AI assisted porn video is, it seems, now a thing. For those of you who don't read the links: you can train off-the-shelf neural networks to recognize faces (or other bits of people and objects) in video clips. You can then use the trained network to edit them, replacing one person in a video with a synthetic version of someone else. In this case, Rule 34 applies: it's being used to take porn videos and replace the actors with film stars. The software runs on a high-end GPU and takes quite a while—hours to days—to do its stuff, but it's out there and it'll probably be available to rent as a cloud service running on obsolescent bitcoin-mining GPU racks in China by the end of next week.

(Obvious first-generation application: workplace/social media sexual harassers just got a whole new toolkit.)

But it's going to get a whole lot worse.

So: me and bitcoin, you already knew I disliked it, right?

(Let's discriminate between Blockchain and Bitcoin for a moment. Blockchain: a cryptographically secured distributed database, useful for numerous purposes. Bitcoin: a particularly pernicious cryptocurrency implemented using blockchain.) What makes Bitcoin (hereafter BTC) pernicious in the first instance is the mining process, in combination with the hard upper limit on the number of BTC: it becomes increasingly computationally expensive over time. Per this article, Bitcoin mining is now consuming 30.23 TWh of electricity per year, or rather more electricity than Ireland; it's outrageously more energy-intensive than the Visa or Mastercard networks, all in the name of delivering a decentralized currency rather than one with individual choke-points. (Here's a semi-log plot of relative mining difficulty over time.) Credit card and banking settlement is vulnerable to government pressure, so it's no surprise that BTC is a libertarian shibboleth. (Per a demographic survey of BTC users compiled by a UCL researcher and no longer on the web, the typical BTC user in 2013 was a 32 year old male libertarian.)

Times change, and so, I think, do the people behind the ongoing BTC commodity bubble. (Which is still inflating because around 30% of BTC remain to be mined, so conditions of artificial scarcity and a commodity bubble coincide). Last night I tweeted an intemperate opinion—that's about all twitter is good for, plus the odd bon mot and cat jpeg—that we need to ban Bitcoin because it's fucking our carbon emissions. It's up to 0.12% of global energy consumption and rising rapidly: the implication is that it has the potential to outstrip more useful and productive computational uses of energy (like, oh, kitten jpegs) and to rival other major power-hogging industries without providing anything we actually need. And boy did I get some interesting random replies!

The Labyrinth Index

The reason for the lack of significant blogging for the past couple of months is that I've been grappling with a manuscript. Grappling is now mostly done: it needs some more polishing before I hand it in, but at least it's a book-shaped object at this point, rather than a nervous breakdown in motion. And some time next year it'll be published under the cover above.

Dark State

I have a new book coming out in less than eight weeks' time.

Which means the reviews are beginning to show up, starting with the trade publications bookstores and librarians read to see what's coming and what to stock.

Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say about "Dark State" in their starred review:

This sequel to Empire Games (2017), set in the same world as Stross' Merchant Princes series, plunges us deep into a nightmarish clash of arms, politics, and wills between near-future governments in alternate timelines. In timeline No. 2, which chillingly resembles our own, the United States has morphed into a full-blown police state in which surveillance is universal and inescapable and the paranoid powers that be are willing to use, and have used, nuclear weapons to achieve their aims. Timeline No. 3 presents a bizarre fun-house-mirror world in which the U.S. never existed; instead, a corrupt, despotic British empire persisted until its recent overthrow by the revolutionary, democratic New American Commonwealth. The U.S. desperately wants to learn what's happening in this less technologically advanced but nuclear-armed timeline, so the Department of Homeland Security's Col. Smith coerces people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines, into becoming spies. Critically, recruit Rita Douglas happens to be the estranged daughter of Commonwealth biggie Miriam Burgeson, herself a refugee from the radioactive wasteland of timeline No. 1 and now guiding the rapid development of the Commonwealth with technology purloined from the U.S. The Commonwealth faces challenges from counterrevolutionaries and the huge, powerful French empire, while the U.S., terrified of nuclear weapons in any hands but its own, probes yet another timeline where the hostile remnants of a still more advanced civilization lurk.

Tension crackles from every page as readers grapple with the horrifying sociological and political implications, the looming threat of another intratime nuclear war, and the fates of individual characters embroiled in disturbing intrigues. Even the fact that every scenario ends in a cliffhanger isn't too annoying given the enormous care and skill Stross expends on getting the details right and rendering meticulous accounts of complex, intersecting events. Not to mention the real-world implications.

Sheer brilliance: when Stross is in this mood, nobody else comes close.

(Mind you, this is the middle book of a trilogy. Middle books are always weak—it's a tradition or an old charter or something—and Kirkus' reviewers are famously curmudgeonly. So I'm inordinately proud of this review.)

Anyway, if this captures your interest you can preorder the book via these links:

[US Hardcover] [UK Trade paperback] [US Kindle ebook] [UK Kindle ebook]

Empire Games

Attention, British readers: Empire Games is on special offer this week from the Amazon.co.uk Kindle store! It's just 99 pence, until Sunday 26th, so if you've wanted to dip a toe in the water, this is your chance!

(This offer is not valid in North America; different publishers, different Amazon sales teams.)


This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

In the discussion of my last post, Philippa Cowderoy and Geoff Hart brought up an interesting question around esports in VR. Will e-sports in VR ever become a thing?

I was actually there at the start of the dawn of esports as a whole - I ran "News From The Front", a website which covered the competitive Quake scene back in 1996. (It may actually have been the first dedicated esports news site in the world.) And more recently, I've gotten back into PvP games and esports with the game DOTA2, which has consumed an enormous amount of my time over the last year or so.

And, of course, I'm a virtual reality developer by trade - my first VR game, the horror/rpg Left-Hand Path, left Early Access and entered full release last Friday. I should stress at this point that I don't have a professional dog in the esports race: I'm mostly interested in creating single-player experiences, often with heavy RPG bents. Whilst Left-Hand Path is certainly difficult, inspired as it is by Dark Souls, it's not PvP, and my next major game will probably also be a single-player experience. So I have no financial interest in pushing the whole VR esport concept.

Nonetheless, the esport question is fascinating to me. In five years, will we be seeing the equivalent of The International in VR?

We're further along than you might think

Well, in actual fact you could have watched this year's International in VR. DOTA2 has had a VR spectator mode available for some time. It's not quite ready for prime time yet - I still prefer the big-screen-with-snacks approach to DOTA game watching - but it's evidence that VR's advancing on the esport thing much faster than you might think.

In fact, there's been an esport tournament in VR in just the last week.


People sometimes ask me why I'm so keen on VR - keen enough to drop a 20-year career to move into it - and I always give the same response.

"I get to make worlds".

That's... quite the sales pitch. And I don't mean "making worlds" as a novelist or even a filmmaker (my former career) does it. I mean creating worlds you can walk into, explore, interact with, and get murdered by hideous creatures brought back to life by the blasphemous rules of the magical place you now inhabit.

(My creative approach - latest output of which is the VR horror/rpg Left-Hand Path - definitely tends in a certain direction, and that direction is deep, complex magic systems and disturbing consequences therof. Plus I was really inspired by Dark Souls this time around.)

And if I was speaking to someone whom I suspected might have watched Star Trek - you know, about 80% of the population - I might follow that up with "basically, I have a holodeck".

Horror On The Holodeck

If you don't know - the "holodeck" was the invention of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ostensibly a recreational tool, it could conjure in perfect detail any environment its user could dream of. For plot reasons, the utility's obvious - as Wikipedia says,

From a storytelling point of view, it permits the introduction of a greater variety of locations and characters that might not otherwise be possible, such as events and persons in the Earth's past, and is often used as a way to pose philosophical questions.

(Wikipedia: Holodeck)

(Also, for storytelling reasons, it bugged out more often than Internet Explorer 6. I'm pleased to say current VR tech, including Left-Hand Path, doesn't have quite that problem.)

Ever since its introduction, a lot of people have regarded the Holodeck as the ultimate goal of games or virtual reality. A tool that can create a completely convincing world in which you can be anything you want to be.

The new wave of VR is a huge step in that direction. By "The New Wave" here I mean the Vive, the Oculus Rift, and - if reports are to be believed - Microsoft's Mixed Reality. Phone VR with no positional tracking or motion-tracked controllers is not the same thing at all, and should really not be taken as a representation of current VR. If the VR system doesn't allow you to get up (using your IRL body, not a controller), walk around a bit, and pick things up with your hands (mediated by controllers like Oculus Touch or the Vive wand) I would argue it's not "real" VR, and it's certainly not what I'm talking about here.

But there are still plenty of limitations to it, and you may well be listing them in your head as you read this.

"What? Lol. It's not anything like a holodeck. You can only walk about six feet! You can't feel objects, there's no wind, there's no smells, you've got a damn great cable attached to your head, and the other characters are just computer game NPCs!"

All true.

But for how much longer?


This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

I've always had a problem with Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".

This may have something to do with my career for a long time involving both magic and technology. Magic's a perennial fiction obsession of mine, and my media of choice have always been highly technological.

Most recently, I just released Left-Hand Path. It's a Virtual Reality game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive - obviously fairly technological - whose central conceit is that in it, you learn the skills to cast spells. And I don't just mean you select spells from a spellbook and then press a button: I mean you have to learn the gestures necessary to create the magic, and on occasion go through a complex system of ritual magic to create the effects you desire, flipping through your grimoire to remember exactly how you summon your ancient powers.


Now, all that makes for a great game. There's a sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the powers of magic to your advantage and remember how to cast the "Vis" spell as something nasty is closing on you. There's a sense of discovery as you learn more about the world, the way magic works, and find powerful new spells. And there's a sense of pant-crapping terror as you realise that the things your new ritual summons to eat your foes will cheerfully eat you as well.

(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")

Now, none of that description of magic sounds very much like the technology I use in 2017.

I don't have to imprecate dark and terrible forces in order to use my PS4, unless you count Sony's latest privacy policy. My lovely new iPad is famously intuitive, not a quality one would ascribe to The Lesser Key Of Solomon.

But.

And this is a big but. (I cannot lie.)

None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use. That's not so much the case for the other technology I interact with.

And I think that distinction - and the points where Clarke's Third Law does still apply - may explain a lot about why technologists are increasingly becoming hated in many circles.

First, an apologia for a technical complication ...

So, with previous books I've been in the habit of writing up my crib notes and blogging them around the time the book comes out in mass-market paperback and the ebook price is cut accordingly, which is traditionally twelve months after the hardcover publication date. However, we live in interesting times and the mass market distribution channel—used for small format paperbacks in the USA—is decaying (it died in the early 90s in the UK). Upshot: there have been no mass market paperback editions of my books in the USA since about 2015, although the UK market still gets small format trade paperbacks (which everyone thinks is a mass market release).

"Empire Games", the first book of the trilogy of that name, is published by Tor in the USA (and Canada) and by Tor in the UK (and EU, and Aus/NZ). Despite their similar-sounding names, these are actually two different companies within a sprawling multinational (Holtzbrinck Publishing Group), and although my US and UK editors work together, they're publishing through different distribution networks (because, historically, books weren't a valuable enough wholesale product to ship internationally). This is why the ebook price drop and small format paperback have already happened in the UK, but the ebook price cut and US trade paperback of "Empire Games" are delayed until December 5th.

(There are no current plans for a mass market release, despite which Amazon.com are optimistically saying that you can pre-order one for delivery on January 1st, 2099. And book 2, "Dark State", is due out on January 11th in the UK and January 9th in the USA.)

As it's the seasonal affective depression time of year and I always get slammed around the winter solstice, without further ado, here are some crib notes for "Empire Games". Spoilers ahoy!

Empire Games

Attention, British readers: Empire Games just came out in small format paperback today, with a price cut from the big trade paperback. The ebook edition also got a whole bit cheaper: Kindle edition here.

(The US paperback/cheap ebook will be along a bit later, because Tor UK and Tor USA are actually different publishers with different schedules.)

On the low blogging tempo ...

I'm grappling with a tight deadline: "The Labyrinth Index" is due with my editors at the end of the month and I've still got one third of the book to go. (It's going to be a little shorter than the last couple of Laundry Files novels, but on the other hand, they've been growing alarmingly. The first short novel, "The Atrocity Archive", was 76,000 words long, while by "The Nightmare Stacks" and "The Delirium Brief" they were pushing close to 140,000 words. This one isn't exactly short, but should come in at around 100,000 words—in other words, about 300 pages.)

Creative blogging soaks up the same writing mojo as book-writing, and I don't have much surplus this quarter. I'll have some crib notes for you in a few weeks when Empire Games is released in small-format paperback (that's due on December 5th in the USA, but October 19th in the UK, because Tor USA and Tor UK are different companies and run on slightly different release schedules: yes, the ebook price will drop at the same time). And I'll see if I can find a guest blogger or two. And of course, if something happens that causes me to foam at the mouth you'll read about it here ... but don't be too surprised if this place is unusually quiet for the next month.

Part of it, I will admit, is news fatigue. John Scalzi already said this thing, so I don't feel the need to repeat every word of it here, but in a nutshell: it's really hard to think myself into an ebullient and entertaining frame of mind this year, which is a necessary precondition to writing escapist fiction. The news is unmitigated crap right now. Our rulers are either morons and criminals (the White House), or being run ragged by a clown car full of idiots (the Brexit cheerleaders, whose latest wheeze is to decide that anyone bearing news of economic woes in the brave new Brexit uplands is clearly a saboteur because nothing can go wrong and it's time to fire the Chancellor for revising growth forecasts down). The climate is turning deadly (how many hurricanes this season? Has central California burned to the ground yet?), and maniacs are waving nuclear dildos at each other again. There is no respite from the bad news, other than to turn the news off completely or subsist entirely on a diet of successful rocket launch videos (checks clock: there's an hour to go until the next SpaceX bird goes up, then a couple of days to the next) and happy puppies.

Oh, and next week I turn 53. I don't generally have crises on birthdays divisible by 10; I defer them for 2-3 years. For example, on turning 30 you can still kid yourself you're in your late twenties; at 33, this isn't true any more. Now I'm nearly 53 I can't really kid myself I'm not middle-aged. Given that we live in a culture that venerates youth and ignores or discounts age, that's also calling for a bit of adjustment (notably learning to kick back against the little voice in my ear whispering "you're an old has-been" and "you're past it" and "your best work is behind you: you're coasting on fumes now" and say "fuck you, I'm going to prove you wrong"). In fact, it's calling for so much adjustment that I don't have much spare energy for anything else.

So ... what I guess I'm saying is, I've got a tight deadline to hit and work is actually much, much harder than usual right now because the emotional environment is toxic, and us creatives need, if not happiness, then at least light at the end of the tunnel. But work is the one thing I can't allow to slide. Excuses are not permitted: I've got a tight schedule to meet if I'm going to take a sabbatical for a couple of months around the end of next year, and I'll slack off when I'm dead.

That's it. Talk among yourselves or feel free to ask me anything (just be aware I might not answer until I've hit my daily word-count target). I'm outa here; back in November.

I don't often make exact predictions about the future; that's not an SF writer's job, and it's really easy to get egg on your face. Howver, here's a prediction:

If Donald Trump is still president, US astronauts will return to circumlunar space around July 16th, 2019 ...

(Apologies for blogging so infrequently this month. I'm currently up to my elbows in The Labyrinth Index, with a tight deadline to hit if the book's going to be published next July. Blogging will continue to be infrequent, but hopefully as provocative as usual.)

Remember Orwell's 1984 and his description of the world ahead—"if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever"?

This is the 21st century, and we can do better.

This is an open-ended question.

Forget Donald Trump; Trump will almost certainly be gone by 2020 and quite possibly by 2018. (In fact, any comments which mention him will be deleted unless they have a very good point to make about the effect of flooding on Houston. You have been warned.)

What I'm interested in chewing over is the effect of losing a major city—the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States—to a weather event that is already the worst in 800 years (with, potentially, worse to come) and flooding due to rainfall that will almost certainly exceed 100 centimetres in a week.

What happens next? Lessons in flood defenses and disaster mitigation? Changes to urban planning regimes? A major economic crisis (I'm guessing they just lost the Port of Houston, the busiest port in the USA in terms of foreign tonnage and second-busiest by overall tonnage, not to mention Houston's economy having a GDP on the order of $450Bn). Mass homelessness and destitution is a no-brainer: is this also going to destabilize the secondary insurance markets? What are the global consequences, outside the USA?

Tell me what happens next. Let's compare notes.

So it's time I faced facts: I've been writing this blog for seventeen years and it is getting bloody difficult to come up with stuff to say. (At least, right now.)

My usual book launch promo stuff last month was derailed totally by family circumstances (that won't recur). I really don't feel like kvetching about politics, either the ongoing UK-specific slow-motion train wreck that is Brexit, or the equally bizarre theatre of the absurd and evil that is the current incumbent of the White House. The global neo-nazi resurgence might be another angle, but I'm not the ideal person to write a "why Nazis are bad, 101" for folks who haven't already got the message—I'm not patient enough and the subject strikes much too close to home for comfort. (I grew up attending a synagogue with older members who had numbers tattooed on their arms; I'm pretty sure that if I lived in the US right now then I'd be a gun owner by now, and stockpiling ammunition and escape plans.)

These are dangerous times in the anglophone lands, and worse is coming; the UK seems to be rushing headlong towards a private debt crisis (largely due to nearly a decade of misguided austerity policies, but with insane ramping of student loan debt on top) and the economic uncertainty induced by the Brexit-triggered recession we're entering isn't helping ... and the Tangerine Shitgibbon in Chief seems to have decided that, in comparison with a short victorious war with North Korea, sending the US army back into Afghanistan is a vote-winner.

Against such news headlines I don't much feel like prognosticating about the near future right now.

I'd like to be able to take comfort by speculating about how things might have turned out differently in another time-line, but that's not so good either. Imagine the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election results were flipped: where would we be now?

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