Varley’s Worlds

Cory Doctorow brings sad news that John Varley, a writer whose work from the 1970s onwards gave me faith that the world of speculative fiction was not doomed to be swallowed by interminable multi-volume epic sagas about future galactic empires and their fall, has been having health problems.

John Varley, a beloved, versatile, funny, and wildly imaginative sf writer, recently had a quadruple bypass and is recovering well, but this is America, so he’s also in need of financial support through his recovery.

It’s difficult to decide which of Varley’s early works I enjoyed most – too many magnificent short stories1 to choose from – but then I remember how much fun the late teens-early twenties me got from the Gaea Trilogy of novels and I’m torn.

In the end, whatever length he worked at, I reckon the somewhat loosely-connected stories in and around the Eight Worlds setting were his best work. After an overwhelming alien invasion forces the human race to survive in various somewhat less comfortable spots, Varley gets to tell us tales of life spread across the solar system and they’re just tremendously well-done and humane and a joy to read.

Anyhow, the important thing now is that given the way health care operates in the USA this would be a very good moment to show John Varley some love, be it by using the Donate link at John Varley’s web site or by buying one (or more) of his books.2

(Varley, being an old hippy at heart, would be the first to point out that sending love and sending money are very different things.)


  1. Seriously, Varley is right up there with Ted Chiang in his ability to hit the ball right out of the park when he works at shorter lengths. 
  2. FWIW, I did both. 

Time travel

I really wish I’d read Craig Mod’s piece on The Healing Power of JavaScript earlier:

[As we join the story, Mod has decided to use some of the time afforded him by the pandemic to rebuild his personal web site…] In that spirit, as I moved my homepage I also rebuilt it as a so-called static site. A simpler version that should continue to work for the next hundred years. It looks nearly the same as it did before. With static sites, we’ve come full circle, like exhausted poets who have travelled the world trying every form of poetry and realizing that the haiku is enough to see most of us through our tragedies.

As is true for most infrastructure work, these gruntish behind-the-scenes tasks are often neglected, or derided as irrelevant, underfunded, ignored. That is, until they break, or a pandemic hits, and then we realize how infrastructure is everything, and without it our world reverts to some troglodytic cave state, or perhaps worse, an ever-widening extreme of haves and have-nots. […]

I really wish I’d taken the time to dive in and restore my older content and publish it under one roof again, rather than have the content spread around various ancient archived files, generated by umpteen different Content Management Systems over the years. That was always my plan, but somehow I let myself get distracted1 and kept putting off turning my attention to personal projects like web site rebuilds.

I can’t help but wonder whether, if I had rebuilt Sore Eyes, I’d have dared to run a link checker against all the links to external sites to see what didn’t generate a 404 response code.2 I’ve been doing this since early 2000, and I suspect I’d be horrified at the number of sites that I linked to that are no longer up (or, worse yet, which are still up but have been completely repurposed so that the content I was linking to is no longer at the URL I pointed to.)

Do I really want to do that to myself, to confirm to myself how much of that linking – and the work I might have put into restoring and republishing my content – was a waste of time?

Anyway, that’s my feeble excuse for having let Sore Eyes fall apart like this. I could start work on resolving the problem tonight, but I plan to spend much of the rest of my evening finishing a rewatch of the last four episodes of the final season of Travelers.3 A better use of my time, I think…


  1. It’s also partly that my working week has continued to be taken up with working from home, so lockdowns 1-3 didn’t really free up any time to spend on personal projects. I know, I’m lucky to have been in a job rather than furloughed, but still… If anything, I found myself spending spare time during lockdown thinking about how to live life under lockdown, or just resorting to watching TV programmes of varying qualities to fill up free time and distract myself from my situation. 
  2. Of course, the absence of a 404 response tells me nothing about whether the content that’s present at that URL now is still the content I was pointing to at the time. I wonder whether there’s some straightforward way to have the link-checker look for the presence of whatever blockquouted content I included in my blogpost. That sounds like one of those things that should be possible, but is almost certainly beyond my coding skills to put together. (Or, alternatively, there’s an API for doing that but it’d require me to learn to use an unfamiliar language to make it work and my brain’s no longer up to it.) 
  3. A pretty decent – though by no stretch of the imagination hard-SF – tale of time travel from some of the folks who brought us the Stargate franchise. Yes, I already know it doesn’t end particularly well for our Travelers, but I’m glad they at least got to wrap up the tale rather than just have it stop in mid-story. 

Radio Silence

Radio Silence, a short but very creepy story…

36,400,000. That is the expected number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, according to Drake’s famous equation. For the last 78 years, we had been broadcasting everything about us – our radio, our television, our history, our greatest discoveries – to the rest of the galaxy. We had been shouting our existence at the top of our lungs to the rest of the universe, wondering if we were alone. 36 million civilizations, yet in almost a century of listening, we hadn’t heard a thing. We were alone.

That was, until about 5 minutes ago. […]

Even if you recognise where it’s going well before it gets there, very nicely done.1

[Via @kbiegel, via RT by @tomcoates2]


  1. Yes, you can quibble about the accuracy of that figure from the Drake equation given the number of approximations and ballpark estimates fed into it, or about how convenient it was that that last message was encoded as ASCII and contained a message expressed in English, but addressing those points would have lengthened the story to no great effect. At this length, it works well enough. 
  2. Credit to @owenblacker for posting a link to the text of the story. 

The Man from Earth

A few thoughts after wasting away an hour or so of my Bank Holiday morning watching The Man from Earth, a relatively low-budget tale written by one-time Star Trek writer Jerome Bixby:

An impromptu goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious interrogation after the retiring scholar reveals to his colleagues he has a longer and stranger past than they can imagine.

[Summary: turns out John Oldman is around 14,000 years old and his survival strategy is to disappear every decade or so and start again somewhere well away from his previous life. This time, after he’s ducked out of his farewell party and is packing up his truck, a bunch of his colleagues have turned up at his cabin and he finds himself telling them more of his life story than he’d planned. Including the notion that a few hundred years after he’d spent time learning Buddhist ideas from their source,1 he’d tried to impart some of those ideas in the Middle East under a different name. That didn’t go well, to put it mildly.]

Given that this dates from 2007, it’s crying out for an update/sequel/prequel. Will his anonymity be stripped away in the next few decades as more and more state bureaucracies make it ever harder to operate without official documentation? Or is he secretly planning a move to a society that resists that particular brand of "efficiency?" Or has he seen enough attempts by humans to design a watertight system to be confident that there will always be workarounds and holes to be exploited for those who look closely at the details?

At some level there’s got to be a lot more to John Oldman’s story that didn’t come up in this one night’s conversation around his fireplace. Presumably one of his traits, not displayed directly here, is that he understands that if he’s careful he can wait out lots of aspects of how societies choose to organise themselves, provided he’s willing to adjust his expectations of certain creature comforts and status in society. One suspects that he’s been observing humans and their institutions for long enough to see most cons or deceptions or traps coming from a mile away, so he’d be a trickier one to catch than you’d think, especially if he moves across civilisations over time and chooses his societies carefully.2

I could easily imagine this being a pilot setting up seven seasons and a movie about this portion of the life of John Oldman, except that the producers might not be able to resist turning it into something more serialised and grimdark than it needs to be.3 Modern TV is so in love with the notion of season-long plot arcs and tying together all the pieces by the end that I’m not sure there’d be much of an appetite right now for a show that dipped in and out of our central character’s life over the centuries, especially where one of our central character’s primary strategies is to not live in the same place or with the same group of supporting characters for too long.

The idea would work much better as a series of short stories and novellas. A shame that Jerome Bixby died shortly after this film was made, so barring someone with lots of money being a fan and buying the rights this is probably the last we’ll see of this idea. Unless it turns out that someone in the Star Trek writers’ room is a big Bixby fan and we get a prequel to Requiem for Methuselah that somehow puts our central character in a Starfleet uniform and he then gets spun off into yet another series, or we end up with Picard season 3 having Jean-Luc get fascinated by this Professor Oldman character whose backstory doesn’t quite check out.


  1. Remember, he’d lived long enough and moved around the world so much that he’d had time to learn at the feet of Siddhattha Gotama
  2. One point that a modern take on this script would surely have to address is that it’s very handy that he can pass as a white heterosexual male with an excellent command of English. Is the fact that John Oldman moved to the United States in the 19th century a sign that he saw that he’d be well placed to do well in the American Century to come? There again, he’s lived long enough that he’s seen the world change before and he may just be less bothered than we’d think. He’d been slipping through the cracks of society for long enough not to have to worry too much about which society is top dog, just so long as there’s room in it for someone like him to live an inconspicuous life. In comfort would be best, but his idea of what that requires might not be as similar to our idea of ‘in comfort’ as we’d think. 
  3. I swear, if our putative series’ finale ended up with John Oldman finding his way into the crew of Elon Musk’s first Mars colony to escape the ever-tightening grip of the state’s bureaucracy I’d be so disappointed. 

An experiment

Matt Webb is running an interesting little experiment on his site, aiming to build an awareness that someone else is reading a given page at the same time as you are) and letting readers highlight a portion of the content on that page for other readers who happen to be around at the same moment (e.g. participants in the same meeting, looking at the same document at the same time):

There’s no reason that Social Attention shouldn’t a one-liner to add to any website, or part of the browser itself. Maybe it should be part of a suite of social tools to make the web a well-lit, neighbourly place – with, naturally, good privacy-preserving fences.

That being said, I’m trying and failing to think of a circumstance where this would be useful to me. Given that the meetings I attend online generally lack an agenda or any minute-taking and mostly don’t involve everyone accessing a common document simultaneously to discuss/critique/pick apart, perhaps I’m just not the audience for this.

Doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth doing.

Cold Calls

After watching this week’s instalment of For All Mankind early this morning1 I found myself dipping into the first half dozen episodes of new Apple TV+ show Calls before starting work for the day, then picked up on the final three episodes this evening.

I was aware that this show was coming, but had deliberately not gone out of my way to find out more. I realise that goes completely counter to the modern trend that pushes viewers to try to find out as much as possible about forthcoming programmes and speculate endlessly online about what’s to come2 but I’m here to tell you that you definitely want to watch Calls with as little foreknowledge as possible of what you’re about to hear.

Yes, I said "hear" not "watch." Calls is a TV show, but it could as easily have been a podcast or a radio drama. We never see any of the cast, and while the on-screen graphics do help viewers visualise what’s happening and who is talking to who, the audio is sufficiently well-produced that (IMHO) it’s perfectly possible to get what’s happening without visuals.

No, I’m not going to say anything more about what happens in the story: all I’ll say is that if you have any interest at all in a well designed and delivered piece of speculative fiction then Calls is a very worthwhile experience.

Apple TV+ probably won’t get the credit they deserve for pulling it off, and given that Apple TV+ is very much the runt of the litter3 of modern streaming TV services Calls might be destined to be looked back on as an interesting failure. I do hope not; it’d be good to see more experiments like this.


  1. No, I wasn’t sitting there trying to catch For All Mankind once it dropped on Apple TV+, I just happened to be awake at 5am and realised I wasn’t getting back to sleep so decided I might as well fill the time until the sun came up by watching something to keep my brain occupied until it was time to prepare for the old working-from-home-office-job
  2. Contemplate Disney’s recent WandaVision multimedia extravaganza for a prime example of how that can go. 
  3. Also, to be fair, I suspect Apple TV+ isn’t pulling in the sort of viewing figures that Apple would have hoped for, though I’m not sure they’d want to admit that publicly just yet. When the most critically-acclaimed shows you have – Ted Lasso and The Morning Show – are between seasons Apple TV+ just isn’t exactly the focus of much talk in social media, once you look beyond the more Apple-centric corners of the internet. 

Packages

I’m the Package You Impulse-Ordered Three Days Ago and No, I’m Not Going to Make You Feel Any Better:

It’s hard being a package. Sometimes we’re out in the cold for a really long time. Sometimes someone puts a bomb in us. Sometimes someone thinks there’s a bomb in us, so 90 people in green suits show up and talk to each other on the phone for 11 hours only to discover we’re just a litter of kittens in a duffel bag.

But for a long time, it was worth it to see the smile on your face. […]

So true.1

[Via Memex 1.1]


  1. Next package is due for delivery on Wednesday. As it’s disposable face masks, I can safely predict it was never going to put a smile on my face. 
, 15 March 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

Romulans

Star Trek: Picard season one showrunner Michael Chabon has been sharing Some Notes On Romulans and I am eating this up with a spoon:

Traditional Romulan compounds — Romulans live in kinship units — are built at the center of a kind of hedge maze whose outer perimeter is often contrived to look like a “natural” grove of trees, as if, within, there were no houses at all. Once you reach the house itself, you find a false “front entrance”; all Romulan houses are entered from the back. Even in big cities, modern housing megastructures have false front entrances, and are surrounded by some kind of token or symbolic maze, often a pattern in the paving stones. No visitor to a Romulan compound must ever arrive uninvited — it’s unheard of — and all visitors are asked to don a ceremonial blindfold (often of the finest materials) and are guided by their hosts into the compound, after being turned around the ritual three times. It is the height of rudeness to ask a Romulan for his address. It’s rude to ask a Romulan almost anything remotely personal. […]

I’ve not been following rumours about Star Trek: Picard season 2 so I have no idea whether this is a sign that we’re due to spend some time with the Vulcans’ cousins in season two, or simply a case of Chabon clearing out notes from season 1 so he can move on to the next project now he’s not being showrunner for the show’s second season.

Either way, this is impossible to ignore if you’re remotely interested in the continuing journeys of Admiral Jean-Luc Picard.

(For the record, it’d be good to have Picard reunite with his two Romulan "domestic staff" who we met back at the family vineyard on Earth, before he headed off-world in season one. They seemed to have stories to tell, not that they ever would, and who knows where that could lead?)

[Via @hondanhon]

Grandmother-Starship FAQ

From Marissa Lingen’s1 So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered:

What is happening, seriously, what is even happening?

Your grandmother is becoming a starship! She has gone through many phases in her life already — infant, child, teenager, young adult, student, worker, in many cases spouse, parent, retiree. She has had hobbies like knitting, volleyball and carbon mitigation. She has travelled in planetary atmosphere whenever her circumstances allowed. Now she is uploading her consciousness into a starship! The circle of life is beautiful. […]

Competently done, heartwarming, wise even, yet oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps I was just not in the right mood when I read it?

[Via sibilatorix, posting to MetaFilter]


  1. FWIW, this is the same Marissa Lingen whose Present Writers feature I linked to last month. 

Irresistible

I’m indebted to Tim Bray for the pointer to jwz’s They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo, which I must have read at the time but which I don’t think I posted about here:

I’m going to draw a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Communist Conspiracy. It’s a long walk, so please stick with me. […]

It’s a longish read, but it’s about ancient history about important software and one of John Carpenter’s best films: how could I resist?1

[Via ongoing]


  1. Also, a commenter pointed to a collection of essays on They Live by Jonathan Lethem that I bought sight unseen.