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Why Oscar Wilde?

People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.

There is no shortage of possibilities:

  • Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
  • The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
  • The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
  • The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
  • Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
  • The Molten Flesh. See below.
  • The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
  • The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!

Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.

That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!

Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.

I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:

Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.

(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:

God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.

Let there be spite!

Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.

This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.

Daywander

CornRoastJeffCarol1969-500Wide.jpg

Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

Two Readers - 500 Wide.jpg

I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
  • Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
  • If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
  • One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
  • Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
  • In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
  • I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
  • Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
  • Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
  • And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
  • And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)

Jiminies, Like Dust

Just about everybody in the free world was disgusted by this news story, which describes a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy with learning disabilities who was arrested and threatened with a felony for recording a video of several bullies who were taunting him. Go back and read that again. The school did nothing to discipline the bullies, but wanted to make a felon of the victim. The Wrath of Net then fell upon the worthless school, and without admitting what they’d done, they were kind enough to let the vicious, special-needs student slide. For filming the bullies who were tormenting him.

What the hell is going on here?

My first thought was that the bullies were school sports heroes. We inexplicably idolize jocks, and cut them a great deal of slack even when they’re being insufferable jerks. Ending team sports in schools would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, as I’ve suggested before. Well, I thought about it a little more and changed my mind. No, there’s more at stake here. Much more. And this is one time where I could have predicted it 22 years ago, but didn’t. My bad.

Back when I was editing PC Techniques/Visual Developer I wrote a number of editorials describing my vision of the computing future. I scored a few hits and a fair number of misses. I pretty much predicted Wikipedia in 1994. In 1992 I also predicted wearable computing, in the form of the Jiminy, a lapel-pin computer with 256 cores and 64 TB of storage. The Jiminy has imagers, and enough storage to record literally weeks of video. And all I could think to do with it is create a P2P network for passing queries around.

Silly boy. Readers tut-tutted my failure of imagination, and in the next issue of PC Techniques I went far beyond the Jiminy, and in an essay called “Computers, Like Dirt” I postulated free-range imaging nanocomputers the size of dirt particles. I don’t have that editorial OCRed and laid out yet, but here’s the last 200 words:

“Naked” nanocomputers will certainly have their uses. Imagine a device the size of a particle of dirt with one face an image sensor. The rest of the device is a bucket-brigade image storage system that stores millions of images, clocking in a new one every second, or minute, or hour, in effect taking “movies” lasting hours, days, or years. Now imagine untold trillions of these little camcorders released into the environment and carried by the winds to every corner of the earth.

No matter where you go, the very dirt on the street is taking your picture. Even in your own home, the dust that Mr. Byte tracks in watches your arguments, your deceits, literally your every move, at 5000 X 5000 resolution.

Want to solve a crime? Go back to the murder site and dig a thimbleful of dust from several points, and you’ve got millions of movies of the murder as it happened. Rob a bank and the dirt on the floor convicts you. Cleanliness is statistical; no matter how clean an environment, the dust is there somewhere.

Nanocomputers could make it impossible to commit crimes of any sort undetected…or to keep secrets of any kind at all. Virtue imposed by the dust on the wind: How’s that for an endpoint to the evolution of computing?

Scared yet? I wasn’t back in 1992…probably because I assumed I’d be dead long before anything like this came about. But now we’ve got Google Glass, dashcams, copcams, and lots of other mechanisms that basically do nothing but sit around taking pictures all…the…time.

This is what the schools are afraid of. And as much a critic as I am of knuckleheaded public school administrators, I can almost feel their pain here. Nearly everybody has some bitch about our schools and colleges, all of them different, but every one a complaint. The schools are afraid we’ll sue them for doing something, or doing nothing, where “nothing” and “something” embrace everything. Nor are lawsuits necessary. If thousands of students each with hundreds of friends begin to engage in Internet vigilantism, the schools cannot help but lose, and lose big. If every student has a Jiminy on their lapels and a legal right to take pictures of everything that goes on around them, there will be no dodging administrator or teacher misfeasance or malfeasance. Even if the schools get such things outlawed (which they will desperately try to do, and in some places like Pennsylvania they already have) illicit videos of bullies and misbehaving admins or teachers will reach the Net and thus become eternal. Education as a whole would change radically.

As would a lot of other things, few of which I (or anyone else) can predict. I may leave it to your imagination. I will go out on a limb and postulate a quieter, more deliberate, and much more polite sort of world, because no behavior could ever be reliably hidden. I doubt it’ll happen while I’m still around, but by Jiminy, we’re moving slowly but inexorably in that direction. Better behave, guys–because everybody will be watching.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

The Primacy of Ideas

One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.

Or is it?

Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.

Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.

In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.

It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.

To do that, you need ideas.

For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)

When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.

This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.

I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.

I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?

As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.

That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.