A Wonka Story

This is no longer in the current news cycle, but definitely needs to be filed under "stuff too insane for Charlie to make up", or maybe "promising screwball comedy plot line to explore", or even "perils of outsourcing creative media work to generative AI".

So. Last weekend saw insane news-generating scenes in Glasgow around a public event aimed at children: Willy's Chocolate Experience, a blatant attempt to cash in on Roald Dahl's cautionary children's tale, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". Which is currently most prominently associated in the zeitgeist with a 2004 movie directed by Tim Burton, who probably needs no introduction, even to a cinematic illiterate like me. Although I gather a prequel movie (called, predictably, Wonka), came out in 2023.

(Because sooner or later the folks behind "House of Illuminati Ltd" will wise up and delete the website, here's a handy link to how it looked on February 24th via archive.org.)

INDULGE IN A CHOCOLATE FANTASY LIKE NEVER BEFORE - CAPTURE THE ENCHANTMENT ™!

Tickets to Willys Chocolate Experience™ are on sale now!

The event was advertised with amazing, almost hallucinogenic, graphics that were clearly AI generated, and equally clearly not proofread because Stable Diffusion utterly sucks at writing English captions, as opposed to word salad offering enticements such as Catgacating • live performances • Cartchy tuns, exarserdray lollipops, a pasadise of sweet teats.* And tickets were on sale for a mere £35 per child!

(You probably expected this announcement a while ago ...)

I've just signed a new two book deal with my publishers, Tor.com publishing in the USA/Canada and Orbit in the UK/rest of world, and the book I'm talking about here and now—the one that's already written and delivered to the Production people who turn it into a thing you'll be able to buy later this year—is a Laundry stand-alone titled "A Conventional Boy".

You've probably seen news reports that the Hugo awards handed out last year at the world science fiction convention in Chengdu were rigged. For example: Science fiction awards held in China under fire for excluding authors.

The Guardian got bits of the background wrong, but what's undeniably true is that it's a huge mess. And the key point the press and most of the public miss is that they seem to think there's some sort of worldcon organization that can fix this.

Spoiler: there isn't.

(Caveat: what follows below the cut line is my brain dump, from 20km up, in lay terms, of what went wrong. I am not a convention runner and I haven't been following the Chengdu mess obsessively. If you want the inside baseball deets, read the File770 blog. If you want to see the rulebook, you can find it here (along with a bunch more stuff). I am on the outside of the fannish discourse and flame wars on this topic, and I may have misunderstood some of the details. I'm open to authoritative corrections and will update if necessary.)

I am seeing newspaper headlines today along the lines of British public will be called up to fight if UK goes to war because 'military is too small', Army chief warns, and I am rolling my eyes.

The Tories run this flag up the mast regularly whenever they want to boost their popularity with the geriatric demographic who remember national service (abolished 60 years ago, in 1963). Thatcher did it in the early 80s; the Army general staff told her to piss off. And the pols have gotten the same reaction ever since. This time the call is coming from inside the house—it's a general, not a politician—but it still won't work because changes to the structure of the British society and economy since 1979 (hint: Thatcher's revolution) make it impossible.

Reasons it won't work: there are two aspects, infrastructure and labour.

(I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago ...)

2024 looks set to be a somewhat disruptive year.

Never mind the Summer Olympics in Paris; the big news is politics, where close to half the world's population get to vote in elections with a strong prospect of electing outright fascists.

Season of Skulls came out six months ago, so here be spoilers. If you want a recap of the two previous novels in this not-exactly-a-trilogy, you can find my notes on them here: Dead Lies Dreaming, Quantum of Nightmares.

What do I mean by not-exactly-a-trilogy? Well: the idea of the New Management was to reboot the Laundry Files, which I've been writing since 1999, with a new cast of protagonists largely drawn from a younger generation, and dealing with more modern social and political issues. My little one-shot Lovecraftian-spy mashup has evolved over two decades into a sprawling setting with multiple viewpoint characters, but they were all essentially civil servants working in the secret side of the government, which is a bit restricting. I blew the doors off the universe in The Nightmare Stacks, allowing me to explore the overarching theme of how to live in a world gone mad—the world of the New Management—and this trilogy marked the start of that. Also, the Laundry Files main story line comes to an end in late May of 2015, in an event that can reasonably be called the Lovecraftian Singularity: the climactic events, from The Nightmare Stacks onwards, are all crammed into a period of about 18-24 months. 2015 is receding in the rear view mirror and I wanted to jump the the setting forward a bit, so Dead Lies Dreaming starts in winter of 2015 and Season of Skulls takes place in spring of 2017 ... and, of course, the summer of 1816.

(I have plans for more New Management novels, starting with one in 2019, but my editors are holding my feet to the fire and insisting I finish the earlier series before I go there. And they're right. So I'm working on the final installment in Bob and Mo's story arc at the moment ...)

Why you shouldn't trust AI (large language models): a cautionary example.

(This is the text of a talk I delivered at the Next Frontiers Applied Fiction Day in Stuttgart on Friday November 10th, 2023. Note: early draft, contains some typos, I'll fix them next week when I get home.)

In 2021, writer and game designer Alex Blechman inadvertently created a meme:

Sci-Fi Author: "In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale."

Tech Company: "At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don't Create The Torment Nexus!"

Hi. I'm Charlie Stross, and I tell lies for money. That is, I'm a science fiction writer: I have about thirty novels in print, translated into a dozen languages, I've won a few awards, and I've been around long enough that my wikipedia page is a mess of mangled edits.

And rather than giving the usual cheerleader talk making predictions about technology and society, I'd like to explain why I—and other SF authors—are terrible guides to the future. Which wouldn't matter, except a whole bunch of billionaires are in the headlines right now because they pay too much attention to people like me. Because we invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale and they took it at face value and decided to implement it for real.

All I can think of right now is that the New Management, which started as a ghastly satire on the UK's government of 2016, now looks impossibly utopian.

In particular the headlines are dominated by the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, which is a shit-show beyond parody. Suella Braverman went full xenophobe (millions and millions of migrants are about to descend on the UK, apparently) then went full Cruella de Ville (stomping on a guide dog's tail at a press conference) because cruelty is her only policy. Rishi Sunak announced transphobia as his only visible policy (before being told that it's probably illegal by Liberty). Then he announced the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2, and patted himself on the back by conceding that the government intended to fund an extension of the Metrolink tram line to Manchester Airport—spoiler: an extension that entered service in 2014.

The only news that makes sense is that Brexiteer Nigel Farage said he would not rejoin the Conservative Party (after Sunak suggested he might be allowed in if he applied)—after all, rats are famous for abandoning sinking ships, not climbing aboard.

Please won't somebody think of the children? No, wait, Rishi Sunak is doing that: he's raising the smoking age so that anyone born after 2008 will never be old enough to legally buy cigarettes, the same day Lord Frost proposed raising the pension age to 75 to cut guvernment spending because heaven forbid that people should be allowed to escape this vale of toil and tears through the blessed mercy of self-inflicted lung cancer.

How the hell am I supposed to parody this?

(On vacation this month, hence lack of blogging ...)

Apparently archaeologists have discovered the eearliest known wooden structure in Kalambo Falls, Zambia: two cut logs bearing tool marks that were shaped and joined to form part of a structure—476,000 years ago. Click through the link above for details as to how they dated it, and why it appears to have survived: it's being reported in Nature so this looks pretty solid, and it's a jaw-dropper. Wood tends to rot, and most wooden structures more than a few centuries old are known to archaeology from the holes they leave in the soil rather than from actual structural remains (much like the lack of paleontological evidence of organisms that don't have a bony skeleton, such as octopi or jellyfish: there are rare imprints but soft tissue seldom fossilizes).

One of the longest-shirked jobs on my to-do list is "Finish the Laundry Files". By which I mean "write the final novel in the story arc that began with The Atrocity Archive and follows Bob Howard through his career", not "finish with that fictional universe". Much like the Merchant Princes series, there are two Laundry universe series in progress—the Bob/secret government agency saga, and the civilians-trying-to-cope under the New Management story. The one ends before the other begins, but unlike the Merchant Princes/Empire Games switch-over, I didn't finish the Laundry Files story before beginning the next one.

(This was accidental on my part. In 2018, I was dealing with a combination of burnout and a dying parent in a nursing facility 300km from home. I wasn't able to focus on the books I was supposed to be working on, so I finally gave myself dispensation to engage in therapy writing—any old shit was better than nothing—and nine months later that turned out to be Dead Lies Dreaming, which promptly demanded two sequels during the bleak onset of Brexit and COVID19. The latter coincidentally spiked my planned solution to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN so I had to tear it up and start again from scratch.)

Anyway, I'm now at the note-taking stage for two new books. One of them is the fourth New Management novel and no, I have plenty of ideas and don't need your suggestions. But the other is the Final Laundry Files Novel. Again, I don't need plot suggestions—I've got too much plot as it is.

But there is something I do need ...

Setting aside the New Management (but including next year's A Conventional Boy), the Laundry Files currently runs to roughly 1.25 million words of published fiction. That's a lot. It's simultaneously over-familiar to me (there are bits I can quote verbatim, and chunks of back-story I never exposed) and half-forgotten (I began writing it in late 1998, 25 years ago). I don't have the energy to commit to re-reading the entire bookshelf and making notes before I start, but I do need to zero in on anything I've mentally edited out or forgotten and that needs to be closed out: protagonists who went missing en route from book 3 to book 8, for example, or foreign agencies entities that were left hanging at the end of an earlier book.

Fans of the series clearly have Questions to which they want Answers before Bob and Mo are allowed to ride off into the sunset (or un-die horribly in a necromantic re-run of the shoot-out at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—the ending is entirely open at this point). So I'm open to questions in the comments—just don't expect me to answer them directly, or even use them in the final novel. (Some questions may be answered by the New Management series. For example, Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish briefly show up in Season of Skulls, which is set 18 months after the end of The Laundry Files. Other questions might be ignored. For example, I see no reason to revisit the Librarian in the Dansey House archive stacks. Let sleeping Terry Pratchett tributes lie!)

So: your starter question is, who (and what) in the Laundry Files do you want to learn the fate of? And what unanswered questions still nag at you, n books later?

(Small print: There is no guarantee that this book will ever be written, and if it is commissioned and written, it won't be published before 2025 and more likely 2026. That's because A Conventional Boy is on its way to publication in summer 2024, and depending on the publishing pipeline, my space opera Ghost Engine might be ready to follow it in 2025, and I don't have the stamina to support a two book a year output cycle any more. However, rest assured, finishing the Laundry Files is still on my to-do list.)

It is August, the month of the Edinburgh Festival, and not being completely suicidal I'm staying indoors (the population triples with visitors from all over the world, and--predictably--the COVID prevalence has doubled in the past week: Edinburgh's in the middle of a sudden pandemic spike). I'm also kinda-sorta between projects: just sent one book to my agent, working on the afterword/notes for another, not yet working on the next.

So I'm taking stock. And it occurs to me that a productive use of my time would be to categorize my novels and stories by sub-genre/trope, and to try to identify areas of SF I haven't written so far because why not go there?

So I blogged about comics (and webcomics in particular) back in June 2015, which is a shockingly long time ago, so I thought I'd post a handful I've enjoyed lately and tout for more reading references!

These are all webcomics (and there are a bunch of others in the previous blog entry from 2015).

Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics is a fine institution, updated most days with a mixture of snarky irreverent commentary on the human condition and the process of doing science!. A vast improvement on BBC Radio 4's execrable "Thought for the Day" slot as a way to start your morning cogitation.

Questionable Content is essentially a soap opera, updated Monday through Friday. Jeph Jacques has been writing and illustrating it for more than twenty years now, and the style and complexity has evolved significantly over that time. There's a huge recurring cast in this near-future SF series, which starts out following the folks who drink and work around a coffee shop in a nameless North American city, and the robots (okay, embodied AIs) they share their lives with. Mostly gentle humour, but not twee.

Unspeakable Vault of Doom by Goomi — updated erratically (rarely these days) but still going, this is Goomi's comedic take on the Lovecraftian mythos. Loveable derpy Cthulhu finds cultists crunchy with ketchup!

Side Quested by K. B. Spangler, author of the Rachel Peng SF novels and others, is a twice-weekly high fantasy quest with a difference, and a notably cynical heroine who is not about to fall for any of that damn' prince's shit.

Foxes in Love Look, this got me through COVID19 lockdown, okay?

Apocamon The Book of Revelation, in Manga format, as God intended. Clearly Patrick Farley is going to burn in the eternal lake of fire for all eternity, and so am I for enjoying this.

Phobos and Deimos Being the teenage experiences of Maida Kilwa, a displaced person/war refugee from 26th century Mars, transplanted to a post-climate change Antarctica. Absorbing world-building and a very not-western future.

Sarah's Scribbles All life is contained in here. Eventually.

(Stuff I covered previously and didn't want to link to again: OGLAF, Kill Six Billion Demons, Strong Female Protagonist, Decrypting Rita, XKCD.)

So, what webcomics are you reading this year?

EDIT

Please provide links.

(Just naming the webcomics is less than useful in this age of LLM-poisoned search engines that try not to let you find and follow links away from Google, Bing, etc.)

Some of you play tabletop role-playing games (like, oh, D&D). Of those who do, some of you may even have encountered the Laundry Files RPG, published by Cubicle 7 Games back in the mists of 2010.

The Laundry Files RPG had an eight year run before an upstream licensing change forced it to be yanked off sale in 2018. (It used a modified version of the Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu d20 rule set: Chaosium decided to revise their commercial sublicense terms in such a way that C7 couldn't continue to sell the game.)

Anyway, since late 2021 we've been discussing a second edition of the game, this time based on a different ruleset that isn't at risk of being abruptly yanked out from under them. And we're now at the point where it's possible to admit in public that, yes, there's going to be a 2nd edition of the Laundry RPG!

I don't have any further details to share at this time, but I'll update this blog entry as and when I've got something to report.

(While next year's Laundry Files novel, A Conventional Boy, deals with the world of role-playing games, it is not a tie-in and has nothing to do with this announcement. Rather, A Conventional Boy is all about Derek the DM, and the grisly tale of how the Laundry mishandled the Satanic D&D Panic of the mid-1980s ...)

Let me crib from wikipedia for a moment: the Bechdel test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is a measure of the representation of women in film and other fiction. The test asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Once you start looking at popular media, it's striking how common it is for TV, movies, or fiction to fail. Media rep of characters on TV is about 75% male, and it's very common indeed for women to be presented in roles that frame them primarily or exclusively in terms of their gender role.

I've been aware of the Bechdel Test since the late 1990s and actively using it as part of my unconscious checklist for how to write a novel that doesn't suck in some way, but even keeping it in mind, I sometimes fail. And I think it's worth looking at where and why that happens.

So I decided to compile this score card for my books. (SF novels first, then Merchant Princes and Laundry Files.)

Specials

Merchandise

Syndication

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