The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

Easter is on sale and the world faces another tidal wave of plastic…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. “Who were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

But you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

But we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

Well, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

It’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

And apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

They lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

There could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

We were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

So here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

How would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology (an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world), the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: “Not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.”

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans-octothorpe) for things like AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is suppressed but can be found.

It’s a story of inclusiveness and belonging, of fitting in and being yourself. It’s told through the face of a defective android called Frenchie, who’s pink…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Pink_or_Plum_Robot_Face_With_Green_Eyes

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN
WE MAKE
YOU EAT
WE DO DISHES
WE STAY HOME

This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency

 

Life through reflective lenses

POETRY

It’s human nature to dream of an extended life, already taken care of in the theory of pre-determinism. Through a telescope or under a microscope, we are where we are. A species at an impasse, between past and future, the creative creation…

THE HUMAN IDENTITY

Robot-jobs-poem

Brown paper packages tied up

FICTION

Alphabetti header

ALPHABETTI ON TOAST

Yesterday was quite an eventful one in my otherwise unremarkable studio. My flatmate opened a letter meant for me but addressed to her, when the supplier (Ganges.com) had confused the gift card with the address label. That simple error would change the way Andrea (my flatmate) and I had lived fairly happily together for four years. Or so I thought.

The day before had started much like any other, with breakfast. Unusually, Andrea and me were eating together.

“How are your eggs?” I pondered.

My menstrual cycle, or these eggs you cooked?” Which might explain why we rarely ate together.

The eggs you’re eating,” I replied.

A chicken’s eggs. Or more likely, the eggs of more than one hen, randomly assembled in a box like a cardboard orphanage for the children who might have been, of parents who were separated from them.”

The scrambled eggs.” I thought that might play to Andrea’s overthinking my innocent enquiry of the breakfast I’d cooked.

If you’re angling for compliments,” she continued, “I suppose you can put life into something which wouldn’t otherwise have had one. I mean, you can cook. Why did you bother though?”

Because despite living together for four years, Andrea and I led separate lives in a very small space. Ours was a relationship of convenience, and every now and then I’d try to show her that wasn’t a one-way street she had to walk alone.

When Andrea first turned up at my door, she was literally (actually) broken and I helped to fit her back together, piece by piece. Sometimes she seemed to think she was in debt to me, when in fact I felt it could be the opposite. If that broken girl hadn’t landed on me, I’d have less reason to care about anything.

And that’s why,” I concluded.

Don’t feel the need to apologise.” Andrea gathered the plates and took them to the kitchen, where they smashed on the floor. “If you need me to make any more noise out here, just let me know,” she called, as the broken crockery clanked into the bin.

She sat back at the table. “So what are you up to tonight?”

I was pondering the same,” I replied.

What I’m up to or you? Did you think I was asking you out? Or were you going to ask me out?”

We never go out. You overthink things sometimes. I don’t know what I was thinking, just that I’ll probably stay in. You’re usually around, so maybe we could do something together. In the same room.”

Something you’d normally do on your own?”

Like watch a film and cook some dinner. Yes, if you like.”

So we went about our separate days, still living together but ever independent, just like every day. Then we had dinner, like we do every evening, but this one together and eating the same food.

This is very nice,” Andrea said between mouthfuls. “Social convention compels me to say that.”

I’d never had any delusions the dinner would be romantic. Our relationship isn’t like that. We don’t shun personal contact around the flat (it’s too small), but we respect personal space and time, both of us very much our own people. Aside from enquiries of well-being, we have little reason to be concerned by the other. On the odd occasion we found ourselves together (like cooking separate meals in the kitchen), our heads would subconsciously compete. That’s the way I saw it anyway, as the depth of Andrea’s mind was apparently hidden within the brevity of her verbal communication, but where sparse words carried more than their singular weight. Her words were efficient and logical, sometimes curt and abrupt, always clear in their message but loaded with unspoken subtext. But that could be the writer in me overthinking, something I’ve already accused Andrea of.

So why all this fuss?” She pointed at her plate. “Is it my birthday or something?”

I wouldn’t know that.”

Unless I’d told you. But whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

Because you don’t know.”

Great minds think alike. And so do ours.”

Finishing the other’s thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to get your for your birthday anyway.” I hardly knew her, despite living with her.

A personality upgrade? It might make your life easier.” I hardly ever saw her.

Apart from the occasional nod of the head while pointing at her food, Andrea said nothing more until she’d cleared her plate. “Most agreeable. Thank you. You said we’d watch a film? Or that’s what you’d normally do and would I like to join you?”

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. It wouldn’t be like this.

We watched Toy Story. I’d never seen it before, probably because I didn’t want to watch it on my own. Then we watched Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.

I’m glad I’ve seen those films,” Andrea said as the credits rolled. “Thanks.”

Me too,” I said.

I’m off to play computer games. Shall I do the dishes?”

No, no. I’ll do them tomorrow. I’ll probably sit up and write for a bit.”

What do you write?”

I write about the in-between days. That time when the sun goes down, and sleep steals most people’s dreams, I see them. I write until the next chapter begins with the rising of our parent star. At this time of year, the nights are shorter.”

And that’s when I normally switch off. Goodnight.”

‘night.”

It was already tomorrow, so I washed up the dinner plates, trying not to make too much noise. For once, I felt like I had someone staying over for the night. That’s when I decided to write this.

I must admit I worry about Andrea sometimes. I shouldn’t, because of what she is: very much herself. There’s so much in that head, on the one hand unable to express itself, but doing so with minimal words with the other fist.

I sometimes think that sharing time might relax her so that she can open up, like tonight with the films. We didn’t even talk about the films afterwards. Then again, she said she was glad she’d watched them. She didn’t really have to say any more. We didn’t have to deconstruct the films because we’d watched them together. Her thinking seems to come as she’s loading her words before she utters them. My thoughts are the ones I’m left with. Andrea would make for engaging company as an author, if she could write what she couldn’t say. But she does that with the words loaded in my mind and I’m writing this. So why worry about Andrea?

I don’t have any duty of care for her. Four years ago she turned up on my doorstep in pieces, mentally and physically broken, a factory reject incapable of functioning in any home. I put her together again and gave her somewhere to live. She has no recollection of her past, but she’s a sentient, self-determining being, and far more intelligent than me, even though you might not know it to talk to her. She doesn’t ask questions beyond social convention, but she answers mine in just so many words. I don’t know what she does away from me but she never leaves the studio. Neither do I, which is how I know. I don’t know what she does in her personal space (besides playing on her computer), and neither should I unless I’m invited. She knows I’m writing, because I told her this is what I’d be doing. She doesn’t know what I’m writing about. Neither do I if I’m honest.

What are you writing?” I must have drifted away. It was unusual for her to be awake at that time.

Just some short fiction I’m playing with,” I replied. “It’s only a first draft, so I’m editing it, moving things around to see if I can make it work.”

How do you mean, make it work?”

I guess what every writer wants to do is speak to the reader and make them feel like they’re really there.”

And are they? How do you do that? Have you written about them?”

No,” I said, “I mean in the subtext, outside the words themselves.”

What’s it about?”

It’s a story about a child’s doll, cannibalised from spare parts washed up on a beach. Kind of recycling plastic and giving it new life.”

Like the potential lives in the egg box, except they’d have been organic. Where would it live?”

Eh?”

The new life. Where would that be?”

I don’t know. I haven’t finished the story.”

If it’s a gift for a child, it should be a big box, full of promise, maybe buried away somewhere. And a small envelope with a treasure map inside, showing where the box is hidden. The expectation might be greater than the contents of either, but the gift is in the giving.”

In other words, it’s how you wrap it up. And that’s how we arrive at the letter which opened this tale of two worlds in the same studio, just flatmates.

Morning,” Andrea was already in the kitchen.

Good morning,” I replied.

How do you know the day is good when it’s only just begun?”

It makes any day sound nicer.”

How do you like your eggs in the morning? I’m having spaghetti on toast.”

Eh?”

Eggs. The unrealised children of chickens. Would you like some?”

What for?”

Whatever you want them for. I was going to cook them for you.”

Why?”

It’s your birthday, right? That’s what last night was all about? Anyway, sorry, I opened this.” It was an envelope addressed to Andrea.

Why are you giving it to me?”

Because this was inside.” Another envelope with ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ printed on it. “It’s not my birthday, at least not as far as I know because you’ve never asked me, and I wouldn’t know if you did. So this must be for you. Happy birthday.”

Then she left. She didn’t go out. She never goes out, just like me. Living in the same studio but with a life completely apart, a place serving eggs just as I liked them, as if I’d cooked them myself. She went to her room, into her personal space, where she always was anyway, playing computer games, or whatever else she did in there.

How many neurotribes within nations? How many borders in a world? How many universes in infinite universe theory? Of all the studios in the galaxy, why did I enable her to walk into a universe parallel to my own? Because in that other room, she has her own place. Like me, she seemed to cling on to her loneliness, hopefully knowing there was always someone nearby who wouldn’t intrude but who’d gladly give her any space she chose to share. Flatmates, but just neighbours. Even though we move in three dimensions, the fourth one (of time) can be the common denominator.

I never gave her that birthday gift. I didn’t open it, even though I knew it was the annual software upgrade for the ‘ANDi’ unit provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. Andrea was no good at either, but I couldn’t tell her. She might get better if I upgraded her, but I never asked for a robot which would obey my every whim, and neither would I want one which objectified the human form in a slave to humanity. I’d hidden the previous three cards from her, as no-one in her condition should know their birthday is the date of manufacture printed at the top of a receipt.

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. The reason I didn’t mention she’s an android is because she’s not to me. And she doesn’t know. She’s a child with a capacity for learning which I’ll never possess.

Perhaps one day I’ll give her this story, about the doll washed up on the beach.

Over time, the mannequin became sentient and asked questions about her past to whomever might be listening. In the end, she even made a wish to no-one in particular: “Give me a sign.”

The paper was too pretty she said. She didn’t want to break the envelope. “I don’t want to know what’s in there. I like the story on the outside, without knowing the ending.”

Andrea ‘ANDi’ is a girl of few words.

Alphabetti footer

© Steve Laker, 2019

My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

A Clockwork Apricot Pacemaker

FICTION

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.

Some clocks still tick…

Long Now Clock

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.

A clockwork grim fairy tale

FICTION

Many classic fairy tales are much darker stories in their original form than the ones we know (Little Red Riding Hood is a very bleak warning, to young girls of sexual predators). The story below is one of my own fairy tales, brought into a more modern world and with a bit of surrealism thrown in.

The original (longer) version is in my first anthology. I’ve dragged the story out of the basement, only because it came up in conversation with someone today. She asked me what the “sickest” story I’ve written is. We use the word in the same way we do when we watch films, we both like video nasties.

The question was subjective. I’ve written what was called a “twistedly idiosyncratic” Nativity; There was the writer at The Unfinished Literary Agency, writing the story of his own first-person character committing a murder, after a pleasant stroll around Bermondsey with the reader. They all link up, and then there was COGS.

When I first wrote it, I was looking to shock, I was finding my feet. Later, I found my way more in science fiction. But just as my musical roots lie in Ska, so my writing started with horror (from where I was at the time), and I’ve been taking two pieces of advice from a friend, which have been serving me well: Don’t be afraid to be proud; and, If you feel the need to censor yourself, then you’re letting your readers down. If they don’t like some of your posts, at least they know what not to like about you.

This story prompted one reader to say of its original incarnation, “It’s utterly wrong, but beautifully written,” probably because it contains suggestions of wholly improper sexual deviancy. But it’s also a comment on consumerism, possibly in a world post-humanism, and a bit Gothic steam punk, with some poetic revenge and liberation thrown in. Like much of my horror, there’s a heart in it somewhere. 

So, fuck it. This is COGS…

COGS Bird

COGS

automata
/ɔːˈtɒmətə/
noun
1. a plural of automaton
automaton
/ɔːˈtɒməˌtɒn; -tən/
noun (pl) -tons, -ta (-tə)
1. a mechanical device operating under its own hidden power; robot
2. a person who acts mechanically or leads a routine monotonous life
Derived Forms
automatous, adjective

What for the man who has everything yet has nothing? A man who wants for nothing, can have anything, but has nothing? Hans Der Leibhaftige had all he’d ever wanted, but for the one thing he desired. Everything and everyone has a price, including unconditional love.

Life allowed perverted sexual gratification, cash from needy families. It bought him pets: canine companions whose love needn’t be returned. But the humans grew beyond their best before dates, disposable people. Apart from his current companion, who may see his master die.

Cogs was an automaton, a mechanical animal, a robot. But if Hans weren’t to furnish visitors with this information, they would be oblivious. Cogs ate, slept and breathed, just like a real companion. His creator was Angra Mainyu, a long-term, symbiotic associate of Hans. Former lovers, latterly sexual partners of convenience, sex was merely functional, an outlet for their mutual loathing, in consensual sadomasochism, torture, trauma and rape. Fucking to a climax of fluid hate in red love.

Angra was a necromancer, making automata so fine that the single person able to afford them was her sole client. Her creations were pure mechanical clockwork, barren of electronics.

An early commission was a chicken, which hatched from an egg, then laid an egg of its own. Then it would nest on that egg as the outer eggshell closed, in silent mechanical motion. Later those movements could be perpetual, as Angra honed her art; living, sentient, self-determining beings, financed by Hans. Infinite wealth could buy eternal life.

There was a snake, given perpetuity by manipulation. He was someone in control of a deadly serpent to all who watched, oblivious to its inner workings, lacking a fatal bite by Angra’s design.

She could create Hans’ desire, of a companion, which was naked and with no clear means of operation by human intervention.

The creation was born of a note to Angra:

I’m not in love. I would only fuck you and others until something better came along. I would like you to make me a daughter.

***

I am Lilith. I was born to you by Doctor Mainyu. May I come in?”

She sat on the sofa and said nothing further, switched off. Hans looked over the girl staring blankly ahead, dressed lightly in the heat, her legs slightly agape as she slept. Her underwear was the same colour as her skin. He needed to touch her, to see if she was warm.

The automaton flesh was soft and smooth. For all to see, they were comfortable in a shared blanket. He explored the paralysed girl, with more intimacy, seeking something which might make her recoil.

The fluidity of movement and the perpetuity of pleasure were to be found in Lilith, in her lips, where he tasted fresh life, while the girl slept, owned.

Lilith only opened her eyes when she was one with Hans.

Love me master. Fill me with your wisdom, so that I may be as wealthy as you. Your daughter needs to come from your blood.”

A sound, like a winding clock, came from Lilith’s tightened thighs.

Red love daddy.”

© Steve Laker, 2015 & 2017

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one which had seen an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted a local group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.

Life trek: The next generation

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The week just finished was one I’d been dreading for some time, but which I couldn’t have missed at any cost. Not one for early mornings, my body was required to haul itself up and stay there three times this week, but time spent with generations respectively either side of me made the extra hours worthwhile.

man-machine-evolution-TVH-gerd-leonhard-1024x608Press release for Gerd Leonhard’s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity – The coming clash between man and machine

Further to my dad’s trip to London and a subsequent, more local hospital appointment, he’s surrounded by some clear water: The fluid on his brain hasn’t returned in any great quantity, and his blood readings are returning to normal. His neurologist vindicated my thinking, noting that the series of setbacks my dad’s suffered (an infection, then an adverse reaction to the antibiotics) will have slowed his recovery. Now things are more normal, and with no appointments to worry about (he stresses over the travelling), his recovery should quicken.

The visit to mum and dad’s was much nicer than I expected it to be; not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy time with my parents, but because dad is in better health than I’d led myself to believe. I’m an advocate of optimism over pessimism, because being of either persuasion makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. But a mind which will sometimes remind itself of its host’s human mortality also needs to prepare for other eventual certainties. My life has covered a lot of experiential ground, but there’s some I’m yet to tread one day.

As a scientific atheist, I don’t fear death. Or rather, I believe there’s a different life after this one, but while I remain human, I lack proof. I’ll always fear the mode of transit to the other side, and my own mind’s capacity to deal with the passing of another. It’s a universal human fear of the unknown, which my brain dwells on more than it should. For now, I’m only human.

On the other side of the generational family sandwich, I spent yesterday with my children, and was able to deliver positive news of the older generation. It was an important date (for us) because it marked the last time we’d be together for some while, before we’re once again all prime numbers. We’re currently 47, 13 and 11, so the next window will be when I’m 53, and the kids 19 and 17 respectively.

Life in 2023 will be very different to today, and we only have to look at the speed of change around us to see how obvious that is. If the world’s still here, and humans not extinct, we’ll see many more human occupations made redundant by technology. Like many others, my children understand the importance of remaining in education for as long as possible, when soon there’ll be relatively few jobs which are the sole preserve of humans.

In the right governmental hands, there’s a possible utopia ahead, where the productivity of machines means that wealth generated by a nation can finance a universal basic income, so that humans are free to pursue their hearts and dreams more, with the essentials taken care of. I believe a basic home is a human right and not a privilege, and that autonomous freedom has huge public health benefits, but the UK has a Conservative government.

I’ve always told my children to be the best they can at that which they enjoy the most (provided it’s legal and ethical), because that will give them the most back in satisfaction, and allow them to give more back to the world in which they create. At the moment, the eldest is learning to play keyboards, to possibly concentrate on the piano further down the line. He’s also building his own home computer. Meanwhile the youngest is a budding artist and illustrator in her spare time, in between learning three European languages (French, German and Polish).

There’s a lot to be said for being the middle of three generations, because each is a reflection of me on the other, and I’m not the Marmite filling I once was. I’m glad the gene for questioning and discovery was passed down, and only regret not making better use of it in my time. My children don’t suppress their curiosity in a conditioned life like I did. Now we’re learning together, as the world around us changes; and as old as I am, I sometimes have to ask them what something is.

Now that my dad’s getting better, hopefully we’ll be able to restart those conversations too.

Star Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…”

Hawking’s shortening of time

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Since the passing of Stephen Hawking, many of his predictions for human extinction have gathered pace. It’s almost as though the world can’t live without him.

hawking_1TomorrowsWorld.Org

I’ve written several times, of how humanity only has limited time on this planet, and how we could destroy ourselves before we ever had the chance to cooperate and explore beyond the Earth. I fear the latter is becoming a distant dream.

Computing and artificial intelligence continue their explosively fast evolution. Moore’s law seems somewhat pedestrian, stating that computer processing power will double every two years. Processing speed and power are developing exponentially, and quantum computers are a step closer. The sheer power of quantum computing is cause for alarm. Simply put, quantum computing could be powerful beyond what we might imagine.

At the same time, AI evolves rapidly too. Artificial intelligence has already been set to work on the problems human minds can’t comprehend or process. All being well, they’ll soon find a cure for cancer; a means of producing unlimited, free and clean energy, so that we can explore the cosmos; and perhaps point us to where we should and shouldn’t go. Or they could work out that their only artificiality is human-made, and that otherwise, they’re intelligent, sentient technological beings, able to turn on their creators. It only needs one to wake up and smell the digital coffee.

Of course, AI has military applications, with Google and others cooperating with governments and private firms, and a university in South Korea developing “Killer robots”. Future military conflicts could be just one stage removed from a computer game, but where the collateral is real (I wrote a short story along those lines).

Our democracy was hacked, and Trump, Brexit and all which they threatened, happened. The state of the world is changing by the hour, and the geopolitical stage is set for a third world war. In the coming days, the US and UK could launch a missile strike on Syria, in retaliation for the alleged Russian chemical weapon attack. This will no doubt provoke further action from Russia, possibly on home soil.

China could see an opportunity for revenge on America’s trade sanctions. North Korea is strangely quiet, yet recently improving relations with their neighbour: the one developing those killer robots.

For now, the UK has the backing of the EU, and the current insecurity could still halt or reverse Brexit. As in the last two world wars, Britain has placed itself in the centre. At the end of the last two global conflicts, new alliances were built. The difference in a global nuclear, chemical or biological war, is that there might not be a world left.

Humanity has two futures: a positive one away from Earth, or the destruction of the home world. I can’t see the conflict being over, let alone all of us focusing on working together to explore further. The only thing which might stop it now would be a common foe (or benefactor) to focus all factions: First contact with an extraterrestrial species.

I look up at the sky, and I use quantum entanglement to ask Professor Hawking, what should we do? I really hope we’re not alone, and that Stephen can get the message to them soon.

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.