Francis Knight’s novel FADE TO BLACK (UK|US|ANZ) and the just released BEFORE THE FALL (UK|US|ANZ) are set in Mahala – a towering, vertically-built fantasy city. It’s a place that has long relied on magic, but is fast becoming mechanised – and now the first prototype guns are appearing. Francis Knight discusses below just what the introduction of arms can do to a world – fantasy or otherwise . . .
Whenever a significant discovery or invention appears, everything changes. Not always in foreseen ways either. I don’t suppose Edison or Babbage ever thought that their discoveries/inventions would mean that you’d be here today, reading this on a PC or pad. Did Edison consider that electricity would be used to carry out death sentences? Would Babbage have continued if he’d known the end result would be Rule 34?
Unforeseen consequences abound in history. If I invent this, it will make life easier for everyone! Only then, a war, or a revolution or plague, people being people, or even just a lack of imagination on the part of the inventor means that it all turns out rather differently.
The same thing goes for guns. Yes, many fantasy worlds use just swords/siege engines/whatever. But what happens to warfare when guns are added to the mix? Are they what people expect? Possibly not. The inventor of the Gatling gun noted that more died in war of infection and disease than gunfire. In 1877, Gatling wrote: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.” And of course, that worked wonderfully. (more…)
Rule 34 of the internet is, “if it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.”
(Please do not attempt to test this rule using Google with safe search switched off. That which is seen cannot be un-seen . . .)
It’s hard for us to remember today that mass adoption of the internet is less than twenty years old. Although the first routers were switched on in 1969, the net remained a toy for academic and computer industry researchers for its first twenty years. I first met it in 1989, in the course of a computer science degree; even as late as 1993, the idea that one might get internet access in one’s home was kind of outlandish.
It took the invention of the world wide web – which many people today mistake for the internet – to make it visually accessible and appealing to the masses. But in the following 20 years, it became probably the most pervasive single communications medium in human history, extruding tentacles of connectivity into our pockets by way of smartphones, infiltrating our working lives and our dreams. Not to mention our nightmares.
Back in 2010, contemplating the idea of writing a police procedural novel set perhaps ten or twelve years in the future of the internet, I found myself trying to get a handle on police practice and computing. Policing in the 21st century UK has been changing bewilderingly fast; the Home Office has, over a decade and a half, been engaged in a project of systematically replacing the main body of our criminal law (which accreted over centuries) with a properly designed, fit-for-bureaucratic-purpose replacement body of legislation. Similarly, the practice of policing has undergone successive upheavals, both in response to scandals of injustice (corruption and the fitting-up of suspects for crimes they didn’t commit) and in an attempt to grapple with maintaining order in a rapidly changing society. But policing the UK is an enormous job. You can’t get a handle on it by talking to any one person; they can only give you a worm’s eye view of what they’re involved in. In actual fact, the various British police forces employ around as many officers as the armed forces have soldiers, sailors, and airmen: and the range of activities they’re involved in is extraordinary, from handling specialist poison-sniffing dogs (used in the Scottish borders for protecting endangered raptor species from farmers and gamekeepers) to guarding nuclear reactors – by way, of course, of the Saturday night public order circus at pub chucking-out time.
Kibitzing on the anonymous blogs of working cops, you run across all sorts of illuminating rants about the day to day irritations of the job: from the best type of boots to wear when pounding the beat all day (German or Dutch paratroop boots are the business), to the headaches of the modern desk sergeant’s end-of-shift hand-over (passing your colleague the personal mobile numbers of all your constables, making sure you’ve got the correct logins and passwords on the various databases you need to update with every incident), and gripes about IT services. IT services? Well yes: policing doesn’t revolve around scraps of paper any more, the back end is as heavily automated as any other large cumbersome enterprise – and this was in 2010, remember. It’s all a far cry from the police procedurals of yore . . . by which I mean 1990.
So where, I wondered, was policing going in 2022? And, more to the point, what is policing going to entail in the world of the Internet of Things – when 3D printers have become as pervasive as personal computers in the late 1980s, so that dreams and nightmares that currently only exist on the net can extrude themselves into the physical world? What’s it going to be like, when organized criminals (whose business acumen is usually so poor that they turn to crime because they can’t compete in legitimate markets) finally begin to catch up with modern business processes? And what sort of police are we going to need to maintain order in such a chaotic and rapidly changing world?
Welcome to RULE 34. That which is seen cannot be un-seen. No exceptions!
One of the major influences on Rule 34 was a throwaway idea I borrowed from Vernor Vinge — that perhaps one of the limiting factors on the survival of technological society is the development of tools of ubiquitous law enforcement, such that all laws can be enforced — or infringements detected — mechanistically.
One of the unacknowledged problems of the 21st century is the explosion in new laws.
We live in a complex society, and complex societies need complex behavioural rules if they’re to run safely. Some of these rules need to be made explicit, because not everyone can be relied on to analyse a situation and do the right thing. To take a trivial example: we now need laws against using a mobile phone or texting while driving, because not everyone realises that this behaviour is dangerous, and earlier iterations of our code for operating vehicles safely were written before we had mobile phones. So the complexity of our legal code grows over time.
The trouble is, it now seems to be growing out of control. (more…)
I feel like announcing this with some kind of roar or perhaps a drum roll as I’ve been waiting for this for so long and today is actually LAUNCH DAY! But as we’re open plan and I’m highly unmusical I’ll let this do the job …
Charles Stross’sRule 34 (UK | ANZ) is many amazing things. It’s a fast-paced Edinburgh-based crime novel set a few years into the future. It also displays lashings of Charles Stross’s wry humour and I enjoyed more than a few winces and chuckle-out-loud moments. Another aspect I really enjoyed was Stross’s extrapolation of our current technology, where our usual gadgets have been moved on a step or three. The BBC’s Click technology programme covered augmented reality just last month, but in Rule 34 it’s a useful, fully-fledged reality.
But perhaps most importantly, I found myself completely caught up in the colourful characters (a detective inspector, a young scalleywag called Anwar and a master criminal showing signs of psychosis known as the Toymaker). There’s not the space here to revel in the bizarre crimes DI Liz Kavanaugh has to investigate (domestic appliances in unlikely places …), or talk about the highly suspicious Eastern European bread-mix young Anwar is peddling. But you can sample for yourselves by reading this plot summary or by enjoying chapter one here. (more…)