Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

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.


  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    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.

    IIRC, all the Martians on Earth died. Wells never said anything about the Martians still on Mars.

    Post-WotW history would be dominated by two facts.

    First: the dominant economic power of the world just got a knife in the gut. It has survived – most of Britain was not occupied – but the material effects of the destruction of London on the world economy and political situation would be immense. The British Navy was untouched, though.

    Second: Britain has inherited whatever tech kit can be salvaged from Martian derelicts. This included flight, though not the Death Ray (the labs blew up). So Britain gets a leg up.

    Then of course there would be the necessary organization of a world watchdog against further Martian landings. The narrator noted that the Martian cylinders could be destroyed before the Martians could exit, or the Martians could be shot down while getting out. But this would require reaction within a few hours, wherever the Martians landed. (That would be tricky even today – quick-response teams to cover all of the wilds of Siberia, Outback Australia, the Sahara, or the Amazon jungle would be a huge operation, even with heliborne forces.)

    So what happens in your version? Any hints?

  2. Lee Hart says:

    Does it have to be fiction? Seems like the world already has too much fiction (politics, talking heads in the news, etc). Maybe some good escapist non-fiction is just what we need.

    Jeff, you’re a great tech writer! But I know it’s hard work at the bleeding edge. So what about backing away from the edge a few klicks? You know a *lot* about tech that today’s beginners are totally ignorant of. They don’t even know what they don’t know. Give ’em a hand up!

    Write a modern Secret Guide to Computing — How to Get Started. Or s Bob Pease style Troubleshooting Software: Tips and Tricks to Beat Your Computer Into Submission.

    Or mix fact and fiction. Write some stories in the style of Carl and Jerry, or the Mad Scientists Club, that use real science and technology to solve problems, in a way to make the reader say, “Hey! That would work! I can *build*that!”

    Think how much fun that could be. 🙂

    1. Jeff R. says:

      Whoa, haven’t thought about Russ Walter and his “Secret Guide to Computers” in a long while. I just checked, and it seems that he’s still updating it — currently on the 32nd edition, which includes Win 8.1. I note he’s also still inviting personal phone calls 24/7, just as he did way back in the late 70’s at meetings of the Boston Computer Society. I haven’t seen any later editions of the Guide, but the early ones were wonderfully useful, broad, and eccentric — like Russ himself.

    2. Jeff R. says:

      By the way, Lee, I agree with your suggestion to Jeff about Carl & Jerry or the Mad Scientists Club. New, modern stories in that vein would be welcome, and Jeff is exactly the guy who could write ’em!

      1. I actually did write a brand-new “period” Carl & Jerry story four or five years ago, when I needed to flesh out the last volume of the collected Carl & Jerry stories. It’s called “Infra Redeye,” and it may be my best piece of pastiche to date. (I’m actually pretty good at pastiche.) The late George M. Ewing WA8WTE wrote a second story for that volume, called “All Shook Up.” If anybody reading this hadn’t heard, I licensed and published all 119 C&J stories (plus the two new ones) in five POD volumes. See my Carl & Jerry page for a story index & backgrounder:

        1. Tom Roderick says:

          Jeff, I bought all five volumes of your RESTORED Carl and Jerry stories and “Infra Redeye” was a worthy addition to the legacy of Mr. Frye. I read as many as I could as a pre and early teen and it was one of the things that influenced me to get my ham license when I was about 15 and latter a degree in engineering.

          There is one ham radio fiction book that I have and treasure by Walker A. Tompkins (then K6ATX) titled SOS at Midnight.

          Have you ever seen it or heard of it? Fiction that inspires young people to explore the magic and wonder of science and technology is so rare today and you could do wonders with it.

          1. Lee Hart says:

            I couldn’t have said it better myself, Tom! These early stories “lit the fuse” on my interest in science and technology. They inspired me to get off my dead a** and BUILD SOMETHING! I just don’t see anything like them today.

            The amount of free, easy, advanced technology surrounding today’s young people is astounding. Yet, they are largely unaware of it. Something must be done about this…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *