Freesteel Blog » Peak Day-Return Manchester

Peak Day-Return Manchester

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 at 1:02 pm Written by:

I’ve bought a few day-return tickets to Manchester from Liverpool in my time, and sometimes received £15 performance-related pay for my troubles. (You have to ask me after a few beers to explain this because it relates to a wholesale refutation of the axioms of evolutionary psychology.)

Anyways, I popped over to see Substance in a fast-decaying Urban Splash building, where the cheap laminated floors which probably looked good on Day Zero were now as dimpled a cow field from the tracks of high-heeled shoes. I was there to pitch my Codewiki project which is going to be the next big paradigm shift on the internet, after such phenomena as YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia. Not many people are going to use it directly, but the effect of this infrastructure project is going to be profound.

The demo and meetings went kind of okay, as these things do, not great, not bad. A good idea that actually looks good to other people would have been done years ago. But I have a knack for finding ideas that look bad, even after I have done all the work to show that it works and it should be really good.

I can summarize my application as the data equivalent of OCR, which is predominantly applied to documents that were printed off a computer in the first place so why didn’t they keep the original electronic file backed up then, eh? Solving problems that shouldn’t have been a problem if things had been done sensibly is always a totally thankless task because no one notices it. It’s like that really bad hang-over you don’t have right now, which makes life such a joy to live, as you’re able to appreciate only at the times when you do have a bad hang-over.

I left the office at about 2pm and wandered through Manchester feeling quite sad. I’d missed lunch, but that wasn’t the reason. It took a while to work out what the problem was, and I think it was this:

Barrington J. Bayley
14 October 2008

Fittingly, the guy who inserted Bayley’s death notice onto the Wikipedia page has been indefinitely blocked, because the bearer of bad news has to watch out what they do.

Barrington Bayley is my favourite Science Fiction writer, without a doubt. His general lack of recognition pretty much convinces me that I’m never going to make it, because I could barely aspire to aim for that level of quality, and he’s nowhere — even way back in the old days of SF when having original ideas was actually once important in the genre.

In all my years of attempting to write fiction, my closest claim to something genuinely interesting and Bayley-esque is the short story Mine the Primes written in 2002. Bayley could really do it, capturing the horror of this outrageous phenomenon we call life and the way we handle it.

They say, “Truth is stranger than fiction” — damn right, these days it is, with most of today’s writers not able to swallow the fundamental reality of the situation, continually flying around the planet instead of using the internet, and breeding like they think we’ve actually got a future.

You’ve got your mainstream fiction literature which systematically does not tread into the wide-open and very real territory of the future, and then you’ve got your Science Fiction literature which has the license to go there, but always seems to bung in some space travel to other planets without any consequences like it’s just turning over and using the other side of a dirty napkin. The real story is that we’re not going anywhere soon. We are going to have to live through the consequences that have been clearly mapped out for us by Science and are as real as the graphic details of our own individual death from a diagnosed terminal disease with no prognosis — whether or not we are prepared to imagine it.

Barrington Bayley could really communicate a sense that life was like being on a run-away train, even when the adventures spanned the galaxy and involved major battles between time-travel ships deep in the strata where they warred against the Hegemonic empire encroaching from the future. There is always an Out There. In the book The Fall of Chronopolis Captain Aton of the Third Imperial Time Fleet finds out a crucial fact underpinning the whole war which renders it entirely meaningless (much more profound than pathetic lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction), and takes his news to the emperor following a dangerous journey through the strat, minus ship, (such people are normally executed for religious reasons as soon as they return to the surface), chats up a princess and gate-crashes the palace.

Aton and the princess were mingling with the courtiers surrounding the throne. Boldly Anton stepped forward to confront the emperor and the prince.

“Your Chronotic Majesty” he said in a loud voice.

Both men turned to look at him. Philipium II appeared cold and supercilious, the emperor merely startled.

For one instant Aton looked into his ruler’s tired, feverish eyes and knew that his mission stood no chance of success. Behind those eyes was … nothing. The emperor was dead inside. There was nothing but bigotry, prejudice, set patterns of thought. Even if Aton were to persuade him of the truth of his story, which seemed unlikely, nothing at this stage could possibly cause him to alter his decision.

Aton glanced from him to the younger Philipium, and again from him to Arch-Cardinal Reamoir, who was hovering as always by the emperor’s side. As before he found that his new perceptions laid bare their inner natures. In Philipium II there was only a blind arrogance that was a sort of later version of his father’s unctuous religious humility. And in Reamoir there was ambition of truly shocking proportions: ambition that was prepared to sacrifice whole worlds, to cheat, lie, and kill in the pursuit of personal and religious aims.

He stood, tongue-tied and white faced, as the awful realization struck him.

“What is it, young man?” Philipium said sharply. “Who are you?”

“Captain Aton of the Third Time Fleet, Your Majesty.”

“Then you should be helping defend the frontier. On leave, are you? Why?”

“… The action for Gerread, Your Majesty,” Aton said after a momentary effort.

“Ah, yes. Take courage, young man. Eventually we shall regain Gerread, together with all the other possessions that have been lost since.”

An official slid through the circle and murmured something in the emperor’s ear, who then turned and began a conversation with someone else. No one took any notice of Aton. His rude intrusion had been forgotten.

The plot turns more often than the page turns, but this incident stuck with me to the extent that I was compelled to skim through the pages of the book to find it and then type it in. Probably because I know that if I barged into the Prime Minister’s audience one day with some vital insight, this is exactly how it would go.

I have a recollection of meeting Barrington Bayley in the summer of 1990 when I was part of the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society’s attempt at running the 11th University Science Fiction convention called Uniconze in the college formerly known as New Hall (before it was tastelessly renamed like a bride marrying someone rich).

I must admit that I didn’t understand a lot about what was going on, and I was tasked with being in charge of the cooking competition in which I had been instructed to grab Barrington Bayley, one of the far-too-numerous Guests of Honour at the convention (we’d made an infamous con-running mistake) to act as a judge. Don’t ask me to explain it further, because this and nothing else is inexplicably lodged in my memory. I distinctly remember having to lock everyone out of a classroom while I and this nice old man Mr Bayley surveyed a number of dishes, many of which had cakes on them, tasting them to determin which one was the winner at a Science Fiction convention! What the hell? It’s not like any of them were shaped like Captain Kirk’s ears or something. I have no idea why this was on the schedule. Costume-making I can understand, but cakes make no sense at all.

I had read nothing of Barrington Bayley’s fiction at the time, except for a rather pointless story in a recent issue of Interzone which involved a scene where some kids in the background were performing formation hang-glider flying up on a hill. I remember taking him to task for this, because I had just learned to hang-glide that year, and it seemed as ridiculous an idea as formation fishing. You fish where the fish are, and you glide where the wind currents go upwards, or you’ll be on the ground in short order.

While on the subject of me, and my triumphs of creativity, I also talked to him about my ZX Spectrum game Fat Worm Blows a Sparky written all in machine code with fancy solid 3D graphics, state of the art pushing the boundaries, whatever. (Francis Irving apparently bought a copy with his pocket money when he was very young. Oh dear.)

Barrington Bayley said he spent a couple of years dabbling in Z80 machine code himself for a time, being fascinated with what you could do with these amazing micro-processor commands, such as the LDIR command which was able to shift huge blocks of memory with one instruction through an internal loop cycle feature. He had to stop programming suddenly one day because he realized he was wasting too much time.

Aha, I said, that’s not how we do it in real programming. The LDIR shifts one byte at a time, which takes a certain number of processor cycles. What we do is relocate the stack pointer to the start of the memory block you want to shift the data to, and then push the words onto the stack 16 bits/two bytes at a time. Then, obviously, the whole loop is unrolled all the way through, because you’re shifting memory from the back-buffer onto the screen as fast as you can, and you don’t want to have too much flicker. Also, every 10th push-back in the program has an if-statement where you can optionally toggle the speaker bit in order to produce bursts of sound during this memory transfer process. What do you think of that?

Later in the year I moved to Bristol and discovered a second-hand book-shop on Gloucester Road that for some reason regularly stocked copies of the different old Barrington Bayley books over the next three years. It was then I discovered that he was a genius. And when I did find one of his old books on some rainy afternoon when I wasn’t bunking off from my Maths degree to go fly hang-gliders (badly), it really made my day.

I often dreamed of meeting him again, and conversing with him on the level of philosophies, plots, and Actual Ideas, which is the whole point of it for me. I’d bet he’d like my Mine the Primes story. Normally, when you get granted a conversation with a living author, they go on and on about their life, their travels, and their getting or not getting paid enough in their goddamn royalty cheques, and you kind of humour them because this is your one and only chance to meet with the man, and they could be talking to anyone else in the room, and you’re hoping they’ll get onto something deep and philosophically meaningful at some point, like the sense you get from their novels, and it’s just never there in the person, and you don’t know why, and no matter how much you push the conversation around and around to different things it just never gets there. You’d get more enlightenment going home and sitting in bed reading their books for the evening than going out to dinner with them.

This would not happen with Barrington Bayley, because he appears to believe in this calling (unlike most writers seem to), given the interviews he’s made. He’s done writing for money at times, but it just didn’t feel worthwhile. I’d probably have blown it again had I met him. Maybe creative programming is my life’s work. It would be nice if more people took an interest on the philosophical level.

Here’s Page One of The Soul of the Robot, which begins with the Frankenstein myth before moving on swiftly in a matter of a hundred words:

Out of pre-existence Jasperodus awoke to find himself in darkness

Seldom can a sentient being have known such presence of mind in the first few seconds of its life. Patiently, Jasperodus remained standing in the pitch-blackness and reviewed his situation, drawing upon the information that had been placed in his partially stocked memory before his birth.

He became aware that he stood unaided inside a closed metal cabinet. The first intelligent action of his existence was to grope forward with his right hand until he found the knob on the inside of the cabinet’s door. He turned and pushed. Then he stepped out to inspect the scene that met his eyes.

A man and a woman, well worn in years and dressed in smudged work smocks, stared at him shyly. They stood close to one another, like a couple who had grown old in each other’s company. The room smelled faintly of pine, in which the same wood were fashioned workbenches and other furniture: chairs, cupboards, a table and an assembly rack. Cluttered on these, as well as on the floor, the benches and on hooks, was a disorderly array of components together with the curious instruments betokening the trade of an electronics craftsman.

Although the room was untidy and somewhat shabby it had a warm, homely atmosphere. Its disorder was that of someone who had his own sense of method, and Jasperodus already knew how efficacious that method was.

His glance went back to the elderly couple. They, in turn, looked at him with expressions that tried desperately to mask their anxiety. They were gentle and blameless people, and in Jasperodus’ eyes rather pathetic since their eager expectations were doomed to disappointment.

“We are your parents,” the wife said in a hesitant, hopeful voice. “We made you. You are our son.”

She had no need to explain further, for Jasterodus knew the story: childless, and saddened by their childlessness, the couple had chosen this way of giving their lives issue. They looked to Jasperodus now to give them as much joy and comfort as would an organically born flesh-and-blood child.

But like many and ungrateful son, Jasperodus had already made his decision. He imagined better things for himself than to spend his life with them. Jasperodus, the hulking, bronze-black all-purpose robot they had made, laughed harshly and moved purposively across the room to the door. Opening it, he walked out of their lives.

1 Comment

  • 1. Piero replies at 19th August 2009, 9:03 am :

    Great little story about Bayley. He’s one of my favourite authors too. That’s a fantastic array of his books you have there!

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