Tags: 2e

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Monday, August 23rd, 2021

Checked in at The Crown and Shuttle. Beer in the beer garden — with Jessica map

Checked in at The Crown and Shuttle. Beer in the beer garden — with Jessica

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

Checked in at The Hartington. Tantek’s last night in England — with Jessica, Tantek map

Checked in at The Hartington. Tantek’s last night in England — with Jessica, Tantek

Saturday, June 26th, 2021

Checked in at Tonkotsu. Eating ramen outside — with Jessica map

Checked in at Tonkotsu. Eating ramen outside — with Jessica

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

Sci-fi and Me

A talk about my personal relationship with science fiction literature, delivered at Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious series in June 2021.

I’m going to talk about sci-fi, in general. Of course, there isn’t enough time to cover everything, so I’ve got to restrict myself.

First of all, I’m just going to talk about science fiction literature. I’m not going to go into film, television, games, or anything like that. But of course, in the discussion, I’m more than happy to talk about sci-fi films, television, and all that stuff. But for brevity’s sake, I thought I’ll just stick to books here.

Also, I can’t possibly give an authoritative account of all of science fiction literature, so it’s going to be very subjective. I thought what I can talk about is myself. In fact, it’s one of my favourite subjects.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk about sci-fi and me.

So, let me tell you about my childhood. I grew up in a small town on the south coast of Ireland called Cobh. Here it is. It’s very picturesque when you’re looking at it from a distance. But I have to say, growing up there (in the 1970s and 1980s), there really wasn’t a whole lot to do.

There was no World Wide Web at this point. It was, frankly, a bit boring.

But there was one building in town that saved me, and that was this building here in the town square. This is the library. It was inside the library (amongst the shelves of books) that I was able to pass the time and find an escape.

It was here that I started reading the work, for example, of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer. He’s also a science writer. He wrote a lot of books. I think it might have even been a science book that got me into Isaac Asimov.

I was a nerdy kid into science, and I remember there was a book in the library that was essays and short stories. There’d be an essay about science followed by a short story that was science fiction, and it would keep going like that. It was by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed those science fiction stories as much as the science, so I started reading more of his books, books about galactic empires, books about intelligent robots, detective stories but set on other planets.

There was a real underpinning of science to these books, hard science, in Isaac Asimov’s work. I enjoyed it, so I started reading other science fiction books in the library. I found these books by Arthur C. Clarke, which were very similar in some ways to Isaac Asimov in the sense that they’re very grounded in science, in the hard science.

In fact, the two authors used to get mistaken for one another in terms of their work. They formed an agreement. Isaac Asimov would graciously accept a compliment about 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clarke would graciously accept a compliment about the Foundation series.

Anyway, so these books, hard science fiction books, I loved them. I was really getting into them. There were plenty of them in the local library.

The other author that seemed to have plenty of books in the local library was Ray Bradbury. This tended to be more short stories than full-length novels and also, it was different to the Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in the sense that it wasn’t so much grounded in the science. You got the impression he didn’t really care that much about how the science worked. It was more about atmosphere, stories, and characters.

These were kind of three big names in my formative years of reading sci-fi. I kind of went through the library reading all of the books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.

Once I had done that, I started to investigate other books that were science fiction (in the library). I distinctly remember these books being in the library by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. I read them and I really enjoyed them. They are terrific books.

These, again, are different to the hard science fiction of something like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. There were questions of politics and gender starting to enter into the stories.

Also, I remember there were two books by Alfred Bester, these two books, The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger! (also called The Stars My Destination). These were just wild. These were almost psychedelic.

I mean they were action-packed, but also, the writing style was action-packed. It was kind of like reading the Hunter S. Thompson of science fiction. It was fear and loathing in outer space.

These were opening my mind to other kinds of science fiction, and I also had my mind opened (and maybe warped) by reading the Philip K. Dick books that were in the library. Again, you got the impression he didn’t really care that much about the technology or the science. It was all about the stuff happening inside people’s heads, questioning what reality is.

At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet done any drugs. But reading Philip K. Dick kind of gave me a taste, I think, of what it would be like to do drugs.

These were also names that loomed large in my early science fiction readings: Ursula K. Le Guin, Alfred Bester, and Philip K. Dick.

Then there were the one-offs in the library. I remember coming across this book by Frank Herbert called Dune, reading it, and really enjoying it. It was spaceships and sandworms, but also kind of mysticism and environmentalism, even.

I remember having my tiny little mind blown by reading this book of short stories by Fredric Brown. They’re kind of like typical Twilight Zone short stories with a twist in the tale. I just love that.

I think a lot of science fiction short stories can almost be the natural home for it because there is one idea explored fairly quickly. Short stories are really good for that.

I remember reading stories about the future. What would the world be like in the year 1999? Like in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! A tale of overpopulation that we all had to look forward to.

I remember this book by Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was kind of a book about the long now (civilisations rising and falling). Again, it blew my little mind as a youngster and maybe started an interest I have to this day in thinking long-term.

So, this is kind of the spread of the science fiction books I read as a youngster, and I kept reading books after this. Throughout my life, I’ve read science fiction.

I don’t think it’s that unusual to read science fiction. In fact, I think just about anybody who reads has probably read science fiction because everyone has probably read one of these books. Maybe they’ve read Brave New World or 1984, some Kurt Vonnegut like Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sirens of Titan, the Margaret Atwood books like The Handmaid’s Tale, or Kazuo Ishiguro books.

Now, a lot of the time the authors of these books who are mainstream authors maybe wouldn’t be happy about having their works classified as sci-fi or science fiction. The term maybe was a little downmarket, so sometimes people will try to argue that these books are not science fiction even though clearly the premise of every one of these books is science fictional. But it’s almost like these books are too good to be science fiction. There’s a little bit of snobbishness.

Brian Aldiss has a wonderful little poem, a little couplet to describe this attitude. He said:

“SF is no good,” they cry until we’re deaf.
“But this is good.”
“Well, then it’s not SF!”

Recently, I found out that there’s a term for these books by mainstream authors that cross over into science fiction, and these are called slipstream books. I think everyone at some point has read a slipstream science fiction book that maybe has got them interested in diving further into science fiction.

What is sci-fi?

Now, the question I’m really skirting around here is, what is sci-fi? I’m not sure I can answer that question.

Isaac Asimov had a definition. He said it’s that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology. I think that’s a pretty good description of his books and the hard science fiction books of Arthur C. Clarke. But I don’t think that that necessarily describes some of the other authors I’ve mentioned, so it feels a little narrow to me.

Pamela Sargent famously said that science fiction is the literature of ideas. There is something to that, like when I was talking about how short stories feel like a natural home for sci-fi because you’ve got one idea, you explore it in a short story, and you’re done.

But I also feel like that way of phrasing science fiction as the literature of ideas almost leaves something unsaid, like, it’s the literature of ideas as opposed to plot, characterisation, and all this other kind of stuff that happens in literature. I always think, why not both? You know. Why can’t we have ideas, plot, characters, and all the other good stuff?

Also, ideas aren’t unique to sci-fi. Every form of literature has to have some idea or there’s no point writing the book. Every crime novel has to have an idea behind it. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great definition either.

Maybe the best definition came from Damon Knight who said sci-fi is what we point to when we say it. It’s kind of, “I know it when I see it,” kind of thing. I think there’s something to that.

Any time you come up with a definition of sci-fi, it’s always hard to drive hard lines between sci-fi and other adjacent genres like fantasy. They’re often spoke about together, sci-fi and fantasy. I think I can tell the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, but I can’t describe the difference. I don’t think there is a hard line.

Science fiction feels like it’s looking towards the future, even when it isn’t. Maybe the sci-fi story isn’t actually set in the future. But it feels like it’s looking to the future and asking, “What if?” whereas fantasy feels like it’s looking to the past and asking, “What if?” But again, fantasy isn’t necessarily set in the past, and science fiction isn’t necessarily set in the future.

You could say, “Oh, well, science fiction is based on science, and fantasy is based on magic,” but any sci-fi book that features faster than light travel is effectively talking about magic, not science. So, again, I don’t think you can draw those hard lines.

There are other genres that are very adjacent and cross over with sci-fi and fantasy, like horror. You get sci-fi horror, fantasy horror. What about any mainstream book that has magical realism to it? You could say that’s a form of fantasy or science fiction.

Ultimately, I think this question, “What is sci-fi?” is a really interesting question if you’re a publisher. It’s probably important for you to answer this question if you are a publisher. But if you are a reader, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important a question.

What is sci-fi for?

There’s another question that comes on from this, which is, “What is sci-fi for? What’s its purpose?” Is it propaganda for science, almost like the way Isaac Asimov is describing it?

Sometimes, it has been used that way. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was almost like a way of getting people into science. Reading science fiction certainly influenced future careers in science, but that feels like a very limiting way to describe a whole field of literature.

Is sci-fi for predicting the future? Most sci-fi authors would say, “No, no, no.” Ray Bradbury said, “I write science fiction not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” But there is always this element of trying to ask what if and play out the variables into the future.

Frederik Pohl said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” which is kind of a nice way of looking at how it’s not just prediction.

Maybe thinking about sci-fi as literature of the future would obscure the fact that actually, most science fiction tends to really be about today or the time it’s published. It might be set in the future but, often, it’s dealing with issues of the day.

Ultimately, it’s about the human condition. Really, so is every form of literature. So, I don’t think there’s a good answer for this either. I don’t think there’s an answer for the question, “What is sci-fi for?” that you could put all science fiction into.

Sci-fi history

Okay, so we’re going to avoid the philosophical questions. Let’s get down to something a bit more straightforward. Let’s have a history of science fiction and science fiction literature.

Caveats again: this is going to be very subjective, just as, like, my history. It’s also going to be a very Western view because I grew up in Ireland, a Western country.

Where would I begin the history of science fiction? I could start with the myths and legends and religions of most cultures, which have some kind of science fiction or fantasy element to them. You know, the Bible, a work of fantasy.

1818

But if I wanted to start with what I would think is the modern birth of the sci-fi novel, I think Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus could be said to be the first sci-fi novel and invents a whole bunch of tropes that we still use to this day: the mad scientist meddling with powers beyond their control.

It’s dealing with electricity, and I talked about how sci-fi is often about topics of the day, and this is when electricity is just coming on the scenes. There are all sorts of questions about the impact of electricity and science fiction is a way of exploring this.

Talking about reanimating the dead, also kind of talking about artificial intelligence. It set the scene for a lot of what was to come.

1860s, 1880s

Later, in the 19th Century, in the 1860s, and then the 1890s, we have these two giants of early science fiction. In France, we have Jules Verne, and he’s writing books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, these adventure stories with technology often at the Centre of them.

Then in England, we have H.G. Wells, and he’s creating entire genres from scratch. He writes The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Over in America, you’ve got Edgar Allan Poe mostly doing horror, but there’s definitely sci-fi or fantasy aspects to what he’s doing.

1920s, 1930s

Now, as we get into the 20th Century, where sci-fi really starts to boom – even though the term doesn’t exist yet – is with the pulp fiction in the 1920s, 1930s. This is literally pulp paper that cheap books are written on. They were cheap to print. They were cheap for the authors, too. As in, the authors did not get paid much. People were just churning out these stories. There were pulp paperbacks and also magazines.

Hugo Gernsback, here in the 1920s, he was the editor of Amazing Stories, and he talked about scientification stories. That was kind of his agenda.

Then later, in the 1930s, John W. Campbell became the editor of Astounding Stories. In 1937, he changed the name of it from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. This is when the term really comes to prominence.

He does have an agenda. He wants stories grounded in plausible science. He wants that hard kind of science.

What you have here, effectively, is yes the genre is getting this huge boost, but also you’ve got gatekeepers. You’ve got two old, white dude gatekeepers kind of deciding what gets published and what doesn’t. It’s setting the direction.

1940s, 1950s

What happens next, though, is that a lot of science fiction does get published. A lot of good science fiction gets published in what’s known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. This, it turns out, is when authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Heinlein are publishing those early books I was reading in the library. I didn’t realise it at the time, but they were books from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

This tended to be the hard science fiction. It’s grounded in technology. It’s grounded in science. There tend to be scientific explanations for everything in the books.

1960s, 1970s

It’s all good stuff. It’s all enjoyable. But there’s an interesting swing of the pendulum in the 1960s and ’70s. This swing kind of comes from Europe, from the UK. This is known as the New Wave. That term was coined by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds magazine that he was the editor of.

It’s led by these authors like Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard where they’re less concerned with outer space and they’re more concerned with inner space: the mind, language, drugs, the inner world. It’s some exciting stuff, quite different to the hard science that’s come before.

Like I say, it started in Europe, but then there was also this wave of it in America, broadening the scope of what sci-fi could be. You got less gatekeeping and you got more new voices. You got Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delaney expanding what sci-fi could be.

1980s

That trend continued into the 1980s when you began to see the rise of authors like Octavia Butler who, to this day, has a huge influence on Afrofuturism. You’re getting more and more voices. You’re getting a wider scope of what science fiction could be.

I think the last big widening of sci-fi happened in the 1980s with William Gibson. He practically invented (from scratch) the genre of cyberpunk. If Mary Shelley was concerned with electricity then, by the 1980s, we were all concerned with computers, digital networks, and technology.

The difference with cyberpunk is where the Asimov story or Clarke story might be talking about someone in a position of power (a captain or an astronaut) and how technology impacts them, cyberpunk is kind of looking at technology at the street level when the street finds its own uses for things. That was expanded into other things as well.

After the 1980s, we start to get the new weird. We get people like Jeff Noon, China Mieville, and Jeff VanderMeer writing stuff. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Who knows?

Today

Which brings us up to today. Today, we have, I think, a fantastic range of writers writing a fantastic range of science fiction, like Ann Leckie with her Imperial Radch stories, N.K. Jemisin with the fantastic Broken Earth trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee writing Machineries of Empire, and Ted Chiang with terrific short stories and his collections like Exhalation. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, we look back on now as a true Golden Age of Science Fiction where it is wider, there are more voices and, frankly, more interesting stories.

Sci-fi subjects

Okay, so on the home stretch, I want to talk about the subjects of science fiction, the topics that sci-fi tends to cover. I’m going to go through ten topics of science fiction, list off what the topic is, name a few books, and then choose one book to represent that topic. It’s going to be a little tricky, but here we go.

Planetary Romance

Okay, so planetary romance is a sci-fi story that’s basically set on a single planet where the planet is almost like a character: the environment of the planet, the ecosystem of the planet. This goes back a long way. The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter of Mars were kind of early planetary romance and even spawned a little sub-genre of Sword and Planet*.

Brian Aldiss did a terrific trilogy called Helliconia, a series where the orbits of a star system are kind of the driving force behind the stories that take place over generations.

Philip Jose Farmer did this fantastic series (the Riverworld series). Everyone in history is reincarnated on this one planet with a giant river spanning it.

If I had to pick one planetary romance to represent the genre, I am going to go with a classic. I’m going to go with Dune by Frank Herbert. It really is a terrific piece of work.

All right.

Space Opera

Space opera, the term was intended to denigrate it but, actually, it’s quite fitting. Space opera is what you think of when you think of sci-fi. It’s intergalactic empires, space battles, and good rip-roaring yarns. You can trace it back to these early works by E.E. ’Doc’ Smith. It’s the good ol’ stuff.

Space opera has kind of fell out of favour for a while there, but it started coming back in the last few decades. It got some really great, hard sci-fi space opera by Alastair Reynolds and, more recently, Yoon Ha Lee with Ninefox Gambit – all good stuff.

But if I had to pick one space opera book to represent the genre, I’m going to go with Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It is terrific. It’s like taking Asimov, Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the best of all of them, and putting them all into one series – great stuff.

Generation starships

Now, in space opera, generally, they come up with some way of being able to travel around the galaxy in a faster than light, warp speed, or something like that, which makes it kind of a fantasy, really.

If you accept that you can’t travel faster than light, then maybe you’re going to write about generation starships. This is where you accept that you can’t zip around the galaxy, so you have to take your time getting from star system to star system, which means it’s multiple generations.

Brian Aldiss’s first book was a generation starship book called Non-Stop. But there’s one book that I think has the last word on generation starships, and it’s by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is Aurora. I love this book, a really great book. Definitely the best generation starship book there is.

Utopia

All right. What about writing about utopias? Funnily enough, not as many utopias as there are the counterpart. Maybe the most famous utopias in recent sci-fi is from Ian M. Banks with his Culture series. The Culture is a socialist utopia in space post-scarcity. They’re great space opera galaxy-spanning stuff.

What’s interesting, though, is most of the stories are not about living in a utopia because living in a post-scarcity utopia is, frankly, super boring. All the stories are about the edge cases. All the stories are literally called special circumstances.

All good fun, but the last word on utopian science fiction must go to Ursula Le Guin with The Dispossessed. It’s an anarcho-syndicalist utopia – or is it? It depends on how you read it.

I definitely have some friends who read this like it was a manual and other friends who read it like it was a warning. I think, inside every utopia, there’s a touch of dystopia, and dystopias are definitely the more common topic for science fiction. Maybe it’s easier to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” than to ask, “What’s the best that can happen?”

Dystopia

A lot of the slipstream books would be based on dystopias like Margaret Atwood’s terrific The Handmaid’s Tale. I remember being young and reading (in that library) Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury, a book about burning books – terrific stuff.

But I’m going to choose one. If I’m going to choose one dystopia, I think I have to go with a classic. It’s never been beat. George Orwell’s 1984, the last word on dystopias. It’s a fantastic work, fantastic piece of literature.

I think George Orwell’s 1984 is what got a lot of people into reading sci-fi. With me, it almost went the opposite. I was already reading sci-fi. But after reading 1984, I ended up going to read everything ever written by George Orwell, which I can highly recommend. There’s no sci-fi, but a terrific writer.

Post-apocalypse

All right. Here’s another topic: a post-apocalypse story. You also get pre-apocalypse stories like, you know, there’s a big asteroid coming or there’s a black hole in the Centre of the Earth or something, and how we live out our last days. But, generally, authors tend to prefer post-apocalyptic settings, whether that’s post-nuclear war, post environmental catastrophe, post-plague. Choose your disaster and then have a story set afterward.

J. G. Ballard, he writes stories about not enough water, too much water, and I think it’s basically he wants to find a reason to put his characters in large, empty spaces because that’s what he enjoys writing about.

Very different, you’d have the post-apocalyptic stories of someone like John Wyndham, somewhat derided by Brian Aldiss’s cozy catastrophes. Yes, the world is ending, but we’ll make it back home in time for tea.

At the complete other extreme from that, you would have something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is relentlessly grim tale of post-apocalypse.

I almost picked Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy for the ultimate post-apocalyptic story, and it’s really great stuff post-plague, genetically engineered plague – very timely.

But actually, even more timely – and a book that’s really stayed with me – is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell. Not just because the writing is terrific and it is a plague book, so, yes, timely, but it also tackles questions like: What is art for? What is the human condition all about?

Artificial intelligence

All right. Another topic that’s very popular amongst the techies, artificial intelligence, actual artificial intelligence, not what we in the tech world called artificial intelligence, which is a bunch of if/else statements.

Stories of artificial intelligence are also very popular in slipstream books from mainstream authors like recently we had a book from Ian McEwan. We had a new book from Kazuo Ishiguro tackling this topic.

But again, I’m going to go back to the classic, right back to my childhood, and I’ll pick I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, where he first raises this idea of three laws of robotics – a word he coined, by the way, robotics from the Czech word for robot.

These three laws are almost like design principles for artificial intelligence. All the subsequent works in this genre kind of push at those design principles. It’s good stuff. Not to be confused with the movie with the same name.

First contact

Here’s another topic: first contact with an alien species. Well, sometimes the first contact doesn’t go well and the original book on this is H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Every other alien invasion book since then has kind of just been a reworking of The War of the Worlds. It’s terrific stuff.

For more positive views on first contact stories, Arthur C. Clarke dives into books like Childhood’s End. In Rendezvous with Rama, what’s interesting is we don’t actually contact the alien civilisation but we have an artifact that we must decode and get information from. It’s good stuff.

More realistically, though, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is frustrating because it’s realistic in the sense that we couldn’t possibly understand an alien intelligence. In the book – spoiler alert – we don’t.

For realism set in the world of today, Carl Sagan’s book Contact is terrific. Well worth a read. It really tries to answer what would a first contact situation look like today.

But I’ve got to pick one first contact story, and I’m actually going to go with a short story, and it’s Stories of Your Life by Ted Chaing. I recommend getting the whole book and reading every short story in it because it’s terrific.

This is the short story that the film Arrival was based on, which is an amazing piece of work because I remember reading this fantastic short story and distinctly thinking, “This is unfilmable. This could only exist in literature.” Yet, they did a great job with the movie, which bodes well for the movie of Dune, which is also being directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Time travel

All right. Time travel as a topic. I have to say I think that time travel is sometimes better handled in media like TV and movies than it is in literature. That said, you’ve got the original time travel story. Again, H.G. Wells just made this stuff from scratch, and it really holds up. It’s a good book. I mean it’s really more about class warfare than it is about time travel, but it’s solid.

Actually, I highly recommend reading a nonfiction book called Time Travel by James Gleick where he looks at the history of time travel as a concept in both fiction and in physics.

You’ve got some interesting concepts like Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, which, as is the premise, time-traveling serial killer, which is a really interesting mashup of genres. You’ve got evidence showing up out of chronological sequence.

By the way, this is being turned into a TV show as we speak, as is The Peripheral by William Gibson, a recent book by him. It’s terrific.

What I love about this, it’s a time travel story where the only thing that travels in time is information. But that’s enough with today’s technology, so it’s like a time travel for remote workers. Again, very timely, as all of William Gibson’s stuff tends to be.

But if I’ve got to choose one, I’m going to choose Kindred by Octavia Butler because it’s just such as a terrific book. To be honest, the time travel aspect isn’t the Centre of the story but it’s absolutely worth reading as just a terrific, terrific piece of literature.

Alternative history

Now, in time travel, you’ve generally got two kinds of time travel. You’ve got the closed-loop time travel, which is kind of like a Greek tragedy. You try and change the past but, in trying to change it, you probably bring about the very thing you were trying to change. The Shining Girls were something like that.

Or you have the multiverse version of time travel where going back in time forks the universe, and that’s what The Peripheral is about. That multiverse idea is explored in another subgenre, which is alternative history, which kind of asks, “What if something different had happened in history?” and then plays out the what-if from there. Counterfactuals, they’re also known as.

I remember growing up and going through the shelves of that library in Cobh, coming across this book, A Transatlantic Tunnel. Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. It’s set in a world where the American War of Independence failed and now it’s the modern-day. The disgraced descendant of George Washington is in charge of building a transatlantic tunnel for the British Empire.

That tends to be the kind of premise that gets explored in alternative history is what if another side had won the war. There’s a whole series of books set in a world where the South won the Civil War in the United States.

For my recommendation, though, I’m going to go with The Man in the High Castle, which is asking what if the other side won the war. In this case, it’s WWII. It’s by Philip K. Dick. I mean it’s not my favourite Philip K. Dick book, but my favourite Philip K. Dick books are so unclassifiable, I wouldn’t be able to put them under any one topic, and I have to get at least one Philip K. Dick book in here.

Cyberpunk

A final topic and, ooh, this is a bit of a cheat because it’s not really a topic – it’s a subgenre – cyberpunk. But as I said, cyberpunk deals with the topic of computers or networked computers more specifically, and there’s some good stuff like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Really ahead of its time. It definitely influenced a lot of people in tech.

Everyone I know that used to work in Linden Lab, the people who were making Second Life, when you joined, you’re basically handled Snow Crash on your first day and told, “This is what we’re trying to build here.”

But if I’ve got to pick one cyberpunk book, you can’t beat the original Neuromancer by William Gibson. Just terrific stuff.

What’s interesting about cyberpunk is, yes, it’s dealing with the technology of computers and networks, but it’s also got this atmosphere, a kind of noir atmosphere that William Gibson basically created from scratch. Then a whole bunch of other genres spun off from that asking, “Well, what if we could have a different atmosphere?” and explore stories like steampunk. It’s kind of like, “Well, what if the Victorians had computers and technology? What would that be like?”

Basically, if there’s a time in history that you like the aesthetic of, there’s probably a subgenre ending in the word “punk” that describes that aesthetic. You can go to conventions, and you can have your anime and your manga and your books and your games set in these kind of subgenres. They are generally, like I say, about aesthetics with the possible exception of solarpunk, which is what Steph is going to talk about.

Living in the future

I am going to finish with these books as my recommendations for a broad range of topics of science fiction from 50 years of reading science fiction. I think about if I could go back and talk to my younger self in that town in the south coast of Ireland about the world of today. I’m sure it would sound like a science fictional world.

By the way, I wouldn’t go back in time to talk to my younger self because I’ve read enough time travel stories to know that that never ends well. But still, here we are living in the future. I mean this past year with a global pandemic, that is literally straight out of a bunch of science fiction books.

But also, just the discoveries and advancements we’ve made are science fictional. Like when I was growing up and reading science books in that library, we didn’t know if there were any planets outside our own solar system. We didn’t know if exoplanets even existed.

Now, we know that most solar systems have their own planets. We’re discovering them every day. It’s become commonplace.

We have sequenced the human genome, which is a remarkable achievement for a species.

And we have the World Wide Web, this world-spanning network of information that you can access with computers in your pockets. Amazing stuff.

But of all of these advancements by our species, if I had to pick the one that I think is in some ways the most science-fictional, the most far-fetched idea, I would pick the library. If libraries didn’t exist and you tried to make them today, I don’t think you could succeed. You’d be laughed out of the venture capital room, like, “How is that supposed to work?” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, a place where people can go and read books and take those books home with them without paying for them. It sounds almost too altruistic to exist.

But Ray Bradbury, for example, I know he grew up in the library. He said, “I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.” He was a big fan of libraries. He said, “Reading is at the Centre of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library, you have no civilisation.” He said, “Without libraries, what have we? Have no past and no future.”

So, to end this, I’m not going to end with a call to read lots of sci-fi. I’m just going to end with a call to read – full stop. Read fiction, not just non-fiction. Read fiction. It’s a way of expanding your empathy.

And defend your local library. Use your local library. Don’t let your local library get closed down.

We are living in the future by having libraries. Libraries are science fictional.

With that, thank you.

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

Reading resonances

In today’s world of algorithmic recommendation engines, it’s nice to experience some serendipity every now and then. I remember how nice it was when two books I read in sequence had a wonderful echo in their descriptions of fermentation:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

Robin agreed:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I experienced another resonant echo when I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and then starting reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. Both books share a common theme—that human beings are fundamentally decent—but the first chapter of Humankind was mentioning the exact same events that are chronicled in A Paradise Built in Hell; the Blitz, September 11th, Katrina, and more. Then he cites from that book directly. The two books were published a decade apart, and it was just happenstance that I ended up reading them in quick succession.

I recommend both books. Humankind is thoroughly enjoyable, but it has one maddeningly frustrating flaw. A Paradise Built in Hell isn’t the only work that influenced Bregman—he also cites Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Here’s what I thought of Sapiens:

Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

Humankind echoes this fabrication. Again, the giveaway is that the footnotes dry up when the author is describing the idyllic pre-historical nomadic lifestyle. Compare it with, for instance, this description of the founding of Jericho—possibly the world’s oldest city—where researchers are at pains to point out that we can’t possibly know what life was like before written records.

I worry that Yuval Noah Harari’s imaginings are being treated as “truthy” by Rutger Bregman. It’s not a trend I like.

Still, apart from that annoying detour, Humankind is a great read. So is A Paradise Built in Hell. Try them together.

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

Checked in at Queen's Park. The pond in the park — with Jessica map

Checked in at Queen’s Park. The pond in the park — with Jessica

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

Saving forms

I added a long-overdue enhancement to The Session recently. Here’s the scenario…

You’re on a web page with a comment form. You type your well-considered thoughts into a textarea field. But then something happens. Maybe you accidentally navigate away from the page or maybe your network connection goes down right when you try to submit the form.

This is a textbook case for storing data locally on the user’s device …at least until it has safely been transmitted to the server. So that’s what I set about doing.

My first decision was choosing how to store the data locally. There are multiple APIs available: sessionStorage, IndexedDB, localStorage. It was clear that sessionStorage wasn’t right for this particular use case: I needed the data to be saved across browser sessions. So it was down to IndexedDB or localStorage. IndexedDB is the more versatile and powerful—because it’s asynchronous—but localStorage is nice and straightforward so I decided on that. I’m not sure if that was the right decision though.

Alright, so I’m going to store the contents of a form in localStorage. It accepts key/value pairs. I’ll make the key the current URL. The value will be the contents of that textarea. I can store other form fields too. Even though localStorage technically only stores one value, that value can be a JSON object so in reality you can store multiple values with one key (just remember to parse the JSON when you retrieve it).

Now I know what I’m going to store (the textarea contents) and how I’m going to store it (localStorage). The next question is when should I do it?

I could play it safe and store the comment whenever the user presses a key within the textarea. But that seems like overkill. It would be more efficient to only save when the user leaves the current page for any reason.

Alright then, I’ll use the unload event. No! Bad Jeremy! If I use that then the browser can’t reliably add the current page to the cache it uses for faster back-forwards navigations. The page life cycle is complicated.

So beforeunload then? Well, maybe. But modern browsers also support a pagehide event that looks like a better option.

In either case, just adding a listener for the event could screw up the caching of the page for back-forwards navigations. I should only listen for the event if I know that I need to store the contents of the textarea. And in order to know if the user has interacted with the textarea, I’m back to listening for key presses again.

But wait a minute! I don’t have to listen for every key press. If the user has typed anything, that’s enough for me. I only need to listen for the first key press in the textarea.

Handily, addEventListener accepts an object of options. One of those options is called “once”. If I set that to true, then the event listener is only fired once.

So I set up a cascade of event listeners. If the user types anything into the textarea, that fires an event listener (just once) that then adds the event listener for when the page is unloaded—and that’s when the textarea contents are put into localStorage.

I’ve abstracted my code into a gist. Here’s what it does:

  1. Cut the mustard. If this browser doesn’t support localStorage, bail out.
  2. Set the localStorage key to be the current URL.
  3. If there’s already an entry for the current URL, update the textarea with the value in localStorage.
  4. Write a function to store the contents of the textarea in localStorage but don’t call the function yet.
  5. The first time that a key is pressed inside the textarea, start listening for the page being unloaded.
  6. When the page is being unloaded, invoke that function that stores the contents of the textarea in localStorage.
  7. When the form is submitted, remove the entry in localStorage for the current URL.

That last step isn’t something I’m doing on The Session. Instead I’m relying on getting something back from the server to indicate that the form was successfully submitted. If you can do something like that, I’d recommend that instead of listening to the form submission event. After all, something could still go wrong between the form being submitted and the data being received by the server.

Still, this bit of code is better than nothing. Remember, it’s intended as an enhancement. You should be able to drop it into any project and improve the user experience a little bit. Ideally, no one will ever notice it’s there—it’s the kind of enhancement that only kicks in when something goes wrong. A little smidgen of resilient web design. A defensive enhancement.

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Checked in at Duke of York's Picturehouse. A cinema to ourselves for T E N E T — with Jessica map

Checked in at Duke of York’s Picturehouse. A cinema to ourselves for T E N E T — with Jessica

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

Playing The Pride Of Petravore (hornpipe) on mandolin:

https://thesession.org/tunes/82

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew5DDYJq6cE

Monday, August 17th, 2020

Design Principles For The Web—the links

I’m speaking today at an online edition of An Event Apart called Front-End Focus. I’ll be opening up the show with a talk called Design Principles For The Web, which ironically doesn’t have much of a front-end focus:

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

That explains why I’ve been writing so much about design principles …well, that and the fact that I’m mildly obsessed with them.

To avoid technical difficulties, I’ve pre-recorded the talk. So while that’s playing, I’ll be spamming the accompanying chat window with related links. Then I’ll do a live Q&A.

Should you be interested in the links that I’ll be bombarding the attendees with, I’ve gathered them here in one place (and they’re also on the website of An Event Apart). The narrative structure of the talk might not be clear from scanning down a list of links, but there’s some good stuff here that you can dive into if you want to know what the inside of my head is like.

References

adactio.com

Wikipedia

Friday, July 31st, 2020

Checked in at Pelicano. Iced latte — with Jessica map

Checked in at Pelicano. Iced latte — with Jessica

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Gormless

I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.

I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.

This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.

In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:

Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.

Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:

Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.

That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:

Black Lives Matter.

What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!

If only it were a tattoo.

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

Programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions

I wrote recently about moving away from Sass to using native CSS features. I had this to say on the topic of mixins in Sass:

These can be very useful, but now there’s a lot that you can do just in CSS with calc(). The built-in darken() and lighten() mixins are handy though when it comes to colours.

I know we will be getting these in the future but we’re not there yet with CSS.

Anyway, I had all this in the back of my mind when I was reading Lea’s excellent feature in this month’s Increment: A user’s guide to CSS variables. She’s written about a really clever technique of combining custom properites with hsl() colour values for creating colour palettes. (See also: Una’s post on dynamic colour theming with pure CSS.)

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

I immediately set about implementing this technique over on The Session. The trick here is to use separate custom properties for the hue, saturation, and lightness parts of hsl() colour values. Then, when you want to lighten or darken the colour—say, on hover—you can update the lightness part.

I’ve made a Codepen to show what I’m doing.

Let’s say I’m styling a button element. I make custom propertes for hsl() values:

button {
  --button-colour-hue: 19;
  --button-colour-saturation: 82%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 38%;
  background-color: hsl(
    var(--button-colour-hue),
    var(--button-colour-saturation),
    var(--button-colour-lightness)
  );
}

For my buttons, I want the borders to be slightly darker than the background colour. When I was using Sass, I used the darken() function to this. Now I use calc(). Here’s how I make the borders 10% darker:

border-color: hsl(
  var(--button-colour-hue),
  var(--button-colour-saturation),
  calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 10%)
);

That calc() function is substracting a percentage from a percentage: 38% minus 10% in this case. The borders will have a lightness of 28%.

I make the bottom border even darker and the top border lighter to give a feeling of depth.

On The Session there’s a “cancel” button style that’s deep red.

Here’s how I set its colour:

.cancel {
  --button-colour-hue: 0;
  --button-colour-saturation: 100%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 40%;
}

That’s it. The existing button declarations take care of assigning the right shades for the border colours.

Here’s another example. Site admins see buttons for some actions only available to them. I want those buttons to have their own colour:

.admin {
  --button-colour-hue: 45;
  --button-colour-saturation: 100%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 40%;
}

You get the idea. It doesn’t matter how many differently-coloured buttons I create, the effect of darkening or lightening their borders is all taken care of.

So it turns out that the lighten() and darken() functions from Sass are available to us in CSS by using a combination of custom properties, hsl(), and calc().

I’m also using this combination to lighten or darken background and border colours on :hover. You can poke around the Codepen if you want to see that in action.

I love seeing the combinatorial power of these different bits of CSS coming together. It really is a remarkably powerful programming language.

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Modified machete

The Rise Of Skywalker arrives on Disney Plus on the fourth of May (a date often referred to as Star Wars Day, even though May 25th is and always will be the real Star Wars Day). Time to begin a Star Wars movie marathon. But in which order?

Back when there were a mere two trilogies, this was already a vexing problem if someone were watching the films for the first time. You could watch the six films in episode order:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. Attack Of The Clones
  3. Revenge Of The Sith
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. The Return Of The Jedi

But then you’re spoiling the grand reveal in episode five.

Alright then, how about release order?

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Return Of The Jedi
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith

But then you’re front-loading the big pay-off, and you’re finishing with a big set-up.

This conundrum was solved with the machete order. It suggests omitting The Phantom Menace, not because it’s crap, but because nothing happens in it that isn’t covered in the first five minutes of Attack Of The Clones. The machete order is:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Attack Of The Clones
  4. Revenge Of The Sith
  5. Return Of The Jedi

It’s kind of brilliant. You get to keep the big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, and then through flashback, you see how this came to be. Best of all, the pay-off in Return Of The Jedi has even more resonance because you’ve just seen Anakin’s downfall in Revenge Of The Sith.

With the release of the new sequel trilogy, an adjusted machete order is a pretty straightforward way to see the whole saga:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi
  9. The Rise Of Skywalker

Done. But …what if you want to include the standalone films too?

If you slot them in in release order, they break up the flow:

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace (optional)
  4. Attack Of The Clones
  5. Revenge Of The Sith
  6. Return Of The Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. Rogue One
  9. The Last Jedi
  10. Solo
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I’m planning to watch all eleven films. This was my initial plan:

  1. Rogue One
  2. A New Hope
  3. The Empire Strikes Back
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Attack Of The Clones
  6. Revenge Of The Sith
  7. Solo
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

I definitely want to have Rogue One lead straight into A New Hope. The problem is where to put Solo. I don’t want to interrupt the Sith/Jedi setup/payoff.

So here’s my current plan, which I have already begun:

  1. Solo
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Empire Strikes Back
  5. The Phantom Menace
  6. Attack Of The Clones
  7. Revenge Of The Sith
  8. Return Of The Jedi
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Last Jedi
  11. The Rise Of Skywalker

This way, the two standalone films work as world-building for the saga and don’t interrupt the flow once the main story is underway.

I think this works pretty well. Neither Solo nor Rogue One require any prior knowledge to be enjoyed.

And just in case you’re thinking that perhaps I’m overthinking it a bit and maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands …the world has too much time on its hands right now! Thanks to The Situation, I can not only take the time to plan and execute the viewing order for a Star Wars movie marathon, I can feel good about it. Stay home, they said. Literally saving lives, they said. Happy to oblige!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020

A curl in every port

A few years back, Zach Bloom wrote The History of the URL: Path, Fragment, Query, and Auth. He recently expanded on it and republished it on the Cloudflare blog as The History of the URL. It’s well worth the time to read the whole thing. It’s packed full of fascinating tidbits.

In the section on ports, Zach says:

The timeline of Gopher and HTTP can be evidenced by their default port numbers. Gopher is 70, HTTP 80. The HTTP port was assigned (likely by Jon Postel at the IANA) at the request of Tim Berners-Lee sometime between 1990 and 1992.

Ooh, I can give you an exact date! It was January 24th, 1992. I know this because of the hack week in CERN last year to recreate the first ever web browser.

Kimberly was spelunking down the original source code, when she came across this line in the HTUtils.h file:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

We showed this to Jean-François Groff, who worked on the original web technologies like libwww, the forerunner to libcurl. He remembers that day. It felt like they had “made it”, receiving the official blessing of Jon Postel (in the same RFC, incidentally, that gave port 70 to Gopher).

Then he told us something interesting about the next line of code:

#define OLD_TCP_PORT 2784 /* Try the old one if no answer on 80 */

Port 2784? That seems like an odd choice. Most of us would choose something easy to remember.

Well, it turns out that 2784 is easy to remember if you’re Tim Berners-Lee.

Those were the last four digits of his parents’ phone number.

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Checked in at Plough & Stars. Sunday night session 🎻🎵 map

Checked in at Plough & Stars. Sunday night session 🎻🎵

Sunday, November 24th, 2019

Checked in at British Airways First Lounge map

Checked in at British Airways First Lounge

Sunday, August 25th, 2019

Checked in at Chicago Brewhouse. Chicago dog! — with Jessica map

Checked in at Chicago Brewhouse. Chicago dog! — with Jessica

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

Crossing

I’m going to America. But this time it’s going to be a bit different.

Here’s the backstory: I need to get to Chicago for An Event Apart in a couple of weeks. Jessica and I were talking about maybe going to Florida first to hang out with her family on the beach for a bit. We just needed to figure out the travel logistics.

Here’s the next variable to add in to the mix: Jessica is really into ballet. Like, really into ballet. She also likes boats, ships, and all things nautical.

Those two things are normally unrelated, but then a while back, Jessica tweeted this:

OMG @ENBallet on a SHIP crossing the ATLANTIC.

Dance the Atlantic 2019 Cruise

I chuckled at that, and almost immediately dismissed it as being something from another world. But then I looked at the dates, and wouldn’t you know it, it would work out perfectly for our planned travel to Florida and Chicago.

Sooo… we’re crossing the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary II. With ballet dancers.

It’s not a cruise. It’s a crossing:

The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing. The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art — it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on “Downton Abbey” — is Cunardists.

Because of the black-tie gala dinners taking place during the voyage, I am now the owner of tuxedo. I think all this dressing up is kind of like cosplay for the class system. This should be …interesting.

By all accounts, internet connectivity is non-existent on the crossing, so I’m going to be incommunicado. Don’t bother sending me any email—I won’t see it.

We sail from Southampton tomorrow. We arrive in New York a week later.

See you on the other side!