Just Another War

A problem I did not anticipate to have, futurism seems to be my f-word. Time was, back when I was a nerdy young ‘un dissecting Back to the Future II and such, the thought of making my own canon would have been as exciting and purely positive as the thought of making my own cannon. What could possibly be not to like? Well, turns out…

I’ll dispense with the Merlinisms. But this was, of course, another chain of thought inspired by Roderick on the Line. The two discuss their country’s continuing descent into dystopic police state, foretold by futurists for more than a generation now. And what better pinnacle than the robot soldier? For when policing requires more munitions than a human touch.

Robots are one of those things on my Do Not Touch list. Why? Because I know no end to them. Artificial intelligence is the ultimate offender. Introduce the world to Skynet, and, well, your story’s over. It’s either crippling doom or singularity's descriptionless despair. Besides, neither floats my boat in the abstract. Another big one I must avoid is biological warfare. There's something about wastelands that just doesn't appeal to me. Although I suppose the B-Bomb might be a different story entirely if it were ever honed to the sharp precision where we could actually use it.

But robots are surely within imagination’s reach. They’re so almost within practical technology’s grasp, going by the drones we use to cause our needless ruckus nowadays instead of good old fashioned heavy bombers. What happens when we have armies without the need for blood?

Something changed after the Vietnam War. A little something called the draft. Not only America, but every “western” or “advanced” nation with a pretence to project its power abroad, has failed to stake an all out war since then. Every one of our endeavours has been strictly professional. Yet the big wars that history is made of were anything but. Where would the bloody first half of the twentieth century have been if all the millions had stayed at home? It has become impractical to mobilise like we used to. Volunteers are one thing, conscripts quite another.

All this changes quite completely, though, the moment you mention robots.

When loss is out the window, as well as free will, insubordination, and downright fear, you have a very different army. Not necessarily invincible, but one with patience beyond the political horizons that so often force concession in wars. You could, all too easily, wage wars eternal and far reaching; for less cost than the supposed “pinpoint strikes” that we like to kid ourselves we launch these days. You, and your counterparts pit against you, make a very different world.

One I don’t wish to dwell on, or to find a way out of besides my own assumption. I can’t say it won’t happen. Right now, I rather think it might. But for my story’s sake, pilots fly the ships, not computers. For the sense of pathos for the fight, sympathy for the enemy, and all of the above.

That’s the trouble with time. It’s so damn creative as to prove us all wrong, and right, in the long run. There’s no way around it. You must simply embrace the fact of your shelf life. Enjoy your place in quaint futures rendered obsolete.

Just don’t tell me. I forever put up quite a fight.

The Truth of the Green

With the president out of touch, Sun seeks a fair way out his bind.

"Field Marshal, all forces are now present and ready." Said Commander Glushkova on the virtual screen. "Awaiting orders."
“Excellent, Commander.” Said Sun, stroking his chin. “Orders are forthcoming.”

Sun turned to see Zadig, looking as impatient as ever. But the marshal held out his other hand, for a general beyond.

"Hello, minister," said Sun into the handheld, "sorry to disturb you."

The midsummer evening drew near in Buenos Aires. The military command had caught the defence minister near the end of his golf. He was far from Saint Petersburg thanks to protocol. Come calamity, there should always be a chain of command. His superiors were at the concert, with Yolanda.

"Whatever is the matter, Sun?" Said Ernesto, indignant at the bother. His friend grinned back at him from the course.
“Alpha, sir.” Said Sun, with an expecting smile.
“What! Where?”
“Here, sir. Above the Earth. He is not communicating.”
“Jesus.” Said the minister, heart racing as he ran his fingers along his brow. “I don’t know what to do. What is your status?”
“We have a defensive posture.” Said Sun. “We are deploying a moderate force to monitor him, and provide tactical options.”
“Oh god.” Said Ernesto, failing to conceal his panic from his onlookers. “You know how dangerous he is. What do want from me?”
“Well sir,” said Sun, looking up to Zadig, “the president authorised this alert. But now that she is unreachable…”
“Yes Sun!”
“I am requesting authorisation for a potential counterstrike, if we must commit it.”
“That’s a hell of question.” Said the minister, as Zadig’s face lit with horror. “I’m not briefed.”
“There may not be time.” Said Sun. “We must be ready to react in an instant. With him, there is no safety margin.”
“I understand.” Said Ernesto, dropping in tone. “I understand, believe me.”
“Well sir? If we must, do I have your authority?”
“Do it.”
“Aye sir.” Said Sun, punching the air. Zadig looked like he wanted to punch him.
“Sun, be careful. We have one chance. Do it right, and commit with maximum forces.”
“Yes sir.” Grinned Sun. “Maximum attack.”
“Do the Americans know the reason for our deployment?”
“I will inform my opposite number now.”
“Yeah, you do that.”

The defence minister felt the little slate trembling against his ear. He handed it back to his assistant, and didn’t dare to look her in the eye.

"Hey, Ernesto, are we playing or what?"
“Yes, Jason, pardon my interruption.”
“Christ, you look like shit!” Joked the United States defence secretary.
“Ah, about that…”

The secretary’s phone rang, in highest priority. He didn’t need to look, to know that his friend’s problem would be shared.

For a Scotsman, I know precious little about golf. So I’ll gladly spare the details of their game. But one specific I have issues with is the name and means of their communication. I’m clearly writing about phones. In three hundred years?

Well, some things we use that long. And don’t even get me started on the cameras and broadcast angle introduced just before. I presume we’ll still have a media by then, but is there any good in my guess?

Futurism is one of those rabbit holes I’m better not to go down. So I will just ignore the implications of every device that I mention in the story in passing, for the moment. All to get it done. And then to blunder my way into the unknowable.

As long as it works.


Iconographer Dave Brasgalla of The Iconfactory had a flashback when he first laid eyes on the latest trend to strike his field of work:

When I first saw the iOS 7 designs, it immediately put me in mind of a system of symbols developed by artist Ron Cobb for the 1979 film Alien. Amongst the many designs and concepts Cobb contributed to the film, we find a set of icons intended for use as industrial signage onboard the film’s space-going tug Nostromo. The Nostromo spaceship sets constructed for the film are famed for their immersive and thoughtful design, and were characterized by an absolutely amazing attention to detail. Cobb’s Semiotic Standard iconography is visible throughout the film, a subtle touch of world-building that bolsters the perceived reality of the setting.

Semiotic Standard: now there’s a name! And there’s a fine piece of design to answer the problem inherent in any blank canvas: whatever to fill it with? When making worlds, be they microcosms or planets entire, that first step is the most daunting one. Just as in real life, here on our own world, the answer is design.

They’re a fine set of icons, well worth checking out.

Inches to the Moon

Unlike our own time, space is forever getting smaller come the age of my book. Such progress is a necessity for writing stories about the stars, and it’s a dream I enjoy to make, besides. Not just that we will one day watch the double sunrise at Alpha Centauri, or see Sirius off the shoulder of Orion, but that we will go ever farther, ever faster, into this almighty chasm of a cosmos in which we find ourselves, transcending limits entirely.

So rather than take our one and only spacefaring civilisation as read, and putter about as though things had always been this way, I’d rather keep the accelerating speed of speed in sight throughout my future history. Not as fast as some have seen, but there, and wholly literal.

I had this in mind back when I started Proteus. So says Marie Chen, a pioneering interstellar astronaut of the late 22nd century, and discoverer of Andala:

The journey to the Pleiades was a big ask for us. Robin and Kingston were old hands with more than that many lightyears already on the clock, but Mina had only been out as far as Barnard’s Star, and I’d never been past Saturn!

Proteus Part I

Things were moving fast right then. Proteus flew to the Pleiades in the midst of an age of spacefaring discovery. A better space age than ours, to say the least! The horizon was racing away from us as we drew the lines in the sky from star to star, and world to world. Superlight, a crucial technology for going so far, was advancing leaps and bounds with every passing year. What was once beyond our wildest hope was the starting point for the next step, not long later.

Indeed, I’m still to grapple with this sheer acceleration spells for later ships catching up on Proteus while the mission is still in progress. It does take Marie and company more than a decade, after all. I’ll give it some thought, and note that “ships” of any kind we make, now and then, are so small between the stars as to be more than easily lost in unexplored space. Not least when still shackled to lightspeed in one vital part.

In the underlying narrative of a Moore’s Law-like speeding march of progress, Marie’s time is already a relic from the perspective of Alpha’s present. Her admission that she’d never been beyond Saturn, a mere light hour or two away from home, would only ever seem more absurd. Like an astronaut who’s barely left the ground. And yet there she went, on what was ultimately our most significant of all missions. Forgive me if I spend the time I do on telling it, so that my characters themselves don’t have to.

Anyway, what about regular life in 2301? What is the going rate for everyday, mundane space travel by then?

I reckon that you’d have to go out of your way not to jaunt about the solar system quite a bit. The flight to Saturn, its rings and Titan, wouldn’t be much different in scope to a short plane ride today. And Mars would be the simplest of roadtrips, without so much a road as an airlane. Well, I should work out the scale for myself really, but I’m quite sure that Christopher would be fairly well travelled merely by his parents influence. They’re quite involved in all of that, after all. Indeed, they even live in low earth orbit, for tax purposes and my own desired grandstand view!

While riding in Dalmeny, looking out to the Forth, I got an idea. The islands out in the estuary are called the Inches. One of them, Inchmickery, is still dressed in its First World War camoflage as a battleship, to scare submarines off the nearby target of the Forth Bridge and docks. Its gnarly outline is a permanent fixture on the north skyline of town. Seeing it through the woods beside the shore, I realised how close it was in comparison to Fife beyond, and just how small we are on the globe. How about naming a ship after it? And how about that ship being Christopher’s school’s own little runabout?

And so it is. The jolly old Inch Mick is the solar system shuttle of the local school. One with a fancy name and many centuries history already. But I’ll spare you my future plans for my little old alma mater, for now at least.

Not So Much the Think of it, But the Feel of it

Sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it, but in the feel of it.
—Stanley Kubrick

I got that quote from John Gruber, who’s understandably fond of it. Kubrick grasped a lot of the big ideas in life, at a vital level, and wasn’t the least afraid to use them. He’s one of those visionary minds I take notice of the most. His work will last countless generations to come, I think. What better is there to achieve in art than that? The ultimate expression of a deep humanity.

I’ve so much still to do.

It’s never a good sign when a writer gets all caught up in keyboards. I’ve been on a bit of an odyssey into those this year. Again, an idea placed in my mind by Gruber some years ago, which lay dormant until now. I shan’t blame him. They do matter, to an extent. And I’ve found the other tools he’s involved with to be thoroughly useful indeed. Like many doing their work online where it should be these days, all my writing is in Markdown: Mr. Gruber’s own creation. I shudder to think of the old ways in anything but universal plain text, when work would be lost as surely as tears go amiss in rain.

So, I have here before me a very fine keyboard indeed. Can you tell the difference yet? Surely not! But I do. It’s a fancypants Japanese model by a company none but keyboard nerds have heard of, but is well regarded indeed by them: Topre. I’ll not bore you with my full review of it, which would sound suspiciously fetishistic and jargon filled. The ultimate point is simply how it feels. Like Kubrick said, if not really quite what he meant!

I only have this keyboard for a week. Fresh from Montpellier, it’s off to Wales next, part of a wonderful little tour for those of us in the know. I do like it. But I’m used to louder things which sound like your words are under construction by an impressive industrial process while you type, so I’m already spoiled. Not that keyboards have ever truly held me back from writing. You’d be surprised how much here is drafted on a touch screen, which brings me to my point.

Just before my deep dive into keyboards started, I wrote something presuming their obsolescence. Typical of me to think both things at once! I still do quite suspect that tactile, finger friendly, and purposefully precise paraphernalia like pens and physical, let alone “mechanical”, keyboards are destined to the same fate as the monocle in good time. Just like the typewriter. There’s so much so obviously against them, their weight and their single purpose, that touch screens today and projections tomorrow simply obviate. As with so much in life, all it takes is a new generation to forget the old way entirely. That thing we always do.

But I’m forgetting something. All futurism is about today. It’s not so much the glorious mechanisms, springs and sliders of these newly noticed keyboards of mine that matters, as the sense of belonging in a group of people who do likewise. As nice as this Topre Realforce is, it’s the connection between the far flung fellows who have tried it that counts for something more than fine plastic.

As the resident nerd in my story, and ever since its inception my clearest self-identifying character, Alexander just might make a decent snob. Perhaps he’ll even have an actual keyboard all his own, no matter quite how quaint that would be by then. More broadly, though, I like the idea of a interface enthusiast, a low tech connoisseur, who knows and values good knobfeel when he finds it. What better way to describe the occasional detail of a messy future world than through the eye of just as much an oddball as me? I’ll try to keep a lid on this, but beware I will enjoy my guilty little pleasure in any case.

It’s the feel of it, I tell you.