How to hover just a little bit off the ground

In my ongoing quest to consider how to accomplish all sorts of fictional feats fictionally, I must confess to being a little bit stumped by a recurring one. Flying is one thing but hovering just a little bit is a repeated visual indication of futuristic technology. Star Wars in particular is replete with a kind of hovering-a-bit technology that transitions from a handy way for moving heavy object, to vehicles that fly very close to the ground, to presumably the full-on flying vehicles shown on Coruscant.

How best to even describe this? A kind of limited anti-gravity? Intentionally restricted flight? Whereas many other fanciful physical effects in science fiction have clear rules, the limited hover is typically under explored. However, given the command of forces needed for the standard artificial gravity required by space-opera to keep everybody walking around, it makes sense that a kind of limited neutralisation of gravity also makes sense.

We can throw in some rules. Firstly the technology we currently have for hovercraft doesn’t count. The science-fiction hover is noiseless and unobtrusive. It is meant to look effortless beyond maybe a glow or a soft hum. Hovering by the means of big turbines blowing air doesn’t count. Similarly, while it might consume some power, hovering science-fictionally is shown as inexpensive. I think I recall a kind of animal drawn cart in The Mandalorian where the cart itself had not contact with the ground, suggesting a technology that just sort of works once it is up and running.

Likewise, it is technology that doesn’t require special surfaces to work. It is a lot easier to imagine devices being able to hover within the Starship Enterprise because the whole ship must have a highly complex control of gravitational forces (as well as engines that literally warp space). Yet, it is not something we do see within Star Trek. I assume we don’t see it in Trek because it would have been a tricky effect in the 1960s and hence didn’t become a ‘thing’ for Star Trek. For Star Wars, Luke’s speeder appears to hover using a neat practical effect involving mirrors and from that point on hovering became a thing within Star Wars.

Famously, Back to the Future 2 introduced hoverboards as a near-future technology that we were promised but which clearly hasn’t arrived. The hoverboard also lives in this unclear space between something that is almost but not quite a full on flying machine but with an implication of cheapness and simple utility. It’s hard to see how the fictional 2015 could have cheap hoverboards for teenagers without having the same technology everywhere.

Of course magnetic levitation is a real thing ( ) and that also gives a clue for the concept we are looking for. “Levitation” is the concept we are looking for but techniques such as acoustic levitation ( don’t really match the kind of science-ficitional levitation we are discussing. Likewise, real-world examples like maglev trains don’t come close to the kind of hovering within the science fiction trope. Optical levitation perhaps has some of the features but it is currently only possible with tiny objects.

Of course, I’m not interested in building an actual levitation device but rather hand-waving at a fictional one.

  • Control over the geometry of space-time. That sounds grand but it is implied by the existence of artificial gravity on space ships. If you can walk around the Millennium Falcon, then there is the technology to manipulate gravity at a very fine level. Quite how that translates to hovering, I don’t know.
  • Scaled up manipulation of fundamental forces. Of course everything in the universe is under the sway of forces that repel and attract. Repulsive forces are what stop everything in the universe just shmooshing altogether. At a fundamental particle level, forces can be attractive or repulsive at different differences. Our levitating slab of frozen Han Solo may be sitting in a sweet spot of altered fundamental forces of nature. Gravity is stopping things from floating away completely but the natural repulsion of matter is operating at an exaggerated scale.
  • It is actual flying. What I mean is the technology for levitating is actually whatever the routine technology for flying is but some how intentionally limited. An engineer can take a screwdriver to one of those Star Wars levitating palettes, switch off a limiter of some kind and have a full on aircraft.

A priest in a novel

There was a whole other essay that spun off into to far too many tangents. Metaphors, analogies and examples gather their own velocity and head off in directions that take them beyond what is useful. However, I ended up with this instead, which works on its own.

I’m thinking about reader expectations and how they apply to genres and also how knowledge of an author’s beliefs shapes those expectations. For this essay consider a character, we’ll call them Helen, who is a priest or a nun or some other kind of cleric. The point being they are overtly and officially tied to a religion and in a social role whose purpose is that they act as an intermediary between people and god(s).

Imagine we encounter Helen early in a story. How does genre shape what kind of expectations we might have about god and gods in Helen’s world?

Imagine Helen is a character in a contemporary “literary” novel set in the present day. Helen’s presence by itself doesn’t imply anything very much about the role God or gods will play in the story. Further, Helen will have theological beliefs as a character that we won’t necessarily expect to be assertions about how the world she lives in actually is. Similarly, those beliefs may or may not reflect those of the author.

Imagine Helen is a character in a fantasy novel. It’s not 100% certain but I’d suggest we are more likely to expect Helen to have some actual access to a supernatural and god-like being. If Helen expresses theological beliefs, it as a minimum suggests these may be part of the wider world-building i.e. she is being used as a character by the author to brief us on some aspects of how this fantasy world works. The connection between the theological mechanics of this fantasy world and the author’s actual theological beliefs is complex. The author may be bringing with them unexamined ideas about the nature of religion or they may be purposefully examining some of their own beliefs or what they present may be utterly different to what they believe. The text alone may be inadequate (while containing clues or indications).

Imagine Helen in a novel set in a future society. She might be a hint that the story will have a supernatural element, she might be more like our first example but I think my initial expectation (until the rest of the novel made it clear) was that the author has view about how religion operates in a society. The author may or may not agree with Helen’s views and may but without further evidence, I’d take Helen’s social role as the author asserting some belief about how religion operates. I’d be very interested in what the author had to say about religion in contemporary society. However, without knowing more, I’d be cautious about saying what the author believes about the mechanics of religion based on the text alone.

I could go on. Horror or urban fantasy would have their own twists on those examples.

I was brought up as a Catholic and I was still a practising Catholic (if a sceptical one) when I first read Lord of the Rings and (more relevantly) The Silmarillion. I was older when I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series and I think had shifted more to atheism by then*. In both cases we have Catholic authors bringing with them Catholic beliefs to worlds where religion and the supernatural play a significant role.

The overt fantasy theology in The Silmarillion (or rather, in the Ainulindalë at the beginning of the book) is usually taken as telling us something TRUE about the setting of the book (i.e. these are real gods that exist within the setting) that we know not to be the actual theological beliefs of JRR Tolkien but within which we can see Catholic ideas once we know that they are there. Could a protestant have written the same story? I’m not sure that question makes sense as a counterfactual given how personal authorship is, so let me rephrase it. If the author of The Silmarillion was anonymous and we knew nothing about them how confident could we be of what their religious beliefs were based on the text alone? Hard to say given how much we know about Tolkien but I would say it would be very difficult to make confident assertions.

We could, reasonably, conclude that the author had thought a lot about god and gods and we could note that they adopt in the story a unitary, ultimate god from which the other gods derive. However, we wouldn’t know if that reflected the author’s beliefs e.g. the Ainulindalë presents a polytheistic theology with elements of monotheism that is different from Catholic beliefs.

Flipped around, it is still legitimate given what we DO know about Tolkien’s actual beliefs and reasonably draw conclusions about how they shape the fictional theology of his world. The significance of some (eg the primacy of Ilúvatar) grows and the significance of others lessens or is reshaped (eg to what extent the gods and demon gods reflect angels).

With Gene Wolfe’s Urth the Catholic influences are more overt in the society he presents. Without knowing about Wolfe’s actual beliefs, the novels clearly are written by somebody interested in and informed about Catholicism and Catholic societies. That Severian becomes more Jesus-like and more messianic (often unwillingly) throughout can also be easily seen without knowing what the author’s beliefs are. However, the ambiguities in the stories are substantial. Severian’s order is clearly modelled on Catholic priestly or monastic orders but they are torturers and deeply morally ambiguous. Severian is becoming a literal saviour of humanity but his powers derive from the intervention of benign aliens seeking to literally get the sun working. If the author of these books were an enigma, it would be hard to conclude whether they were a devout-but-critical Catholic, an ex-Catholic or just somebody who was fascinated by Catholicism aesthetically.

Again, flipping it around, seeing how Gene Wolfe’s beliefs influence his work is certainly illuminating. We can draw meaningful conclusions with the additional information that help inform and enhance the work. It becomes easier to see what Wolfe examines in the work and what might be unexamined assumptions about the world.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of this without having a conclusion. The author isn’t dead but texts are undetermined by authorial belief. Knowing what an author believes informs a text but inferring an author’s beliefs from a text is fraught and even more so in a fantasy or science fictional setting.

*[It was more of a slide than a sudden disenchantment or loss of faith]

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1978

I realised much later that I had missed off an important subset of examples from my post on how to duplicate people. If you are some sort of plant-based alien species drifting on the solar winds you can just use pods to grow duplicates of people while they are sleeping. This is the premise of the 1955 serialised novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney and the more famous 1956 movie directed by Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The 1978 remake of Siegel’s film is somehow both sillier and more serious. Directed by Philip Kaufman who would later direct The Right Stuff, the film is distanced in time from the Cold War Red Scare/Lavender Scare anxieties of the original. It follows a more overtly horror aspect and hence fits in with the exploration of the intersection of horror and science-fiction also exemplified by Alien in the following year. Those two films even share an actor, Veronica Cartwright who played Lambert in Alien and Nancy Bellicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Where the original film is set in a small town, the update shifted to San Francisco and has an overall bleaker feel. Famously, the film ends badly for humanity with a shot that reveals that Donald Sutherland is now a pod-person as he points his finger and makes an ungodly howl at Veronica Cartwright in a image that has since been meme-ified into ubiquity.

Kaufman ups the level of the basic competence of the unfortunate protagonists. The central character of Elizabeth Driscoll (played by Brooke Adams) is a research scientist with an interest in botany who notices the strange plants growing around San Francisco right at the start of the film. Matthew Bennell (played by Donald Sutherland) is a senior person in the Department of Health and well positioned to make the right calls about a public emergency. Dr. David Kibner (an un-Spocked Leonard Nimoy) is a celebrity psychiatrist who when we meet him has already noticed a sudden wave of people with an apparent delusion that their spouses aren’t their spouses — the mayor is also one of his patients and he has his private number. Jack Bellicec as an aspiring poet is less well equipped for an alien invasion (played by a Jeff Goldblum who is so young that it is adorable) but his mud-bath business owning wife Nancy (played by Veronica Cartwright) is literally genre-savvy. She engages in banter with a customer reading Immanuel Velikovsky’s pseudoscientific Worlds in Collision with a recommendation that he read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker* instead.

However, despite the group’s combined qualities to better cope with an invasion of pod-people the film slowly reveals that none of them ever had a chance. While we see events from the protagonist’s eyes (initially Brooke Adams but later more centred on Donald Sutherland) which creates an impression that things have only just started, it quickly becomes clear that in reality the invasion is almost complete by the time that it starts to become obvious. A substantial hint is given that the invasion has already progressed to far by a delightful cameo by Kevin McCarthy who played the lead in the original film and who reprises the character’s wild and panicked warnings from near the end of the original.

Where the film works less well is that alienating paranoia intrinsic to all the versions of Body Snatchers, is here detached from wider themes. I’m not saying that tapping into fears of communism or sexuality makes for better films just that the core quality of the film feels a little under-developed. There is a hint of a feminist aspect, in that we see two women desperately trying to explain to healthcare professionals that there is something very wrong with their husbands and being patronised and talked down to. Leonard Nimoy’s psychiatrist is given a duel role of expounding the need for rational explanations and later (as a pod person) explaining how there is now no need for either love or hate. However, the film doesn’t develop those themes deeply.

There is though something weird and fun about the combination of Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum in the same film. All three have had careers in which they play odd and often cerebral men but in such different circumstances that it is almost dislocating that their careers overlap here. Goldblum is recognisably Goldblum but devoid of some of the more pronounced Goldblum mannerism. There is a point in the film where Veronica Cartwright discovers the only partly formed pod-person duplicate of her husband and it is described as a copy of him but lacking much of the detail and it is an oddly apt description of the Goldblum in the film, like he is the pod-person version of Ian Malcolm. He also is given lines about alien invasions that serve as unintended dramatic irony given his later appearance in Independence Day.

I remember seeing this film on television and it both scaring and horrifying me. While I have seen the original many times, this was only the second time I have seen it. Noticeably, the gory and disturbing visual effects have not aged well. The shocking reveal of the malformed dog-human pod person created from the sleeping busker gave me nightmares (aided by a dread of going to sleep straight after being allowed to stay up late to watch it) — sadly now the man-faced dog is more funny than horrible. However, the unsettling sound track and the creeping sense that nobody can be trusted still unnerves.

The aliens have no agenda beyond existing. They don’t hate humanity and it isn’t clear the extent to which they genuinely feel continuity with their past selves or a simply alien beings pretending to be their human counterpart. The multiple questions about identity and how we might tie it to persistence of memory (which the pod-people have) is not explored but mainly because of the films core premise: everything is already too late by the time the humans start fighting back. We are seeing the final days of a war that humanity believe is just the initial attack.

Well worth rewatching if only for some excellent performances by the five leads. The call backs to the original (including Don Siegel as a taxi-driver) and the science-fiction references all add to the flavour of a film that feels like the director gathered characters together for an ensemble drama about middle-class lives and loves in 1970’s San Francisco but instead threw an alien invasion at them.

Banjo dog-man deserves their own sequel though — the story of an accidental hybrid between a busker and his dog by a confused alien pod, as it wanders through post-alien invasion California.

*[Which I’ve never read and I really should]

Plot Geography: Labyrinths and Libraries

This post was meant to follow directly on from this one but I forgot to finish it.

I can only think of one library that is literally also a maze and that is the library at the unnamed monastery central to the mystery in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (see here for some of Eco’s sketches ). Eco’s novel which mixes musing on Medieval thought, the nature of inquiry, and Sherlock Holmes pastiche remains a delight. However, despite filling the criteria of having author generated maps in it and crossing genre boundaries, it is not a fantasy novel.

Eco’s library also knowingly echoes the more overtly fantastical work of Jorge Luis Borges whose short story The Library of Babel examines questions of infinity and knowledge that mirrors his story of an infinite labyrinth The Garden of Forking Paths. Borges himself was a librarian, famously so when Argentine dictator Juan Peron attempted to ‘promote’ him from his position to that of poultry inspector as part of a purge of critics of his regime.

Libraries and mazes and labyrinths share physical and metaphorical features. To enter each of them is to set yourself on a search for hidden knowledge. Arguably, a genuine library is not actively trying to thwart your search and actively hide secrets but practically both mazes and libraries require understanding the hidden principles to navigate them.

Physically, all three kinds of structures are dense spaces. Their exterior size is misleading compared to the distance you have to travel on the inside. Both use convoluted paths to pack more into a finite space than is usual. This convoluted packing of linear routes into an enclosed 2D space creates a wonderful visual metaphor with the convolutions on the outside of a human brain.

Mazes can be unintentional. Any building with twisting corridors and oddly joined rooms and frustrating dead ends can serve as a maze. So castles and stately homes, shopping centres and natural cave formations can act as maze-like structures. This transformation of all settings into potential mazes is most obvious in video-game settings but also in table-top role playing games, where characters must navigate through maze like structures that mirror plot elements.

The Lord of the Rings, (one of the works I try to reference in these plot geography posts) does not feature a library or an overt maze. True, Gandalf describes searching for hidden accounts of rings of power in Gondor but we don’t ever get to see the library of Minas Tirith. However, the Mines of Moria work as a more metaphorical maze and also contain hidden written knowledge throughout. To gain entry requires a play on words and once inside, the Fellowship must navigate the passages until they find two key pieces of writing. One are the words on a tomb (oh, and how delightful it was as a child to discover that the runes could be transliterated in the illustration) and the other is a book — an account of the lost dwarven colony of Moria. I don’t doubt that Tolkien was echoing the classic Minoan labyrinth by placing at the heart of Moria a monstrous and murderous beast of quasi-divine origin. The balrog may be more fierce than the minotaur but they share a role of the horror at the centre of the maze.

In the Avatar cartoons (both Ang’s and Korra’s) the spirit library of Wan Shi Tong serves as a physical (in a cross-dimensional way) library and an effective maze. Vast in size and maintained by knowledge hungry foxes, the palatial library is maintained by a spirit in the form of a huge barn owl. It is literally a place that some people never escape from and shares the dual purpose of collecting knowledge and hiding it.

The notion of being lost, whether it is in a library, in your quest for knowledge, in a maze you must find and/or escape from, as a lost soul looking for enlightenment in church labyrinth or just simply as a reader lost in a book, is central to the common ideas. The garden of forking paths is a metaphor that mirrors mathematical tree structures that might describe a literal maze or a categorical system like the Dewey Decimal‘s nested hierarchies. Where libraries and mazes differ from other places characters can get lost, is there is method to place.

In church labyrinths, the method is to simply keep going. The way is twisted and uncertain but all you have to do is follow the path. The trick is not a cognitive one (there is only one path) but a test of patience and character and a metaphor for the narrow path to salvation. What is hidden is that twisted path is actually simple: an unbranching straight line folded in two-dimensions. It’s not unlike the plot of a story, in that the twists and turns suggest complexity but the story is constrained to one path that must be followed.

In the Tombs of Atuan, provides may ultimate favourite maze map. The twisted cave-like tunnels hide many wonders but at their heart is a treasure room which contain the fragment of a great talisman. The map le Guin provides is a wonderful distraction. I remember tracing out the routes in the maze long before I read the story (it was an older sibling’s copy) and it was an offer of mystery but also a gift of privilege. By providing the map, Le Guin implies that the reader themselves can see the route through the maze. However, the story reveals that the solution is not a physical one but an emotional and interpersonal one. Ged the wizard, despite his youth, his powers and his research cannot navigate the maze and cannot escape it because of the nameless powers that rest in the titular tombs of Atuan. It is only by winning the trust and genuine friendship of Tenar/Arha that Ged can find the heart of the maze, retrieve the treasure and escape. Fittingly, the treasure is the missing half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe and it is only by bringing the two halves together that the world can re-learn a missing rune i.e. word. There are no books in the Labyrinth of the Tombs of Atuan but there are words to be found.

How to duplicate people

As a trope of science fiction there is a gulf between the fantastical idea of ‘clones’ and the mundane reality of the actual science of cloning. As of yet, actual human cloning has not taken place but primates have been succesfully cloned, specifically two crab-eating macaques called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. Part of the gulf in concept is illustrated by the commercial application of cloning techniques to pets. While cats and dogs can be cloned to create a genetically close animal to an existing pet, basic aspects of a cat or dogs identity including their pattern of colouring ae not solely determined by their genes. A cloned pet is not going to be identical, even at a superficial level.

So while the term ‘clone’ is what is used, actual cloning does not get at the concept which is more about duplication or near duplication. Creating another copy of a person is the essence of the science-fiction concept. Duplication of genes is just a handy hook on to which the idea can be hung. Practically we have always known that monozygotic twins are not literally identical even at a superficial level and certainly not at the level of character or personality.

So plot wise how do people get duplicated?

  • Biological cloning. As discussed above this intrinsically doesn’t work because genes are only part of the picture. However, with enough hand waving and magic technology examples like the clone-troopers from Star Wars add in speeded up growth and education to create lots of near identical people. The horror of the Star Wars clones (never really explored in terms of the appalling aspects of the idea) is not creating duplicates of people but the idea of mass-manufacturing people. There is a under-explored view of industrialisation, as well as the dehumanisation of the military’s need for essentially fungible people to serve.
  • Teleportation. Typically this is more of an unwanted side-effect of the teleporter-as-fax-machine concept. With the transmit-recreate model of teleportation there is a side-effect of possible exact duplicates being created, resulting in awkward questions of identity for Commander Riker or Kamala in Think Like a Dinosaur. There’s a fascinating bit of logical implication here that results in two quite different science fiction tropes being intimately connected. Any duplication process that can create a new version of a person (including their personality and memories as well as their body) implies a method of teleportation (transmit the information to a remote location and recreate the person). Any method of teleportation that works by capturing a person as a set of information likewise implies a method of duplicating people.
  • Print people. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, imagines a future where biological structures (including functioning brains) can be essentially printed by a kind of 3D printer that uses a stock substance. Taking a step away, and thinking about duplicating a person, then all the bits of a brain need to be there but it hardly matters if the actual cells contain the same cellular structure or genes just so long as they work the same way. Put another away, the resolution of the copy does not need to be so fine as to match genetics. Indeed genetics may actually be unhelpful.
  • Robot people. When we think about it, if we want to duplicate ourselves (because we have become mad with power or seek immortality or so we can go to work & go to the movies at the same time) what we actually want is a being that thinks like us and looks like us. Does it matter if actually are duplicate is some sort of silicone layer over a titanium frame? Not at all, indeed that may even be a bonus. Biology is over-rated.
  • Non-embodied duplicates. Of course to create a robot version of a person implies that it is possible to create a digital simulation of a person’s mind and personality. In that circumstance, do you even need a physical duplicate! A virtual reality duplicate may be more than good enough.
  • Mirror-universe twin. Let’s get back to physically identical duplicates. If parallel universes exist then parallel versions of you exist. Here the not-quite-the-same aspects are a plot-feature. Evil versions of you sporting a goatee but still somehow like you are likely to crop up as soon as you start hopping around universes.
  • Time-travel. Technically this is just the one version of you until you cause the time-line to splinter at which point the extra version becomes a parallel-universe twin. Even so, time travel affords a way of having more than one you in place at the same time with a simple (if mind bending) explanation of time travel.
  • Pigeon-hole principle. If you have a universe that is big enough (e.g. infinite) and which has enough people in it (e.g. effectively infinite) then the number of combinations of possible features of a person ends up being less than the number of people. In that case, there will be some people who are just exactly the same for NO REASON AT ALL other than the universe’s lack of imagination.
  • Reincarnation. Actual reincarnation beliefs are focused on the rebirth of an individual soul, although accounts may point to shared memories between the past and present versions. Fictional reincarnations provide a fantastical way for a person to be a duplicate of a long dead double. This is invariably bad news and tied up with all sorts of questions of destiny.
  • Cosmic coincidence. This is effectively the same as the pigeon-hole principle but only assumes the two people happen to look exactly alike and does not require the same personality. The coincidence of looks results in a natural doppelgänger and leads to Prisoner of Zenda like shenanigans. You can’t make this just happen though (unless you use a technique above) so it doesn’t really count as a way of duplicating somebody.
  • Surgery and hypnosis. We are now sailing into soap opera plot twists. Maybe X just looked a bit like Y and then an evil mastermind used cosmetic surgery and mind control to make them look more like Y and convince them that they are Y!
  • Just bluff. In 1854 Roger Tichborne, heir to the baronetcy of Tichborne, went missing while travelling in South America. Believed to have drowned in a shipwreck, his mother nonetheless never gave up hope. In 1865 a bankrupt butcher from the inland town of Wagga-Wagga in Australia was encouraged by a lawyer to claim that he was, in fact, the missing Roger Tichborne. Thus began the long running saga of the Tichborne Claimant. Facially only vaguely similar and otherwise quite different looking, the question remains open whether this was a lost person found or a very blatant attempt to create a second Roger Tichborne simply by sheer assertion.

My work day as a cyber-punk pastiche

I’ve taken a few liberties with a trip to work last week. I wasn’t wearing the P2-rated mask (I have one) and I don’t have Apple Ear Pods. Otherwise here is my best attempt to re-write part of my day as if it was a 1980s cyberpunk novel opening.

Cyberpunk Apocalypse 2019

It was 2019 and the sky was the colour of a nicotine addict’s fingers.

My mask made it hard to breath but it was worth it if I was going to work today. Rated P2 and forming an air-tight seal around the edge, anything else wouldn’t stop the PM2.5 particles in the air getting into my lungs. The streets were full of people who had bought cheaper masks — the surgical fabric kind that had become popular in the big Asian megacities after the big viral outbreaks. Those masks might stop the viruses but not the toxic enemy we were facing today.

My watch alerted me to an incoming call. I declined it, the air was too thick for me to take the mask off for a voice call. My watch showed my heart rate was elevated. No surprise. I was breathing soup through a filter. I pulled out my phone. Normally I could operate it with voice commands but with my mask on, the microphone in my ear piece wouldn’t pick up my commands correctly.

The phone was an older model. Octa core processor, 64 gigabytes of internal storage and 294 pixel density on its rugged touchscreen. It read my fingerprint and then instantly connected to a global network of computers. News alerts appeared: the US President was becoming increasingly unstable, the UK was on the brink of political collapse. Just a normal day. The data I needed was more local.

I fired up a geo-mapping program. It pulled data from multiple sources and displayed it on a satellite based map zeored on my location. All the major fires in my zone were displayed, coloured icons hovering over the streets and bushland. I zoomed into an area at the edge of the map. The fires weren’t encroaching on my home— at least not yet.

There was an old guy coughing ahead of me. Probably old enough that his lungs were already shot from the great nicotine addiction of the twentieth century. Cigarettes were still technically legal but smoking was banned in so many places that the remaining addicts had to congregate outside in doorways and alleyways. Jokes on us, I thought wryly, we all smokers now as the light filtered orange though the brown air.

A message alert appeared. Work letting me know that I was late for the cyber-securtiy briefing. They’d have to carry on without me but I knew what the data teams were going to tell me: multiple intrusion attempts identified from China, the myriad nations that had arisen after the collapse of the Soviet Union and central Africa. Such cyber-attacks had become common place even for a tiny operation like ours. State intelligence services or organised crime? These days was there even a meaningful distinction. The latest strongman ruling in Moscow allegedly owned the President of the United States, so anybody could be in the pocket of somebody else.

It was 2019. Global warming was out of control and Australia was on fire.

A Tube Map of SF&F Genres

As with any London Tube style map, distance on the map has no connection with distance in reality. Position is about how to make everything fit. I feel like it needs more stops on the big pink Fantasy circle line. Green stops allow you to change services to mainstream rail lines. Purple stops allow you to change to the horror tram services.

There is a foot tunnel between Cyber Punk and Steam Punk.