This article from 2004, ten years ago, about Charles Stross’s then-upcoming Accelerando, and featuring bits of Stross and Cory Doctorow, along with Verner Vinge and the lobster researchers, was so much fun to read. Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?

A small excerpt:

Stross and Doctorow are sitting outside the Chequers Hotel bar in Newbury, a small city west of London. The Chequers has been overrun this May weekend by a distinct species of science-fiction fan, members of a group called Plokta (Press Lots of Keys to Abort). The men are mostly stout and bearded, the women pedestrian in appearance but certainly not in their interests. During one session Stross mentions an early model of the Amstrad personal computer, and the crowd practically cheers. Stross is the guest of honor, and he and Doctorow have just emerged from a panel discussion on his work.

The two have met just four times, but they have the comfortable rapport of long-distance friends that is possible only in the e-mail age. (They have collaborated on several critically acclaimed short stories and novellas, one of them before they ever met in person.) Stross, 39, a native of Yorkshire who lives in Edinburgh, looks like a cross between a Shaolin monk and a video-store clerk—bearded, head shaved except for a ponytail, and dressed in black, including a T-shirt printed with lines of green Matrix code. Doctorow, a 33-year-old Canadian, looks more the hip young writer, with a buzz cut, a worn leather jacket and stylish spectacles, yet he’s also still very much the geek, G4 laptop always at the ready. 

They have loosely parallel backgrounds: Stross worked throughout the 1990s as a software developer for two U.K. dot-coms, then switched to journalism and began writing a Linux column for Computer Shopper. Doctorow, who recently moved to London, dropped out of college at 21 to take his first programming job, then went on to run a dot-com and eventually co-found the technology blog boingboing.net. 

Although both have been out of programming for a few years, it continues to influence—even infect—their thinking. In the Chequers, Doctorow mentions the original title for one of the novels he’s working on, a story about a spam filter that becomes artificially intelligent and tries to eat the universe. “I was thinking of calling it /usr/bin/god.” 

“That’s great!” Stross remarks.

Here’s a scary paragraph from a longer article about Google’s acquisition of AI company Deep Mind:

One of DeepMind’s cofounders, Demis Hassabis, possesses an impressive resume packed with prestigious titles, including software developer, neuroscientist, and teenage chess prodigy among the bullet points. But as the Economist suggested, one of Hassabis’s better-known contributions to society might be a video game; a niche but adored 2006 simulator called Evil Genius, in which you play as a malevolent mastermind hell-bent on world domination.

That sounds just like the plot of Daniel Suarez’s Daemon:

When a designer of computer games dies, he leaves behind a program that unravels the Internet’s interconnected world. It corrupts, kills, and runs independent of human control. It’s up to Detective Peter Sebeck to wrest the world from the malevolent virtual enemy before its ultimate purpose is realized: to dismantle society and bring about a new world order.

I’m reading Our Final Invention by James Barrat right now, about the dangers of artificial intelligence. I just got to a chapter in which he discussed that any reasonably complex artificial general intelligence (AGI) is going to want to control its own resources: e.g. if it has a goal, even a simple goal like playing chess, it will be able to achieve its goal better with more computing resources, and won’t be able to achieve its goal at all if its shut off. (Similar themes exist in all of my novels.)

This made me snap back to a conversation I had last week at my day job. I’m a web developer, and my current project, without giving too much away, is a RESTful web service that runs workflows composed of other RESTful web services.

We’re currently automating some of our operational tasks. For example, when our code passes unit tests, it’s automatically deployed. We’d like to expand on that so that after deployment, it will run integration tests, and if those pass, deploy up to the next stack, and then run performance tests, and so on.

Although we’re running on a cloud provider, it’s not AWS, and they don’t support autoscaling, so another automation task we need is to roll our own scaling solution.

Then we realized that running tests, deployments, and scaling all require calling RESTful JSON APIs, and that’s exactly what our service is designed to do. So the logical solution is that our software will test itself, deploy itself, and autoscale itself.

That’s an awful lot like the kind of resource control that James Barrat was writing about.

I’ll be in Seattle on Saturday to be interviewed by Nikola Danaylov of the Singularity Weblog and Singularity 1 on 1 podcast. I’ve listened to quite a few of his podcasts, and he’s a great interviewer, and had interviewed Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, and many other amazing people.

This will be a joint interview with myself, Ramez Naam (of Nexus fame), and Greg Bear, a prolific author of science fiction novels.

If you have any questions you’d like to have answered by any of us, please contact Nikola on twitter: @singularityblog this evening.

p.s. I’m posting this while traveling by Amtrak from Portland to Seattle. Trains rock!

My notes from OryCon 35 (2013) are a little shorter than usual this year, so rather than one blog post per panel, I’m consolidating posts.
(One meta-comment: There have been a fair number of panels about the future, including one that I was on. In every case, it feels like panelists consistently under-estimate the amount of change I think we’ll see in the future. In a panel I attended entitled “300 Years from Now” panelists discussed issues facing us today: water shortages, climate change, global economic divide, etc. while assuming that humans remain much like we are today. In 300 years, I think we’ll have gone past those problems, and we’ll be dealing with questions of what it means to be human when we’re 90% machine and 10% biological.)
Notes from The End of All Things at OryCon 35 – 2013 

Kat Kenyon

Karen Azinger
Nancy Kress
Ru Emerson
Richard A. Lovett
  • What makes a bad ending
    • A scene so preordained the reader anticipated it for 100 pages
    • A climax that happens offstage.
      • This happens before the end, but it’s the most important. The very ending is the mopping up.
    • A scene that is obvious.
      • It should seem both inevitable and yet not obvious
  • The book should wrap up on its own terms
    • It should feel satisfying on its own
    • Especially for a first time novelist — there’s no trust that you’ll wrap it up later. No guarantee that the next book will come.
  • The inciting incident suggests what the story problem is. And at the climax it should be resolved.
  • The marrying and the burying: this is what comes after the climax.
  • What is the cost of success for the protagonist?
    • it should cost your character something. An emotional cost to the choices they make. 
  • A writer’s secret weapon is theme.
    • The reader may or may not be able to articulate it. But if a book has no theme, the reader will say it doesn’t work.
    • Both the plot and the ending must involve the theme.
  • An action oriented book will have an action scene for its climax. The reader can see it coming. But there can often be an internal story was well (about the journey of the character, where they are moving to, what their shortcomings are.)
  • Dual arc story:
    • the arc of the situation
    • the arc of the character
    • the situation arc: the events of the story. it must affect the character, or the reader doesn’t care.
  • How to construct an ending both surprising and inevitable?
    • Plan for reversals
      • Even if the main story arc isn’t very surprising, other things will
      • There are betrayals, a surprise, a mystery.
      • Something that the reader didn’t see coming. So some is a surprise, and some seems expected.
    • Plant subtle clues ahead of time.
      • It leads to the sense of “oh, i should have known this was coming.”
  • What can go wrong now?
    • Then make it go wrong.
    • Then the character will be forced to change.
  • The choice ending…
    • As the reader progresses, it becomes obvious that the character is going to be forced to choose between two alternatives. Those alternatives become more obvious as the reader reads. But we don’t know which they’ll choose. The options should be roughly equally weighted.
Notes from One Lump or Two: How much Technology is Too Much?

Richard A. Lovett

Patrick Swenson
Gordon Eklund
Annie Bellet
David W. Goldman
  • How much science in a story for it to be science fiction?
    • RL: None! Science fiction is extrapolation from something. It’s based in reality. But it doesn’t need to be about science.
    • PS: My stories are about what-if… extrapolation about what we know now into the future. not just science, but our culture and society. But… cool science and cool tech goes a long way. My editor asked me to add more technology into the the early chapters to ground the reader. Happy to do that…required research on my part.
    • GE: Heinlein quote: the perfect science fiction story is a story that, at some point in the future, would just be a contemporary fiction story.
    • RL: Explain enough of the science so that people understand how it works. Work out a lot, but put the minimum necessary in the story.
    • PS: Consulting with (editor? scientist?), asked what was necessary: Don’t violate certain principles, and then hand wave the rest.
    • DG: You don’t need to explain what we don’t know (e.g. how a warp drive would work), but you do need to avoid explaining things in a way that violates what we do know (e.g. faster-than-light travel without special conditions).
    • DG: There are some stories that are about science. They’re about a specific scientific idea, and then a story is wrapped around it. But that’s the minority of all stories.
    • RL: Lots of research that doesn’t go into the book. Had to write a spreadsheet tracking oxygen consumption over 24 hours according to exercise levels of the protagonist. That doesn’t go into the book, but its there to make sure the science is right.
  • What makes a story age well or not with respect with technology?
    • The emotional arc of the story.
    • The story has to hold up without the technology.
    • Don’t put dates in story, because that really affects how people perceive it.
    • A lot of science fiction written during the cold war is about the soviet union: now it’s alternate history.
    • Older science fiction is a time capsule to the future of a different time.
    • Now matter how forward looking science fiction is, it’s always a commentary on the time in which it was written.
The Future of Publishing

Mike Shepherd / Moscoe – Traditionally published author

Linn Prentis – Literary Agent in Pacific Northwest
Tod McCoy – 
Liz Gorinsky – Editor at Tor Books
Peter Smalley – Indie published author
Phoebe Kitanidis – Ebook publisher and traditionally published YA author 
  • What are the threats to traditional publishing?
    • LG: The main issue is not ebooks or self-publishing but attention. The number of people buying and finishing books. How do we find and keep and communicate with readers?
      • Reading on screens – notifications pop up, getting an email to watch a youtube video. Many people complain that its harder to finish a novel. People get excited about interactive media on the web.
    • PS: A challenge to traditional publishing is the platform… People have multiple electronic devices and its a chore to move between them. The competition for attention is not just what form of entertainment we want, but the cost of moving to the platform where the books are.
      • MS/M: The counter to that is that if someone recommends a book, I can easily and immediately go buy it. So I’m more likely to buy a book.
  • Is the business changing?
    • LG: Absolutely. The challenge is getting readers in contact with our authors. The main job of editors is not editing. 60-70% of the time in the office is spent figuring out how to get books to readers, anything from managing blurbs to editing meta-data, etc. In the past, getting attention meant getting 12 traditional book reviews. Now it might mean two traditional reviews and fifty blog mentions.

Barge with shipping containers suspected
of being a floating data center owned by Google.
Credit: James Martin/CNET 

By now most of you have heard about the barges suspected to be Google’s floating data centers. CNET reported the first on Friday:

Something big and mysterious is rising from a floating barge at the end of Treasure Island, a former Navy base in the middle of San Francisco Bay. And Google’s fingerprints are all over it.

It’s unclear what’s inside the structure, which stands about four stories high and was made with a series of modern cargo containers. The same goes for when it will be unveiled, but the big tease has already begun. Locals refer to it as the secret project.

Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But after going through lease agreements, tracking a contact tied to the project on LinkedIn, talking to locals on Treasure Island, and consulting with experts, it’s all but certain that Google is the entity that is building the massive structure that’s in plain sight, but behind tight security.

Could the structure be a sea-faring data center? One expert who was shown pictures of the structure thinks so, especially because being on a barge provides easy access to a source of cooling, as well as an inexpensive source of power — the sea. And even more tellingly, Google was granted a patent in 2009 for a floating data center, and putting data centers inside shipping containers is already a well-established practice.

Barge seen in Portland, Maine with very similar structure.
Data center? Office space?
Credit: John Ewing/Portland Press Herald

They also reported another, nearly identical barge off the coast of Maine:

Now it seems as though Google may well have built a sister version of the project, and, according to the Portland Press Herald, it recently showed up in the harbor in Portland, Maine.

In both cases, the structures on both barges appear to be made from a number of shipping containers, many of which have small slats for windows, and each has one container that slants down to ground level at a 45-degree angle.

I wouldn’t be surprised that they’d build a floating data center, but I do wonder why the containers would have windows. Maybe it’s to make negotiating the interior easier when there’s no power. As much as I’d love to see it turn out to be a data center, I could also see it being temporary housing, or a proof of concept for a new way to building housing.

If it is a data center, there’s no word yet on whether they’ll be arming them with autonomous fighting robots.

The Last Firewall
Minus Four Paragraphs

By the time a novel is done, from rough first drafts until final proofing, I’ve read it close to twenty times. However, the one of the best reads is when it’s finally Done, with a capital D, Done. That’s when I get to read it as a reader, not a writer. It usually happens a few weeks after it’s been published. I get a paperback copy that’s not already spoken for, and I hole up in a comfy chair or couch and start reading.

That happened with The Last Firewall this past weekend, when I had four days at the beach with my family.

But I was shocked to find a missing page in the paperback — and in one of the most exciting scenes, no less. I’m so sorry for the mistake!

Most copies sold so far have been the Kindle version, but for the thirty or so folks who have the paperback, you’re holding what we can hope will someday be a rare collector’s copy. 🙂

I will get the paperback copy fixed as soon as possible (and will clean up the other smaller mistakes I found as well.) In the meanwhile, if you get to the bottom of page 151, in the bar fight scene, these are the four missing paragraphs you’re looking for:

      Knowing the robot used the visual channel to attack, she instead built a three-dimensional wireframe from street and security cameras, calculated the bot’s location, and pointed the muzzle in the direction of the window.

      The three-inch rocket whooshed out, guidance fins snapping into position. It exited the bar at two hundred miles per hour and twisted hard, gunning for the bot.

      Cat’s wireframe fuzzed out, right in the middle where the robot should be, and the rocket veered off. Her heart sank as it exploded against a neighboring building.

      “Catherine Matthews,” boomed the robot. “Surrender. You are surrounded. I am a military-grade combat bot. You cannot hope to succeed and we do not wish to harm you.”

Every once in a while, I read a book whose vision of the future makes me sit back and think Ah yes, this is how it will be. Accelerando by Charles Stross dealt with the acceleration of technological development. Daemon by Daniel Suarez depicted how a computer can manipulate the world around it.

Nexus and Crux, the two techothrillers from Ramez Naam, do that for neural implants, technology that provides an interface between our brains and the outside world.

I just read an advance review copy of Naam’s Crux, a sequel that follows tight on the heels of Nexus. (It will be available August 27th, but you can preorder a copy now on Amazon.) Both books revolve around a technology called Nexus, a nanotech drug that interfaces with the human brain. It allows a user to run apps in their brain, to exercise conscious control over their mood, augment their intelligence, and communicate telepathically with other Nexus users.

But even as this all-powerful technology improves the lives of millions by fixing debilitating mental illnesses, helping monks meditate, by facilitating more powerful group consciousness and thought, it is also restricted by governments, abused by criminals, and leads to power struggles.

Crux is an adrenaline filled ride through the near-term future. Set on a global stage in a near-future world where the United States tries to tight restricts technology through shadowy intelligence organizations, Nexus and Crux run the gamut of post-human technology: human-brain uploads, military body upgrades, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, but the definite star of the show is the Nexus drug and its impact on increasing the power of the human mind.

I recommend both books, although Crux won’t make sense without the setup of Nexus, so go read both. You’ll be left realizing the future will look much like Ramez Naam’s books, full of both beautiful and very scary possibilities.

Now that The Last Firewall is out, I’ve been asked what order to read the books in. There’s no one right answer, and that’s because each novel is a completely independent, self-contained story. They’re set in the same universe, have some shared characters and there is a chronological order, but you could pick up any book and enjoy it. That being said, here are my recommendations:

  • If you’re new to my science fiction, I suggest starting with The Last Firewall. If you love it, then go back and read Avogadro Corp, then A.I. Apocalypse, as prequels. There aren’t any huge spoilers, and The Last Firewall is the most accessible and polished of the three novels.
  • If you’re a stickler for reading things in chronological order, or if your job involves programming or supporting computers, then go ahead and start with Avogadro Corp, then A.I. Apocalypse, and finish with The Last Firewall.
  • And if you’ve already read Avogadro Corp and liked it, then read A.I. Apocalypse before you go on to The Last Firewall.

To get your copy, see the Where To Buy matrix.