I’ve just received my author’s copy of the BSFA’s Twenty Years, Two Surveys – a book that compares SF and Fantasy writers responses to a questionnaire now and twenty years ago. It’s a fascinating read, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Here, for the record, are my responses. If you want to know what other writers are thinking, buy the book.
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
Nearly exclusively SF.
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
My definition of SF
- It has a sense of wonder
- It extrapolates (unlike Fantasy, which reflects)
- It is cutting edge
The last probably needs some explanation. Consider a book such as The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Whilst an entertaining read with many Sfnal elements in it, I don’t think there was anything genuinely new in her treatment of the idea of Time Travel. This is not a problem, the book works well as a romance with a touch of SF in the background. Granted, if you took away the Time Travel the story wouldn’t work, so by Pohl’s definition it’s a Science Fiction story, but I would argue that ideas such as Time Travel have expanded out of SF and into the mainstream (think about all those James Bond films with a Science Fiction weapon as the plot driver). This is why I think SF needs to be cutting edge. If we keep going around and around the same ideas and not adding anything new, then we are missing that indefinable part of the genre that we all recognise from when we first began to read SF aged 11 or 12.
I try to I bring something new or cutting edge in my writing (although I am sure there will be many who claim to have seen it all before) but I attempt to bring something new in my treatment of SF themes. Whether I succeed or not is down to others to decide.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
I didn’t choose to write SF, it chose me. It’s the extrapolation thing: there is something in my nature that looks at a dragon, a ray gun or a love affair and thinks “Now how or why would that work?” (and if the answer is it wouldn’t, I write a story about something else.)
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
I’ve just spent ten minutes using Google to try and find a half remembered George Orwell quote where he said something along the lines of being English means you remember the smell of mutton cooking from your childhood. Maybe you know the quote. Getting to the point, I think that SF should be about getting away from the certainties of childhood. I think that those certainties and habits instilled at an early age are what makes us British or French or Japanese or whatever. They are fascinating, they should be examined, but they are not what SF is about.
Saying all that, my characters tend not to understand what is going on, they can’t explain how the world they inhabit works, and they respond to, rather than shape events. I think this is more a British trait than American.
5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why
(or why not)?
I return to two settings in my work: South Street, a reflection of parts of the East End of London where I used to live, and Bridleworth, a reflection of the area of the North West where I now reside.
Much of my work is set on other worlds, so mostly the question does not apply, but two of my short story cycles are set in the near future, and I anchored them in the two locations above so as to lend them familiarity, to contrast the strangeness of the SF with normality of everyday life. As they were what I knew best, I set them where I lived. They were British settings, then, because I am British and they reflect my unspoken assumptions and my unconscious prejudices. They are not intended to be an examination of Britishness, rather a realistic backdrop against which the SF plays out.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
Diana Wynne Jones, for making me want to write
Chris Beckett, for his way of getting everything out of an idea,
J.L. Carr for giving me an appreciation of how every word can count
Larry Niven, for his logical, structured approach
The two Davids, Lodge and Nobbs for showing that character is not enough, it is the interactions between characters that make a story and
Pat Mills for his breadth of influence
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Every time I think I’ve noted a different response, something comes along to change my mind. In my experience it is the individual editors’ responses, regardless of their nationality, that are very different .
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy
between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
The Americans are more vocal!
Apart from that, I really don’t know.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
Good SF should make the reader realise the world is a much weirder place than they first thought, that their life so far has been very narrow and provincial, and, most importantly, it should make them want to get out there and understand our place in the Universe and not to accept anything but the truth for an answer.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
Not a weakness as such, but there are some SF stories that have to be told in simple, straightforward style if the reader is to follow them. Stories told in such a prosaic way can be dismissed by those seeking a more literary style, however I feel they are missing the point. I feel we are failing as a genre for not successfully communicating our aims to the wider public. Worse, we fall into the trap of trying include elements or styles into our work that don’t need to be there.
An example would be the recent series of Dr Who. I heard episodes being praised for their treatment of character, relationships and romance. The Science Fictional element was mentioned rarely, if at all. Now, it could be argued that the programs were family entertainment, not Science Fiction, and this is fair enough, but good Science Fiction has additional elements to character and style. You can remove the latter two and still have good Science Fiction. We should give more recognition to that fact and not slavishly try to emulate the mainstream.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in
British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
The growing professionalism of the small press, and the quality of the product they produce. The internet may change things in the future, but the physical press is still the goal of most writers, and the medium of choice for readers. Two major prizes have been won this year by books published by small presses (Arthur C Clarke- Ian McLeod and Edge Hill Short Story- Chris Beckett) I think we are going to see more of this in the future.
A short story of mine, appearing in Edison’s Frankenstein, aka Postscripts 20/21, out now.
On a world of intelligent robots who seem to have forgotten their own distant past, it is a time of war as the soldiers of Artemis City set out to conquer everything within range on the continent of Shull, killing or converting every robot they capture to their philosophy, while viewing their own wire-based minds as nothing but metal to be used or recycled for the cause.
Elsewhere, the more individualistic robots of Turing City believe they are something more than metal, but when the Artemisian robot Kavan sets out on a determined crusade to prove himself, even Turing City can’t stand against him.
Increasingly tied up with Kavan’s destiny is Karel, a Turing robot with elements of Artemis’ philosophy already woven into his mind …as well as Karel’s wife Susan, and their recently created child. Following the inevitable violence and destruction, Artemisian ambition focuses elsewhere and a journey begins towards the frozen kingdoms of the north …and towards the truth about the legendary “Book of Robots”, a text which may finally explain the real history of this strange world.
In a completely alien but brilliantly realized landscape, here is a powerful story of superb action, barbaric cruelty and intense emotional impact.
Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm. Crouching in an old shell hole, searing white lightning arcing above them as the charged night sought release, Liza paused in the act of twisting wire and gazed up at her husband.
‘Is everything all right?’ Kurtz asked. The sky flared, and gravel tipped from the rim and rolled to the base of their shelter. It was a night of changes: far across the dark plain, Artemis was on the march; attacking the distant city state of Stark.
‘Are you worried by the fighting?’ pressed Kurtz. ‘Shall we go back to Turing City?’
‘No,’ she smiled at him. ‘Stark is a long way from here. What sort of a child would we make if we were to run at the slightest disturbance?’
His eyes glowed soft yellow, a gentle contrast to the raw power tearing the night apart above them. As she spoke again, her voice crackled with the static of the storm. ‘I have reached the point. Have you decided?’
‘Yes,’ whispered Kurtz. ‘A boy.’
Liza nodded and returned to her work, her hands moving in the feminine manner as she wove a mind from the twisted wire that Kurtz made for her.
‘Thank you,’ said Kurtz, watching her movements with fascination.
‘Thank you for what?’
‘For giving me the choice.’
‘It’s tradition,’ Liza replied simply, her hands ever moving.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured.
‘For trusting me. For not asking if I am really weaving what you asked for.’
‘It’s tradition,’ said Kurtz.
There was a sizzling crash, and several lightning bolts arced down, earthing themselves through crude plugs of raw iron that had thrust themselves up from the stone plain. Glowing plasma formed an arch in the sky, burning its way into the electrocells of Kurtz’s and Liza’s eyes.
‘That came from Stark,’ observed Kurtz, the purple lines of lightning slowly fading from their vision. ‘Their Tesla towers are too powerful. Artemis won’t defeat them tonight.’
‘Good,’ murmured Liza, still weaving busily. ‘Good.’
‘It only means that they’ll attack again,’ said Kurtz despondently.
‘And they’ll keep attacking until they have defeated Stark, and then Segre, and then Bethe. And then it will be our turn.’
‘Shhh . . .’ said Liza. ‘Not tonight. Let them sort out their own problems. Just concentrate on us . . .’
‘Yes,’ said Kurtz, and he relaxed, allowed his electromuscles to discharge a little.
Liza worked carefully on, twisting Kurtz’s wire into a mind. The little body that would house that mind lay at their feet. A smart little body, lovingly built by Kurtz out of steel and brass, the whole then painted in black and gold stripes by Liza. A beautiful little body, its skull gaping open, ready for the mind she was twisting to be inserted. It already had a name: Liza and Kurtz’s little boy would be called Karel. Karel. A lovely name for a lovely child, due to be born in the midst of less than lovely times.
Liza and Kurtz crouched together in an old shell hole, the remnant of a long-spent war, making their own little expression of peace while electric bolts fanned across the sky, painting themselves on the canvas provided by Zuse, the night moon.
Meanwhile, a low rumbling spread across the stone plain. Artemis machinery being destroyed: they had attacked Stark too soon. The rhythm of Liza’s movements had changed.
‘What are you weaving now?’ asked Kurtz.
‘His sense of self,’ said Liza. ‘His sense of otherness. Isn’t it obvious?’
‘No, I see your hands move and all I see is twisting. It has no order or meaning to me.’
Liza smiled. ‘Now I am giving him your stubbornness.’ Her hands danced lightly, tweaking, turning, teasing.
‘I’m not stubborn,’ he protested.
‘You’ll stand your ground, even when you suspect you’re wrong. You’d rather see a bad argument through to the end than change your opinion. It’s not your most attractive characteristic, but,’ she shrugged, ‘there are worse things to be ashamed of.’
‘But I don’t want my child to be stubborn. Take it out!’
‘The weave must balance.’
Kurtz said nothing, and Liza knew he understood. He would have seen children who walked and talked and performed simple tasks and nothing more, seen the way other mothers would look at them with sympathy or disapproval. The mother tried too hard, they would say. The weave doesn’t balance.
The electrical storm was rising in intensity: an incredible tearing sound ripping across the world. White light poured down from the sky to the east, a waterfall of light increasing in flux. A curtain of electricity was fast being drawn across the horizon, a flood of light that blasted the plain; the squat iron plugs firing ultra-black shadows westwards. The reddish stones kicked across the plain by the metal feet of so many robots drew long lines of darkness towards Turing City itself.
‘What is going on out there?’ wondered Kurtz aloud. ‘Is that the battle or the elements?’
‘Shhh,’ said Liza. ‘Let the rest of the world take care of itself. We have our own child to attend to.’
‘Artemis,’ reflected Kurtz. ‘If we were Artemisians, we would be making this child very differently . . .’
‘Do you want that?’ teased Liza. ‘I could make Karel think only of the glory of the Artemisian state. Is that really what you want?’
To her surprise, Kurtz did not answer straight away.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, slowly. ‘There’s no denying how successful Artemis is. Their forges grow larger every month.’ He lowered his voice.
‘Is that what you really want?’ asked Liza, soft yellow eyes glowing, hands never ceasing their manipulation of the warm, pliable metal. ‘Tell me now, Kurtz. We are of Turing City State. We can make our child share its values, respect itself and others as individuals, or we can make our child strong and empty, just like an Artemisian. What do you really believe in?’
‘Liza, I don’t know. I know we agreed, but are we sure we are right to do this? Turing City will only succeed if all the children really believe in what we stand for. If just a few of them turn and run, the rest of us will fall. All it takes is a few children. Do we want to condemn our own child to be the one remaining while others are running?’
‘But if we all stand together we will have a better life. After all, we want what’s best for our boy.’
‘But which is the best?’
Liza couldn’t stop moving her hands: she couldn’t allow the pliable wire to set.
‘You choose,’ urged Kurtz.
‘No. You choose.’
‘But it’s such a huge responsibility. Choices like this could change the world.’
‘Never mind the rest of the world,’ said Liza. ‘This is just about us. Come on, individual or drone, which is it to be? Turing City or Artemis?’
The world seemed to pause. The wall of lightning held its breath, just hanging in the air in a blaze of white. The rumble of explosions to the east ceased. In that moment of stillness, Kurtz told her, and she nodded, and began the final part of the weave.
‘Almost done,’ she said.
The tearing noise stopped abruptly. The storm died, the wash of light fading, the stones and iron plugs of the plain inhaling their long shadows. And the world changed.
Kurtz groaned, and Liza looked up, saw the green glow fading from his eyes.
‘Kurtz?’ she said. Slowly his body rocked forward and fell to the ground, just a collection of jointed metal.
‘Kurtz!’ called Liza. ‘Oh Zuse no.’ She stood up, the blue wire trailing from her hands to where it emerged from Kurtz’s body.
She looked around, barely comprehending what had happened. Had it been the lightning, she wondered; had it hit her husband? But the sky was now so still and dark. Then she heard the sound of metal on bare rock. Footsteps? Someone loomed out of the darkness. A metal body, dented and scarred. Red eyes glowing in infrared, iron hands gripping a projectile weapon. The dull grey paintwork of an Artemisian soldier. He walked easily towards her, rifle pointing loosely in her direction.
‘You killed him,’ said Liza.
‘I killed him.’ The soldier looked down at the warm wire, still being twisted in Liza’s hands.
‘You can let go now,’ he said. ‘There isn’t enough metal left there to complete your child.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Liza. ‘What would any man know about that?’
The soldier ignored her question. ‘I heard you both talking,’ he said. ‘Even through the storm.’ He tapped one of the overlarge directional microphones on the side of his head. Then he pointed at poor Kurtz’s dead body. ‘Do you really think he made the right choice?’
‘Of course I do.’ she said quietly. She was looking at the remaining length of wire, calculating.
The Artemisian robot shrugged. ‘You would say that, I suppose.’
‘What are you doing here?’ asked Liza. ‘Why are Artemis trespassing into Turing City State?’
‘Haven’t you heard? Bethe has just fallen. Artemis is the largest forge on this plain now.’
‘Bethe?’ said Liza. ‘I thought you were attacking Stark!’
‘Stark?’ laughed the robot. ‘Not likely. Not with their Tesla towers to defend them. No, that was just a little misdirection. Bethe first, then Segre. Then we’ll be right on Stark’s doorstep. And then we’ll see.’
Liza wasn’t listening. Kurtz lay dead at her feet, his wire still twisted around her hands, cooling, dying. She felt as if something was dying within herself too, leaving nothing but a cold emptiness inside her metal shell.
‘Kurtz,’ she whispered. ‘Kurtz, what am I to do?’
There was no reply. She was on her own now. A cold determination began to rise up within her. ‘Kurtz made his choice,’ she murmured to herself. ‘Kurtz was right.’
She had forgotten about those overlarge ears on the Artemisian robot. He picked up what she had muttered. He laughed.
‘That’s easy for you to say now,’ he said, ‘not that you will ever know. I saved you the choice. There is not enough wire for the child to be born.’
Again, Liza looked at the wire that trailed from her hands, recalculating.
‘There is just enough,’ she decided.
The dull grey robot’s hands tightened around his rifle. ‘I should dash tha⁴ wire from your hands now; make you lose your place.’
Liza’s voice trembled. ‘But you haven’t.’ She clutched the wire tighter.
‘Go on,’ said the soldier. ‘Finish the mind. Finish it the way he said.’
Liza did nothing. With a low whirr, the soldier brought his gun to bear on her.
‘Do it, or, so help me, I will shoot you too. I have one charge left.’ He laughed.
‘Hey, you can be just like Nyro. You’ve heard of Nyro, haven’t you?’
The lightning flared again, and, just for a moment, Liza could have sworn that the robot flinched and looked up to the sky.
‘Yes, I’ve heard of Nyro,’ she said.
Liza began to twist wire once more. She rolled her eyes up to meet those of the soldier, her metal face taking on an odd expression.
‘You’re doing it,’ said the soldier, in surprise. ‘Or are you? I find it hard to believe you’re really making that child his way. Not after I killed him. Not with me standing here with a gun like this, raping you. You don’t really believe that he made the right choice, do you? I can’t believe you would really do what he said.’
Liza continued weaving. She was almost done.
‘Well?’ said the soldier.
‘I’m not telling you,’ said Liza. ‘You’ll never know.’
It was so quiet on the plain now, so quiet and dark. The climax of the battle had passed, and Bethe had fallen. Even now Artemisian soldiers would be penetrating its streets, ripping it apart, remaking it in the image of Artemis itself.
And look what’s happening here, thought Liza, staring at the red eyes of the man opposite, the dark aperture of his rifle’s muzzle fixed upon her head. She concentrated again on the wire. There was life in that forming mind already. She could feel it begin to pulse. All that remained was to tie it off and bring the mind into existence. She made to start the knot, and hesitated, remembering what her mother had told her: it wasn’t until this point that you truly understood what life was about.
Liza had never really understood until now, but here it was, staring her in the face. Should Liza now tie the knot as a seal and wake a simple, mechanical mind that would live indefinitely? Or should she tie it the other way, in the fuse, to create a living, thinking being, and, in doing so, condemn it to death in thirty or forty years’ time?
In the end she did as her mother had done, and her mother before her. She tied the fuse. Something came to life.
‘Hello Karel,’ she murmured. She looked over at the dead body of her husband. ‘Here he is, Kurtz. We did it. Here’s our little boy.’
Carefully she placed the mind into the tiny body and snicked the skull shut.
‘All finished,’ she said to the soldier.
The soldier looked from her to the child. ‘Did you really do it?’ he asked.
‘I’m not telling you,’ replied Liza.
‘Then I shall say goodbye, Tokvah.’
He raised his rifle once more, pointing it at her head. Her gyros were wobbling, but she held herself steady.
‘Then shoot me,’ she said. ‘But you’ll never know.’
The robot stared at her, his red eyes glowing. Liza held his gaze, determined not to flinch, even here at the end. She was ready to die.
And then the robot lowered his gun.
‘There is a way to find out . . .’ he said.
In deep space, far from Earth, Judy senses a change of mood aboard the passenger ship she travels on…and a quick investigation reveals that the craft is succumbing to a mysterious alien infestation. Just as hope seems lost, a group of combat drones appears to rescue all the passengers, except Judy – who is told she is the property of a forgotten mega-corporation based on Earth.
Returned against her wishes to an Earth under constant assault from the same alien infestation, Judy begins to learn her place in a conspiracy billions of years old. But is she ready to take on the benign, omnipotent, all-seeing Watcher who guides human destiny?
And destroy it?
Edward sat in the conference room, his hands covering his face, his feet on his chair so that his knees were drawn up to his chest.
“I don’t like them,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” snapped Saskia, striding into the room.
“That’s not going to calm him down, is it?” said Judy, quite reasonably. She placed a reassuring hand on the big man’s shoulder, and said something softly that Maurice couldn’t hear.
The cause of Edward’s distress could be seen floating in a viewing field above the black shiny table.
“What are they?” asked Maurice.
“We don’t know,” admitted Judy. “Nor does Aleph.”
She pointed to a viewing field, where the system-repair robot they had picked up from the Petersburg could be seen clinging to the hull of their ship. Aleph gave Maurice a cheery wave.
Maurice gave a half-hearted wave in return as he moved closer to the images. They reminded him of flowers: they were all the same size and shape, roughly spherical. Their surfaces were spectacularly coloured, bursts of yellow and red and orange tangled around each other in fractally entwined patterns that deepened to a dark rose at a focus. Maurice understood why Edward seemed so frightened. The patterns on those flowers were unnerving: they gave the impression that they were looking straight at you.
To conceal his uneasiness, Maurice pulled out his console and brought up a scale reading. The flowers registered as just over thirty centimetres in diameter. He called up a topographical mapping.
“The readings suggest that they are not completely spherical,” he announced. “There is an indentation at the other side of these objects. They’re hollow. So what’s inside?”
“We don’t know,” said Saskia. “They’re turning so as to face us as we travel. It’s like they are always keeping their back to us, not letting us see what they’re hiding.”
Maurice rubbed his chin. “Oh. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
“Nor has Aleph,” said Judy.
“I don’t like them,” repeated Edward. He noted Saskia’s glare. “They’re not right,” he whined. “They’re alien!”
Judy rubbed his arm gently and spoke to him in a voice learned from Social Care.
“Edward, they’re not alien. Aleph says so.”
“Aleph is an alien himself! Why should we believe him?”
“There are no such things as aliens,” snapped Saskia, looking painfully thin and bristling with nerves. “I already told you that. We have never found aliens on any of the planets we’ve visited, and humans have travelled a very long way. Aleph is just a system-repair robot.”
“Easy, Saskia,” said Maurice. “Hmm, has there been any sign of the Bailero yet?”
“Of course not.” Saskia was scathing. “We got stiffed again.”
Maurice tapped at his console. “We’re in the middle of empty space,” he said thoughtfully. “The closest star is over three parsecs away. Hmmm, if I were an AI escaping from Earth on a warp ship, this would be just the place I would choose to hide. Right where no one ever comes.”
“Hide maybe,” said Saskia irritably, “but not a very good place to build an empire from. There are no raw materials out here. The Free Enterprise said it was manufactured by the Bailero. Out of what, though?”
“I don’t know,” said Maurice. He gestured at the orange-red eyes of the flowers. “Maybe out of those things. Are there any more of them around?”
“Not that we know of.”
Maurice concentrated on his console. The space flowers- or whatever they were- were about 200 kilometres distant. The Eva Rye was currently at rest relative to them. He checked back on the search pattern that he had programmed: a three-dimensional spiral that swept out a path through a volume of space that was covered by the limits of the ship’s senses. Long-distance senses had picked up the flowers from nine hundred kilometres back, and had watched them closely as the ship slowed to a halt. And the flowers had turned to watch the Eva Rye right back.
“Odd,” said Maurice. “I wonder what they are hiding inside? Let’s try and catch them out. Aleph?”
“I’m going to take the Eva Rye up and over to the other side of those things. Why don’t you let go of our hull and just stay floating here? If they turn to follow us, you might then get a look at what they’re concealing.”
“Maurice,” said reprovingly, “that wasn’t part of our contract.”
“Aleph, there should be an antique Warp Ship waiting here for us, payment for taking Judy to Earth. Instead we have found space flowers. Look at it this way, Aleph, if there is no ship, there is no contract, so we will not be going to Earth.”
“There’ll be a ship,” said Judy resignedly.
Saskia glared at her. Maurice ignored them.
“Help us, Aleph, and we’ll soon be on our way.”
“Oh, very well,” said Aleph. “I’m letting go of your hull. Off you go now.”
Maurice’s fingers danced across his console. “Where’s Miss Rose?” he asked, casually.
“In her room, of course,” said Saskia. “This is just wasting fuel, you know.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” asked Maurice. “Should we just ignore those things and sit here waiting for the Bailero to turn up of its own accord?”
Saskia said nothing to that.
“Fuel?” said Judy suddenly, her head tilted to the side. “The Eva Rye uses fuel?”
“Oh yes,” said Saskia bitterly. “That’s part of the FE deal. Apparently use of such things as AIs and VNMs and unlimited engine range only gives us the idea that we can get something for nothing. That’s contrary to the FE philosophy. Though, of course, in our case we seem to get nothing for something every time we do a deal…”
Saskia sensed that she had lost her audience’s interest. She took a green apple from the white bowl in the centre of the table, and bit into it. She crunched on it noisily as the Eva Rye began to move.
“I don’t like this,” moaned Edward. “I don’t like this!”
“Shh,” said Judy.
“The Petersburg did warn us,” complained Saskia, but Maurice tuned her out.
They watched the flowers intently. The red and yellow and orange blooms hung there, apparently motionless.
“…which means they are turning to follow us,” said Maurice. “They are still trying to conceal their contents. Aleph, what can you see?”
“Nothing as yet,” said Aleph. “Keep going. I can see them turning. They are… Oh damn!”
The crew of the Eva Rye saw it happening at the same time. The flowers seemed to move together, their hidden mouths joining together to kiss and conceal.
“Now what?” said Saskia.
Welcome to the year 2252—and congratulations! You’re now a personality construct. We know that can be a daunting stage of personal development,especially if you don’t remember making this life-changing decision. But we’re here to help….
Helen is waking to a dark new reality—one that she’s certain she didn’t choose. In this borrowed existence, she finds an unexpected guide in Judy, a geisha-faced virgin who’s on a mission of her own. Together, the two of them begin a dangerous run through dozens of imagined worlds in an attempt to trap a psychopath haunting the shadowed areas of virtual space—a killer who brutally murdered an earlier version of Helen and who plans to kill again. Meanwhile, Justinian is investigating a peculiar rash of AI suicides on far-off planets—and finds that not only is there more to these “deaths” than he thought, but that they may be linked to his wife Anya’s mysterious coma.
In a future where AIs have taken over human life and the Environment Agency runs everything for our own good, the fact that we can live on after physical death as sentient digital beings should have been a good thing. Instead, as Helen and Justinian are about to discover, it just means there are more ways to die.
The AI pod rested in a little indentation in the bank. It seemed almost unchanged from its dormant state: a smooth fluorescent green kidney bean the size of Justinian, had he taken it into his head to curl up in the foetus position there in the stinking mud. Three BVBs had wrapped themselves around its surface, a few Schrödinger boxes were scattered across the mud before it.
“Hello,” said the pod.
“Hello, I’m Justinian.”
“Hello, Justinian.” The pod’s voice was eager, like a child, fascinated by the world.
“Have you seen these little boxes? As soon as you take your eye off any of them, they jump to another position. But as long as you are looking at them, they stay put.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Justinian, feeling fed up with this pod already. He had been conducting interviews all over the planet, asking the same questions over and over again, and each time receiving exactly the same answers. It was getting tedious beyond belief. For this pod, of course, it was all new.
“Do you know what they are?” it asked. “They’re amazing!”
“They’re called Schrödinger boxes,” said Justinian, carefully. The pod wasn’t fooled.
“Ah! So you don’t actually know what they are either. Maybe you can tell me about these bands wrapped around my shell. Do you know what they are, or do you simply have a name for them?”
Justinian was too tired to be insulted. Besides, it was all part of the script.
“We call them BVBs,” he replied. “Look, I’ve got one in here.”
He pulled the plastic rod from the thigh pocket of his passive suit, and waited a moment for the pod to scan it.
“Very interesting,” it said. “Where did you find it?”
“The plastic rod is a table leg. One of the other colonists found the BVB wrapped around it as they were sitting down to breakfast one morning.”
“One of the other colonists? How many are there now on Gateway?”
“Still just a hundred. And me, of course.”
Justinian gave an involuntary shiver as he said these words. It reminded him how far he was from home, and Justinian felt doubly alone. Here he was, standing on a remote mud slick, lost on a planet that floated between galaxies, and yet he felt himself an outsider to the only group of humans for millions of light years. The bright blue belt of M32 rose into the dark sky behind the pod. The Milky Way was a monochrome rainbow in the other direction.
Justinian rubbed a finger across the fuzzy surface of the BVB and wondered at the strangeness of this place. As far as he was concerned, reality was a force that diminished the further one travelled from home: the hundred colonists were treading in a place of dreams where nothing worked as it should. Nor should it be expected to.
The pod spoke in a thoughtful tone.
“I don’t remember anything about BVBs. I wonder why that is?”
“Probably because they weren’t known about when you were conceived. They were only discovered on this planet.”
Justinian crouched down before the pod, looking for external sense cluster formations. There seemed to be nothing. That implied the pod was still operating on internals. Just like all the other pods, in fact.
“BVBs are similar to the Schrödinger boxes,” he continued, his hands glowing fluorescent green as he felt the rubbery surface of the pod. Red mud squelched under his feet and he grabbed onto the pod to maintain his balance. “BVBs only form in spaces that are not being observed, and then they immediately begin to contract.”
“How do you know?” interrupted the pod.
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know that they begin to contract immediately if the space in which they form is not being observed?”
Justinian gave a tired smile
“Good point,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of that before.” He was struck by how much like children the AIs here on Gateway had become. Innocent, but with a sharp eye for detail.
“Someone probably did, they just didn’t explain that part to you.”
Justinian gazed coolly at the pod. And like a child, he thought, they could be incredibly tactless. They quickly figured out that Justinian wasn’t part of the scientific survey team, and then equally quickly lost all respect for him.
His legs were getting tired from crouching, so he straightened up and began to circle the pod, treading carefully on the slippery mud. One careless step and he could end up rolling down the slope into the dark water below.
“Anyway,” he said. “BVBs form in empty spaces. We believe they begin to contract immediately. Sometimes they get tangled around an object; like a pipe or a tree branch. The slightest touch on their inside surface stops them contracting; nothing can make them expand again. And they’re unbreakable. Nothing can cut through them.”
“Oh…” the pod’s voice was almost wistful. “What does BVB stand for?”
“Black Velvet Band. Named after an old song, apparently.”
Justinian rested a hand on the warm surface of the pod. He looked at the three BVBs that had formed on its supple skin. “If you rearrange your external structure to make your skin frictionless they’ll slip right off.”
There was a moment’s pause before the pod spoke.
“You can,” said Justinian. “All AI pods have multiform integuments. Yours is just set to dormant mode at the moment. Wake it up.”
“I can’t,” said the pod. It sounded embarrassed. “I don’t understand how to work the mechanism. I can see the potentials arranged before me, but I don’t understand how to achieve them.”
Justinian yawned again; looking out across the water. A pale glow had appeared over there as dawn approached. He wondered if he could make out the shape of another mud bank, slowly materialising from the blackness.
“You’ve heard all this before, haven’t you?” said the pod shrewdly. “Who are you? Why are you here? You’re obviously not one of the regular surveyors.”
There it was again: all the pods so far had figured this out. They might be acting like children, but they still had intelligence at least equal to his own. And, stripped down though their intelligences were, they still had access to vast libraries of data. Data that covered many, many subjects. How to read body language would be just one of them.
Justinian played it straight. “My name is Justinian. I’m a counsellor. I’ve been brought to Gateway to try and figure out why AIs aren’t thriving here.”
“A counsellor?” said the pod. “What sort of a counsellor? MTPH?”
“Originally. I work mainly with personality constructs nowadays.”
“Personality constructs? Does that make a difference?”
“It shouldn’t do. You have to retrain in the use of MTPH….”
“I suppose that’s one reason for sending you here to speak to me,” said the pod thoughtfully. “Still, I would have thought the reasons for my failure would be beyond human intelligence. I would have thought the investigation would be a job for an AI.”
Justinian spoke in his most sarcastic voice.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, AIs don’t seem to want to work on Gateway. So far I’ve interviewed fourteen of the thirty two pods that were seeded here. All of them have been exactly like you: drastically reduced versions of their former selves. Virtual suicides.”
The pod seemed unbothered by his tone.
“Really? So it wasn’t just me, then…”
The pod was silent for a moment. When it spoke, Justinian thought that there was an edge of fear to its voice. That was silly, of course. The pod could make its voice sound however it wanted it to sound.
“So that’s why they sent a human. But why you, I wonder? There’s more, isn’t there, Justinian? There’s a reason why they chose you in particular.”
It is the twenty-third century. Herb, a young entrepreneur, returns to the isolated planet on which he has illegally been trying to build a city–and finds it destroyed by a swarming nightmare of self-replicating machinery. Worse, the all-seeing Environment Agency has been watching him the entire time. His punishment? A nearly hopeless battle in the farthest reaches of the universe against enemy machines twice as fast, and twice as deadly, as his own–in the company of a disarmingly confident AI who may not be exactly what he claims…
Little does Herb know that this war of machines was set in motion nearly two hundred years ago–by mankind itself. For it was then that a not-quite-chance encounter brought a confused young girl and a nearly omnipotent AI together in one fateful moment that may have changed the course of humanity forever
Herb 1: 2210
Herb looked at the viewing field and felt his stomach tighten in horror. He had been expecting to see a neat cityscape: line after line of silver needles linked by lacy bridges, cool silver skyscrapers shot through with pink tinted crystal windows; artfully designed to resemble the spread of colours on a petal. Instead he saw… bleak nothingness. Cold, featureless, gently undulating wasteland spreading in all directions.
Something had gone badly wrong. Suddenly the cosy white leather and polished yellow wood lounge of his spaceship was not the safe cocoon he had grown used to over the past few months. Now they would be coming to prise him from this warm, cushioned shell to cast him shivering into the real world, all because he had made one tiny mistake.
Somehow he had made a mess of the code that should have told the Von Neumann Machines to stop reproducing and start building.
Herb’s machines had eaten up an entire planet.
But there was nothing to be gained now by crying about it. Herb had known he was on his own when he embarked upon this project. It was up to him to figure out what had gone wrong, and then to extract himself from the situation.
He opened a second viewing field next to the first and called up an image of his prototype Von Neumann Machine. A cylinder, nine centimetres long, with eight silver legs spaced along its body giving it an insectile appearance. Six months ago Herb had dropped out of warp right over this planet, opened the hatch of his spaceship, and stood in solemn silence for a moment before dropping that same machine onto the desolate, rocky surface below.
What had happened next?
Herb liked to pace when he was thinking, and he had arranged his spaceship lounge to allow him room to do so. Two white sofas facing each other occupied the centre of the room. A wide moat of parquet flooring filled the space between the sofas and the surrounding furniture that lined the walls of the room. The smell of beeswax polish and fresh coffee filled the cabin. Herb closed his eyes as he ran through the order of events after he had released the Von Neumann Machine- a mental dry run to try and isolate the problem.
He imagined that first VNM turning on six of its spindly legs, lifting them in a high stepping motion as it sought to orientate itself. The remaining two legs would be extended forward, acting as antennae, vibrating slightly as they read the little machine’s surroundings. It would have walked a few paces, tiny grains of sand sticking to its silver grey limbs, then maybe changed direction and moved again, executing a random path until it found a patch of rock of just the right composition and then settled itself down, folding its legs around itself to bring its Osmotic shell in contact with the surface.
His thoughts on track, Herb began to pace in a circle around one sofa, soft ships’ slippers padding on the wooden floor. He was naked except for a pair of paper shorts. Two hairs grew from his sunken chest; whose pallor had caused the ship’s computer to steadily increase the UV content of the lighting over the past two days, in order to stimulate vitamin D production. Okay, what next?
In his imagination he saw that first machine, absorbing matter, converting it, working it, and sending it around that half twisted loop that no human mind could comprehend. Soon there would be two identical machines standing on the rock, their legs waving in an explorative fashion. And then four of them, then eight…
The program was perfect, or so the simulations had told him. When they reached the optimum number the machines should have begun constructing his city out of their own bodies. Clambering on top of each other using the sticky pads on the ends of their feet. Herb was proud of the design of those pads: each seemingly smooth foot ended in a chaotic branching of millions upon millions of tiny strands. Press one foot down and the hairs would spread out, reaching down and around to follow the contours of the surface beneath them so perfectly that they were attracted to it at a molecular level.
Not that any of that mattered now. This was the point where the error lay. The machines hadn’t paused to build his city. They’d just gone on reproducing, continued eating up the planet to make copies of themselves until there was nothing left. He opened his eyes again to look at the view field. Maybe he had only imagined it.
No way. Herb groaned as the view zoomed in on the cold grey shifting sea beneath. He could make out the busy motion of thousands, millions of VNMs walking over and under each other, struggling to climb upwards to the surface only to be trodden on and forced down by other VNMs, each equally determined about seeking the light. Wasn’t that part of the end program? City spires, growing upwards, seeking the light in the manner of plants? Herb groaned again at the endless perpetual motion beneath his ship. Everywhere he looked, everywhere the ship’s senses could reach; out to the horizon, down to the submerged layers of machines; it was the same: frenzied pointless activity.
He paused and felt a sudden thrill of horror. That wasn’t quite true. Something was happening directly below. He could see a wave building beneath him: a swelling in the grey, rolling surface. Thousands of pairs of tiny silver antennae were now waving in his direction. They sensed the ship hanging there. They sensed raw materials that could be converted into yet more silver VNMs. Herb felt a peculiar mix of horror and betrayal.
He croaked out a command. “Ship. Up one hundred metres!”
The ship smoothly gained altitude and Herb began to pace again. He needed to think, to isolate the error; but he couldn’t concentrate because one thought kept jumping in front of all the others.
He was in serious trouble. The EA would have been upset enough by the thought of a private city being built on an unapproved planet. Never mind the fact that the planet was sterile and uninhabited, they would still point out the fact that a city wasn’t part of this planet’s natural environmental vectors.
“We are uniquely placed to manipulate not only our environment, but also that of other races as yet unborn. It is our responsibility not to abuse that privilege.”
The message was as much part of Herb’s childhood as the smell of damp grass, the dull brown tedium of Cultural Appreciation lessons and the gentle but growing certainty that whatever he wanted was his for the asking. Everything, that is, but this. Everyone knew the EA’s philosophy.
So what would the EA think when they discovered that in failing to build his illegal city he had accidentally destroyed an entire planet instead?
Herb didn’t remember setting out a bottle of vanilla whiskey on the carved glass slab that served as a side table. Nonetheless, he poured a drink and felt himself relax a little. His next moves began to fall into place.
First he had to try and destroy any evidence linking this planet with himself.
Next he had to get away from here undetected.
Then he had to slot back into normal life as if nothing had happened.
Then, and only then, could pause to think about what had gone wrong with his prototype.
The first objective should be quite straightforward. The original VNM had been designed with anonymity in mind: standard parts, modular pieces of code taken from public libraries. The thought that someone might accidentally stumble across his planet had always been at the back of his mind. He gulped down some more whiskey and an idea seemed to crystallise from the concentrated alcohol. He prodded it gently.
Of course, so far as Herb knew, no one else even knew that this planet existed. He had jumped across space at random and set his ships senses wide to find a suitable location. What if this planet were just to disappear? What if he dropped a second VNM onto it- one with a warp drive and access to a supply of exotic matter? Set it loose converting all the original machines, and then, when that work was done, just jump them all into the heart of a star?
Could he do it?
Getting hold of enough exotic matter to build the warp drives of the modified VNMs would be a problem; but his father had contacts, so that could come later. He had to get away first.
He could do that. A random series of jumps around the galaxy, eventually returning to Earth. Enough jumps, executed quickly enough and nothing would be able to retrace his course.
Good. Now, how about slotting back into normal life? Would anyone suspect him? More to the point, would the EA suspect anything? Their senses were everywhere. They said the EA could look into someone’s soul and weigh the good and evil contained therein to twenty decimal places, and yet… and yet…
Herb was different. He had known it since he was a child. Sometimes it was as if he was merely a silhouette. Like he was there in outline, but they couldn’t fill in any of the specific details.
If anyone could get away with it, it was Herb.
A gentle breeze brushed his face and he felt his spirits lift. He took another gulp of whiskey and felt its reassuring warmth as he swallowed. Alcohol and the flooding sense of relief made the lounge resume its feeling of comfort and security. The plan was good. He could get away with it.
“I can get away with it,” he whispered to himself, his confidence growing. Another drink of whiskey and that familiar sense of his own invulnerability swung slowly back into place. Get back home, and he would be able to examine the design of his VNM and discover what had gone wrong with it. He drained the glass and began to stride around the room, feet padding on the wooden floor, energy suddenly bubbling inside him.
“I’m going to get away with it!” he said out loud, punching at the air with a fist, whiskey slopping from the glass held in his other hand. And then, once he was home, once he had found the error in his design, he could find himself another planet. Build his city there instead.
“I will get away with it!” he cried triumphantly.
“No you won’t.”
The glass slipped from Herb’s fingers. He spun around and fell into a crouch position; ready to run or fight, though where he would run to in a three room spaceship his body hadn’t yet decided.
A slight, dark haired man with a wide, white, beaming smile and midnight black skin stood on the sheepskin rug between the facing sofas. He wore an immaculately tailored suit in dark cloth with a pearl grey pin stripe. Snowy white cuffs peeped from the edge of his sleeves; gleaming patent leather shoes were half hidden by the razor sharp creases of trousers. The man raised his hat, a dark fedora with a spearmint green band, to Herb.
“Good Afternoon, Henry Jeremiah Kirkham. My name is Robert Johnston. I work for the Environment Agency.”
(Please note, this list is incomplete. I’m working on updating this blog…)
Nature, issue March 19th 2009
In the Anthology WE THINK THEREFORE WE ARE, edited by Peter Crowther (DAW, 2009)
In the Anthology SUBTERFUGE, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2008)
Why are Rocks?
Hub Issue 40, edited by Lee Harris
Matthew’s Passion (with Eric Brown)
KETHANI by Eric Brown (Solaris, 2008)
In the Anthology THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION, edited by George Mann (Solaris, 2007)
Reprinted in THE YEAR’s BEST SF 13, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
In the Anthology FAST FORWARD 1, edited by Lou Anders (PYR, 2007)
Reprinted in THE YEAR’s BEST SF 13, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
The Robot and the Octopus
A Matter of Mathematics
In the Anthology THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF NEW JULES VERNE ADVENTURES, edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown
In the anthology CONSTELLATIONS, edited by Peter Crowther (DAW, 2005)
The Ugly Truth
The Waters of Meribah
Reprinted in THE YEAR’s BEST SF 9, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Teaching the War Robot to Dance
Restoring the Balance, 2
Restoring the Balance
A New Beginning
The Blue Magnolia
The Third Alternative 22
Reprinted in the Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley
The Sixth VNM