Monday, 25 November 2013

Invent-10n - a new novella by Rod Rees


You know they’re watching, don’t you?

Invent-10n is my latest book (I call it a semi-graphic novella, that’s a novel of 60,000 words augmented with illustrations) which is to be published by Alchemy Press in December. It’s a dystopian story, following the travails of my heroine – twenty-year old jive-talking, nuBop singer and angry young lady, Jenni-Fur – as she struggles against the suffocating strictures of the surveillance society that is Britain 2030.

Invent-10n began life a long time ago – in 2009 to be exact – when I was playing around with the idea of writing a story about a world where the full implications of living in a pan-surveillance society were being played out.

My research told me that, by some margin, the British are the most watched people on the planet with one CCTV camera for every fourteen of us (a conservative estimate by the way). The reality is that no matter where we are, we’re being watched. What this also signals is how obsessed the British authorities (be they the police, security services or local councils) are with CCTV surveillance: they have become the most avaricious voyeurs in history. Worse, the brouhaha following Edward Snowden’s disclosures regarding GCHQ’s Tempora system – the hacking into the transatlantic fibre-optic cables by the British security services – indicates that the British authorities don’t just like to watch, they like to listen too!

The chilling thing is that Tempora is one and only one of the programs our spooks are developing to better access, store and analyse our e-communications: they can tap into the calls you make on your cell-phone, read what you say in the e-mails you send and monitor the opinions you post on social media sites.
The Britain of 2030 described in Invent-10n is one where this information-gathering addiction has reached its zenith (or its nadir, depending on your point-of-view) and my fictional National Protection Agency – the MI5 of 2030 Britain – is using its PanOptika surveillance system to hoover up all personal data relating to everybody in Britain.

Fiction did I say?

Infinitely large data storage capabilities coupled with the use of unfeasibly powerful algorithms means that soon (as in now!) our security services will have a real time 360⁰ portrait of each and every one of us. They will know what you did, when you did it, who you did it with and what you said while you were doing it … everything … 24/7. All of these data will be poured over looking for patterns that might suggest you’re thinking of doing something of which the government doesn’t approve.

Which brings me back to the heroine of Invent-10n, Jenni-Fur. She is a girl mindful of Scott McNealy’s famous maxim, ‘Privacy is dead, get over it’. Jenni-Fur comes to understand that curbing the inclination of the National Protection Agency to dig and delve into her life is futile: knowledge is power and politicians (the putative masters of the security services) are in the business of acquiring and wielding power. As Jenni-Fur sees it the surveillance genie will NEVER be put back in its lamp.

What Jenni-Fur also realises is that the availability of so much surveillance-gathered information puts democracy at risk. This is what she calls the ‘J. Edgar Hoover Syndrome’, where the power derived from having access to so much (often very sensitive) information has a corrupting effect on those controlling it. In a world supervised by PanOptika it is oh-so-easy to follow the declension:

Yesterday the Government was serving you …                                                 
          Today the Government is surveilling you …                
                Tomorrow the Government will be controlling you.

Jenni-Fur’s insight – her Ker-Ching Moment – comes when she understands that it isn’t the computers and cameras that threaten our freedoms but the use made of this surveillance-harvested information by the Government. Therefore she must scheme to take the human element out of the surveillance matrix, to use the computer to protect us from ourselves. To do this she teams up with mysterious übergeek, Ivan Nitko, inventor of the eponymous Invent-10n.

Jenni-Fur’s world is one where paranoia is an everyday state of mind and to communicate this I wanted to create a feeling in the mind of the reader that they were actually in that world so I came up with the idea of combining faux-factual material supposedly published in the e-media of 2030 and interlacing this with extracts from the diaries of the two chief protagonists, Jenni-Fur and National Protection Agency apparatchik, Sebastian Davenport.

Given that there would be significant design element in the book I collaborated with a friend of mine, Nigel Robinson, who did the artwork for my Demi-Monde series.

That was when I got distracted writing the four Demi-Monde books and Invent-10n lay on a dongle gathering dust. Then in March this year a friend of mine – Peter Coleborn – who I knew from the Renegade Writers’ group in Stoke sent me an e-mail asking if I had anything, novella-sized, I might consider publishing through his imprint, Alchemy Press. I remembered Invent-10n and sent a mock-up to Peter. Peter liked it (what a sensible lad!).

Now I was faced with finishing the bloody thing … and up-dating it. In this day and age four years is a technological eternity and reality had already caught up with some of the ideas I’d dreamed up back in 2009. The most alarming was that in the original Invent-10n my characters used a thing called a Polly (a Poly-Functional Digital Device) to e-interact with each other and Nigel had designed a Polly (in 2009) to look like this:

Seem familiar? One year later Apple came up with their iPad! Bollocks!

For this and other reasons I had to rework/remodel Invent-10n which took longer than I supposed – two months in fact – and then I had to hand it over to Nigel to work his design magic. The interesting thing was while Nigel beavered away the world became increasingly aware/interested in surveillance and its implications for society. The Edward Snowden revelations and the realisation (pause for gasps of surprise) the GCHQ was actually e-monitoring everybody and his brother via its Tempora system made me more determined to finish Invent-10n while the subject was hot. When I had written it in 2009 I had been writing a fantasy, now it was more a piece of social commentary.

So, what with the design requirements of the book and Peter’s various editing suggestions Invent-10n wasn’t finally finished until early September. Then I had to write the blurb which would go on the back of the book and wanting something suitably Jenni-Fur-esque I came up with this (presented à la Jenni-fur on a typewriter, which she uses to avoid the e-wigging of the National Protection Agency):

Greetings Gate, let’s Agitate.
Look over your shoulder. Do you see the camera? Then dig that even as you read these words of sedition and denial you are being watched by the ever e-quisitive National Protection Agency. The National Protection Agency – omnipresent, omniscient and most ominous – which runs PanOptika, the spider at the centre of the Web.
PanOptika. What’s the slogan: watching out for the good guys
by watching out for the bad guys. But what did that Roman word-slinger, Juvenal say? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: who watches
the watchers?
So dig this to the extremity, cats and kittens: if we do nothing soon we must kneel, digitally-dutiful, before National Protection, and then there will be no chance to zig when the ChumBots say zag, or to beep when they say bop. Realise thou that PanOptika triumphant means we will not be able to think, to act, to speak or to move without the spirit-sapping realisation that the badniks know everything … everything.
We are circling the drain.
This is my warning.

I hope you enjoy the book!

Rod Rees

Monday, 18 November 2013

Action, Action, Action, an article by Paul Melhuish

A few weeks ago I went to the cinema to watch Elysium. I was really looking forwards to it. Made by the same people who did the excellent District 9, Elysium promised a thought provoking premise and detailed, convincing CGI. The thought provoking premise was basically this; all the rich people went into space to live in a vast orbiting suburb that reminded me of parts of Surrey. These elite millionaires had found a cure for ALL disease and illness. Of course, they were all keeping all for themselves so struggling citizens from the poverty stricken Earth wanted to make it to Elysium and find a cure for their sick children or themselves. The protagonist gets a dose of radiation from the nasty robotics factory where he works and needs a cured in the next five days so takes a risky illegal flight to the orbiting space station.

All brilliant but then the fighting began. I sat through repeated action sequence after action sequence and this caused me to wonder if all these sequences were specifically put in to keep the audience happy.

So, what do I mean by keeping the audience happy? I’m not saying that Britain is populated by knuckle dragging morons who’s attention is only kept by action sequences and let me categorically state that I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. You cannot separate our society into two fractions; those who watch documentaries on BBC4 and those who watch the X Factor. I don’t believe humanity cannot be so easily categorised. I have friends who don’t have a humanities degree and like to watch the X Factor but also understand the complex metaphysical conundra central to the plot on a programme such as Life on Mars. They understand it but don’t use pretentious phrases such as ‘metaphysical conundra’ to explain it like just did.

From my perspective that film producers seem to think that you can categorise society like this and an action sequence will bring in the masses of drooling Burberry-wearing chavs to a film like Elysium because they won’t understand the plot and a fight sequence will keep them entertained. The media always underestimates the intelligence of the average citizen.

Sci-fi, in the cinema at least, now seems to equate lots of shooting with big, futuristic looking guns. Since the space-marines in Aliens stepped out onto LV-426  back in 1987 there has followed a trail of films where space marines step onto an unknown world and shot the hell out of the aliens. No wonder extra-terrestrials haven’t made contact with us when we make this kind of film about them. Apparently when signals are transmitted from Television Centre to our TV’s they are also sent out into space. We’ve been inadvertently broadcasting re-runs of Aliens, Starship Troopers and Doom into space for (light) years. We’ve also been broadcasting X –Factor and Strictly Come Dancing into space for the last ten years which may be another reason they’ve not made contact.

Literary sci-fi has its fair share of space marines-action-shoot ‘em ups but this is balanced by philosophical, thought provoking concepts. Two of Britain’s biggest selling sci-fi writers are Ian M. Banks (sorely missed) and Alistair Reynolds. Why have they never made any of these great writer’s books into films? Not enough fight scenes perhaps or maybe the media again underestimates the cinema-going public’s grasp of big thought provoking concepts. Some of the best sci-fi has been thought provoking, mind and opinion changing. Take 1984. The phrase Orwellian is now used to describe states such as North Korea. Brave New World is another example and it’s a real shock that no one has tried to put Huxley’s dystopia on the big screen (although there is a TV series from the Seventies). Perhaps, maybe, because the premise is too close to the knuckle; a society patronised by its leaders and the media, continually told to be happy and smile and not think too much. Oh, while you’re up, pass me the Soma would you?

So imagine if Winston Smith and Julia had been lying together in that rented room above the junk shop in the East end of London in Oceania. As they talk, asking each other if they are the dead a voice booms from the telescreen concealed behind the picture.

‘You are the dead! Make no move, remain exactly where you are…’

As the thought police smash their way in Winston, still naked, grabs two massive lazer guns from under the bed supplied by the Brotherhood.

‘No way, mutherfuckers, you are the dead!’

As he opens fire on the thought police Julia produces a bomb.

‘What, you’re part of the resistance too?’ gasps Winston between firing off lazer rounds.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you Winston, I had to protect you.’

‘Yeah? Well the revolution begins here baby. Let’s show these Ministry of Love bastards some real thought crime. Hey, big Brother, Eat this!!!!!’

Winston shots a helicopter out of the sky with the atomic grenade launcher, then grabs Julia’s hand and they bolt out of the shop taking out that ministry agent, the shop owner, before they by smashing his head into the telescreen by the front door.

Jason Statham would play Winston Smith and it would be in a cinema near you.

this originally appeared on Paul's website at

Monday, 11 November 2013

Moon versus Sun, by Ian Watson

This is a retrospective look at Duncan Jones´s much-lauded 2009 film Moon, with a wee bit concerning Danny Boyle´s slightly less lauded 2007 film Sunshine, written with the innocence of ignorance.  In other words I´m ignoring all the wealth of background info available to anyone who googles Wiki, and just going on my original first impressions.

In Moon, Earth is dependent for its power resources on Helium-3 scraped off the surface of our satellite by big mining machines (vaguely plausible) and sent to Earth in space torpedos.  Supervising all of this lunar activity is precisely one chap called Sam who lives in something the size of a modest shopping mall, under the illusion that he’s on a short-term contract.  (There’s another nifty  mall in the Dr Who Waters of Mars episode: enormous empty pressurised spaces for running through in panic, that must weigh hundreds of tons, although allegedly cargo space on the Mars-bound spaceship was so limited that they couldn’t even take a bicycle with them to cover the unnecessary distances from A to B and C and D and E.)

Sam non-communicates with his loving wife back home by recorded videos – none of that one-and-a-half second delay real-time communication nonsense such as has been popular since Apollo first landed.

As a companion in his solitude Sam has a clunky mobile Cyclops-eyed Artificial Stupidity which often advises him to visit the infirmary.  (Cue Hal from 2001: I–do–not-recommend-that, Sam…) For lo, unbeknownst to Sam, he is a clone with implanted false memories à la Phil Dick (think Total Recall); and his body will fall apart before too long – whereupon another clone will be awoken from the many in storage in the off-limits basement of the mall.

Evidently nobody in their right mind would ever wish, for scientific or any other reasons, to be paid to live on the Moon in a luxurious mall (especially when the mall benefits from normal Earth gravity, unlike outside where you need to move in lunar slow motion).  No, obviously you’d supervise Earth’s vital energy supply by using up, one by one, solitary clones that fall apart.  Cloning technology and cryo-storage of umpteen spares is so economical.

When Sam has an accident outside, the Artificial Stupidity mistakenly thinks he’s defunct and awakens another Sam, which leads to poignant Solaris moments of existential bewilderment, while melancholy celestial music à la Gattica plays at great length to establish a philosophical mood.  After a bit of a stand-off, Sam and Sam start playing ping-pong, which justifies the mall already being provided with a ping-pong table which usually requires a player at each end.

A discovery!  The torpedo which would supposedly send a Sam back to Earth after his stint is actually a highly efficient incinerator; there’s just a tiny trace of ash on the floor, which the Artificial Stupidity failed to completely vacuum up.

Moon so tries to be stylish and cool, but the problem is that the story is deeply silly.  Viewing the film as an unintentional farce from the outset will enhance one’s experience quite a bit.  I recommend Moon parties with a prize for the funniest catcalls.

Sunshine has a slightly dodgy idea too, namely that you can rekindle a dimmed sun by chucking a lot of our world´s fissile material into our star in the form of a superbomb.  I fancy you could toss the entire Earth into the sun without making much flicker of a difference to solar output, but never mind that.  Sunshine is so stylish and hot, as well as cool, that this doesn´t matter a hoot. Without going into details, since I don´t have enough time today (rather as Fermat scribbled in a margin that was too narrow for his Last Theorem) and since I feel metaphorical rather than analytical, Sunshine pushes all my buttons of, ahem, illumination. Emotional and dramatic and visual insight, rather than dimness, especially of wits.

(c) Ian Watson 2013

This originally appeared on The Ultimate Adventure Magazine website

Monday, 4 November 2013

Old Enough to Know Better but too Dumb to Care, an article by Rod Rees

NSFWG member Rod Rees on becoming a writer...

I’m thinking of declaring a jihad against actuaries.
My theory is that they’re in league with the government to stop me retiring. I’m getting to feel like Tantalus: every time the fruits of a pension come within reach they change the pensionable age and I’m back to square one looking for something to do that will provide me with three square a day.
And then, of course, when you could actually use an actuary – professionally rather than for fertiliser that is – there’s nary one of the buggers around. And, boy, the day I decided it would be a good idea to write a novel was sure as hell one when I could have used some advice of a statistical nature.
Gotta tell you, if deciding to write a novel is a dumb idea, then deciding to write one when you’re at the wrong end of your fifties is a really dumb idea.
Fifty is a funny age. It’s the Wednesday of your lifetime: too far from the fun-packed weekend of your youth and too far from payday ever to stand a chance. It’s the age – as Leonard Cohen so pithily reminds us – when we begin to ache in the places where we used to play. It most certainly is not an age to embark on novel writing. But then I suppose there’s no good age to start writing because it is – both actually and actuarially – a stupid occupation.
Okay, you need to be stupid to start writing a book. But read any guide to ‘writing a book’ and the word ‘determination’ features prominently, this being the trait considered necessary to finish writing a book. But in my case you can substitute ‘determination’ for ‘enraged naivety’. I was prompted to write ‘Dark Charismatic’ after watching the travesty of a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde story that was the BBC’s ‘Jekyll’. Now although I love and revere Stevenson’s tale I nevertheless accept that like many things approaching their one hundred and twenty-fifth birthday (me, for example) it could certainly handle a wash and brush up. Unfortunately as wash and brush ups go the BBC’s effort was more akin to a really good sand blasting in that it stripped all the good things away and left ... well, not much actually. And like many before me, as I sat there aghast watching this twaddle, the thought crossed my mind, ‘I could do better than that’.
Fool! Such hubris!
So I sat down and wrote ... and wrote and wrote and wrote. Two hundred and twenty thousand words to be exact, each word of them carefully, lovingly and laboriously crafted. And the final two were ‘The End’.
Now here I pause to proffer my first statistic, namely, the one regarding how many books once commenced are ever completed. My guess – and I suspect this is an amazingly generous estimate – is that no more than one in a hundred neophyte writers ever stagger across the finishing line. Around the country there must be millions of first, second and third chapters gathering dust in drawers or languishing forgotten on laptops (and long may they remain there; who needs competition). And as support for this contention I am willing to bet, dear reader, that you too are the proud possessor of an unfinished novel.
So remember that statistic: only one in a hundred books is ever finished.
Having written the bloody thing I was troubled by a rather belated thought: what do I do with it now? And the answer is, of course, get an agent. Oh, you can do it yourself, sending your unsolicited manuscript to publishers directly but you might as well spend your time attempting to roast snow. Believe me, nobody in the publishing world will touch unsolicited manuscripts. They’re the tsetse fly of the literary world: everyone’s heard of them but no one wants to come in contact with them. So I googled ‘agents + science fiction + fantasy’, chose the three I thought most receptive – that is they had kind faces – and sent off the first three chapters of my magnum opus. And waited...and waited...and waited. One outright (or is that outwrite) rejection in the form of a platitudinous standard letter, one rejection because ‘the end of the book was obvious’ – the guy must be prescient or something because I didn’t know what the ending was until a week before I sent it off – and – hurray! – one acceptance.
So back to those statistics. In later conversation with my agent (get me: ‘my agent’) he advised me that during his time in the business he’d received something north of six thousand submissions from would-be writers and as he’s currently got a stable (or should that be a pen) of forty-three authors that comes out at a newby having something like one chance in a hundred and fifty of securing an agent.
Remember that: you’ve one chance in a hundred and fifty of finding an agent.
So ‘Dark Charismatic’ was sent out ... and every publisher and his father rejected it. The general feeling was that there was too much sex in it. My fault: in retrospect what I’d written was an over-long aide-memoire, something to refer to if Alzheimer’s kicked in and I found myself with some free time on a Saturday night. So what do I do now? As I’d just spent a year wasting my time, writing unpublishable crap and earning precisely zip, the answer was obvious: I’d write another book! I think this sort of behaviour is classifiable under Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. Anyway, thus was born ‘The Demi-Monde’. Another year drifted by but this time when my agent pitched the book it was taken up by a publisher.
Remember that: there’s only one chance in two of your agent being able to find a publisher for your book.
Okay, so you’ve got a publisher now, so let’s have a look at the sales prospects for your master work. Somewhere between seventy thousand new fiction titles hit the bookshelves every year in the UK and the average sales of each are somewhere between one thousand and three thousand copies. That’s average, folks, so there are some seriously shit sales needed to compensate for the stellar success of such luminaries as Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. No matter, these average sales, by my calculations, will net the author between £500 and £1,500. That’s after two years bloody hard work (and don’t forget you’ll also have to go through the publisher’s editing process which can be enormously time consuming, especially if your grammar is as rotten as mine ... or, possibly, mine is): that works out at about 10p an hour. Minimum wage it ain’t. It makes misdirecting customers at B&Q look like a gig from heaven.
So what are your chances of your book generating something approaching a reasonable return on your investment of time – say £30,000 a year? My guess is that maybe two and a half thousand titles turn that sort of profit for their authors: one in thirty.
Remember that: one book in thirty turns an okay profit.
If I recall my statistics – and those lectures were a bloody long time ago – the chance of you finishing a book, finding an agent, having it published and turning a reasonable profit is about one in forty thousand. Or about the same chance you run of being struck by a renegade meteor ... on a Sunday ... in Slough.
That’s why, in my humble opinion, the chief quality needed by a would-be writer isn’t determination, or creativity, or style, or a wonderful plot idea ... it’s stupidity. No matter how you slice it, writing’s a mug’s game.
But to paraphrase Lloyd in ‘Dumb and Dumber’: ‘One chance in forty thousand? So you’re telling me I’ve got a chance’.

What do actuaries know anyway?