Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How far will we see?

From the Pantropy stories of James Blish to novels like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, speculative fiction writers have often dreamed about changing the basic human design. Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.

For the first time ever a blind woman has been injected with a virus containing DNA from a light-sensitive algae. The hope is that the DNA will bind to the ganglion nerve cells in her eye to replace damaged photoreceptors that would otherwise send optical signals to the brain.

But why stop with visible light? Now scientists in the US are implanting sensors that detect infra-red directly into the brains of mice. By using a series of switches that reward the mice with food when an IR emitter is pressed, the mice have been trained to recognise and interpret infra-red impulses. In effect they ‘see’ infra-red. Further experiments will increase the sensory bandwidth to include ultra-violet, microwaves and beyond, culminating in animals that can see all wavelengths.

Meanwhile another group is trying to isolate the genetic or chemical element that enables animals like pigeons and lobsters to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to guide navigation with a hope that the ability can be replicated in humans. So one day you may be able to ‘see’ exactly where you are with your eyes shut.

Hacking humanity has only just begun.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review - Leviathan's Blood - Ben Peek

Leviathan's Blood (Children Trilogy #2)Leviathan's Blood by Ben Peek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books
( http://www.newtownreviewofbooks.com )

I’m not overstating things when I say that Ben Peek is one of the most accomplished writers of richly detailed and intricately plotted epic fantasy working in Australia today. When I reviewed The Godless, the first book in his Children trilogy, I said Peek gave George RR Martin a run for his money. Book Two, Leviathan’s Blood,keeps him well and truly at that high-water mark.

The world of the Children trilogy is suitably epic in scope, wrecked as it has been by the aftermath of a battle between the gods that took place thousands of years ago. The sun is shattered, making its way across the sky in a series of broken shards. The sea is dark and toxic, flooded with the blood of the titular Leviathan. The mountains have grown on the back of god-corpses. And the people live in fear of the god-touched, receptacles of the remnants of godly power that spilled across the land in the final terrible conflict.

The god-touched are immortal. Five of the earliest raised empires, fought terrible battles, destroyed whole nations and wrought awful suffering across the face of the globe. In The Godless one of these, Zaifyr – who can harness the power of the dead – was trapped in the siege of the mountain city of Mireea by the army of a new child goddess coming out of the nearby land of Leera. A goddess who threatened to start a new cycle of wars that would kill countless millions. But Zaifyr discovered her power had an even darker side, preventing the dead from leaving this plane so that not even death was a release from suffering.

In Leviathan’s Blood, Zaifyr travels with the Mirreeans, fleeing the Leeran army of the child goddess to the rocky land of Yeflam, perched above the deadly ocean. There he is to stand trial for the murder of two Keepers – god-touched members of the Yeflam Enclave – who have tried to infect the Mireeans with a deadly disease. But what he really wants is to rally the Yeflam people to fight against the new goddess and free the living and the dead.

But not all the people of Yeflam are happy to see so many Mireeans on their borders:

The afternoon’s sun had sunk beneath the black ocean when the pieces of paper began to settle on the dirt and sand. For a while, they went unnoticed: Lieutenant Mills, white and gray-haired, had finished recording who would share with whom when a piece of paper came snaking along the narrow lanes. It stuck on the cloth of a freshly staked tent, where it was picked up by a guard. Ayae was one of the next to pick up a piece. It was a single sheet of Yeflam’s dirt-coloured recycled paper, with the words GO BACK HOME written in big, block letters on it. When she showed it to Caeli, who stood next to her, the guard swapped her for one with a picture of the Mireean people standing on the edge of Yeflam. They were tipping the great stone city as if it were a boat, tipping it into the waiting Leeran forces, which held swords and catapults and stood on the bones of their enemies. Ayae balled up the picture in her hand and turned to the stone platform of Neela behind her, where the city’s lamp revealed children throwing the papers over the edge gleefully.

‘Lovely,’ Caeli said beside her. ‘Just lovely. Nothing makes me happier than adults using kids to say what they’re afraid to say.’

With the people of Mireea in a precarious situation, Buerlan Le, the mercenary who was sent with his band to spy on the goddess, is now on a personal mission to the homeland he was exiled from, carrying a bottle containing the soul of his dead comrade. And Heast, the Captain of the Spine, is released from his role as protector of the Mireeans when he learns that Refuge – the mercenary group he used to command – still has need of him.

Actions have consequences that are rooted not just in the socio-political truth of the times – a truth that could be ripped from the front page of today’s real-world newspapers – but also in the characters, the cities, the alliances and rivalries, the personal and shared histories and myths of Leviathan’s Blood. Such richly detailed storytelling makes for a strong degree of verisimilitude despite the more fantastic elements it contains. This is a world and a group of characters you can believe in.

It’s true to say that as a result the plot is not particularly fast-paced. This isn’t ‘shot-glass fantasy’, delivering a sudden jolt and a euphoria that fades all too quickly without leaving much of an aftertaste. This is a story to be decanted slowly into a brandy snifter and warmed in your hands as you savour its complexity.

It’s equally impressive to realise that after what has gone before in The Godless, everything we thought we knew and understood changes in Leviathan’s Blood as we learn more about the characters as they move out into a wider and far more dangerous world. This is not a ‘placeholder’ book, marking time for the trilogy’s final volume.

If I were allowed one quibble, it’s the shortness of the chapters, particularly in the first half of the book. At times I felt I’d only really got into the swing of a particular narrative thread before the focus of the novel jumped elsewhere.

While there is much to ponder in the story, there’s also some impressive action amongst the revelations and worldbuilding. Peek writes fight scenes very well and when his characters exercise their god-like powers it plays out across the inner eye like some dark and gritty superhero movie mashed together with the best Ang Lee-inspired martial arts film. This is a vicious world and it forces those blessed or cursed with power to make equally vicious choices:

She blocked a second cut, made a wild slash with her sword and almost – the road leading to the carriage beckoned emptily as she landed – made her way through, but the mounted soldiers came charging and she felt a blade cut into her shoulders.

Her blade swept round impossibly fast and cut the following soldier from his horse. The animal rose on its legs and she dodged back. More riders came and Ayae felt her control slip as she met the thrust of another woman. She twisted the weapon out of the woman’s grasp and grabbed her arm to pull her from the horse. She could feel the warmth in her own body, close, so very close to overwhelming her, and saw the woman recoil from the heat in Ayae’s hand. The mail sleeve began to melt, burning it into the skin of the soldier as the horse, feeling its coat smoulder, recoiled in fear and reared, throwing the woman across the stone road. Ayae took the woman’s fallen blade, longer than her first, and watched as flame immediately ran along the steel.

It’s impossible to provide an overview of the scope of the story here. Leviathan’s Blood covers a lot of ground, deepening our understanding and introducing new threats, new and terrifying characters, new lands and new wonders all vividly and indelibly portrayed.

If you’re a lover of epic fantasy and you’re not reading the Children books, you’re missing out.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The (Un)Productivity Commission

The Australian Productivity Commission's latest draft report contains a section called Copy(not)right, which demonstrates how Government-funded economists really don't 'get' the creative industry in Australia. Or maybe they just hate writers, film-makers and musos. 

See end of post for an update from the Australian Government.

One of their draft recommendations proposes (yet again) the abandonment of Australian territorial copyright. This ‘zombie idea’ refuses to die even though it was roundly dismissed as ludicrous last time we had this debate (in 2009).

For a very good summary of why the recommendation would destroy Australian creative output as well as a local multi-million-dollar industry, read this article in The Guardian http://bit.ly/1VVnViR

The other thought bubble that came out from the Commission was to limit the length of copyright protection for authors to 15 to 25 years after publication. Yes, you read that right. But let's put aside the obvious reaction that it's not fair to say you no longer own something you created  just because 15 years have elapsed and look at the Productivity Commission's 'reasoning', which goes like this:
  1. Excessive periods of copyright mean the price of material is kept artificially high. Presumably they haven’t noticed the introduction of ebooks where material is often available for $3 or less, particularly material that is a few years old (unless we’re talking about international bestsellers). 
  2.  Older material still under copyright is removed from sale and no longer available to the public. Again, anyone who’s looked at the ebook market would see that material VERY RARELY becomes unavailable, and in fact a lot of out of print books are now available again as ebooks. 
  3. Australia’s copyright term is excessive i.e. life plus 70 years. The term was increased from life plus 50 years NOT at the urging of Australian authors, but because Australia signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US, which required it. 
  4.  Literary works only provide a financial return between 1 and 5 years on average. The ’on average’ is important here, and this point also fails to consider trilogies and other multi-book series developed over a number of years. 
  5.  Three-quarters of original titles are retired after a year, and by 2 years 90% of titles are out of print. This is actually rubbish (see point 2). 
  6.  A study (from 2002!) argues that a term of around 25 years allows rights holders to earn revenue comparable to what they would receive in perpetuity. I’d suggest this assertion is a little old! The royalty landscape has changed significantly since then (to the detriment of authors). 
  7.  The paper goes on to note that the study’s estimate of 25 years was based on a low discount rate and that a higher rate would mean the term should be longer. Given the prevailing heavy discounting on books (especially ebooks) and lower royalties for authors, it’s clear that 25 years would NOT allow the owner to earn sufficient revenue. 
  8.  Another study (from 2007) states more creative works would be produced if the copyright period was lowered to 15 years. There’s no rationale given for this argument, but it clearly doesn’t make sense. That kind of copyright period would be a complete disincentive to creators.

And that’s the whole rationale. An argument that does not consider the real-world environment that now includes ebooks, and uses two studies from 14 and 9 years ago. Not exactly a convincing, comprehensively researched proposal from what is meant to be our peak productivity agency. 

If you’d like to express your rage at how frakked up this whole report is, please add your name to the Australian Society of Authors’ petition http://chn.ge/1rJfwCB


Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has released a statement clarifying that the federal government does not intend to reduce the life of copyright to 15 to 25 years after creation, following claims to this effect made by a number of prominent authors over the past week.

The Books Create campaign said Fifield’s clarification was an ‘outright rejection’ of the ‘recommendation to reduce the term of an author’s copyright to 15-25 years from creation’, and ‘calls into question why the Draft Report strayed so far beyond Australian law and international trade agreements’. ‘It also calls into question other recommendations in the report about US-style fair use and territorial copyright–which together underpin the economic model of the Australian book publishing industry,’ they said.
 Source: Bookseller and Publisher
I have to say if that is the government's intention, the whole release of the report has been a complete fiasco, added to the fact that it's just not very well researched or written.

It's still important that the other recommendations on territorial copyright and 'fair use' get buried. Sign the ASA petition (link above) if you haven't already done so.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1