With my head in the cloud cities

THE WRITER’S LIFE | ON EARTH

As a science fiction writer, I give plausibility to my stories with some grounding in scientific fact. Some of my near-future worlds are simply based on what I see around me, and how things might develop, one way or another. Like many modern thinkers, I can’t imagine life on Earth as we know it more than a few decades from now. The human population is growing, and our planet only has finite resources. We need to move out…

saby-menyhei-cloudcity-final-v001Saby Menyhei

I’m anti-capitalist, generally-speaking (I have to be: I’m an anarchist, and because my own companies folded when I was drinking), and I’ve sometimes wondered, what’s the ultimate aim? Not being rich myself, I simply can’t imagine devoting my life to making as much money as possible, and never really stopping to enjoy it (but then most capitalists are immune to everything but themselves). There’s only so much room on the planet, only so many raw materials and consumers. That’s a discussion for another time, but it’s relevant to humanity’s current position, where people like Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk agree, that humans need to start leaving Earth within the next century. Great minds think alike (and so does mine).

There is one way we could stay on this planet a little longer: If we all turned vegetarian. Any argument that we evolved as carnivores is irrelevant to a species as advanced as ours, able to maintain good health without eating other people. The retort that we’d be over-run with animals if we didn’t eat them is largely redundant, when there are more animals raised as livestock for human consumption than there are animals in the wild. Those animals we rear and breed require food too, and crops to grow that food needs land. We also steal the young and the maternal milk of the animals we share this planet with. We imprison other autonomous, self-determining beings, for our own consumption, simply because we can, and because they can’t argue or fight back.

As the human population has grown, we’ve lacked foresight to keep it in check and maintain a sustainable environment. Instead, we’ve destroyed the homes of others to make way for ourselves, with no apparent thought for the long-term and permanent damage we’ve done, yet still we’re clearing areas of forest for palm oil, to feed ourselves and our livestock. The greater moral and ethical case for vegetarianism though, is the limited size of our one world: It’s theirs, we just live with them. They were here first. As a species, humans are really quite unpleasant, and I pity any other worlds we might one day populate.

We need to shrink our sense of entitlement, accept that there’s no room for human greed, give up much of what we’ve stolen, and make space for the others whose planet we invaded. We’re unique as a species, but not just in our selfishness. We have the ability to communicate in complex language, to imagine and invent. The problem humanity has is itself, when we’re prone to conflict over our own ideals, and because big plans require co-operation. In the absence of any extraterrestrial agent appearing, to unite warring factions against a new and common foe (or interest), the nearest we have is what’s around us. It doesn’t require the imagination of a hostile or altruistic alien visitor, it just needs us to open our eyes to what we’ve done.

Among the few capitalists I admire, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent a positive future, built on technology, and for the benefit of all. They are among long-term visionaries, who see greater gains further ahead than the traditional short-term gain capitalist. They imagine the advancement of humans as a species, through co-operation, exploration and discovery, and they see a future world built on social capitalism. Long-term gains are a satisfaction with life, not currency. But it needs money to get there.

Bezos’ business model is surprisingly simple: He built his fortune through Amazon, which used the existing infrastructure of the internet. His and others’ vision is to build a technological infrastructure which others can plug into, very much like every business which uses the World Wide Web. His is also a massive and ambitious vision: Cloud cities.

We have the technology, and the likes of Bezos and Musk have the money (a fanciful thing like a cloud city isn’t likely to be government or state-sponsored, yet). It’s estimated that there are enough minerals, elements and other raw materials within near-Earth asteroids to build an 8000-storey building which covers the entire surface of the planet, which would clearly defeat the object but it’s illustrative nonetheless.

We can build spacecraft to mine the asteroids, and process the materials to construct infrastructure. Eventually we’d have industrial facilities in Earth orbit, or geostationary in near-Earth space (or even tethered to the surface). From those factories, we can produce, process, and manufacture to fulfil our needs, and we can design and build further, with the cloud cities as outposts for onward future exploration. With its available resources and lack of gravity, space is far better suited to heavy industry than a planetary base.

These early manufacturing facilities in the sky would most likely be fully-automated, operated by robots and managed by AI. In a utopian future of human socialism, the machines have made humans redundant from all but a few occupations. The wealth generated by this automation is shared fairly among a human population and humans are able to create their own lives, free to think, question, discover and make things.

The cloud city model would allow us to return much of the Earth to nature, even without many of us having to leave in the short-term. If we moved everything we need to sustain our race, off of the planet’s surface, we’d be able to return around half the Earth’s land area to those who were here first. With most manufacturing in the sky, and shuttles delivering goods to Earth, humans only need room to live (modestly) on the surface. If we grow crops in our cloud cities, most of our food cycle could operate in space, and we could even raise our livestock on sky farms (although I’d like to think we’d realise the benefits of vegetarianism by then).

While the human population continues to grow, and for as long as most humans eat meat, the only chance the planet and its native wildlife have, is for humans to use their unique ability to sustain themselves. There may be a global nuclear war just around the corner with the way things are going, but although it’ll reduce the human population, it might make Earth a wholly hostile environment and lead to the mass extinction of animals and the planet’s entire ecosystem. There’s a conspiracy theory that this is all planned and that those in power (and wealth) already have plans to vacate the planet. That and many other ideas make more dystopian science fiction for me to write, but some utopian futures remain within reach, even as our species stands at a pivotal existential point.

If we manage to avoid a mass suicide event in the next 100 years, there may be a chink of light for humanity, in the silver lining of the cloud cities and beyond.

Forever floating in her tin can

FICTION

Before modern humans went into space, we got a dog to try it out for us: “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time,” said 90-year-old Russian biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, recalling the day she bid farewell to her charge, a street dog called Laika. This was a small tribute I wrote to my homophone namesake. She’s still out there, floating in a tin can…

Laika_1_1024x600-1024x600Laika, the first dog in space (Unicorn Theatre)

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On Earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”

Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. I feel her presence. She’s just coming downstairs.”

I know,” the dog acknowledged.

How?” the cat wondered.

I can hear her.”

Oh.”

What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about?”

Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”

I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

You just did it then. And as I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

You don’t know what I was going to say.”

Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”

Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

No,” Peter replied, “can you?”

Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”

I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

We do,” Ellie replied.

Line-caught?”

Yes.”

In water, not brine?”

Yes, in water.”

Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

Like you always have it.”

Yes. That please.”

Fine. Pete?”

Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

We should have. If not, I can print you some.”

Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

Hey, why does he get printed food?”

I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

No, I like it the way you do it.”

So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”

What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

I’ll probably just print a pizza.”

Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

Well neither have you, dog.”

I sometimes think I’m dead already.”

Why?” Sheldon wondered.

Can you tell me I’m not?”

Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

Could be.”

But you lack proof.”

And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

What about humans?”

What about them?”

Do you just tolerate us?”

Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you over-complicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

Balance? Of what?”

We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

How’d you mean?”

Well, they’re like candyfloss.”

Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”

I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

I might have eaten them.” Pete said.

Why would you do that?” the cat asked.

To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

I always clean my feet, so yes.”

One day you’ll forget.”

So what if I do?”

You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

Which one?”

Throwing sticks.”

My game?”

Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

But that’s your game.”

No it’s not. You made it up.”

Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”

It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

So what about them lives then, what are they for?”

Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”

That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

What, more than either dead or alive?”

Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”

Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

Unlikely.”

But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”

Go on.”

Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

Sarcasm?”

No!

Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”

Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.

No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”

You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

Who says?”

Many ancient feline scribes.”

Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.

Why?”

Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”

Hardly,” Pete said.

No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

It’s a good job we can all talk about it now.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

laika-the-space-dog-310x415

Laika, c.1954 – 03.11.1957

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.

A finished literary urgency

NEW BOOK

I’m sure there’s significance in my fifth book being published on the fifth of the month, but I can’t find any, other than this being the beginning of my fifth year as a writer. Not bad for an alcoholic ex-tramp (Charles Bukowski obviously taught me something). There’s a certain urgency to The Unfinished Literary Agency, in my visions of the future, some of them post-human…

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The Unfinished Literary Agency is a second collection of short stories (there are 20 in this one), which stand alone, but which tell a longer narrative collected together. Although there are some dark tales in the book, it’s suitable for a wide audience of various types, and has humour in the horror. For the most part, it’s science fiction, mainly set in the near-future, and it vindicates my plaudit of being a writer who can see deep into the human condition (and sentient AI and animals).

These are collected tales from an author variously compared to the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

It was an enjoyable book to write and I’ve had good feedback from test readers. Like most writers (who are honest and want their books to be read), I always feel my latest is my best so far. Of this one, I’d say it’s a measure of me as a writer, and Cyrus Song is the one I hang my novelist’s hat on. Those are statements which can only be put to the test of course, if people read my books.

If someone new to my writing were to ask, I’d say read The Unfinished Literary Agency, to get an idea in bite-size chunks. Anyone with more time on their hands who wants a longer book to hold with them, could do far worse with many other novelists, and there is a plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything in Cyrus Song.

Four years ago, I was homeless and drunk. That’s a whole other story, but what I’ve done since is written five books. I feel I’ve earned the modest readership I enjoy, and I hope that following will grow as more people read my words. It’s the perfect way for the socially anxious writer to make friends and meet kindred spirits.

The Unfinished Literary Agency and Cyrus Song are available now.

Frankie says change future and past perspectives

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

I’ve just completed the third character prequel short story for Cyrus Song: That of Doctor Hannah Jones in the book, written by her as a teenager (to be published in a couple of weeks), as were the Simon Fry and Captain Mamba prequels (the latter with an extra human protagonist). The latter two were set in the 1980s, when I myself was a teenager, and Hannah’s story is c.2000. I’ve previously re-published stories here which I wrote around that time, when I was experimenting with writing in my late 20s. But I did also write a couple of stories when I myself was a teenager, back in the 1980s, and this is one such.

Adapted later for my anthology, and included as a story called ‘The Message’, this is the original, with just the names of Presidents changed. In 1985, I imagined a world 40 years ahead, where America had split, ceding one half to Russia. As world politics has changed (although not a great deal), the same threats remain and others have emerged.

My vision when Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang Two Tribes, was of a future world split roughly between two polar mindsets: That of the capitalist right wing, and of the co-operative left. It was a very simplified scenario, and the story was for a flash fiction English Literature homework assignment, for stories of 500 words or fewer. Essentially, this is how I saw the world, ten years from now, thirty years ago…

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FRANKIE SAYS RELAX

The time was 23.59, as it had been for eight years since it was moved one minute further towards Doomsday. After Trump, the former USA was split roughly between the new Pacific United States and the Democratic Republic of America. In 2020, the DRA elected its first president, Clinton. In 2024, she was replaced by Obama, now heading for a certain second term.

The left wing media taunted the right, pointing out how much more evolved they had become, first under Clinton, and latterly Obama, who would have been the former USA’s first female and black female presidents respectively. They accused the right of fake news and subliminal advertising, and mocked them for their conservatism, concentrating resources on military defence, where the DRA had introduced a Universal Basic Income and budgets were concentrated on education, exploration and discovery.

Sebastian Lem stared at the flickering screen in front of him, as the F.R.A.N.K.I.E computer completed its calculations. It was ten years ago that Lem had been sifting through terabytes of data and found the telltale blip that was to signal the outset of a search for his Holy Grail: First contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent race. Two tribes could change.

Further analysis of the signal revealed patterns that almost certainly confirmed it as having an artificial source, and the SETI community grew excited.

Lem travelled Europe and the Americas consulting with mathematicians and astronomers from the Independent Collective, a loosely-formed, resource-sharing group of SETI scientists, operating outside of the corporate constraints of the mainstream scientific community, for the advancement of the sciences for the benefit of all.

The financial rewards were poor compared to the conformist scientific community, and ad-free accommodation scant. But the Indies’ co-operative nature afforded him free berth with his peers whilst he travelled, and his hut looked out onto the real world, only slightly blighted by the McDonald’s logo, occupying its three-month tenure on the surface of the moon as it was beamed from Earth.

Lem’s screen blinked and displayed an image, blurred and indecipherable. He zoomed out and it began to become clearer. As he scrolled upwards and zoomed outwards, a word manifested at the top of the image: ‘Trust’ in large, red letters.

Further and further he zoomed out and eventually the whole image was contained within the screen:

Trust…”

Trust Tiffany”.

Trust Trump again.”

© Steve Laker, 1985 and 2017.

My books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book retailers.