On Being Launched

Before my first novel, Roboteer, came out, I sought out the excellent Mr. Ed Cox for advice on how to function as a new author. He was a little down the authorial road from me, my Gollancz peer one year removed, and clearly doing a terrific job at it. He gave me great input and enabled me to stop worrying. But he also made one remark that really stuck. Getting your first book published, he said, was the best feeling in the world, and I shouldn’t let anything get in the way of that.

At the time, I interpreted this as meaning that it would simply feel exciting, and that the moment would come with the sensation of a life milestone passed. In the wake of my own launch, I now know better.

The launch of my first book was far different an experience than I’d imagined. It took me completely by surprise. And the thing that made it so remarkable wasn’t the thrill of seeing my title on a shelf, or getting to sign something, or feeling like I’d made it. It was to do with the people.

I should explain.

I am no stranger to public appearances. I’ve taught improv for many years. I’ve run applied improv workshops at international training conferences for audiences of hundreds. I’ve spent more time on stage than is safe or normal. By comparison, the crowd at my launch event was tiny. Yet it stripped me of the ability to think straight or write coherent sentences. Which is a problem when you’re trying to sign books.

Why was this small crowd so affecting? Because it was full of people who’d come to support me—some whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. I was faced with an unexpected gathering of old friends who’d seen that my book was coming out and had taken the time and the effort to come and participate in that moment. This despite the fact that I’d buggered off to California many years before and had barely exchanged words with some of them. And their kind contribution left me speechless.

You see, over the last decade or so, my relationship with the UK has been thinning out. My mother’s health has been slowly waning. My wife and I have been under increasing pressure from work. And now we have a son, which makes travel complicated. This all means that a visit to the UK has increasingly been a visit to the tiny village where my parents live, where you can buy eggs, but not a lot else. Even a trip to the pub requires a yomp across a field to the next hamlet over. Old friends and old haunts have slid ever further down our priority stack as it has become clearer that the remaining time with my mum and dad is very finite. Britain, for me, has become an old stone house on a quiet corner under heavy West Country skies—a microscopic nation steeped in goodbyes.

Add to that the strangeness of launching a book in the UK from the US. For the large part, the experience has felt utterly unreal. Most of my interaction with the publishing world has happened through email. Meanwhile, my day to day existence has remained essentially unchanged. It has sometimes been hard to shake the suspicion that the whole thing is an internet scam.

To go from that to a room full of long lost friends knocked me completely sideways. As I sat at the signing table, I was presented with a continuum stream of faces from different episodes of my life, all out of order, all wanting to see me succeed. The only reason I managed to not tear up on the spot was that I was so persistently startled. Fortunately, I had phenomenal support from my Gollancz team. They offered gentle guidance where necessary, and ensured that I didn’t lose the plot completely.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what I wrote in those books was hopelessly bland. I was concentrating on being able to sign my name correctly. Which, as it turns out, was tricky. So, to everyone who I signed for, my apologies. I’ll do better next time. And for all of you aspiring authors anticipating your first launch, I say this: get ready for brain-fry.

There is nothing that can prepare you for that moment. I’m sure different for everyone, of course, but I also suspect that it’s always profound in some way. For me, it was a little like getting married. There were so many people I wanted to talk to and catch up with, and so little time to do it in. When you get married, at least, you get to pick the guest list, and you have a spouse to back you up. When you’re launched, there’s none of that. You are adrift and there is no raft.

Now, several days later, I am left with a warm glow of gratitude and a renewed sense of connection to the country I grew up in. So, to everyone out there who came, or wanted to come, or even just looked at the pictures of me online, grinning like a dork—I salute you. Thank you all for giving me a day that will be burned into my memory—pleasantly—forever.

Greece, Germany, Banks

Poor old Greece wants the EU to stop predating on its economy with unsustainable loan arrangements. Poor old Germany doesn’t want to be out of pocket due to the Greeks. The Greeks want to believe that the Germans and the EU are cheating them out of their future. The Germans want to believe that the Greeks are cheating them out of money they made through hard work. The internet knows this already, so why am I talking about it?

Because there’s something else important here that I haven’t seen clearly articulated yet, though many bloggers have come close. Those loans were originally made to Greece not by governments, but by private banks. Those banks are considered too big to fail by their host countries. When it became clear that the loans were unsustainable, the host countries bought that debt to prevent the banks from toppling. The banks knew this would happen, so they had extended themselves as far as they could.

By the time the European governments were left holding the bomb, the banks had already made out like bandits. All that phony risk had turned into reward. Now Greece and Germany are both left with empty pockets pointing at each other while the people who actually destabilized Europe walk away scot-free.

Now Greece is on the hook, and will be so indefinitely until it abandons the Euro. Germany is next in the firing line. And as soon as the Euro looks fragile the banks of the world will bet against it, make it harder for Germany to borrow or manage the foreign debt they’ll be left holding. The banks will drain its economy so long as an excuse persists. Either way, somebody will take it in the neck, and it won’t be the banks.

So far as I’m aware, this is common knowledge in finance-land. Many of the rest of us have figured it out too. Some of us have talked to people working in banks and have heard clear accounts of how the Greek scam was perpetrated. Yet the governments concerned will never admit that they have been impoverished in this way, or reveal the risks they still face. Why?

Because, I’d propose, we are involved in what you might call a bank war. With the rise of China, control of the world economy is up for grabs. Everyone is letting their banks duke it out, because they believe that whichever governments host the winning banks will be the ones holding onto a viable tax base and the reins of power. Those governments that have invested heavily in the power of their banks, like the US, Britain, and Germany, can never admit to have handed economic control to those organizations, because that would put the brakes on their own banks’ progress.

Many of you may read this interpretation and consider it too charitable. Plainly there are a lot of people in politics and finance who are simply out to get rich. Others might take issue with the term bank war, and doubt whether anyone articulates it to themselves as such. But the fact remains that politicians in these countries consider their finance sectors so important that they cannot permit them to fail. They see the prosperity of their entire country as bound up in the health of their banks. Not their factories, or their farms, or their people, but their banks. Healthy banks, they reason, make everything else possible. Except of course, this is backwards. Banks contribute nothing to the world economy but a set of leaky pipes for moving funds from place to place. Luxembourg, for instance, is not a healthy country. Luxembourg is a healthy parasite. And when everyone is a parasite, everyone is dead.

This reversal of priorities, I’d propose, is what defines a bank war. You can’t be in a bank war and call it one. Because at that point it becomes a war. You can only be in a bank war while you’re terrified for your economic well-being enough to turn your tax-paying citizens into collateral damage while refusing to acknowledge that this implicitly constitutes a form of conflict. Which is what is happening in Europe.

Whether you buy this definition or not, there is a problem here. The power that has been handed to the banks is not coming back. And the banks have little or no interest in supporting the governments that host them. What western governments are getting instead of a grip on global power is having their economic might stripped by the depletion of the middle classes that fuel them and keep them prosperous. As is becoming clear to everyone at this point, austerity policies achieve nothing except concentrating wealth in the hands of those who already have it.

Western governments don’t think they can stop, though. Because to stop is to lose the war. And the banks, meanwhile, will suck up as much money as they can see, because that’s what they do. Which is unfortunate, because there is no way to win a bank war. Money that gets locked in the hands of the wealthy stops functioning as money. It becomes a lifeless peacock’s tail on the backside of the global economy. That means that plutocrats and oligarchs have to struggle harder against their opponents for less gain. They have to watch the shadows ever more closely because the knives come out everywhere. Everyone loses, including the banks, because the power they’re left with can’t be used for anything except gripping tightly. Welcome to the Malthusian trap where the only thing more dangerous than being a peasant is to be royalty.

The current crisis in Europe is a farce. Everyone knows where the money went. Governments in Europe need to come clean, rein in their bankers, and step out of the bank war, despite the frightening costs entailed. Not because of compassion, or justice, or fairness—nice aims though they may be. They need to do it because the alternative cost to everyone, including themselves, is far higher. In the choice between recession and ruin, recession is the better bet.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz on the 16th July.)

Let’s Play God

Let’s start today by answering a few nice chewy questions that some people have spent far too long worrying about.

  • Q: Did God create life? A: No.
  • Q: Is life a miracle? A: No.
  • Q: Is the creation of life on Earth a mystery? A: No.
  • Q: Was the creation of life an unlikely event? A: No.
  • Q: Can I have a go, preferably on my tea-break? A: Yes.

We can be utterly confident of these answers. Why? Because life is trivially easy to make and I’m going to show you how to do it. Then, if you want to play God and initiate Genesis on your laptop, all you’ll need to do is cut some code and hit run. As many times as you like, with as many variations as you like. You can spend your afternoon having Yahweh-happy-fun-times and see how far you get at reproducing Eden.

During my brief time at Princeton, there were a few simulation results that I built which really got me excited and this was one of them. It demonstrates that far from being mysterious or difficult to model, life can show up anywhere. All you need is a system that supports a suitably dense set of copying operations.

Before I explain what that means, I should first explain what I mean by creating life. It’s a pretty charged phrase with a lot of connotations. And what I’m not going to do is show you how to build Frankenstein’s monster in your living room. So for those who want to quibble over the implications of this result, this is where we get quibbly.

What I mean by life is a self-organizing, self-reproducing system that’s capable of adaptation. And what I mean by create is that this life will assemble itself from raw ingredients in its environment. And that those raw ingredients are in isolation not alive. I’m not talking about biochemistry here, and I’m not going to demonstrate any metabolic processes. This Genesis event will be entirely digital in nature, and very, very simple.

Some of you may wonder why, in that case, I imagine there’s anything new or special in this post. People have been messing around with artificial life since about 1993. The Tierra system has been used as the basis for numerous papers on artificial abiogenesis.

The answer is that I’ve never seen an artificial life system that boils down the requirements for life quite so much, or organizes so fast. The simulation I’m going to show you allows you to watch evolution, of a sort, in real time. What it proves is that, under the right conditions, life is an unavoidable consequence of thermodynamics. You can’t stop it from showing up. It’s more a matter of falling down stairs than inspired creation.

So how do you do create life-lite? Here’s how:

  1. Build a big grid of cells.
  2. Fill each cell with a randomly generated copying instruction. Each instruction should take the form: copy the instruction at position X relative to me to the cell at position Y. For instance, a cell might say, “Copy from 3 north and 2 left to 1 south and 4 right”.
  3. Pick a cell at random. Execute the instruction there, so long as it does not result in an instruction copying a copy of itself. If you pick a cell at the edge, copy from the opposite side of the grid, just as you might to wrap a computer game screen.
  4. Repeat step 3 until a single species has devoured all others.

Start running it and you get something like this. (I’ve colored the cells based on the instruction they contain to make the whole thing easy to see.)

It’s that simple. You can watch it evolving. Voila Genesis. But why does it work? After all, we’ve explicitly forbidden any instruction from copying itself.

It works because once patterns of instructions appear that mutually self-copy, they spread. And that means they take over from instructions that don’t spread. Another way of saying this is that in a system that’s dense in copying operations, self-replicating patterns are the entropic outcome. Furthermore, the simplest, fastest, most robust self-replicating patterns are likely to be the ones that dominate.

Clearly this simulation approach has limitations. The only kind of adaptation that can happen is when copying patterns start interfering with each other. There’s no true mutation. Furthermore, the descriptive limits on the instructions mean that life can only ever get so far. This simulation, sadly, never tries to take over the world.

But I find this digital petri-dish wonderful to watch in any case. It’s exciting to see the little digital critters duke it out for dominance. The result is different every time you watch. And, as a science fiction writer, I find this model powerfully suggestive. If it’s this easy to kick off self-replicating systems under the right conditions, have we underestimated the range of possible conditions where alien life might arise? And given that this kind of life is so easy to make, why isn’t it filling up our computers already? What is it about our existing digital environment that’s not adequately copy-rich?

To my mind, this simulation makes it clear that the real mystery on Earth isn’t the creation of life itself. Life starts the moment you create the right conditions. The real question is how those conditions arise in the first place. Understand that, and we might be able to reproduce them, both digitally and physically. Once we can do that, playing God won’t just be easy or fun to watch, it’ll be world-changing.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz on July 16th.)