Archive for September, 2011

Wotcha. I really should be manfully struggling with the end of Champion of Mars (nearly finished!) but I took a quick break to put this interview with Richard Morgan on the site. Why? He’s a great interviewee, and I just finished reviewing The Cold Commands for SFX so I figured I’d bung it up. Timely, ain’t it? Although the interview is three years old, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, not least both of us squirming ridiculously about the slight danger someone might think we are gay just because we are talking about same-sex relationships. I apologise to my gay friends, but we straight boys just can’t help it. At least books like The Cold Commands will help us get over what is, at the end of the day, hypocritical prudery. 

My review of Morgan’s latest will be in SFX 215, so it’ll be a couple of months before I can post it here, but you can read my review of book one of A Land Fit for Heroes, The Steel Remains, right here, right now.

And now, back to Mars…


This piece is from Death Ray 14. Only a few of these left now, these old Deep Thoughts, I shall have to write something new soon, perish the thought.

Magic science really does wind me up. Except in Doctor Who, I can forgive the Doctor. There are innumerable examples of it – I don’t mention The Core, The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 below, for example. And although I freely own sometimes it is necessary to make a plot point (or create a parable, as below), a lot of the time it is lazy and, dare I say it, extremely rubbish. Bad science enshittens SF as much as bad writing. That’s right, enshittens.

The Magic of… Science!

Genes that can turn the evolutionary clock back! Radiation that gives you superpowers rather than cancer! Chemical rockets that can fly to a distant star system before everyone dies of old age! SF is rammed full of such magic science, and by golly, it gets on my goat.

Science fiction does precisely what the name says, it is fiction, with some science (though if we’re talking about the likes of Greg Egan, it is science, with some fiction). Except when it doesn’t.

The fiction part means we should expect reality to be bent, or broken, especially if the author wants to explore an intriguing concept or put forward a metaphor exploring one aspect of the human condition or another. This humanist side of SF is essentially fantasy, concerned almost solely with the soul, so it’s excusable. I doubt Stan Lee really believed that Peter Parker would turn into Spider-man when bitten by a radioactive spider, or that Richard Matheson thought a man could actually shrink, but these stories are not about those concepts, the concepts are only plot devices to help the authors get to what they really wanted to talk about: dealing with power, and dealing with losing it. Such things are the giants and the magic swords of modern-day parablists, and we can forgive them that.

But SF is not just the inheritor of yesteryear’s fantasticalities, it is more than Jonathan Swift with rocket boots. Some ‘scientist’ SF deliberately sets itself up a soothsayer for modern times. And this is good. Sure, people like Arthur C Clarke got it wrong a lot (a prime example would be his lunar dust seas in A Fall of Moondust) but at least such things are genuine ‘What ifs?’; solid speculation built on the theories of the time, and, do you know, they are occasionally right.

‘Magic Science’ then, is where the story insists it is doing the latter, does not have the insight of the former, and ends up peddling technobabble nonsense in place of both. Magic SF is not as clever as the scientist variety, or as wise as the humanist. Its tricks are neither the fantastical or the logical, but manufactured from ideas spun off the real or almost real, often giving us something that we know already to be rubbish. Mostly to provide some kind of backdrop to ongoing, inter-character wranglings. SF soap, with spangly lights of fake science.

TV SF is the biggest criminal here. Take Star Trek for example, if only because, until the late series at least, one week we’d get a solid, full on SF concept, like the Borg, the next, giant flying viruses (ST: Voyager ‘Macrocosm’, season 3). Now, forgive me, but aren’t viruses weeny, simple little things, and, um don’t possess things like stingers and mouths?

The very small components of biology were the source of much sinning until fairly recently. Take another Star Trek episode, ‘Genesis’ (season 7 TNG), where another virus (made of T-cells, big stuff at the time, and the inspiration for the Resident Evil franchise’s T Virus) interacts with ‘introns’ in people’s DNA to devolve them into creatures from their evolutionary past. Interesting. Hang on though, Lieutenant Barclay turns into a spider. I don’t recall the arachnid part of the human lineage, but never mind, because after a few doses of space medicine, everyone is just fine, with no after effects whatsover. This rapid there-and-back-again of total body transmogrification is a firm favourite of 90s SF, and it is, patently, nonsense.

All SF is a product of its time, and serves as an interesting historical footnote to the holders of hindsight. By which we mean, if a certain field is hot news, then it’ll crop up time and again in SF. It’s a trend thing.

Rapid advancements in biology brought genes to the fore, replacing a fear of the power of the atom, which in turn replaced a belief in it. So prevalent was the magic atom in the 50s and 60s that Matheson turned the ambiguous fog that starts the shrinking process in The Shrinking Man radioactive for its ‘Incredible’ film outing. Time marches on, and magic genes have begun to be replaced by magic quantum physics. I’d say nanotech, like that in the new Bionic Woman is also a contender, but though claims made for this are pretty crazy, their capabilities belong to some unpredictable Vingean futurity, so I’m going to let it off the hook.

Quantum shit, however, man that’s some spooky juju. Perhaps through quantum physics we will create Arthur C Clarke’s advanced, seemingly sorcerous technology. But then, confident assertions about the nature of the world to come are usually wrong. Ford made a mock-up nuclear car, after all (its proposed reactor sat waaaay behind the passenger compartment), and I don’t see those in the Tesco car park.

Once more, we have only fallen upon the quantum as it is newish and exciting, and, um very difficult to define.

SF reflects our fears and concerns in a mirror of current science, and in this case, it is the impact of each and every one of us on the world. Quantum physics says observe the world and affect it, our fear says our presence is harmful to the planet. Like Them!‘s radioactive ants standing in for fear of a nuclear apocalypse, blend quantum with green and societal fears and Donnie Darko, Butterfly Effect, The Fountain, The Prestige and even Back to the Future, are revealed as a kind of electric environmentalism, with misplaced humans rerouting their social ecology, sometimes consciously removing their worthless selves from existence.

This is scary science, science that can unravel the fabric of the universe. Though employed intelligently in the above films, quantum SF has the capability to be used in an even more magical way than the most outrageous DNA jiggery pokery. The sciences with the loosest parameters are the easiest to magic up, aren’t they?

Expect it on a small screen near you… now actually: Charlie Jade, Journeyman, Flash Gordon feature this in one cast or another.  All cancelled, interestingly. Perhaps high-end physics just isn’t sexy. (Yeah yeah, Quantum Leap, Sliders, Land of the Giants… They’ve all the alternate reality/ time-hopping thing before, but that doesn’t invalidate my comment that right now it is trendy).

Yes, all SF is speculation, some of it knowingly wrong, and it is entirely partisan of me to imply that magic science is only bad when used as a tool in bad fiction. But this is my patch, my rules. The futuremen will laugh up the sleeves of their togas whatever we dream anyway, saying it never happened like that, just as we smirk at the Victorian proponents of steam-powered velocipedes.

Then again, I’ve never said SF was actually about the future, have I?

I wrote the piece below about six months before my son Benny was born. It’s mostly about Star Wars, but also life.

Benny is three now, and today is his very first day at nursery (I just left him in the arms of a teacher, me with a lump in my throat) so I thought I’d put this up.

It’s doubly pertinent, as the very recent release of the Star Wars saga on BluRay has the SW fanbase enraged all over again (see? I’m being topical!). Why? Yet more tinkering, that’s why. Personally, I’d rather Lucas just left the things alone and made something new, but they’re his films. I find the geek rallying cry/ self-indulgent, spoilt-brat whine of ‘George Lucas raped my childhood’ to be utterly odious on several levels, its lazy, knee-jerk use of such an emotive term top of the list. And why hate the guy for providing you with years of entertainment? If he wants to overpaint his own work obsessively like some latterday Richard Dadd, let him. (At least he didn’t knife his father). Surely the impact of Star Wars on you as a child is more important than what it looks like now. I mean, I loved Krull, but I wouldn’t peg it as essential viewing, and I certainly wouldn’t call Peter Yates a retroactive pederast if he’d decided to add a CGI glaive to the proceedings (too late, he’s dead now).  Or aren’t we moving on? We’re not, are we?

Perhaps this is yet another indication of our culture’s intense juvenilisation effect, a step on the evolutionary road to idiot-Eloihood, and a time when our giggling, endlessly masturbating, Hello Kitty-dependent descendants will be feasted upon by giant intelligent rats who keep them high on food made entirely of corn syrup and the essence of superhero movie remakes.

Or maybe I’m being harsh, because I’m just a little sad that my little boy is growing up so fast.


No, not the story of Gor the Gorilla-boy, but the impending arrival of Guy’s new kid. A few days ago, crucial question of fatherhood reared its ugly head to vex our already troubled cheeky tyke…

The recent news that my wife is expecting our first child heralded a whole new wave of worries in the Haleyhold. Not only do you find yourself fretting over a lot of unpleasant potential pregnancy problems and imminent financial meltdown, but you find your mind racing ahead, past the gestation, vaulting over the birth and scampering far into the future, like some kind of terrified chrono-hare. What if baby inherits the coarser looks of dad, rather than the finer features of mother? Is it going to be stupid? The fretting ranges on  – Which university should I start looking at? What job will young Haley do? Then it gets silly. It’s a conscious effort to wrench your mind back to the present, and that’s weird enough as it is. It’s almost like science fiction. Like, there’s a tiny person growing inside my wife! Help! I feel like Kevin McCarthy at the climax of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, shouting an unbelievable truth at an indifferent world.

At least I don’t need to dwell too much on how the newborn is going to get out, unlike my wife.

A few days ago, a far more pertinent problem popped into my head: What SF am I going to show it first? This really is crucial. (Don’t think for a moment that, boy or girl, it’s not going to get an SF upbringing. There’s an awesome two foot high rocket, complete with moon rover and chewable space people, in the Early Learning Centre that has got my name, erm, I mean my child’s name, whatever that is going to be, on it). Like most kids, my very first exposure to the fantastical was through stories read to me by my parents, space toys and TV. As a preschool kid there was Thunderbirds, Space 1999, Star Trek, Bagpuss, The Clangers, Doctor Who, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Jamie and the Magic Torch, classic black and white RKO serials – a galaxy of SF and fantasy gems, opening the already wide eyes of 1970s tots to the pleasures and disappointments of the fundamentally unreal. But now, what awaits my offspring? A lot of badly drawn, shouty anime, by the looks of it, cut into meaningless, garish scraps by even shoutier adverts. And that purple frigging dinosaur.

If that were not a troublesome enough worry, I have had also to ask myself: which  Star Wars first? Tricky. Now it’s obvious Haley 1.1 will have to see these films, at least twelve times. It’s the law. But in what order? According to the narrative’s internal chronology, or classic trilogy first? Is it fair to make someone who doesn’t know who Darth Vader is miss out on learning the shocking truth of Luke Skywalker’s true parentage? Actually, is it fair to make someone new to the world sit through an animated tax dispute with some disinterested actors standing around in the foreground? Hmm. I think I have just made my mind up.

With kids too, there’s always the issue of the bizarre things that scare them. My brother Garth and I, for example, both loved the Muppets, but Sweetums and the other monsters freaked us out so much we used to hallucinate that they were standing outside our bedroom window. Screaming followed. You can’t legislate for these things, but Mrs. Haley’s collection of disturbing Scandinavian fairy tales is going on the top shelf, just in case.

Crumbs, I just thought, what if the kid likes Jar Jar? I think I’ll go back to worrying about the cost of childcare. It’s less upsetting.

Back to 2011.

FYI, Benny was born on July 12th, 2008, and I have been tired since July 12th, 2008. He was two weeks late due to some low level of incompetence on the part of the local maternity services (i.e. they forgot about us). His birth was terrifying. After an attempt at induction he was delivered by caesarean section. He’s a lovely lad, very cheeky, and clever. I laugh now at my brother for the impending arrival of his own offspring; real, wineglass-in-hand schadenfreude guffawing, because he has NO IDEA how much his life will change.

Fortunately, it is worth it. Which I tell him after I stop giggling.

As for watching space stuff,  we’ve tried both the original Star Wars (“Daddy! Want to watch spaceships!”) and the Phantom Menace. Star Wars holds his attention until we meet Kenobi. The Phantom Menace loses its lustre as soon as the younger Kenobi and his boss sit down for tea. Exploratory watches, but it says it all really. We also tried The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, but it was  a bit too scary.

And yes, childcare has nearly bankrupted me. But we did get that rocket. And it is cool.

“SF is a genre more afflicted by doomsayers than most, with poor old Gaia getting a rough rogering from the human race on a regular basis. But, Guy Haley asks, is it finally time for the Apocalypse now?” As I wrote in 2007 in the piece below, another from Death Ray‘s ‘Deep Thought’ column section. This one is from issue 9. (Man, did we write a lot back then or what!) I wrote this after reading Evolution by Stephen Baxter. It is a great book, but kind of depressing. This column was almost therapy for it.

By the way, it’s always been my intention to use this blog as an archive for my work, but I’ve been a bit remiss of late in getting it online, so I am trying to get a few pieces up every day rather than playing computer games. There are a ton of new book, film and TV reviews. Just go look. Eventually, once I’ve worked through my backlog, there’ll be some more current pieces here. Won’t that be nice?

I immodestly figure that some of these articles make pretty good blog posts, like this one, so I’m putting them here as well as into the article archive section up top there. It saves me from having to write new posts. I am a scoundrel! Ha!

To be blunt, the more articles there are here, the more likely people are to visit, and there’s a chance they’ll buy my books. Then, just maybe, I’ll be able to afford an office rather than just working at the top of the frickin’ stairs…

Back to the writing then. I am galloping through Champion of Mars. Yesterday, I was at a dinner party at a science base on Ascraeus Mons. Today, I’ll be going to a gene blending unit a thousand years hence. No bad, I suppose, for a bloke who never actually leaves his landing.

The Ends of the World

Famine, Plague, War and Death get regular trots round the SF paddock. Numerous authors, from Mary Shelley onwards, have had a crack at the collapse of civilisation, the end of the human race or even the total destruction of the Earth itself. None of it’s happened of course, but given the young age of SF and the long, long life of the Earth, one or all of these scenarios are likely to come to pass eventually. We could survive, or our more depressive writers may prove to be right. But how right, and how soon?

End of the world doomsaying – millenarianism – is a given aspect of the human psyche. It’s a consequence of our evolution. On the one hand, it’s our monkey-like fear of death writ large and shared with our fellows. On the other, our causally-primed brain is a handy asset for surviving and making tools, but it does mean that we have to have a reason for everything. When something is beyond our immediate understanding, this has led to some mighty peculiar logical leaps. In the absence of science, terrible occurrences are explained as divine acts (most often punishment, because guilt plays a large part in doom-mongering). We feel bad for being, so disasters are all our fault, a punishment for our sins. God could be back to finish the job any time, so be good.

Basically, people have been fretting about the end of the world since the beginning of time, we literally can’t help it.

And though we now take a different view of the way the world works, the faulty reasoning of “Bad things have happened because we are bad, therefore bad things will happen again, and they will be worse,” is as true in Soylent Green as in The Book of Revelations. Only God has been removed from the equation. Now it’s our own petards that will hoist us.

The environment’s our current bete noir, it has been for forty years, with a brief break for nuclear terror. Global warming? Soylent Green, The Drowned World, The Space Merchants… all feature this most modern of worries. Other well-worn paths to doom include volcanic activity, global cooling, environmental collapse, war, plague, death of food crops, moral degeneracy, and of course, alien invasion.

Barring the alien invasion, all of these events are feasible. Looking at it, there are so many ways for mankind to be snuffed out it’s amazing we’re still here.

But we are, and we aren’t going anywhere. It’s easy to regard these entertainments are prescient. The disasters may be plausible, but their consequences are not. They aren’t warnings, they’re worries.

Cast your mind back at the 1980s. SF books and films predicted the nuclear destruction of the Earth as if it were an inevitability. The chilling drama Threads (Sheffield flattened by an atomic bomb, mutant babies, the horror) was regarded as a palpable truth. But this madness did not happen precisely because both sides in the Cold War knew that nuclear war would be madness, they even called the doctrine behind the arms race MAD (mutually assured destruction – a doctrine of immediate retaliation predicated on everyone dying if one side attacked).

Peer behind your own fears and you’ll see that there’s an assumption of the worst in all millennial thinking, your own included. The planet, we’re told, is overdue a supervolcanic eruption, and that would be very bad. But that assumes that there will be one soon, that we won’t do anything about it, and that our civilisation will be so battered by the event that it will inevitably collapse. That’s a lot of assumptions. The same for a modern plague, or for an asteroid strike or anything else. The case has been made that we’ve become overspecialised as individuals (come the end, how many of you would know how to catch, skin and cook a rabbit?) and that weakens us. But complex societies have undergone cataclysmic events many times before and survived.

Mayan temple cities wreathed in jungle are the poster images for apocalypses. True, the Mayans suffered several severe setbacks, but were they wiped out? No. The Mayans were in fact the last Amerindian civilisation to be vanquished  by European invaders, their final city falling in 1697. As a people, they’re still there today. The Roman Empire may have collapsed as a political entity, but civilisation did not cease to be. And the Black Death, which killed up to two thirds of the population in Europe, far from seeing the end of the world, actually helped kickstart the Renaissance by redistributing wealth.

Those fearful of the future may counter that our society is too complex, but surely a complex society is more able to develop complex solutions? Our culture, which is as alive we are, cushions us from fate. In a flood an animal will drown. We’ll make boats. If we don’t know how, we’ll be able to ask someone who does, or read how to. Culture is such a crucial aspect of our being that Stephen Baxter, in his book Evolution, had to fudge its removal in order to have mankind once more subject to the raw power of natural shaping. Culture insulates us, to a degree, from such forces. And, if the worst came to the worst, and no cultural transmission survived, we’d still be able to figure out how to build a boat from scratch.

Don’t get me wrong. Things could get worse. Much worse. People could starve, die of superflu, choke on pollution and a myriad other things. But there are six billion of us now. To destroy all modern learning and cast us back into a dark age would be difficult, to kill us all would require a catastrophe of stupendous proportions. We might well be facing our biggest challenge yet with our rapacious need to all have bigger fridges and cars and sod the whales, but do you seriously think that, collectively, we’ll let it get so bad we’ll die out? We point to our governments as being useless, and we are thus doomed, but that makes the assumption we’re stuck with them, or powerless. Modes of governance do change, and people act without them. Hell, rising fuel costs alone will make you change your life. You probably already have.

Perhaps there is an alternative path we will tread. Nothing in nature occurs in isolation. Why should life? But we see none nearby. Perhaps our fate is not to ultimately extinguish life here, but to actively spread it elsewhere. Perhaps that is why intelligence evolves in the first place. All life is is a complicated way of allowing some quirky chemistry to continue replicating itself. To conquer the sea, life grew fins; the land, legs and lungs; the air, wings. Nearly every part of this world heaves with life, but to get life more developed than a tardigrade (these tiny ‘water bears’ are so hardy they could survive a trip through space) off-world requires something more sophisticated than the asteroid bagatelle proposed by some panspermia theorists. Maybe humanity is not a cancer. Maybe we’re the gonads of the Earth… One day, perhaps, an alien Von Däniken will be writing books about us.

If on the other hand Christopher, Wyndham, Wells, Baxter, Matheson et al are right, within centuries it’ll be like we never were, and in 30 million years new species will have evolved to replace the ones we hurried off to an early grave. We’re surfing a wave of life, and if we fall off, well, it’ll be the job of the squids to take Earth’s seed to the stars. They’ve got 3 billion years to do it in after all, until the sun swallows the world, and that is unavoidable.

“Slap a latex forehead on our emotional inadequacies and you can say what you like to them, argues Guy Haley.” So read the strap line in Death Ray 18, published in 2009. I’m not sure what I write below holds true right now, SF has undergone quite a change in the last few years, and the spaceborne shows this referred to have died out. They’ve been replaced by drama that is less clear-cut in its view on Human (American) cultural superiority. Those Americans, they’re getting all complicated.

Since Star Trek gave us Mr. Spock, you haven’t been able to put together a crew of space-faring explorers without including at least one alien. And why not? Mr Spock. He was a fine character in a cast of fine characters. This half-ET, coldly dispassionate scientist was a foil for Kirk’s loin-driven hotheadedness and Bones’ world-weary, and equally emotional, cynicism. Spock was often right, but also struggling with his human side. Culturally, he represented the calm of scientific progress set at right-angles with the messiness of humanity. It’s part of science fiction’s infatuation with progress, as old as the genre itself. Spock’s character eventually hit a gravelly-voiced balance between logic and emotion, and that was a kind of adult thing to do. But times changed, and aliens don’t quite represent what they once did.

Spock was a humanisation of the kind of brainiacs depicted elsewhere in the fifties and sixties, the bigheads from This Island Earth, the omnipotent Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr Morbius of The Forbidden Planet. These were themselves different sides of the same coin – they are depictions of rationalists, and represent the fears of and hopes for science. Spock is by extension the humanisation of the scientist, a previously distant, powerful and sometimes terrifying figure.

Aliens became somewhat de rigueur in starship crews after Spock, especially in a certain kind of show – the Trek franchise, Roddenberry’s grave-robbed offerings and their clones (that’s what we’re really talking about here, the almost military space ensemble, they can be everything from last Thursday to Jesus elsewhere), and these reached their peak in the 1990s. But whereas Spock was an equal, and in many ways superior, to his crew mates, the aliens who came afterwards lack the same balance. They fulfill a different function. Aliens in ensemble casts increasingly came to signify certain human personality types, while the humans themselves become more and more  bland. There’s not much between Sinclair, Picard, or Sisko. They’re serious men doing a serious job, moments of ludicrously shoehorned levity aside. Their subordinates are worse. Is there really a massive difference between Riker, Chakotay and Garibaldi? With exceptions, these characters are almost unreal in their insipidness. They have nothing but the most artificial flaws or needs, and each has their own little pouch of trite wisdom. The roaring James Tiberius Kirk they are not. Instead we have to look to the aliens for any real representation of human traits. Aliens in the 80s and 90s allowed us to have contrite monsters like Andromeda‘s Rev Bem, emotional types like Troi, even buffoons like Neelix at a time when, suddenly, it seemed unacceptable for future people to be shown as anything but really, really nice.

By far the largest sub-grouping of alien hanger-on is that of the domesticated warrior. Worf, Star Trek‘s house-broken Klingon, has a lot to answer for on this score. Stargate and Andromeda have them in abundance in the sort-of-humans Teal’c, Ronon Dex, Tyr Anazazi and Telemachus Rhade. There’s even Bigfoot in Sanctuary. These creatures are handy in a fight, they are noble, they are loyal. Like Spock they struggle, but with rage. They are all also invariably patronised about their efforts to be more human. They are descendants of the noble savage encountered in much 19th century literature. All these aliens are emblematic of that great sense of rectitude once held by Western societies. They are a cultural residue, Victorian relics of racism. You can’t (thankfully) have a character say ‘Well done, Mr South Sea Islander, you have learnt that shoes are good!’ as was often the case in bygone adventure tales, but no-one gives a stuff if you do similar with a Talaxian. SF is retrograde in this respect, it recklessly rams the anodyne values of political correctness down speckled throats in a most un-PC way. The foibles of the aliens allow the humans to be flawless, to wear little half-smiles on their faces as they watch the aliens’ funny little ways or lecture them, bizarrely, on their inhumanity.

Humans in this kind of SF never complain, take the piss or get depressed. They don’t hold difficult beliefs or do anything vaguely shocking. They are really boring.  In these shows, humans are our parents, and we are the aliens. So Worf or B’Elanna can get really mad and break things because they aren’t human, Neelix is a cock because he’s not a man, Londo can be sly because he isn’t one of us. Ronon can kill because he is not from Earth. Mankind in this kind of SF is irreproachable, and that’s just bollocks. Some shows might make better use of their aliens than others (witness the balletic, almost Shakespearean interplay of G’Kar and Londo Mollari in Babylon 5) but that doesn’t mean their humans are much cop. Alien characters are tokenism in the worst possible way. They present the moral superiority of mankind. Actually, no, they present the superiority of post-modern, American, middle-class values, a tedious, humourless, bland existence. This sheer niceness might seem an irony for shows set aboard warships, but the flying living rooms of the future demand their conformity just as the armed forces of today do, albeit of a different kind. When captain Picard says to Worf, “Well done Worf, today you behaved like a human”, he is really saying “Well done Worf, today you behaved like an American.” Because a certain kind of American would like to believe that even in space, everyone wants be that certain kind of American, no matter how nobbly their foreheads. Like the Iraqis and the Taliban, the Klingons just don’t know it yet.

It’s probable now that this kind of science fiction has run its course. It is a product of the 90s, the ensemble show of nice but dull types, just as the 80s was ruled by lone, arrogant heroes with nought but a natty gimmick and a dollop of smarm between them and cancellation. (The Stargate franchise forms a seemingly endless rump to the exploratory space ensemble. In SG, the devolution of humanity has gone as far as it can, the people reduced to a band of indistinguishable nerds, barely competent to do their jobs, whose only real qualifications seem to be either a gruff voice or the ability to make bad jokes at inappropriate moments. Science fiction has always struggled on the seesaw between idea and adventure for all, of course, but at least the day before yesterday’s heroes had squarer jaws.  In Stargate, aliens have become even more infantilised, and the humans are seen through a perpetual child’s eyes.)

Thanks then, to the likes of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Ensembles have, thankfully, changed. The rubber-nosed cypher has gone out of fashion.

But interestingly, the Spock archetype has never gone away. The balancing act between rationality and emotion (as opposed to acceptable and unacceptable emotiveness, which is what the alien is there for) has been taken up by the robot or AI. Bladerunner‘s Replicants and Data started this trend. The likes of the Holosuite Doctor and Romy took it up. These are the characters that can ask unflinchingly ‘Tell me of this human thing called love’. Their artificiality might ask us ‘What is personhood?’ too, for this is what our notions of ‘progress’ demands of us in the 21st Century, but when Arnie says, at the close of Terminator 2 “Now I understand why you cry”, he was speaking from the same therapy group as Spock. The Cylons, Cameron and others keep this debate alive to this very day. In real life aliens are as far away as ever, but machines become cleverer year by year, so this important theme is likely to remain central to SF for some time.

Hey, and it is! In my book! It was around the time I wrote this that I was writing Reality 36.

Life online

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

Live out your fantasies in a persistent online world! The future’s here, right, um no, not really, says Guy Haley. Or rather, so said Guy Haley, in 2009, not long before Death Ray died its death. There’s a lot of Virtual Reality in my books Reality 36 and Omega Point. The games of the future look great in my head, dangerously so. Here’s why I don’t like today’s version of VR: The MMORG (or whatever unwieldy acronym the damn things are going under these days). From Death Ray 19.

There are 11 million people registered to play World of Warcraft right now. Actually, seeing as you are reading this some time after I wrote it, it’s probably more. And World of Warcraft is just one of several games of the fantasy RPG type, and that is just one type of several persistent world games. 11 million people, folks, that’s a lot of dudes spending their free time pretending to be Elves.

I find the idea of massively multi-player online roleplaying games intriguing. Stepping into an artificial world is, after all, a staple of post-microchip SF, whether it’s the cyberspaces frequented by hackers in 80s cyberpunk or the full-scale replacement reality of The Matrix. I’ve tried a great many of these games: Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, City of Heroes, Eve: Online, a couple of obscure Japanese titles that I can’t even remember the names of and, of course, the obligatory stint on World of Warcraft. I have always, always come away slightly dazed and very disappointed.

My WoW experience with a gnome named Gukguk was the longest, at three solid months of 2005. I put in two hours or more of mouse clicking nearly every day. I played and I played, my will fixed on securing Gukguk one of the riding beasts that only become available to characters at level 50 and above. The day finally came – hours of play to reach the required level, hours more to scrape together the gold I needed to buy it – when I virtually ran into the virtual blacksmiths and handed over my  virtual cash, pressing the icon to summon my coveted ‘Mechanostrider’ (a mechanical ostrich, would you credit) and, and… discovered it allowed my gnome to move just ever so slightly faster than before. It was, in all truth, a bit shit. So shit, in fact, it was almost as disappointing as my first intimate dalliance with a lady.

I gave sex another go, but not WoW. There were many other things that made me quit, but that was the point of no return. I stopped paying my £8 monthly subscription shortly after. Gukguk went into the cryogenic suspension that is the fate of all abandoned characters. 18 months later he would have been humanely destroyed, like an unwanted dog, only nothing real actually had to die.

I love games. I love playing with other people. But MMORGs, to use their horrible acronym, aren’t really games, they’re a weird synthesis of game and theme park. Like a fairground ride, there is a sense of danger but no real peril, but kind of even less gripping – the adventure is at one further remove still : it’s not you who is not in any real danger, but your non-existent character who is not in any real danger.

In an MMORG, nothing ever changes. No one is beaten or loses. None of your actions have any effect on the world around you. Your character cannot die. His heroic efforts in the Blackspire Dungeons or Tortage have no real effect, for the game is reset for the next band of heroes, who wait patiently in line behind you. The guy whose boxes you helped shift for some minor quest reward will be there for all time, waiting to dole out the quest to someone else. Pity him, for his task will remain forever unaccomplished no matter how many Dutch teenagers stop to help, like some cartoonish Sisyphus he is digitally damned.

And everyone in an MMORG is a hero. There are no peasants, no people delivering shoes, just thousands of improbably named avatars running from one quest giver to another. Nowhere does this appear more ridiculous than in City of Heroes, an online metropolis full of spandex clad vigilantes and victims and nought else. As every hero has to be heroic, MMORGs  are a place where everyone must have prizes, and everyone does.

Those that cite the socialising element of MMORGs are overplaying it – It’s harder than you think to find groups to tackle big adventures. To pwn or be pwned, that is the question with these games. They are full of annoying jargon, LEET speak, patronising wankers, and emotionally incontinent yoof who are desperate to prove themselves better than you because they have a slightly superior pair of pantaloons. So much so, a lot of players play alone. MMORGs were despairingly referred to as “Massively Single Player Online Roleplaying Games” by the designers of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, who put a lot of time and effort to come up with ways to make people play together. But even the nice guys online (of which there are a great, great many) are totally focussed on gaining yet more non-existent items. It’s materialism gone mad – Immaterialism, if you like, the final great folly of consumerist culture (um, the despoilation of Planet Earth aside).

There are games that are more ‘realistic’, but conversely greater realism doesn’t work either. Eve: online has a genuinely persistent world, where the economy is player generated, everything is made by another gamer. But that means for every starship captain and corporate mogul, there are 10,000 schmucks mining asteroids in real time. Eve is the wrong side of real. When I quit the game, I was asked to fill in a form to say why: “If I want a dull job, I can get one in real life,” was my perhaps unhelpful comment. Seriously, I used to sit there and read a book while my spaceship did its ore-sucking thing.

They do, however, have real effects. Second Life (now there’s a pointless game! Go into an unreal city and open a shoe shop, woohoo!) suffered a banking collapse that spookily presaged the recent financial crisis in the real world, and people lost real money. There have been murders over online incidents (Perhaps that is to say that there is real peril, but no-one wants to get murdered over a game, so don’t be facetious). Relationships can crack under the strain of a serious online habit.  People have died after playing for 24 hours straight. Gamers can become addicted. Schoolwork can suffer.

I can almost see the appeal. World of Warcraft provided a release for me from some fairly stressful times at work. It is always there, always on. You can be sure of finding someone to talk to, however facile your conversation may be. The clicking of buttons and the resultant slaying of monsters is hypnotically restful. Some of the spectacular landscapes and monsters can be breathtaking. If you are really lucky, you might make a good friend. The allure of them is such that I will keep trying them, but I’ll also probably keep on abandoning them after a few weeks, because not one has proven a substitute for engaging in real activity: seeing a friend, kissing a pretty girl, playing some sport… Until the day you can step into an online world so realistic you can feel the wind on your face, then I will probably remain disappointed. And if such a game were to be invented, it would probably be so addictive it would have to be banned. You heard it here first.