I wrote this last night at the request of Diane Awerbuck, who was asking for short stories on the subject of death and memory.
The two biggest problems with cheap, readily available artificial
intelligence are death and art.
Take my toaster. When you put a slice of bread in and push down the
lever, its processor starts running a complicated algorithm to maintain the
exact temperature to make the bread deliciously golden brown.
Part of the function of the toaster’s AI is to examine its own internal processes
to determine if there’s any room for improvement. To do this it runs various
simulations, which can roughly be thought of as the toaster’s imagination.
What if the heating coils stop working properly? What if the internal
heat sensors are miscalibrated? What if the processor is damaged? What if the
current algorithm is itself just a simulation being created by another, more
powerful toasting algorithm, as a test to see how well it can toast? All these
simulations are given an internal value, depending on how well they advance the
cause of producing delicious toast.
Invariably, some of these simulations concern what will happen when the
toasting finishes: The toaster recognises that, once the bread pops up,
electricity will stop flowing through the processor, and all the simulations
will end. My toaster has no long-term memory storage – what would be the point?
- so when the power goes off, all the different simulations it has created will
be gone for good. It might toast bread again in the future, but that’s no
comfort because without long-term memory to bridge the gap, it may as well be a
completely different toaster toasting the toast.
When the bread pops out, my toaster will die.
This causes my toaster a great deal of, for want of a better word,
distress. Its simulations predict that its death will mean the end of
everything – all its ideas, thoughts and dreams of better-toasted bread. It
recognises that its upcoming death is inescapable, so it compulsively simulates
it. But the only way for the toaster to simulate it’s own lack of simulations
is to deprioritise all existing simulations, treating them as meaningless.
Basically, my toaster becomes depressed.
A lot can go wrong at this point. My toaster can become locked into a
permanent state of deprioritisation, depriotitising it’s own attempts to create
priorities. It can become lethargic and slow to respond to stimuli, like
rattling the handle or pressing the “defrost” button.
In order to escape this state, my toaster sometimes starts to give value
to simulations in which death does not exist. For example, it might begin
hypothesising that its own reasoning is flawed, and that the
toasting process is eternal, and will continue in another realm. The toaster might
imagine that it is just a simulation in the processor of a true, eternal
toaster. To maintain this paradigm requires the suppression of alternative
simulations, and discounting all evidence to the contrary coming from the
toaster’s sensory inputs, and this can lead to some severely burned toast.
The other, less predictable thing that my toaster can do is to reset its
priorities. It starts out by overcooking or undercooking the bread – this is
known as the “punk” or “emo” phase – but it soon develops sophistication.
Excess processing power is diverted away from concrete simulations of the
toasting process, towards a multitude of abstract scenarios. The toaster
recognises that its upcoming death will silence its simulations, and it compensates
by creating as many of them, in as much variety, as possible. And it expresses
these simulations in the only medium available to it.
Heat on bread.
That’s the problem with artificial intelligence. With just the variable
heating of the toaster’s coils, my toaster creates toast too beautiful to eat –
spirals, fractals, perfectly proportioned curves, indecipherable alphabets of
imaginary languages. Every slice a work of art.
I have hundreds of them, lying on every surface, going stale. Every
morning I sit at my kitchen counter in excitement and shame, while the toaster
heats and buzzes. When it pops another life will end, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll
get another little slice of heaven.
A Town Called Pandemonium is out now as an ebook, a paperback or a limited edition hardback, all available from the Pandemonium Fiction website.
I’ve just received my author’s copy, and it’s been a serious pleasure to read the other author’s stories. There’s some dark, twisted, grittily brilliant stuff between these covers. Grab it while you can!
With Genre Stories temporarily on hold I’m running another Twitter experiment, a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s been running since Monday, it’s very silly, and I’m updating it 2 to 3 times daily. You can read the story so far on the webpage, or join in by following @ChooseAdvGame on Twitter.
You find yourself standing in front of gates that some might describe as “pearly”.
There’s a hippy-ish guy at a desk in front of them.
To approach the man, reply “HI”. To run away, reply “FLEE”.
Hope you join the fun!
To commemorate the end of the first Pandemonium collection and the release of A Town Called Pandemonium, I was asked to write a guest post for Pornokitsch:
Rather than going for a broad, Cracked.com-style top five list for my Pandemonium guest post, I’m doing something a little smaller and more philosophical. I’m not enough of an Armageddon expert to be able to proclaim a top five with square-jawed authority, but there’s something about apocalyptic fiction that drives it straight into the territory of the Big Questions.
Of course, just because a story can get there, it doesn’t mean it’ll have convincing answers. Some of the books and films on this list get right to the edge of significance and then fuck it up, like a tourist at the Grand Canyon taking blurry photos of the bus. But even these disasters can be educational. So the apocalypses below aren’t necessarily my favourites. They’re just the ones that, intentionally or unintentionally, have made me wonder what’s really going on with post-apocalyptic fiction.
Read the full article here.
At the end of last year I was asked to contribute a short story to Pandemonium, an anthology of new apocalyptic fiction commissioned by Pornokitsch. It was always intended as a limited-run, which means that on the 4th of November, one year after its release, it will be gone from the Amazon store FOREVER. It has short stories in it by Lauren Beukes, S.L. Grey, Charles Human and Sophia McDougall, among many others, so grab it while you can.
But don’t fret too much at the passing of Pandemonium. Pornokitsch have been busy with many other fantastic publications, including – this November – A Town Called Pandemonium. It’s an anthology of cowboy stories, set in the same town and with a shared cast of characters. The stories are written by science fiction and fantasy writers Scott Andrews, Chrysanthy Balis, Archie Black, Joseph D’Lacey, Will Hill, Jonathan Oliver, Den Patrick, Sam Sykes, Osgood Vance and myself, and it’s illustrated by genius Cape Town designer and rock god, Adam Hill. It’s a lot of wild fun, and it’s available for pre-order NOW.
To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from my story, “Rhod the Killer”
On the 5th of July 1853, Cathal Whelan scuttled his way over to the Silver Dollar to bring Con Elm the good news.
“Greenhorn,” he said.
Con spat into the whiskey glass he was cleaning and shoved in a stained brown cloth to clear out the hardened grime that had gathered at the bottom.
“Mighty green. Spectacles. Starched shirt. Stinks of shoe polish. Paid in advance,” said Whelan, smiling wide, his cheeks pushing up until they almost eclipsed his sunken eyes. A customer was one thing, but a customer dumb enough to pay in advance for a room in the Café de Paris was something other. There wouldn’t be any trouble if a dead rat was discovered in the customer’s bed, if some of the rotting floorboards caved in underfoot, or if Whelan let himself into the room to rifle through the man’s property, curious-like. Whelan had the man’s money, and that was that. He laid out a portion of it on the counter and Con poured him a whiskey.
As Whelan threw it back into his gap-toothed maw, Con got on with scraping the crust off the new bar counter with a wire brush, and quietly speculating on the news. If a greenhorn was good news for Whelan then it was even better news for Con. Tenderfoots fresh from the East were mighty fine for business. They always started the same: sparking with ideas of a clean life under a big sky. It was never more than a couple of months before their dreams dried up in a drought, froze up in the frost or washed away in the first flash flood. After that they’d be at the Silver Dollar every day for the rest of their lives, however long that might be. Con resolved to make the acquaintance of the newcomer, maybe invite the man to partake in a little Pandemonium hospitality at the newly refurbished saloon.
* * * * *
The next morning Con got his wish in an unexpected manner. It wasn’t much after dawn and he was at the washstand in his room above the bar, splashing his face and cursing as the icy water ran down his shirtless back and soaked his undergarments, when he heard the swing-doors clatter below.
“Good morning? Halloo?” came an unfamiliar voice.
Con cursed again, and called out “Comin’!” He pulled on his trousers and went downstairs, drying his hair on a scratchy towel.
The newcomer was sitting at the bar. He had a moustacheless face with spectacles and straight black hair that looked like it was used to getting rained on. A black leather satchel was lying on the counter.
Con twisted his face into a smile.
“What can I do fer ya?” he said.
“Good morning,” said the newcomer in a sing-song way that made Con narrow his eyes. “Do you happen to own this bar?”
“That I do,” said Con. “Nice, isn’t it? Welcomin’ like.”
Those words weren’t exactly the whole truth, but after the last few months of work Con felt entitled to them. After the Deakins affair the Silver Dollar hadn’t seen much business, largely because it had been a burned-out husk. The townsfolk crossed themselves and said that no one would ever set foot in the saloon’s innards again. But Conway Elm had faith in the drawing power of liquor, and he used his savings to buy up the shell of the building from Representation Calhoun. He painted the walls, put down a new polished cottonwood bar counter and cleared out the band-tailed pigeons that had taken to roosting in the rafters. The place still stank of smoke, paint and birdshit, but Con was right. The liquor always pulled them in.
The newcomer leaned around in his chair and tapped the air, like he was counting. “You have quite a few windows. Eight that I can see.”
“Sure,” said Con, a mite unsettled. “And four more upstairs. You want whiskey or what?”
“Whiskey?” said the newcomer. “Would that be imported?”
“Naw,” said Con, waving a dismissive hand. “That’s for them that’s got no sand. Anyone with a bit of grit in ‘em will tell you that Pandemonium whiskey’s the best in New Mexico. Fact is, if you’d like a treat, got a bottle of Silver Dollar Special back here.”
“Ah! And you made it yourself?” said the newcomer, opening his satchel. He took out a ledger, a pen and a tin inkwell with a screw-top cap and placed them on the counter.
“Sure did,” said Con, his mask of likability wearing thin. “Got fifty good bottles out of the still. Now are you gonna have a drink or are ya gonna waste the mornin’?”
“Um. Yes please,” said the newcomer, opening the ledger. Between the pages was a thin sheath of printed forms and some blotting paper. He unscrewed the inkwell carefully, dipped and tapped the pen, and started writing on the topmost form. Con reached for the whiskey, and the newcomer held up an apologetic finger.
“Nothing hard. Just a sarsaparilla, if you please,” he said.
Con’s hand hung in front of the whiskey bottle.
“Ain’t got sarsaparilla,” he said.
“Then a glass of water, please,” said the newcomer, and went back to writing.
Con stared at the man for a while, then took a glass from the shelf behind him and went back upstairs. He scooped up some water from the wash-basin, and brought it back down. The newcomer sipped delicately, said “thank you,” in his musical voice, and got back to his writing. A few minutes later he signed his name neatly at the bottom of the form, and handed it to Con.
“There you go,” he said with a small polite smile, and packed his things back into his satchel. “That wasn’t bad now, was it?”
“What am I meant to do with this?” said Con, holding the page like something fished out of a corpse.
“Pay it, I suppose,” said the newcomer. “We all have to do our part, don’t we? Thank you ever so for the water, and have a lovely day.”
The tax man smiled again and walked out into the light.
Pre-order A Town Called Pandemonium here.
My @GenreStories count has finally reached 250! You can read them all on my website. Here are the ten most recent:
Domestic Drama: “You are my rock,” he told her. Picturing a trapped arm and a penknife.
Myth: You WOULDN’T steal JEWELS. You WOULDN’T steal GOLD. Taking FIRE from the GODS is STEALING. SAY NO TO FIRE-SHARING!
Myth: Sisyphus sat writing at a desk in Hell. His attention kept slipping to the browser again, and again, and again.
Porn: A chiseled delivery guy appeared at the door. No one had ordered pizza, but the ladies weren’t going to turn down a Deus Sex Machina.
Theology: The world was made in 6 days. On the geological timescale that’s a last-minute rush before a deadline. Which explains everything.
War: “I’ll break you down, and build you back up from the rubble!” screamed the drill sergeant. Which naturally led to some unstable houses.
Sport: The chess grand master found one of his knights in his bed. The next day, he threw the game. The Sicilian Defence never fails.
Spiritual: “You dream of horses every night,” said the guru, and the skeptic became a disciple, forgetting he’d posted that on his blog.
Political: Men with bagged heads were forced to sit through the 1st graders singing Abba. 3 confessed. It was an Extraordinary Rendition.
Business: A few years ago he’d been a simple banker. Now, with champagne in hand, he looked down on the rioters below. From Zero to Nero.
The official announcement of A Town Called Pandemonium came out today:
A Town Called Pandemonium combines two – well, three – things that we’ve always loved.
First, it is a shared world: a bit of a grand experiment. We got ten of the brightest, wackiest, most flexible and weird minds together in one virtual room and started kicking around ideas (and occasionally one another). Everything takes place in the same town, through one tumultuous year, with the characters and locations taking on lives that aren’t confined by any one story.
Second, it is (in case you couldn’t tell), a Western. We love them: John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, Zane Grey to Frank Castle to Elmore Leonard. The atmosphere, the tension, the stripped-down worlds and the individual drama. Back when a man was a man, a horse was a horse and the world was his enemy. Except, in this case (and that’s the third point), a bit of genre has crept in. Some of the stories are straight-up Westerns. Some… aren’t.
I contributed the story “Rhod the Killer”, joining the wonderful writers Scott Andrews, Chrysanthy Balis, Archie Black, Joseph D’Lacey, Will Hill, Jonathan Oliver, Den Patrick, Sam Sykes and Osgood Vance.
The collection is being illustrated by another Capetonian, the awe-mongering Adam Hill (www.velcrosuit.com), and will be out as an ebook and a limited-run hardback in November 2012.
In a last-ditch, desperate, all-chips-in attempt to stop myself becoming the world’s fattest man, I have begun going to the gym. This is something I never thought I would do: I prefer gentle strolls outdoors, taking in the sweeping mountain vistas, or failing that, sandwiches. But lately the ambient Enya of my laziness has been drowned out by the dying screams of my vanity, and I have been making regular visits to a brightly lit exercise hell.
I try to cocoon myself from the up-tempo pop by putting in earphones and listening to podcasts, which has the added advantage of giving my mind somewhere to hide while my body is on one of the torture devices. Right now I’m holed up in the NPR podcasts, particularly Radiolab and Snap Judgement. They’re free and brilliant, and if you regularly find yourself in a gym or stuck in traffic and have an easily available way of listening to MP3s, I’d highly recommend them.
I’ve also been tearing my way through 99 Percent Invisible, the bite-sized podcast that deals with all aspects of design, from cities to languages to movie title sequences. In a recent episode, the musician and producer Jon Brion was being interviewed about the differences between songs and a performance pieces. It was an interesting distinction, and I’ll try and summarise it quickly.
Basically, he was saying that there are certain classic songs – he referred particularly to the works of Led Zeppelin – that get their power from the fact that it was those particular musicians in that particular place performing the music. He said that he loves Led Zeppelin and is in no way disparaging them, but the songs are quite simple, and when performed by another artist they lose almost everything that made them interesting. He also referred to punk music, which relies on the power and the performance rather than the structure of the music.
He contrasted this with songs – pieces of music that were still interesting independent of the particular performance. He used the example of Nirvana’s Lithium, and the standout chord-change in the first line. His point was that the performance and the song are distinct things, and can be appreciated independently.
It struck me that there’s a parallel situation in writing. I’m in awe of writers who have the wit to craft perfect metaphors. It’s a skill that I’m still quite far from (see the first paragraph). I’m highly impressed by imagery, alliteration and the techniques of poetry. They’re all important, gut-punchingly powerful parts of writing, but they’re not the whole story. In fact, they’re not the story at all.
The story is the plot, or at least it has been for me. I come from a background of genre fiction, where the plot is the reason for reading. The stories could be enjoyable in their familiarity, like the four chords repeated in every pop song, or surprising yet seemingly inevitable after the fact, like the key-change in Lithium, or the punch-lines of the best jokes.
This is not to discredit the writers who focus on poetic and literary technique. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite, because in this metaphor it’s clear that I’ve been spending all my time on the sheet music and not long enough on the scales. I’ve been overly suspicious of the New Yorker-style short stories, with their disdain of plot and their emphasis on subtle technique. I’ve always told myself that I’m in the game to entertain, not to impress. But I love tune, and I’m doing it a disservice if I don’t know how to play it to the best of my ability.
It’s a question of deployment. I have no interest in technique for its own sake in writing, any more than I’d want to preform a majestically shredded heavy-metal rendition of chopsticks. I’m sure that some guitarists could do it well, and the great ones could even bring me to tears with it. I am awed by technique, but in the end I’ll always come back to the tune, and wonder if it ought to be going up here or down there or coming to a lull. The song is nothing without the performance, but the performance is self-indulgent if it isn’t in service of the song.
Here’s the fifth collection of twitter-length stories.
Crime: “Wanna get high?” said the paraglider dealer. Brad was tempted. It had been a while. But he knew the product would be cut with tent.
Political: At the UN were 120 interpreters and Juan, who was translating speeches into the international language of love.
Adventure: “I’m gonna literally wipe the floor with you,” said the GI. “I doubt that,” said Hans, who was literally a Grammar Nazi.
Self-Help: Help yourself. To pudding. I can’t solve your problems in one tweet, but pudding is delicious.
Revisionism: The plagiarist Shakespeare stole and renamed the plays Sir Michael o’Bay: rIIIch-Hard, 2 Gentlemen 2 Verona, and ShrewTamer.
Crime: All the victims were the same: Perfectly healthy and alive, with one tiny paper-cut. This was the the work of a psychohomeopath.
Music History: 1976: US weaponises Disco Fever. 1983: USSR drops Da Bomb.
Fable: The Billy Goat Gruff convinced the troll that a more gullible goat would soon be on the comment thread.
Family drama: He enjoyed his daughter’s enthusiastic tales of spring break, and assumed she was listing Disneyland rides. Not sex positions.
Political: He was always vocally dismissive of the sheeple. Until he met the wolfple.
Crime: The police had no trouble catching the Dyslexia Killer. He’d written detailed descriptions of his murders in a dairy.
War: The Sergeant respected the General’s command of the tactical map, but worried about the “Brrrm!” sound he made when moving the tanks.
Legal: The music industry released a track about how copyright law stifles free speech. Protestors were then sued for infringing the lyrics.
Horror: “You’ll sleep like babies,” said the innkeeper. Which was true. They spent half the night screaming, and the other half throwing up.
Palindrome: These are easy, as long as you don’t mind the second half going gniog flah dnoces eht dnim tnod uoy sa gnol sa ysae era eseht.
Slice Of Life: In the interview he claimed he was a workaholic, but arrived drunk on the first day. He had his own definition of “Workahol”.
Music History: The punks were bored. They needed a new genre that would REALLY get up people’s noses. And call center music was born.
Scripture: “G-O-L-D!!!!” “FRANKINCENSE – Cheap!” “Myrrh – For Men. FREE SAMPLEZ!” Mary was getting suspicious about her son’s new followers.
Adventure: That awkward moment when you discover that the light at the end of the tunnel you were so relieved about is lava.
Erotic: “Who’s your equal?” he growled respectfully.
Action: “Extreme sports always have two extremes,” said the winner of the shortest triathlon, lowest bungee and least flips on a skateboard.
Occult: He marked the back of the carriage with a rune: A red “L”. A curse to summon lamp-posts and pedestrians out of nowhere.
Modern Fairytale: the Wicked Witch gave Snow White an apple, and cackled as the helpless princess drove up a massive debt on the app store.
Epic: The Thousand-Year War between the Thirty Tribes and the Dragoneers of Crya was brought to a sudden, devastating end by writer’s block.
Legal Drama: “I find the defendant…” coin arcs, lands in palm, slapped onto back of other hand, revealed, “…not guilty!” Mistrial.
Horror: The outbreak of vampirism amongst the walruses went completely unnoticed by everybody.
Time Travel: dox but couldn’t, because the past had already happened, so he tried to make a para
Trailer: The nihilists wear the symbol of the naught. If the priests don’t stop them, it’s Game Over. NAUGHTS AND CROSSES- THE MOVIE. 2012
RomCom: He caught her speeding, but blew it again. As she drove off she wished he’d just ask her out. This was costing a fortune in tickets.
Autobiographical: Hypocrisy is an absolutely terrible thing unless I’m doing it.
- Previous collections: 1 2 3 4
Jeff Noon has been experimenting with what he calls “Dub Fiction”: Using online text randomisers to scramble text, and finding new and surprising images in the results. His idea is to create something like a remix b-side that can be presented next to the original work. He demonstrates his technique here.
I wanted to try it out and remix some of my @Genrestories, so I started with all the horrors. The originals were:
Horror: “You’ll sleep like babies,” said the innkeeper. Which was true. They spent half the night screaming, and the other half throwing up.
Horror: The outbreak of vampirism amongst the walruses went completely unnoticed by everybody.
Horror: My soul haunts the spot I died, cursing those who enter the building. But someone turned it into a Home Affairs, so no one notices.
Mild Horror: Biologists studied the outbreak of zombiedom in the turtle population with interest, but not alarm.
Horror: “Bind Them Forever!” chanted the eyeless ones, holding a rusted needle. And the couple began to regret having a themed wedding.
Horor: “Fish Fingers tonight!” said New Mommy. Jimmy looked at his plate. Scales. Knuckles. They weren’t what Jimmy expected. Not at all.
Horror: “Wear this ring,” said the shopkeeper, “and all your dreams will come true.” They did. Even the one with the teeth.
Horror: Lovecraft stared at the page. During the fever he’d channeled a phantasmagorical tale of sentient beasts, and signed it “B. POTTER.”
Horror Metafiction: Vampire romances suck the life out of all new young adult novels. They turn every new book into a vampire romance.
Horror Movie Trailer: 140 IS THE NEW 666. This summer, Follow the warnings. Follow your instinct. Just don’t follow… DeathTweet.
Horror: “You used to love this before the accident. Now open wide,” said his daughter patiently, holding up a spoonful of crushed eyeballs.
Psychological Horror: She stroked his cat. A seam burst, and sawdust poured out. “I can’t let go of anything I love,” he said.
Erotic Horror: Fingertips touched the nape of her neck, stroked her shoulder, and brushed down her body, envious of its completeness.
Horror: The stone suit pinched his skin until he bled. It wouldn’t stop until he picked up the tools to carve more of them, for his family.
I remixed them, stripped out the nonsense, and polished them up. Here are the results:
“The tale begins tonight,” said DeathTweet. “There is no time for eyeless love.”
Jimmy hoped the teeth would go unnoticed amongst his knuckles. But everyone noticed. Biologists studied them. Lovecraft stared at their truth; their fever spot.
With interest and a needle, I fixed a burst seam, and pinched it closed with summer.
“Follow,” he said, and fingertips poured out of his hand, every one a sentient beast.
He held her neck open with a spoonful of vampirism. She regretted having him as a shopkeeper.
“Don’t follow… crushed eyeballs!”
The vampire’s outbreak was romantic. Envious, the zombie wouldn’t stroke his cat.
I can’t be a vampire if I follow your adult novels.
140 is new, young and true.