cocktail are compounds that probably played key roles in Earth's ancient prebiotic chemistry. You couldn't grow flowers in comet dirt (although if you were one of the Quiet War's Outers, you might seed a comet like this with vacuum organisms that would mine useful organics), yet it contains the stuff of life: stuff that may have seeded the Earth with necessary precursors. That patch of comet dirt is a reminder of where we came from.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Very Pure Form Of Hunting

‘I’m not a hunter,’ Summer said, ‘but isn’t a crossbow an unusual choice of weapon?’
‘It’s a very pure form of hunting – you only get the chance of one shot, so you must make absolutely sure that it is the kill-shot. You say you are not a hunter, but isn’t that why you are here?’

Dirk Merrit was amused, and seemed to believe that he was in complete control.

Summer said, ‘Maybe you could show me the crossbow. The one you used to kill the cougar.’

Both Denise and Dirk Merrit looked at her. Then the man turned and walked around the central fireplace to a set of tall glass-fronted cabinets. He opened a door, lifted out a crossbow, and carried it back to where Summer and Denise stood. It was bigger than Summer had expected, modern and very definitely lethal, with a pistol grip and a skeletal stock. Dirk Merrit rested it on his forearm, explained that the bow part was called the prod and the prod was attached to the table or deck, that both the prod and the deck were made out of carbon-fibre composite, the weapon had a draw weight of one hundred fifty pounds and loosed a twenty-inch arrow at a velocity of two hundred feet per second.

‘You can attach a telescopic sight, but I never use one. The lethal range is less than a hundred yards, and I prefer to get as close as possible. I admit to being something of a purist. For instance, I use a goatsfoot lever rather than a powered winder to draw the string.’

Dirk Merrit explained that the arrow generally killed someone not by shock but by massive haemorrhage, so it was necessary for the marksman to have a good working knowledge of the anatomy of his prey, and to be able to think in three dimensions when placing his shot.

‘You might say that it is not so much a shot as a lethal incision.’

Summer said, ‘Someone?’

Dirk Merrit stared at her and she stared right back. The air between them seemed to hum. On the TV behind him, the Mad Max warrior was hacking his way through tangles of creepers that were more or less the same colour as Dirk Merit’s blood-capped eyes.

Summer said, ‘You said “someone”, not “something”.’

‘Mmmm. Did you know that it’s forbidden by Papal edict to use the crossbow against Christians?’

‘Are you saying that you only shoot Muslims, Mr Merrit?’

‘If I did, I’d hardly be likely to tell you, would I? Even in the current political climate.’

His smile was back in place, but he seemed wary now, no longer the master of his domain.

From Players

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Farewell, Fantastic Pluto

I am older than the space age, although not by much. I was only a toddler when Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, was too young to take any notice of the news about Yuri Gagarin's path-breaking orbital flight four years later. But I have a very clear memory of seeing, on the black-and-white television set the teacher brought into the classroom of Selsley Primary School for the occasion, images of the Moon's surface transmitted by the robot craft Surveyor 1 after its soft landing on the Ocean of Storms. That was on June 2, 1966. A little over three years later I was woken by my mother in the middle of a summer night to see Neil Armstrong make his historic first step. I remember the images captured by Pioneer 10 as it sped through Jupiter's system, Viking 1's first glimpse of Mars's rock-strewn surface, the softly tinted picture of a frozen beach sent from Titan by the little Huygens lander. And a few days ago I watched on the same screen that I'm now typing this, via NASA TV's internet channel, the presentation of the first high resolution images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. Less than sixty years after Sputnik the first era of solar system exploration is over . . .
More over at Strange Horizons.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Paper Work

Although I was doing some basic computer programming back in the early 1980s and bought my first desktop computer back in 1984, using it to write my second novel and finding that word processing was a huge improvement over working on my old electric typewriter, so on, so forth, I'm not a digital native. Didn't grow up with computers, let alone the internet; can't contribute anything to the debates about Scrivener v. Ulysses; still use notebooks for research and stray ideas, and scrap paper to unravel and re-ravel tricky sentences, jot down notes about the next day's work and for general doodling. And still find it tricky to copy edit and proof manuscripts on the screen, which is why, thanks to the patient tolerance of my editor, I'm currently working through the copy edit of Into Everywhere on an old-school printed manuscript with pencilled mark-up. Rereading the novel on actual pages reveals infelicities that somehow weren't apparent when working on various drafts on screen. And there's something satisfying about using pen, pencil and eraser to make changes, rather than fiddling with Microsoft Word's accursed change tracking system: something more immediate than tapping on keys. Something more like work. Perhaps because, not being a digital native, I still locate work in the real world. In the scratch of pen on paper, the flow of ink, the wobbly pressure of an eraser as it removes pencil marks. Also, and this is crucial, there's a definite shift in perception when I'm leaning over the page and looking down instead of looking straight ahead. It's somehow more engaging, makes it easier to displace the blooming buzzing confusion of the rest of the world, and tracking sentences word by word with the point of a pen instead of following a cursor sets up a rhythm that refines my concentration in a different way. Engages different muscles; different neural pathways. Maybe those pathways were laid down in the years I spent writing stuff down instead of looking at screens and tapping keys; maybe they're a hardwired response to a different perspective. Try it and see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Big Box Of Big Paperbacks

Advance copies of the Confluence paperback. Three novels. Two stories. One fat book.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Aviles, Spain

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Macy Minnot Visits Charon

After some debate, Newt and two other volunteers took Elephant out of orbit and landed close to the equator. Newt stepped down to the surface, the fifth human being to set foot on Pluto, saying casually, ‘Well, here we are,’ and the three of them bounced around for an hour and set several drones tracking away across the frosty plain, then took off and caught up with Out of Eden as the shuttle went into orbit around Charon.

The dark surface of the smaller component of the binary system was divided between terrain cut by cobweb grooves and terrain pitted like the skin of a cantaloupe, all of it painted by broad, bright swathes of crystalline water ice and dusted with ammonium hydrate frosts in the shadows of crater rims: deep beneath Charon’s surface was a shallow ocean of ammonia-rich water that here and there squeezed up through subsurface cracks, erupted in cryogeysers that deposited swathes of fresh frost across the dark surface, marking it in tiger stripes.

The Free Outers agreed that Charon was a place where human beings could live, roofing over troughs and grooves, tunnelling down to the zone of liquid water. Everyone took turns to descend to the surface. Macy went down with Newt, following him out across a lightly cratered plain, the two of them bouncing along in especially insulated pressure suits to the site of the first probe to have landed on Charon, some eighty years ago. An instrument platform slung between three pairs of fat mesh wheels, it stood at the end of a wandering track where its little fission pack had finally run out of energy. Stranded in a charcoal desert struck with little craters whose floors glimmered with pale frost.  The close horizon circling around. The sun a brilliant star that even here, some 5.5 billion kilometres distant, so far away it took light more than five hours to span the distance, gave as much illumination as the full Moon, on Earth.  Pluto’s half-disc hung in the starry black sky, dim and grey in the faint light, capped white at the poles. The two dwarf planets were tidally locked face to face as they circled their common centre, Pluto waxing from full to gibbous to full again every six days.

Macy told Newt that it was a magnificent view, but she couldn’t imagine living here. ‘It’s going to get very cold and dark in winter.  And it will be hard to reach anywhere else.’

‘The new motor will make it easier than it used to be,’ Newt said. ‘Besides, it won’t be midwinter for more than a hundred years. And if we built habitats here, it will always be summer inside them.’

‘It’s so far away from anywhere else. Just this pair of frozen balls waltzing around each other and a couple of tiny chunks of tarry ice dancing attendance . . . ’

‘Is this your homesickness?’

‘This is something else. I feel like I’m a ghost in a stranger’s house.’

‘Right now, it is what it is,’ Newt said. ‘Sure, it’s empty and unmarked.  But so were Saturn’s moons when the pioneers arrived.’

‘Pioneers,’ Macy said. ‘There’s a lonely little word.’

‘That’s what we are, like it or not.’

The expedition explored Charon for ten days. They located tracts of carbonaceous material deposited by impacts with Kuiper Belt objects, and seeded them with vacuum organisms. They launched a satellite that would in time provide detailed topographical and geological maps. And then they began the long voyage back to Uranus. Everyone was bound close by their shared experience, and Macy felt that she was an integral part of the little band of adventurers now. She would never forget Earth, and she did not think that she could ever come to think of the stark and frigid moonscapes as any kind of home. But she was no longer a stranger, here in the outer dark.

From Gardens of the Sun (2009)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I've just published one of my out-of-print backlist novels, Players, on Kindle. Like Mind's Eye, it has never before available in the US. And for the next two weeks it's available for just $1.99, or £1.28 in the UK.

Here's a bit of background:

Long ago, in a publishing company far away, I was for a brief period (apart from the science-fiction short stories I kept writing) labelled as a thriller writer. I'd published a big wild and weird biotech novel, White Devils, and after it had some moderate success my new publishers wanted more of the same.

Luckily, I was already in a day-after-tomorrow head space, and went on to write Mind's Eye, a contemporary thriller set in London and Iraq, and then a police procedural, Players. Mind's Eye, with its brain-zapping glyphs and deep secret history, wasn't exactly a straight thriller, and Players wasn't exactly a straight police procedural (it was based on a science fiction story, 'Before The Flood', collected in Little Machines), but my publisher reckoned that the weirdness threaded through their narratives wasn't quite weird enough to frighten readers who weren't familiar with science fiction.

I've always been a fan of science fiction and crime. And I'd already published two novels with elements of crime in their narratives: Pasquale's Angel, in which Machiavelli is a journalist/consulting detective in an alternate Renaissance Florence, and Whole Wide World, about a policeman investigating computer crime in a near-future London turned into a panopticon after a crippling terrorist attack. But Players, despite the posthuman ambitions of its wannabe serial killer and a plot that turns on a massively multiplayer online game (which back in 2007 was still a novelty), is a far more mainstream crime novel.

It's set in Oregon partly because I couldn't find a plausible way of fitting its scenario into a British locale, partly because it was inspired by an article about the ease of disposing of bodies in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and partly because I had the foolish idea that an American setting would make it easier to publish in the US - I had plans to write several more novels about its hero, Summer Ziegler, that, in the end, came to nothing, as publishing plans too often do. But I had a huge amount of fun writing and researching the novel: amongst other things, I got to hang out with police in Portland, and drive around the forests and hills of southern Oregon, scouting locations. And although I didn't get to write any more Summer Ziegler novels, I'm very pleased to be able to revive her first and only outing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Choose Art

From John Harris's review of Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald:
It seems that Seeger probably did not try to cut through cables with an axe, but he did recount what had happened with the crestfallen conclusion: “I thought he had so much promise.” Others, by contrast, knew what time it was. In the folk magazine Sing Out!, the critic Paul Nelson compared the two musicians and announced his decision to leave one behind. “Rose-coloured glasses or a magnifying glass?” he wrote. “A nice guy who has subjugated his art through his continued insistence on a world that never was and never can be, or an angry, passionate poet who demands his art to be all?” He said of Newport: “It was a sad parting of the ways for many, myself included.” But then came the slam-dunk resolution: “I choose Dylan. I choose art.”

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

There Are Doors (23)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Wild Honey

Mel was in the warm dim crawlspace under the hive’s chimneys and stalactite combs, installing new harvesting frames, when the bees began to signal the presence of intruders. Irregular pulses of alarm code flashing through the net; older workers hustling towards the entrances to augment the guards; an urgent bass drone building.

Mel’s blood thrummed in sympathy. She went outside and with field glasses scanned the dun grassland. A witchy old woman  in a faded patched sundress standing in the shade of the nest’s spires, a few ride-along bees clinging in her long white hair. It was late in the afternoon, very hot. Sunlight lanced low out of a flawless blue sky. Trees and stubs of broken wall cast long shadows, and something twinkled in the far distance, a star of reflected light moving out on the old highway.

After a minute or so, the star resolved into Odd Sanders’s battered pickup, driving in a caul of dust ahead of an old army truck and a pod of trikes. Odd sometimes brought petitioners out into the city wilds, charging them for an introduction to the crazy old bee queen whose balm could cure all kinds of sickness. But petitioners usually didn’t ride trikes, and as the little convoy drew closer Mel glimpsed bandoleers across the chests of the trike riders, and rifles and ballistas strapped to their backs.

Foragers were already out, shuttling between the hive and a stand of black locust trees half a mile to the north. Mel could see in her mind’s eye the shape of their traffic laid across the landscape, could see a frail spike of scouts bending towards the highway, and yet again wished that she could use the hive’s network to send the bees where she wanted, and peer through their faceted eyes. She watched as the convoy stopped about a mile away, near the fieldstone chimney that marked where the house of an abandoned homestead had once stood. Almost at once, something lofted from the army truck and curved towards Mel, gathering a smoky comet-tail of bees as it approached.

'Wild Honey', Asimov's Science Fiction August 2015

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Double Planet

With the spacecraft New Horizons on its final approach, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, are very quickly becoming places. In the latest images, Pluto looks rather like a sketch of Mars as seen though Percival Lowell's telescope, with huge patches of dark and light shades, and the Earth's Moon apparently in orbit around it. In fact, because Charon is relatively large, and so close to Pluto, that the two bodies wobble around a common barycenter located just outside Pluto: a miniature double planet. Strange new worlds we're about to see up close for the first time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Psychic Cure

Lisa hadn’t given psychics much thought before the Bad Trip, but after the neurology consultant told her that it was impossible to remove the eidolon without causing serious brain damage, she began, like a cancer patient who’d been given a terminal diagnosis, to search for cures outside mainstream medicine. Meditation and mindfulness. A sleep machine that was supposed to modify her alpha waves. And then she finally nerved herself to walk into the psychic parlour she passed every day on the way to work.

She waited until the place was about to close. Feeling, as she slipped inside, like a kid trespassing on a grouchy neighbour’s lawn. There was none of the paraphernalia – velvet drapes, antique furniture, wax-encrusted candelabra, batteries of crystals – she’d expected. Just two plastic stacking chairs either side of a small glass-topped table, recessed spotlights in the ceiling, a doorway screened with a waterfall of plain glass beads that clicked as a young man pushed through them. He wore a white shirt, black pants and wire-framed glasses, looking more like an architect or a college lecturer than someone who communed with alien spirits. Holding up a hand when Lisa began to explain why she was there, giving her a lingering look, saying that he could see that she was troubled, that she wanted help. It was her aura, he said. It was an unhealthy colour and had a swollen, lopsided look.

‘You have a guest with deep roots. How did it begin?’

She found herself explaining about the Bad Trip. The psychic listened attentively. He did not seem to judge her. When she finished talking there was a silence. Then he told her that understanding what possessed her was the first step on the road to self-knowledge.

‘That’s why I’m here.’

Lisa paid a hundred and forty dollars for an initial consultation. They sat either side of the table and the psychic took out a small parcel of silvery mylar cloth and unfolded it to reveal a pale, thumbnail-sized tessera. He centred it between them, told Lisa that he was going to evoke his familiar and that she should not be frightened.

'I’ve seen eidolons before,’ she said.

‘The Butcher can be intimidating to some people.’

‘The Butcher?’

‘It is what I call him,’ the young man said. ‘His actual name has no real human equivalent, of course.’

‘Of course,’ Lisa said, beginning to feel that she’d made a mistake.

The psychic told the lights to dim, touched the tessera. And his eidolon was suddenly there, filling the room like a faint fog of cigarette smoke. The psychic closed his eyes. His hands rested palms up on the table, thumb and forefinger pinched together. Lisa expected him to speak in a sonorous voice, channelling his spirit guide, offering nuggets of wisdom, asking leading questions. Instead, the fog began to thicken and coalesce behind him, and she had the brief impression of something larger than the room leaning in, looking down at her. Then the smoky fog blew away, vanishing beyond the walls of the dim little room, and the psychic stood with an abrupt motion that knocked over his chair.

‘Go,’ he said. He looked as if he had been punched hard in the stomach.

‘What about my reading? What did you see?’

There was a stinging metallic taste in Lisa’s mouth, a headache pulsing behind her eyes.

‘Just leave. Please. I can’t help you. I can’t . . .’

For a moment the young man stared at her, a look that was half longing, half revulsion, then turned on his heel and shouldered through the glass-bead curtain.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Don't It Always Seem To Go

So I rewatched Silent Running a couple of weeks ago, on Eureka's fine Blu-Ray reissue. The flaws are still there - notably, of course, and by the way for those who care SPOILER, the ridiculous length of time a crusading botanist takes to realise that plants fail to thrive without adequate illumination. But the spaceships and their geodesic domes look as lovely as ever (director Douglas Trumbull was of course one of the special photographic effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey), Bruce Dern's manic yet sympathetic performance is still terrific, the robots are even cuter than I remember, and its take-home message that the human species shouldn't trust capitalism to look after nature is still urgent.

Silent Running was released in 1972. A couple of years before, I first heard Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi', which struck me with such a thrill that I still remember the circumstances: sitting with my family at the square table, with its green oil cloth cover, in the kitchen of my great-aunt's boarding house in Bognor Regis, where we regularly stayed for our summer holidays. It was mid-August, 1970. A few days later, little further down the south coast, Joni Mitchell would close her set at the Isle of Wight Festival with the song. I was 15, keen on natural history. I knew about the damage cause by the Torrey Canyon disaster; I'd read Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, and other science-fictional Awful Warnings; there'd been the First Earth Day earlier that year, calling for greater awareness of damage to the environment and squandering of the planet's resources. And here was a sprightly pop song with the same message. 'Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got, Till it's gone.' Ecological disaster was very much in the air back then. We were beginning to realise that everything on the planet is connected to everything else.

Silent Running, in its title, and 'Big Yellow Taxi', in its lyrics ('Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now'), pay homage to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which documented the catastrophic effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides on the environment. A little over fifty years after its publication, the bleak future suggested by the title of Carson's book is coming true: a paper just published provides strong evidence that Earth's sixth mass extinction event really is under way, driven not by geological or astronomical disasters, but by human activity.

The authors of the paper used fossil records to calculate a background extinction rate, and compared it with an estimate of what has been lost since 1900. In that time, nine vertebrate species should have become extinct by natural causes; instead, recorded extinctions are occurring at a hundred times the expected level, faster than at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs. Similar calculations have been criticised for overestimating differences from the background rate. But this new study uses highly conservative figures; although its conclusions are stark, the authors point out that actual rates of loss could be higher. As in the case of the Eastern Cougar, just now listed as extinct, it can take many decades between the last sighting and the official declaration that a species is gone.

It's been known for some time that a catastrophic level of extinction is imminent, driven by the expansion of the human race and our increasing utilisation of the Earth's resources. We account for one third of the total mass of all land vertebrates; our food animals make up much of the rest; wild animals account for just 5% total mass. Our cities and agriculture take up increasing amounts of land area, destroying natural habitats; we consume about forty per cent of the world's annual photosynthetic output; the carbon dioxide produced by our burning of fossil plants is irreversibly changing the planet's climate.

Not only are we at risk of losing large numbers of iconic and charismatic species, from tigers to Emperor penguins. We're also playing a giant and potentially lethal game of Jenga with the environment. Remove a keystone species, or reduce its numbers so that it's no longer influential, and the consequences ramify in unexpected and sometimes catastrophic ways. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the population of sea otters along the Californian coast was enormously reduced by the fur trade. Sea otters eat sea urchins, and in the absence of otters the urchins multiplied, gnawing away the holdfasts of giant kelp and destroying vast kelp forests where hundreds of other species lived. Multiply that by a hundred instances over the next few decades. That's where we're going if we aren't careful, because everything's connected.

Sea otters were saved from extinction by conservation measures introduced in the early twentieth century and the kelp forests have partly returned. And there's a consensus amongst scientists that it's possible to slow the current rate of loss and destruction. Partly, at least. But if action isn't taken, we will have to choose what to save and what to let go. Ecosystems will be regulated or replaced. Intervention will become the norm. Charismatic species will be tagged, monitored by drones, tailored so that they can live in cities or farmland. The last of Nature will be subsumed into the technosphere, confined to refugia. Gardens, parks, zoos. Biomes will be sheltered under geodesic domes, nurtured by cute robots. Trees will be preserved in tree museums. Don't it always seem to go.
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