A recent read

Cover, The Last Phase Shift (Amazon)
Cover, The Last Phase Shift (Amazon)

Time to get back to regular blogging again, and I thought I would start with a recap of a recent review of mine, for The Last Phase Shift, by David Frauenfelder. This is the third in a particular series of books, set in and around The Continent, a mysterious land in the Indian Ocean which – among other things – has the curious feature of intermittently phasing out of sync with our world. Until this book, we have not really known where Borschland and the other cluster of nearby countries go to during the phase shift: this book explores that, as well as a number of other fascinating issues.

The full review is at Amazon or Goodreads.

How to describe this book? It’s not easy, and a random collection of facts may not be the best way to introduce you to the charms and delights of Borschland. There are intelligent beasts, including the superb bears who are beginning to feature increasingly in their own stories. It might be called steampunk. It could be classified as a sports story, specifically ice hockey. Weirdly (for those who know me), this book got me quite interested in said sport, to the extent that I started becoming familiar with the jargon, and even watched some YouTube videos showing some of the most striking and skilled moves in the game… called dangles, for the uninitiated (see below for a sample). And it’s also a story telling how the older generation of central characters – the ones who drove the storyline of the first two books – are starting to take a back seat and let the younger generation have their say. But as mentioned above, none of these individual facts can really do justice to the wide-ranging wealth of The Last Phase Shift.

A map of Borschland (from an earlier book in the series)
A map of Borschland (from an earlier book in the series)

I have read the first two books, but am reasonably convinced that this one can be read in isolation. There are enough snippets of contextual information, woven into the tale very neatly, that you can find out anything you need to know to make sense of it.

Be warned… you might easily find yourself being drawn into the bizarre charm of Borschland, and starting to crave more stories set in and around The Continent.

The YouTube video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MJyWhkK9vw…

 

There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)

An interlude – some space news

I thought that this week I would have a quick break from the Inklings, King Arthur, and such like, and report some space news which I came across a few days ago.

Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon
Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon

But first, an update on my latest Alexa skill – Polly Reads. This showcases the ability of Alexa’s “big sister”, Polly, to read text in multiple voices and accents. So this skill is a bit like a podcast, letting you step through a series of readings from my novels. Half Sick of Shadows is there, of course, plus some readings from Far from the Spaceports and Timing. So far the skill is available only on the UK Alexa Skills site, but it’s currently going through the approval process for other sites world-wide. **update on Wednesday morning – I just heard that it has gone live world-wide now! ** Here is the Amazon US link ** 

Now the space news, and specifically about the asteroid Ceres (or dwarf planet if you prefer). Quite apart from their general interest, this news affects how we write about the outer solar system, so is particularly relevant to my near future series.

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

Many readers will know that the NASA Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Ceres for some time now – nearly three years. This has provided us with some fascinating insights into the asteroid, especially the mountains on its surface, and the bright salt deposits found here and there. But the sheer length of time accumulated to date – something like 1500 orbits, at different elevations – means that we can now follow changes as they happen on the surface.

Now the very fact of change is something of a surprise. Not all that long ago, it was assumed that such small objects, made of rock and ice, had long since ceased to evolve. Any internal energy would have leaked away millennia ago, and the only reason for anything to happen would be if there was a collision with some other external object like a meteorite. We knew that the gas giant planets were active, with turbulent storms and hugely powerful prevailing winds, but the swarms of small rocky moons, asteroids, and dwarf planets were considered static.

Ceres - Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)
Ceres – Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)

But what Dawn has shown us is that this is wrong. Repeated views of the same parts of the surface show how areas of exposed ice are constantly growing and shrinking, even over just a few months. This could be because new water vapour is oozing out of surface cracks and then freezing, or alternatively because some layer of dust is slowly settling, and so exposing ice which was previously hidden. At this stage, we can’t tell for sure which of those (or some third explanation) is true.

Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)
Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)

The evidence now suggests that Ceres once had a liquid water ocean – most of this has frozen into a thick crust of ice, with visible mineral deposits scattered here and there.

Certainly Ceres – and presumably many other asteroids – is more active than we had presumed. Such members of our solar system remain chemically and geologically active, rather than being just inert lumps drifting passively around our sun. As and when we get out there to take a look, we’re going to find a great many more surprises. Meanwhile, we can always read about them…

Simile and metaphor

I am still reading through The Inklings and King Arthur, and in all probability will be doing so for a few months to come (alongside other book, sof course). It is a very rich and stimulating book which touches on all manner of different topics.

Cover - The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)
Cover – The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)

For today I want to look at several different ways in which word images are used. The standard textbook definitions of simile and metaphor are that a simile is explicitly introduced with a word – usually “like” or “as” – but a metaphor is just presented directly. So it’s comparatively easy to spot a simile – “he ran like the wind“, “his grip was as hard as bell-metal“. But by the same token, a simile is soon over. Once the link is set up, it is pretty clear… so long as you understand the reference, there’s not a lot to add. It might be strikingly effective in its setting, but it’s soon over.

But a metaphor is usually much more open-ended, and often opens up other dimensions for the reader to explore. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” I wonder what different people take from that metaphor of Romeo’s? That she is bright, warm, life-giving, brings wakefulness after sleep? Or that she is easily hidden behind clouds, and that too much of her tends to burn you?

The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)
The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)

We bring our own history into a metaphor as we engage with it. So the person who is at the tail end of a long dark winter will read it differently to the person on a summer beach on holiday. Icarus would certainly have a different opinion!

When an author uses a simile, it is generally low-risk. The likeness is presented in a sentence, or perhaps a paragraph, and then it is gone. About the only thing that can go wrong with it is if people don’t understand the point of reference, or if the comparison is so laughable as to be absurd rather than stimulating. The annual “bad sex scene” writing awards often attract prizes when bizarre similes are used for various body parts.

But a metaphor usually permeates much more of a book. It might shape the whole storyline, or suggest features in the background which the author chooses not to specifically focus on. A common one is to use seasons to suggest emotional content: “Now is the winter of our discontent“. The writer can glide without much effort between the literal meaning of a word or concept, the associations that a reader draws in from experience, and the way that events in the book are playing out. Some authors construct very thorough associations between the two ends of the metaphorical connection.

This can make it what I called high risk – if a reader misses the link (which has never been highlighted explicitly by the author), or does not understand the connection, or finds it implausible, it’s not just an odd paragraph that suffers but potentially the whole plot. Some readers are very concrete, very literal in their approach, and don’t get the point of a metaphor. They want everything to be direct rather than indirect. For such readers, a high metaphorical content is frustrating and pointless. Readers differ, and while some will love a book which constantly points away from itself into other metaphorically connected worlds, others will not.

Cover - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)

Now, the Inklings in their own writing used metaphor on lots of levels (as well as simile). Tolkein and Lewis were both highly trained scholars in academia, and it is natural that their knowledge of old source materials informs what they wrote. So their writing can be read on lots of levels. You can certainly come at them just as stories, and when one encounters them as a child or young person that is just how most of us respond. But on rereading, other dimensions come into play. Both of those authors wanted to create a world which seemed to readers to be real, with a deep and rich history behind the events on the page. Metaphor helped them to create such worlds.

Seasonal metaphors are certainly present – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would not be the same story if we didn’t recognise and respond to the nature pictures of ice gripping the land and yielding to the sun. Aslan’s title of Son of the Emperor over the Sea pulls on two millennia of Christian imagery, and also the happy accident of the English language that Son and Sun are so alike. Frodo’s journey out from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings would not have been the same if it had happened in spring or early summer, rather than late autumn turning to winter.

It is not my purpose here to list all of the metaphors used by either author – that would be a prodigiously long task – but to highlight that they both, along with many others, used metaphors to liven and enrich their writing.

Text and Repetition

Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)
Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)

Today’s post follows on in a loose manner from last week’s, but is also inspired by thinking about film versions of books. The connection is once again the complex of tales to do with Arthur and his companions – the so-called Matter of Britain. As mentioned last time, these stories – even the oldest variants of them that we know – are in constant tension and conflict with each other. There is no single authoritative original version, and different tellers of these tales have focused on divergent features. Did Arthur die on the battlefield? Was he taken away mortally wounded to die elsewhere and be laid to rest? Did he go elsewhere to be healed, and return one day? What did happen between Lancelot and Guinevere? Was the Grail a peripheral distraction, or the vital centre of the whole company? And so many other questions, all unanswerable… or rather with so many possible answers.

Now, the group of authors we call the Inklings relished this endless magical well of possibility, and drew from it in many different ways according to their preferences and personalities. But, as the book I have been reading comments, “To some readers, the idea of endless revision may imply infidelity to a source text. Compare this to the experience of many logocentric moviegoers, who experience sharp disappointment or anger when the film adaptation of a beloved book appears to them to be a travesty of the author’s work.

Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)
Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)

Now, one feature of the Arthurian tales is that they have metamorphosed into several different media – prose, for sure, but also poetry, music, film, art, sculpture, cartoons and animation. And, allowing for the availability of these technologies, this multi-media presentation has been part of the tradition from as far back as we can trace it. Did our twelfth century ancestors argue whether the French prose Vulgate cycle was better or worse than Lazamon Brut’s massive poetic treatment? Or did they, in fact, relish and appreciate the diversity of approach?

Of course we don’t know if such a debate happened, but this whole study has made me reevaluate my own reaction to film versions of books. Like lots of us, I have in the past had the kind of “disappointment or anger” mentioned above, but am revising my views. To be sure, any book or film (or comic, or play, or musical, or opera, or whatever) might be uncompelling simply as a piece of artistry, but that is a separate matter. Just to tell the tale in a different way is not, I think, such a problem. Quite apart from the varying strengths and weaknesses of each of those media, each story-teller will choose to focus on different facets of the tale as suits their purpose and interest. And that, I think, is not a bad thing. Of which more next week…

Text and intertext

I have just started reading a non-fiction book entitled The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain. It’s not a catchy title, but so far I am hugely enjoying the content. As you might expect, it’s academic in tone, consisting of a series of essays by different people all around how the various members of “The Inklings” approached and reworked Arthurian material. And inevitably it has provoked my own thinking in various ways.

The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)
The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)

The four men mentioned in the book title had very different views on life, religion and indeed most matters, but they were united on a few quite specific areas. One was that modern life as they witnessed it emerging was poor as regards its mythological underpinnings. Another was that the Arthurian legends – the Matter of Britain – were worth keeping alive, and retelling in ways relevant to their society.

Now, one of the fascinating things about Arthurian tales is that they are in constant conflict with one another. There is no original text, no authoritative canon of tales against which some particular version can be compared. Each subsequent reteller selects the pieces they want and rejects other pieces. They put the same characters into new settings, or mix up participants in a venture. The collection of stories is hugely diverse and contradictory. What’s more, as you push back in time to look for some point of origin, the picture becomes more confusing, not less. Some of the early traditions come from England, but others from Wales, France, and Scotland, and in many cases the direction of derivation can no longer be decide with confidence.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)

Authors drawing on the Arthurian tradition over the years since then have carried this habit on. Arthur and his knights have been cast into all kinds of different settings – futuristic, fantastic, or resolutely historical. Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings did the same – they borrowed bits and pieces as they saw fit, renamed individuals and recombined them in different settings, and energised the ongoing collection of tales with their own contributions.

Now this recombination of elements of older pieces of writing into newer ones is often called intertextuality. Usually it is a conscious choice on the part of an author, but sometimes it is unconscious, and simply reflects deep familiarity with the sources. That’s from the author’s perspective. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, it means that associations and emotions triggered by the older works are drawn forward into the newer ones.

Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)
Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)

A similar process happens in film. If you have seen an actor play in a particularly striking role in one film, it is all but impossible not to see that previous character in the new one. Film-makers are, of course, well aware of this, and it often drives casting decisions. So when Christopher Lee appears as Saruman in the film version of Lord of the Rings, his previous roles in horror films constantly cast shadows around him.

Back with books and the Arthurian tradition, it has been argued that this ability to be reshaped into so many different forms is exactly what has kept it alive for so long, and through so many social changes. A fixed story that allows only one telling will wither and die, as the circumstances that gave birth to it fade into the past. By analogy with biology, successful stories are those which can adapt to new environments and new pressures.

Cover - DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)
Cover – DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)

All of which makes the quest for a historical Arthur, however interesting from a historian’s viewpoint, a rather pointless exercise from the literary one. Of course there are fascinating stories of Arthur and his companions to be told from a historical perspective – say a fifth or sixth century military leader after the Romans have left and before the Saxons consume the land. I have read some of those stories, and enjoyed them. But there are other stories of Arthur which are rooted in fantasy and magic, or where the quest for the Grail takes the questers out of our ordinary world. And stories where the company is located in another place and time. Or science fiction versions where the physical connection with England is at best tenuous. And the magic of intertextuality means that none of these are more or less proper than a conventional historical fiction version.

Thoughts along the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon
Ivinghoe Beacon

A few days ago I was walking in the Chiltern hills, at the north east end of The Ridgeway. This is often billed as Britain’s oldest road, and is known to have had some 5000 years of traffic going to and fro. I suspect that in fact usage goes back a lot further. Today’s Ridgeway (which is one of our National Trails) goes from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury (or the other way), and it is the central part of a really long route which at one time went from The Wash diagonally down to the English Channel. It is possible still to do that, by diligently joining together lots of separate paths – for example The Peddars Way gets you through large parts of East Anglia – but The Ridgeway is the section which is most generously provided with maps and signposts.

Walking on these ancient trackways always gives me a keen sense of those myriads of individuals who have walked that way before. It also invariably gives me a desire to write a story which somehow incorporates the network of paths, their very many fascinating way-stations, and the travellers themselves. But so far I have only a desire, not a plot or anything else substantial.

Part of the Avebury stone circle complex
Part of the Avebury stone circle complex

The Ridgeway is 87 miles long – in practice a little further as you have to come away from the track to find lodgings for the night, and then make your way back in the morning. It’s easy walking, and easy to finish in about a week, or else in a series of weekends with train journeys to and fro. And one of the great things about walking it is that you are covering the ground at the same rate as your remote ancestors. You’re seeing broadly the same terrain as they did (barring houses and a definite lack of trees), watching distant rises and dips in the ground approach at the same slow speed as they did, and experiencing the sun wheeling overhead from east to west in the same way.

Now, our ancestors had different motives for walking these paths than we do. We walk for recreation and inspiration, while for them, motives of trade, diplomacy, marriage, or religious festivity would be at the core. There are all kinds of monuments spread out along the paths. We understand the purpose of some of them, but others have become obscure. We wonder at the prodigious effort involved, but cannot any more grasp the function.

Wayland's Smithy, The Ridgeway
Wayland’s Smithy, The Ridgeway

It’s also worth remembering that the various sites and signs of occupancy spread out along the 90-odd miles of The Ridgeway, let alone the much longer distance of the whole route, are themselves spread out over time. It’s easy to forget this, and imagine that a Neolithic, or a Bronze Age traveller, would be seeing the same things as you are. But the reality is quite different. There are Neolithic sites like Wayland’s Smithy, dating from about 5-6000 years ago. There are Bronze Age sites like Avebury or the Uffington WHite Horse. To the people who built these – which are themselves separated by a great gulf of time – Wayland’s Smithy was already unthinkably old. Then there are Iron Age forts, ditches, and banks – and the builders of these would have lost all sense of the earlier constructions as living sites. They would simply have been relics from the past, part of the context of the new homes and sacred sites.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

It was this sense of a multi-layered land which was part of the inspiration for Half Sick of Shadows. This did not take place along The Ridgeway, but in a winding river valley. A chalk scarp overlooked the river, and the various human homes nearby, but there are many parts of southern England where that could happen. So that story is not tied to The Ridgeway – but the idea of the land changing slowly, witnessing the rapid passage of generations, was absolutely there. And in that story, there is someone for whom the changes in the land itself seem quick.

One day, perhaps, I’ll write those other stories of the ancient world and its journeys. Meanwhile I shall continue to walk parts of the old paths, and gather ideas for the tales as I do so.

How close are personable AI assistants?

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me an article talking about the present state of the art of chatbots – artificially intelligent assistants, if you like. The article focused on those few bots which are particularly convincing in terms of relationship.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, as regular readers will know, I quite often talk about the Alexa skills I develop. In fact I have also experimented with chatbots, using both Microsoft’s and Amazon’s frameworks. Both the coding style, and the flow of information and logic, are very similar between these two types of coding, so there’s a natural crossover. Alexa, of course, is predominantly a voice platform, whereas chatbots are more diverse. You can speak to, and listen to, bots, but they are more often encountered as part of a web page or mobile app.

Now, beyond the day job and my coding hobby, I also write fiction about artificially intelligent entities – the personas of Far from the Spaceports and related stories (Timing and the in-progress The Liminal Zone). Although I present these as occurring in the “near-future”, by which I mean vaguely some time in the next century or two, they are substantially more capable than what we have now. There’s a lot of marketing hype about AI, but also a lot of genuine excitement and undoubted advancement.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So, what are the main areas where tomorrow’s personas vastly exceed today’s chatbots?

First and foremost, a wide-ranging awareness of the context of a conversation and a relationship. Alexa skills and chatbots retain a modest amount of information during use, called session attributes, or context, depending on the platform you are using. So if the skill or bot doesn’t track through a series of questions, and remember your previous answers, that’s disappointing. The developer’s decision is not whether it is possible to remember, but rather how much to remember, and how to make appropriate use of it later on.

Equally, some things can be remembered from one session to the next. Previous interactions and choices can be carried over into the next time. Again, the questions are not how, but what should be preserved like this.

But… the volume of data you can carry over is limited – it’s fine for everyday purposes, but not when you get to wanting an intelligent and sympathetic individual to converse with. If this other entity is going to persuade, it needs to retain knowledge of a lot more than just some past decisions.

A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)
A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)

Secondly, a real conversational partner does other things with their time outside of the chat specifically between the two of you. They might tell you about places, people, or things they had seen, or ideas that had occurred to them in the meantime. But currently, almost all skills and chatbots stay entirely dormant until you invoke them. In between times they do essentially nothing. I’m not counting cases where the same skill is activated by different people – “your” instance, meaning the one that holds any record of your personal interactions, simply waits for you to get involved again. The lack of any sense of independent life is a real drawback. Sure, Alexa can give you a “fact of the day” when you say hello, but we all know that this is just fished out of an internet list somewhere, and does not represent actual independent existence and experience.

Finally (for today – there are lots of other things that might be said) today’s skills and bots have a narrow focus. They can typically assist with just one task, or a cluster of closely related tasks. Indeed, at the current state of the art this is almost essential. The algorithms that seek to understand speech can only cope with a limited and quite structured set of options. If you write some code that tries to offer too wide a spectrum of choice, the chances are that the number of misunderstandings gets unacceptably high. To give the impression of talking with a real individual, the success rate needs to be pretty high, and the entity needs to have some way of clarifying and homing in on what it was that you really wanted.

Now, I’m quite optimistic about all this. The capabilities of AI systems have grown dramatically over the last few years, especially in the areas of voice comprehension and production. My own feeling is that some of the above problems are simply software ones, which will get solved with a bit more experience and effort. But others will probably need a creative rethink. I don’t imagine that I will be talking to a persona at Slate’s level in my lifetime, but I do think that I will be having much more interesting conversations with one before too long!

Last year on Goodreads

At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…

In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.

Goodreads 2017 stats
Goodreads 2017 stats

In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.

The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably.  And in case it’s not obvious, I should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.

Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Writing, ancient and modern