The Rise of the Robots

The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, Oneworld, 334pp, £9.99
The Rise of the Robots coverTechnology and the threat of mass unemployment.
Whenever a new machine is introduced to replace human labour, we are told that this is progress, and that the humans displaced will find less deadening jobs elsewhere, that they can be retrained to work in other industries, and so on. Who still believes this? For many people, the search for a job entails hundreds of applications and futile visits to the jobcentre, and for those in work, it means a struggle to make ends meet on the minimum wage or a zero-hours contract. Well-paid jobs for blue-collar workers or for the middle classes are disappearing. Why? What is happening?
Martin Ford’s book provides many of the answers. The replacement of mass employment by automation has been going on for many decades, and the effects have garnered little public attention. It’s only when one is forced to look at ‘then’ and ‘now’ that the differences are apparent. Films of factories taken fifty or sixty years ago show thousands of workers streaming out of the gates in cloth caps and filling the streets. The typical new facility of today is an automated factory, or a vast datacentre in which you’d need a sniffer dog to find an employee anywhere.
As Ford points out, advanced technology systems being developed today have the potential to make almost any routine job, whether in a workshop or at a keyboard, obsolete. Mass production in factories is now largely automated, and a host of other jobs are under attack. Driverless cars are news, and in a few years will be threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs. If you can summon up a driverless car to take you where you want to go, who needs taxi drivers? Or delivery van drivers? Or do you need to own a car at all? If you don’t, the number of cars required to serve the population will be far less. Meaning fewer dealerships, filling stations, car parks and repair shops. The disruption caused by Uber will be as nothing compared with this.
A popular job for newly qualified lawyers is searching for documents relevant to a legal case. This can be automated too.
Do you eat at McDonalds? There is one in Milton Keynes where the row of clerks at the counter has been replaced by rows of terminals where patrons can select and order their meals. Catering is one of the remaining providers of mass employment (admittedly not well paid) but this too is now under attack.
There are statistics that show how while the number of people in the labour market is rising, the number of hours worked stagnates, and the wages and salaries paid remain static or fall.
The trend is clear enough and leads to a future in which a super-rich elite holds most of the wealth and the remainder of the population struggles to find any work or gain any income. And how will this affect the economy? A capitalist economy needs mass consumption, but robots don’t consume, and people on the breadline consume very little. The outlook for the economy is not good.
To put it plainly: No jobs = no spending = no mass market = no economy.
Ford offers a possible solution – that all citizens be given a guaranteed income so that they can feed and house themselves, and carry on participating in the economy, even if they don’t work. the cost of this could be met, Ford suggests, by reassigning the sums spent on jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, disability benefit, etc, and their inefficient administration, increasing the taxes on the rich and making international corporations actually pay some tax. Surprisingly, this has been looked into in a small way in a few countries, but I’m not holding my breath for this to happen in the UK or the USA any time soon. You can easily deduce how Tory politicians will react to this idea, since they have not grasped that Austerity is having the same effect on the economy as the destruction of employment…
Read this book.

The Eye of the World

I wrote this review in the 1990’s. I didn’t think much of it then …
Robert Jordan, THE EYE OF THE WORLD, (Orbit, 670pp, £7.99 trade.).
The cover illustration shows some characters, armed, and on horseback, and the blurb calls the book ‘A splendid epic of heroic fantasy’.
Inside it’s much as you’d expect of Book One of a fantasy series. The rustic hero, Rand, caught up in events beyond his village, is sought by rising dark forces and hunted by various foulnesses called Trollocs, Darkfriends etc. while a sorceress and Warden aid him and his young companions. Magical power is centred in distinct male and female powers; while the female is still effective the male half is tainted with evil and drives its wielders into madness.
The characterisation is a weak point in this otherwise diligently constructed epic; even after 300,000 words one has little insight into these people. The author tends to label them with single attributes, so that one is ‘obstinate’, another ‘broad-shouldered’, another ‘mischevous’ and so on. Possibly the best inventions in the whole book are the Whitecloaks, a truly sinister bunch of armed religious fanatics and sorcery-haters.
The book is something of a page-turner; but the mechanical plotting is at the same time an irritant; as soon as some trouble is outlined one can be sure that our young heroes will do the most foolhardy thing and fall right into it, and then be rescued by some deus ex machina means. At the end of this volume their immediate problem is overcome with unconvincing ease.
Recommended for fantasy quest addicts and uncritical adolescents only.
(Reviewed by Geoff Cowie)

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century: Stephen Pinker, Penguin £9.99, 360pp.
Sense of Style cover What is good prose? There is no shortage of advice on the subject, and plenty of books on writing style. If that wasn’t enough, opinions vary, from the style nazis who quote lots of awkward rules, to the other extreme.
Pinker says that he loves reading style manuals, but goes on to say that he thinks a lot of them miss the point and are based on a shaky understanding of grammar.
He does not think that writing was was better in the old days, but that style still matters for getting your intended point across.
Major chapters include examples of good writing, how to avoid writing bureaucratic and other stuffy prose, how to avoid ‘the curse of knowledge’ and avoid baffling your reader, understanding syntax, and how to ensure that one idea follows another in a clear way.
The final chapter relates how to make sense of the rules of grammar, word choice and punctuation. This is the most interesting chapter, as Pinker lists which rules make sense and which are fairy tales and should be ignored. Some ‘rules’ arise from a mistaken notion that rules that apply to Latin ought to apply to English.
This is a most useful book which steers a middle course between free for all and overly prescriptive ‘rules’. Pinker is no self-appointed ‘expert’, but is Chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and the author of several books on language.

Rats and Gargoyles

Mary Gentle, RATS AND GARGOYLES,(Bantam, 1990, 412pp, £12.95)
Rats and Garg I had heard good reports of this book, but about fifty pages into it I had begun to fear that I had exposed some hype, that the Emperor was, after all, rather scantily clad. How so?
Mary Gentle is, clearly, very bright. She was too restless at school to do anything but write and play truant, and left as soon as she could. An early novel, HAWK IN SILVER, was published by Gollancz shortly after. She did many menial jobs before returning to full-time education at the age of 26, studying for a BA and, latterly, a Ph.D. Her early reputation was based on a surprisingly small number of books: only three: GOLDEN WITCHBREED, ANCIENT LIGHT, and a short story collection, SCHOLARS AND SOLDIERS. The latter contains, in two novellas, the germ of RATS and GARGOYLES.
I had come to this book with expectations raised by some extensive media coverage and reviews, including a half-page feature in the Sunday Correspondent, and also enthusiastic reports from acquaintances, not to mention a reading of Gentle’s earlier ANCIENT LIGHT. At the outset, I found RATS well done, but resembling, disturbingly, a superior Swords and Sorcery, with no single character emerging as the protagonist. It gets better, though. The city at the Heart of the World unfolds, (in its five quarters, North, South, East, West and Aust). At its heart is the Fane, a cathedral, or black abyss, home of the Thirty-six Decans, the Gods, or demons, on Earth. The helpless human populace are ruled by sentient and courtly Rat-lords, and a guild of masons labours to enlarge the Fane. The humans hope to dislodge the Rat-Lords, while the Rat-Lords scheme among themselves and hope to rid themselves of the Decans. The Decans have a swarm of demon-acolytes, winged reptilian horrors with a tendency of crushing dissent with fang and claw. Other, odder things are going on below and, as they say, at sea.
The previous novels GOLDEN WITCHBREED and its sequel ANCIENT LIGHT have a more conventional narrative style; formally SF, they have all the richness of character and description of a fantasy novel, and fairly obviously, they are about colonialism. The apparent formlessness of RATS is therefore all the more disconcerting. The cast of characters is rich and strange, a dashing Rat-Cardinal, Plessiez; a Rabelasian Lord-Architect, Casaubon; Lucas, a prince attending the University of Crime; a couple of Scholar-Soldiers; a blonde buxom lamdlady; the Rat-Cardinal’s fur-tailed girl protege Zar-bettu-zekigal, and her mage sister; and an underworld female pretender to the human Imperial Dynasty, lurching about in plate armour like some crazed Joan of Arc. There is a raffish young lecturer at the University of Crime who promises to be a major protagonist but soon fades, and some clerics who worship trees.
None of these is the major protagonist; indeed there isn’t one, and the author reveals in an interview with Colin Greenland* that this uniquely democratic state of affairs is entirely deliberate. The scene cuts sharply – snip! – from one part of the storyline to another several times within a chapter, requiring the reader to look sharp. The story has much to do with magia, medieval magic, Masonic arcana and Masons, and a rotting of the fabric of things. Some of the artefacts, the steam-trains, the microphones, the oily siege-engines, are of a refreshing modernity. For half of the book one has little idea what is going on, plotwise; then it gathers itself, the plotting thickens and there are dire events, culminating in the tumbling of the Fane. One is never sure who are the bad guys. Perhaps, one thinks as one explores, there aren’t any. Can it really all end badly?
There is a great deal of originality here, inspired by Gentle’s researches (this is one of the few novels to have a Bibliography as an appendix), and a refreshing absence of the usual fantasy tropes and cliches. The descriptive style is, as in the WITCHBREED novels, rich, even obsessive. Constantly, ears are scratched, tails coiled, clothes spattered, bodies smell of sweat and feel the summer heat (often), clothes are besmeared with mud and other substances, skirts flash, characters move restlessly and so on. Adherents to the autobiographical theory of criticism will care to note that Gentle is herself a redhead, like the Scholar-Soldier White Crow, and a keen participant in swordfighting and battle games.
One might wish that more had been made of the modern elements, to give the book a contemporary resonance, but there is much in it that is very fine. And there are more ideas in one chapter than in a whole shelfload of Dragonlance and its ilk. A book, perhaps, more for those for those who see Fantasy as literature than for those who read Fantasy to immerse themselves in imaginary worlds.

* INTERZONE #42, p49 et seq.

Two SF Novels by Tolstoy

TWO RUSSIAN SF NOVELS

Aelita cover At the Sou’Wester Eastercon some years ago I bought two books from a stall manned by Russian fans. These books, published in the USSR (sic) by Raduga Publishers, Moscow, and printed in English, looked like interesting mementoes of the ‘Con’.
Both are by Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945), a distant relative of the author of “War and Peace.” Alexei Tolstoy is one of the most widely read authors in Russia, highly regarded there both for his science fiction and for his epic historical works.
AELITA (1923), though not well known in the West, is a famous book in Russia and one of the Russian SF clubs is named after it. A movie version (still occasionally shown)) was made in 1924.
At the opening of the novel, in Petrograd c. 1920, Archibald Skiles sees an advertisment posted by the engineer M.S.Los, asking for volunteers to fly with him to Mars. Skiles interviews Los, and sees the experimental spacecraft, a complicated and hi-tech device by 1920’s standards. While Skiles is at the workshop, a volunteer, Red Army soldier Gusev, introduces himself. Gusev, unlike the other two, is no intellectual, but a restless, practical sort, who is quite ready to desert his wife for a new adventure. Los, a widower, is equally ready to go and face possible death.
Los’s experiments are funded by the Soviet State, so the launch is attended by a group of officials and newspaper reporters. The ship makes a swift passage to Mars and lands safely. Their speed has been such that their watches record a passage of 19 hours, though 24 days have passed on Earth.
Los and Gusev find that Mars has breathable air, and the immediate surroundings are a desert with cacti. They find signs of cultivation, and realise that they are walking in the bottom of a dry canal. They soon make contact with the inhabitants, who have flying machines, and are captured and brought to first a city, then an isolated house. During the flight they see mostly ruins and desolation. During their detention, Gusev talks of plunder and of annexing Mars to the Russian Federative Republic, while Los talks of gathering wisdom.
Soon they are introduced to a graceful young Martian female, Aelita. With some Martian technology resembling video she starts teaching them the language, and is subsequently able to narrate them some Martian history; a history of conflict, of invasion from Earth by Atlanteans.
A love affair between Los and Aelita develops. They learn that a faction of the High Council, led by Aelita’s father, means them no good. A revolution starts in the city, and Gusev, the man of action, escapes and joins in. Aelita’s father, Tuscoob, escapes into an underground labyrinth and launches a destructive counter-attack. Los and Gusev escape. In the final scene, Los is back on Earth, listening to Aelita’s voice calling to him by radio.

ENGINEER GARIN AND HIS DEATH RAY (1925),

Garin page illustration
Garin pic. page
has a number of rather larger-than-life characters: glamorous femme fatale Zoya Montrose, Rolling, a rapacious American capitalist, and Garin, a mysterious engineer who soon displays ruthless tendencies. Following an unexplained murder of a man who turns out to be Garin’s double, Garin is pursued to Paris by Shelga, a Petrograd detective, and the nature of Garin’s activities and his deal with Rolling and his ultimate aim is gradually revealed. Garin, in fact, has invented a heat ray powered by chemicals which burn to produce intense heat. The rays are focussed by a ‘hyperboloid’ to destructive effect. (Any physicists among you may object that it should have been a paraboloid; according to the foreword Tolstoy was well aware of this and used the hyperboloid as a symbol of artistic exaggeration.)
Garin uses the ray ruthlessly first to aid Rolling’s capitalist schemes and then to further his own fascistic plan for world domination. Once he gains control of Rolling’s wealth he uses it to occupy a small Pacific island and drill down to the magma belt in search of gold. When the gold, in huge quantities, is recovered to the surface, Garin uses it to destroy the economy of the United States.
The novel starts in Petrograd and the scene shifts to Paris, Germany, a yacht at sea, the Soviet Far East and other locations. The story is accompanied by technical details and sketches which even today seem quite plausible by popular SF standards and must have seemed more so in 1925 when our knowledge of physics and the earth’s crust was less advanced. Tolstoy’s education was engineering-based.
The hardbacked edition of GARIN which I obtained has unusual full-page colour illustrations, most of which are rather good, being painted in a vigorous modern and in one case decidedly art-deco style. (Artist unknown).

In contrast to Zamyatin’s WE (1920), which most SF fans these days would find rather tough going, both Tolstoy’s novels, despite their age, are highly readable, full of tension and spectacle, with rather larger than life characters and the kind of technical details that these days would be labelled as cyberpunk.
Though written in the 1920’s, GARIN accurately foretold the rise of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese warlords. Reading this novel, one is reminded more than a little of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Byzantium’ novels in which the characters and the ambience are not too dissimilar.
As befits Soviet novels of the 1920’s they are written from a perspective which embraces socialism with enthusiasm and attacks capitalism and fascism. The socialist perspective is a novelty these days; but one should after all reflect that while socialism eventually failed in the East, capitalism has yet to show any success in improving the lot of ordinary Russians.
Unfortunately neither of these novels is currently in print in the UK. I have not been able to ascertain if Raduga are still operating in Russia.
Apparently GARIN was published in the USA as THE DEATH BOX and an out-of-print UK edition of AELITA exists. But anyone wanting to swap books with Eastern European fans might well enquire there.

AELITA, Raduga Publishers, 17 Zubovsky Boulevard, Moscow, CIS.,1991, ISBN 5-05-003454-X
ENGINEER GARIN AND HIS DEATH RAY, Raduga, 1987, ISBN 5-05-001176-0
[end]

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self editing for fiction writers cover Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King, Morrow, 280pp.
Subtitled ‘How to edit yourself into print,’ this is a book written by two professional editors to help writers apply their editing techniques to the writer’s own work.
Chapters on dialogue, exposition, point of view, interior monologue and other techniques show you what a professional editor would work on to perfect your manuscript.
Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.
I found the book very useful for helping me grasp concepts that are not easy to pin down, and to see how my efforts could be improved.
Why edit? Any manuscript will benefit from editing. Nowadays publishing houses are unable to devote much effort to editing a book before publication, with the result that a strong manuscript will be published as-is, and a flawed manuscript with potential will be rejected.
Some writers pay a professional editor to look over their MS before they attempt to get it published, but this while worth doing is an expensive exercise. Better to have a go yourself before considering this route. Why pay for editing you can do yourself?