Posts Tagged ‘Tor Newsletter’

Law School, Magic School

October 1, 2012 6 comments

Written by Max Gladstone

In 2008, to an eager young me, fresh from two years of teaching English in rural China—used to afternoon runs past water buffalo, concrete classrooms, basketball-loving students, and swarms of attacking bees—law school looked an awful lot like magic. Stephanie, my girlfriend (now wife), the one actually attending law school at the time, thought I was crazy.

She was right. I was crazy, a bit—a crazy born of contrast, and of unemployment at the dawn of the financial collapse. While I gallivanted around the world, my friends had entered industry or grad school, and, as a result, they could weather the chaos by keeping calm and carrying on. Struggling to make ends meet, I followed their careers with admiration and a little green streak of envy (which I’d never admit in public, but you won’t tell anyone, will you, oh internet?).

As Steph started law school, I watched her life like a movie. I expected The Paper Chase but saw Hogwarts instead. Now, I know that many students compare their schools to Hogwarts, but watching Steph, I thought I could see actual magic at the core.

The class names were the first sign. I’d grown used, as an undergrad, to course names like Hagiography, Eschatology, and Smut: Shakespearean Supporting Characters, Sex, and the Afterlife, or Computer Science 415. Here, I heard courses referred to by single words: the bailiwicks over which they granted power. Mystical names, too. Remedies. Procedure. Contracts. Corps. (“Corpse?! “—said I on first hearing—”Is there a dissection practicum?”) Defense against the Dark Arts. (I kid, but maybe that’s what they actually teach you in Torts?)

Then came those wonderful weird withering one-L classes where professors cut students open with a question and keep careful record of names called to ensure no one escapes—so far from the cheerful group work, seminars, and “let’s sit on the grass outside and discuss symbolism in Japanese utopian literature” of my college life. (“It’s the Socratic method,” Steph said, “not magic.” “But it feels like magic!”)

And on top of that, the language. The formulae, the arcane tests, the careful splitting of hairs as to the meaning of words and the writer’s original intent. The libraries of leather-bound books from which the lawyer draws her power. The speech act. The binding verbal contract. The adversarial nature of the whole thing: words, facts, powers bent one against another by indomitable wills.

I’ve heard people say computer programming works like magic—you type your invocation and the big dumb genie does exactly what you tell it to, no more and no less, omnipotence without omniscience. But that’s not really magic, because magic’s not dumb. Magic isn’t satisfied to lean back and let you destroy yourself. Magic is capricious and cold and swift and glorious and mean. Magic twists beneath you as you struggle to pin it down. Beings bound by magic seek every possible way to use your words against you—they trap you in your errors, and in the world’s. If you’re good at magic, it can raise you up, claim and transform your life. Magic sets you apart from people who aren’t magicians. It gives you a privileged access to, and even some control over, the rules of the world that bind everyone else. And it doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to do with that power, that control.

I badgered Steph with this comparison all through her first semester. She saw the point, but never quite bought it, and slowly I came to understand why. For me, on the outside, her world seemed exciting, glamorous, strange, and special. For her, it was life: late nights studying, endless reading, not going to the movies. A monastic existence, and on top of it all a boyfriend babbling about how cool everything was without having to do any of the work.

And I realized, writing my book about dead gods and dying cities and a woman trying to do her job, that from the perspective of the magician, magic feels like work. So I dialed down the Harry Potter jokes and started to watch Steph and her friends and fellow students care, struggle, and succeed. I watched them grasp at the outlines of something grand. The magic wasn’t in the language, the discipline, or the class names. The magic was in the striving.

Though I do still chuckle whenever I hear someone moan about how much trouble they’re having with Corpse.


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The Ingredients of a Hero (Not the Sandwich)

October 1, 2012 10 comments

Written by Christopher L. Bennett

In the months since I sold Only Superhuman, I’ve been told more than once that what I set out to do in the novel—approaching the concept of superheroes from a plausible, hard-SF perspective—was a new and unexpected approach. That surprises me. After all, the “super” part is easy. We’ve already got Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius and his prosthetic legs that make him better, stronger, faster. We’ve got prototype robotic exoskeletons to let soldiers exert seventeen times their strength, and adaptive-optics laser surgery to give people better than normal vision. Imagine what we’ll have in 95 years.

And the “hero” part isn’t that implausible either. Look at firefighters. Look at the ordinary people at the Dark Knight Rises theater shooting who held the doors for others to escape. Heroes are just people who set aside their own self-interest to protect others.

This is why the career heroes of Only Superhuman are called Troubleshooters. When I developed the idea over two decades ago, there were two TV personalities who used that label. One was MacGyver; the other was a local-news consumer advocate who helped people get justice or compensation for fraud and incompetence from local businesses. So to me, “troubleshooter” denoted someone whose purpose was to help others solve their problems. That was the side of superheroics I wanted to stress. I see too many superhero tales, especially in movies, that dwell on origin stories or personal vendettas and overlook the coolest part, the rescues and lifesaving and, well, the actual hero stuff. To be sure, the events of Only Superhuman are deeply personal for its heroine Emerald Blair, the Green Blaze. She’s struggling to define herself, wrestling with her past, and frequently fighting for her life. Yet there’s always something more at stake than herself. Every battle Emerald wages is on some level informed by her need to protect others.

Granted, it’s partly the colorful costumes, nicknames, and melodramatic trappings that make superheroes feel like fantasy to most people. But there are real precedents for those as well, in sports and celebrity culture. There’s also the current “real-life superhero” movement—mostly just eccentrics looking for their fifteen minutes of fame, but sometimes there are nobler motives at play. There’s a woman calling herself “Terrifica” who patrols bars in a sexy superhero costume to distract potentially predatory males from targeting women who’ve had too much to drink. It’s risky, perhaps a little irrational, but at least she’s sober and prepared (she carries pepper spray). I also once heard about a Mexican luchador who used his fame and masked anonymity to speak out against government corruption without endangering his loved ones. Maybe not as epic as punching out animal-themed psychopaths or fending off alien hordes, but just as heroic in its way.

These real-world champions also reflect the principle that guided Christopher Nolan’s Batman: the symbolism of the costumed identity as a way to affect hearts and minds, to inspire the innocent or intimidate the wicked. Terrifica shows how even the sexuality of the superhero image can be a source of power and influence if wielded properly—a theme that definitely comes into play in Only Superhuman.

The Troubleshooter Corps embraces the trappings and celebrity of comic-book heroes for the same practical reasons. The transhuman “mods” of the Asteroid Belt, with few historical role models to guide them, have looked to the superheroes of lore—and sometimes the supervillains—as their foundation myths. The Troubleshooters draw on that mythology to win the trust of the Belt’s fiercely independent peoples in a way they never could if they presented themselves as a transhuman paramilitary force.

But that’s the paradox of the Troubleshooters. On the one hand, they’re about personal image and charisma. Emerald Blair certainly has all the trappings of the classic superheroine—the red hair, the curves, the revealing fashion sense, the story of redemption for a checkered past. But the surface image is useless if the Troubleshooters aren’t genuinely effective at solving problems and saving lives.


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The Books in the Book

October 1, 2012 17 comments

Written by Tina Connolly

I’m one of those people who got taken in by The Princess Bride. Sure, I was a teenager when I read it. That’s no excuse for haunting used bookstores and scouring the internet for traces of the real book. You know the one. The one written by S. Morgenstern, from which William Goldman merely excerpted “the good parts?”

I’m not sure why I was so certain that the original book (with the bad parts included, presumably) would be so much better, but there’s something about a book so lovingly described within another book that causes it to take on power. It’s a grimoire – but of story, not of spells. I read Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story as a kid and fell for it so hard. It didn’t hurt that the library book I checked out looked exactly as it should; as “The Neverending Story” book described within the book says it looks. It was heavy and copper-colored and had two snakes biting their tails on the front. My current edition has lovely internal illos and the text is all in red and green, but I continue to be disappointed at the lack of AURYN on the cover.

There’s Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course. HP Lovecraft and The Necromicon. “Books in the book” range from books of great importance to the book, like Cornelia Funke’s Inkspell (another German MG fantasy!) all the way down to books with incidental made-up titles in them—I loved that JK Rowling chose to actually write and publish three of the textbooks mentioned in the Harry Potter series—Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

In Ironskin, Jane has a few books she brings with her as a governess. Mr. Rochart has a library. And then dwarves in my world are big readers and writers. I had a grand time coming up with the books mentioned inside, riffing off of sources from our world. There’s Ihlronian History of the 16th Century (a treatise on the best ways to use treachery to hold power). A Child’s Vase of Cursing Verses (a classic nursery book—though in addition to rhymes it includes practical tips, like how to avoid the copperhead hydra). And two lurid novels: Kind Hearts and Iron Crowns (a cheap yellow-backed acid-tongued mystery), and the most fun of all, The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud. Maud is a family heirloom of Jane’s, “the one Queen Maud’s son banned, and ordered all copies burned on sight.” Jane tells the butler, Poule, a hint of its story to tantalize her (a story that involves sea dragons, Court Alchemists, and lookalike Queen Mauds), and we see the tattered dustjacket, where “you could still make out the pirate’s grin as he valiantly fought a busty mermaid riding a sea serpent.”

I’m currently having fun coming up with books for the sequel (hey, if the dwarvven are big readers I can’t suddenly go against that in the sequel, can I? It’s practically my duty to dream up trashy novels for them to read), as well as vaguely wondering if I could weave a coherent plot out of sea dragons, Court Alchemists, and busty sea-serpent-riding mermaids. As well, I continue to lust after books mentioned in books, so if you run across that unabridged epic by S. Morgenstern (the one that apparently includes 56.5 pages of someone named Princess Noreena packing her dresses and hats). . .send it my way?


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The Secret World of Hardware Revocation

October 1, 2012 8 comments

Written by Cory Doctorow

The entertainment industry has a problem. It wants to sell you products—books, games, music, movies—that you look at on your computer, but it wants to control how you use those products after you buy them. The industry has been sold on the idea that there’s a fortune waiting in selling “rights” for “uses.” If that sounds weird, it’s because it runs totally contrary to the way that we use our media today.

When you bring home a Settlers of Catan game box or a DVD or a CD or a hardcover, you assume that you have the “right” to do anything you want with it. You can use it at home. You can bring it to a tournament, festival or convention. You can use it on vacation overseas.

But! (the entertainment industry digital strategist says), what if you could pay half as much, and get a game or book or movie or song that you can only listen to at home? And later, if you want to do any of those other things, you can pay for them on an a-la-carte basis? Wouldn’t that be great? Why buy the cow when we’ll sell you the milk one glass at a time, exactly as much milk as you want to pay for and no more?

In practice, no one really seems interested in this offer, with the exception of video-on-demand online “rentals,” and that probably has more to do with the fact that most of us only watch the movies we buy once, anyway. A lot of us (myself included) are suspicious of this sort of offer. I don’t want price-tags on every button of my remote control, I don’t want to have to buy the “right” to pause a movie while I get up for a pee, even if it only costs a penny. I don’t want to have to buy the “right” to watch a movie with my friends if my TV detects that there are six people in the living room when I switch it on.

But the industry has bet big on this. Your home entertainment systems—amps, satellite and cable tuners, screens, media appliances like the AppleTV, and laptops—is designed to support it. And therein lies the problem.

Say your amp is designed to allow for full stereo surround-sound, except when a movie copyright holder chooses to limit you to mono sound. (Why would they do this? Believe it or not, the industry has said that it’d like to do this in connection with the distribution of new release movies, to keep “high quality audio track” from leaking online). The receiver receives the movie, checks to see what restrictions go along with it, and passes it on to the receiver, saying “Only play this in monophonic sound.” The receiver, being an obedient beast, obliges.

How does the receiver know that the amp will follow the message? Because the amp and the receiver do a little cryptographic handshake, exchanging keys that are only made available to manufacturers that agree to follow the rules. Inter-industry consortia like the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator, Digital Content Protection LLC, Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator, and other dwellers in the smoke-filled rooms of the corporate world, set out and enforce agreements backing technologies like Blu-Ray, HDCP, and DTCP (those mysterious logos on your TV and associated stuff).

These arrangements include ongoing “management” of your devices. If someone on the Internet finds a way to trick your receiver into ignoring the restriction-messages that travel with media, the licensing bodies can force the manufacturer to automatically update it to avoid the hack. But that’s only half the problem.

What a specific device’s key leaks and is used to make “non-compliant” devices or software—that is, a program like VLC that will play DVDs even if they’re coded for a region other than the one your computer is registered in? VLC uses keys that leaked from other players to accomplish this trick. The manufacturer can fix their devices so that they no longer leaks keys, but the keys have been leaked.

Or what if a manufacturer goes out of business and later its products are found to have flaws that allow for “non-compliant” uses? With the company out of business, there’s no one to cajole into issuing a patch to restore the old restrictions.

The answer is “revocation,” a controversial idea that is present in some form in nearly all modern restricted media formats. In a revocation world, the licensing body periodically “revokes” certain keys and devices, either by requiring manufacturers to send out updates with lists of equipment that is no longer considered safe for restricted content, or by embedding the revocation codes in new movies, games, etc, so that the first time you play them, your equipment receives the list and updates its blacklist accordingly.

In the real world, the way that this is supposed to work is this: one day, you wake up and your amplifier, or projector, or DVD burner, or PVR, or laptop video app no longer works with any of the new media you buy. And when you try and play your old media, the parts won’t talk to each other: your computer will play the video back, but when it sends the audio to your home theater over Bluetooth or WiFi, no sound is played. Perhaps you get an onscreen message or an email that explains what’s happened, and perhaps you don’t. But either way, your stuff is broken, until the licensing body and the manufacturer come to terms on what it will take to un-break it.

There’s a flipside to this: the value of blacklisted equipment quickly falls to zero. If you want to have a home theater where you can play legit media, you need to throw out, update, or disconnect any blacklisted gear.

But say you don’t want to play by the rules. Say you want to be able to rip old media that was pressed before the revocation message went out and put it on the Internet. Or say you want to be able to play back the media that has been ripped and uploaded? Well, so long as you don’t care about buying the media you want to play, so long as you’re content to download it all with BitTorrent and its successors, you can happily go on using that “useless” blacklisted equipment—the kind of thing that will show up in e-waste landfills by the megaton. The kind of thing that people might pay *you* to take away.

That’s an idea I explore in Pirate Cinema, my new novel. Kids who want to make their own remix movies need equipment and tools that let them tear apart movies and music and reassemble them to their taste. The best way to get this is to simply step outside of the system altogether. The price is right—free. Not just free downloads, but free/near-free hardware already.

My friend Darren Atkinson supports his family by rescuing high-tech trash from the dumpsters outside of high-tech firms in Toronto’s suburbs. Today’s obsolescence curve already generates a massive surplus of technology that we literally can’t get rid of. Once you mix in deliberate, mandatory obsolescence for gear that pisses off technophobic Hollywood execs, we will move to an era of unparalleled plenty for people who don’t give a damn about playing by Hollywood’s rules.


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Big Smart Objects

October 1, 2012 9 comments

Written by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

Gregory Benford’s take:

In science fiction, a Big Dumb Object is any immense mysterious object that generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. They don’t have to be inert constructs, and perhaps the dumb aspect also expresses the sensation of being struck dumb by the scale of them. My favorite is the one I’m working on in a two-volume novel I’m writing with Larry Niven.

Larry said to me at a party, “Big dumb objects are so much easier. Collapsed civilizations are so much easier. Yeah, bring them up to speed.”

So we wrote Bowl of Heaven, first of two novels about a Big Smart Object. The Bowl has to be controlled, because it’s not neutrally stable. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. (Or the ringworld would be except for nudges that can make it fall into the sun. Those are fairly easy to catch in time. Larry put the stabilizers into the second Ringworld novel.)

A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. We fall forward on one leg, then catch ourselves with the other. That takes a lot of fast signal processing and coordination. (We’re the only large animal without a tail that’s mastered this. Two legs are dangerous without a big brain.) There’ve been several Big Dumb Objects in sf, but as far as I know, no smart ones. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine.

Our Bowl is a shell several hundred millions of miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamic forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which is magnetically confined so well it spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward — literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell, the Bowl. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure resembles Larry’s Ringworld, based on the physics I worked out.

The virtue of any Big Object, whether Dumb or Smart, is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space lies beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. But… this smart Bowl craft is also going somewhere, not just sitting around, waiting for visitors — and its builders live aboard.

Where are they going, and why? That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.

My grandfather used to say, as we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimping run, A boat is just looking for a place to sink.

So heading out to design a new, shiny Big Smart Object, I say, An artificial world is just looking for a seam to pop.

You’re living meters or maybe just a kilometer away from a high vacuum that’s moving fast, because of the spin. That makes it easy to launch ships, since they have the rotational velocity with respect to the Bowl or Ringworld… but that also means high seam-popping stresses have to be compensated. Living creatures on the sunny side will want to tinker, try new things…

“Y’know Fred, I think I can fix this plumbing problem with just a drill-through right here. Uh—oops!”

The vacuum can suck you right through… To live on a Big Smart Object, you’d better be pretty smart yourself.

Larry Niven’s take:

“The Enormous Big Thing” was my friend David Gerrold’s description of a plot line that flowered after the publication of Ringworld. Stories like Orbitsville and Rendezvous with Rama depend on the sense of wonder espoused by huge, ambitious endeavors. Ringworld wasn’t the first; there had been stories that built, and destroyed, whole universes. They had fallen out of favor.

And I wasn’t the first to notice that a fallen civilization is easier to describe than a working one. Your characters can sort through the artifacts without hindrance until they’ve built a picture of the whole vast structure. Conan the Barbarian, and countless barbarians to follow, found fallen civilizations everywhere. I took this route quite deliberately with Ringworld. I was young and untrained and I knew it.

A fully working civilization, doomed if they ever lose their grasp on their tools, is quite another thing. I wouldn’t have tried it alone. Jerry Pournelle and I have described working civilizations several times, in Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer and The Burning City.

With Greg Benford I was willing to take a whack at a Dyson-level civilization.

Greg shaped the Bowl in its first design. It had a gaudy simplicity that grabbed me from the start. It was easy to work with: essentially a Ringworld with a lid, and a star for a motor. We got Don Davis involved in working some dynamite paintings.

Greg kept seeing implications. The Bowl’s history grew more and more elaborate. Ultimately I knew we’d need at least two volumes to cover everything we’d need to show.

Here’s the first, Bowl of Heaven. We’re hard at work wrapping up story lines on the sequel, Shipstar.


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The Clockwork Sky Sneak Peek

September 10, 2012 6 comments

By Madeleine Rosca

The Clockwork Sky—a gear-filled nightmare of steampunk London!

Madeleine Rosca is perhaps best known as the creator of Hollow Fields, a manga trilogy that won Japan’s first International Manga Award. For The Clockwork Sky, this talented Australian writer-artist created a steampunk version of Victorian London that is undergoing class warfare. A mysterious factory produces amazing clockwork mechanicals that have replaced humans in manufacturing, service, and most other kinds of labor. This is the brainchild of Erasmus Croach, who grows ever wealthier and more important . . . but who has no control over the infuriating and outrageous activities of his irrepressible niece, Sally Peppers.

Sally chafes at the limitations placed on young women in Victorian society and would like nothing more than to invent her own wonders. But her uncle keeps her literally chained to her desk in the schoolroom, instructed—and guarded—by one of his robots. One day Sally slips those chains and flees on a stolen velocipede, only to discover that London is on the brink of full-blown riots. The unemployed have taken to the streets, demanding not only jobs but an investigation into the disappearances of hundreds of children from the crowded slums of London and other British cities.

Click through to read an excerpt of The Clockwork Sky!

Erasmus Croach demands that his missing niece be found. The Metropolitan Police deploy Croach’s latest and most complex mechanical, the police-bot called Sky, to find her.

And that’s when things begin to get really interesting . . . .


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Books, the Universe, and Cosmic Oddities

September 10, 2012 5 comments

Written by Linda Grimes

Sometimes the stars and planets align, and you find out something you’ve written isn’t as batshi—er, batpoop crazy as you originally feared it might be.

I love it when that happens. It’s validating. And when you can email your agent and editor about it, and crack them up long-distance, it can downright warm the cockles of your heart. (Whatever the heck “cockles” are. All I know is, warming them is apparently a good thing.)

A few months ago, shortly after my sister-in-law read a bound galley of In a Fix, she heard something that made her laugh out loud while she was listening to the radio in her car. Came close to making her run off the road, actually. Though, she admitted later, that part could have been caused by an unexpected thrill when her cell phone started vibrating in her pocket. But still. The point is, it was funny.

A little background info about a certain plot point in my book might be useful at this juncture: the bad guys are members of a neo-Viking group promoting an uber-macho ideal in Sweden. They’re tired of being told by society to “pee sitting down.” Metaphorically speaking. Or so I thought.

(I know! Wacky, huh? I was kind of going for the laugh there. But trust me, it all makes sense in the context of the book.)

Anyway, when my sister-in-law got home, she Googled the reference that cracked her up, and found an article from The Local: Sweden’s News in English.

The gist of the article is that the Left Party in Sörmland, Sweden, wants to force … um, I mean, strongly encourage… men to sit down to empty their bladders in the county council’s restrooms. Not only for hygiene reasons, they stress, but because it’s good for their prostates.

Um, yeah. Being able to pee standing up is about the only thing that makes me envy men. No offense to men. I love men—just ask my husband. He’ll tell you flat out, other than chocolate and a good martini, there’s nothing Linda loves more than men.

But I don’t want to be one.

Okay, when I was a kid, I also used to envy men their ability to grow facial hair, but I’ve since evolved beyond thinking it would be cool to do it myself. Not that I don’t still appreciate a good set of sideburns or a fine mustache. Only I don’t particularly want to see it in the mirror. (Ironic that I lose the desire as I approach the age when, according to ads for female facial hair removal products, I might finally be able to achieve it. My timing sucks.)

But back to the point. The article about Sörmland’s fastidious city council, and their truly touching concern for Swedish prostates, was of course published long after I wrote In a Fix. And yet, silly as the subject matter seems, it applies. It relates. It connects.

It’s the kind of coincidence I suspect happens a lot with writers. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? (Well, it makes me wonder. You might not give two toots on a penny whistle.)

Not that I’m implying there’s any New Age stuff going on. I don’t light incense before a writing session, calling on my muse to bring real-world relevance to my fiction or anything. But a little cosmic oddity here and there? Yeah, I can enjoy the wonder of it.


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