As readers recall, I’d previously reviewed Richard Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, later returning for more Mitnash and Slate in its sequel, Timing. Today the author graces our pages with an audio excerpt from Timing—the first for us here at the blogola! It was rather exciting listening to it, and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to share it here, along with some author comments as to the linguistics involved in setting up the pieces.
First, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and the above-mentioned duo will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space.
Today you’ll hear—and can read along—a bit of discussion between Mitnash and Slate, along with another pair, Rydal and Capstone, as the group talks about oddities in the data they are studying. It comes from a narrated portion utilizing Amazon’s Polly software; Abbott points out that unlike Alexa, which is a single voice, Polly can do text to speech in several.
Previous to hearing this excerpt, I was still in marvel mode at any of this, though my conversation with the author brought me forward a bit, into a place where I began to distinguish characteristics and contemplate the mechanics of setting it all up.
“[I]t’s like all programming really… a slow start to get all in place, then once it’s there, you kind of just turn the handle.” Of course, I know very little about programming—probably readers are way ahead of me on that—but his comments enabled me to view it more as technology rather than something huge and undefinable. While constraints remain, it nevertheless is exciting to “witness” the process unfold.
“In this case [included are] limitations of the text-to-speech engine, which at current state of the art can’t correctly parse some complex sentences! I often put a qualifying clause at the end of a sentence instead of earlier on, and Alexa and Polly don’t know how to say it within the overall shape. So [in places] I’ve moved some phrases around in a sentence to give better flow.”
In today’s excerpt the audio remains faithful to the text, but as we move on in this series, we’ll catch glimpses of the accommodations. Listen, however, for the nuances that appear: accents, pronunciation inconsistencies (I thought I heard at least one), vocal pitch and so on. At post’s bottom, see the link to an article about using technology for far more than entertainment.
And without further ado, let’s listen up. (Link will appear in a new window; simply come back to this one to read along.)
Rydal’s gig, the Heron, was moored in amongst half a dozen vaguely similar craft. I had expected something about the size of the Mermaid, in which Nick had ferried me, last time I was here.
The Heron was considerably smaller though, and it would be a squeeze getting more than the two of us into her. A purist would say it was more of a scull, than a gig.
We sat side by side in the bridge to look at her analysis. It was rather less roomy there than my bedroom at the Rileys’, but since the Harbour Porpoise was still with Boris, there wasn’t much choice.
Rydal first got Capstone to display the increments as a kind of contour map, overlaid onto the Isles of Scilly. It wasn’t very revealing. There were certainly some minor local variations from island to island, but it looked random to me.
Then she pulled back to show the whole asteroid belt. That was different. Just as she had said, Ceres and Vesta showed huge peaks – Ceres was the larger – and the amount across the Scilly Isles was dwarfed in comparison. I nodded.
“That looks convincing. But it doesn’t tell us much about the cause.”
“Now see what happens if we scale for population size rather than show simple totals.”
The display changed. This time the Ceres and Vesta peaks were almost identical in size. The total values might be different, but the subsequent disbursements had been chosen so as to make the amount per recipient the same. That spoke of careful planning. Meanwhile, Pallas was flat, and the various other domes here and there, around the belt, showed nothing as well. That was really interesting.
“You mentioned Mars?”
“Well, yes. There’s a few places on Mars itself, and a tiny scatter on Phobos. Nothing on Deimos. Here…”
The Martian system appeared. As she had said, Deimos showed the same low-level random splutter as the Scillies. Phobos showed a little bit more, but nothing very definite. Mars, with its wide diversity of settlements in different places, showed an equally wide variety. In amongst that, were several peaks, reaching almost the same value as Ceres and Vesta, but the data was patchy. I leaned back.
“Slate, what is there in common between those places?”
“I’ll see what I can find out. And I’ve just fired off a query to Khufu down in London to see if we have any similar data on the Jovian system. Capstone tells me that he and Rydal have no details for there.”
Khufu was the main Pyramid installation supporting the Finsbury Circus office, together with those other scattered souls who, like Slate and I, were on detached work off planet. Vaster than a persona and more capable, he was also more serious, less easily sparked into lively debate, and not really the sort of individual you would want to spend time with. He did, however, have access to a colossal amount of information, and was able to leverage this to make connections the rest of us might miss.
At any rate, a query going down to the Finsbury Office and back would take the better part of an hour, given the relative locations of Bryher and Earth just now. So we had time to spare. Time to see what we could do for ourselves with this puzzle.
While waiting for Slate’s analytics to initialise, I half-turned to look at Rydal. Her skin was darker than mine, and as we had boarded the Heron, she had gathered her unruly ringletted hair back into a more orderly bob. She glanced at me briefly, and I looked back at the screen. It was ready now.
“We need to find the common factor. Let’s see what Khufu comes up with.”
To my surprise, it was Capstone who answered.
“Slate and I have been working together on this, Mitnash. You see, I have a lot of demographic data that isn’t relevant for your normal investigations into fraud. But it fits very neatly with what Slate already knows, and means we can eliminate most possibilities. So far as we can tell, there’s only one common feature that appears to have any relevance to the matter. Ceres and Vesta use a twinned Sarsen pair as the main financial deal hub. Deimos and Pallas do not. Mars has a lot of different systems here and there, so it’s harder to tell.”
“He’s right, Mit. Pallas has a single Sarsen with a lot of upgrades to quicken her up. Deimos has a routing engine down to Mars, based on a cut-down Ziggurat. No real local processing at all. The main Mars site at Elysium Planitia has a full Pyramid, but there are a lot of sites elsewhere on the planet which do have twins. A couple of them are reasonably close to the peaks, but there is no direct connection that I can see yet.”
“From memory though, the twinned pair is a fairly common configuration. We mainly see it in finance, but it’s very widespread beyond that too. Ship navigation and all. I’m not surprised that there are several like that on Mars. Slate and I can send a query to get a full list across the system, if we think it would help. But does anyone here on the islands use twinned Sarsens?”
“Oh yes. The main financial hub on St Mary’s. You remember, we talked about it, last time we were here.”
“Actually there is another, though hardly anybody knows about it yet. Back on Martin’s we have one as well. I’m telling you this in absolute confidence, but there is a move by some of us there, to take the islands’ deal processing away from Mary’s. We’re putting together a proposal right now, listing a number of occasions when the Mary’s hub has either underperformed or thrown errors. Acquiring the twinned pair was part of the proof of concept.”
This was news to Slate and I. At a guess, it would be news to Elias as well, but Rydal had effectively sworn us to secrecy, for the time being.
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About the author…
Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.
His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.
His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.
Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.
You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.
Stay tuned for more excerpts, my review of Richard Abbott’s next book, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot,” and some conversation with the author!