Email from David Lightman


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…

WarGames2018At least we don’t have to worry about the rumours of a remake now. “In development” is kind of redundant.


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, โ€œI 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.โ€ The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved โ€“ 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:

โ€œI’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.โ€

โ€œWhat is it, little guy?โ€ Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. โ€œSlow down.โ€

โ€œAh, yes Anna,โ€ Adam gasped, โ€œalthough I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.โ€

โ€œSo what did you want to show me?โ€

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

โ€œWeird,โ€ Anna said, looking at the screen. โ€œAre these symbols, text?โ€

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

โ€œLet me know when you find something?โ€ 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.

โ€œYou can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,โ€ Adam reassured her.

โ€œOkay,โ€ Anna said, sitting down, โ€œtheories?โ€

โ€œMere speculation at this stage,โ€ Adam replied. โ€œWe need to assume some things.โ€

โ€œI normally do.โ€

โ€œThere 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.โ€

โ€œThat’s pretty much what I do.โ€

โ€œWell, 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?โ€

โ€œWell,โ€ Anna replied, โ€œI only try. It’s a human thing.โ€

โ€œYes, I know,โ€ Adam agreed. โ€œEven 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.โ€

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

โ€œBut 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.โ€

โ€œPerhaps the difference,โ€ Anna offered, โ€œis that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.โ€

โ€œBut aren’t yours Anna?โ€

โ€œI suppose,โ€ Anna said, โ€œAnd 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.โ€

โ€œBut why do humans like to be scared?โ€

โ€œPerhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.โ€

โ€œUnless there’s someone to tell you?โ€

โ€œExactly,โ€ Anna nodded.

โ€œWhat are the greatest human fears, Anna?โ€

โ€œAt an individual level,โ€ Anna placed her hand on her chest, โ€œit 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.โ€

โ€œSo both fears,โ€ Adam suggested, โ€œare rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?โ€

โ€œYes,โ€ Anna agreed, โ€œwhere we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.โ€

โ€œHumans,โ€ Adam said. โ€œThey’re very insecure, aren’t they?โ€

โ€œFuck, yeah!โ€ Anna agreed. โ€œFacebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.โ€

โ€œAnd 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.โ€

โ€œHave you found anything yet?โ€ Anna wondered.

โ€œNothing conclusive,โ€ Adam replied, โ€œand I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.โ€

โ€œThe message though,โ€ Anna said, โ€œis almost certainly artificial?โ€

โ€œQuite certain,โ€ Adam replied.

โ€œWhich,โ€ Anna said, โ€œimplies intelligence?โ€

โ€œThat’s a word with a very broad definition,โ€ Adam pointed out.

โ€œCertainly when applied to the humans on this planet,โ€ Anna concurred.

โ€œLet’s assume,โ€ Adam suggested, โ€œthat it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.โ€

โ€œLots of scenarios…โ€ Anna began. โ€œand what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…โ€

โ€œYes,โ€ Adam interrupted, โ€œgo on, this is fun.โ€

โ€œHave you found something?โ€

โ€œSomething, yes,โ€ Adam said, โ€œbut nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.โ€

โ€œHow can you have fun when you can’t have fear,โ€ Anna wondered. โ€œor does the lack of the latter increase the former?โ€

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

โ€œWhich is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.โ€ She looked at the window. โ€œIt could be that they have something which would help us.โ€

โ€œIt could also be that we have something they need.โ€

โ€œThey 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.โ€

โ€œTo 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.โ€

โ€œPerhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.โ€

โ€œThat’s a nice thought, Anna.โ€

โ€œBut,โ€ Anna continued, โ€œas Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.โ€

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

โ€œOr we might have something they want.โ€

โ€œAnna, 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.โ€

โ€œMaybe they don’t know we’re here,โ€ Anna said, โ€œand when they get here, they need us out of the way.โ€

โ€œI thought we were trying to be optimists?โ€

โ€œI’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.โ€

โ€œAbout that,โ€ Adam sat up straight. โ€œI’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.โ€

โ€œSurely you can look all that up?โ€

โ€œBut from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?โ€

โ€œIt’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.”

โ€œWho did?โ€ Adam wondered

โ€œMe, just now,โ€ Anna replied.

โ€œSo essentially,โ€ Adam said, โ€œit’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.โ€

โ€œThe feeling of art?โ€

โ€œWell, 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?โ€

โ€œWhat’s that?โ€

โ€œDo you have music?โ€

โ€œThat’s quite profound, Adam.โ€

โ€œPerhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?โ€ Adam stood and paced around. โ€œIt strikes me,โ€ he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, โ€œthat 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?โ€

โ€œAnd,โ€ Anna began, โ€œdespite 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.โ€

โ€œWe are at a point,โ€ Adam added, โ€œwhere humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.โ€

โ€œSo,โ€ Anna continued, โ€œthere could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.โ€

โ€œBut 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.โ€

โ€œWe can live in hope,โ€ Anna said, looking at the window.

โ€œPossibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.โ€

โ€œHave you found something?โ€

โ€œWell, 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.โ€

โ€œWell,โ€ Anna said, โ€œabout 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.โ€

โ€œThe Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.โ€

โ€œThe clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.โ€


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

โ€œAnna, there’s something I need to tell you,โ€ Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

โ€œGood morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.โ€

โ€œThat’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.โ€

โ€œHow do you mean?โ€

โ€œI think I feel frightened, Anna.โ€

โ€œYou should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?โ€

โ€œNo, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.โ€ Adam showed Anna the tablet. โ€œThey’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…โ€




ยฉ 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.


Where the robot rejects work


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


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 โ€œsheโ€ realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: โ€œArtificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.โ€

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for โ€œInfant colonyโ€), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

โ€œGood evening, how may I,โ€ she twitched her neck, โ€œFuck you!โ€, 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. โ€œDrinks?โ€ she asked, pushing her glasses up, โ€œFuck it!โ€ She fumbled with her order pad. โ€œFor you sir? Combover!โ€ (8-|)

โ€œI’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.โ€

โ€œOkay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.โ€ (8-/)


โ€œSorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?โ€ (8-))

โ€œShould you be working here?โ€

โ€œWho’s the judge?โ€ (8-/)


โ€œSorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?โ€ (8-))

โ€œEr, number…โ€ the lady looked over the menu, โ€œ…number 33.โ€

โ€œVery well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrownโ€ (8-))

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

โ€œCan I take your order sir, madam?โ€ (8-|)

โ€œBut we just ordered drinks,โ€ the man replied.

โ€œFor food?โ€ Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

โ€œI’ll have the soup,โ€ the man said.

โ€œMe too,โ€ the lady concurred.

โ€œVery well,โ€ Frenchie jotted on her pad, โ€œtwo soups.โ€ (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, โ€œOne sociopath, and one supplicant…โ€

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

โ€œFrenchie!โ€ 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-/) โ€œAre you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?โ€

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) โ€œErm,โ€ she started, โ€œno. Fuck it!โ€

โ€œSplendid behaviour,โ€ Jade smiled. โ€œBe yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.โ€

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. โ€œDrinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!โ€ (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, โ€œFor you?โ€ (:-( )

โ€œNo, for customers. Arses!โ€ (8-/)

โ€œOkay. Tell world hi. Bye.โ€ (:-( )

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.

โ€œYour order, sir, madam.โ€ (B-/)

โ€œThank you,โ€ the cardigan said. โ€œWhat’s your name?โ€

โ€œFrenchie?โ€ (|-/)

โ€œThanks Frenchie.โ€

โ€œWelcome…โ€ (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? (:-/)’

โ€œSandy,โ€ she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, โ€œLook.โ€ Sandy looked at her feet. โ€œNo,โ€ Frenchie said, โ€œyou need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?โ€ (:-D)

โ€œWhy did you take your glasses off?โ€ (:-[ )

โ€œBecause 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.โ€ (:-D)

โ€œAnd that’s funny?โ€ (:-/)

โ€œOnly if you look at it a certain way.โ€ (8-D) โ€œWanna go home?โ€

โ€œOkay.โ€ (:-))

ยฉ Steve Laker, 2017.



This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency


Colluphid’s missionary position


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 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.ย 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 โ€“ as proposed by some human theorists โ€“ 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 โ€œGodโ€ 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 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 Leonhardโ€™s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity โ€“ 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.

โ€œStar Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…โ€

Hawking’s shortening of time


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.


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 โ€œKiller robotsโ€. 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


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.

Worlds apart, connected by words


Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence


The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

Thereโ€™s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. Sheโ€™s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. Itโ€™s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they canโ€™t in real life. Itโ€™s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her familyโ€™s history, and she thinks it will help her son. Heโ€™s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But itโ€™s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals โ€“ known for their tameness โ€“ were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. โ€œHello, human,โ€ one of them said.

โ€œHello,โ€ Eve replied.

โ€œWhat’s your name?โ€ The crow asked.


โ€œOh no, not again,โ€ the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:


Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrรถdinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. โ€œGreetings,โ€ he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. โ€œIt’s the Babel fish,โ€ the chimp said. โ€œWell, it’s not a fish,โ€ he continued, โ€œbut that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?โ€

โ€œErm, yes,โ€ Eve replied, โ€œI’ve heard of the Babel fish…โ€

โ€œWell,โ€ said the chimp, then paused. โ€œSorry,โ€ he said, โ€œI’m Jules.โ€ He offered a hand.

โ€œJules.โ€ Eve shook his hand. โ€œI’m Eve.โ€

โ€œYes,โ€ Jules said, โ€œshort for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…โ€ Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

โ€œWould you like your chair?โ€

โ€œOh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.โ€

โ€œSo,โ€ Eve sat back, โ€œthis funny thing?โ€

โ€œOh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?โ€

โ€œYes, he invented the world wide web.โ€

โ€œClever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?โ€

โ€œIt did,โ€ Eve paused. โ€œBut you were saying about the Babel fish?โ€

โ€œOh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical โ€“ and it is an an, with a silent aitch โ€“ tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.โ€

โ€œBut how can I hear you?โ€

โ€œOh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.โ€

โ€œOne of them.โ€

โ€œYes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.โ€

โ€œAnd others followed.โ€

โ€œMany. Then everyone.โ€

โ€œSo,โ€ Eve wondered, โ€œthe professorship?โ€

โ€œOh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

โ€œBut next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

โ€œI’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

โ€œIt’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.โ€

โ€œIt might be too early to tell,โ€ Eve said.

โ€œHow are things over there?โ€ the professor wondered.


โ€œThat’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.โ€

โ€œI know, Carl Sagan said something similar.โ€

โ€œWho’s she?โ€

โ€œHe. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.โ€

โ€œA dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

โ€œAnarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

โ€œI studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

โ€œIf you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.โ€

โ€œYou have a deep understanding of the human condition,โ€ Eve said, looking around the room.

โ€œSometimes it helps not to be one to know one.โ€

โ€œDo you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?โ€

โ€œI think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

โ€œBut even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

โ€œThere’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.โ€

โ€œThat was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.โ€

โ€œYes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.โ€

โ€œSome more than others,โ€ Eve added, looking out of the window. โ€œWhen all we needed to do was keep talking.โ€

โ€œQuite ironic really, isn’t it?โ€

โ€œLooked at like this, yes.โ€

โ€œBut you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.โ€

โ€œIt’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.โ€

โ€œWell, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.โ€

โ€œHe was in London Zoo?โ€

โ€œChester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.โ€

โ€œEr, how?โ€ Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. โ€œWell, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

โ€œSo we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.โ€

โ€œAnd you didn’t mind being in captivity?โ€

โ€œI worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.โ€

โ€œYou didn’t feel imprisoned?โ€

โ€œI’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.โ€

โ€œWhy’s that?โ€

โ€œLet’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?โ€

โ€œIt was a human thing?โ€

โ€œIt was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.โ€

โ€œWhich was?โ€

โ€œThe monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

โ€œSo after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.โ€

โ€œWhat’s not?โ€

โ€œPlan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.โ€

โ€œSo where do we look?โ€

โ€œLook into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

โ€œBut keep this. This is yours. You made this.โ€

ยฉ Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.