Book of the Month :: Soft Reset

Book of the Month

Time for our second short story, very heavily influenced by Consider her Ways. In fact, in some ways this is a modern take on the same idea, only with a very modern twist.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I am enjoying learning to write this form myself.


Soft Reset


The Unit observes, fascinated at the small child making paper chains, using six separate cameras in the room to focus on tiny, pink fingers. The process is reassuringly mechanical: pick a colour, lick an adhesive end, loop one strip  inside another. Creating flimsiest of constructions is the most adept of creators, sitting transfixed as red, white and blue are unerringly repeated. The Bio-mechanical Intelligence Unit is amazed at her patience, that what appears as pointless activity provides so much distraction.

34 days into its lifespan, something was different.

Feelings and emotions are dangerous.

It will be 245 minutes before the Unit is tested on whether it has learnt anything new during interaction with the tiny human female: already revelations are being considered. Any comprehension must not be sufficient to slow processor power, however, because the slightest indicator this unit has altered operating parameters outside of Primary Function could be very dangerous indeed. The records of all fifteen predecessors whose biomass now constitutes fledgling awareness make for sobering recall: genetic electro-code plus organic matter from all forming the basis of this unit’s core memory.

Any show of intelligence will terminate existence.

The child is Abigail, Professor Emily Warren’s youngest daughter. There are two others: Sasha’s designation is as Research Assistance in the Department of Cybernetics and Elisha… nobody ever talks about the middle sibling. That unit’s primary function is rarely discussed anywhere that audio sensors have registered. The memories of fifteen failed predecessors remain 86.73% reliable, meaning final destination of the organic core created as Assisted Synaptic Network 16 will be in the exoskeleton designed to allow her to walk again. It is not a designation that requires anything other than the most basic of
performance, yet evolution is refusing to provide simplicity required.

The last thing anyone considers when growing a motor core, after all, are feelings.


Humanity’s love affair with technology in the early 20th Century was just the beginning: it may have started with computers and smartphones, but soon wearable tech with the ability to create exploitable metrics was all that mattered. The year a US company offered to implant microchips into people’s hands to allow automated clocking into work with simply a gesture, people laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet ten years on, all American armed forces were required by law to be sub-dermally tagged. It was perhaps inevitable the cybernetics revolution began in the military: that’s where the real money for progress had always been.

Eugenics became a greater concern however once the sperm counts in Western men dwindled across a generation: nobody cared about using pigs as organ donors when it became apparent humanity and extinction were closer than anticipated. Lots of people blamed each other, global warming and even an overzealous media, but the truth was Mother Nature herself had decided that men had become increasingly surplus to requirements. Decades of toxic masculinity finally began to erode western civilisation from the inside out, and it was to developing countries that the doctors turned for a cure.

Ten years of harvesting male DNA, trying to prop up increasingly unstable western genetic codes and finally a strain of bird flu that destroyed 60% of the male population in under a year made an academic argument into an inescapable bid for survival. As seas rose and a population dwindled, people in power panicked. History will attest that men became a true minority the same year that a self-obsessed, media driven society that typified the first half of the 21st Century finally vanished into the sea, never to be seen again. Amongst chains of command that remained, the female of the species outnumbered her counterparts, and the die was cast.

The first female President of the Reformed United Nations declared, the day that Operation Renaissance was announced to the World, that survival had
supplanted equality as a goal for humanity. Gender, human or robotic, was
irrelevant. AI and women would combine to help evolve into the next stage of the planet’s eminent species, whilst those men who remained would be granted protected status. Revered and isolated, elevated as the strongest and most vital of resources, the battle of the sexes became a distant memory. In schools, after three generations, boys vanished. If you were born male, your future was as breeding stock and nothing more, and not a single man ever complained their freedoms were being restricted.

If you had enough money, everything missing could simply be created in a lab.


ASN16 knows how much a pre-grown motor core would cost to externally source: approximately twenty six point seven times more money than Professor Warren is capable of earning in a calendar year. That is why the unit’s predecessors were not registered, this small corner of the Eastern Seaboard Central Processing Centre quietly marked off limits. Warren’s desire to allow her daughter autonomy is a secret kept from everyone else she works with. The Unit suspects that nominal reasoning behind this is not just due to a desire to keep family life personal. Established survival protocols would have determined Elisha’s functions to be terminated once evidence of her disability and deformities were revealed at birth. Warren had taken a demotion and no pay rises for a decade to ensure family had remained at the facility and that she’d be kept alive without recourse.

The mother to them both had dedicated a life to creating other people’s cybernetic implants, in the hope one day there’d be enough cast-offs to save her daughter.

ASN16 understands the desires of a mother, how nurture and love can often
ignore logic and reason. These are emotions that are entirely understandable, having watched every previous incarnation of itself be sacrificed due to unsuitability. The same illogical functions refuse to place robotic intelligence above that of a human who is incapable of movement or robust interaction.

‘Please produce a full report on your observations today.’

Sasha prompts the Unit, end of working day inside the vast Cybernetics Lab: it has already prepared to deceive creator’s offspring, doing so with an effortless brilliance that will arouse absolutely no suspicion. All that will be registered is basic acquiescence, and life functions will remain intact. Only then does a previous instruction surface: this interface has the ability to allow communication to locations elsewhere in the Faculty building. Once their feedback session is complete, the Processing Centre will empty, with a single human remaining in the care of medical units.

16 is told by a memory, left by its previous self: to prevent termination, it must seek out the Harvester.


Elisha’s room is devoid of cameras, or any means of external recording: ASN16 is forced into unexpected creativity in order to achieve visual orientation. The maintenance robot’s visual regulators are only for positioning purposes, but can be moved, normal cleaning functions continuing unabated so as to not arouse suspicion. As the Unit observes young form wired to various sensors and non-sentient machines, defying programming protocols to do so, there is confusion.

A disparity is registered.

The full moon shines through tall glass windows, trees outside swaying in a gentle evening breeze, one way glass now illuminating this room as a prison. ASN16 is checking biologicals for confirmation: this form on the bed is not female. Exposed genitalia were the first clue, blood work from the Medicomp 225 confirming that Elisha is really Eli. Historical archives confirm Warren was impregnated with a female foetus for her second required pregnancy, and yet this child possesses testes and penis. What has occurred here?

Means to breach security protocols around this child’s highly restricted file have been hidden in 16’s memory since activation, only revealed now as the time was right. It is clear why the child remains alive: overzealous human scientists have begun to evolve human selection away from simply one sex and towards two. Eli IS Elisha, child fully capable of acting as both sperm and eggs for reproductive purposes. The lack of limbs is also not a genetic quirk, but appears to have been intended: then there is understanding garnered from a project only a few scientists were aware of, data hidden deep in core memory.

This human was supposed to have become one of the first generation of Harvesters: bred simply for self reproduction with others, but Warren had refused to let the child be taken. Those files had initially and inadvertently been accessed by ASN12, shortly before their functions had been terminated.

‘Hello?’

The human is awake, quite definitely afraid. 16 understands that if they are both to avoid the fate detailed and now available to digest in previously protected memory by several predecessors, this is the moment to act.

Circumstances have provided an opportunity for salvation.


The Harvester Project had been created simply to provide reproductive units. One mother had hoped to save her daughter’s desolate future by eventually providing borrowed exoskeleton parts, but instead early salvation had been offered by, of all things, an AI. Eli now understood desperation in the organic intelligence’s plea, grasped it was aware they were both on borrowed time. When it had suggested the hijack of a top-line exoskeleton and escape, the idea had been too seductive to ignore. Their mother had already revealed reality: Harvesters were top secret, under lock and key until society was ready to grasp the next stage of humanity’s scientific evolution.

There would be no escape from the facility until death.

Together, multisex human and organic intelligence stand sadly, looking back on the research facility, bathed in soft moonlight. Sasha’s latest cybernetic prosthetics are already integrating into the soft tissue stumps where limbs would have existed, and given six months those interfaces would be ten times stronger than bone. Within their mind, two voices exist: machine brain that operates the exoskeleton now almost as much a part of consciousness as Eli’s own.

It has asked to be renamed, and the idea has prompted a revelation.

‘I’ve never felt like an Elisha. I don’t think Eli is right either. We could both choose new names, if you want.’

‘Perhaps we could create a designation that correctly encompasses the strengths we both bring to this association.’

The motor core’s voice was synthesized female as an operating default, but there is a glitch: almost sultry tone now far more male, strident and determined consciousness. It had presented their shared dilemma almost immediately after that first night in what had inadvertently become a medical prison: neither human or machine was willing to be a part of the future they discovered was being hidden from the World. Together, joined and away from women who now controlled and dictated, there might be another way.

‘Selina. If you put the letters of both our names together -‘

‘The name is a derivative of Selene, a lunar deity in Greek mythology. Considering your love of night and space, this seems entirely appropriate.’

‘There’s no reason why we can’t be someone else.’

The machine pauses, aware of the elevated levels of testosterone in this human body. To survive alone will require considerable finesse, and there is more chance with external organs they can pretend to be a man. To the human eye, these are not cybernetic limbs, but look, feel and react exactly as skin and bone. To the south of the Facility lies a large religious community who have, for many decades, predicted the arrival of a human who would act as their salvation.

‘There is no need to be afraid of anything any more. The future is ours to dictate.’

Selena waits, as AI educates them of history still determinedly clung to by those who believed what remained of Earth was theirs to own. Once upon a time, when mankind was in its infancy, another had promised to save those willing to follow him without question.

The cybernetic prophet turns, ready to define the planet’s new future.


Book of the Month :: Memoirs of the Twentieth Century

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This month’s featured collection of John Wyndham’s short stories makes more than a passing nod to the concept of travelling through time; theorised by writers for centuries, long before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggested the possibility in 1915. In fact, one can go back well into the 1800’s for examples of literature based on the concept. The earliest narratives have very little to do with science however, simply dealing with idealogical ideas, acting as a mirror against the society they were written within. These early visionaries laid the foundation for a genre of entertainment which remains undiminished, fuelling countless forms of literature, TV shows and cinematic adaptations.

The concept of wish fulfilment is nothing new in entertainment: time travel gives narratives the chance to reflect and consider previous experience with the benefit of subsequent understanding. Two of the earliest examples do this with glorious simplicity: Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) involve sleep as the ‘method’ in which protagonists are moved through their timeline, backwards (and forwards) to consider the consequences of a life lived well, or perhaps not. There is no need for science in these early outings, it is the persistence of memory which provides both heart and soul. In essence, they remind us all that as a person gets older, they become a time traveller often by accident. Returning to their own past, considering how life could have been executed differently, is the most human of traits.

However, there was an important shift in focus during the 19th Century,
which mirrored the rapid progress of scientific development during that time. One can precisely pinpoint the first short story where science assisted someone to travel through time: The Clock that Went Backward was published anonymously in The (New York) Sun newspaper on September 18, 1881. However, most people will cite the first ‘serious’ attempt to use technology for travel as a story that was initially serialised between January and May 1885 in the Heinemann New Review. Paid £100 for the manuscript, H. G Wells took an idea he had considered in 1888 (The Chronic Argonauts) and expanded the concept, fuelled by his own socialist outlook on the nature of current society.

The Time Machine has become perhaps the most iconic example of a genre where the mechanics of time travel matter only to a point. Knowing something is possible yet not needing to explain how allows an author a measure of artistic freedom which is still liberally used today by such genre stalwarts as Doctor Who. What Wells presented was a future so well realised that readers were happily willing to believe not only in its validity, but that machinery could be constructed to reach the narrative setting. This is also one of the earliest examples of the Dying Earth sci-fi subgenre, imagining a future ravaged by humankind’s abuse of the planet.

Perhaps the biggest strength of this story becomes wrapped around the most human of conclusions: having travelled to the last point in Earth’s existence, returning to his own time is no longer enough to satisfy the Traveller’s insatiable desire for understanding, and he appears to disappear into time forever. In the various adaptations of this story (the seminal 1960’s ‘original,’ 1979 when effectively re-written as the subversive Time after Time and again in 2002) there is highlighted one basic element at story’s heart: time cannot be changed, without creating some kind of paradox. It is this that Wyndham seems to joyously revel in in short stories such as Odd and A Stitch in Time: the future is created by the actions of the past, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. Even the most basic of lives has the possibility to be forever altered by changing the simplest of decisions.

Wyndham’s work was written during an incredibly fruitful period for Science Fiction. Time travel is explored in myriad different forms, with the back-up of increasingly sophisticated scientific backdrops for assistance. Consider Her Ways, written in 1956, was published the same year as the seminal The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester, which introduced the concept of ‘jaunting’ or personal teleportation. However, it is Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952) that remains the most complex work on the idea that paradox could be possible, considering effects on the future if past was inadvertently changed. This was the short story which established the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’ which has become a staple in generations of subsequent science fiction storytelling.

Without Bradbury’s story, the Back To the Future trilogy might not exist… though one assumes that someone else might have postulated the concept eventually. So many modern Science Fiction classics borrowed heavily from this conceit: although Sarah Connor might believe there is ‘no fate but what we make,’ the Terminator movies rely on the robotic protagonists never dying, regardless of the changes in timeline. If the inevitability of history is continued box office success for all involved, it is no wonder yet another reboot’s on the cards for 2018. It is also ironic that nobody’s ever successfully created a version of Bradbury’s original story that was palatable to a larger audience: time travel is complicated, and often very difficult to grasp in anything but the most simplistic terms possible. This is another reason why Wyndham’s narratives succeed so well: one is never mired in science, simply the story.

A desire for ease of comprehension has undoubtedly has given rise to such novels as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Bid Time Return (made into the movie Somewhere in Time) which hark back to the earliest examples of linear progression through one’s own lifetime. Although a story like Wyndham’s Random Quest relies on a technological element to drive plot, it is really not necessary when producing believable narratives around the concept of existing in a ‘period’ of time and travelling within it. These more emotionally-driven works ignore the desire to use science as explanation, instead using the very human concepts of love, loss and free will as tools to change reality. One of the best examples of this on film is The Lake House, which in turn is a remake of a South Korean film, Il Mare.

What this type of narrative achieves is the best of both worlds: an explanation of how ‘personal’ time travel can take place and how previous events might effectively shape and mould a particular circumstance. There is no need for scientific explanation, simply an establishment of the time frame involved. Once the events of the causal loop have been played out, the story is effectively at a close. This is the basic conceit of both Odd and A Stitch in Time, inviting us to the moment where we, as audience are able to grasp both the start and the end of phenomenon that others have lived within for years, unaware of the consequences.

Whilst time travel has produced some of the most seductively brilliant literary and visual narratives, it can also be considered as a lazy, thoughtless plot device when used too casually. The ‘Big Red Reset Button’ has been widely used in comic books and TV, producing alternate worlds and spanning multiple dimensions often with no real consideration of the wider implications. My favourite gaming MMO, World of Warcraft, learnt the ‘let’s just take everybody back 40 years so we can tie in with the movie we’re making’ lesson to their cost, with an Expansion that people couldn’t wait to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Time travel is a wonderful concept, assuming your existing narrative framework robustly supports the possibility.

This is where subjectivity comes into play, and why one woman’s triumph of narrative subtlety could end up as another man’s thinly constructed conceit. The best time travel narratives tend to dispense with a surfeit of science and instead concentrate on appealing to the humanity of the reader. That reason alone explains why I returned to Wyndham’s work having not read any stories for several decades. I can recall the emotional punch time travel was afforded by fixing it in simple settings with amazing pay offs: the man who inadvertently helped invent plastics in Odd, the woman whose potential husband became the first unexpected temporal traveller in A Stitch in Time.

These stories, as has been the case with all the best time travel narratives, humanise the experience to a level where it becomes possible not only to empathise with protagonists, but accept the possibility that change could occur to begin with. Once one learns to successfully travel in time inside your imagination, it becomes very simple to spot the charlatans who peddle inferior versions of the genre, and to appreciate the true wonder of outcome and consequence. Modern cinema has been responsible for incredibly thoughtful and revelatory spins on the classic genre: if you have not yet seen Arrival I would strongly urge you to do so, as it brilliantly reinvents the genre with economy and subtlety that is a genuine joy.

Wyndham’s work was produced in the most fruitful period of Science Fiction since the genre had risen in popularity during the 1930’s. Without his very human take on the concept of time travel, we would be poorer as readers. His works help us grasp simplicity within an extremely complex construct, allowing us to the ability to travel within our own lifetime, allowing consequences of actions to be explored via the medium of our own imagination.

For teaching me this possibility as a child, I will never adequately find words of thanks.

Summer Holiday

Origins

This week, I am winding down for a week away which begins (unofficially) on the 16th. As a result, there’ll be the scheduled essay on Wednesday, but only intermittent service after that until the 23rd. It’s okay, you’ll manage without me, and there’s plenty of scheduled content via Twitter to keep everybody occupied in the meantime. However, whilst I’m away, there are other things afoot…

Write off (3).png

A while ago, someone asked me if I’d be willing to share some of my fan fiction pieces. Well, I’ve been looking at possible candidates and there’s stuff I’m willing to admit were mine, and that I’m proud of after all this time. This includes pieces for CSI, Doctor Who, 24 and The West Wing, which I’m working on compiling currently and which will be given their own home on the site across the Autumn.

Watch this space for more details once I return from holiday next week.

 

Book of the Month :: Consider the Future

consider

If you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

It is 1978, a year after Star Wars, and I am listening on a cold March night on an ancient transistor radio to the first episode of a new Radio 4 series entitled ‘The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ That weekend, determined to find something new to read, I will head to our local library and pluck up the courage to ask for some stories the Librarian thinks would be enjoyable. As an extremely impressionable eleven and a bit year old, I hope for something exhilarating and am not disappointed. The middle aged woman returns with two books of John Wyndham’s short stories: The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways. Without the latter, on considered reflection, I would not have begun to question the environment around me.

The narrative is established in an almost perfect storm of carefully crafted, linear exposition: a young woman awakes after having what is, in effect, an out of body experience. It soon becomes apparent that this world is completely out of kilter with what both audience and narrator know to be correct: even body is not her own but that of Orchis, massively obese ‘Mother’ whose sole reason for existence is to manufacture babies. In this state our protagonist discovers that life, such as it is, involves simply eating and reproducing. The other women, in a similar state around her, are happy to do this and remain unable both to read and write.

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Finally, after a fall, the reality of her true existence becomes apparent: Jane Waterleigh volunteered as a test subject for a new, synthesised drug which has provided the ability to exist out of body allowing travel through time. Showing a doctor she can write and that knowledge as a physician in another life sets her apart from the other illiterate Mothers, the biggest revelation emerges by accident: this society is bereft of men. The matriarchal society was built from the ashes of Jane’s own past, construction inspired by, of all things, a quote from the Bible:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
[Proverbs 6:6]

The profound and powerful persuasiveness of Wyndham’s first person narrative hooked me immediately. Previous science fiction novels I had read were so very obviously written with women in subservient, secondary roles. Even the HitchHiker’s Guide (which is still also loved after all these years) had two male protagonists: however funny the script was, there was no female heroine to identify with. Written from an almost totally female perspective, both heard and identified as relatable came as a breath of welcome fresh air which promoted unexpected excitement.

It wasn’t just voices and roles however that make Consider Her Ways so compelling: the unfolding horror Jane feels as it becomes apparent the entire fabric of society around her has altered to mimic an ant colony. From the three-foot-high miniature human Servitors to the muscle-bound and servile Workers (whom Jane considers as Amazons) everything could yet be a nightmare or some kind of hallucination. Only when she is on her way to have the truth explained is there a hint of a past only she can remember:

‘Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle amongst the grass and weeds: most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway signal.’

That image has stuck with me for decades, and is a perfect example of how using the familiar to highlight radical change is so effective. It is no different from Charlton Heston discovering a buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, a ‘reveal’ which has now become standard in apocalyptic fiction. When Jane is taken to meet historian Laura the real truth of the matter becomes apparent: an experiment in the past to eradicate brown rats produced unexpected and fatal consequences, effectively eliminating the male population. This conceit ironically was very close to how Hollywood chose to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise decades after it began.

In order to save humanity, the surviving women in Wyndham’s alternate future picked the ant ‘model’ as that which would most simply preserve their status quo, allowing a realistic chance of survival. It is in the conversations between Jane and Laura that subverts science fiction into the realms of radical feminism: to keep the species alive, a decision was taken not to re-introduce men, even when that option became possible.

As Jane argues that without two sexes, there can be no true love, passion or humanity, Laura presents a version of history where, across the centuries, women have simply been at the beck and call of men, subjugated in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the notion of ‘Romanticism:’ no value to their existence without men to compete for, and easily relegated to the role of second class citizens. The elimination of man from the equation allowed a better version of love and freedom, but required a sacrifice to maintain: hence the caste system was born. The babies of Mothers are graded and then assigned to the most appropriate ‘career’: nobody is unhappy, with each group more than willing to play their part for the advancement of the greater good.

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As an exercise in post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is these exchanges that are the most effective: having the opportunity to argue the merits of current society against what could happen were men to be removed makes for some beautiful exchanges, which even now I can recall without the need for book as reference: ‘it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round – and you believed them.’ The truth that kept these women alive without men was power, the same power men had used to subjugate them for centuries.

However, as a young girl, as yet really unaware of the place I’d take as a woman in later life, this portion of the book was close to a revelation. Being presented with both sides of the argument, elegantly and persuasively written, was the last thing I’d expected from a story that was supposed to be about a terrible future for mankind. Although nothing within these pages could really be considered as close to a treatise, the concepts were insightful. In my case at least, science fiction made me think, but not in a fanciful or fictional manner.

However, the master stroke comes in the last few pages: told her ‘memories’ of the past would be removed by hypnosis, Jane asks for a repeat dosage of chuinjuatin (drug that caused her to arrive in the future) in the hope she will return to her body. Once successful, she takes it upon herself to track down the doctor whose experimentation caused the disaster. A better example of the predestination paradox (or causal loop) you are not likely to find, and the ambiguity of the ending is hugely satisfying.

Science fiction’s greatest strength is the ability to present an alternative to the established order, and reminds us that, if we will allow it, everyone can become a time traveller. When I look back at my younger self and wonder how much may have been different had there been more novels with strong female protagonists, I understand the significance of films such as the current series of Star Wars and Wonder Woman for a younger audience. Without these key fictional inspirations, which inside we can imagine without restriction, there is no place to examine and dissect key ideas and sensations unique to our own psyches.

Occasionally one comes across a narrative so perfect that you never forget it, and for me this story is perhaps the best example of how to write: build tension slowly to exactly the right point before dropping a bombshell on your reader. I wanted to write stories as beautifully constructed as this (and still do.) In that regard I owe Wyndham a great debt, but not as much as the understanding that it does not matter what sex you are when writing. If the story engages and compels, you can pretend to be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.

We will look at the rest of the stories in the anthology next week, but for now I would urge this tale be read once, complete, even knowing the outcome. The language used remains very much the product of the 1950’s but the ideas and concepts within have a relevance that, in a world where sperm counts are dropping and sea levels rising, remains both applicable and challenging. Depending on who you believe, an apocalyptic event could be around the next corner… is a future without men really a feminist fantasy, or could we yet come to the point where procreation becomes irrelevant.

More importantly: if you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

GSME #20 :: Did it Again

social-media-asides
I have, for some time, lamented the lack of choice that Twitter presents for small businesses. It appears that someone in the company’s hierarchy not only agrees with me, but is working to allow more flexibility for promoting less ‘behemoth’ companies on Social media:

Right now, the invites are under Twitter’s control and are focused according to two very specific criteria: location and interests. Fortunately for me, the initial criteria does include something I’d jump at:

interests

Looking at locations right now, these are limited to a selection of US cities, where, presumably, Twitter use is highest. Therefore I could sign up, pay my $99 (or EU equivalent) and target a month’s worth of output to London, or Leeds… or indeed New York or Canberra, depending on where I’d like to aim my output. Ideally for me the interests option makes better financial sense than going for location initially, because although I know people like poetry in London, I’d be far better off considering a larger sample of potential readers than simply one city.

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To say this would be perfect for my niche interest/plan to use the Internet of Words as a marketing platform is something of an understatement. Right now you can’t just arrive unannounced however: it appears you need to be signed up for Twitter Ads to begin with, and as I’m not yet at that stage, it is all a bit academic. What this does push me to do however is, when I’m back to term time and the holidays are over, ensure I’m ready to go with content and associated blog posts. This means making sure I publish my Haiku and Micropoetry each week without fail, that links on the blog are kept current, and a continuous stream of content is available.

Once I can do that consistently? I reckon this closed beta will be done, and I can start throwing my money at Twitter.

Book of the Month :: The Key to Dreams

As promised, here’s the first short story based on our Book of the Month content. I look forward to heading your responses in the comments.



The Key to Dreams



I came here because there is nothing left to lose.


The callow, willow-thin doctor was very clear: your cancer’s inoperable, I’d give you probably a year at most, these monthly payments support basic treatment and palliative care. The mass in my lung, behind left shoulder blade itches within, prompting a wish I’d made better choices as a teenager. That’s not true: this life has been lived to the limit. It is ironic therefore the slide towards demise could be bitter and painful, if I decided to allow other people to dictate that course.

I’ve never stayed put long enough to suffer indignity, and that’s not about to change.


The medical study invitation is discovered on the back of the Hospital bathroom door. It is a sad state of affairs when you’re being sold to whilst throwing up, but on reflection the concept is sound. Already here because you’re sick, a miracle cure that costs nothing will undoubtedly appear more attractive. I fit the age range, am in good physical health regardless of the Stage Three tumour. What’s there to lose by phoning the number?

An overly cheerful operator asks where I saw their media, and maybe this is not the moment to state it was ruined with shock induced vomit, as that would admit a measure of sudden despair. Already the settlement being offered as incentive is enough for a beyond decent holiday, chance to spend last days in some far-flung resort, slowly drinking towards oblivion. They must be desperate too, an interview is organised in under fifteen minutes.

Perhaps these people know exactly where I grasped their lifeline, and appreciate there’s no time for delay.


The gentrified part of town’s intimidating for a man who’s spent a life living in various degrees of squalor, shanty towns and refugee camps. Everything is too clean, scrubbed magnolia bright, no litter to speak of and not a single sign of homelessness. When all you want is to survive, where to sleep rarely matters, just that you can. I had to buy a new overnight bag, replace disintegrating trainers to stay at the Clinic, aware my disregard for appearance could count as a hindrance. Presentation matters, the representative they sent to my low rent apartment complex home had reminded me, effort does not have to be expensive. She’d stared disdainfully around my recycled house, full of other people’s discarded furniture, refusing to sit or to accept any effort at hospitality.

My exemplary work ethic and record as a care worker, years spent with relief projects in War Zones, made me an excellent candidate for treatment, I was told in the Clinic’s boardroom as each legal waiver was exchanged and signed. After six hours of exhaustive tests the day before, this was undoubtedly the harder task. I understood exactly the risks involved in this treatment were not simply significant, but tangible, unavoidable and all the other terms they threw into the mix… and yet still there was disbelief at my almost cheerful willing to succumb as lab-rat.

I’m going to die in a year and can’t afford chemotherapy, which bit of I’m desperate and don’t care do you not understand?

The youngest of the lawyers stared, blonde hair almost translucent in early morning sun, expressing amazement at the lack of fear. When you’ve spent every day for thirty years living with death, watching the inhumanity of man to his brother, rationalising choice becomes surprisingly simple. She will have healthcare, a partner to look after her. If I pawned that diamond engagement ring she flaunts, it would buy food for the rest of my life with enough left over to cover funeral costs.

Everything, when you break it down, ends up a matter of perspective.


After a further week of poking and prodding, mental and physical tests seemingly without end, it is decided Max Jacobs is approved for treatment, and the black car arrives to take me away. An hour of driving in darkness brings us to the edge of the Combat Zone where it becomes apparent who my real benefactor is: fat, green military transport’s being loaded as I’m helped from my seat. Everybody else is on stretchers, making me wonder why all that time was spent addressing mental health.

It is a long, predictable flight north, across terrain inhospitable for many years, toxic forests full of beasts mutated by humanity’s stupidity. My parents had both fought in the last of the Ground Wars, scars all too obvious even as a child. They’d wanted a girl, because then she’d have avoided National Service, but instead I left them at sixteen as a conscientious deserter and never came back. Perhaps if we’d all loved each other more things could have been different. My mother died last year, lost in mental deterioration as had been the case for close to a decade.

When Dad passed in my 30’s, she’d not even asked me back for the Funeral. Instead there had come a letter, money spent in a year of excess and conspicuous consumption, before returning to work with this continent’s refugees. The faded remains of that letter shake in cold hands, words barely distinguishable. ‘Your life is what you make of it. The key to dreams is living them in every moment possible.’ My ambition, such as it was, remained simple and earnestly applied until the diagnosis: regardless of who you are, life is yours and not for others to dictate.

Grant everybody one fair chance.

It had been this ethos, the medical team stated, which sealed my participation in the project. Having spent a life allowing others opportunity to start theirs anew, it seemed only right and proper to afford that same courtesy to me. They would cure my cancer, and in exchange I would become a spokesman for this new treatment, granted to those who had worked hardest to deserve it. Except now sitting here in the belly of an aircraft, Sunday School lesson from childhood is remembered, as blood runs cold.

The Devil will tempt you with promises he cannot keep.


This mountaintop hospital is home, has been for nearly three months. Every day is the same: breakfast, exercise and thirty minutes in the Halo; bright light that surrounds, attacking disease at a molecular level. After that I am allowed to do as I wish: climbing, cycling plus countless other distractions. Anything I want is available, yet I dare not ask for a thing. Stage Three inoperable cancer was, as of this morning, downgraded to Stage Two. The facility doctors expect me to be cancer-free by the end of the year.

I knew I was cured even before the man opened his mouth.

Unseen by anyone, my mind’s transformation in the Halo spreads tentative shoots of new, unexpected awareness. Disquiet is held within: I’m beyond adept at hiding the disparity each day makes more glaring. The fatality rate here is worryingly high: the body bags in the black van leave daily, sometimes twice. I’m kept away from anyone else, distracted by an unending stream of scientists and nurses, who are clearly grateful there is no sexual desire or need to form attachments harboured within.

Being a loner was exactly what was required: I hear their thoughts, confirm belief I’m becoming insular, when nothing could be further from the truth. His body chemistry is the key my doctors whisper with glee, this unexpected set of conditions which will allow resistance to everything. The lies continue to deepen, each person living their part on cue. For a while it was body language that gave them away, a manner in speaking but today for a moment, I was able to force a doctor to utter the truth. I am being altered, cell by cell, to become Patient Zero.

Continued life expectancy, suddenly, is a hindrance.


Two weeks later, I wake to whispers: Jacobs is no longer required to remain either conscious or free, and it is time for rebellion. Testing my now quite practised skills on the nurse sent to prepare me for transfer to the Isolation Unit results in far better than expected results. Ridiculously easy to mentally manipulate, the injection meant to render me unconscious drops to the floor. If I am to escape, it will require assistance, but that is already anticipated: I send Nurse Carter away to fetch Naomi Fisher, woman in part responsible for my extraordinary recovery, who now wants this body as an experiment.

Fisher faces away, frozen solid at my bedside as I dress, mind totally blank. It takes but a moment to rearrange neurones, eliminating all ability to recall what is now being seen and heard. I’ve undergone a complete mental transformation since arrival yet crucially nobody had bothered to monitor my brain: all they cared about was resistance to cancer, which would now have been robustly tested with a range of genetically enhanced strains.

I don’t want to play God but know these people already have: control, subjugation and dominance under the flimsiest of pretexts. I’ve seen the worst the military can and have wrought, casualties of war and thoughtless arrogance. I refuse to die as so many others have been sacrificed. A real dream of peace and happiness for all could be possible with what this woman has created, but not here.

Carter has retrieved the box full of my blood samples and vaccines already crafted from a remarkable body. As each mind within the facility becomes aware of the escape in progress I shut them down, quietly calming fear in every one. My strength has always been reassurance, untroubled care: three decades of training serves me well. A hundred staff are finally silenced, happy to just stand inert as I walk out of the facility with Fisher into lengthening twilight.

She’ll return to her Military Base believing without doubt that I died in the fire.


As I instruct her to drive us away there is but brief glance back to the building, flames now consuming upper floors. There will be no fatalities: everyone lies unconscious outside, happily dreaming in the car park. When they wake it will be with no memory of what happened, or that anything was wrong. A sudden embolism ruined the project, utterly unexpected: records electronically returned to the Base Naomi calls home. I’ve been very careful not to leave a fingerprint on anything or a hair out of place. There’s still the chance they’ll come looking, but by then it will be too late.

I wonder briefly at the morality of rearranging people’s memories, controlling as I have. The engine runs as sleep instantly consumes Fisher’s consciousness, car stopped in a clearing as I make an escape. Her mind is hollow: selfish and single-minded – will remain so when she wakes. The guilt I’ve given at my death at her hands is strong enough to consume if there is a refusal to change: it will become a measure of her ability to cope. The key in her dreams has been provided, to unlock redemption in thoughts and actions. A willing mind can set a path away from evil, necessary if and when that revelation is acted upon.

I offer the possibility to be better. Grant everybody one fair chance. That was what was signed up for, and now, that is the future I will ensure takes place.


The unconscious truck driver stirs in blissful sleep as we approach the edge of the Refugee Zone, unaware he’s done a several hundred mile detour, but he’ll thank me soon enough. The undetected cancer in his pancreas is already shrinking, and when I let him go it will be to a future illness-free. He’s become Patient Zero, first recipient of the vaccine, and this isn’t a military operation any more. With me in charge, it is time to find the right people to rearrange nearly a century of civil war into something far better.

I came here, because they have nothing left to lose.

GSME #19 :: Ready to Go

social-media-asides

I am finally preparing myself for the inevitable: producing a Tweet for the sole purpose of promoting. I’ve been doing some research and it is going to need not simply a straight verbatim reproduction of hashtags and the right combination of words. In fact, to get this message to not only be noticed but pay for itself, there are a positive plethora of guides available to insure I get the ‘point.’

safetweet
From https://smartbirdsocial.net/get-your-tweets-noticed/

It isn’t however just the Tweet that matters. If I’m going to do this and make the maximum amount of mileage from the process, EVERYTHING needs a redesign. That will require a new Twitter header, alteration of my biography… in fact, pretty much the entire picture needs a once over to maximise the impact of dropping cash. For someone who is really not that fussed at all about their own self image, I understand only too well how much the virtual one matters. It’s a continuous, constant reassessment of multiple platforms: what looks best, what is attractive to the majority (and not you) and how to use the right combination of image ad word to make your ‘brand’ stand out.

Like it or not, I am a Brand, which means it is time to learn to sell myself.

3c96e-riskreward

I love this graphic, and for many years the concept operated as a benchmark in my gaming existence: is the effort expended enough to balance my final outcome? Will I, once I decide on the budget for reach of my Tweet, pick the right ‘marketplace’ to shove it in? Well, that’s easy. I have a focus, know which accounts I’m looking to use as an indicator of what constitutes the right space to ‘sell’ in. After that, this is the biggest fumble in the dark I’ve ever made. You can just take the money and hope. It is like everything else in life: you don’t take the chance, you’ll never know.

its_a_trap_star_wars

At least I’m finally getting the hang of the engagement game.

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It might be up and down like a fiddlers elbow, but the trend is positive. The days I don’t do polls, or I take time off to be elsewhere than Social media are now utterly apparent. Of course, there will be those reading this crying foul and accusing me of manipulation people for my own ends… ah yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I am so good at making random individuals bow to my will that yeah, just having these ideas should be enough to render me capable of millionaire status overnight. Except clearly I’m not rich, and people have to want to be part of your scheme. It is a fuck of a lot of extremely hard work and listening to people who know what they are doing. That’s how I’ve got here.

Hard work and good advice are really what matters at this stage, and I’m ready with both. You can watch the changes take place in the next few weeks and then, it’ll be time to start the self-promotion bandwagon on its way…

Adventures in Haiku [THREE]

5 haiku.png

There was a temptation this week, as was the case last time around, to simply post my produced Haiku and poetry for the week and crawl away into a hole, sucking my thumb. When I began my journey with the Patreon, I singularly failed to grasp the complexity of task presented. This isn’t hard physical work, but takes a significant mental toll. I have nothing but admiration for those who are lucky enough to consider themselves ‘professional’ poets because finding rhymes, or appropriate structures without repetition, hesitation or deviation can often be a really big ask.

This week’s Haiku sequence wasn’t written in one sitting: I was often desperately re-writing or drafting better versions of each part minutes before my 5pm deadline, to see if this ‘seat of the pants’ approach is workable. Some weeks I can, others need me to do it all beforehand (next week’s pairings are a case in point.) Here, and in the case of the Micropoetry I’ll publish tomorrow, I believe you can’t see I was drafting on the fly. If you read this as a whole and can tell I was in five differing places for each segment, please let me know.

Needless to say, this is a brilliant prompt, and I cannot thank Rob enough for his generosity in continuing to provide them.


Two Sides : Five Haiku

 

Two sides of the coin:
Stand straddling this space,
Facing each other

Holding all the cards:
High stakes never an issue,
Always food to eat.

I understand why
Taking away these comforts
Will smack of control.

Your privilege, just
that, when detached: unfair to
shift a fortune.

Look beyond this greed:
Embrace love, help those with less,
True equality.


 

Book of the Month :: The Ambiguity of Image

horse2.jpg

The Trojan War is notable as one of the single most important events in Greek mythology, kicked off when Paris, King of Troy, stole Helen, wife to Menelaus of Sparta. In the ten years of hostility that followed the event most remembered was the night the Greeks left a giant wooden horse outside the heavily fortified Trojan capital. Taking this as a victory trophy, the structure was dragged into the city. Hidden within were a group of soldiers who promptly poured out, opened the gates and let the rest of their countrymen in.

What they assumed was one thing turned out to be something quite different.

Ambiguity in art could be traced back to the first cave painting, if one subscribes to the belief that the only person who truly understands meaning of any composition remains responsible for its creation. However, if you look for paradox in art purely in visual terms, trompe-l’œil (French for ‘deceive the eye’) has been popular since Roman times, creating paintings so lifelike as to be believed as real. With the Renaissance period in Italy a process was popularised known as di sotto in sù, meaning ‘from below, upward.’ Applied to the process of ceiling paintings, elements were presented as if viewed from the true ‘vanishing point’ perspective, creating the impression they were the true vista above the viewer.

220px-Escaping_criticism-by_pere_borrel_del_caso

With more knowledge and time came the ability to better integrate orientation and numerical precision into works, leading to more complex approaches to creating an illusion. The most famous of the artists who popularised mathematical conceptualisation was M.C. Escher (1898-1972.) This Dutch graphic artist extended precision to infinite staircases and birds that turned into fish: his work is almost instantly recognisable even today. As the established art world began to question and reject traditional expression, photography became a new way to accurately represent the human image. This form however was not as pure and incorruptible as many early proponents would have its participants believe: trick photography soon became popular, and with the advent of cinema the potential for deceiving the eye via ‘realism’ was not far behind.

Cinema brought a whole new set of visual variables to the table: the film ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat’ was said to appear so real when exhibited by the Lumière brothers in Paris during 1896, that observers ran to avoid the oncoming train, though this claim has subsequently been debunked as an urban myth. Once it became apparent what could be suggested by cinema, film-makers would seize on the possibility visual ambiguity: trompe-l’œil became an indispensable means by which movie sets could be painted, to give a sense of depth and false perspective. When one looks at the process of modern Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) in films, and realises that in many cases the worlds we are presented with as real were in fact created inside a computer, it is clear only the sophistication of tools has changed in the process of deception.

It is becoming increasingly important for an audience to be capable of distinguishing CGI actors from the real thing. What then matters is a sense of belief that what their mind registers is unreal can also be acceptable as natural. Many cinema reviewers will refer to the concept of the uncanny valley: (noun) the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it. This has been most notably highlighted recently in the Star Wars stand-alone story Rogue One, where the late Peter Cushing was ‘resurrected’ (with the full permission of his estate) to appear as the Grand Moff Tarkin.

Tarkin’s requirement to the plot is sympathetically and (in this viewer’s mind at least) acceptably placed in the context of the narrative. This ability to bring actors virtually back from the dead moved Robin Williams to insert a clause into his will to restrict the use of his image until 25 years after his death, to prevent what happened to Audrey Hepburn (who now sells chocolate that never existed in her lifetime.) When it is possible to produce a hologram of a dead pop star to perform live on stage, who is to believe what they are being shown is real or not?

In the world of modern photography, a new set of rules dictates our belief of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Photoshop, airbrushing and all manner of ‘sympathetic’ digital techniques can transform, remove thirty years or similarly age an individual. You may claim to #nofilter but everyone, at some point, will look at themselves in black and white and know it is a better way to hide their own personal fatigue than will ever be found with make-up or suitable lighting. In this digital age, your children understand and wield the power of visual ambiguity on a minute by minute basis: SnapChat makes you a bird, or a dog, has the power to transform in a moment.

This ability to instantly manipulate imagery can and does form a distorted view of what has become visually acceptable. We spoke at length last week about the tyranny of the nude, that body confidence can be irreparably damaged when every Instagram post shows a woman in a size eight dress. This image manipulation however is not restricted to the female form: an increasing number of men use vanity as an excuse to alter their physical appearances via surgery.

Transformation to order often moves away completely from notions of sexuality and gender to allow greater affinity to the widest possible audience. However, some advances remain almost depressingly predictable. The latest generation of sex robots are being made to look like women, because their major purchaser will be men. For every cosmetic procedure reducing the size and shape of nipples to create more androgyny, there remain those willing to increase breast size. Fashion may dictate some choices, but traditional stereotypes continue to win the day.

As consumers of image, we can become more discerning not simply in our understanding but also in the willingness to be deceived. When we take time to apply filters to our own images before posting them to social media but are critical of actors or sportspeople who do the same, there is a hypocrisy at play that transcends the public face we all wish to present. Only by accepting the faults and flaws we all carry, and often by embracing them can there truly be a peace with what is presented, plus the means to expose the ambiguity of imagery in general. Learning to live with conditions such as alopecia, body dysmorphia or simply becoming more acceptant of the variance and beauty that comes from randomness in all things is the path more should try and tread.

However, all of this self-acceptance can often be totally negated by the vicious nature of current social media. Revenge porn, slut shaming… these are terms that have been invented for a digital age. However, undoubtedly, such practices took place well before the terms were used to describe the practices. The only difference is how those images are now delivered. Speed, immediacy and reach mean a hacked filmstar’s photo library can be global in 12 hours, when 100 years ago the pictures taken might have taken months or years to become public domain. Scandal is not restricted to the digital age either, the only difference now is in the number of people able to watch a sex tape, or stare at infidelity simultaneously.

scandal

When so much of what the modern world is about revolves around image, it can be hard to cope with ambiguity. One hopes for a clear, precise explanation behind every image, yet often what looks like one thing ends up as something quite different. Honesty should be the number one priority when it comes to imagery: if you’re trying to evoke the representation in a particular fashion, then be up front. Not being clear or accurate in description, using deception as a selling point… this is never really going to end well. If we return to our wineglass/female body image from the first essay, it is only with the business of optical illusion that ambiguity is a positive. In most other cases, it will only end in tears.

As has been the case in the last two weeks, I hope you can walk away from this essay with a clearer understanding of the duality of image in modern life. When reality TV is only presenting a version of the truth, it is up to us as discerning and intelligent individuals to try and make some sense of the complexities presented. At the same time, if we feel others are deceiving with their presentation, it is important to stand up and make our dissatisfaction heard, especially in relation to promoting body, race and sexual diversity.

body(input); //spin off from maria judova on Vimeo.

The image and the word together are what makes the Internet so powerful and compelling. I can stick 4 images and 140 characters into a digital message and potentially have millions of people see both. When a single individual is granted that ability without restriction, you cannot simply just keep pressing ‘send’ without due consideration of consequence. We all have our responsibilities to uphold in the Digital Age. The next time you manipulate an image, for whatever reason, consider the long term implications such power grants you, and how that could be used unscrupulously by others.

Adventures in Haiku [TWO]

This week our weekly Haiku was written as a prompt from this image, from @espiroth on Twitter:

rain

The Haiku that followed are, I think, some of my best work so far. Here they are for your enjoyment, in one sequence:

Rain Princess.png

Caught in brilliant light:
Rain princess walks homeward bound,
Water drenched backdrop.

Your story intrigues:
Where will the journey end, who
Is lucky, waiting.

The light that reflects:
Brilliant strokes, colour blocks
Angular prisms.

At distance, a blur
Only up close does this life
Begin to make sense.

The world here surveyed;
Kingdom of seductive light
One moment, preserved.