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.

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.)

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