Friday, 30 November 2018

This Is The Future We Used To Read About -- Edwin Rydberg

The future is here and it's everything, and nothing, like what we expected.

It's taken a while longer to get here than I thought it would back while watching the Jetsons as a kid, but the future I dreamed of is finally arriving. And now that it is, it's much more exciting and more frightening than I ever considered it might be. The ever-present connectedness and constant surveillance combined with rapid scientific and technological progress means this is both a thrilling and a frustrating time to be a science fiction writer (but it's a great time to be alive!).

Fifteen years ago, back before I began writing seriously, I started a far future story. Set one thousand years in the future, it featured technology such as cerebral-embedded computers, technology-based cyberpathic control, automated waste reclamation drones, clothing that could change colours based on the user's desires, tattoos with patterns linked to the owner's mood, and genetically engineered biological symbiotes that increased human strength, health, and longevity. Fast forward to the present and none of these seems out of range of modern technology. We could have them all by the end of the century — making the technology in my story seem hopelessly mundane.

Of course, it's not just science fiction that finds this a challenge. Police procedural (detective) stories are much more challenging to write. With mobile phones and ever-present CCTV cameras, authors are challenged to think around these technologies. Many, however, choose to avoid them altogether by setting their stories in the much simpler past.

Available now on Amazon!
But I suppose I'm a sucker for punishment, now that I've just released a far-future space fantasy adventure, where anything goes and I had almost no constraints during the writing (Game, Set, Deathmatch), I've gone and started a near future (25 years) mundane science fiction mystery story. No magi-tech. No aliens. Just a teen living a life in a country that could be possible a quarter of a century from now. That means not only attempting to integrate and anticipate technological developments, but also the social implications of them in life, the government, the classroom, and the home.

Already, since the first draft, I've discovered enough new developments to result in rethinking the background environment of the world. For example, a few technologies I've had to rework into my story:

The Terrafugia Transition, created by engineers
 from MIT is now accepting 'intents to purchase'
Flying Cars

For my story, autodrive cars have been redesigned from the traditional car into versions that are more generally functional, such as mobile living rooms or offices. However, I've completely neglected flying cars, which are due to enter the market in 2019.

An MIT start-up has created the Terrafugia Transition, a true personal flying car which is expected to be on the market early next year.
Uber plans to have flying taxi services in countries like
India, Japan, Brazil, and France within 5 years.

In addition, there are host of other groups working on flying cars, including a Russian start-up and the king of taxis, Uber, who have made it their goal to create flying taxi services in countries like India, Japan, Brazil, and France within five years.

This is a technology that has the chance of becoming big, and a big social issue, within twenty years.

True Global Communication

Currently, we have a surprisingly comprehensive coverage of the globe when it comes to mobile phone signals and the internet. However, it is nowhere near complete. Earlier this year Elon Musk discussed the progress of a global satellite network he calls Star-Link that will blanket the planet, creating a true global communications network. My discovery of this project turned out to be a great boon to my story as it allows one of the characters great access to the entirety of the global population.

However, the challenge with this type of technology in stories is that the secondary and tertiary effects, and their impact on societies, are so difficult to predict. No one anticipated mobile phones combined with social media would lead to a massive rise in the frequency, power, and adaptability of social activism and the proliferation of non-government-controlled fake news, or the flood of cute cat pictures.

A graphical representation of the perks and penalties
of getting a low social credit score in China
Hyper-Authoritarian States

Nor did anyone, prior to about 3 years ago, predict the nature of how an authoritarian state like China might use technology to socially engineer its population's behaviour.

By linking all national services to mobile apps, the Chinese government is experimenting with a social credit system where good behaviour is rewarded with benefits such as greater access to hotels, travel, better insurance, while bad behaviour can completely block you from all high-speed travel meaning you will be effectively trapped in the country.

If this is even remotely successful, we can expect variants of it to be applied to our own societies. Clearly, another new development that needed including in my story and it now forms the basis for the villain's actions in the second book of the trilogy.

Neural Interfacing with Computers

This is another project from the industrious Elon Musk, who has stated that to stay on par with the threat of Artificial General Intelligence, humans need a faster interface with their technology. He claims to already be working on a neural-link device that would speed up the ability for human communication with their devices.

My story, drafted just a year ago, originally featured a new add-on that sat behind the user's ear and interfaced with a subdermal implant. This was to be the precursor to the neural implants in the far future story, set in the same universe. However, Musk's neural-link changed everything, forcing me to rework the technology. The news isn't all bad, however, because the new version allows me to more easily account for one of the technological disasters that happens.

And there's more... always more...

That's just a small taste of the technological development happening right now that is changing the shape of our society, and hence the shape of our stories. There are, of course, many more. Things like the experiments in artificial intelligence being carried out by the big IT companies (and now the NHS), personal jetpacks (invented by a Brit!), rapid development in robotics and their use in the military (as well as adult industries), exoskeletons to aid workers or those recovering from accidents, genetic engineering of babies, realistic digital presidents, and the list goes on.

In the face of this great change, however, all the writer can do is the best research they can and then extrapolate past human behaviour into future human relations. While writing science fiction, I also find it helps to remember the words of Cory Doctorow who has described science fiction as an attempt to understand present challenges by extrapolating them into the future. In this perspective, it doesn't matter if my near future story will be factually accurate in twenty-five years, because to be relatable, what my story should truly be attempting to do is shed light on the issues that face us today.

Edwin H Rydberg is a science fiction author and a futurist.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Extra Time: N M Browne

So this is a post about still being here. Not In a depressing way, but in a grateful and optimistic way. 

To clarify, I recently had a birthday - not a big one by the usual reckoning - but a birthday that neither my father nor my aunt made and therefore a birthday of resonant, superstitious significance.
 From where I stand,  I am now in extra time, a sweet bonus period  that is full of desperate urgency. Extra time is never as long as a full game: it’s the bit at the end of a rugby game which is all about last chances, brave decisions, boldness justified by the proximity of the final whistle. Of course, it is also the bit that can change a game around, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and vice versa. It is a place of madness, and of occasional great performances.
I am heartened by that thought. It’s too late now to play it safe or to play the long game. There’s little point in playing for territory: it’s the time for a heroic run, ball in hand, for the line. I’m encouraged by the fact that I may be in extra time but I still want to win. I want to write great books, better books, braver books. I don’t have the endless forever that I felt I had in my thirties, but I am still hungry to work and grateful for the chance to still be working. My ‘to write’ list is as long as my ‘to edit’ which is long enough to keep me going for a good few years. It is simultaneously daunting and invigorating.
We make so much about the young, about the debut, about the new and I want to shout from the rooftops. That's great, fair play, but don't forget us too. Listen to us, the older, those of us who have been around a bit who know what we are doing and are pulsing with energy that comes from knowing that time is short but there is still everything to play for! Watch out. We are still on the field and running.  

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

On sunsets, bird poo and loo poetry, by Enid Richemont

This is the cover image of the last of my Early Reader books - I did four this year, with Franklin Watts, my publisher at Hachette, as part of their "Reading Champion" series. I love the colours - that wonderful 'sailing into the sunset' atmosphere, with the ogres' castle in the distance - but found the two animals rather strange, although Andy did his research and told me that there's a kind of Japanese dog that does look like that, so I have to believe him. And of course, this is a version of a well-known Japanese story - the story of Momotaro, the Peach Boy

Writing-wise, I have mixed feelings about these books, as the 'educational' requirement always mean that the text is fiddled with to fit the rules. In the past, I've always enjoyed working with editors - I worked with some brilliant ones, like Anne Carter, and the very eminent, but sadly deceased Wendy Boase, she of the Branford-Boase Prize. This, however, isn't creative editing - it's more like squeezing the words into the requisite mould.

Working with their illustrators, though, is always a joy. This was one of the first books I did with them. The theme - pigeon poo. The inspiration? Bird poo all over our windscreen, usually in Autumn when it was often coloured by the berries they'd been eating! The illustrator, Gwyneth Williamson, brought out so much of the humour in the story, adding some visual humour of her own, too. And of course, there were seeds in the poo, plus fertilizer, so lovely plants grew out of it. To my amazement, the book was translated into Arabic, which, given the subject matter, I found a bit surprising, but gratifying.

On "Easy Reading"...

"Easy Reading"  as opposed to what, exactly? A challenging struggle through a difficult text during which I have to back-pedal to remind myself of who is who, and what exactly is happening? And yet... the critics said it was brilliant.

The latest prize-winning "Easy Read" novel, recommended by friend -  took over my reading life for almost two days, but left me unsatisfied. I couldn't, later, believe in the protagonist, and found, in retrospect, that all the very many issue-related buttons the author had pressed predictable and irritating (and no, I will not name the book as it might be one of yours.) I can see why it grabbed people, though.

So back to the challenging read, the slow read, praised by the critics and still not finished, but... well, I'll have to go back to it because the main character was memorable, and the language beautiful. There were too many things happening at a detailed, snail's rate, and a voice inside my head yelling: Get on with the bloody story! But I'll have to go back to it because there are so many things I missed the first time round, which isn't finished yet. Yes, I'll have to go back to it.

And on beautiful writing - well, if you put me on a desert island with a limited book supply and presumably no power source, I'd go for poetry every time. The book on the right was picked up in a library sale decades ago, and then forgotten. I've recently re-discovered it, and it's magical. I was an art student in Eire, but I never picked up the language. This book has contemporary (then - the 80s) Irish poetry with English translations side by side, and even the translations echo the musicality of the original Gaelic. It's now become my loo book, doubling up as my bath book, which is a major compliment.

In a few weeks' time, I'll be having some fairly serious surgery, so I'm already setting things up in case of mishaps, which can occur. General anaesthetics are like mini-deaths, and how wonderful to go like that, not wake up, no pain, no suffering. In the meantime, and while I'm still alive, I'm sharing the first two chapters of my latest MG novel - comments and crits welcome. So far, no takers. It's called: "SAMI'S FLOWER."


No one talked much to Sami except his teacher.

There were groups in the playground, but Sami didn’t join them. There were games in the playground, but Sami didn’t play.

We must all be specially nice to Sami,” Mrs Williams had told them. “Because Sami’s own country has been having a war.”

Class Three had tried to be nice. They’d tried to be friendly. But Sami only scowled and wandered away.

Each day Sami’s mum came to fetch him. She wore a big flowered head scarf and stood all alone. But the minute she saw Sami, she rushed up to him and cuddled him.

The other boys began to snigger.

What a baby!” they whispered.

Never talks to us,” said Simon.

Never hangs around with us,” grumbled Liam.

Sami couldn’t understand the words, but he knew they didn’t like him, and each afternoon he was glad to go home.

Every day, Sami's mum went shopping in the little supermarket round the corner, where she didn't need words, because there were lots of pictures. Sometimes the bossy lady who'd found them somewhere to live went along too.

Mum would buy chick peas and beans, and rice, garlic and courgettes and peppers, oranges and dates, biscuits, sweets and tea.

Then, after supper, she and Sami would watch TV, and try to make sense of the stories.

At last, Mum would say, “Bedtime, Sami”, but bed-time was scary, because when Sami closed his eyes, he remembered things, and often the nasty dreams came.

Once again, Dad and Sami's big brother Rashid would go out, and not come back.

Then the bombs would start falling.

In a Top Secret Space lab, three very clever scientists - Maria, Ahmed and Steve - were working on very clever plants. Plants that could survive the Martian climate. Plants that needed very little soil. Plants you could have on a spaceship. Plants that might grow and grow.

The burglars who broke in didn't care about any of this. They only cared about the expensive laptops you could sell in the pub. They only cared about the money.

One of them picked up a shiny object inside a test tube. He thought it was pretty. He thought he might give it to his girlfriend, but when the alarm went off he threw it away, and the test tube shattered.

Now Sami had always liked looking at things on the ground, things other people never noticed. At home, he liked spotting just where the lizards disappeared into cracks. He liked watching small beetles riding over the little tufts of grass that grew between the paving stones. If you were tiny, like an insect, he thought, they'd feel like really huge gardens.
Sami's always walking with his head down,” Gran used to grumble. “Bad for his back.”

Your toes won't drop off, you know, if you stop looking at them, Sami,” teased Dad.

A real man walks upright,” said Sami's big brother, Rashid.

  Even in this cold, foreign land, Sami still found things to see, and think about, and find, down there, on the pavement. Once, he'd found a couple of coins. Once, he'd spotted a tiny mouse looking out of its hole.

Walk with your head up,” Mum kept saying. “Be proud.”
But I'm looking,” said Sami.

One day, walking home from school with Mum, Sami spotted a shiny thing in the gutter, so he picked it up.

Dirty,” said Mum. “Throw it away,”

There had been bits of broken glass around the shiny thing. One of them cut Sami's finger, making it bleed.

Home at once,” ordered Mum. She didn't notice Sami slipping the shiny thing into his pocket.

In the bathroom, they ran warm water over Sami's finger and covered it with a plaster. Later, in his room, Sami pulled on one of Mum's kitchen gloves, took out the thing he'd picked up and rinsed it in the sink. If it hadn't been so shiny, it looked a bit like a seed.

A very big seed


Tuesday, 27 November 2018

A Solid Gold Marketing Budget - Andrew Crofts

Image may contain: text

Browsing through the Financial Times a couple of Saturdays ago I was struck by a full-page colour ad for a couple of books by an author named Nobu Su. One was called “The Gold Man from the East” and the other “Dynasty Escape”. The imagery was very “James Bond” with a hint of infamous artist Banksy’s shredded million pound painting stunt a few months ago. All very sumptuous and eye-catching.

Nobu Su, it turns out, is a flamboyant shipping tycoon from Taiwan who believes he was badly ripped off by the banks in the 2008 crash and has written these books to tell his side of the story.

More interesting still, however, is his claim that he has invented a process whereby readers can “hire” the e-books from his nobu-store for a few weeks for a few dollars, after which they will disappear from their devices; a smart new take on the good old-fashioned library concept. You can even borrow a book for free for the first couple of hours, (if you are a fast enough reader).

Being something of a sucker for eccentric billionaires, and having an unendingly optimistic streak which keeps me searching for new ideas on how to market books, I decided to do some serious journalistic digging on behalf of Authors Electric – you are welcome.

To start with I had a peek at the FT’s rate card, which is extremely complicated and there is no way of knowing what deals might have been struck, but I can confidently guess that the ad cost several tens of thousands of pounds, (impressively detailed research, no?)

My next bit of googling revealed that Mr Su had hired Palamedes, one of the better known publishing PR companies in London, to handle the dissemination of his story. Anthony Harvison of Palamedes graciously returned my call and did his best to answer my questions. The ad in the FT is the full extent of the above-the-line advertising campaign but there has been a fair amount of editorial coverage in the regional press, some of it apparently promotional and emanating from a news agency with links to Palamedes.

There has also been a film made about Mr Su and his banking foes called “The Outsider”, which has received a review in the Guardian.

As an international image-raising campaign for Mr Su, it seems pretty effective, (if expensive), and if the “exploding book” technology takes off that too will be an interesting development for writers and publishers of all sorts. I have a feeling, however, that Mr Su is used to making and losing money on a very different scale to most of us in the publishing world and he may be disappointed with the amount of return he sees from actual book sales or rentals.

As a colourful tale of international business showmanship, however, the whole thing is hard to beat.      

Monday, 26 November 2018

Unprotected Texts and Safe Spaces By Dipika Mukherjee

The festival banner and book display, with heritage buildings reflected in glass.

The event is supposed to start at 10.30pm. At night. The blurb advertises:

Readings: Unprotected Text 

Join us for an intimate session of pegging the patriarchy, wild ‘super’ liberalisms and other kinks. Where words are used to express our deepest wants and desires. For mature audiences only.

Readers: Amir Muhammad, Ivan Coyote, Kyoko Yoshida, Regina Ibrahim, Shih-li Kow, Stephanie Dogfoot, William Yang
Hosted by: Pang Khee Teik

I am attending the Georgetown Literary Festival from November 22-25, 2018. This is Penang, where open-air food stalls feed hungry hordes well into the night; this is truly a food paradise. I expect most of the festival-goers to be gorging on char kway teow and penang laksa if they are up at all, and I walk into Gerakbudaya Penang's spacious bookshop at 10.25, not expecting a crowd.
The lovely interior of the bookshop

But there are people lined up on the stairs to Hikayat Blue, the event space. There are people congregated in the bookstore, still browsing, instead of getting into line. When I finally make it up the stairs and into the room, it is so packed with people that all tables are being removed and people are squished into the blue couches. There is a line of people seated on the ground, then the line creeps into the corners and crevices of the room to make room for the last stragglers. When a group comes in with a sign-language interpreter and the audience is cajoled to moving a little more, it all seems impossible, but this is Malaysia, boleh lah, everyone adjusts. 
Host Pang and Hikayat co-director Bettina welcoming the audience

Our host, Pang Khee Teik, takes the mike to begin the show. The first performer is Regina Ibrahim, a transgender writer, and begins with a strong rendition of  "Spanish Guitar", weaving music into the tale of  lost love. Ivan Coyote tells the story of two girls at the brink of sexual discovery and experimentation; the story is both hilarious and poignant. Shih-Li Kow spins a tale of love in the age of artificial intelligence, and Stephanie Dogfoot's poetry takes us into the world of pixellated sex when partners are continents away from each other. William Yang describes the eroticism of a deaf partner introducing himself by tracing the letters of his name on an upturned palm.

Amir Muhammad steals the show with his bilingual story tracing a doomed homosexual love affair; he plays with Malay/Indonesian phrases and puns in English, then ends by leaving an image so graphic that no one in the audience will ever see a favourite Malaysian drink in quite the same way again.

The performers for the evening are sometimes funny, sometimes rueful, but always real. Whether gay or straight or bisexual or undecided...all these stories speak of people trying to connect through love, and they touch us all.

Pang Khee Teik, the host, is a prominent LGBTI rights advocate. Despite a historic change of government on May 9 that brought a new party to power on the promise of a new more liberal Malaysia --Malaysia Baru-- the LGBTI community has faced greater challenges in the last six months than ever before. Two women were caned for attempting lesbian sex, the oldest gay club in the country was raided, and prominent politicians have spoken out strongly against the gay community. 

In August, Pang's photograph, along with that of another LGBTI activist, was taken down from an exhibition of portraits of prominent Malaysians at the behest of a Minister in the Prime Minister's department as they "promote the LGBT lifestyle which was against the policy of the Pakatan Harapan-led government."

The George Town Literary Festival won the Literary Festival Award at The London Book Fair in 2018, as it “stands out as a vibrant, diverse and brave festival that engages with a wide community of voices, speaking to the world from a complex region”. It is heartening to see festival director Bernice Chauly and her team continuing the tradition of creating a safe space for a diversity of voices despite Malaysia having some of the toughest censorship laws in the world. 

Tonight, in the room packed with people, writers prove once again that you don't have to shout to be heard. And that there is, indeed, space for us all.

Co-director Gareth in Hikayat Blue
 Gerakbudaya is a lovely bookshop is Penang, clearly committed to Asian writers as well as a diversity of views and voices.  Co-director Gareth Richards is planning to offer residencies for visiting writers, scheduling a series of podcasts, and opening up more event space. Penang already feels like an oasis of creativity and questioning in volatile Malaysia, and the continuing success of the Georgetown Literary Festival and the Gerakbudaya bookshop looks very promising indeed. 

Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer, sociolinguist, and global nomad. She has been a permanent resident of Malaysia for over two decades and has been mentoring Southeast Asian writing; in 2015, she founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia. She has edited five anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction.