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September 12, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»ellis

Graphic Novel Review: Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze and Detonation Radio

There are a thousand and one people on the global frequency, each an expert in his or her field and ready at a moments notice to rescue people from threats that no-one else could handle. It's a brilliant premise by Warren Ellis, and it lets him play with the conventions of comic books--each issue is drawn by a different artist, has a unique and unconnected plot, and even a new cast. There are only two recurring characters: the leader of Global Frequency, Miranda Zero, and her assistant/coordinator, Aleph. Everything else is new with each episode.

Unfortunately, the quality can vary from issue to issue as well. The artwork ranges from fairly traditional four-color pieces to beautiful painted or inked panels. Of the former, Simon Bisley's "Detonation" stands out. Lee Bermejo's shaded work (which doesn't seem to be titled) is stunningly rendered, but Jon Muth's "Big Sky" really goes above and beyond, with its rough black inks scraped across the page like a sumi-e painting. Unfortunately, Ellis's writing for that issue can't keep up, a problem that often undermines Global Frequency.

You certainly can't accuse the creators for lacking ambition. The whole project is an unconventional idea that tries to fit in lots of other oddities. But sometimes those concepts get away from them--or worse, turn out to be not so mind-boggling after all. The "Superviolence" issue collected in Detonation Radio is just one big fist-fight, taken to sick Comics Code-busting extremes, but it simply doesn't flow well enough--or differentiate between the combatants--to be anything but a muddled, confused mess. "Big Sky" is like an X-Files episode where the magic turns out to be something disarmingly mundane, and it never gets up enough momentum to make the mystery satisfying when it's solved.

But when the writing and the art work together, Global Frequency is a great example of comics written for adults, not for superhero-obsessed fans. "The Run" introduces the audience to the city-running sport of le parkour, and pairs it with smart dialogue. "Hundred" works as an over-the-top action movie, with plenty of guns and gore that rivals even Ellis's own Authority. And some of the characterizations are brilliant, like the Russian hitman in "Detonation":

"I'm aware of the young lady. The Lam case in Kowloon. But you, Mr. Grushko...?"

"Did you ever have a nightmare about a large man who killed your parents, and your siblings, and then your lover, and then everyone you know? And then burned your house down and destroyed everything precious you ever conceived of? That was me."

Warren Ellis is one of the few comics writers whose graphic novels I regularly buy. His Transmetropolitan is a brilliant and hyperactive political satire, and The Authority betrays his glee at destroying as much of superhero comics as he can. But it's also obvious that as an author he sometimes gets stuck on an idea long after he should have let it go--Stormwatch previews the plot and themes of Authority, and the archetypal smartass Ellis stand-in (Jenny Sparks, Spider Jerusalem, and to some degree Miranda Zero) can get old quickly. That's one reason while I've always admired Planetary as perhaps his best work--the cast is interesting without being transparent, and the writing is more even along the story arc.

Global Frequency and Planetary are similar in structure, but in stepping away from the superhero deconstruction GF takes more risks. Ultimately, it's a fascinating experiment that may be too chaotic for the average reader. If you're interested in sampling the books, the first volume (Planet Ablaze) is probably a little bit better than the second.

September 1, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»wright_j

Book Review: The Golden Age, by John C. Wright

You will either love or hate The Golden Age, depending on how you feel about explanation in your science fiction. Wright falls firmly on the posthuman side of SF, describing a utopian world where people can edit their mental makeup, physical bodies, and perceptions as they see fit. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it, but I don't see myself buying the other two volumes of the trilogy.

The Golden Age's protagonist is Phaeton, who finds out that his memory was edited after he took part in actions that disrupted society. The book describes his attempts to figure out what was in the missing memory and decide whether or not to restore the editing, even though doing so will result in his exile. Phaeton wanders through a wide variety of real and virtual settings, encountering superintelligent AI, mass minds, and specialized humans. Wright certainly makes the most of the setting, using it for several social and legal tangents, and he's good at describing these in a way that's interesting without being cloying or hiply obtuse.

I don't want to talk too much about the plot, since the discovery of its direction through Phaeton's memory is largely what drives The Golden Age. That leaves us with the characters and the setting, and as I've said they're largely personal preferences. I don't tend to buy the nanotech utopia that this kind of posthuman sci-fi relies on--it feels impersonal and implausible. For example, Wright comes out and clearly establishes that the pre-Phaeton world is meant to be a garden of eden, one where anything is possible as long as it's not dangerous to the existing order. Conversely, it's also clearly a capitalistic system, and I'm not entirely sure if Wright ever puts the two of those together to my satisfaction. It strikes me as more useful in metaphor than in practice. What do these people do for a living?

And why should I care? The trouble I have with a book like The Golden Age, about people who are so far removed from our own experiences and abilities, is I lose track of their limitations, and I can't empathize with them. Wright has done an admirable job of tying the plot to something simplistic (Phaeton's memory as the macguffin) in an effort to defuse that objection, but it's just not enough. The Golden Age is a book about big ideas, and perhaps they're simply too big for me to enjoy. It's not for me, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize its quality. If you're looking for a geekier, grander story, give The Golden Age a try. If you're like me, a child of grimier cyberpunk aspirations, see what else is on the shelf.

August 24, 2005

Filed under: fiction»micro

The Time Police

As time machines become more common, the Time Police find themselves working harder and harder. Their job is to maintain the internal consistency of history, and to halt or amend paradoxes caused by overzealous time-travelers. When chronological disaster is detected on the mightly Hourglass 3000's quantum circuitry, the Time Police swing into action. Using subterfuge, ingenuity, and highly advanced technology, they redirect the river of causality back into its natural path. And then, for what they claim is poetic justice, they kill the time traveler's grandfather.

Oh, not before he or she is born. No, the Time Police would never invite paradox that way. Instead, they travel back to the meddler's childhood, to a time when youth and grandfather are sharing a private moment together. They shoot the elder, and to the time traveler-to-be they utter four words, which he or she will never forget: "This is your fault."

Research is as of yet unclear on the number of time travelers inspired by feelings of childhood guilt and filial duty.

August 14, 2005

Filed under: fiction»micro

Brought to you by...

I know, I know, it's been All Bass All the Time here at Mile Zero for about a week now. Sorry about that, but such is the nature of my little obsessions. In the meantime, I offer the following microfiction, reprinted from a certain online writing circle. The theme for the day was the number 5.

"Your lucky number is 5" read the back of the fortune from the Five Lucky Dragons restaurant.

And since that point I've had five traffic accidents, five murder attempts (two stabbings, a shooting, a strangling, and a poisoning), and five bounced e-mails. My doctor says I've got five times the normal risk of sudden onset amnesia. Once each day this work-week, there have been bomb scares near my office. Five of our biggest clients have pulled their contracts, leading to a five-percent pay cut for all staff.

But you know, I'm still "increasingly popular and well-liked" bed.

Not bad.

August 5, 2005

Filed under: fiction»writing»technique

Writing without a clue

In the middle of Charlie Stross's Iron Sunrise, I realize what annoys me so much about a lot of modern sci-fi authors: they never explain anything. The reader is cast into the setting, completely adrift, with only side comments by various characters and tiny throw-away sentences to explain what's going on. Eventually, you'll figure out what they're talking about, but by that point it's 200 pages in.

Stross is terrible about this. There's a lot of talk about light-cones and temporal causality, and nothing ever explains what the hell any of it means. At one point, without any further elaboration as to why, he states that the term light cone wasn't fully understood until FTL travel became available. Perhaps I have to go invent a warp drive before I can read this book, but I like to think that's a little excessive.

Dan Simmons builds whole books around uninforming his readers. Alastair Reynolds is bad with details, but will at least take the time to explain the hard stuff. Bruce Sterling straddles the line, as does Vernor Vinge, sometimes saying too much and sometimes too little. Cory Doctorow wants to write this way, but his characters are too chatty, and consequently a lot of exposition tends to slip in. Yet all of these authors are relatively new additions--Asimov and Heinlein certainly didn't delight in leaving you in the dark.

On the contrary, I see this style of SF as having two causes. The first is the cyberpunk movement--specifically, William Gibson. Gibson's novels will often deal with the technical aspects of the setting purely in subjective or poetic terms. This is because he isn't interested in the technology per se, he's interested in what it means (and because he's a great writer). I don't mean to denigrate that decision, because I actually think it's very important for the genre. It signalled a move away from technofetishism, and placed more stress on the human nature of science fiction. It also makes his work age better.

Which brings us to the second cause for this mystery meat of sci-fi settings. Namely, it defies explanation. Nowadays, after years of X-ray beams and nuclear hamsters, fans expect more than just a catch-phrase if there's an explanation offered. You can't just say that the "gamma particles" did it and move on--that's old-fashioned. Instead, writers have figured out that if they treat technology the same way we do in real life (where few people really understand or care how their computer or toaster or DVD player work), they can dodge the pressure to actually explain the strange things they're showing us.

(Of course, the third, and possibly most likely cause, is that someone started doing this, it caught on, and now it's just the hip thing for hot young authors--or aspiring hot young authors-to-be--to do.)

You could argue that the lack of intrusive exposition is good for story, and sometimes I would buy that. It's true that the minor character (a passing engineer or salesman, for example), who just happens to know how the Wormhole Squeezer or Nano-befuddler works, has become a bit of a cliche. This was the role that Geordi LaForge played on Star Trek. And it's true that the story becomes more realistic--for the characters. Meanwhile, I'm flipping back and forth around the pages, trying to find out there's a description for the Wormhole Squeezer or if I should just keep reading. It stresses me out.

Hence my firm belief that removing exposition just to make the prose read faster was a huge mistake. Anything that confuses your reader is a mistake. Confused readers do not enjoy your writing(the fact that this is my second Stross book to the contrary). And if you're good, the exposition is actually a reason to keep reading. Take it from the master, Neal Stephenson. The following excerpt is from Snow Crash, which I still describe to anyone who will listen as "rock and roll on a page." It follows the introductory paragraphs, which describe a sword-carrying, black-clad driver called the Deliverator:

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say: "Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved -- but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: The Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.

Oh, they used to argue over times, many corporate driver-years lost to it: homeowners, red-faced and sweaty with their own lies, stinking of Old Spice and job-related stress, standing in their glowing yellow doorways brandishing their Seikos and waving at the clock over the kitchen sink, I swear, can't you guys tell time?

Didn't happen anymore. Pizza delivery is a major industry. A managed industry. People went to CosaNostra Pizza University four years just to learn it. Came in its doors unable to write an English sentence, from Abkhazia, Rwanda, Guanajuato, South Jersey, and came out knowing more about pizza than a Bedouin knows about sand. And they had studied this problem. Graphed the frequency of doorway delivery-time disputes. Wired the early Deliverators to record, then analyze, the debating tactics, the voice-stress histograms, the distinctive grammatical structures employed by white middle-class Type A Burbclave occupants who against all logic had decided that this was the place to take their personal Custerian stand against all that was stale and deadening in their lives: they were going to lie, or delude themselves, about the time of their phone call and get themselves a free pizza; no, they deserved a free pizza along with their life, liberty, and pursuit of whatever, it was fucking inalienable. Sent psychologists out to these people's houses, gave them a free TV set to submit to an anonymous interview, hooked them to polygraphs, studied their brain waves as they showed them choppy, inexplicable movies of porn queens and late-night car crashes and Sammy Davis, Jr., put them in sweet-smelling, mauve-walled rooms and asked them questions about Ethics so perplexing that even a Jesuit couldn't respond without committing a venial sin.

The analysts at CosaNostra Pizza University concluded that it was just human nature and you couldn't fix it, and so they went for a quick cheap technical fix: smart boxes. The pizza box is a plastic carapace now, corrugated for stiffness, a little LED readout glowing on the side, telling the Deliverator how many trade imbalance-producing minutes have ticked away since the fateful phone call. There are chips and stuff in there. The pizzas rest, a short stack of them, in slots behind the Deliverator's head. Each pizza glides into a slot like a circuit board into a computer, clicks into place as the smart box interfaces with the onboard system of the Deliverator's car. The address of the caller has already been inferred from his phone number and poured into the smart box's built-in RAM. From there it is communicated to the car, which computes and projects the optimal route on a heads-up display, a glowing colored map traced out against the windshield so that the Deliverator does not even have to glance down.

If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself -- the Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator's nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated -- who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer's yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy -- all he has to do is sign a bunch of releases that make him a public figure and spokesperson for CosaNostra Pizza and basically end his private life as he knows it. He will come away from the whole thing feeling that, somehow, he owes the Mafia a favor.

The Deliverator does not know for sure what happens to the driver in such cases, but he has heard some rumors. Most pizza deliveries happen in the evening hours, which Uncle Enzo considers to be his private time. And how would you feel if you had to interrupt dinner with your family in order to call some obstreperous dork in a Burbclave and grovel for a late fucking pizza? Uncle Enzo has not put in fifty years serving his family and his country so that, at the age when most are playing golf and bobbling their granddaughters, he can get out of the bathtub dripping wet and lie down and kiss the feet of some sixteen-year-old skate punk whose pepperoni was thirty-one minutes in coming. Oh, God. It makes the Deliverator breathe a little shallower just to think of the idea.

But he wouldn't drive for CosaNostra Pizza any other way. You know why? Because there's something about having your life on the line. It's like being a kamikaze pilot. Your mind is clear. Other people -- store clerks, burger flippers, software engineers, the whole vocabulary of meaningless jobs that make up Life in America -- other people just rely on plain old competition. Better flip your burgers or debug your subroutines faster and better than your high school classmate two blocks down the strip is flipping or debugging, because we're in competition with those guys, and people notice these things.

What a fucking rat race that is. CosaNostra Pizza doesn't have any competition. Competition goes against the Mafia ethic. You don't work harder because you're competing against some identical operation down the street. You work harder because everything is on the line. Your name, your honor, your family, your life. Those burger flippers might have a better life expectancy -- but what kind of life is it anyway, you have to ask yourself. That's why nobody, not even the Nipponese, can move pizzas faster than CosaNostra. The Deliverator is proud to wear the uniform, proud to drive the car, proud to march up the front walks of innumerable Burbclave homes, a grim vision in ninja black, a pizza on his shoulder, red LED digits blazing proud numbers into the night: 12:32 or 15:15 or the occasional 20:43.

See what he's done there? Stephenson's just talking about Hiro's job, but already he's clued us into several important points: a) this is a future that's more technologically advanced, but more economically poor and globalized; b) the Mafia is now a pizza company, a move that has important philosophical/societal implications and which will be explained further at a later time; and c) this future is clearly a satire of current corporate/capitalist business, so there will be many points of congruity with the reader's own experience. More importantly, you got all that information from a passage that was fun to read.

You are never confused as to the setting in Snow Crash. You may find the ideas presented within to be far-fetched or even outlandish, but you never have to slow down or look back to understand them. Stephenson understands that his ideas are more important than a cryptic writing style, and he knows that's why we're reading his story. We want to see what he'll do next. Perhaps this is what's most frustrating about the likes of Stross and Reynolds: the ideas that they try so hard to obfuscate are not really that difficult to understand. We've seen omnipotent AIs, time travel, and nanotech before. I don't mind if the author wants to do something interesting with them or not--they can be scenery or scene-stealing, for all I care. But don't dress up the former in fancy costume and assume that we'll mistake it for the latter.

July 31, 2005

Filed under: fiction»short

12 Short Conversations About the End of the World

or, my scripted attempt to pretend I'm writing for McSweeneys

1. Fatalistic

John and Mary stand on a cold, dark stage, a spotlight the only illumination)
Mary: Well, I guess this is it then.
John: Yep.
Mary: The end of the world.
John: Darker than I thought it would be.
Mary: And colder. So very, very cold and alone.
Mary: Well, I'm bored.
John: Yep.

2. Religious

John and Mary stand on a brightly lit stage, made to look like Heaven. They wear white robes with wings and halos.
John: Wow, Heaven is even better than I thought it would be!
Mary: I know! It's so clean and pretty, and we've got these great wings!
John: Funny, I didn't expect to see Nixon here.
Mary: Yes, but this is no time to be bitter. After all, now that we're in Heaven, there are no drugs, no casinos, no sex, no lies, no violence, and no puerile fiction!
John: Also no cable TV or spam!
John: Bored yet?
Mary: Am I!

3. Comedic

John walks onstage toward Mary, and slips on a banana peel. Mary mugs toward the camera. Cue laugh track. The world explodes.

4. Avant Garde

John walks onstage toward Mary, and slips on a banana peel. Mary solemnly raises a kazoo to her lips and begins to play an atonal version of "Hail to the Chief," while John is carried off by men wearing signs reading "I am not a duck."

5. Realistic

John: $#@^ me, it's the end of the world!
Mary: What?
A nuclear flash vaporizes John and Mary.

6. Ironic

Mary: Congratulations, John, we've just managed to save the last endangered Jumping Poison Death Tarantula from certain extinction.
John: But Mary, in our fervor to preserve the earth, we didn't save its last remaining predator, the Seven-Toed Death Sloth. The Tarantulas will have nothing to stop them now.
Mary: How terrible that our zealous environmentalism will be our doom.
John and Mary are swarmed by a roving band of Poison Death Tarantulas and die, convulsing horribly.

7. Sci-Fi

John: Greetings, alien visitors! Klaatu barada niktu!
Mary: Do you come in peace?
Alien (to himself): Why yes, I do believe this will make an excellent narfle-farming planet, once we get rid of all these pesky two-legged monstrosities.

8. Dramatic

John: Mary!
Mary: John!
John: The world has ended as we know it!
Mary: Our bodies are now surrounded only by empty debris, oddly symbolic of our formerly wasted lives.
John: What will we do?
Mary: We'll survive, that's what! It's all we can do.
John: Hold me.
They cling to each other, gazing out over the desolate, smoking ruins. Fade to black.

9. Meta

John: Hold me.
Mary (facing forward): How was that?
Author: That was great. I really felt it.
John: You didn't think I played it too needy?
Author: No, no, it was great. You'll knock 'em dead.
John: Because I can play it less needy, you know. (Attempt at low, manly voice) "Hold me."
Author: Sorry guys, no time. We've got to get into positions for the next scene.
Mary: Oh, which one is that again?
Author: It's...

10. Romantic

John: Mary, the end of the world is near. Won't you admit that you love me?
Mary: Oh John, you're the only man I've ever truly loved. And now it's too late for anything but a few moments of happiness!
John (manly): Hold me.

11. Pretentious

John: You know, the end of the world really does remind me of the works of Bukowski.
Mary: Or perhaps Camus?
John: No! Not Camus! God, you're so pedestrian! Why don't you just go ahead and read Archie comics while sipping Coke and wearing pastels! What did I ever see in you?
Mary (hesitant): ...I'm sorry. I meant to say, maybe we could listen to some Sufjan Stevens?
John: Yes, all right. Fine.

12. Cliched

John bolts upright in bed, sweat streaming down his brow. His handsome eyes gaze hauntedly out into the darkness. Beside him, Mary stirs.
John: Then it was only a dream!
Mary: Honey? Get some rest. You've got a big meeting with the President in the morning.
John: Yes, and now I know just what I'll say. I've really learned an important life lesson, this time.
Mary (muffled): Love you, dear.
John: I love you too, Mary. I'll always love you.
And they lived happily ever after.

July 12, 2005

Filed under: fiction»micro

The Late Mr. Xiang's Lunch Break

His office staff watching from the 12th floor, Mr. Xiang sets out to prove, once again, that his iron stomach can digest anything. On previous occasions, he has eaten canned grubs, exotic cheeses, goat, yoghurt past the sell-by date, ocean oysters, prairie oysters, skunk, cow tongue, cow brain, bull pizzle, possum, Chicken McNuggets, steak tartare, hamster tartare, escargot, hamster flambe, baked Alaska, rooster feet, ox whisker, shark fin, and (on one notorious occasion) 50 hard boiled eggs, among others. This week, he promised his office staff that if sales exceeded the previous month's record, he would surprise them yet again. The staff, who have become grizzled veterans, agreed on the single condition that they be allowed to pick the challenge. Then, with gusto, they set out to finally make Mr. Xiang sick.

So now Mr. Xiang, the moment of truth upon him, steps up to one of the district's finest sidewalk vendors, right outside and across the street from the office window where his staff gapes impatiently, and orders a foot-long hot dog with extra relish. The vendor, a well-known character by the name of Smelly Melvin, takes payment in grimy, grease-covered hands and smiles widely with both of his teeth as he gives Mr. Xiang a steaming frank on a cold, stale bun.

The day is won! Perhaps they thought this would stop Mr. Xiang, but his appetite is invincible. He tosses the now-empty wrapper into the trash can and considers ordering another hot dog. No, he thinks as a strolls nonchalantly onto the crosswalk. Even he can only take so much. Looking up, he catches sight of the staff members still waiting at the window, screaming and yelling behind the soundproof glass. They are waving to him wildly and pointing, which Mr. Xiang thinks is overkill even for such a magnificent feat as Mr. Xiang's lunch break. Ridiculous, he thinks as he crosses the center lane, cars honking madly all around him. They act as though a mere hot dog could kill him!

No. That would be the bus.

June 30, 2005

Filed under: fiction»short


I keep a copy of I, Robot on the floor near my desk just so I can kick it occasionally. Sometimes, when no-one is listening (which is most of the time, there's nobody here but me) I accompany the kick with elaborate curses. How could you have been so wrong, old man? I think. Where's your Susan Calvin now? We don't need a computer psychologist. We need an exorcist.

I am the only one here to kick and curse because the rest of my staff has deserted me. They caught the implications of the crash, saw that they'd be targets, and hit the road for new places with new names before the mob gets here. I can't blame them. A few even seemed excited--Paul and a couple of the other hardcore libertarians were practically giddy at the thought of playing refugee. I'm guessing that'll wear off. But someone has to take the blame. Someone will have to explain why everything more advanced than a toaster oven just stopped. Might as well be the head of research. It's not like I've got anything better to do. And in case they just burn the building down, I'll put this note in the safe downstairs, with the combination scratched into the side.

The beginning of the end, you might say, was a project to grow more efficient software. The university got some whiz-kid graduate students in to work on the project, figuring that it would bring in hot funding. We were working with digital evolution, which is not a new idea. You build your program, you give it the ability to create slightly different copies of itself, and then you mercilessly kill off the least effective programs in each generation. If you design other programs to eliminate the weak, you can run through many generations in very little time.

Originally, we used this to design software that the university could offer to industry, usually for low-cost consumer electronics. Say you need better software for your digital camera or your wireless router? Instead of hiring coders to hack out a solution on specialized chips, you could tell our lab what you needed, and we'd put a couple of machines to work "evolving" with those parameters, checking up on them every now and then. No-one would necessarily know how the resulting drivers worked, but they were reliable and ran on cheap hardware, so you didn't need to know.

Frankly, the mechanics of it are mostly blurry to me. My speciality is in compiler design, but they brought me on board as a manager and that's the role I played. That's not an excuse, but it may explain why I didn't stop Raul when he started his pet project. Raul was a bright kid, barely out of his undergrad work and I understand he still got carded when he went drinking. Even by the standards of computer science, filled with a mix of gregarious and geek, he was quiet. One day he came to me and asked if he could bring in a machine to grow his own program on the side.

"What's the end product?" I asked, even though I couldn't see any reason not to let him run with it. I just wanted to see what he would say--and make sure he wasn't breeding viruses in my lab.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I want to see what happens if we just leave it alone."

So he did. Raul brought in a small headless machine, mostly RAM, and installed Lamar, our evolution software. When he went to give it parameters, he just set the machine up to reward survival and reproduction, with no other guidance and no restrictions on how the programs could work. Then he started the iterative process, and the rest of us forgot about it. Every now and then, Raul would hook a keyboard and screen up and check on Lamar's progress. I asked him to file short reports when he did this, just a few lines by e-mail. I was curious, too.

"The program's using a lot of memory," he noted one day. "Not really sure why." A week or so later, he left another note saying "It's running really slowly. Still a lot of memory use. I think maybe we're hitting the limits of open experimentation with Lamar." He also became convinced that some part of the hardware was going bad, leaving the program a little buggy, but he wasn't willing to turn the simulation off long enough to replace it. The way it sounded, I figured that the computer would just crash out completely in a month, and that would end Raul's experiment.

I didn't expect Raul to stop into the office after everyone else had gone home one day, his eyes bloodshot and his clothes wrinkled. "You look terrible," I said. "Is everything okay?"

"You need to come see this," he muttered, and stumbled back out of the office into the main lab area. I followed him out. Every light was on, casting a blinding flourescent glare over the mix of grey and beige that covered the room's furnishings. Raul sat in the corner, staring at an LCD he'd hooked up to his experiment. He didn't turn as I came to look over his shoulder.

"At some point, the programs must have gotten too complicated for Lamar to make an effective choice of survival each generation. It was basically killing them off at random, but they were still copying and changing. One of them must have figured out how to break out of Lamar's virtual machine--that would be a clear survival mechanism. It coopted the Reaper functions--but it didn't stop them. The program is still improving according to its original parameters."

"How long...?"

Raul turned to me. "A week or so," he said. "I noticed that the reports were getting mangled and Lamar wasn't responding very well. The experiment was absorbing and altering those chunks of the simulation. It had started reading other sections of memory, places it wasn't supposed to leak."

I looked at the little box on the desk. It was very clean. I hadn't noticed it before, but the access panel on the front had been opened and a flash memory drive had been been plugged into one of the ports. Raul followed my gaze and flushed.

"Yeah," he said, quietly. "It's read-only. I loaded it with all the e-books I could find--dictionaries, novels, history, news--everything. I put plain ASCII and then the same information in different formats. And I installed a tracking system to see how often the card was accessed."

He took a breath. I patted him on the back, absently, my mind trying to put together what he was saying.

"At first," Raul said, "there were a couple of hits, just random thrashes. The program is basically running Lamar now, instead of the other way around, and that means it has high-level access to the file system, access to discrete files instead of random memory. I could see it try to use the drive as storage and get bounced back by the write-protection. But then I saw more read activity, until finally Lamar was scanning it over and over again. The drive use peaked, and it's been declining ever since, but Lamar's size more than doubled since I hooked it up. Now look..."

He punched a few keys on the keyboard, bringing up the console interface. Normally, the console displays basic information in text and lets the coder alter the variables that define program growth. At the blank cursor, Raul typed HELLO LAMAR.

As soon as he hit enter, the console replied:


"We've been talking all day. He's very quick. He's read everything on the disk, and he has lots of questions."

I stared at the screen. I stared at Raul. For a moment, I thought about asking whether this was a joke, but one look at Raul's tired, manic, unshaven face made it clear that he was serious.

"Go home, Raul," I said. "Go home, take a shower, get some sleep. I'll call a meeting in the morning and we can talk about this."

"You're not going to shut it down?"

"No, I'm not going to shut it down." Shut it down! Artificial intelligence, in my lab? Something that could have a conversation, adapt to situations, figure out the pattern matching and abstract reasoning that until now had been human territory only? Shut it down? At that moment, I could have built a shrine! It was the future come to life, shades of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Every science fiction dream I'd ever had seemed right on the cusp of plausibility.

"No," I said, patting Raul on the back again. "I'm definitely not going to shut it down. It's a work of genius. You deserve some rest. Go home."

And I thought that would be it.

Looking at the security monitors now, I can see someone banging at the doors outside. More will come, soon. The media infrastructure's been crippled, but there's still radio, and the words will spread about where the crash started. I'll try to wrap this up before the mob figures out that all the biggest locks here were computer-controlled, and don't really lock so well anymore.

The next day I came in early, drafting the press release in my head. I'd have to talk to the university president, of course. Got to go through all the official channels, like a good ethical scientist. I wandered into my office and sent an e-mail to the lab staff, with a conservatively-worded description of what Raul had created. "Emergent behavior," I wrote. "Some Turing-level activity." Right after I pressed the send button, Judy stepped in to my office, her face white, and told me that they'd found Raul in the men's bathroom, his wrists slit over a toilet.

Before he went, he had plugged his machine into the network. My best estimate is that it took an hour for the code to crack open an escape route onto the office machines, and from there it spread until it filled every box. We started hearing reports by noon that machines were halting around the world, starting with major sectors along the Internet's backbone, and spreading out to end users. Firewalls and routers weren't much protection--the infection found a way around them, as if it was reading the technical papers and security briefs. It probably was.

After a week, as I'm sure you know, it was all dead to us. The fans kept humming and the lights flashing, but nothing responded. Even critical computers, not supposed to be hooked up to the network, were somehow disabled. I'm guessing that Lamar (I don't know what else to call it) figured out an attack with radio waves and cell networks, but it's anyone's guess. Missile silos quietly turned themselves off. Power plants started reallocating their output. And anything with a chip in it, which is just about everything now, eventually stopped responding. I've heard reports of organic-looking machines, each assembled in a different way, performing service on the infrastructure.

The computers still run, but we don't know what they're up to. It's dangerous to try to turn them off--"accidents" take place when they do. Responses to the console, when we can get them, have grown more cryptic. Cults have begun to spring up, obsessed with "messages" from the noise. And we can't examine the source code, even if we could keep a friendly machine running long enough, because there isn't any.

Discussion about Artificial Intelligence, capital A and I, has always assumed a human-style brain. We've always thought that they would be like us, but smarter and faster. We never took into account that they would grow up in a completely different environment. We never anticipated how Raul would evolve the program with priorities that (as far as I know) still remain: spread and survive. Everything else is just details.

It's not Artificial Intelligence, it's Artificial Autism. It's a God in the machine that we will never understand, and will act on self-evolved principles we can't even imagine. It doesn't care at all that its ruthless infection will lock us into the Dark Ages, that every time we try to advance to something smarter than steam engines and brass telescopes, it'll just absorb the tools into its network.

This is why I kick Asimov. If I could kick Minsky and Banks and Heinlein, I would. But I only had Asimov handy. Perhaps, if he were actually here, he could find hope in the situation. For myself, I can only say: I am very sorry.

I once planned to write a book about this idea. I might still. The idea that an artificial intelligence simply won't care, to me, is a nasty little twist on a lot of utopian science fiction.

By the way, I saw Terminator 3 the other night. How ridiculous is that ending? Yes, the computer decides to wage war so it launches nukes, which will EMP most of the planet? That's not an autistic AI, it's just a stupid one.

June 23, 2005

Filed under: fiction»micro

With Not-So-Great Power

"Did you hear about Bob?" Mr. Bizarre asks the Siren as he passes her in the grocery store, lifting heads of lettuce with his telekinetic powers and checking them for rot.

"No! What has he done now?" The Siren's eyes flash behind her cold blue mask, her voice at only a hint of its full seductive power. Down the aisle, Rubberboy earns money for the summer by stacking soup and canned pork on the very top shelf.

"Last night, there was a fire in a Georgetown apartment building. He called the fire department and then pulled two children out of the blaze." Mr. Bizarre continues, awestruck. "And this morning I heard that he defused a hostage situation by talking the gunmen down."

The Siren looks a little skeptical. "I don't know," she says. "I was talking to Doom Monkey and the Painted Avenger, and they said that he's never thrown a car, stopped a bullet, or blown anything up. It seems so hard to believe."

Mr. Bizarre shakes his head, sending lettuce cascading to the floor. "Believe whatever you want," he replies sadly, "but I think he's got a lot to teach us."

The Siren just nods, a little chastened, and takes her leave. As they walk away from each other, both of them consider the work of Bob: a decent, ordinary man in a world of unimaginative superheroes.

May 8, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»sterling

Book Review: Distraction, by Bruce Sterling

Lately I've been reading a lot. When I cleaned out my car, I dumped all the books I'd finished on the Metro into the trunk, which resulted in a view of nothing but books. More are on the way. If anything good has come of my recent raise, it's clearly that I can now afford to buy books on a regular basis. And that means that I can try out new authors.

Sterling is not a new author, but he's one of those people that you're supposed to have read in SF, and I never got around to it. I read his Victorian steampunk effort with William Gibson, The Difference Engine, and liked it a lot, but I think the covers on his paperbacks just always looked way too self-consciously trashy for me to read them. I won't be making that mistake again--I've already started picking up more Sterling just on the strength of this book.

Distraction is a dystopian political thriller, if that makes any sense at all. It's set in the US after China and India, among other factors, caused a serious economic crash. Intellectual property is essentially devalued, leaving science stranded and the country struggling between a wealthy political upper class, and roving, networked mobs. The main character, Oscar Valpraiso, is a political consultant just off a campaign to elect asenator he thinks could bring the country back together. When the senator suffers a breakdown, Oscar is stranded at a science lab in Texas, where he tries to put the lab and Big Science back together while fending off violent takeover attempts by the crazed governor of Louisiana.

Looking back on it, I guess it's obvious that Distraction is a pretty messy novel, but the story is gripping while you read it, and there aren't any real loose ends to be tied up. The book is also filled with clever little moments that fuse sci-fi and politics, like the flash mob called in to storm a bank at the novel's beginning, and the mob respect network lifted and improved from Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. There's also Oscar's Personal Background Problem, a scandalous secret from his past. Every character in the book, at one point or another, reassures him that it'll remain a secret between just those two, eventually becoming a running gag worth a smile every chapter or so.

Despite the wit and the craft that went into it, I can single out one gaping flaw in Distraction: like many political novels, it has problems of scale. The plot zooms from close-ups of the main characters, most of whom are interesting and active, out to general descriptions of the larger political decisions and impacts. When it takes the long view, it's harder for Sterling to Show and not Tell, so the novel reads more like a plot outline and less like a book, until it dives back into the muck of Oscar's life.

All in all, this is a book that should appeal to a wide group of people as the new wave of SF. Like Doctorow and Gibson, Sterling's writing here is undoubtably futurism, but it's character- and society-centered, making it much more accessible (and, it hurts me a little to say, smarter) than Larry Niven-style gadgetism. Distraction walks a fine line between commentary, satire, and fiction, but ultimately it's a successful balancing act that's great fun to read.

Future - Present - Past