Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Fermi Paradox Redux: Is Anybody Out There?

My blog post of March 18 -- entitled The Fermi Paradox -- detailed the genesis of the anthology Is Anybody Out There? that I am co-editing with Nick Gevers, to be published by Daw Books in June 2010. So far, it has been more than a two-year journey, and nearly three years will have passed by the time the book actually sees print.

In that initial post, I stated that Nick and I hoped to have the contents of the anthology determined by December -- which is, like, now! And, in fact, we have selected the stories to be included in the book. On December 13, I sent an email to all the authors with a listing of the contents. One of those authors posted the contents list on her LiveJournal, and then two other sites picked it up, and now I see that the information has spread from there -- so an appropriate web search over the past day or two would have yielded the results. But now that you are here, instead of there....

Submissions to this anthology were by invitation only; however, I think you will be surprised (and hopefully impressed in the end) with some of the "new" authors included in the anthology. We had 23 stories submitted, from which we chose 15 -- written by a total of 17 authors (two of the stories are collaborations). We also asked yet another well-known SF author to draft an introduction to round out the book.

But I'm going to keep you in suspense a wee bit longer while I mention a couple other items. Because of my involvement in this project, I occasionally receive links via email and Twitter for articles and such related to the Fermi Paradox. Recently @projectblackcat sent me a link to the January 2010 editorial in Sky & Telescope magazine. The editorial, entitled "Where Have All the Aliens Gone?" was written by Jacob Haqq-Misra (a Ph.D. candidate in meteorology and astrobiology at Penn State University) and Seth Baum (a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Penn State). The authors write: "If growth outstrips resources, human civilization may collapse. This could also explain the absence of extraterrestrials: despite the seeming vastness of the galaxy, perhaps exponential expansion is also unsustainable on a galactic scale." It's an excellent, albeit brief, editorial that tells us, in conclusion, that we had better "become responsible consumers and ensure our own long-term survival." The editorial is available via a
PDF, and can be found on the last page of the file.

So this got me hooked on Sky & Telescope. The magazine has a new article online entitled
"The Chance of Finding Aliens" by Govert Schilling (an astronomy writer in Utrecht, The Netherlands) and Alan M. MacRobert (senior editor of Sky & Telescope). It's a very lengthy (5 pages), detailed article, broken down into numerous sections. In one of those sections, the authors delve into -- and at great length -- each expression that comprises the Drake equation, which is used to calculate the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy:

The article gets quite technical discussing each of these expressions, with calculations, graphs, and postulations -- and I'll leave this part of the article to those of you who might find this interesting. But it is the last page of the article that really piqued my interest. Schilling and MacRobert write:

And here is perhaps the most important point of all: the Fermi paradox turns the definition of "optimist" versus "pessimist" on its head when it comes to life in the universe.

If star-traveling intelligences are extremely rare or nonexistent, despite the abundance of planets where life can begin, there must be some kind of "Great Filter" that prevents the emergence of interstellar colonists. Is the Great Filter something in our past, or our future? If we've already passed it – that is, if the filter is the origin of life, or the leap from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, or the leap from single-celled organisms to large multicellular animals, or from animal brains to human brains -- then the great test is behind us, and our way is open to spreading to the stars.

But if the Great Filter lies ahead of us -- for instance, if technological civilizations arise often but always destroy themselves -- then we are doomed. We will never get to the stars. Because (by definition) we are extremely unlikely to beat the odds that have already filtered out all who made it as far as we have now.

So, if there is in fact some "Great Filter," is it behind us? Are we simply holding ourselves back by not investing enough funds -- and thus effort and technology -- in human planetary travel? Or, is the "Great Filter" in front of us, and we are doomed to extinction because we will inevitably destroy ourselves -- either through war of one form or another, or through the unrepentant, excessive consumption of all our natural resources?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charles Stross: On Her Majesty's Occult Service

In 2001, as an acquiring editor for Golden Gryphon Press, I proposed an idea to the publisher: a new line of signed and numbered, limited edition chapbooks. To which, after much discussion, the publisher agreed. I had already been in contact with Alastair Reynolds regarding a short fiction collection (which I ended up editing years later for Night Shade Books; see my lengthy blog post on the Reynolds collection) -- so I asked Al if he would like to submit a novella to launch our new limited edition chapbook series. And, much to my joy, Al agreed. He currently had other commitments, but he said he could begin work on a new novella shortly after the new year (2002). The end result was Turquoise Days which premiered at ConJosé, the 60th World Science Fiction Convention. (I would like to share with you in detail how I met with Al in the lobby of his hotel in San Jose, California, the day before the start of the convention, after which I trucked up boxes of Turquoise Days to his hotel room, where we chatted at length as he signed 500-plus copies of the book. But I won't because this blog post, really, is about Charles Stross and his "Laundry Files.")

Around mid-2002, while Al and I were finalizing the edits and such on his novella, I began seeking out an author for the next title in this chapbook series. Howard Waldrop had already committed to writing a chapbook story -- what became A Better World's in Birth!-- and for those of you who know Howard, you'll understand when I say that it took a year for his story to be completed and published. So, in the interim, I was looking for another author and story. (I wasn't successful, but not for lack of trying; the Waldrop novelette was actually the second published chapbook in the series.)

One of the first authors who came to mind was Charles Stross. I had read quite a few of his stories, particularly "A Colder War" (Spectrum SF #3, August 2000; available online in its entirely on infinity plus1), and I was hearing a great deal of buzz regarding his forthcoming novel, Singularity Sky2, due from Ace Books in 2003. So, I emailed Charlie on August 2, 2002. In addition to introducing myself and Golden Gryphon Press, I promoted the new limited edition chapbook series and asked if he would consider submitting a story. I was aware that Charlie was scheduled to attend ConJosé, so I invited him to drop by the Golden Gryphon booth in the dealers room so that we could actually meet and chat a bit.

Charlie sent a reply that very same day:

"Firstly, I'm up to my eyeballs in work right now. I'm writing a series for Asimov's SF which will turn into a fix-up novel [Accelerando, Ace 2005], I'm working on book #2 of a contract for Ace [Iron Sunrise, 2004], and my agent is hoping to sell a tetralogy [Merchant Princes series] -- only one book of which is written so far! -- in the next couple of months. (Meaning, yet another big fat novel to write.) Therefore I almost certainly won't have time to write an original novella for you before March of next year.... However, if you're willing to settle for slightly-less-than-100%-original.... There's a second possibility, but this one is slightly offbeat. You may have seen my short novel "The Atrocity Archive", which Paul Fraser is currently serialising in Spectrum SF. It's 76,000 words long; he's running it in issues #7 through #9. Book rights to this short novel have not been sold; my agent is focusing on my SF work... [this is] a borderline horror/SF/thriller crossover... If you'd like to look at it I'd be happy to send you a copy and if necessary get [my agent] Caitlin Blasdell to talk to you about rights.... let's meet up and chat about things at ConJose."

It just so happened that I already had issues #1 through #8 of Spectrum SF, but issue #9, containing part three of "The Atrocity Archive," hadn't been published as yet. So, Charlie graciously sent me a file version of the complete novel for my reading pleasure. But what intrigued me even more so about "The Atrocity Archive" -- enough to request the full novel file from Charlie (remember, I hadn't yet read the final part 3) -- was Nick Gevers's review in the August 2002 issue of Locus Magazine. Nick concluded his review with the following paragraph:

"The climactic scenes of The Atrocity Archive -- battles in the snow beneath a galaxy of dying red suns -- form one of the most compelling and intellectually engaging narrative sequences in the SF canon, the logics of demonology and physics in astonishing tandem. Sequels are possible; they surely must come; but for the time being, the priority should simply be to see The Atrocity Archive published in proper book form after the limited availability of its serialization in Spectrum SF."

After reading that first sentence, re: "one of the most compelling and intellectually engaging narrative sequences in the SF canon," there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to be the one to acquire and publish this novel. However, I typically acquired books that were between 90,000 and 120,000 words, and Charlie had told me that "TAA" clocked in at about 76K words. So on August 19 [I know, I'm getting way ahead of myself, as this is after the WorldCon] I emailed Charlie and asked if he would be agreeable to writing an afterword -- I was thinking in terms of a two- or three-page afterword on the genesis of the novel; I also asked Charlie if he could recommend a fellow author to pen an introduction to the book. Charlie suggested Ken MacLeod for the introduction, and he also responded that "An afterword is possible." Fortunately, Ken agreed to contribute an introduction, and Charlie did indeed write an afterword -- a 5,550-word afterword entitled "Inside the Fear Factory," in which he made a case for the thriller novel as horror; he also wrote about British author Len Deighton, famous for his spy thrillers (e.g. The Ipcress File), and the influence behind the writing of "The Atrocity Archive."

But one thing still concerned me: in addition to an introduction and afterword, I felt the book still needed some new fiction; I told Charlie that I believed his hardcore fanbase/readers would have already obtained the three issues of Spectrum SF that contained the serialized "TAA." I wanted to be able to offer these folks something more than just the fine quality of a Golden Gryphon Press hardcover: preferably some new fiction. In his email response on August 19, Charlie made the following suggestion:

"Alternatively, can I interest you in a stand-alone novella about Bob, set not too long after the events of 'The Atrocity Archive'? I was going to write it for Spectrum SF, and would still like a chance to throw it at Paul, but if you insist on some 100% original content my arm can be twisted.3

Background: ...the novella, 'The Concrete Jungle', is a separate part of the story: it falls naturally between novels #1 and #2. It's about basilisks, the mystical significance of the Milton Keynes bicycle path network, Bob's evil scheming line manager, and what the British government is really spending money on in place of ballistic missile defense. 'The Concrete Jungle' is about 25% written, with a design length of 25,000 words, and was basically waiting for me to have an excuse -- and time -- to finish it."

Okay, before I go any further, for those of you not familiar with Charles Stross's Laundry Files, I guess a bit of an introduction is in order. From the dust jacket copy I wrote for The Atrocity Archives (note the plural from of "archives"; more about this in a bit), which was published in 2004:

In the world of "The Atrocity Archive," Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computer Science, did in fact complete his theorem on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning." Turing's work paved the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, had side effects that would leak through the platonic realm of pure mathematics underlying the structure of the Cosmos. Out there in the multiverse there were "listeners" -- and sometimes these listeners could be coerced into opening gates. Small gates through which minds could be transferred and, occasionally, large gates through which objects could be moved.

In 1945, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performed just such a summoning on the souls of more than six million. They opened a gate to an alternate universe through which the SS could move men and matériel. But their summoning brought forth more than the SS had bargained for -- an Evil, patiently waiting for countless eons, now poised to lunch on our galaxy, on our very own Earth.

The protagonist in these novels and stories is Bob Howard (not his real name; and I'll leave you to determine the origin of this alias) -- a geekish demonology hacker extraordinaire -- who works for a supersecret intelligence organization known as "the Laundry," formerly the Q Department in Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE). Whereas the SOE was officially disbanded in 1945, following World War II, the Laundry was secretly maintained and exists to this day. When Bob's not trying to save the world from unearthly horrors, he has time sheets to complete and field liaison meetings to attend. The Laundry Files are a unique mix of the British espionage thriller, Lovecraftian horrors, non-Euclidian mathematics, computer hackerdom, and Dilbert-style office management.