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February 1st, 2012:

Theme Creep

Sorry for being gone so long. I guess I just had to get past January. We saw the last of the painters this morning, and the only remaining big piece of this ever-expanding remodeling puzzle is the floor coverings. I wouldn’t have thought that getting bids on carpeting would be this hard. It is, at least if you don’t want to get crap carpet and have it installed by idiots. (Now on our seventh house, we’re fussy. Real fussy.) I’m doing two more Elfa buildouts, and shopping for some new office furniture. When I’ve had the energy and presence of mind to write, I made an executive decision to devote it to Ten Gentle Opportunities rather than blogging.

I lost a lot of time in the last few months, but that had nothing to do with the novel. It’s cooking along, and I got another 1,600 words down yesterday. In reading the new material over last night, I realized that something interesting had begun happening when I wasn’t quite looking: The theme was changing, and not necessarily in a good direction.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. The idea came out of a thoroughly trunk-ish humorous novelette that I wrote in 1981 and buried in embarrassment, concerning a newly built but malfunctioning AI copier that decides that it’s God, and declares jihad against the hapless AI process controller that runs the copier factory. In 1984, my fiction mentor Nancy Kress agreed to collaborate with me on a revision of the concept at novel-length as a half-fantasy love story, adding in a universe-jumping magic hacker (in the manner of Harold Shea) who drops in on a small advertising agency in Rochester, New York to hide from a berserk magician, and magic that “maps” to software in our boring, magic-free world. The magic hacker acts as a catalyst to heal the relationship of two middle-aged people, and in the process learns about software. When he returns to his own universe, he discovers that software “maps” to a form of magic far more potent than anything his erstwhile tormenter can summon. End of story.

In our 1984 effort, there were only two AIs: one the factory controller, and the other a tinkered-up magical intelligence that maps to software in our world. In a brief (and silly) subplot, the magical software falls in love with the factory controller, and in a sort of virtual sexual union, they combine into something a good deal more capable than either was on its own. Mostly, the AIs were played for laughs and acted as foils to the human hero and heroine, whose relationship they loosely echoed.

The concept had promise, but in 1984 I was only barely a grownup (32) and just couldn’t pull it off. Nancy graciously ceded me her portions, and everything went back into the trunk, where it stayed until 2006. I pulled it out and read it over that year, and very abruptly, brand-new scenes began rising out of the cluttered back rooms of my subconscious. I sat down one evening and wrote a new opening, “just for fun.” Boom! Suddenly I had a rigorous system of magic, a magical intellect that spoke only in poetry, an evolved magical predator resembling a lamprey from the astral planes, zombies dancing the Macarena, a 3-D processor technology that packs tens of thousands of execution cores into a blade module, the Triumph of Pascal (as a fictional but heavily parallel language called HyperLang, get it?) and several more AIs.

The love story was still there in the middle of it all, at least in the outline. Now, I have this old habit of heaving ideas into a story with a pitchfork. Once I grabbed my pitchfork, the love story started to get buried in ideas, most of which lay in the AI characters. What does it really take to make an AI that looks and sounds like a human being? If you start with something powerful but alien and make it human by shooting it full of NOPs and bad animation, is that a win? What would the AIs think once they understood what was going on?

Is virtual suffering real suffering?

I’ve done idea stories all my writing life, but I’ve never done a love story. I guess it’s not surprising that I’m having a lot of fun with the ideas, and a lot of heartburn over the human relationships. I’m doing my best. The path of least resistance, however, is to have fun with the AIs and their virtual lives in the Tooniverse while the human characters recede into the background. If I’m not careful and don’t begin paying attention to my outline, that is precisely what’s going to happen. I looked in the mirror this morning while shaving and said, “Be warned.”

In some ways the story has come full-circle. It was originally a battle between a humorless factory controller system and a psychotic AI living in a faulty networked copier. I’m having to struggle a little now to keep it from becoming The League of Exceptional Software pitted against slobbering malware from another universe, while their human friends look on in befuddlement and occasionally cheer.

Most of my stories have evolved as they crossed the brain/fingers barrier. A lot of them have died in the evolving, which is why my trunk, in terms of paper alone, weighs thirty or forty pounds. I’m determined not to lose Ten Gentle Opportunities the same way. After all, it’s taken literally half my life to write, and I have only so many half-lives to go.