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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the weekend I came across one of those many internet tropes – a quote from someone, on a pretty background, with no interpretive comment by the poster. I must admit that normally I ignore these and scroll past them to a post which has more engagement with a real person. But this one did actually catch my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I was already thinking about.
Here’s the quote (without the pretty background)
“Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities” (Miriam Allen deFord)
Of course I started worrying at this, like a lively dog chewing at a toy. Leaving aside the rather pleasing symmetry of words, did I actually agree with it? The lady to whom the quote is attributed was an American writer whose main activity was in the mid-twentieth century. She was roughly contemporary with EE (Doc) Smith, a generation down from HG Wells, and rather older than Isaac Asimov. Most of her writing was in the form of short stories for magazines, though she wrote a few novels as well. She straddled the genres of mystery writing, true crime accounts, and science fiction – for the curious who don’t want to shell out real money, several of her works are on the Project Gutenberg site.
So, did I end up agreeing with the sentiment? Well, not really. Miriam Allen deFord was writing in a time when genres were quite strictly defined, especially by those individuals who ran the magazines of the day. Those people were hugely influential within their sphere, and were instrumental in founding the writing careers of a lot of people. But their personal likes and dislikes shaped what was written. Allegedly, Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about alien life because John Campbell, editor at Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog), had a personal antipathy to that kind of storyline. In Asimov’s case, the habit was so strong that, so far as I can recall, aliens appear just twice in his writing – in a parallel universe in The Gods Themselves, and in an enormously far ahead future in The End of Infinity.
We live today in a different world. Genres do not create such important divisions. This is most true in the indie world, but successful authors in the trad world also experiment with crossing genre boundaries. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro has explored several non-standard plotlines and combinations. But many indie authors positively revel in creating books which don’t fit traditional pigeonholes.
Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are often bundled together under the joint heading “speculative fiction”, with less perceived importance on whether the particular book fits one side or the other of some imaginary line. To be sure, there is still a spectrum of actual content, from “hard” science fiction in which the science bit seeks to be as credible as possible, through to fantasy which does not even seek a rational justification for actions or attributes. Most of my science fiction writing leans towards the geeky end of that spectrum, with Half Sick of Shadows a striking exception. Anyway, within that spectrum there are enormous areas of mixed colour – plot elements for which either a scientific or fantasy explanation might be found, and about which perhaps different characters in the book might hold different opinions. I think that’s fine, and a sign that the whole field has matured from a kind of binary opposition.
Well, a couple of weeks have passed and it’s time to get back to blogging. And for this week, here is the Alexa post that I mentioned a little while ago, back in December last year.
First, to anticipate a later part of this post, is the extract of Alexa reciting the first few lines of Wordsworth’s Daffodils…
It has been a busy time for Alexa generally – Amazon have extended sales of various of the hardware gizmos to many other countries. That’s well and good for everyone: the bonus for us developers is that they have also extended the range of countries into which custom skills can be deployed. Sometimes with these expansions Amazon helpfully does a direct port to the new locale, and other times it’s up to the developer to do this by hand. So when skills appeared in India, everything I had done to that date was copied across automatically, without me having to do my own duplication of code. From Monday Jan 8th the process of generating default versions for Australia and New Zealand will begin. And Canada is also now in view. Of course, that still leaves plenty of future catch-up work, firstly making sure that their transfer process worked OK, and secondly filling in the gaps for combinations of locale and skill which didn’t get done. The full list of languages and countries to which skills can be deployed is now
English (Australia / New Zealand)
Based on progress so far, Amazon will simply continue extending this to other combinations over time. I suspect that French Canadian will be quite high on their list, and probably other European languages – for example Spanish would give a very good international reach into Latin America. Hindi would be a good choice, and Chinese too, presupposing that Amazon start to market Alexa devices there. Currently an existing Echo or Dot will work in China if hooked up to a network, but so far as I know the gadgets are not on sale there – instead several Chinese firms have begun producing their own equivalents. Of course, there’s nothing to stop someone in another country accessing the skill in one or other of the above languages – for example a Dutch person might consider using either the English (UK) or German option.
To date I have not attempted porting any skills in German or Japanese, essentially through lack of necessary language skills. But all of the various English variants are comparatively easy to adapt to, with an interesting twist that I’ll get to later.
So my latest skill out of the stable, so to speak, is Wordsworth Facts. It has two parts – a small list of facts about the life of William Wordsworth, his family, and some of his colleagues, and also some narrated portions from his poems. Both sections will increase over time as I add to them. It was interesting, and a measure of how text-to-speech technology is improving all the time, to see how few tweaks were necessary to get Alexa to read these extract tolerably well. Reading poetry is harder than reading prose, and I was expecting difficulties. The choice of Wordsworth helped here, as his poetry is very like prose (indeed, he was criticised for this at the time). As things turned out, in this case some additional punctuation was needed to get these sounding reasonably good, but that was all. Unlike some of the previous reading portions I have done, there was no need to tinker with phonetic alphabets to get words sounding right. It certainly helps not to have ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, or futuristic names in the mix!
And this brings me to one of the twists in the internationalisation of skills. The same letter can sound rather different in different versions of English when used in a word – you say tomehto and I say tomarto, and all that. And I necessarily have to dive into custom pronunciations of proper names of characters and such like – Damariel gets a bit messed up, and even Mitnash, which I had assumed would be easily interpreted, gets mangled. So part of the checking process will be to make sure that where I have used a custom phonetic version of someone’s name, it comes out right.
Wordsworth Facts is live across all of the English variants listed above – just search in your local Amazon store in the Alexa Skills section by name (or to see all my skills to date, search for “DataScenes Development“, which is the identity I use for coding purposes. If you’re looking at the UK Alexa Skills store, this is the link.
The next skill I am planning to go live with, probably in the next couple of weeks, is Polly Reads. Those who read this blog regularly – or indeed the Before The Second Sleep blog (see this link, or this, or this) – may well think of Polly as Alexa’s big sister. Polly can use multiple different voices and languages rather than a fixed one, though Polly is focused on generating spoken speech rather than interpreting what a user might be saying (the module in Amazon’s suite that does the comprehension bit is called Lex). So Polly Reads is a compendium of all the various book readings I have set up using Polly, onto which I’ll add a few of my own author readings where I haven’t yet set Polly up with the necessary text and voice combinations. The skill is kind of like a playlist, or maybe a podcast, and naturally my plan is to extend the set of readings over time. More news of that will be posted before the end of the month, all being well.
The process exposed a couple of areas where I would really like Amazon to enhance the audio capabilities of Alexa. The first was when using the built-in ability to access music (ie not my own custom skill). Compared to a lot of Alexa interaction, this feels very clunky – there is no easy way to narrow in on a particular band, for example – “The band is Dutch and they play prog rock but I can’t remember the name” could credibly come up with Kayak, but doesn’t. There’s no search facility built in to the music service. And you have to get the track name pretty much dead on – “Alexa, Play The Last Farewell by Billy Boyd” gets you nowhere except for a “I can’t find that” message, since it is called “The Last Goodbye“. A bit more contextual searching would be good. Basically, this boils down to a shortfall in what technically we call context, and what in a person would be short-term memory – the coder of a skill has to decide exactly what snippets of information to remember from the interaction so far – anything which is not explicitly remembered, will be discarded.
That was a user-moan. The second is more of a developer-moan. Playing audio tracks of more than a few seconds – like a book extract, or a decent length piece of music – involves transferring control from your own skill to Alexa, who then manages the sequencing of tracks and all that. That’s all very well, and I understand the purpose behind it, but it also means that you have lost some control over the presentation of the skill as the various tracks play. For example, on the new Echo Show (the one with the screen) you cannot interleave the tracks with relevant pictures – like a book cover, for example. Basically the two bits of capability don’t work very well together. Of course all these things are very new, but it would be great to see some better integration between the different pieces of the jigsaw. Hopefully this will be improved with time…
I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…
So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.
Specially, I read this:
We have completed the review process for your book “Half Sick of Shadows” and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work. In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.
Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!
A follow-up to my earlier post this week, catching up on some more news. But first, here is a couple of snaps (one enlarged and annotated) I took earlier today in the early morning as I walked to East Finchley tube station.
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars, annotated
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars
All very evocative, and leads nicely into my next link, which is a guest post I wrote for Lisl’s Before the Second Sleep blog, on the subject of title. Naturally enough, it’s a topic that really interests me – how will human settlements across the solar system adapt to and reflect the physical nature of the world they are set on?
In particular I look at Mars’ moon Phobos, both in the post and in Timing. So far as we can tell, Phobos is extremely fragile. Several factors cause this, including its original component parts, the closeness of its orbit to Mars, and the impact of whatever piece of space debris caused the giant crater Stickney. But whatever the cause… how might human society adapt to living on a moon where you can’t trust the ground below your feet? For the rest of the post, follow this link.
And also here’s a reminder of the Kindle Countdown offer on most of my books, and the Goodreads giveaway on Half Sick of Shadows. Here are the links…
Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of this coming weekend.
All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at £0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively – but once again only until the end of the weekend. Links for these are:
It’s been an exceptionally busy time at work recently, so I haven’t had time to write much. But happily, lots of other things are happening, so here’s a compendium of them.
First, Half Sick of Shadows was reviewed on Sruti’s Bookblog, with a follow-up interview. The links are: the review itself, plus the first and second half of the interview. “She wishes for people to value her but they seem to be changing and missing… She can see the world, but she always seemed curbed and away from everything.”
Secondly, right now there’s a whole lot of deals available on my novels, from oldest to newest. Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of next weekend.
All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at £0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively. Links for these are:
Amazon rules prevent me from putting Half Sick of Shadows on a countdown deal (it’s already too economically priced) but in order to be more or less consistent there is a Goodreads giveaway of three copies running at the same time – just follow the link on or after December 10th to enter!