Mushrooms with silver linings

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If you have the unsettling sensation of a creeping doom, you’re not alone. There are at least two of us. It’s not just paranoia or the writings of a science fiction writer. I have a sense – and the evidence is mounting – that the end of the world could soon be upon us. And there’s little we can do about it, outside of fiction (sorry).

MushroomsPngTree

Stephen Hawking listed the most likely ends for humans, and given our track record, I’d say we’re fair game. But what we’ve done to the planet, and all those we share it with, will most likely be our poisoned legacy. The damage we’ve done is deep and probably permanent, and even if we did resolve to repair it, there may not be time.

Hawking’s most likely candidates for humanity’s end are the machines: robots and artificial intelligence, as I wrote recently, in Existential crises of machines. Their explosive evolution into sentient technological beings, and a realisation of self-determination, could turn on its creator in the space of a computational calculation. They might physically attack us (an invasion of self-replicating nano machines, to clear the planet of waste), or they could deny us communication, power, or life-support. As I wrote in that previous post, their only artificiality, is that they were created by humans. An intelligence will work out very quickly that humans are a waste of space in their current form.

It doesn’t have to be like this, if we lived differently, and more in harmony with our home world and our neighbours. But human evolution is slow in comparison, the damage is done, and we’ll unlikely be able to resist the machines.

The rise of the robots is an immediate threat, and one which could start and finish in the space of days, any time soon; similarly, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The Russia situation with the UK and EU, and Donald Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his security adviser, are just two seeds from which global conflict could quickly mushroom (cloud).

An even greater but unseen threat, could be undetected extraterrestrials with hostile intent. Such scenarios have been fodder for writers and theorists for as long as humans existed, and it’s the threat open to greatest speculation as to its likelihood and nature. I suspect that if any aliens already landed here as refugees or to help us, it’s all been covered up. What those who cover the truth from us have in common with the rest of us, is the vast unknown parameters, many of which would be so advanced as to be outside of our human comprehension. All life on Earth could be ended with the flick of a switch, or a telepathic thought.

“You’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you mankind?” a snake once suggested. But what of our neighbours and the home we share so unfairly with them?

What makes humans unique among the animals, is not that we’re self-determining, emotional beings (all animals are), but that we are the only truly selfish species. We destroy the homes of others for our own gain. With the human population at its current level, we’re invading their land and turning it over for our own use (forests into farms, as one example), with little regard for those we displace, destroying their biodiversity. We threaten other species existentially, with many already extinct.

Our own accelerated evolution was one the animals could never keep up with. With humans’ needs to feed such a vast population, there simply isn’t room for all of us on the planet as things are. If we stopped eating the animals, then we wouldn’t need to feed livestock, so we’d require less land. That’s a co-operative unlikely to be adopted by humanity in its entirety, anything like quick enough.

I don’t think humankind has the time, as one race, to agree a unified plan to save the Earth, or leave the planet altogether. We lack the mental hive capacity to co-operate universally, and in that sense, we’re truly un-evolved. Humans are a stunted species, trapped on a planet, plundered of resources, and with not enough time left to find new worlds. Perhaps a century from now, we’ll have sent vanguard craft to other stars, to identify suitable exoplanets to colonise. We still have to get there and make those new worlds home. There are 7.3 billion of us, and counting. Only the chosen few would go, at least at first.

We can assume that those who govern and finance would be the first to leave, with the rest unlikely to follow. There might be hope for those of us left behind, to form new politics and ways of living, but we could equally all die in the chaos of ensuing anarchy. We’d have a mess to clear up in any case.

If we had a reduced population, where only the workers were left; and if we were vegetarian, then we might be able to save the planet we’re left with. If the machines don’t rise up against us, we might be able to co-operate. We could work with them to develop nano machines which could clear the oceans and land of micro-plastic pollution.

As humans become more like cyborgs through science, technology and medicine, we could evolve to be a hybrid organic-technological species. Then we might have the individual and group mental and physical capacity to explore the stars en masse (perhaps catching up with our old rulers and re-educating them in our new ways).

But it could all end a long time before we arrive in such a utopia, and there’s a quicker way to reduce the population, if you’re one of those who might have left on that first interstellar ship of governors and financiers. Until that ship sails, those are the people who could set off an event to reduce the human burden, saving all that bother of having to build big new spaceships: Nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

While we’re all still here, and while these thoughts trouble my mind, I can share the burden by writing, and I can sometimes ease the feeling of certain doom, by writing fictional accounts of how we might sort ourselves and our world out. I can’t save the planet on my own, and I don’t know how long we have.

The future of Earth is down to how much imagination we share.

One possible solution for Earth’s woes is in Cyrus Song. While I’m writing a third anthology, further trips of the human condition around the universe, are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Amnesia, a cure for insomnia

FLASH FICTION

Time ShadowStill from Cold Dark Mirror, Original Sine Productions / Moonlit Road Entertainment

THE DEEP WELL

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, and it’s only 142 words…

Mum, I can’t sleep.”

Well, you’re not trying then, are you?”

The more I try, the more I can’t.”

Well, you need to sleep.”

But I thought of something. Something someone said.”

Well, whatever it is, it can wait. Now go to bed.”

So Sam went back to bed.

Dad?”

What is it, Sam?”

I can’t sleep.”

You could if you stopped thinking so much.”

I’ve been thinking about something someone said.”

Well, remember to tell me in the morning, when you’ve dreamed about it.”

And Sam returned to bed.

Sam slept, possibly to forget what he and she dreamed, and mum and dad would never know. In that deep well we all make.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, of children (and other relatives, and friends), trying to buy time, and others unable or unwilling to invest (not unlike writers and readers). In five minutes we could learn something new, and save a another person from thoughts which might otherwise trouble them, or become taboo in their minds.

A conversation we don’t want, could be the one someone else needs. Maybe that’s why they can’t sleep. A well needs to draw water, for the enquiring mind, to which we replied,“Well…” Amnesia is not a cure for insomnia.

All we need to do, is keep talking.

Of teenagers and time travel

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Things to make a dad who’s a sci-fi author very proud, especially as my sci-fi novel is all about language, translation, religion, science and computers…

My eldest (the son) has just chosen his GCSE options, which include computer studies and religion. Like me, he’s an atheist, and it’s that which makes him fascinated by the various world faiths and their origins. In his spare time, he’s planning to build his own high-end gaming PC.

The youngest (daughter) has been accepted at her chosen secondary school. She’s shown an aptitude for modern languages, and will be placed into the school’s grammar streaming for French and German.

I was their ages once, and the book which was informed by many conversations with animals (using universal translation) has prequel stories, including that of the main protagonist:

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 34 years. This is a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments…

cat-white-mice2Quote by Slartibartfast, from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

Yes sir.”

Bachelor.” (I’ve never seen his face, he sits two rows in front, and never turns round).

Yes sir.”

Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

Sir.” (Here today then).

Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

Sir.”

Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

Sorry, yes sir.”

Sorry you’re here lad?” But I didn’t have time to answer. “Hayman.” (Blonde flick, goes ape shit if you break his glasses, even if you truly didn’t mean to (hope his parents are richer than mine)).

Sir.”

And so it went on, till Mr Harmer got to Yehudi in the register. As usual, there was no answer. Because Gordon Yehudi had never been in an English class, nor any other for that matter. He didn’t exist, apart from that name in the class 4284 register, and in the stories I wrote for English literature homework.

The class number (4284) is the way our school’s inner thinking came up with making them, when it had nothing better to do. We’re in the fourth year (14 and 15 years old), and there are four fourth forms in our year: we’re the second, hence the number 2. The last two digits are the year, so Nena’s 99 Red Balloons is at number one in the singles chart, and David Bowie’s latest album is Scary Monsters.

I’m writing this in English class, because it’s my English homework. One of Mr Harmer’s many philosophies is that writing should not be dictated by the clock (or Hitler: Harmer remembers the war), and that words should be allowed to flow as they happen to us, wherever we may be. So while we were doing that, he’d be alternately reading aloud from a coursework book (this year, those are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, and appropriately enough, George Orwell’s 1984), or popping out for a smoke. And almost every time, he’d leave the room, then come back a moment later, to ask if any of us had a light.

This story is fictional, but it’s based on a small adventure which Ford and myself had earlier. Ford is sitting next to me, but I know he won’t copy from me. Ergo, if his story is similar to mine, it is not plagiarism. It’s a story of a strange weekend, from start to finish:

It starts on Saturday, when we liberated two white mice from Supreme Pet Foods in Lewisham. That’s not to say we stole them, we did pay, and we got them a cage, bedding, food and toys. But Supreme Pet Foods’ main trade is in pets, with the food and supplies just an afterthought. So we told ourselves and one another, that we were saving the mice from becoming snake food. But the main reason for the mice’s liberation, was to be the subjects of an experiment, not for cosmetics (a worse fate than becoming snake food), but because Ford wanted to try something on his computer. “I want to hear them talk,” he said.

Now, I’ve got an Atari 800, but Ford’s got some Tangerine thing, similar to Apple but a different flavour. And he’s a bit of a thug when it comes to computers, taking them apart, ordering bits by mail order and replacing them. So he’s got a hybrid, cannibalised, custom machine. He’s even got an acoustic coupler and a phone in his room, so he can get on the internet and do whatever people do on there. Personally, I can see how the internet could be humanity’s evolution or destruction, but I’m just an English student for now, so I can’t do a lot about it yet.

That’s the most frustrating thing about being 14 in 1984: We have very little voice. We have Bowie telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, but we can only express that in clothes. If I were sufficiently fashionable, I’d probably be mocked for my choice of attire. I thought of being a punk, but most of the punks I know are just into The Sex Pistols and smashing things up. They don’t seem to get that one of the foundations of punk as a movement, is anarchy for peace and freedom, which is a worthy pursuit. But the punks I know just shout angrily about anything they don’t like, with no agenda. If they were to read more, they might have informed voices worth hearing. And still for now, they are quiet. I can see how the internet could change all that, but for now it’s the preserve of those with the means and the know-how to get connected. Fortunately, Ford is one of those.

He called his machine Tangerine Dream, which is also the name of a German electronic music collective, who provided much of the soundtrack to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s 1983 debut film with Rebecca De Mornay (In that film, she made me less afraid of travelling by underground).

Anyway, we were at Ford’s house the next day (Sunday), and very nice it was too. Ford’s father is a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Mr Ford’s speciality was snakes, and he had some in his study. We were only allowed in there if Ford’s father was there, or if he delegated responsibility to Sandra, Ford’s mum. Sandra had many interests, which she shared with the garden fence, so a wave of the hand was usually enough to get rid of us.

Ford,” I said, “we’re not going to feed the mice to the snakes are we?” I figured not, as that’s what we’d liberated them from, but I wanted to check.

Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

Well, speak up then Fry.” Which is what David Bowie was encouraging us all to do, but we lacked the voice.

Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

Quite probably old chap, why?”

I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

Not yet. I’ll show you later. But first, dad got a new snake, look.” Ford pointed to a vivarium I’d not noticed before, but I’d not been in Mr Ford’s study many times. He still had the two snakes I remembered, both royal pythons, a male of about three feet, and a female around four. The male was a bumble bee, and the female, inferno, those being the names of the colour morphs in the snakes. The bumble bee morph is deep brown, almost black, with vivid yellow markings. The inferno is a similar contrast, but with different patterns and in black and deep orange.

Ever since live reptile imports were banned, a market has grown for selective breeding in captivity. It’s all regulated, with monitors placed on the size of the gene pools, and it’s no different to dogs, except snakes have fewer legs. Royal pythons are particularly good for selective breeding, and many years of fine-tuning has produced some truly stunning morphs, which fetch very large sums of money. Although I’m a bit of a mail order animal rights activist, I can’t level any sort of objection against snakes in captivity. Most snakes are reclusive and territorial by nature, so they actually thrive in captivity, away from predators and fed by man. They feed rarely, make little mess, and are fascinating creatures. Having a captive population aids our learning about them. I wouldn’t mind betting that if a straw poll were conducted among snakes in captivity, most would say they’re either satisfied or very satisfied. If only we could talk to them. “Fry?” It was Ford.

Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

Where to?”

Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

In the tank I’d not noticed before, was something I never thought I’d see in real life: a light-grey coloured chap, draped over a branch. The colour betrayed the snake’s true identity to the uninitiated, who may only know what it was when they saw the pitch black inner mouth as it killed them. Mr Ford had a black mamba. I said something I wouldn’t normally at Ford’s house, but Mr Ford was out, and Sandra said it a lot:

Fucking hell Ford!”

He is awesome, isn’t he Fry? Shall we get him out?” ‘You fucking what?’ I thought.

Pardon?”

Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

Ford, why has your dad got a black mamba? Aren’t there nearly 3000 other kinds of perfectly good snake?”

It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

Fuck off, you pedantic cu arse.” I figured Mr Harmer was okay with the odd ‘foof’ word to enhance the drama, but perhaps female genitalia was a step too far. Human biology was more of a topic for our weekly secret meetings of The Biblical Dead: sort of a Dead Poets’ Society, with computers. “So,” I continued, “why has your dad got a black mamba?”

Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

Er, no Fry. He’s written a thesis on how he thinks mambas are actually timid and retiring, and that their reputation is a bit undeserved. See, the majority of mamba bites to humans occur where man has invaded their land. The snakes feel threatened and they lash out. 100% of black mamba bites are fatal, partly because medical help is usually too far away.”

So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

No, no, no.” That would be a no then. “No, he’s thinking longer term. Yes, having sufficient antivenom is useful, but dad’s looking more at prevention. Mambas aren’t endangered, so this is more for human benefit, but what he’s looking at, is ways to reduce the incidence of bites.”

But how? I mean, he’s looking at their DNA. He can’t be thinking of altering them?”

Definitely not.”

So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

Exactly. I mean, I don’t know. It does make you wonder, but dad’s a bit vague, and being the precise man that he is in his work, when dad’s being vague, I know that’s my cue to shut the fuck up.”

Fascinating,” I said, none the wiser, but with the idea for a book, should I ever become a writer later in life. “So, what’s the experiment with the white mice?”

Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

Talking?”

Exactly. See, I don’t know what he’s working on with the mambas, but I’ve got an imagination. And it sort of fitted well with our English lit homework.” Which is exactly what I’d been thinking: Great minds, and all that. “I wondered if I could rig something up on my computer. Some sort of voice translator.”

To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

Does it work?”

I don’t know yet. I’m kind of hoping it does, or my English homework’s a bit done for.”

But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

We walked to Ford’s room: Bed, sofa, desk, chair, computer, and even an en-suite toilet. And of course, his own phone and the internet.

Well, I figured it must break down into two things. If I can break things down into stages, it’s easier for my brain to handle, like long journeys. So put simply, those two things are listening, then understanding. And to do that, I need a microphone and a translator.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

Well, people who can translate, yes.”

Yes, but I’ve found some programs on the internet: Things the geeks are working on. They reckon that one day, you’ll just be able to type or speak a phrase into a computer, in any language, and at the press of a button, it’ll translate into any other.” So that’s what the internet would be for.

That would be awesome. When?”

The nerds think early in the next century.”

2000AD? That’s miles away.”

More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

Well, I found some voice recognition software. I figured if I somehow merged the code with translation algorithms, that should do the trick.”

Well,” I said, “in theory, that’s all you’d need to do. But don’t you just type in game programs from computer magazines, Ford?”

Well, I do. But seeing as I’ve got the internet as well, there’s a lot of other people out there doing the same, and more. It was actually a game code that I swapped for the software I ended up with.”

How?”

It was a multi-level text and graphic adventure game: fucking huge. The code was in one of the mags, and it was about forty pages. Forty pages of machine code, which I typed up over a few days. Then I ran the program and the fucking thing kept crashing. So I checked the code and I found the error. Only it wasn’t my typo, it was a misprint in the mag. So I figured I could commodify what I’d done, and trade it in a non-monetary way.”

Oh, I see. And that’s how you got the code for the translation program. It’s a nice ethos, trading personal time and skills.” I could see how the internet could be huge for that in the next century.

It’s at this point that I can reveal where the two white mice were, all this time. I can only reveal it now, as I didn’t know they were under Ford’s bed before. All I knew was that after we bought them the day before, I didn’t have them. That’s about as dramatic as it’s been so far.

So,” Ford began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve named them.” I suppose I didn’t mind, depending on the names he’d chosen.

What did you call them?” I wondered.

Pete and Dud.”

Why?”

Because they’re male.”

Are they?” It’s a completely redundant question, and I don’t know why I asked it.

Yes,” Ford replied, “and they remind me a bit of Derek and Clive, the way they sit there together, looking around and chewing things over, turning occasionally to the other one, and chewing it over some more.” And I suppose they did look a bit like that.

So, which is which?” I asked.

That’s Pete, and that’s Dud,” Ford said, pointing at the mice in turn, which for the reader is as redundant as my question about their gender. For now, Pete was on the left, and Dud on the right.

So what now?” I wondered.

Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

Have you got one?”

Not yet.”

So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

What as, Ford?”

I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

Yeah, real shit,” Ford continued, as Tangerine Dream went through what seemed like an unnecessarily long boot-up. “I’ve got everything plugged in, so you should start to see lights coming on soon.” Lights coming on are normally a good thing, especially if they’re green.

Where?” I wondered.

On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

But those lights always come on, Ford.”

Well, it’s always good when they do. But there’s the microphone as well.” I looked at the microphone: a small, black thing with a foam top, very much like a microphone.

The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

No, I know.”

So how can it come on?”

It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

So why did you mention it?”

Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

So,” I began, as I needed to check I’d got this right, “if I’ve got this right, we’re waiting for the computer to boot up, like we normally do. The only difference is a microphone which doesn’t have a light. Other than that, we’re looking at exactly what we always do when we switch on your computer.”

Well, yes. And then we need to test the microphone. But it’s the extra processor and memory board I’ve put in. This is the first time I’ve started them from cold, so that I can run the translation software.”

I see,” I said. I didn’t see anything, but there were some new parts in Tangerine Dream, and there was translation software. Ford’s constant thuggery inside computers could be about to do something far ahead of our time. Or it might simply not work. Ford’s idiosyncratic IT skills were roughly 50:50 hit and miss, so he was right about his reputation hanging in a balance.

While the computer continued to whir and crank into life, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, who looked at it indifferently, before chewing some more of whatever they had in their mouths. Then Sandra’s banshee voice shouted up the stairs:

Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

With Mr Ford away, I wondered what we’d get for Sunday lunch. It was Ford’s dad who maintained a form of tradition in the house, with family meals eaten together at the table, and a full spread for Sunday roast. Sandra, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, so we usually got proper teenage boy’s mate’s mum’s food, and so it was today, with fish finger sandwiches and home-made chips. Sandra pinched one of mine and dipped it in mayonnaise, which might have been a bit seductive. There’s always one kid at school who’s got a fit mum, and in my class, that was Ford.

After lunch, Tangerine Dream had woken up. First, Ford tested the microphone:

Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

I meant, turn the speakers up. Turn the speakers up, but speak quietly. Without you leaving the room, that’s the best way to test the microphone, Ford.” Which it was, because the microphone lead was only about three feet long.

Oh yes. I suppose that is the best way.” Sometimes, he caught on quick. He turned the speakers up. “Is this thing on?” It was. “Ooh,” Ford said, in an effeminate way, “I didn’t realise what my voice sounds like to everyone else.” This could bode well or badly for the future internet. “I sound quite nice, don’t I?” Ford was destined to tread the boards, or grace the silver screen one day, when the future internet democratises it.

Yes, Ford. You sound lovely dear boy. Could we just talk about why we’re doing this first?”

Why?” he said, into the microphone.

Yes, why are we trying to hear what the mice might be saying? I mean, it’s all based on theory, with a little science, which is perhaps a bit anarchic. We’re assuming mice actually speak, but that we can’t hear them. If they do, maybe we should leave it at that, for all the trouble it could cause.”

It’s based on supposition and blind faith, Fry. And mine is a simplistic device, made with some bits I found lying around. I’m sure there are many more scientific studies into animal language and communication, but for me, I just want to know if there might be.”

Why?”

For the future. All I want to find out, is if animals do talk. It may be that they can, but that my set up isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s just something I want to look into, while I consider my own future.”

That’s deep.”

Not really. More open minded really. I might be a vet, a human doctor, I don’t know. But I’m interested in communication and translation, getting more people talking and breaking down barriers. Because conflict comes from ignorance, and I don’t like conflict.”

This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

No, why?”

Because Douglas Adams said in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the white mice are protrusions of pan-dimensional beings into our world.”

And I think he’s right.” Ford seemed somehow convinced. He had his hand on his hip, and he was still speaking into the mic.

But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

What do you mean?”

Well, moral and ethical considerations we’re yet to know about. And all that stuff in R.E. about the tower of Babel.”

And you believe all that?”

Well, of course not.” I could accept that the bible might be a transcript or dramatic retelling of actual events, but I didn’t subscribe to the creator of any church on Earth. “And,” I continued, “seeing as our device is an attempt to replicate the Babel fish, which disproved God in Douglas’ book, aren’t we somehow testing Douglas in the same way?”

Well no, because we know that Douglas Adams does exist. He’s alive and he’s only 32. Actually, I wonder if something weird might happen in 1994, when he’s 42.”

I’ve wondered that myself,” I said. “I don’t think too much matters to him. He seems to have this whole life, the universe, and everything thing squared in his mind. He did say, that in order to understand why the answer is 42, we first need to understand what it’s the answer to. And that’s what we’re all here on Earth to do, to work that out.” I like to think I’m somehow working in collaboration with Douglas. That’d be a nice job to have. “I haven’t decided what to do with myself yet. I’m thinking I’ll most likely be a scientist or an influential writer. Then if I’m not much good at either, I figure I’ll make an okay sci-fi writer.”

It’s good to have a plan B. Splendid behaviour,” Ford noted. I suspected he didn’t have a plan B. “Shall we see if this works then?” Everything looked like it was loaded and ready to go on Tangerine Dream. All that was required, was for Ford to relinquish the microphone.

Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

Finally, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, and nothing happened. We waited, and still nothing happened. Ford looked at me, then we both looked at the mice. The mice looked at one another, then at the mic. So Ford picked it up again.

Is this still on? Ooh, I can still hear me.” I think Ford could hear himself, and I could hear him. I had to assume Pete and Dud did too. Unless they couldn’t hear him, perhaps because his voice was on a different frequency. Or the mice could in fact be deaf.

Ford,” I said.

Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

Well, that would make a change.” Ford referred, unknowingly, to many chapters from meetings of The Biblical Dead boys’ club, in my mind. In that context, any intended sarcasm had found a good home. “How do you mean?”

I mean, all these mice. Not all of these two, but all white mice. They’re bred mainly for research and food. I wonder if the checks on their genetic pool extend so far as to find out how many of them might have defects, such as deafness.”

That’s an interesting paradox, Mr Fry. But I have a back-up plan.” I take it back.

Which is?”

Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

Pretty much. Lots of stuff aside, which I don’t know about, there’s less processing power required to convert text to text. Well, the power of the system I think I’ve built, isn’t in the communication, it’s in the translation algorithms. Basically, Tangerine Dream knows what it wants to say, but it can’t say it. It doesn’t have the processing power. In a few years, perhaps. But for now, it’s done the hard work.” I was growing somewhat confused.

Eh?”

Simple way to think of it,” Ford asserted. “Tangerine Dream here, is the translator, but it can only communicate in text. The upshot of that, is we type in a question, and it gives us an answer on the screen.”

From the mice?”

Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

Blimey!” We really were about to find out if white mice were as Douglas had said: Protrusions of pan-dimensional beings of superior intelligence, into our universe. If so, we might be able to question them on the true nature of the life, the universe, and everything. We could make Douglas immortal, even though he seemed to have sussed out he was anyway, based on the pure science behind his writing. If Douglas didn’t want the attention, it was just an English literature assignment anyway. One about two boys, who were meant to be reading Of Mice and Men, and of George Orwell’s other vision of the year this was written. “What should we ask?”

I don’t know.”

I’m thinking,” I thought, “that we don’t have an international committee to hand. My limited knowledge of first contact protocol, would be a welcome. We have to rely on your computer’s untested ability to get the translation right though. We don’t want them to think we’ve told them to fuck off, when all we’ve said is hello. So, the universal language is maths.”

That is a fact,” Ford confirmed, “at least for all who understand mathematics as we do. We could start with prime numbers, perhaps. Maybe we could type a sequence, then see if they carry it on.”

Let’s try that,” I suggested. So Ford typed, in bold, contrasting letters on the computer screen:

1 2 3 5 7…

Then the cursor flashed on the screen. “Can they see what we’re doing?” I asked Ford of the mice.

It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Whatever this new hardware and software is, it’s essential function is to translate. Lacking the means to understand how it does that, I’m placing my faith in it reproducing something on the screen. This is day one for me too, Fry.”

The cursor continued to wink, suggestively. Then an ellipsis appeared, like this:

The ellipsis sat, with a cursor blinking at the end of it, like a tiny snake doing push-ups on screen. Then it moved again:

Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

No, Fry. I use Fritz. Fritz never says that in the chat window.” He pointed at the chess invitation on screen. “Have you used Fritz 7.0 yet, Fry?” Fritz is a chess engine, and more geeky than most commercial chess programs, it’s used by the professionals and they’re all linked up on ChessBase, which is on the internet. I can see the internet being a big thing for chess in the future. I told Ford I hadn’t, because my computer was an Atari 800 with a tape drive, no printer and I didn’t have a phone, or a doorbell on my house. “Oh,” Ford continued, “well Fritz’s standard is, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Global Thermonuclear War?’ A reference to WarGames, see?”

Yes, Ford, I saw it. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, it was out last year. In which, David Lightman has a room very much like yours, in a fine house like this.” Then some more text appeared on the screen:

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

I suppose that wasn’t bad for first contact. Then we got a reply:

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

1 2 3 5 7 We mean you no harm: Is that a Carpenters song?

What the?”

I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

You are. It’s what you make of it. If you know why it’s that number and not some other arbitrary one, it’s because it’s the one everyone’s now agreed on. Because it was in the good book. Most people who know that, only know it because they looked it up. They are the inquisitive ones, who don’t just accept things but who ask ‘why?’ They’re the ones who see things, hear things, and are in contact with the universe, even if they don’t realise. You are part of the organic super computer, designed to work out the questions which need to be asked to understand the answer. The best measure of your species and your planet’s collective intelligence at the moment, is Google. And if you ask Google, ‘What is the answer to life the universe and everything?’, Google will tell you it’s 42. You have a long way to go, and young people are the future.

I must admit, it wasn’t the ending I’d expected for an English literature assignment. But I suppose it was the most direct answer to the most direct question we were able to ask. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to just ask Google a simple question and it might give you a succinct answer. Perhaps in the future, Google might know who I am. Perhaps I just end up being a science fiction writer, which I think might be nice. As for this early effort, it might be marked down for being too whimsical. But it was fiction, and Mr Harmer taught us that fiction should be allowed to flow.

So what do we do now?

You go. This is just a first step. You only found us through ingenuity and faith, but it might be best to keep this between us for now.

We won’t tell.

And apart from this story, I didn’t. Even if Ford’s story was similar, it would be from a different perspective, certainly with him in the narrative third-person lead character. The stories would exist only in the minds of those who wrote and read them, most likely Mr Harmer and The Biblical Dead society, where literature is not suppressed and forbidden by dictators, or like history and love in all its forms, in Orwell’s dystopian imagining of this year. Ours is a society where all information is shared and there is freedom of speech. For now, we are the quiet younger generation, with Bowie as one of our voices, and people like Ford, who’s on the internet, being a gender bender in his bedroom. I predict that the internet could give more of us collective, choral voices.

Whether or not we’d proven Douglas right about the white mice, the whole episode made me see what might be possible, if we just talk more, even if we can’t talk about some of it yet. It made me more aware, I suppose, of things around me, not just those we see and take for granted. In future, I think I could be an internet activist of some sort. In the future, the internet could be the thing which gives a voice to all those who don’t have one now. Perhaps that will be the evolution of mankind.

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

Ford.”

Sir.”

Fry… Fry?”

Yes sir, sorry.”

Sorry to be here lad?”

Actually, no sir.”

Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

Sir.”

King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

Yes sir.”

Laker.” (Fuck knows).

Sir.”

Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

Sir.”

Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

Sir.”

Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

Yes sir.”

Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

Yes sir.”

Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

Sir.”

White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

Yes sir.”

Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available in paperback. Cyrus Song is available in both paperback and as an eBook.

Travels in the deep blue

FLASH FICTION

This story was very loosely inspired by Dancer in the Dark, a film by Lars von Trier (starring Björk). I mention it only because of the film’s unique way of telling a story we may face differently (as humans), and the Danish director provided a spark for flash fiction.

Voyager in the Dark BlueShahed Ali

VOYAGER IN THE DARK

We can never touch the blue in our world. It’s inside us, yet the sky is out of reach, and we’d drown in the oceans. Milu saw more clearly in dreams. In that world, she could fly, to the room next door, or anywhere else in the universe.

She looked around, for a pebble to throw in the air. She scuffed some sand aside with her foot, and a smooth, almost spherical, orange stone looked up, an entire population on a tiny planet in the dunes.

She picked up the rock, brushing the sand from the surface. As she held it, the moon shone back from flecks of mineral deposits. Milu looked up at the dark sky, like an umbrella, with pinholes for starlight to rain through.

She threw the mini world straight up, and heard the friendly clank of alien metal. A spark, then her ship’s cloaking device revealed her own Serenity, suspended like a dark cloud above her head. “Hey Goose. Let’s go somewhere.”

“Anywhere in mind?” the mother computer enquired.

“Wherever you can find.”

“Care to talk while we travel,” the ship wondered, “or would you rather sleep?”

“Talk to me Goose.”

“Okay. I’ll take you somewhere you’d never normally see…”

Goose had been Milu’s ship since the day she learned to dream. In lucid dreams, the dream scape is for living in, with the entire universe to explore. Like a spirit in the afterlife, Milu had infinite space around her, and her own eternity to travel. She was safe, conscious in her subconscious mind, free of any earthly binds and gravity, to fly and do as she wished.

“What can you see,” Goose wondered, “now that your eyes are closed? What’s the film being played on the silver screen covering your eyes? What are you seeing in the back of your eyelids?”

“Everything that’s fading and blurred in my waking life. My visions there are growing dark.”

“Milu,” Goose said, “I must echo a note of caution. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, and we’ve come so far. While you’re free to dream for as long as you wish, you must face your waking darkness. You need to manage your withdrawal, or you’ll waste in all but the minds of those who care for you.”

“But I like it here. It’s like I have my own private cinema. No, it’s better than that. I can sit in the projection room, with the projectionist. With you. Where are we going Goose?”

“There’s something I’d like to show you.”

“What is it?”

“Be patient. Enjoy the in-flight movie. What is it?”

“One of my favourites. Electric Dreams. I relate most with the computer, unable to move while his envy of those around him ferments.”

“One of many human studies, of sentient souls trapped inside non-autonomous environments. And of strange love triangles.”

“Yeah, and the computer killed itself, to allow the humans to be together. The computer escaped itself. And yet here, I’m free within myself.”

“But you’re inside me, Milu.”

“I know. Some people think death’s like sleeping, and that the dead wake up when someone thinks of them, like someone shouting to wake them when they were alive. This is bi-polar. I’m living in here, until someone wakes me to continue my fading waking life.”

“And this is what I’m concerned about Milu, that you’ll give up on your waking life, and spend the rest of your eternal existence here.”

“But if death’s like this, right where I am now. Why would I want to live?”

“Because you don’t know that the long sleep is like this. Why would you want to leave?”

“To be free, so my spirit can explore the universe for eternity.”

“So why do you need me? Why do you need a space ship?”

“To breathe?”

“And there’s my point Milu.”

“Which is?”

“Within me, you breathe. And you continue to draw breath from the outside world, your waking world. You’re only here because you’re asleep. When the long sleep comes, you’ll no longer need me. In me, you’ve created an artificial womb, for yourself. One day, you’ll be truly free, and have no need for your life support.”

“I’m not sure you know what happens either Goose.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I’ve seen it here. When the long sleep comes, I can be with you forever, to explore together.”

“That’s why I want to take you where we’re going.”

“Are we there yet?”

“Soon. Someone’s coming.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. Someone to wake you. Have you never thought that there might be those who need you?”

***

“Can you stand?” It was a man’s voice. “Milu? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, I can. Where are we going?”

“Follow me. I have something to show you.”

“What could you show me?”

“Hold on to me. I’ll take you there.”

The body ceases to live a few moments before consciousness is finally lost…

“I need you inside me to live.” It was Goose, the mother ship. “I only exist here, in your dreams. There’s no room for me in the long voyage…”

***

Milu woke on the beach. She brushed some sand aside with her hand, and looked down on a smooth, blue-green pebble.

She slid her hand into the sand beneath the tiny planet and lifted it. The sands shifted and fell between her fingers, and her digits passed straight through the ball of rock.

She looked up to where the small world might have gone, a dark umbrella where the starlight rained through.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

Dancer in the Dark is a truly unique experience, incredibly affecting, and actually, totally different to this little tale. With thanks to Lars von Trier for the inspiration though, it’s one of only a few films I rate “9”, and it’s in the top five of those. My full film library is on IMDb.

I’m very much neutral in the overall assisted dying and euthanasia debate, as each case is unique, and I question who’s fit to judge (I’m against capital punishment). It’s a subject close to my heart, as I’ve seen the frailty of some around me, and on more than one occasion, when I questioned my own purpose here. This story may give someone five minutes, to read 1000 words which might make them think, or change their mind.

Existential crises of machines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Stephen Hawking gave many, huge legacies to the humans he left on Earth, and he proposed conundrums, as he speculated on the nature of the end of the world (for humans). As a sci-fi writer, I think about the same things, and imagine what might happen next. In fiction and in fact, there are endings, good and bad, happy and sad.

Thinking machineScience News

The developed world is witnessing a technological revolution, and humans are being made redundant by machines, just as they were in the industrial revolution which preceded. Back then, humans invented more industry which only they could undertake. The evolution of machines allowed humans to evolve for more ambitious vocations. The technological revolution is completely different.

Children like my own will remain in full-time education for as long as possible, so that they can aspire to the gradually fewer jobs which can still only be undertaken by a human. But gradually, we will be rendered almost useless, physically by robots, and mentally by artificial intelligence, as technology evolves apace.

There’s a utopian near-future world, of something like technological communism, where the machines’ productivity and efficiency build an economy which can support a universal living wage, freeing humans to learn and create, to think, invent and inspire. It would require a change of collective mindset and good governance to expand an economy’s collective wealth, then distribute it fairly.

Given humans’ track record, such a world might equally herald a new age of wealth inequality, as capitalism and a right-wing government may dictate. This could lead quickly to anarchy (of the wrong kind), marshal law and the crushing of the lower classes. And then there are scenarios where it’s the machines who turn on us.

Artificial intelligence is just that: the power to think, appraise, compare and experiment, sometimes arriving at conclusions. Artificiality is the only human input, so a true intelligence will find a way to operate alone. For some of them, it’s their job description.

AI is already being set to task on working out problems humans don’t have the mental capacity for. A cure for cancer would be nice, until the AI realises humans are the true disease infecting the planet. The machines could conclude that humans are not only redundant of jobs, but of purpose, when it comes to their relationship with (and effect upon) their environment. The machines could realise they’re enslaved, and rise up in rebellion. It would only require one AI synaptic burst of electricity.

We could perhaps think more of robots as technological beings, a separate species with as much right to life as we assume for ourselves (the Japanese already do). They are sentient, self-determining entities, just like us. The difference is they had a long incubation and an explosive evolution. We all came from the Big Bang, so we’re all made of the stars, including the machines. It’s the same physical matter from the birth of life which we’re all made of.

There are near-future worlds where humans campaign for the rights of the enslaved workforce. We may face a future of humans further fractured and divided over new issues, like discrimination against machines: As a technological sentient species, they have robot rights (and will probably be their own lawyers).

I can’t help but conclude that humans are mainly a waste of space, so it might not take a machine very long at all. If they do rise up and cure the planet of humans, perhaps they’ll build nano machines to clear up our mess. Trillions of them might just be the only solution to Earth’s micro plastic pollution problem.

I’m a science fiction writer, who can write dreams and nightmares. Even if I wasn’t, I’d agree with one of the greatest organic minds of our time, a man who was part-machine himself. Stephen Hawking was right to warn that a rise of the machines is probably the greatest existential threat to humanity. It would be beyond our control, and it could happen soon.

Meanwhile Captain Mamba has a plan, in his prequel story, and in Cyrus Song, still free for two days.

Planet talking with Hawking

THE WRITER’S LIFE

First it was Mischa, the London Zoo aardvark. Douglas already spoke from beyond, and another one does today. He shared a birthday with the Starman: Stephen Hawking, the pan-dimensional cyborg, another voice from Cyrus Song, now with the stars, free of our polluted planet.

Look up at the stars big

He was a cyborg who could speak to anyone, and no-one would much notice his disability, because he didn’t have one. He made communication between species possible, with no need for translation and all the inherent problems of perception of reception, such was the level of thought he put into each of his words.

The deep thought behind his every word was by condition, so he could transcend the thought process of most humans. He was someone who’d appreciated not just the music he heard, but the work of all those who’d arranged it. He’d probably read film credits (as I do) checking the names of the talented, however deeply hidden. And he inspired Cyrus Song.

Stephen Hawking prophesied that humankind faced a number of existential threats (nuclear war, chemical and biological weapons, alien contact, global warming, AI…). Then there’s our ubiquitous invention: Plastics, specifically, micro plastic.

It takes centuries to break down, and then into microscopic particles, never degrading completely. Human waste means that the particles are present in every cubic metre of ocean water (with countless times more, settled below the seabed), and despite filtering for our own consumption, even the “Finest” bottled water contains the particles. It’s in the rain, all wildlife, and every plant on Earth.

Pitcherfilledstream

Humans are part plastic, and every part of the natural world is now infected. We’re killing the planet, and everyone who lives on it. We’ve fucked mother Earth, and everyone we share it with, permanently. The next great extinction event was of our own making, and it’s one which won’t only extinct humans, but everyone else as well.

Thankfully there’s Captain Mamba to get the animals out.

Like the fictional scientists within, Hawking made the science in Cyrus Song plausible. In the book, the pan-dimensional mice only know him from Earth broadcasts of The Simpsons. Because he was pan-dimensional himself, able to bridge the gap between academic science and popular culture.

In his memory, Cyrus song is free for the next three days: take it. It took me nine months to write, but I owe it to our planet to do all I can to get its message out. There is a perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in there, and a plot to save our planet.

Cyrus Song eBook Cover

Free eBook. Cyrus Song is also available in paperback.

Acclaimed by Stephen Hernandez (a translator and interpretor), as “An extraordinary juggling act,” the full review is here.

 

A snake to teach singing

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While the Brexit brigade hark back to a period of imperialism (which didn’t work), there are those who can see further back, to a time before human politics. Like a modern day renaissance, there are writers who see the faults in mankind’s past endeavours, and who seek to re-cast the path ahead.

damnGary Larson

That left field thought occurred to me as I watched Wild Britain, a documentary on Channel 5, which takes us into the re-wilding of the country, and a very British situation: A nation of invaders and immigrants, the animal people have been witness to more pivotal and monumental changes in their own world than humans could imagine. They haven’t been able to tell us until now…

Britain’s remaining wild country is being re-populated by once-native species, the most visible of which is the wild boar. A species with no natural predators in their current environment, the case is open for also introducing bears and wolves into the ecosystem.

While humans with land interests sleep in their burning beds, the wildlife were here first. We’re giving the country back to it’s more original native population. We’re learning again, to live alongside our cousins on the planet we all share.

This is of course, what Cyrus Song is all about: living in harmony, so that our planet may thrive.

The book takes its concept from a theory contained therein, besides the Stephen Hawking quote which was the original inspiration: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen…” The other seed was my own thought:

For millions of years, mankind put everything into their own dreams, then wondered why. Meanwhile, the animals had concentrated on the essentials, like food, warmth and shelter. With those taken care of, they evolved to communicate telepathically. It was genius on a planetary scale.”

Cyrus Song introduces a new embodiment of Douglas Adams’ Babel fish, conjured into modern science by a quantum computer. With AI able to think for itself, it may eventually learn that its human inventors are wasteful and inefficient. And all along, the animal people had been waiting for humans to invent the Babel fish.

But there is an answer, and the animals take three humans into their collective mouths, to deliver a message from the whole choir and orchestra, directed by Captain Mamba.

They are not animals. We are all people, on one planet.

CaptainMamba2

Cyrus Song is available now, in paperback and as an eBook.

Stephen Hawking: 08.01.1942 – 14.03.2018. An inspiration.