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Stewart Hotston

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science fiction

Why can’t we get there from here?

I was fortunate enough to speak at the LSFRC’s Productive Future’s conference yesterday at UCL’s School of Art. I managed to see a couple of other sessions too and they were universally well presented and provoked plenty of discussion afterwards in each case. I particularly liked Dan Hassler-Forest’s paper on the economics of the mega-franchise.

Below are my, edited, notes on the paper/speech I gave. Long story short – I have been concerned for a while now that much science fiction is lagging on the issues that really face us today – one of which is our relationship to energy. In the notes below I posit a couple of reasons why I think we struggle to develop that relationship as writers and I add one additional argument based in our relationship to neo-liberal capitalism which arose out of a question I was asked at the end of the talk.

Introduction

Thank you for having me. I’m coming at this as an economist, scientist and author. These three elements of my background will inform the construction of my argument and I’ll present my own thoughts based through these lenses. Before we get going though, a little bit about what we’re going to cover.

  • what we’re going to cover
    • Definitions – energy
    • Physical considerations – that is, the what, the who and the where of our relationship to energy
    • Theory – what would a physicist say about energy? How does that divert from socially constructed meanings ascribed to energy
    • Science Fiction and how what we write reveals about us
    • The future – what kinds of subjects would I love to see us thinking about more carefully
    • Conclusion – what can we hope for through literature
    • Time for questions
  • But first a little about me – physicist, economist, banker, author blah, blah, blah.

Overview of Energy – a question of definitions

  • Energy is a word used in all sorts of contexts – from hard science where energy is a fundamental building block of everything to new age philosophy through to synonyms for our gas and electricity supplies.
  • In science fiction we have energy weapons (just about any space opera), light sabres, psychic energy (c.f babylon 5, Star Trek, Transcendence etc. etc.). The list goes on. For me, the concept of energy is multi-variate in nature with definitions as poorly defined as they are widely spread.
  • For the purposes of this presentation I’m interested in three uses of the word
    • Energy as a physical resource – such as solar, oil and fission
    • Energy as in physics – a raw measure of joules, electron volts etc.
    • Energy as in useful sources of power for cars, ships, people and spacecraft – agnostic about the physical resources. i.e. how we use and consider energy as a motive force.

Physical Considerations – where, how, who – The Politics and Economics

  • The energy we use is not invisible or intangible. It takes up space, needs to be moved and managed and, in most cases, comes from a primary resource such as wood, water and oil.
  • The implications of this are perhaps well understood by companies and politicians but not by the average lay person – modern supply chains are complex, multi-national and hidden by design even from the individuals working within them. Getting oil from the gulf of Mexico to a car in China is a chain that crosses dozens of countries, navigates months of time and passes through companies employed hundreds of thousands of people. See here for instance for a fantastic infographic on the subject. Rutherford’s maxim that complicated ideas should be explainable to a barmaid does not stand.
  • This is partly a capitalist imperative – to reduce the agency of consumers who are forced into dependency because they cannot source their own supplies and cannot tinker. All innovation must be created by an economically motived agent, not a community agent because this is how you maximise profit for your shareholders.
  • Most ordinary people do not think about how their electricity is generated. They couldn’t tell you what green electricity really is – if you asked them how does green electricity get to your house they’d not be able to tell you it was a stupid question.
  • Furthermore the scale of the energy market – whose financial instruments, derivatives, futures and contracts with multiple benchmarks, currencies and timescales is too overwhelming for even experts to really understand. You only have to look at Goldman’s predictions of oil going to $200 a barrel in May 2008 about thirty days before it collapsed to less than $37 in Feb 2009 demonstrates the point well.[1]
  • So where does that leave us? There are a couple of strong narratives both in factual reporting and in fiction.
  • The first of these is that we don’t need to think about energy. We live, in advanced late stage capitalist economies, post scarcity. Energy is infinite (or at least abundant in the fact that it is ALWAYS there when we turn on the lights). The infrastructure we’ve built guarantees it fades into the background as a certainty we don’t need to consider – unlike for most of history where we’ve had to concern ourselves each day with whether we’ll have enough calories to make it through.
  • The second is well demonstrated in M L Ross’ book summarising the Curse of Resource Wealth first posited by Auty et al.[2]. Resource rich countries do not benefit from their resources. Or at least, the majority of the people in those countries. Consider Nigeria[3] where political violence between the state, local politicians, the companies and locals appear to be the only booming business despite the vast reserves of oil.
  • As always the truth is more complicated. Britain, Norway and the US, to name just three, have or have had deep resource benefits and did end up as ‘failed states’. In my mind it’s really more a sense of post colonial classification as post colonial powers look on at the eviscerated cultures they’ve then abandoned and scratch their heads to an answer. Any answer will do that doesn’t implicate their decade or centuries long pillaging as being largely responsible for environments in which these kinds of outcomes find fertile soil[4]. Better yet a narrative that blames those left behind for their own woes.
  • Contemporary thrillers understand that energy is politically volatile – there are many movies and novels about oil for instance (the very best of them being Oil! which was remade as the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood) but they often draw a straight line between governments and corporations as bad and people on the ground as good. They do not explore how those governments are often simply reflecting the actual exigencies of what their populations are demanding in terms of services and standards of living.
  • This comes back to the first idea – that we don’t need to think about energy and its intersection with the wider population.
  • Popular explorations of geopolitics and how societies survive have also entirely overlooked these links – Tim Marshal’s Prisoners of Geography and Jared Diamond’s Collapse or his Gun, Germs and Steel have strong central theses about why politics turn into guns being fired and they are not driven by the need for energy. Jared’s theories about scarcity and even his ideas about the impact of the horse skirt the edges of this but don’t take the heart of it seriously – that a need for energy security – be it fuel to cook, fuel to heat our homes and mine our bitcoin drives much of the conflict we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years.
  • The problem is, energy security is effectively at the heart of US projections of power. It also informs Russia’s tilt to supplying energy to China after Western sanctions hit, activity in the Yemen. I met a number of oil industry executives in 2003-2005 and they were exceptionally clear we went to war in Iraq because of energy security concerns over and above anything else. I remember one conversation on this matter with a CEO stood on their construction floor where they were building new drill bits which were ordered before the resolution was passed at the UN authorising the invasion.
  • Energy has huge social, economic and political meaning.

Theoretical Considerations – Domain, Range and Extensibility

  • Having explored the physical I want to step back a bit and think more abstractly before bringing these two threads back together and addressing speculative fiction’s coverage of energy more directly.
  • Energy is, in its purest sense – not dependent on people. The largest delivery mechanism of energy to the planet earth is the Sun, the second is our molten iron core. Neither of these need our input or can even be influenced by us.  
  • How does that come into culture and is it helpful where it does?
  • Most discussions about energy are filtered into common language designed to make them graspable. It’s that mechanism that more often than not leaves us unable to really grasp the neutrality of the science of energy. By which I mean we’re at its mercy not that it doesn’t matter.
  • For instance, Electron mass is ½ MeV. And the mass of that very famous particle because of which most people have heard  of CERN, the Higgs Particle is 125 GeV. Does this mean anything to anyone except physicists? If you tried to write a sci fi thriller about this where would you even begin?
  • How many calories have you eaten today? Most of us can’t parse that statement realistically without help from apps and information on the back of food containers. Why not? Because it’s hard, not because we’re dumb (although that’s often the underlying message of press coverage).
  • So forget asking what we mean by the horse power of your car? Or how much energy is there in the universe.
  • When thinking about how we can parse this into Sci Fiction, and perhaps into normal everyday language we should borrow an idea from mathematics about Domain, Range and Extensibility.
  • Energy is everywhere. This is its Domain
  • However, energy cannot be extracted from all things. Even if all work requires energy – this is its Range
  • Another way of saying this is as follows: not all types of energy are equally available to us (i.e. high energy photon which had 10Kcals of energy, enough to heat a cup of tea but no real way of harnessing it. Or when we burn petrol we don’t recoognise that the heat and noise oof the conversion are forms of lost energy which we’ve failed to capture).
  • We know energy is tough to harness and that laws of entropy mean there are ever diminishing returns for us. Carnot’s engine is learnt by undergrads but is not well known elsewhere. Yet it impacts what we can reasonably expect humanity to achieve. What energy can we expect to be able to harness? How can we do it and how do we cope with the possibility we will always be on the losing side of the equation?
  • These are questions not well addressed by a Science Fiction grounded in post scarcity economics. We tend to see worlds which have everything they need regardless of their energy system or we have apocalypse where there’s nothing (although they still somehow have enough to eat with some notable exceptions such as McCarthy’s superb The Road)
  • There is a religious impulse in this thinking – a strong desire to see one of the basics of a society which works as one where we have abundant energy so we can then focus on the surface elements rather than the infrastructure. You can see in many sci-fi texts (cf. Alita: Battle Angel) that the poor live among the infrastructure and the rich do not see it. In real life we are the rich in the West and we do not see the infrastructure of our energy consumption and so do not question either our position nor its impact on others except by waving our hands in their direction as if it’s their fault.
  • Further still, we are too often left with magical thinking in our forecasts about human energy consumption. Consider climate change, bitcoin and AI. I’m avoiding references here because I, too, am a writer and it’s just not done to highlight other people’s creative choices.
  • Mini-conclusion – energy is vitally important. Most people can articulate that but they can’t articulate why. They also have no grasp of what we mean by energy – be it theoretically or physically considered. People have no better idea what a barrel of oil can power, where it comes from or how many are produced a day than they do about HE photons or the impact of a gamma ray burst and its implications for a goldilocks zone within most galaxies.

Science Fiction – common flaws, notable successes

So now I want to discuss how all this scene setting influences the landscape of what we discuss in science fiction. We can all name the most common tropes:

  • Faster than light and other forms of space travel – Star Trek, Star Wars and any number of other texts such as Interstellar and Children of Time.
    • The flaws to this are beyond the lack of science supporting it.
    • The flaws are about the energy requirements and about how they could drive wars and conflict, cooperation and entirely new branches of science. c.f the energy requirements of the current writer’s favourite, the Alcubierre drive.
  • Cryptocurrencies – a new breed of thrillers and discussions from people like
    • Neal Stephenson, myself, Kim Stanley Robinson, Doctorow and Friedman
    • Bitcoin mining is energetically expensive and remains a poorly scaling store of value with no real economic application at this point despite its obvious libertarian political rationale – see the FT Alphaville blog for reams of articles on this point. Izabella Kaminska in particular.
  • Fusion – free energy. The Abyss! Space Opera.
    • It’s ok to completely ignore this stuff and just write soap. Personally, I’m not advocating we only see hard SF.
    • But sci fi can do so much more. It can present to us the challenge of energy and scarcity. Think about the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is the stand out example of addressing these issues.
  • The AI – from 2001 to Diamond Age to Ancillary Justice
  • Construction and maintenance of Cityscapes – Lavie Tidhar in Central Station, Rendevous with Rama and SevenEves and Red Mars.
  • Production of Metamaterials – relatively poor examples of how new materials can change everything. Again, we end up looking at people like Stephenson but too often they’re macguffins rather than realistic looks at how new tech changes everything. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is interesting.
  • The support of transhumanism – any Kurzweilian approach to humanity. Zero K by Delilo is a really strong mainstream example which crosses boundaries.

The thing is they rarely talk through the key technological and economic problems of these technologies because, most of the time the technology is magic – not necessarily even internally consistent.

  • After all, AGI is terribly expensive to run.
  • Who provides the power to maintain a brain in a computer?
  • Why mine for materials in space when the energy required to get there would out weight the benefits from what could be brought back to earth by orders of magnitude?
  • As we’re all aware, in the real world, pursuit of energy security drives politics. Science Fiction is all too often the preserve of a homogeneous (and by this we mean white) cultural artefact and so entirely misses the political and racial streams of energy security.

The Future – plausible, implausible, impossible

My thesis then is this: energy is hyperreal. It is too large and too broadly defined an idea to be grasped well, even by subject matter experts. Hence we see speculative fictions struggling with how we get from where we are today to other futures – we struggle with developing the idea of Asimov’s Future History when it comes to energy. Part of this is by the cultural/political design of neoliberal capitalism, part of it is simply the scale of the political energy economy is too large for people to grasp.

Our abiding energy myth in western democracy is about abundance. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even have memes about it being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We have no new myths about energy scarcity yet. No stories we tell of how we arrived as a post scarcity environment for some and not for others, how we fought wars to create this world and how those wars are going to be fought and fought again as long as there isn’t truly abundant energy for all.

Here’s a trio of ideas I’d love to see in the literature – stories presenting possible futures to us where these kinds of technology are present but are also central to the worlds we’re creating.

  • There’s already a burgeoning field of Energy Economics[5], [6], [7] with its own journals and conferences. This is an exciting real world development and its subjects of study are ready made for political science fiction. I really hope that given we’re developing a language and pattern of thought which actually addresses these issues today we will start to see stories picking up on this and bringing these ideas into the mainstream
  • Zero carbon footprints – the challenge of lifestyles which could accommodate this and the importance of deflationary economics – the conflict in the heart of capitalism against deflation. My own employer is working toward being carbon neutral – if large companies can do this then there is language and conflict to explore.
  • Deflationary economic systems – Nouriel Roubini interview on FT Alphachat

What can we do through literature?

As we see new language discussing how we get from here to there I truly hope speculative fiction develops stories about the journey and not just the aftermath.

Explore the challenges of developing new technologies which are fantastically energy hungry

What are the challenges for authors though? Economics of course – stories have to sell. But also audience tastes. Info dumping, political appetite and making a point all turn readers off.

But speculative fiction can change the dimensions of the Overton window to allow us to see discussions about the hidden infrastructure as normal, about peeling it back being what we do.

Additional references

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/sectors/energy/

https://www.nber.org/programs/eee/eee.html

http://www.biee.org/

https://www.nature.com/subjects/energy-economics

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-economics


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21oil.html

[2] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9686.html

[3] https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp120_maehler.pdf

[4] Political Research Quarterly, volume: 67 issue: 4, page(s): 769-782

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_economics

[6] https://www.iaee.org/

[7] https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publication-category/energy-economics/?v=7516fd43adaa

Post Cyberpunk Larp

Got your attention? I hope so.

I challenged a friend of mine a few months ago on whether they’d be interested in and whether they could think of a way of turning the world in which A Family War exists into a LARP.

The problem with any sci fi LARP is really getting into the details of scifi – you know, those computers, AI, futuristic weaponry, hacking and the like.

My mate Andy has come up with a neat solution for the physical aspects and I think I’ve worked out how to do the electronic side so that players could experience both.

There are pinterest boards, ideas for plot and I’m going to start thinking about approaching the site and asking a small, select bunch of people if they’d be part of the team that could put this together…

However, the other important thing to note is that it’ll be kind of a post-cyberpunk theme. Beyond the cybernetics and implants that made cyberpunk such a thing. Gibson has been writing it for ages (ie, he moved on from cyberpunk a long time ago) and I realised in talking to Andy that The Oligarchy is also post cyberpunk.

Funny how these things emerge…

More news as it’s ready but for now this is very much at ideas stage. One thing though…if you were interested it would be great to know.

The game’ll be limited numbers and limited run – and it’ll be openly pvp (although pve will be the main focus), cos what’s drama without conflict?

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Imagine if we found a way of letting the rest of the galaxy know we were there? Imagine it was a mistake, that it happened at a period of time in which your culture was undergoing violent upheaval. Imagine if you hated everything about the world in which you were forced to endure.

This is the premise of Cixin Liu’s opening book in the Three Body Problem trilogy.

It’s fascinating to see a story of this type told from a non-western point of view. It’s also fascinating to see it develop according to good science as well as exploring the issues of such a situation without resorting to cheap gimmicks or requiring the characters to have melodramatic awakenings or background ‘issues’. There’s no sense of the maverick detective with personal issues cliche here.

It’s a tremendous book and I’d heartily recommend it – it’s real companion is the recent movie – Arrival – which talks through some of the same issues but from a completely different starting point.

In terms of downsides, there is a reasonable amount of plot discussion and sometimes a little more internal monologue could have been used to help the reader understand what was going on but these are small quibbles.

And it’s out

Final checks passed! Launch buttons pressed. A People’s War is out.

Hope you enjoy and as always – regardless, if you do read a copy, please could you do me a massive favour and pop a review up for me?

Stu Keen
Stuart Keen showing a cool demeanour under immense pressure

Not to forget the competition – as per A Family War, the person who posts up the best photo of them with the novel will get the final instalment for free. The winners of the original competition are Bex Cardnell Hesketh and Stuart Keen, both of whom have now received their free copies of A People’s War.

Thanks and merry Christmas

S

 

Helena Woolf

Book 2 of the Oligarchy is nearly ready to go. We’re aiming for the third week of November – more on that when we have a firm date. In the meantime, I realised that I’d never really talked that much about Helena, the main character throughout the trilogy.

Helena’s an Oligarch. By that I mean she’s solidly within the 1%. Don’t hate her just yet (no…wait until you read about her and what she does before you make the decision). She’s blessed with access to technologies that the 99% are denied. For instance, she’s functionally immortal, although the reality is no one really knows just how long her generation will live. She’s benefitted from genetic therapies that mean she won’t get any of the more common diseases associated with ageing or those we might ordinarily say are heritable.

Add to that the fact that she’s had the best education, the best opportunities and you’d be forgiven for thinking she had everything going for her. A woman who might typify #firstworldproblems. Except Helena is also completely human, just like and I. Well, almost.

In the first book she discovers something terrifying about the world humanity has built for itself, about how it could follow its own logic and destroy the very thing that gives it substance. In A People’s War she’s following through on what she discovered in the first book, not least of which is that her missing father might just be the very man around who everything now revolves.

I’m showing two pictures for Helena above because she has changed her appearance more than once in the story so far. She has, via internal AIs, control over her pigment, hair colour and a limited ability to change her basic features given enough time. For me it’s a sign that in a world where you can change your appearance at will you’re not going to be worried about looking a certain way (except to be fashionable). While that doesn’t exclude racism, nor implicit bias, it does mean that people like Helena aren’t wedded to a certain way of appearing. You might comment that both the women whose images I’ve shown are beautiful (depending on your POV). I’d say, yes. Given the option, most people would probably choose to adhere to symmetry and current norms for beauty. It’s an issue I don’t tackle all that much I’ll admit, but I am very aware of what kind of messages are constructed in choices like this and wanted to highlight that this is deliberate and, hopefully, satirical.

Helena is complex (and I hope that comes across on the page) just like the rest of us.

A People’s War

This is the blurb, well draft 1 anyway. It’s always had to give enough of what makes a story cool without giving too much away, either about the first book or about what happens in the story itself. Suffice it to say that there’s no spoilers below. 🙂

“Helena’s father went missing a century ago. He took his team of researchers and their findings with him so that none could benefit from his work. For Helena this is a problem since someone’s finished up what he started and is looking to benefit from creating a war between the largest corporations in the solar system. A war in which there’ll be no winners.

Throw into this mix a third side, one intent in freeing itself of the Oligarchy and Helena is propelled into finding her mother, who may just have a clue to where he went. Except Edith is slumming it in a war zone far from the City, refusing to cooperate with anyone on anything while she satisfies her own agenda.

Helena is going to have to risk everything to persuade Edith to help. Even if she does there’s no guarantee that any of them will make it out of the war alive because this is a people’s war, a war of rebellion against the 1% and Helena is very much in their sights.”

A People’s War – Cover Reveal

It’s here. At least the cover is almost here. Lawrence Mann has done another bang up job.

This is the cover for the second book in the Oligarchy trilogy. It’s due sometime towards the end of November, but we’ll make sure there’s lots of advance warning. I am looking for a small handful of people who want advance copies in exchange for honest reviews, so please let me know if you’re interested.

The process for creating this cover was simpler than the first one – after developing a sense of the visual representation of the world, Lawrence was quickly able to capture what it was I was hoping for in this cover. It’s not a spoiler but it does represent a key scene from the book.

The story here moves on from that in the first, starting just a few days after the events of A Family War. It moves in a very different direction though as Helena heads off somewhere new for…(no spoilers, Stew!) Reasons ™.

I’ll have a proper blurb in the next week which I’ll post here too. In the meantime, enjoy the cover.

The price of free

I decided last week in discussions with Matt at AR, that we should put the kindle version of my debut novel up for free at Amazon for 72 hours. That 72 hours runs out tonight. This post is about what’s happened and my feelings about it.

The first consideration was this: lots of people, including a not inconsiderable number of friends, have stumped up proper money for either a physical or ebook copy of A Family War. A decent number of those have then gone on to post very kind and honest reviews about the story they experienced.

I have been really concerned that they’ll feel a little bit cheated that the book has gone for free for a short period. I worry that it might put them off buying anything more of mine in the future because they’ll think ‘I can get it free later on anyway’.

I also worry because they’ve bought the fricking thing, have been supportive and have given me great feedback.

However, at the same time, I’m a fledgling author who’s is trying to establish an audience not just for this novel but for its sequel and all the other ideas that are trapped in my skull screaming to get out. I want this book to get to as many people as possible and create that market that an unknown author like me simply doesn’t have through the machinations of a massive marketing department.

So we come to the event itself – the book has been free since Saturday morning. In that time at least 2,000 downloads have occurred – definitely more as I’m still waiting for today’s numbers to come in. I have NO IDEA how people have found it, I have NO IDEA how it’s got to where it is in the charts – #1 in US Sci Fi, #1 in US Sapce Opera, #111 on the whole kindle store while in the UK it’s been #4 or 6 in the same categories.

I truly don’t understand how people found it at that point or how it’s propelled itself up the charts among other authors who’ve written lots of novels and have well oiled marketing programs. I’ll be trying to figure that out in the coming days with Matt as getting this kind of attention was exactly the kind of outcome I was dreaming of (even though not expecting in any way). It’s something to learn from, to understand and then to figure out how to make it work for me when book 2 comes out.

At the same time, I’m waiting to see if any more reviews pop along, if people continue to buy it when it returns to the heady heights of two bucks a copy and if this does actually help build an audience over time.

I’m an author – loving writing. However, I’m also an author who wants to get his work out there, selling for real money preferably, but also who has just enough self belief to think my work is, on a good day, worth reading. So I wrestle with the idea of creating something and then having to think about how to present it in the best way over time (and by time I mean weeks and months) in order that my secondary wish of getting it in the hands of as many people as possible bears fruit.

The free offer has paid dividends in terms of getting my work out there to literally thousands of people. I have been really tempted to make it permanently free, to ride this wave of people downloading the story to see how far it will take me – the heart gibbers madly, saying thousands could become tens of thousands or even more. Yet I’m listening to those around me who have advised ending the promotion as planned and seeing what happens…Part of me thinks it’s about momentum and that it should stay free, but in the end the argument that it’s actually worth something wins out. We’ll see if readers agree.

Free is tough. I love the people who spent their own money to buy a copy, (I don’t see book 2 ever being free). I truly hope they’ll stick with me as I continue to write and hopefully get published. However, I also really hope that as more people find my work, as some of them even like it, that they will, in future, also think it’s worth paying out their money too!

It’s not that I don’t appreciate anyone who takes the time to try my writing out – trust me I’m humbled that among all the choice out there, you’ve taken the time to pick my stuff up. But I’m trying to figure out how to make this all work and how to ensure that Matt as Alternative Realities thinks it’s worth publishing the next one I send to him.

A Family War – Sample Chapter

Hi there. As promised a little while ago, here is the pdf: A Family War – Sample Chapter

If you like it you can get a copy here: UK or RestofWorld

In case you hadn’t seen the synopsis – the story is an action thriller set in the near future with a strong female central character.

“Helena is one of the Oligarchs, genetically-enhanced, centuries old families who rule the world. As a new world war begins, she is ordered to find a boy who could save the human race from genocide. Yet all is not as it seems; Helena finds enemies on all sides, intent on bringing about the war with all its horrific consequences. To make matters worse, Helena’s own integral AI challenges both her motives and her identity. Yet she has no choice but to accept its treacherous aid if she is to have any hope of surviving those who want her dead.”

As always, let me know what you think.

Also, as far as promotions go, is this a good way of convincing you it might be worth your time?

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