Great future inventions

I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.

1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”.  A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices.  It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’.  “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.

2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”.  In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities.  The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.

3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels.  This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt.  The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data.  Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.

4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.

5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“.  A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across.  They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years.  Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines.  Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.

6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick.  It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.

7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s.  Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.

8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”.  Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision.  Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,

9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”.  Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain.  It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.

10.  The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.

Buchaille Etive Mor

We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.

Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.

Ben Vorlich

Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.

Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.

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In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:

“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls
The night draws in and the ale house calls”

(Chris Rea, “Chisel Hill“)

Buchaille Etive Mor

Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.

The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.

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Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.

As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.

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Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.

At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

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And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.

Stand up, hold my hand
I hope you understand
Here where time is still, I walk the hill

Stand here, close to me
Here for all eternity
I wait as others will, I walk the hill

(Stuart Adamson)

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By train to Euston

The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.

Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.

Tail lights

Red tail lights
Vanish into the night
In the mist and the rain,
They vanish from sight.
Friends move on
To life elsewhere.
Bringing much to our lives
While they were here.
They are gone:
There’s no need to fear.
We’ll bring light to others
We’ll take up the cloak
Do what we can,
Live always in hope.

Emily Barker at St. Peter’s, Tandridge

Earlier this year we attended the first pop concert in 800 years, at St. Peter’s church, Tandridge village. It was an unseasonably cold night in March, and late snow lay on the ground. Tonight, we returned, in mid-October, on what was another unseasonable night. This time, however, the weather was very warm. To be able to walk around on a mid-October night in shirt-sleeves is most unusual.

This event, like it’s predecessor, was a benefit gig aimed at raising money for the fabric of this wonderful and ancient church.  In this case, money is sought to install a much-needed loo: prosaic, but a vital human need.  And this evening was both human and prosaic, warm and uplifting, but friendly and community-oriented.  The Rector, Andrew Rumsey, introduced the evening with a warm-up act of a brace of autumnal songs that might have even been written for the occasion.

The actual support act for Emily Barker were two gents called Roy Hill and Ty Watling. These gents looked and sounded like characters from Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing”

…Check out guitar George
He knows all the chords…

Mind, Ty Watling did indeed know how to make his guitar cry and sing, and that he went on to do.  Roy Hill was of indeterminate age, and was in good voice, and made banter with the audience about how much better this was than their usual pub gig.  They started dark, with a song about pain beginning, and finished with a deeply moving number about failing mental health, yet, they were always somehow encouraging, humane, and uplifting.

Emily Barker came on and immediately impressed everyone with her beautiful clear voice and her guitar playing.  This evening has seen a series of guitarists bringing great joy and beauty into the world through their playing, song-writing and singing, like Chet Atkins:

…Money don’t matter as long as I scatter a little bit of happiness around
If people keep a grinnin’ I figure I’m a winnin’…

In between the numbers she told us stories of her early life with a discernable Aussie twang.  It is always engaging when pop stars do that – you want to know that they do go to the shops, that they were once kids in the back of a car going on holiday, singing along to cassettes.  She performed an old Bruce Springsteen number – “Tunnel of love” – to illustrate this story.

Somehow, the fact that she is a supremely skilled professional guitarist and pianist, a powerful and gifted singer and a talented songwriter did not discourage or demotivate. After the concert I was speaking to a lady in the audience who has Downs Syndrome.  She wants to write songs – and she was saying, by no means demotivated, how high the bar has been set by Emily Barker.  The lesson is, everything is possible; anyone can do anything if they set themselves to it.  A lady you might pass in the street, wearing blue jeans and a cardigan, has a voice like Aretha Franklin, a solo voice so beautiful, so powerful, as to carry an entire church in stunned silence.

“To one, he gave five bags of gold, to another, two, to another, one bag, each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15.  It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, not how much you’ve got.

There’s a pattern emerging here with these concerts: Not so much inspiring, as inspirational.  Do new things. Dare to create, dare to do something new with your bag of gold.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Lorien street

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind, cutting at my neck. I pulled my scarf tighter about me. The legs of my trousers whipped about my ankles. Bits of litter spiralled around in eddies. It was the sort of day when snow always seems imminent, but never actually falls. Pushing south, walking blindly, almost at random, I continued into Mayfair. Here were antique dealers, discreet fine art shops, vendors of ancient vellum manuscripts.

All I knew, in my mourning, was to walk through the winter streets of this great city. It was my therapy, my treatment, my medicine. If I stopped even for a moment, I should end up thinking. And if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be lost. I would think of my daughter, who was gone. I could not bear to do that, not just yet. I knew that, in time, I would: I would pause, own what had happened, and move on. But not yet.

I found myself in Berkeley Square, walking down the west side. The trees were bare, and brown, twigs and branches flung accusingly out against the grey sky. I barely noticed myself crossing Curzon Street and continuing into the little maze of secret streets that led out onto Piccadilly. Here, my best efforts not to cry failed me, and the tears came flooding out. For a few moments, I stumbled along in tears. A big city is no bad place for a grown man to cry: you can be on your own, lost in the crowd. Maybe you want to cry alone; maybe, really, you secretly long for someone to notice.

As darkness fell, I stopped to look into the window of a little bistro. A few flakes of snow were just starting to appear.  Inside, an Italian looking man of about my age, caught my eye. I’m not an impulsive man, but I turned nonetheless and straightaway went inside, out of the cold, biting wind. The waiters’ gaze through the window had seemed to contain, in a single split second, all moments. Though nothing was said, something mysterious passed from him to me. Some complicit understanding, some unspoken empathy.

The first thing I noticed as I came in out of the cold, was a cheap framed print of Rembrandt’s “The raising of Lazarus”. So out of place did it look, my eye was drawn towards it. The waiter, already moving to greet me, noticed my looking at the picture, and murmured very quietly, almost under his breath, “anche Gesu piange“. Then he spoke in English, and louder, with words of welcome. I glanced at my watch, and saw that the time was a little after 4pm. I ordered coffee, and after a glance at the menu, some form of cake I cannot now recall.

It seemed to me that the waiter lingered when he bought my coffee, and we spent some time talking, but I cannot recall what we were talking about. Outside, snow fell, and the darkness was complete. But inside, in the warm pools of light, there was friendship. The waiter’s brother arrived, and we got talking. I talked my heart out, I spoke at length. They listened to me and they hardly said a word. I talked about my whole life; about my former wife, about my daughter. They nodded solemnly as I told them about the tragedy of her sudden death. One of them put his hand on mine. The other touched my shoulder.

I thought I ought to get up to leave. I was in a kind of daze. But not so dazed that when I moved to stand up and get my coat, I didn’t spot the lady behind the bar shaking her head minutely. Then she smiled at me like I was the only person in the universe. “But…” I started to say.

“Stay” said the waiter.

Later, more people arrived, and there was dinner. A hearty dish of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Sphaghetti, Garlic bread. Red wine. I could never afterwards recall the conversation at that dinner. It was as if I was an honoured guest at an intimate family dinner, an outsider made welcome at a private occasion for just a few close friends and relations. For a brief while, the burden of my grief was put by.  It was laid aside, like the scarf and overcoat hung up in a little alcove by the door. It was like when someone carrying a huge and wearisome load for many miles, lays that burden down.

For a while I was sat at the bar, talking to the barmaid, the one who’d smiled at me so winningly. She was telling me about her profoundly disabled son, and the struggles they had getting him dressed, or strapped into the car. I sipped a glass of some Aniseed spirits – Pernod, perhaps, or more likely Sambuca, in an Italian restaurant. “Don’t miss”, she said, a London barmaid to her fingertips, “your train”. I gave a start. Then she did something quite startling. In a quite intimate way, yet somehow in no way suggestive or inappropriate, she took hold of my hand, and said something. She said this:

“Don’t look at your watch.” She looked right at me and said again, “Don’t look at your watch. Just put your coat on, and walk.”

I put my coat on. The wonderful Italian waiter shook my hand. I opened the door and stepped out of the warm restaurant, into the cold night air. The snow must have stopped a while ago; I must have been in the place for hours, yet there was just the merest icing sugar dusting on the roofs of the cars. At the corner, I saw the name of the street: Lorien street.

Walking away through that hidden quarter of lost streets, I turned a corner and found myself in the bustle of Piccadilly.  Something was not quite right.  It was too busy for late evening; I’d been sat in that bistro all night, talking, eating, drinking, until after 10 o’clock. Yet here were buses, taxis, pedestrians, tourists. Automatically, I shot the cuff of my overcoat and looked at my watch, and saw that it was just after 5pm. Thunderstruck, I wondered what had happened. Was it even the same day? 

I turned round, and retraced my steps. But of Lorien Street, or of that little bistro, I never found any sign. I’ve been back that way several times, and never found so much as a trace.  Nothing could be found of that hidden place of healing, where those people made me so welcome and were so generous to me in my time of grief.