AI point of view in Science Fiction

As you good readers know, I have had the C.A.T. series of stories published. (Hint for those of you unfamiliar with this delightful character – he’s a robot-cat who, well, he has issues.) It made me wonder if there were any other novels or stories written from an AI point of view… well, there are, including:

  • All Systems Red – Martha Wells
  • Ancillary series – Anne Leckie
  • Sea of Rust – C. Robert Cargill
  • Diaspora – Greg Egan

Yes, there are many stories about robots, AI, human imitation uploads, but we don’t usually really get inside the ‘control functioning’ of the main character AI. The stories mentioned above do.

The danger in trying to write a novel from an AI viewpoint is that it is so darned easy to slip into how a human would react. One of the good aspects about writing about a robo-cat, is that even if I did slip away from the AI character, i went into cattish behaviour, which made it still feel unfamiliar. (You have to know how cats behave to do this, and believe me, all my cats have given me an interesting time – including the latest who turns out to be a good future weather vane! – How does he do that?)

But does writing from such an unorthodox point of view (and getting it right) put off the publishing industry?

Let me explain a little of the background to this question. My C.A.T. novel (as opposed to the published short stories) is currently doing the UK agent rounds. I have had one nice reply saying the novel has a lot going for it, but the agent concerned has said it is not the kind of science fiction he can put his heart into and given it a pass. As for the others I’ve sent it to (a limited list), silence.

This is despite the Writers of the Future contest awarding 8 Honourable Mentions for the first drafts of individual chapters when I entered them as short stories and getting very supportive (as well as helpful) comments from my beta readers (some of whom I hasten to add are published authors in their own right – so know the system and what they are talking about).

So I can only assume the answer to my question has to be ‘Yes’. And for me, the writer, it’s depressing.

This does however remind me of why I started writing science fiction in the first place. I felt that the science fiction of the day had gone into rut, writing variations on already well-documented themes. There was little in the way of what I called progressive science fiction – the type where new ideas that are coming through from science and technology, and their impact on humans, are explored. With a few exceptions, I still feel today’s published science fiction is in a rut.

And this really annoys me, because when I’m writing, I see so much potential technology (derived from current research programmes) that is hardly, if at all, explored in the science fiction genre. A few of these technologies can have such a large impact on the way our lives will change in the future. I can say this with confidence because my C.A.T. novel, which contains a lot of the conventionally extrapolated science of yesterday, also contains one new idea that really changes the course of the novel. I’m also writing a novelette (at least I think that will be the word-count bracket it will fall into), which incorporates that idea, but hiding it under a whole heap of, yes you’ve guessed it, conventionally extrapolated science of yesterday. Why? Because I want to see it published. This is clearly a ridiculous state to be in!

What to do about this? It feels like fighting a world tsunami of tradition. (I know, tsunami and rut are rather oxymoronic!)

Part of the problem is that a lot of published science fiction is by vested political interests. I have no issue with these interests joining in, except they are helping to suffocate the technology-forging-ahead science fiction. This is not to their benefit long term because if readers lose interest in science fiction (due to there being so little new to say), then they also will lose their readership.

Another part of the problem is that anything radically new does not have a track record of sales that the bean counters can point to to say this is a safe bet to publish. We’re now in a detrimental feedback loop of publishing the slight variation – readership losing interesting and so on.

A further part of the problem is that self-publishing is swamped by books so much that readers hardly have time to catch their breadth before a new novel comes out. So there is not really the ‘space’ for new entries to be acknowledged, let alone shine.

In short, the science fiction publishing industry seems to be well and truly quagmired in the past.

Which is why I found an e-mail in my inbox of interest. I’ll give you the relevant quote from it:

The holonovel can be seen as a new medium, to be considered not just by engineers and scientists but also by artists, designers and writers. 

The holonovel (we’re not just talking about the Star Trek holodeck here) is likely to follow a similar development arc to e-publishing and, being a new medium, will for a few years at least, breathe some life into flagging science fiction publishing industry. So here is a window of opportunity.

As a medium it will alter the descriptive emphasis in novels – there will be more 3-D all round the scene description for instance. But will it change the science fiction stories?

I have a hunch it will. Because the holonovel will have the multi-point-of-view ability, there will be an initial push to move away from the first-person-close point of view to a more panoramic viewpoint. Whether this will stick will be dependent on the technology deployed.

However, the beauty of writing from an AI viewpoint is that the AI can perceive (in its own way) things from far away through internet connections. It can have that more panoramic point of view, albeit it is restricted to what data can supply (i.e. there’s no sense of smell, touch, taste, balance, temperature at the moment).

In other words writing from the AI point of view will help readers edge to ‘reading’ in the new technology of holonovels.

As for my C.A.T. novel – well given my lack of success so far in finding a suitable agent so far, I’m going to have to assume the worst and that it may never get published. So all I can leave you with is a link to the C.A.T. story here

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Sciency New Science Fiction Novel Pick for May

My choice of new sciency science fiction novel that will be published in May is:

Artificial Condition

by Martha Wells

 

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The Blurb:

Artificial Condition is the follow-up to Martha Wells’s hugely popular science fiction action and adventure All Systems Red

It has a dark past—one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

The Reason:

Whilst it reminds me of my C.A.T. short stories, i.e. it is from an AI point of view and has the space opera feel to it, it is more conventional in world-building outlook than them and with apparently ‘bigger’ themes* to deal with in human terms. Nevertheless it is a step in the right direction towards the C.A.T.-type stories, so am very much looking forward to reading this.

UK Amazon link here.

US Amazon link here.

* This is for the short stories. If ever my C.A.T. novel gets published, you’ll see some very much bigger themes in there.

 

 

EasterCon the Second

I noted in my previous blog that there was one panel that I would write about at length. What I didn’t say was that it triggered a chain reaction of light bulb moments for me.

The panel was the one about New Wave Science Fiction where, guest of honour, Kim Stanley Robinson talked about the New Wave with John Clute and Christopher Priest.

The New Wave SF here was the historic, in science fictional terms, revolution that occurred in Britain under Michael Moorcock’s leadership between 1965 and 1972. Here Michael Moorcock took over the editing of the failing New Worlds magazine and published stories that were different in style from what had been seen in the published medium up until then.

So let’s put this revolution into a bit of context. In the fiction, modernism may have had its roots in the late nineteenth century, but it really took off post World War 1, probably in reaction to the horrors of that war.

It was stated in the panel that the New Wave was the modernist movement coming into science fiction, though to be fair to Kim Stanley Robinson, he did say American SF writers had tried during the 1950s to bring modernism into SF. [It turns out when you look in Wikipedia that there were modernist attempts in the 1930s onward using the themes of alienation, dystopia and utopian disconsonance, but these were kind of largely put to one side by the Golden Age of the ‘Futurians’ with the straightforward traditional style of writing.] So in a way the New Wave SF was the successful re-emergence of modernism in science fiction.

Before we go any further, it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves of what modernism is when it comes to fiction. To quote wikipedia: ‘Modernism is characterized by a very self-conscious break with traditional ways of writing, in both poetry and prose fiction. Modernists experimented with literary form and expression, as exemplified by Ezra Pound’s maxim to “Make it new.” This literary movement was driven by a conscious desire to overturn traditional modes of representation and express the new sensibilities of their time.’

The UK authors that were the exception immediately prior to the New Wave were Brian Aldiss and J G Ballard.

But whatever you may say about when and where modernism was introduced or reintroduced into science fiction, the thing that came across very clearly that there were a group of science fiction authors who got together to produce what I call the ‘pressure-cooker’ effect, i.e. where there interactions were a kind of rapid chain reaction of ideas and techniques, and anyone sitting on the outside of it would be lucky enough to catch the occasional snapshot of what was going on.

What caused New Wave SF to stop is a matter for debate. One of the contributory reasons was that despite Michael Moorcock’s best efforts, the New Worlds magazine was forced to cease publication in 1970. The panel indicated that the 1970s saw a brief flurry of feminist SF, but that was eventually overtaken by cyberpunk.

However, it was noted that science fiction writers became more acutely aware of and used modernist literary techniques henceforward. In other words science fiction became more literary in style.

Science fiction in the 1960s was considered as ghetto of not very good fiction writing. I am fairly certain this was in part due to the straightforward story telling, without all the bells and whistles of techniques to enhance the readers’ sensibilities to the story. Since then it has gained a lot of respectability, with great literary writers entering science fiction.

So first lightbulb moment was – well now I understand why science fiction was not all that popular in the middle of the last century and why in effect it was a cut de sac to nowhere as far as a lot of people were concerned.

So what is happening with science fiction now? Christopher Priest for one certainly seemed to think that the genre had lost its way.

Yep, you’ve guessed it, second lightbulb moment. Let’s add a little background here. Certainly since the cyberpunk movement, there has been no obvious single direction in the genre, except for the recent diversification to include science fiction from other countries from round the world in the anglo-american science fiction. Also, whilst the straightforward written science fiction has definitely taken the back seat as far as being published is concerned, it’s still there. It happens when the science comes up with a big new idea and needs explaining as it’s the first time round it is seen. Examples include Larry Niven’s Ringworld (and sequels) and Integral Trees, Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder and Vernon Vinge’s Fire upon the Deep.

Without these straightforward explanations of new science, there will be nothing to ‘literary’. Science will move on, and there will from time to time be the need to explain new concepts to the reading SF public. This kind of science fiction is an underlying necessity if the genre is going to continue to thrive. 

Whilst we now have a stream of necessary science fiction, it is not the answer to Priest’s implicit question of ‘what now for science fiction?’

Predicting the future is always fraught with danger, as there is always the chance of some event occurring that will slew the predictions off course. But I can talk about the possibilities of what might happen and the drivers pushing science fiction in certain directions.

Well, unless there is a lone wolf writer out there who has not had their debut novel published and has been working long and hard on their world building, I doubt very much that we will see any seriously new complicated universes in science fiction, such as the type developed by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series or Brian Aldiss in his Helliconia series or Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series. The commercial pressures on writers and in the publishing industry preclude such novels being developed, let alone published.

We have to remember that a lot of science fiction is a reflection or commentary about issues in today’s society. To my knowledge there are five human species threatening problems to which we do not yet have an answer: climate change; big asteroid hitting Earth; development of a deadly virus; mismanagement of gene manipulation leading to human-threatening nasties in one form or another; and the effects of massive volcanic eruptions (we had a very minor in 1815 and that was bad enough). There may be more. But the human race is seriously looking for solutions to any one of these that could work (i.e. worth further investigation). Any science fiction writer that can seriously add to the debates would certainly be welcome. So in the absence of anything grabbing the readership’s attention, I would expect these topics to ride high or be popular in science fiction.

However, let’s take a second look at cyberpunk. That developed just at the time computer science and data networks were edging their way into the general public’s awareness. There is currently a different technology that is just starting on its long road to general public usefulness. I am of course talking about 3-D printing. It started out with simple 3-D plastic shapes and is now going on to include new materials and more interestingly, produce goods that have properties not available through the conventional means of manufacture. The arts and crafts in the UK are waking up to the possibilities 3-D printing has to offer, which means it is going to become better known about. The possibilities, when you extrapolate them to their potential are mind-bending. What is missing is the type of society that brings out the empathy with the 3-D printing, much like cyberpunk culture brought out the empathy for the information technology. I very much suspect that they new science fiction trend will involve the massive impact that 3-D printing can have. Goodness what such a sub-genre would be called. After all, who would have thought of cyberpunk for the information technology trend?

 

One final thought… there is another SF sub-genre in the offing, but its topics will on the surface appear too scattered across many different subjects for there to be an easy collective bringing it all together. However, this does not stop this sub-genre being written about in short stories. So whilst I would expect the above topics to come out in the longer SF works, there will be an unexpectedly high proportion of short SF stories that will have nothing to do with those trends.

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Ice borne, Earth-born published

The lovely team over at Kraxon Magazine have published my short story, Iceborne, Earth-born. You can read it here.

It is sheer coincidence that I’m in part of the country today where snow is imminently forecast! Considering it’s April, it’s unbelievable. But things like this keep on happening in my life!

Enjoy the story!

In other news, congratulations to Anne Charnock for winning the BSFA shorter fiction award. I’m absolutely delighted for her.

It does mean that Geoff Nelder’s Angular Size only reached the shortlist, but this a tremendous achievement. Congratulations, young man! The nice people from BSFA have presented him with this lovely e-certificate!

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Intro to the Ice Worlds

Woot! Woot! Woot! (Whoever came up with those action station noises on Star Trek?) I am absolutely delighted to have had a short story accepted by Kraxon magazine that is going to be published at the start of next month. (No, this is not an early April Fool!)

Iceborne, Earth-born is set on Miranda, a moon of the planet, Uranus, and is I hope the first outing of Torvinne!

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I know stories should stand on their own words, but this serves as an introduction to a new ice world. A very different one from the glimpse we see of another ice-world, Triton, in Guard Cat (see here for UK Amazon).

What I find curious is that there is so little science fiction written about the impact on the way humans live of ice worlds. Yes, there are the usual surface habitations and staging points, but they are there at convenient points in the star systems and stories. So they don’t need the icescape!

I hope this is the start of a very interesting science fiction publishing journey for me! Because there are more wonders to be had on the ice worlds, some of them incredibly mind-boggling. I still remember the day I was doing some research into a certain ice world and two facts sat side by side and I had a “hold on a minute” moment. That turned into a “that can’t happen, can it?” moment. I checked, triple-checked, absolutely many times checked, but yes it could. This story is still lurking around to find a publishing home.

Thank you, Kraxon. I suspect you don’t know what you’ve started, but it’s magazines like these that help writers get a toehold on the publishing ladder.

 

Chronic Invisibility – The Cure?

Someone (they know who they are) came up with a lovely phrase in on of my e-mails – ‘…how to cure chronic invisibility.’. He was of course referring to: ‘how do you break through the oceans of mass data to advertise your books or short stories?’

I don’t have an answer to this. I suspect every which way has been tried ever since the internet sank beneath to oceans of publicised bytes.

People have become inured to advertising – they see the start of an advert and their switches off.

People have done outrageous things to get attention, but so many others have got onto the same bandwagon that again people have switched off.

Worse, there has been so much false news, that people just ignore most news items unless they can see an immediate relevance to them, and I mean immediate.

If it were possible, I would like to see, published data clearly slotted into three groups:

  • Facts
  • Opinions
  • Fiction

This post for instance falls into the opinion category, because it is commenting about issues in the big wide world.

A lot of advertising would fall into the facts category. For example this posters does:

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Now the question I have is: ‘if adverts have to comply with advertising standards about the truth, surely the news should as well?’

We have seen too many recent examples in the UK of misleads by campaigns and so-called news outlets. I’m sure you can readily think of examples yourself, which means there is no need for me to write an extensive essay on examples alone. But I’m coming to the opinion that the news standards in the UK should be improved. Just not sure how best to go about it.

But this ‘easy-going press’ does have a consequence for science fiction writers and readers.

A lot of darned good science fiction is not coming to the attention of the person in the street because people in their busy lives have learned to ignore the media due to their trust in it being shattered. So good science fiction stories are being left by the wayside, neglected.

There is another effect. Unfortunately the same goes for science and engineering that is very relevant to our everyday lives. Science fiction writers have difficulty streaming through the data to get the big picture of which technologies are coming our way. Those unfamiliar with science end up relying on the tropes they’ve read or seen in the more popular science fiction works. Which means they repeat them, when in fact there is a disruptive science or technology that makes some of the work truly outdated. I find this very sad. It spoils stories for me.

What about the science and technology watch type of magazines and conventions e.g. New Scientist? They help, if you know where to look. But you got to know about them before you access them.

Which is why I’m rather pleased to see quite a few panels on science and technology at the EasterCon (FollyCon, Harrogate) this Easter. Whilst they will in general only cover the surface of science they are discussing, they can at least point to up and coming technologies.

See here for Follycon programme.

Yes, this is a step in the right direction, but I still don’t how to cure the chronic invisibility problem, without a major change in the law or the attitudes of some parts of the media.

 

 

There’s too much looking back!

I was surprised by the WordPress statistics earlier today – I’ve had far more views of my website from the USA than I have had from the UK for this month. It very much goes against the grain of what has happened previously. No doubt there is a reason for this, but I have no idea what it could be. Such are the vagaries of human nature…

One of the things I’ll be doing today is voting in BSFA awards – yes I know I have an interest in the shorter fiction award – but let’s talk about the novels.The shortlist is:

Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books)

Anne Charnock – Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North)

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)

Ann Leckie – Provenance (Orbit)

First thing to notice, nothing from Gollancz. Yes, I could put that down to the vagaries of human nature, but I do wonder if they’re not being cutting edge enough in science fiction these days. I’m currently reading Alastair Reynolds’ Elysium Fire. Yes it is a second in a purported trilogy, following on The Prefect / Aurora Rising (same novel, but the title changed ahead of Elysium Fire being published… why, for goodness sake?). As expected there is a lot that is familiar about it from The Prefect. Yes, there’s exciting new stuff as well and I’m not going to spoil thinsg for you. But it adds to Th. point I’m making that Gollancz may no longer be at the cutting edge of science fiction.

So who is?

The Anne Beckie novel in the shortlist goes back to the world of her award winning novels starting with Ancillary Justice. So it too suffers from type of world-building familiarity as Elysium Fire. Still a greta standalone story.

Nina Allen is another award-winning novelist, so was surprised to see The Rift start in a kind of flashback, a no-no as far as writers are told to do. Story line is a little too incredible for me to buy into in, which is a shame, because the writing and people interactions are descriptively wonderful.

The starting a novel with a kind of flashback also happens in the much praised Exit West. At this point, I wonder what I’m missing as a writer. Have the rules changed that drastically, that we science fiction readers really like looking to past in one form or another?

Thank goodness for Anne Charnock’s Dreams before the Start of Time. At least it only starts with the idea that dystopia might not be far off. But it doesn’t have that feel of clinging onto the past in one form or another.

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