Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Black Mirror: White Christmas

Speaking of digital entities, Channel 4 last night screened the latest episode of Charlie Brooker's 'Black Mirror', an anthology of dark dramas which Brooker has described as having the purpose of  "actively unsettling people" about the future.  "White Christmas" weaves together three separate tales of near-future technology, tying them up brilliantly at the end through the use of brain scanning as a plot device.

Brain scanning is the central theme running through my novel Beside an Open Window, and it was fascinating to see the thought given to the consequences of this idea by Brooker - which include using a digital scan of your brain to organise your life, the use of an avatar body in virtual settings for scans, the incarceration of scans and speeding up time for scans so that they experience enormous stretches of time in just a few seconds.  There are plenty more ideas explored besides, perhaps most notably the concept of blocking/muting someone in real life.

It was one of the best written and certainly the most imaginative pieces of TV I've seen all year.  If you live in the UK, you have a month to watch it on demand here.  If you're elsewhere, watch out for this on your networks.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Worm emulation

In Beside an Open Window, I portray a future in which human brains are scanned and uploaded to a virtual world once the 'original' human has died.  Whilst such technology might be a long way off, it's  not inconceivable that this could be done one day.  Of course, it might be the case when this happens that human brain scans get uploaded to robots (as explored by Janet Asimov) rather than virtual worlds; I chose the latter because I presumed it would be cheaper.

The OpenWorm project has for a while now been working towards a the complete emulation of Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic roundworm consisting of about a thousand cells - 300 of which are neurons.  I won't attempt to pick apart the science here - there are plenty of articles about the project to be found - but feast your eyes on the video below, which shows a Lego robot being controlled by the current emulated model of the worm's brain.

Take a moment to consider what this video represents.  A living creature has had its brain - all of its neurons and their interconnections - recreated in software and connected to a few sensory inputs and motor outputs.  The robot has not been 'programmed' in any way: the responses you are seeing are those of an actual 'mind' which has been separated from the hardware of its brain.  It is one of the most awesome and somehow terrifying things I have seen this year.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Out stealing horses

Last week, Kate Bergdorf invited me to see Winter on Nordan om Jorden.  It's getting to that time of year when something within me starts to yearn for snowscaped scenery.  Perhaps it's nostalgia for Christmas during my childhood, in which a countryside snow scene was the default image for the middle class greetings cards my parents received and the necessary background picture to the front cover of any vinyl record of seasonal music.  Perhaps it's just that the journey between summer and Christmas is a long one and by the time I near the end I'm exhausted and the white erasure of detail appeals to my desire for something slower, purer, simpler.

Whatever it is that creates the yearning, Winter on Nordan om Jorden really hits the spot.

Monday, 1 December 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 update

It was a tough one again this year, with a busy work month, a streaming cold in the last few days and the 2014 series of 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!' all conspiring to prevent 'AFK and Avengement' from accumulating 50,000 words by 30 November.  Thankfully, the conspiracy failed and another mad final dash (nearly 9,000 words written over Friday, Saturday and Sunday) saw 50k reached and breached.

As has been the case for the last few years, there is still a fair bit of work to do before the book is actually finished (I added another 10,000 words after 30 November last year).  If you're a fan of the series, keep an eye out for the publication of this, the fourth installment, early in 2015.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 update

NaNoWriMo 2014 is now well underway.  There was a good turnout for my talk on Wednesday at Milk Wood (as usual, I forgot to take a photo until a few minutes after the event had ended and half the attendees had left; never mind).  My own novel today passed the 20,000 word mark and now has a working title - 'AFK and Avengement'.

I'm pretty pleased with the book so far, though initial feelings about one's writing being good should rarely be trusted.  As an appetiser, here's a short excerpt from the chapter I wrote today.

She left the house at about noon, climbing into her red Volkswagen Polo and driving off in the direction of town.  We followed from a distance.  She was a dark-haired woman; she wore it straight and shoulder-length.  She had on skinny jeans, tall boots, and a green and purple Orla Kiely raincoat.
“What if it was her?” Spence asked.  “What would you do?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” I told him.
She drove into town and parked in a pay and display.  We stood behind her at the machine, where she purchased two hours.  Then we followed her to a coffee shop, where she met up with a woman who was sitting at a table with a toddler beside her asleep in a pushchair.  They kissed each other on both cheeks.  Mrs Herriot took off her raincoat and put it round the back of the facing chair.  Spence and I took a nearby table and sat side-by-side on the sofa; he took out his laptop and put it on the table in front of us so it wouldn’t look odd that we weren’t facing each other.  Then he went to get us coffee.
It wasn’t noisy in the coffee shop; all the same, it was difficult to make out individual words any distance away.  The woman with the toddler stood and said something, to which Mrs Herriot nodded vigorously and said, “Of course!”  Will you watch him for me a moment whilst I join the queue?  Whilst I make a call?  Whilst I use the loo?  She headed for the toilets.  The latter, then.
Spence came back with a latte for him and a skinny cappuccino for me.  “Look at her, how blank her expression is now,” I said to him, “compared to how it was when she was talking to that woman.”
“How do you want her to look when she’s not interacting with anyone?” he replied.  “Should she have a book of poetry open in front of her and a thoughtful, reflective expression on her face?”
“Look at her eyes,” I said.  “They’re anywhere but here.”
“So she’s thinking about other things,” he said.  “That’s hardly a crime.”
“Any individual behaviour can have a thousand explanations,” I said.  “Our job is to join up the dots.”
“No picture forms from a single dot,” he said.
The friend returned.  She sat, opened her handbag, took out cream and rubbed some into her hands.  Mrs Herriot smiled in the direction of the toddler and said something that made the other roll her eyes and reply with a sentence that contained the word ‘now’ emphasised in it.  They both laughed.  The friend bent over the buggy to check on something.  The smile slid from Mrs Herriot’s face.
“See?” I said.
“And again I say, so what?  Maybe she doesn’t like this person.  Maybe it’s an old friend she feels obliged to keep up with, a passive aggressive acquaintance who counts the number of texts she gets in a month and then halves it when she tells everyone how little she matters.  Maybe – just maybe – Mrs Herriot had to cancel a meeting with her lover to be here.”  I looked at him.  “Why not?  Why are we assuming this to be a simple matter of a good person and a bad person – why shouldn’t it be mixed up a little?”
“This is pointless,” I said.  “Why are we here?”
“Why indeed?” he replied.  “You wanted to see her.  But I get it now.  I get why it was different for JP.”
“I was in love then,” I said.  “I didn’t see anything clearly.”
“But he fit, didn’t he?  Just like this woman of quickly fading smiles fits the general picture you’re looking for.  When you saw him for the first time, he was everything you wanted him to be: old and overweight and worn out.  How dare such a man assume a character of vitality in the metaverse?  How dare he pretend to be not old, not fat, not a person who got out of breath climbing the stairs to his apartment?  The very sight of him made you sick.  The very sight of him made you furiousThis was the flesh behind the pretend man that Inch had chosen over you?  If only she knew.  If only she knew!
“Please stop talking about this,” I said.
“Look at that fat woman over there by the window and tell me what you see,” he demanded.  “Don’t stop to compose your words.  Tell me what her story is and why she’s here by herself.  I want to know.”
“How the hell would I know?” I said, the words catching in my throat.”
Don’t edit!” he barked.  A couple of heads turned in our direction.  “What about the youth with the hoodie looking in through the door right now?  You just know he’s wondering if they keep cash on the premises overnight, don’t you?  What about the guy taking orders at the till – is it me or did he have a touch of yellow to his skin?  You know, it’s his kind that are turning this glorious country into a state of woman-stoning, halal-slaughtering, tower-block-destroying jihadists and if he was actually opposed to any of that he’d be sticking his head above the fucking parapet instead of hiding away from his kind in here, serving overpriced coffees – which, by the way, is a job that a proper English person could be doing.”
I got up, shaking.  I picked up my coat and bag.  He rose too, knocking the table and sending his latte to the floor.  “And just look at that guy in the corner!” he shouted, pointing.  “I do believe I just saw him twirling his fucking moustache!”
“Leave me alone!” I shrieked, backing – stumbling - away.  Customers were gasping.  Men were standing.  The guy at the till came across and put himself between us, his arms stretched out, his palms open.  “Calm down, alright, mate?” he said.  “Just calm down.  Just calm down.”
“Fuck this!” Spence spat.  He slammed shut his laptop, picked it up and took a direct line to the main doors.  He didn’t look back.
A hand touched gently my shoulder from behind.  “Are you ok?  Did he hurt you?”  Mrs Herriot handed me a tissue and stroked my hair back out of my face.  “It’s okay – he’s gone now.  Come and sit down,” she said.  Then she put her arms around me and held me whilst I sobbed.
“Is he alright?” the till guy said, presently.  “Is he likely to come back?  Should I call the police?”
“He won’t come back,” I said, hoarsely.  “He made his point.”

He was waiting for me when I got back to the car.  “So, did you get to speak with her?” he asked.
“I did,” I said, coldly.
“And?  Theory supported?  Hypothesis rejected?”
“She was lovely.  It tells me nothing.”
“Of course it tells you nothing.”  His voice went suddenly gentle.  “Of course it tells you nothing.”

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Free novel covers for NaNoWriMo and indie authors

For a while now I've been building up a small collection of photographs I think might make good backgrounds for a novel cover.  I thought I'd share some of these today.

If you are an indie author - and most especially if you're publishing your NaNoWriMo novel - please feel free to use any of the images below for your cover.  You may alter them as you please.  In return, please attribute me in your novel (a line like, "Cover photography by" would be perfect).  You do not need to let me know that you have used one of my photographs, but it would be nice if you did - and if you did so as a comment below then you'd also be getting a bit of free publicity for your novel (feel free to include a link to the book on Amazon or elsewhere).

Just one limitation: you may not use any of these images for the cover of any writing which promotes any form of discrimination or prejudice against any group of people.

You can scroll through the covers below and they can be downloaded from Flickr here.

Created with flickr slideshow.