by wjw on January 7, 2021

So after watching the US Capitol stormed by a hostile force for the first time since the War of 1812, and after hearing reporters bleating out their catchphrase, “Who could have predicted this? (usually employed when something happens that is completely predictable), I bethought myself of an article I first read in November of 2019, which opens thus:

In its first issue of 2010, the scientific journal Nature looked forward to a dazzling decade of progress. By 2020, experimental devices connected to the internet would deduce our search queries by directly monitoring our brain signals. Crops would exist that doubled their biomass in three hours. Humanity would be well on the way to ending its dependency on fossil fuels.

A few weeks later, a letter in the same journal cast a shadow over this bright future. It warned that all these advances could be derailed by mounting political instability, which was due to peak in the US and western Europe around 2020. Human societies go through predictable periods of growth, the letter explained, during which the population increases and prosperity rises. Then come equally predictable periods of decline. These “secular cycles” last two or three centuries and culminate in widespread unrest – from worker uprisings to revolution.

In recent decades, the letter went on, a number of worrying social indicators – such as wealth inequality and public debt – had started to climb in western nations, indicating that these societies were approaching a period of upheaval. The letter-writer would go on to predict that the turmoil in the US in 2020 would be less severe than the American civil war, but worse than the violence of the late 1960s and early 70s, when the murder rate spiked, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests intensified and domestic terrorists carried out thousands of bombings across the country.

The article was by Peter Turchin, a Russian-born biologist who in recent decades defected to the study of history, and who built on the work of mathematician-turned-historian Jack Goldstone, a pioneer of analyzing Big Data to describe history.

Goldstone recognised that the different components of a society – state, elites, masses – would respond differently to strain, but that they would also interact. In other words, he was dealing with a complex system whose behaviour was best captured mathematically. His model of why revolutions occur consists of a set of equations, but a crude verbal description goes something like this: as the population grows there comes a point where it outstrips the ability of the land to support it. The standard of living of the masses falls, increasing their potential for violent mobilisation. The state tries to counteract this – for example, by capping rents – but such measures alienate the elite whose financial interests they hurt. Since the elite has also been expanding, and competing ever more fiercely for a finite pool of high-status jobs and trappings, the class as a whole is less willing to accept further losses. So the state must tap its own coffers to quell the masses, driving up national debt. The more indebted it becomes, the less flexibility it has to respond to further strains. Eventually, marginalised members of the elite side with the masses against the state, violence breaks out and the government is too weak to contain it.

Goldstone suggested ways of measuring mass mobilisation potential, elite competition and state solvency, and defined something he called the political stress indicator (psi or Ψ), which was the product of all three. He showed that Ψ spiked prior to the French Revolution, the English civil war and two other major 17th-century conflicts – the Ottoman crisis in Asia Minor, and the Ming-Qing transition in China. In each case, however, there had been one more factor in the mix: chance. Some tiny rupture – a harvest failure, say, or a foreign aggression – that in other circumstances might have been absorbed easily, against a backdrop of rising Ψ caused conflict to erupt. Although you could not predict the trigger – meaning you could not know precisely when the crisis would occur – you could measure the structural pressures and hence, the risk of such a crisis . . . 

As Goldstone was putting the finishing touches to his magnum opus, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, the Soviet Union was unravelling. He pointed out that Ψ had risen dramatically across the Soviet bloc in the two decades prior to 1989, and that it was persistently high in developing countries. He also wrote that: “It is quite astonishing the degree to which the United States today is, in respect of its state finances and its elites’ attitudes, following the path that led early modern states to crisis.”

Goldstone dealt with the early modern period, but Turchin started collecting data that went back to the Neolithic, and found evidence that these same cycles had been repeating for all of history.

Turchin updated Ψ to reflect the forces shaping a modern labour market, and chose new proxies appropriate to an industrialised world. These included real wages for the mobilisation potential of the masses; filibustering rates in the Senate and the cost of tuition at Yale for elite competition; and interest rates for state solvency. Then he calculated Ψ in the US from 1780 to the present day. It was low in the so-called Era of Good Feelings around 1820, high in the 1860s – around the American civil war – and low again in the years after the second world war. Since 1970 it had risen steadily. This did not mean we were doomed to crisis, though. Many societies had avoided disaster – and Turchin was building a model to find out how they had done it . . . 

2020 is nearly upon us, and lawmaking institutions in both the US and the UK are now so divided along ideological lines that they can barely function. In both countries, disgruntled members of the elite have taken power in the name of the people, while failing to address the underlying causes of the malaise: widening inequality, a swollen elite, a fragile state.

Turchin offers a degree of optimism, however.  Things will look a lot better once we’re through the crisis— in another decade or two.


The Frog. In the Pool.

by wjw on January 4, 2021

The copyright of The Great Gatsby expired on the first of the year, so now it (and other classic works) have entered public domain.  Go forth and make your revisionist art, creators!  The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are upon you!

But what no one expected was a groundswell of fans demanding a new Gatsby film starring the Muppets.  The narrator Nick Carraway, according to some, would be the only human actor in the movie.

Well, it couldn’t be worse than all the other film adaptations of the book, right?  And Miss Piggy would be very good, possibly even ideal, as Daisy Buchanan.

The only problem would be the ending, where Gatsby is shot dead in his swimming pool.  Not exactly the uplifting ending one would expect in a Disney property.

Yet if anyone were to survive a tragic accident in a swimming pool, it would be a frog, wouldn’t it?

Now who would direct?



by wjw on January 3, 2021

I’m working on The Restoration, which is the Praxis book following Fleet Elements, and lately I’ve been having a hard time with it.

Part of it has to do with how much less amusing it is to write about a great empire that’s tottering because of greed, mendacity, scapegoating, and stupidity when I’m actually living in a country that’s tottering because of greed, mendacity, scapegoating, and stupidity.

I had no intention of making this series quite so relevant.

Be that as it may, there were other problems.  For one thing, most of this book takes place entirely in artificial environments, on starships and space stations— which was also the case with Fleet Elements, by the way, and with much of The Accidental War.  The action takes place in corridors and offices and sleeping cabins, just like the last book, and if I were going to describe those corridors, and how they differed from the last set of corridors, I did it in the previous book, and it hasn’t changed in all the pages since.

Nobody gets to feel a breath of fresh air on her cheek, or walk in a fog-filled street, or enjoy a cloudscape or a sunset.  Instead everyone is in these goddam corridors.  I’m really sick of corridors, but the plot can’t escape them.

But that problem is minor.  What became the major problem was what the characters were doing in the corridors, because much of it wasn’t very exciting.

My two main characters are widely separated by distance, and won’t encounter each other again for months.  They’re confined to starships.  (They’re also suffering, but how many ways can you describe misery and keep it fresh?)  Which means that they have to deal with the people they’re with, and for the most part that means engaging in professional interactions.  They talk business, in short, or they handle the sort of professional problems that pop up.

All this can be interesting in small doses, but if it goes on for too many pages the reader will find it a hard slog.  After a couple weeks of trying to fight my way through a series of scenes in which characters were involved in dinner-table discussions of tactics and logistics, I began to despair.  I felt the book needed episodes that were a lot more involving, but I couldn’t work out what they should be.

Well hell, I thought.  I teach this stuff, don’t I?  What would I tell my students to do?

This was the first time I actually looked through my own lecture notes in search of inspiration.

Process bogs down narrative.  That sentence jumped right out at me, because it described my situation very well.  All those details were cluttering up the actual story.

I looked through my list of narrative elements, and sub-story jumped out.  (Sub-story: also known as a subplot or a B story.)  Get some juicy, involving story happening, one outside of the main story.  But a problem is that my two man characters are stuck in a situation— those of you who have read Fleet Elements will know what it is— and they’re sort of frozen in place emotionally until they can meet again, so the subplot can’t really happen to them.

And then shadowing jumped out of the list, and I was home.  Shadowing is where a secondary character is involved in a situation that in some way mirrors the main characters’ problem.  Shakespeare was a master of this, with Antipholus of Syracuse mirroring Antipholus of Ephesus, or the story of Beatrice and Benedick shadowed by the story of Hero and Boring Patsy Guy (uhh, Claudio is it?).  Hamlet, who has lost his father, comes with two shadows, Laertes and Fortinbras, who have both lost their fathers and react in ways that contrast with Hamlet.

(My other example of shadowing comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which, when Buffy’s love life takes an upswing, her friends’ relationships spiral into the toilet, and vice versa.  I’m eclectic when it comes to examples.)

Well.  Problem solved, or so I hope.  I’ll add a couple of juicy subplots, but they won’t exist independently of the rest of the story, but will reflect, in different ways, the situation of my main protagonists.  It’ll get me away from all those dinner-table conversations, anyway.

I’m stoked!  Wish me luck.


Time to Dance

by wjw on December 31, 2020

adios_20202020 is over.   Let’s bury it and dance on its grave!



by wjw on December 26, 2020

ssr2020I am the keynote speaker for the Year of the Stainless Steel Rat “conference for all things cyberpunk.”

There will be talks, panels, gaming, and even an auction.

It says on the graphic that this takes place on Sunday December 27th, but that’s only for those of you living Down Under.  For those in North America and Europe, it will take place on the 26th, Boxing Day.

My own talk will be 4pm Mountain Standard Time on Saturday, or thereabouts.  Or 10am on Sunday for those of you living in Sydney or Melbourne.

Confused?  Click for the timetable.

Timetable details here:

Register for the convention here: The conference is free, but you must register to attend.

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December 25, 2020

Isn’t there a song titled “Have Yourself a Lonely Little Christmas?”  Maybe there ought to be. With Kathy still in Albany, I’m flying solo for the holidays.  I haven’t put out decorations, raised a tree, sent cards, or even bought presents for anyone, but I’m doing my best to raise a bit of cheer.  Right […]

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One 9/11 Per Day

December 24, 2020

Hey, does anybody remember that when 9/11 happened, people got really shocked and upset and angry?  The towers were smoking ruins, nearly 3000 people died, “United We Stand” banners appeared everywhere, and we invaded a couple of countries at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Well, guess what?  A 9/11 death toll happens […]

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December 14, 2020

I’ve updated my interview page, adding links to every interview I could track down over the last years, including one in Finnish and another on Swedish-language radio.  The interviews were all listed on the blog when they first appeared, but now they’re all in one place. Good thing too, since the page was nearly five […]

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What It’s All About

December 12, 2020

From the northern reaches of my birth state of Minnesota and the town of Palo (where my mother went to high school), it’s Steve Solkela and his accordion telling us what it’s all about.

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Explosive Celebration

December 10, 2020

Today I celebrated the release of Fleet Elements with a virtual cocktail party attended by several of my favorite writer friends.  I decided to have a champagne cocktail, and to open the champagne bottle by a traditional method employed by the French military— slicing off the top of the bottle with a sword (or in my case, a […]

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