So it finally happened: a self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. And, of course, the car was an Uber.

(Why Uber? Well, Uber is a taxi firm. Lots of urban and suburban short journeys through neighbourhoods where fares cluster. In contrast, once you set aside the hype, Tesla's autopilot is mostly an enhanced version of the existing enhanced cruise control systems that Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes have been playing with for years: lane tracking on highways, adaptive cruise control ... in other words, features used on longer, faster journeys, which are typically driven on roads such as motorways that don't have mixed traffic types.)

There's going to be a legal case, of course, and the insurance corporations will be taking a keen interest because it'll set a precedent and case law is big in the US. Who's at fault: the pedestrian, the supervising human driver behind the steering wheel who didn't stop the car in time, or the software developers? (I will just quote from CNN Tech here: "the car was going approximately 40 mph in a 35 mph zone, according to Tempe Police Detective Lily Duran.")

This case, while tragic, isn't really that interesting. I mean, it's Uber, for Cthulhu's sake (corporate motto: "move fast and break things"). That's going to go down real good in front of a jury. Moreover ... the maximum penalty for vehicular homicide in Arizona is a mere three years in jail, which would be laughable if it wasn't so enraging. (Rob a bank and shoot a guard: get the death penalty. Run the guard over while they're off-shift: max three years.) However, because the culprit in this case is a corporation, the worst outcome they will experience is a fine. The soi-disant "engineers" responsible for the autopilot software experience no direct consequences of moral hazard.

But there are ramifications.

I'm not a Solarpunk, I just play one in real life, it seems. While Charlie's out doing important stuff, I decided I'd drop a brief, meandering essay in here for the regular crowd of commenters to say some variation on, "Why yes, that's (adjective) obvious," and to eventually turn the conversation around to the relative merits of either trains or 20th Century weapons systems, if we can get past comment 100.

As most of you know, I do a lot of environmentalism, so much so in fact that I'm not working any creative writing right now (except this!), just going to meetings and reading environmental impact reports (if you don't know anything about California's perennial punching bag, CEQA), well, don't bother, it's tedious). This post was inspired by what I saw in the process of the San Diego County Supervisors approving the most developer-friendly version of the County Climate Action Plan (CAP) that they could. The details of about seven hours of meetings really don't matter, but the universality of what happened might, at least a little.

I'm making a few public appearances over the next months:

First up, on Saturday 10th of March I'm doing a public Q&A, short reading, and signing at the American Book Center in Amsterdam. (Click link for details.)

Then, from March 30th to April 2nd I'll be at Follycon in Harrogate, the 69th British Easter SF Convention. (Guests of honour are Kieron Gillen, Christina Lake, Nnedi Okorafor, and Kim Stanley Robinson, so it's going to be good. OK?)

Finally, from April 19th to 22nd, I'm a guest of honour at Deepcon 19 in Fiuggi, Italy.

I am working (for reasons of my own) towards a comprehensive list of plausible technothriller plots from 2010 where the MacGuffin is named Satoshi Nakamoto.

Before you go off prematurely: a MacGuffin in fiction is ... "a plot device that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation". Can be a person as well as a thing. "Satoshi Nakamoto" is the pseudonym of the entity who designed BitCoin and the blockchain database. Whoever they are, they're anonymous and they own a bitcoin wallet containing one million bitcoins (worth approximately $19 billion at present market rates), making them the 44th richest person in the world—if they dared spend them, because if they spend any of their bitcoins they'll risk exposure. And "technothriller plots from 2010" is the deadline because that's the year when Nakamoto went inactive, roughly 12 months after the initial release of Version 0.1 of the bitcoin software via SourceForge (January 2009). (If I'd picked an earlier year—say, 2008—the subsequent BitCoin mania could only be described in science fictional terms.)

So, here are some plausible technothriller plots about "Satoshi Nakamoto", from 2010—all of them entirely fictional, of course. Feel free to add your own in coments.

So, a brief update about "The Labyrinth Index" and British audiobook editions of the Laundry Files!

Firstly, "The Labyrinth Index" will now be published on October 30th in both the US and UK, not in July as previously scheduled. (It takes time to turn a manuscript into a book—copy-editing, typesetting, checking proofs, running the printing press, distributing crates of books toshops—and due to a cascading series of delays (that started with me not deciding to write it until after my normal 2018 novel deadline had passed) we had to add three months to the production timeline.) On the other hand, the manuscript has been delivered and should be with the copy editor real soon now, so it's on the way.

Secondly, some unexpected good news for those of you in the UK, EU, Australia and NZ who like audiobooks: "The Fuller Memorandum" and "The Apocalypse Codex" are getting audio releases and are due out on May 24th!

This has been a sore spot for years. Recording audiobooks is expensive and the British audiobook market is a lot smaller than the North American one. The Laundry Files have been released in audio since book five, "The Rhesus Chart", and a couple of years ago Orbit worked with the RNIB to release the first two books in the series, but books 3 and 4 were missing—back-list titles that were uneconomical to record (and the US audio publisher wanted too much money for a license to re-use their recording).

Anyway, it looks as if the growing market for audiobooks and the growing sales of the Laundry Files have finally intersected, making it possible for Orbit to justify paying for an audio release of the missing titles, and you'll be able to listen to the entire series.

Being a guy who writes science fiction, people expect me to be well-informed about the current state of the field—as if I'm a book reviewer who reads everything published in my own approximate area.

(This is a little like expecting a bus driver to have an informed opinion on every other form of four-wheeled road-going transport.)

Similarly, marketing folks keep sending me SF novels in the hope I'll read them and volunteer a cover quote. But over the past decade I've found myself increasingly reluctant to read the stuff they send me: I have a vague sense of dyspepsia, as if I've just eaten a seven course banquet and the waiter is approaching me with a wafer-thin mint.

This isn't to say that I haven't read a lot of SF over the past several decades. While I'm an autodidact—there are holes in my background—I've read most of the classics of the field, at least prior to the 1990s. But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories, and this past decade I've found very few SF novels that I didn't feel the urge to bail on within pages (or a chapter or two at most). Including works that I knew were going to be huge runaway successes, both popular and commercially successful—but that I simply couldn't stomach.

It's not you, science fiction, it's me.

UK Labyrinth Index

Yes, this is the British cover for "The Labyrinth Index", the ninth Laundry Files novel, coming in the second half of this year.

The crazy years

Many, many years ago, in the introduction to my first short story collection, I kvetched about how science fictional futures obsolesce, and the futures we expect look quaint and dated by the time the reality rolls round.

Around the time I published "Toast" (the title an ironic reference to the way near-future SF gets burned by reality) I was writing the stories that later became "Accelerando". I hadn't really mastered the full repertoire of fiction techniques at that point (arguably, I still haven't: I'll stop learning when I die), but I played to my strengths—and one technique that suited me well back then was to take a fire-hose of ideas and spray them at the reader until they drowned. Nothing gives you a sense of an immersive future like having the entire world dumped on your head simultaneously, after all.

Now we are living in 2018, round the time I envisaged "Lobsters" taking place when I was writing that novelette, and the joke's on me: reality is outstripping my own ability to keep coming up with insane shit to provide texture to my fiction.

Just in the past 24 hours, the breaking news from Saudi Arabia is that twelve camels have been disqualified from a beauty pageant because their handlers used Botox to make them more handsome. (The street finds its uses for tech, including medicine, but come on, camel beauty pageant botox should not be a viable Google search term in any plausible time line.) Meanwhile, home in Edinburgh, eight vehicles have been discovered trapped in an abandoned robot car park during demolition work. This is pure J. G. Ballard/William Gibson mashup territory, and it's about half a kilometre from my front door. The world's top 1% earned 82% of all wealth generated in 2017 — I'm fairly sure this wasn't what Adam Smith had in mind — and South Korea has such a high suicide rate that the government intends to make organising a suicide pact a criminal offence.

Go home, 2018, you're drunk. (Or, as Robert Heinlein might have put it: these are the crazy years, and they're not over yet.)

Seriously: leaving aside the subject matter of "Accelerando" (half-baked singularitarianism), the technique I used to make it work has now been overtaken by our internet mediated news sources. It's not as if this sort of stuff wasn't happening before: history is full of utterly bugfuck, stranger-than-fiction source material. But these days we find out about it as it happens, and we find out about it happening in places our news agencies formerly had limited or no access to. Seven billion shaved apes generate a lot of weirdness in parallel, and these days it seems like they've all got keyboards: we shouldn't be surprised to get the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Surrealist, delivered to our smartphones daily.

Which is why you aren't going to see me write another "Accelerando". Never mind the singularity, the basic storytelling mechanism I used is no longer viable in the post-smartphone broadband internet age. Stoning the reader with condensed, indigestible nuggets of future shock is no longer a viable worldbuilding method because social media have accustomed to it as the new normal. Guess I'm going to have to invent a new technique if I want to stay relevant ...

This is your cursory scheduled reminder that I have a new book out this week, on both sides of the Atlantic: Dark State (follow that link for purchase links and info on how to get signed copies).

Questions I get asked:

When is the next book coming out?: "Invisible Sun", the final volume in the trilogy, will be published at the same time next year, January 2019. (It exists: I'm polishing the final draft this month.)

I'm in the EU/UK; why can't I find the audiobooks?: If you're in North America, audiobooks are already available. Meanwhile, British editions of "Empire Games" and "Dark State" are being recorded and will be released via Audible in August. They're not listed for pre-order until six months prior to publication, so if you want to place a pre-order, check back in March.

What about audiobooks of [some other title]?: Read this FAQ.

I want to buy Empire Games/Dark State without DRM: All my publishes except Tor require DRM (the decision is not up to Amazon, it's made by the publisher). Happily, this means that the Merchant Princes and Empire Games books, which are published by Tor in North America and the UK, are free of DRM. In the USA, Tor also publish the short fiction in the Laundry Files and new Laundry Files novels, starting with "The Delirium Brief"; however, the Laundry files is published by Orbit in the UK, who require DRM. If/when Orbit's group-wide policy on DRM changes, I'll nag them to remove it from my books. (Don't hold your breath.)

I bought a hardback and it's broken/pages blank/wrong order! I demand my money back! Authors generally get asked this because they're the public face that readers identify with, but if this happens to you, you really need to get in touch with the bookstore who sold it to you. They should be happy to replace it with a fresh copy.

I spotted a mistake! Where do I go to crow about it? You post a comment in the thread below. (NB: I already know that I misplaced Tehran. Just once I don't look at Google Maps, and ...)

Some other question? Ask it in the comments below. Thanks!

This is the text of my keynote speech at the 34th Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig, December 2017.

(You can also watch it on YouTube, but it runs to about 45 minutes.)

Abstract: We're living in yesterday's future, and it's nothing like the speculations of our authors and film/TV producers. As a working science fiction novelist, I take a professional interest in how we get predictions about the future wrong, and why, so that I can avoid repeating the same mistakes. Science fiction is written by people embedded within a society with expectations and political assumptions that bias us towards looking at the shiny surface of new technologies rather than asking how human beings will use them, and to taking narratives of progress at face value rather than asking what hidden agenda they serve.

In this talk, author Charles Stross will give a rambling, discursive, and angry tour of what went wrong with the 21st century, why we didn't see it coming, where we can expect it to go next, and a few suggestions for what to do about it if we don't like it.

It's the time of year when nominations open for the various genre fiction awards, and some folks announce what they've published that is eligible (while others bite their lips and refuse to tout for votes in what is essentially a beauty pageant).

I only published two works of fiction in 2017, both novels—"Empire Games" and "The Delirium Brief", books 7 and 8 in the Merchant Princes/Empire Games and Laundry Files series. As such, they're highly unlikely to make the best novel shortlist in the Hugo awards. However, since 2016 there's been a new category, "best series". Please do not nominate the Laundry Files for the best series Hugo award in 2018.

(Explanation below the cut.)

Dark State

So, Dark State comes out in hardcover in the USA and trade paperback in the UK on January 9th and January 11th respectively.

I'm going to be reading from the novel, and signing copies, at Blackwells Bookshop on South Bridge in Edinburgh on January 10th; if you're in town and what to show up, tickets and details are available here (it's free, but space is limited).

If you want a signed copy, Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh are happy to take orders, as are Blackwell's via email. Note that bookstores aren't allowed to ship pre-orders before the publication date, so there's precisely zero chance of getting a copy in time for Christmas!

(I have no plans to visit the USA in 2018. US Immigration is just too damn scary while there's a xenophobe in the White House. However, both bookstores I linked to are willing to ship books to North America and elsewhere.)

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.




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