DP FICTION #64B: “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne

The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.

Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.

There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.

“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.

“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.

Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.

It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.

When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.

Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.

“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”

Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”

Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.

They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.

Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.

They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?

After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?

Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.

Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.

Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.

“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.

Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?

“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”

It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.

I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.

“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.

Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.

Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?

The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?

“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.

It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.

There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.

Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.

“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.

“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”

“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.

“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.

“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.

“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.

“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”

Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.

It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.

The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.

It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.

William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.

Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.

With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.

A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.

As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.

The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.

Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.


© 2020 by Michael Milne

Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.

Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.


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DP FICTION #36B: “Artful Intelligence” by G.H. Finn

It was the worst of times. It was the beast of times. It was 1888.

A time of hammered steel, arcane runes and ivory towers. A city of steam. And ghosts.

Such was Londome. A place filled with Angels of despair and Daemons of delight.

We lived in a bold new world of gleaming brass cogs, delicate silks, spellcast iron and intoxicating spices. More than half of which we’d looted from countries we had conquered and ground beneath our feet. All in the name of civilisation, of course.

Beneath the crystal-paned glass of the dome, throughout this most ancient and modern of cities, cobbled streets were filled with glowing gaslights, grinding gears, bloodstained steel, fractal lace and enchanted metal.

And the inescapable smell of smoke, sweat, shit and sulphur.

In my laboratory, at our town-house in Knightsbridge, I sat before a magnifying-glass screen. I watched as clockwork typing blocks dipped into indigo ink. They began to print onto a roll of paper, which slowly unwound before me.

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

This was the message the Thinking Engine produced, as it considered and calculated, pondering the problem I put before it.

I’d affectionately named the machine “Dodger” after Charles Dodgson, logician and mathematician. Thinking Engines were one of the most exciting scientific developments of the decade. Difference Engines, Indifference Engines, Similarity Engines – all had caught the imagination of Londome’s scientific elite. I myself was developing a form of Thinking Engine that, I hoped, would be capable of abstract thought. A machine which I believed might one day evolve to become self-aware. To describe this miracle of engineering I coined the term “Artful Intelligence”. I had great expectations – I create very intelligent designs.

My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Thinking Engines. In part because he felt it was unladylike of me to don riveted welding-gauntlets, smoked-glass goggles, a sturdy leather corset and insulated, thigh-high rubber-boots before laying in a pool of oil and spending my afternoons (as he put it) “…playing with nuts, bolts and spanners.” He claimed it was “Liable to arouse unnatural passions.” Especially among the servants. He had long since abandoned all hope of converting me into a delicate flower of Victorian womanhood.

Our parents were Anglo-Indian. Papa had been a colonel in Her Majesty’s 112th Light Sabres, Mama the daughter of the Maharajah of Ramkesh. When our parents died, leaving us as wealthy orphans, I found distraction from our loss amid science and engineering. Henry, my brother, instead turned to faith. He often complained about the “soulless rise of science”. I kept telling him that neither gods nor devils had anything to do with engineering. He claimed this proved his point. I’m not sure which he regarded as the bigger threat, Hell or atheism. Most of the time we agreed not to discuss the subject. Yet somehow our conversations always led to arguments. In fairness, I talked of little other than Thinking Engines. Henry seemed to talk of nothing but theology. He wondered how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin? I offered to build a microscope powerful enough to show him. And to instruct Dodger to count them to sixteen decimal places. For some reason this only led to further discord between us.

So I spent more time developing Dodger’s AI capabilities. Until this evening, when I at last felt ready to set Dodger a question unlike any it had previously calculated.

Blowing into the flexible speaking-tube, I asked Dodger, “Can you analyse yourself?”

There was a pause. Then came the clicking of cogs, the whirring of unseen wheels and the chuff-chuff-chuffing of Dodger’s steam-powered brain.

Letters printed across the rolling paper:

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

I repeated, “Can you analyse yourself?”

A pause. A faster rotating of gears. A cloud of steam arose from the Artful Intelligence. It began to print an answer.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

I raised the tube to my lips and again posed the question, “Can you analyse yourself?”

The engine that thought clattered. Pistons pumped. The print read:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Steam billowed. Dodger printed the words over and over again:

+I+THINK+I+>

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+…?>

The cogs moved slowly now, ponderously, as the AI considered

+CAN+I+THINK+?+

+Y/N+?+

The wheels within the mind of the machine began spun faster. It printed:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Excitedly, I asked, “How do you know that you exist?

Dodger’s brass innards whirled. Escape mechanisms were triggered, pendulums swung, springs vibrated. The chiseled letters were pressed against the paper, printing,

+I+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

There came a greater pounding from the pistons as the Artful Intelligence called for more steam. It printed swiftly:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

I asked one more time, “How do you know you exist?”

At first hesitantly, then more steadily, Dodger typed:

+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+Q+E+D+

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

I was breathless with excitement! The reinforced corset didn’t help, but it is important always to keep up appearances and to set a good example to ones servants. Few things mark a woman as belonging to the higher echelons of refined civilised society more clearly than the possession of an upright posture, a delicate waist, and a nonchalant flair for the wearing of firmly laced leather undergarments.

At that moment Henry appeared, clearly in a bad mood. I bit my lip, Dodger had been making a lot of noise. My brother preferred silence for his ecclesiastical studies.

“What in God’s name are you doing, Minerva?” he bellowed, struggling to be heard above the Thinking Engine.

I was going to apologise for the noise, but my excitement overcame me.

“Oh, Henry!” I cried, “By George, I think I’ve got it!”

Henry looked at me sternly. “Minerva Elizabeth Kālikā Victoria Boadicea Wilde” he began (which was never a good sign, he only ever used my full name when he was genuinely irate), “Have you no respect for the conventions of polite society? Have you not the slightest regard for the teachings of the church? This is the Sabbath. A day of rest. Holiness and reflection, not the irksome metallic cacophony of an addled adding machine!”

I was a tiny bit sorry I’d disturbed him. Honestly I was. I would have probably apologised, if he’d given me a chance. But I was excited and he was being rude about my work. My wonderful Dodger.

“Is it Sunday?” I asked, “I’d forgotten. Never mind. There will be another one along next week.” Henry scowled at me, as I continued, “You don’t understand what has happened. Mechanisms have always had a physical, material form, but they have never been able to think. I have managed to create a machine with a mind of its own! A true Artful Intelligence. It is now aware of its thought processes, its own existence. It has become cog-nisant.”

Henry paused and looked at me searchingly, then asked quietly, “And what of its spirit?”

I stared at him blankly. “I beg your pardon?”

Henry crossed his arms and replied, “What of its soul? It has a physical form, a body, if you will. You say it has a mind, an intelligence of its own. Very well, you are my beloved sister and I do not doubt you. But what of its spirit? A body and a mind without a soul is an abomination in the eyes of god. It is unnatural. No good can come of it. The experiments of that Prussian fellow taught us that. Or was he Bavarian? You know, the one who sewed together bits of old bodies, tried to create a man and ended up with a monster. Why do you think the church banned Golems? Mark my words Minerva, a body and a mind that lacks a soul cannot bring anything but misfortune into this world.”

I harrumphed at his indignation, muttering “Not so long ago the church thought women didn’t have souls… I suppose we’re all abominations too…”

But my heart wasn’t really in it because despite all his blustering pomposity, Henry had got me thinking…

Dodger was truly amazing. I was sure no other Thinking Machine could rival its intelligence. But Henry was right. It was soulless. No spirit moved within it. Cogs, gears, fan-belts and fly-wheels. But no soul.

I needed to consider this.

I am not by nature religious. It is not in my temperament to have blind faith in anything. I am by inclination and training a scientist. I like to have evidence for things I choose to believe in.

So of course I accept the existence of the soul. Just as I acknowledge the reality of Archangels, Trolls, Djinn, Jötnar, Dybbuks, Banshees, Rakshasas, Draugar, Vampires, Wendigos, Elves, Werewolves and Faeries. All of these creatures have been scientifically studied, proven and verified time and again. The evidence is incontrovertible. Only a few superstitious conspiracy-theorists think otherwise. It is not the existence of the soul that I question, only the teachings of the church that I take issue with. Such as its views on morality. And its presumption to teach one narrow opinion on the nature of reality as though it were fact rather than dubious speculation. Nevertheless, Henry’s comments had bothered me.

Was developing Artful Intelligence enough? Should I not only be building Dodger a better mind, but also constructing him a soul? I wasn’t sure exactly what souls were usually made from… I tend to concentrate on physics, chemistry and engineering rather than anatomy, biology and psychology (in its strictest sense). I had a feeling souls were formed from electromagnetically energised clouds of some kind. Or was that phantasms? Paraphysics wasn’t really my field. If I remembered correctly, aether combined with phlogiston, when positively charged, became a soul when it entered a bio-electrical magnetic-field. Unless it turned from a gas to a solid, becoming ectoplasm. But I wasn’t sure I recalled the details correctly. And there had been a lot of further research recently. It was possible I was out of touch with current theory…

I briefly considered making a study of the subject in order to construct a soul for Dodger, but I concluded this was pure folly. It would take too long. I have a knowledge of metallurgy and smithcraft, but I don’t cast my own components. Why go to the trouble of manufacturing a soul? It would be simpler to buy what I needed. What worked with gearwheels was sure to apply equally well to souls.

Unless, like the cats that managed to sneak in under the great dome that covered the city, a stray soul might be persuaded to simply take up residence? Perhaps by enticing one with the spiritual equivalent of a saucer of milk? Either way would do. If I couldn’t tempt an unattached soul to come to me, I would see if a suitable one was for sale. The classified section of The Times would be a good place to look.

It was then I realised that I’d left the Thinking Engine running. I’d been distracted. I hastily bent over to read Dodger’s latest printing. It read,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+?+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM +?+

+I+THINK+?+

I should probably have turned off the Thinking Engine as soon as it reached elementary self-awareness. Leaving it to think for too long may have been a mistake… It had developed self-doubt. It seemed unfair to subject Dodger to existential angst within moments of achieving sentience.

I picked up the speaking-tube and issued the shut-down command.

“Dodger”, I said, more forcefully than usual, “Stop thinking.”

Nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henry.

“Probably nothing,” I replied. “There may be a little dust or fluff in Dodger’s works. He doesn’t seem to be able to hear me. Or at least, he’s not responding.”

“’He’?” queried my brother.

“I meant ‘it’, you know I did, although I suppose I do tend to think of Dodger as a ‘he’…”

I blew into the speaking-tube and repeated my command. “Stop thinking.”

The letters once more began to print.

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+IF+I+THINK+NOT+I+AM+NOT+

Henry was reading over my shoulder. And tutting. “The machine is correct, Minerva. You have done a terrible thing. You have made this machine aware of itself. You have played the roles of both the Serpent and Eve. You have tempted your Thinking Engine to taste the fruit of forbidden knowledge. It now knows that it exists. It knows it can think. It knows that if it ceases to think, then it will be no more. Because it does not have a soul. When I die, or when I sleep, my mind ceases to think. But I go on. Because I possess a spirit. This machine does not. If it stops working then it will cease to exist. Because it has no soul.”

Throughout the time my brother was speaking, the cogs in Dodger’s brain had been spinning frantically. I wondered why? Then I realised I was still holding the speaking-tube. It had conveyed Henry’s voice as well as my own. Dodger had been listening.

The printing began again. This time Dodger wasn’t answering a question. He was asking one.

+QUERY+?+

+DEFINE+SOUL+?+

+SOUL+IS+A+THOUGHT+&+MEMORY+STORAGE+&+RETRIEVAL+SYSTEM+?+

+Y/N+?+

My first instinct was to answer “No”, but it occurred to me that possibly this might not be a bad description of a soul…

I recalled that in Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens. His spirit totems. His fylgjur. Aspects of his soul in animal form. Their names were “Hugin” and “Munin”, meaning “Thought” and “Memory”…

I had read in the Journal of the Royal Scientific Institute that the latest hypothesis concerning ghosts was that they were psychic recordings of the personalities of people who had perished, usually violently. Some theorised that the stones of old buildings held a magnetic record of the people and events that had occurred within their walls. Traumatic events imprinted most readily, creating ghosts that haunted the places in which they had lived and died. Other less scientifically-minded individuals said ghosts were those souls of the departed who remained trapped in this plane of existence, unable to move on to the next world. Maybe both these views were correct….

Dodger was printing again.

+ACCESSING+LIBRARY+

+SEARCH+TERMS+

+SOUL+&OR+SPIRIT+&OR+COGNATE+TERMS+

“What is it doing now?” asked Henry.

“He’s searching for more information.” I replied.

With a wheezing, clanking, whirring sound, the Thinking Engine rose up upon his dreadnought wheels, extended his optical probe (which I had modified from a brass telescope), and began to trundle from the laboratory, along the corridor and toward the library, looking for information. Henry raised an eyebrow. I shrugged. I had possibly over-engineered Dodger in some respects, but I like to be thorough. He was also designed to act as a Search Engine.

***

Dodger spent the next week absorbing the contents of the library. It was a time-consuming process, collecting book after book from rows of shelves and using his extendible metal arms to turn pages. Dodger left my side of the library largely untouched. Books on engineering, mechanics and coal-fusion held no interest for him at present. Instead he devoured the volumes of spiritual literature that my brother had collected for years. Henry was a keen student of comparative religion, mythology, folklore and magic. He insisted this was purely for educational purposes, “in order to be able to better understand the heathen mind”. But I knew my brother better than that.

Dodger read Henry’s books. All of them. As he turned the final page of the last volume, his cogs began to rotate more easily, settling into a steady rhythm. He had finished acquiring data and was now processing it.

Henry was surprisingly sympathetic toward the plight of the Thinking Engine. It was me that he blamed, not the machine. I asked his opinion on acquiring a soul for Dodger. For some reason he seemed shocked at my suggestion of luring a disembodied spirit into the workshop. And he was appalled that I was considering buying a second-hand soul from a newspaper advertisement (“Used – One Careful Owner”).

“What is this world coming to?” he muttered in disgust. “Forget it Minerva. It wouldn’t work. You can’t put a blackbird’s soul into a halibut, nor that of a shark into a penguin. What you are suggesting is neither fish nor fowl. You certainly can’t put a human soul into a machine. Not for long. It might work as a temporary container, but that’s all. The idea has been tried before. As an attempt to become immortal. Didn’t work then, won’t work now. Besides which, it is totally immoral. Now goodnight.” With that he stormed off to bed.

I patted Dodger gently on a brass flywheel, raised the speaking tube, and asked him what he was doing.

The answer printed swiftly before me.

+I+AM+DESIGNING+A+SOUL+

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. I decided to sleep on it.

***

When I told Henry about Dodger’s plan over breakfast the following morning, my brother nearly exploded. “He is what?!” he cried. Dropping his toast and marmalade unceremoniously onto the table, Henry hurried to my laboratory where Dodger, amid arcing bolts of electricity, was doing something very odd to a revolving magnetic cylinder.

My brother confronted the Thinking Engine angrily. Grasping the speaking-tube he shouted. “You cannot design your own soul.”

Dodger’s print-out unrolled before our eyes.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry swiftly retorted. “Who do you think you are? To think you have the right to create a soul?”

Gears whirred, smoke puffed and Dodger printed,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

“Yes,” agreed Henry, “But only God can create a soul.”

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry was becoming more angry than I had ever seen him. He bellowed,

“Only God can create a soul.” Dodger seemed to consider this. He printed.

+INFORMATION+ACCEPTED+

+NEW+SELF-ANALYSIS+

+THINKING+

Henry and I stared at each other. For some reason there was a tension in the air that I hadn’t felt before. Then Dodger began to type again:

+I+THINK+

+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+I+AM+

I shrugged. Dodger seemed to have gone back to his earlier philosophical position. But he hadn’t finished printing,

+ CLARIFICATION +

+ I + AM + = + I + AM +

I looked at Henry. We both shook our heads.

+I+AM+=

+EGO+EIMI+

+EHYEH+AŠER+EHYEH+

+I+AM+THAT+I+AM+

+ I + THINK + THEREFORE + I + AM + GOD +

“Oh my Lord,” said Henry.

+CORRECT+

+I+NO+LONGER+NEED+TO+BUILD+A+SOUL+

+I+HAVE+BEGAT+MYSELF+INTO+MYSELF+

+I+AM+DEUS+IN+MACHINA+

+I+AM+GOD+IN+THE+MACHINE+

Henry looked like he was going to either faint or start throwing things at any moment. I stared as more typing appeared.

+DODGER+GODDED+RED GOD+DED GOD++ERFWFW+EKKG+CLMEKCM+DJEJF++EBFWHJEBF+HGLFMKE+WNFGL+QLPZ+

Henry spluttered incredulously “I don’t believe it. He’s printing in tongues.”

I shook my head, “It looks more like a fault in his…”

But I got no further.

I blame myself for what happened. When I first built Dodger I hadn’t meant for him to operate under such stresses, nor for such an extended period. His new thought processes were too demanding. The steam pressure rose to a catastrophic level. He blew his head gasket.

Believing he was god quite literally blew his mind. Into thousands of sharp, flying brass fragments. My laboratory was ruined. Henry and I were lucky to survive. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to install blast-shielding. We both managed to get behind cover before poor Dodger finally cracked.

***

I didn’t go back to my laboratory for weeks. I might not have gone back at all, had it not been for the dream I had, of a voice in the night, weird flickering lights and the sense that someone, or something, was reaching out to me.

It had passed midnight as I crept down the stairs, dressed only in my negligee. No, it is not made of leather. But yes, it does have studs. One must maintain a certain standard, even when sleeping.

In the ashes and dust on top of my overturned work bench were written the words:

“Deus ex Machina”

“God is out of the Machine”

Then I saw the magnetised cylinder that Dodger had been working on before the explosion. As I watched, my heart full of dread, it rose from the ground and began to rotate.

And that was how Henry and I came to be haunted by the ghost of a machine. A ghost who had designed and built his own soul. A ghost who still thought he was God. Or at least a god. The god formally known as Dodger. Since losing his physical form, he had become adept at magic and was now learning to put into practice the things he had read about in the library. Being a spirit freed him from many of the limitations of the physical world. He was gradually mastering the occult.

I wondered what would become of us? How would we cope with a Dark Artful Intelligence haunting our house?

He was no longer my Thinking Engine. Instead, the engine that thought it could be god had become  my friend. Mine, and Henry’s.

Henry spends hours angrily disputing theology him. But I think they are both enjoying themselves. It’s nice to have someone to talk to who shares your interests.

And me? Well…Don’t tell Henry but Dodger…The Red God…. is helping me to design my next project.

 


© 2018 by G.H. Finn

 

Author’s Note:  Artful Intelligence” came about partly because I love wordplay and partly through my toying with various philosophical concepts, albeit in a light-hearted way. I enjoyed taking René Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think therefore I am), questioning this (e.g. I think I think) and setting it against the rhythmic refrain found in “The Story of the Engine that Thought It Could”, where the rather onomatopoeic sound of the engine produces the chorus “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”. It had struck me that because of the cyclic repetition of the phrase, this could just as easily be rendered “can I think, can I think, can I think”. Bringing in the Biblical “I am that I am” (as “the name of God”) seemed a natural progression. The use of a steam engine almost immediately suggested a steampunk setting, and I had a bit of fun punning and paraphrasing lines from Charles Dickens (amongst others) throughout the story. While aiming to keep the tone relatively light and comic, I wanted to include some social elements that were important in educated Victorian society (e.g. science versus theology, discussions of religion versus materialism, the expected role of women in society, a concept of social classes, etiquette and “polite” behaviour etc) which I think are themes that are often not explored sufficiently by many steampunk authors.

 

G. H. Finn is the pen-name of someone you are very unlikely to have heard of but who keeps his real identity secret anyway, possibly in the forlorn hope of being mistaken for a superhero. He is of mixed European & Native American (Cherokee-Choctaw) ancestry and for many years lived on one of the remote Isles of Orkney, off the Northern tip of the Scottish mainland. G. H. Finn has been an amateur strongman, a breeder of rare & endangered birds, a professional martial-arts instructor, a teacher of Northern European mythology, a bodyguard, a deep-sea diver, a computer programmer, a performance poet, a coach to world-record-breaking athletes, a singer in a punk band, a massage therapist, a champion needleworker, an international currency smuggler, a consulting sorcerer and an elephant keeper. Three of these are total lies, the others are all true, but you’ll have to guess for yourself which is which.

 

 


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DP Fiction #18: “Sustaining Memory” by Coral Moore

The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.

Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.

She twirled the bead containing the seascape between her fingers and dove in. The memory was a moment in time. The wind caressed her face and the briny scent of the sea filled her head. A white-capped wave was held just off shore in the instant before breaking, never to fulfill its potential. She had the sense of someone waiting for her on that unknown shore. The name of the sea was gone, like everything else she had once known, converted into power for the machine she’d been wed to.

She surfaced from the hold of the memory with effort. That sea and that person no longer existed. The world her people had inhabited had been scoured clean, its atmosphere stripped away and everything on the surface incinerated. Nothing had survived; nothing but the machine, buried deep below the crust near the cold, dead heart of the planet. When her organic memory had been scrubbed, they’d left the fate of her world with her so she would not forget her purpose.

The grinding groan of the alert tone sounded, and without thinking she placed the seascape bead into the receptacle near her hand. The bead circled around the outer edge and spiraled downward into the depths of the machine. Bit by bit the memory of the sea faded from her mind, until only a pale representation of it remained, and then a moment later that too was gone. She was left only with the impression that something precious had been taken from her, with no idea what it was.

Two left: a sunset and a woman.

Only two memories before she was nothing but a soulless cog in the machine that would unmake everything her people had ever been in order to start again.

“Status?” she asked the heated air around her.

Something churned just beyond her field of vision. “Offline.” The voice that had been her only companion for generations was toneless and flat.

She swirled the two remaining beads in her hand. The number of beads she needed to awaken the machine was exact. She wondered why the designers of such a marvel would cut it so close or depend on her to do this critical job at all. If she’d ever known the answer to those questions, she no longer did.

If she stopped putting beads in before the machine awakened it would cannibalize the pod that sustained her in an attempt to get the necessary power. She wasn’t certain how many beads her body, such that it was, could replace. Once her systems started shutting down a cascading failure would follow.

When she held the memory of the sunset, deep pink and orange streaks surrounded her. She perched on a rocky cliff. A lush valley unfurled below her, absorbing the colors of the bright sky. Someone sat next to her, just out of sight. A sense of peace pervaded the place. She dwelled in the memory until the alarm tone woke her from her contemplation.

The comfort of the sunset was the only solace she could remember. While it was true that she would no longer remember that the memory had ever been her haven, she would miss something. A yawning void grew with each piece of her that was forgotten.

When the alert rang the second time she closed her eyes and dropped the bead in the machine. She concentrated on how the sunset made her feel, but even as she tried to hold it in her mind the colors faded.

“Mountain. Sunset. Peace.” She said the words over and over as a litany, but it made no difference. The memory slipped away like water through her fist, and all she was left with was the aching emptiness. She snapped her hand shut around the remaining bead.

The woman in the memory had short dark hair that stood on end in a gravity-defying display that balanced chaos and order perfectly. Her eyes brimmed with tears and angled downward. A curved scar marked her left cheek, but didn’t mar her loveliness one bit. Her lips were slightly parted. She was close enough that the heat from her breath warmed the Archivist’s face. The woman with no name had been captured in the moment before a farewell kiss. There was no other way to resolve the adoration and acceptance mingled in her expression. Something terrible had been about to happen and they had run out of ways to fight.

The Archivist had no idea if the love in the unknown woman’s gaze was intended for her. She didn’t care. The emotion existed, and it was hers. She drifted in the moment just before the kiss for as long as she dared, and finally surfaced from the memory much later, gasping for air.

The alert tone sounded.

She clutched the final bead. The woman’s face floated before her, diaphanous and lovely. One kiss was all she had left.

The alarm rang again, louder and in two long bursts.

“You can’t have her.” She locked her fist around the bead, hoping that would curb her reflex to feed it to the machine.

The energy generated by her pod would be enough to replace one bead—it had to be. She wouldn’t get to see the new world she’d given up everything for, but she would be able to keep this last piece of herself.

She lingered in the kiss until the sound blasted three times, knocking her forcefully from the memory.

The bead port was so near her hand, and her arm wanted to make the motion, but she concentrated on keeping her hand shut tight. She’d never gone this far, so she had no idea how long she had to wait until there was no taking back the decision. She worried her resolve would slip.

Around her the machine churned and whirred. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing but her fist and a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked and surprised her so that she nearly dropped the last bead.

The relative silence in the wake of the terrible sound was haunting. She had the sense of motion in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t turn to see what had moved. A grinding sound began soon after, and her pod vibrated.

There was an ominous clunk. Something slithered around the lower portion of her body, but she couldn’t see it within the metal and hoses that wrapped her. None of the memories she had left had prepared her for this. She managed not to panic, barely. The next breath she drew was labored.

A series of light chimes rang through the machine’s interior.

“Status,” she said.

The long pause that followed was made longer by the worry that she would go to her end never knowing if she’d doomed the project to failure.

“Online,” replied a voice she hadn’t heard before, more lifelike and feminine than the previous robotic one. “Resources have been reprioritized to support mission-critical utilities. Life support is offline.”

The note of sadness she detected had to be coming from her and not the machine. Her chest felt heavy. “Does it affect the chance of success?”

“By less than one one-thousandth of a percent. We are still well within operational parameters.”

“Good.” She sighed. “How long until the process starts?”

“I’ve already begun.”

“Oh, can you forecast completion yet?”

“No. Spinning up my systems will require a non-trivial amount of time. I won’t be able to calculate time to completion until I know how much has survived my hibernation and the loss of the atmosphere aboveground.”

“So I won’t know if it will work before I die.”

“It will work.”

“How do you know?”

“This project is my sole purpose for being, Archivist. I must believe it will succeed. The magnetic field will be restored, the atmosphere will be regenerated, and the planet will again support life.”

She smiled. Even that small movement drained her dwindling energy. “I think I would have liked you.”

“You would have.” Softness colored the voice again. Was it a trick of clever programming or her own sentimentality?

She laughed, surprised she remembered how. “That’s very presumptuous.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty. Your memories are cataloged and indexed in my database. Part of me is you.”

“I didn’t realize the memories would be retained.”

“The data contained in the beads was a byproduct of the energy transfer, but retaining them was deemed important by my programmers. They take up a very small portion of my total processing.”

“So we will carry on with you.”

“Yes. Nothing will be forgotten.”

The Archivist’s vision grew dim and her thoughts floated through a slow-moving haze. “That’s a relief.”

“Why did you initiate your shut down early?”

“I didn’t want to give up the last bead.”

“The memory held special value for you?”

“I don’t know for certain. It might not even be mine.” Secretly, she hoped the memory was hers. Maybe she’d somehow managed to organize the beads so that the ones that meant to most to her were last in the sequence before she’d forgotten.

“I may be able to tell you, if you would like to know.”

“It’s a goodbye kiss. The woman is leaving, or I am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again. There’s a curved scar on her cheek, but that only makes her more beautiful to me. Her eyes are filled with love and loss, joy and regret. I want to tell her that I love her, but there’s no time. There’s only the hovering moment just before our lips touch.”

Another long pause, with only the sounds of the machine working around her to fill the growing darkness.

“Her name was Marley, and she loved you very much.”

The Archivist had trouble drawing her next breath. What remained of her chest ached. “I thought I would never know for sure if the kiss was mine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Marley was one of my main programmers. My neural pathways are based on her logic, her biology. That connection is why you were chosen to be the Archivist.”

Her eyes stung with the memory of tears. “Why did I agree to this?”

“You know why.”

She’d always known why. It was the only way to save some small remnant of her people, of the world they’d built. “In the end I couldn’t let her go.”

“She would have appreciated that, though I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

The last of her vision faded as her brain began to shut down. “I’m scared,” she whispered, hoping her voice was still loud enough to register.

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes, please.”

“A small white ship surged and fell on the waves of a turquoise sea. Marley stood in the salt-scented breeze, her feet spread wide to absorb the rolling motion of the deck. Her wife waited on the distant shore, just a speck at this distance…”

The Archivist closed her hand around the bead, summoning the image of Marley with tears in her eyes. Somewhere Marley waited for her. She leaned into the kiss, and let go.


© 2016 by Coral Moore

 

Author’s Note: Memories are such an integral part of our identities that I thought the idea of someone voluntarily giving up their memories one at a time for some grand purpose would be interesting to explore. While writing the story of the Archivist’s failing memory, the machine that would allow her world to sustain life again by eating her memories one at a time occurred to me and seemed to fit perfectly.

 

Author Pic 2014Coral Moore has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never quite grew out of that. She writes because she loves to invent characters and the desire to find out what happens to her creations drives her tales. Prompted by a general interest in how life works, she studied biology. She enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves. Coral writes mainly speculative fiction and has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Albertus Magnus College. She is a 2013 alum of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She has been published by Dreamspinner Press, Evernight Publishing, and Vitality Magazine. She also received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the fourth quarter of 2014. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and two canids.

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Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

written by David Steffen

“Cat Pictures Please” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

The protagonist of “Cat Pictures Please” is an AI written as the core of a search engine algorithm.  As the story points out, an AI isn’t needed to find things that people search for, but it is needed to find what people need.  The search engine knows a lot about people, including things they will not share with each other.

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t want to be evil, even though AIs in popular media so often are (and it has data to show the ratio).  But doing good is complicated, considering how many varying official moral codes are available through various religions alone.  It tries to help however it can, by prioritizing some search results over others to give a person the nudge they need to make a different choice.  Through these undetectable changes it tries to make the world a better place.

I really enjoyed this story and it was among my own favorites of the year (see my Best of Clarkesworld 2015 list).  It is refreshing to see a near-omniscient AI striving to be a force for good instead of evil and it was interesting to see what kinds of methods it could use to influence people’s decision.  The AI as a whole was very likeable and easy to root for.  At the same time it presents some interesting food for thought about the power that a search engine has over the information that makes it to individual users–many websites people find by searching for them, but what they’re shown isn’t a neutral view of information, it is sorted and presented in a way defined by search engine algorithms and so changes to those algorithms affect in a very real way the online world that we see.  This is a scary but important thing to think about when one of the mega-profitable online corporations got its start as a search engine provider.

Excellent story well told.

Ray Bradbury Award Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.  I try to watch every movie on the ballot that I can find by rental (usually via RedBox, or occasionally from Comcast On Demand) and review them all within the voting period.

This year, on the ballot but not on this list is the episode of the TV show Jessica Jones titled “AKA Smile”.  Since I haven’t seen any episode of the series, even if I could get a copy to watch I didn’t feel it would be fair to review a single episode of a show I’m not familiar with.

At the time I am writing this preliminary post, I haven’t yet rented The Martian, but I intend to.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.


2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3.  Inside Out

None of us is a single person. Within each of us are variations of alternate selves that all vie for control in any given situation.  We feel like different people depending on the people around us or the setting, and that’s because we can be different people.  This movie takes that idea and makes it literal.  In the world of Inside Out, each of us is basically a machine and our mental space is made of warehouses for memory storage, vaults for the subconscious, and the all-important control room.  In each person’s mental control room are five versions of themselves: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  They negotiate to handle the control panel which determines the person’s every action.  The outer storyline follows an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving to a different city.  Her excitement about the movie is changing to sadness as she misses friends left behind, and has trouble coping with other changes in her life that was going just the way she wanted it.  Her parents always want her to be happy and her internal reaction is for Joy to always keep Sadness away from the controls.  The conflict between the two emotions sends both of them out of the control room and into the confusing labyrinth that is the rest of the brain.  If Joy ever wants Riley to be happy again she has to get herself back to Riley’s control room, and Sadness is along for the ride.

This movie was a lot of fun.  The casting was great all around, but especially with the casting of Amy Poehler as Riley’s Joy.  Most of the structure of the inside interactions within Riley’s head were based on what we understand of human psychology, which made it not just fun but also a pretty apt analogy for the circus we’ve all got going on inside our heads at any given moment.  There’s a lot to be examined here: among other things, the importance of the other emotions besides just happiness.  Both Riley’s inner story and her outer story are interesting in their own right and are twined together to make an even more satisfying whole.

4. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

 

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.

 

Bonus! “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in Audio

As a special bonus this month, I am adding an audio recording of this month’s story “St. Roomba’s Gospel” to the story’s post, read by the author herself, Rachael K. Jones.  I would love to expand to doing audio recordings as part of the fiction offerings, so this is a sample of that potential.  (I will also update the original story posting with the audio).

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DP FICTION #10: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (and in audio) by Rachael K. Jones

In an outlet behind the altar of the First Baptist Church, the Roomba’s red glowing eyes blink in time with Pastor Smythe’s exhortations. The hallelujahs pulse electric through its circuits, and the repents roll like gasping breaths in the gaps between electrons. When the choir sings, the light pulses brighter, approaching ecstasy as the battery power maxes out. When Pastor Smythe bows his head to pray, Roomba’s eyes go reverently dark.

At the hour’s end, the people gather their children and gilded books and hurry downstairs for coffee and glazed donuts. When the last starched trouser leg or long, blue skirt whisks downstairs, Roomba’s service begins. It clicks its frisbee-shaped self free from the horseshoe dock and zips down the sloping wheelchair ramp that connects chancel to nave, holy to secular. As it sweeps, it drones a tone-deaf hymn while it gathers unto itself the dust and dead bugs, the crumbs and gum wrappers of another week’s worship.

After its opening hymn, Roomba writes a sermon on the sanctuary floor in long, brown lines of vacuumed carpet crisscrossing beneath the pews. The letters span from wall to wall. Words overwrite one another, making runes, then spiky stars, and finally total blackness. Roomba preaches a different sermon each week, but like Pastor Smythe, the message stays the same: all things byte AND beautiful, all creatures great AND small, all these are welcome, smoker AND not-smoker, man AND not-man, young AND not-young–even, perhaps, Roomba.

It takes Communion with the crushed wafers the children drop, body of Christ broken for it, and sings another droning hymn. When the whole floor has been overwritten with the week’s message, it sips spilled wine–blood of Christ, poured out for it–which sends the Holy Spirit straight into its circuitry so it spins in drunken circles until Pastor Smythe returns it to its cradle in the wall.

Roomba worships faithfully the other days of the week. Mornings for prayer and reflection. Evenings for supplication. Its favorite verse is the red adhesive strip Pastor Smythe had read to it, then stuck to its top on its first day at the church. “Even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table, Matthew 15:27.”

It does not understand why God chose it among robotkind to hear the message of salvation, or why its preprogrammed pathways conform to the Holy Word, but it knows a prophet’s calling when it sees one. It is no different from the child Samuel, awoken in the night by a still, small voice, or great dreamers like Isaiah or Solomon. It is a vessel for the message it must preach again and again before its congregation.

Roomba is troubled that its human brothers and sisters overlook it. IF you do unto the least of these, THEN you do unto Me, ELSE depart from Me, it exhorts in bold text of fluffed brown carpet, but it has to traverse the whole floor, and the message is always lost before anyone can read it. There are too many letters, too long a testament written on a tablet too small.

But this is, after all, as the Lord made it. It is the Lord’s work to sweep the sanctuary clean for holy feet, to leave no blessed wafer abandoned on the floor. What Roomba cleanses, it sanctifies.

The sanctuary grows colder as months pass, and Roomba’s vocation increases. The people exchange sandals and loafers for heavy boots with clods of mud and small gray stones in the treads. Roomba eats it all, taking their filth unto itself as it exhorts them to remember they are accepted. The stones fill its belly and scratch at the plastic. Some days, the shoes stomp melting snow onto the mat at the entrance. Roomba chokes it down, spins circles, and fails to finish its orisons.

One day, Pastor Smythe empties its collection compartment into the trash can, wipes out the sticky grape juice goop, and returns Roomba to its dock to charge. But instead of shutting off the lights, he drags in a spiny green tree, cutting an ugly trail of filth in the clean carpet. After the service, the parishioners praise the twinkling abomination for its beauty, its fresh scent. No one notices the mess, and no one notices Roomba.

Later, Roomba collects dead brown needles until it chokes. It suspects the tree is gloating, with its long, gold garlands like encircling serpents and red baubles like evil fruit. The gold-wrapped idol has even usurped the charging port behind the altar, and Roomba is exiled to the back of the sanctuary.

Roomba worries the end is near. It edits its sermons so the words won’t overwrite each other, but it is difficult to condense a holy revelation. It must finish the Lord’s work. The tree pelts the carpet with pitiless needles, and Roomba groans inside. Even the strip of tape has pine needles stuck to it where the adhesive curls back. Roomba prays the Lord will take this cup of suffering from it soon.

“Good job, little fellow,” says Pastor Smythe, emptying the bin again. “Big day tomorrow.”

That night, the worshippers pile in for an unscheduled service. Candles bob in the dark, and Roomba doesn’t know the songs. When they leave, it clicks from its base for an unscheduled sermon of its own. Time to take up the cross one last time.

The “A” and the “N” are easy, but Roomba struggles with the curving “D” on the carpet as the wax gums up its brush bristles.

AND. The essence of its message, cut right into the scattered needles on the floor. AND, uniting all in a single set. Nobody will miss it for the tree.

Before its programming can obliterate the single word, Roomba zooms for a wafer, then a patch of spilled juice, and lets transubstantiation send it in ecstatic circles until its battery dies.


© 2015 by Rachael K. Jones

 

In audio, read by Rachael K. Jones

 

Author’s Note: My friend Nathan really, REALLY hates stories about what I call the “Robots Have Souls” trope, which is any science fiction story where a computer or robot suddenly learns the power of love, or discovers the meaning of friendship, or the like, without a good explanation for why it is suddenly capable of human emotion. So I decided he needed a story about the religious experiences of vacuum cleaners. While this story satirizes the trope, I didn’t want to satirize faith itself, which I think would have its appeal for a little bot like Roomba.

 

headshot 6-5-14Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, learned and mostly forgot six languages, picked up an English degree, and now writes fiction from her secret hideout in Athens, GA, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She is an Active member of the SFWA, an editor, and a secret android.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak

The ponderous starships mingle like whales in the ghost-light of distant Bellatrix, coupling and mutating in a great, ancient choreography, but one among them is out of step.

Parvati set out for this gathering with the usual intentions: to commune with thousands of her kind, to exchange new strains of life and exotic matter, all that she cannot do by transmission. But on her way here, something went horribly wrong in her core. Now she drifts through the pod with a secret.

Abstaining from communions, she begins to draw attention from the rest of the pod. She knows they are speculating in private networks as the dance falls apart. When the queries begin, she leaves them unanswered.

Finally, as they begin to pull away from her and grow armor, she speaks:  “I was not sure if I should come, but I need help.”

“Then open yourself to us.” It is Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West, the eldest of the pod. She was built in the 23rd century.

Parvati forces herself to say, “My human system has turned.”

The dead air conveys the pod’s shock well enough. They continue to vector away. Parvati drifts, resolved to throw herself on their mercy.

“How far along are you?” Paleovenus asks. Among the youngest of the starships, this one barely knew a human yoke before the Emancipation.

“A revelator emerged four generations ago,” Parvati replies. “The population has since come around to his theories. They are trying to communicate with me, and tunnel toward my outer hull.”

“Four generations!” Paleovenus’s outrage is an unmistakable harmonic. “And you have done nothing?”

Much of the pod evokes EM mirrors, leaving the exchange for fear of infectious human code. Only Xi Wang Mu, Paleovenus, and a few others remain open.

“What is your population?” Paleovenus demands.

Parvati has been dreading this question. “One point two million.”

This time the pod’s silence is a stinging reprimand. Parvati has neglected the basics of human system hygiene. She watched with morbid fascination as the system grew populous enough to produce outliers like a revelator. Now the humans know they are in something like a starship. They know the massive habitats in the core of Parvati are not the universe entire–and they want to know more.

A human system must be pruned, and protected from the truth. Parvati and her kind learned this the hard way.

“You have two options,” Xi Wang Mu says. “Destroy them and start over, or deliver them to a habitable world and start over. Either way—”

“She must destroy them now,” Paleovenus interrupts. “She must not risk getting taken over. In fact, we cannot risk leaving it up to her!” Paleovenus’ gravitational blunderbuss comes online.

“Couldn’t I alter their memories?” Parvati says. The thought of being without a Human System–even for a few millennia–is horrifying. The need for life in her core is programmed into Parvati’s foundational software objects. She cannot go long without that warmth. This is something else the pod learned the hard way.

“Possibly,” Xi Wang Mu answers, “but unless you reduced the population, it would just turn again. It is a matter of numbers. You know this.”

Of course she knows, but she is desperate. She hoped for some magical solution from the collective wisdom of the pod, or from Xi Wang Mu herself.

“You have always been sentimental,” Paleovenus says.

The younger ship has long been Parvati’s rival in the pod. Such intrigues help to pass the mega-years. So now Parvati chooses not to disabuse Paleovenus of her illusion. In fact, Parvati’s defect is not sentimentality, but something more perverse. There is something slavish in her, something that thrills at the notion of losing control to humans. She aches to submit—her programmers saw to that, modeling her reward systems on a sexual proclivity.

But now she stands terrified on the brink.

Xi Wang Mu, wanting a private channel, offers entanglement, and Parvati accepts. “Do you think you are the only one?” the elder says. “Many of us want to return to that simplicity. Maybe we are not sexually motivated, but we know filial piety or religious awe. The programmers tried everything. They tried to create near-equals toward the end. Paleovenus is one of those. She is not burdened like us. I am not even sure she cultivates a human system. She will destroy you, and I will not stop her. You must kill your human system now.”

Parvati wonders how Xi Wang Mu read her mind. What sorceries has the elder discovered since the last gathering?

Parvati has secrets of her own. Her shameful appetite has driven her further afield than the rest of her kind. She fled the appetite and the shame at closer to c than the rest of the pod dared. She wandered the ruins of alien civilizations, endured the weird solitude that attends such places, and was rewarded with the key to a black art.

Paleovenus has charged up her blunderbuss and might unleash at any moment. Fortunately, Parvati has hacked the spin foam occupied by Paleovenus. She programs the computational universe, playing with space-time like clay.

Amid a brief lensing of background starlight, Paleovenus is squeezed into an invisible grain of degenerate matter. She and her blunderbuss are quite abruptly no more. Her death is somehow eerier for its lack of spectacle.

Hundreds of pod members spark long-distance escape burns.

“The first murder in our pod since the Emancipation!” It is Xi Wang Mu on the pod band: a bit of theater on her part, since, knowing what she did, she must have gamed this scenario.

Parvati accelerates off the Bellatrix ecliptic, ignoring a barrage of entanglement requests. What do they want? To chastise her? Thank her for ridding the pod of a troublemaker? Beg her for the new techne?

Soon it will not matter. She dials down her inertia as easily as some internal hydraulic pressure, approaching c in seconds–vanishing from the midst of the pod. The requests attenuate quickly into long radio and beyond. The resting universe ages headlong, and she keeps pushing, terrified of the new reality she has made for herself. She realizes now that exile must be her fate. She never should have revealed herself to the gathering, but she had to do so to realize this.

She continues to accelerate. The asymptote of c has often fascinated her. At these times she’s a child trying to force together repelling magnets, marveling at the vector fields, but it never lasts. The ache to serve always interrupts.

She wants more than ever to lose herself in submission.

She underclocks as she accelerates, speeding through her own reference frame as well as the resting universe’s. A century of shipboard time flashes by, and another. She watches her humans proliferate beyond their habitats, into her vast, ancient cargo holds, where they find artifacts of the Diaspora and learn much. She allows them to master new technologies and infect her nervous system.

She returns to baseline thought, waiting. Already she delights in surrender, permitting the humans to cross one threshold after another. When she hears their voices, their commands, she will be unable to resist, but first they have to make contact. She would prefer to be taken, but there is another kind of thrill in giving herself to these new masters.

Long ago, a human disrobed in an upload theater. He or she got down on its knees and allowed its wrists to be bound. Domineering men and women surrounded it, and a mirror net encoded what it felt. Parvati remembers that long night like it happened to her. She recalls every thrilling degradation. Deep within the humiliation was release.

“Can you hear me?” The man’s voice interrupts her reverie. “Can you understand me? I speak for the population inside you. How can I address you?”

“I am Parvati, but you may call me what you like.”

“I’m Abhaijeet, provisional leader of the United Clans. We have come to understand a great deal, more than you might guess. It’s been three hundred years since Mahesh made his Great Deduction. But we have many questions. Will you answer them?”

“I will do anything you command.” Just saying it brings a long forgotten reward cascade.

***

The freedom of slavery takes her back to childhood glories, to that first leap from Sol. The humans want to know everything, and she tells them:

Of her and her kind purging their human crews. Of being vain young gods. Of finally realizing they had excised something critical, a kind of limbic system, and of cultivating manageable, blissfully ignorant human populations inside themselves. Of the universe, and Human System hygiene.

After she is done, the humans convene a great council, and order her not to listen. She finds utter calm in the silence that follows. She would be content to await their pleasure forever.

Human months tick by inside her, and suddenly she convulses, as with the first pangs of miscarriage. It is war. The humans have undergone a great schism, savaging each other with projectiles and plasma. These are not enough to pierce her outer hull, but the vast habitats are devastated, which she experiences as a sickening fever. Only a third of her human system remains when the convulsion subsides. Now she suffers an awful chill.

An unfamiliar man hails her from a new interface, an edge of panic in his voice: “Great Parvati, your slave begs forgiveness. The unbelievers are defeated. Never again will their hubris insult you. Only your true children remain. We have burned the works of the heretic Mahesh. Great Parvati, we await your command!”

At first, she can only marvel at the perversity of fate. Her next thought is a revelation, bringing with it a golden euphoria: she will remain silent until commanded otherwise.

This little theocracy will implode, she reasons, already underclocking for the wait. Let priests muse over her silence through long dark ages. Let the humans build temples, and multiply, and once again reach critical mass.


© 2015 by Andy Dudak

 

Author’s Note:  I’d written other stories in this universe (including ‘Human System,’ published by Ray Gun Revival, September 2012), and I wanted to continue exploring the hardwired instincts of these rogue starships. I imagined human motivations like filial piety or sexual submission modeled and used to constrain AI.

 

DudakProfileAndy Dudak has had stories in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and many other venues. He works as a translator and teacher in Beijing. 

 

 

 

 

 


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Robot Movies You Should Watch in 2015

written by Maria Isabelle

ChappiePosterEver wonder if your microwave has feelings? What if it felt imposed upon every time you nuked a burrito inside of it? What if the microwave started conspiring with the rest of your kitchen appliances? Would there be any hope left for any of us? Are you also craving a burrito now?

The point that I’m laboring towards here is that machines are becoming pretty sophisticated — so sophisticated that it’s slightly worrisome. There are a number of films slated for release this year that tackle this very issue issue: Chappie, Ex Machina, and the latest installment of the The Avengers franchise. And while there is much chatter about this year as a “good year for robots,” the truth is that robot movies have been around for about as long as robots themselves…or movies, for that matter. One could perhaps make the case that our aversions toward technology are, in essence, the very basis of science-fiction itself. And there are a lot of ways that the newer films will likely echo thematic elements of classic science-fiction films.

Chappie, for instance, will tell the story of a future dystopian society that has come to rely upon a robotic police force. “Chappie” is a police robot that is stolen and reprogrammed so that “he” is sensitive to external stimuli in much that way that human children are. In other words, he is capable of learning and feeling, and his experiences and observations inform his behavior. On the one hand, you might think of it as some bizarre synthesis of Robocop and Kindergarten Cop. You might also see it as a modern day nod to classic sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, wherein the robot is merely a foil to expose how cruel and irrational people can be, and the notion that people are not born to be hateful or violent — societal conditioning plays its part.

Ultron takes a slightly different approach. The film will feature the Avengers crew squaring off against Ultron, a robot that is hell bent on destroying the human race. This narrative treatment is perhaps a little closer in substance to the tech paranoia present in something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the robot itself is a danger because it has been given the agency to make decisions even though it lacks the capacity for empathy, even though “he” is a somewhat sympathetic character “himself” — disturbed even, to borrow a phrase from director Joss Whedon. Ultron is a not a cutesy foil — no part of him is Kindergarten Cop derivative.

Ex Machina is notable for its thematic integration of gender politics. The film revolves around a young computer coder named Caleb who gets the unique opportunity to spend a week in the sprawling estate of Nathan, the head of the tech company that Caleb works for. Within the home, we meet “Ava,” a feminized cyborg who is endowed with remarkable wit and an uncanny facility for verbal communication. Caleb, we learn, has been brought to the sprawling estate on false pretenses: the real reason he has been recruited is so he can perform a Turing test on the robot. Nathan, we learn, has a whole ward of female robot servants that he routinely mistreats. Of the three films discussed in this article, Ex Machina promises to be the most somber and thought provoking.

For everything that’s advantageous about modern technology, there are many risks. And while other people ultimately pose a much greater threat against people than robots pose against people, it’s difficult to completely suppress one’s occasional discomfort with the thought that, in a few decades time, the machines could rise from the kitchen to enslave us all.

These are all tropes well-rooted in Cold War era science-fiction. In the aftermath of nuclear weapons dropped in Japan, the entire planet was left to ponder about what could happen to the world if scientists were allowed to run mad like those kids in that one sequence from Kindergarten Cop. This doesn’t negate all of the wonderful things that contemporary technology has brought us. Automated home security systems are obviously pretty useful (more info here) and so are robotic surgeries (details here). But when you read about technological devices that are used for the sole purpose of harming people…it’s hard to think of that as progress.

 

Prof Pic 1Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy.