Des Armes

Here’s a timely one from the private archives. The first I ever wrote of Yolanda was her last appearance in Alpha: standing alone, atop her city, savouring the bitter aftermath of the night that very almost killed us all. I can tell I wrote this a while ago, I was even double spacing new sentences…

Chapter Sixteen Nocturne Apocalypse

Des armes

Des armes bleues comme la terre
Des qu’il faut se garder au chaud au fond de l’âme
Dans les yeux, dans le cœur, dans les bras d’une femme
Qu’on guarde au fond de soi comme on garde un mystère

Lèo Ferrè

Praying silently to the wind, Yolanda felt the cold of Rome’s winter’s night. From the high rooftop of her office, alone, she surveyed the skyline of the immortal city so fragile in this of all times. From her light summer coat, she pulled a small box of cigarettes and selected one for her comfort.

The clouds painted the strangest picture above and around her in the sky. The city lights lit them, and in curving fibres they lay all about the visible horizon, curling off into everywhere. A seeming ring of storms flashed sparks about the very edge of the sky scene, as far as she could see from this one precious and imperious point in the world. Tonight such forces had been laid to bear, and now like chill breathed across the sky, lived the physical repercussions.

Yolanda’s world too was in turmoil. Holding the cigarette in her mouth, she had difficulty lighting it. The wind was chaotic, and the flame weak in her unexpectedly shaking hands. The sight of her vulnerability came as an added fright. She less than anyone knew how this night had affected her. And drawing on the eventually lit fire, she felt her first relief at the noxious soothing inside her, and dared to close her eyes from the tearful wind.

From the back of her mind, hidden so far behind the layers of her will, came the image she had secretly known ever since this fateful day had started. That the marks and lightning in the sky were telling of history repeating itself, transposed simply in time and space from almost a hundred years before.

Call Rome Aria, call Earth the land to be erased, compare the living of today with the dead of yesterday and you would have made no mistake. The hands of a man beyond anyone’s ability to understand were but a proxy for the weapons of their own kind, in that moment in history before. The drives that moved the dark prince, a metaphor for those that drove a woman to speak the words “raise it to the ground”. The horror of unstoppable forces, identical with the missiles of their own making, pounding by their thousands into the city of a world of living souls. Whether the killer is from near or afar makes no difference in the long or the short of it all. Genocide is but the same thing in all places.

She saw the glowing surface of a plasma swept world. She saw the intense white glare of one nuclear impact merging with the next, their flashing rhythm that of a macabre and hysteric dance to evils not known before. She saw the fighters and their pilots, streaming bloodless effortless death to unsighted all before them. She saw the battle overwhelmed by the orchestrated chaos beneath it of a world being fully destroyed. Destroyed coldly and meticulously under the revellers’ searing madness. And she saw the faces watching from the sister moon, held in terrifying stasis, silent, still and spectating awestruck on this, the greatest fireworks show in all of human history.

Under the confused, deceived and perhaps wilfully imperfect leadership of President Yolanda Toure, four hundred thousand souls had been thrown to the fire. She winced, as she did at her most painful private memories, and now too at the thought of this deadly night. She could feel the immensity of events that had transpired, not being a woman without imagination and insight, and indeed even heart. She knew what a hole had been blown in the surviving lives now of surely more than a million, not even to speak of the calls to come once sunrise lit tomorrow. But more than even the crushing perception of that, she could feel her culpability in this act of supreme foolishness. And knew this was probably the end of her career, signed in the failing dark of this night. No matter the acts of her generals, or the total sacrifice of her pilots, man had been but a spectator in this. Chance alone had saved them.

It went to a well fit song of the same name, by the French group Noir Désir. Only now I find out this album was to be their last. Indeed, it all must have been a while ago because I recognised one of its other tracks a few times playing on the radio in Italy when I was there in 2002. Such old tales, both. But they age well, I think.

Anyway, I may include this scene yet. I like the brooding feel, and Yolanda’s thoughts rebalance Andala’s power. This scene introduces the Aria Incident, where nuclear haze annihilated millions on our daughter world, courtesy her mother. And Yolanda knows she has that power, too; if she were to ever spite herself and take it. They meld nicely to the song, but a character’s fantasy is not the sharpest of expressive tools. Well, I suppose it is just simple narration. Roll the montage!

I’m also unsure which side of the Act III / IV divide it should sit on. In fact, I’m thinking of pulling that back a bit from earlier plans and having it end sharp with Jocaster’s exit; if written acts make any sense at all. The other parts of the story have clearer boundaries than this one. Does aftermath go with the climax that preceded it, or get shunted into the next? Act IV has important content of its own, and its feel is different as most everything takes place on Andala.

Perhaps my biggest qualm of the whole “Nocturne Apocalypse” is just what Yolanda is doing up there. Reliving the events of that traumatic day, as we all do when thrown into such chaos, while smoking a cigarette. I’m about as anti-smoking as it gets, being allergic to the fumes. So I’ve no love to see the dirty old practice perpetuated into the centuries ahead. I’d rather show no such thing, not least at the heart of the world’s effective capital. I’ve been cautious about showing glasses, too, as I suspect they’ll seem as bizarre as eye patches come the time we fix sight instead of giving it a crutch. My hokey futurism is getting in the way again, as I lose touch with the fact that all fiction is about the present, no matter intent.

But I do like the vision of the scene. I may just have to hold my nose.

Suspicious Minds

A little glimpse of Proteus from the notes. Two years before I’d begin writing it from the top.

"Robin and I had a frank disagreement, you could say." Mina had a sharp look in her eyes. She was never one to hide her impatience. "You would never believe what he said."
I grinned. “Robin? Oh I think I could guess.”
“Really? Try this. I went to see him so I could borrow the lander. I had some instruments to fly. It was early evening when I saw him. He was drunk.”
“So far so good. I know about his stash.”
“Oh, I think he has a brewery set up in there by now. But that was just the start. He’s under pressure, he doesn’t like it here. I get all of that.”
“What then?”
“He has a theory.” She laid back and sighed. “About this whole planet.”
“One that’s always more obvious when he’s been drinking?”
“Why not?” She sighed. “You want to hear it?”
“Go on.”
“He thinks the odds are too long. That we can’t have found a planet with breathable air, with life, with recognisable habitat and especially…”
“The Ana?”
“Of course. Especially them.” She started to smile. “He asked me if I have found any of their ancestors. He said he wondered whether they evolved just like us as well.”
“Sounds pretty reasonable. They did?”
“I don’t know! It’s too early to tell. It does look wrong from where we are. I’ve nothing to show against him.”
“So what is his theory?”
“Oh, this is the good part.” She paused for a drink of water. “He’s so skeptical he thinks we’re being fooled.”
“Who by?”
“He doesn’t know. But he thinks he doesn’t have to. He’s sure it’s easier to trick our senses than to explain a world anything like this.”
“What, a conspiracy?”
“A lab experiment!” She laughed. “Maybe we never left in the first place!”
I cringed. “That’s quite a thought.”
“Yes, it is. But it will take a while to prove him wrong.”
She got up and left me wondering. I looked at my notes full of Anatara and everything Tani had told me, and I walked out to look at the indigo blue twilight sky. It really was quite a thought. I couldn’t shake it.

—January 2010

Sounds pretty much like Marie’s writing, now she’s found her voice. She and Mina seem their modern selves as well. But, as I remember, Robin was not a Scot, but a Swede; and Saturnine at that. Thus far, and I’ll admit Proteus has come a long way further than I ever planned, Robin may well be a jocular, indeed, quite stereotyped man. That’s because we have barely glimpsed his soul. Events conspire. Don’t write him off as yet. You know me and my taste in characterisation. Or shall.

What then of his theory? There’s nothing worse than when things end in “it was all a dream!” Besides, it’s a bit late now, don’t you think? His thought does have a place, somewhere in the tale, albeit in the background best. It’s just that seeing as Proteus is what it is – the world-building backstory of my tale within a tale – we already know how it ends. The only dream is mine.

Where There’s a Beginning, There’s an End

Stories need a good beginning. The way you kick things off matters more than you might think. People judge a book by its cover, or first few pages, of course; but there’s more to it than that besides. You’re setting the tone. You’re signalling the way you mean to go. And, in a certain sense, the start encapsulates the end. Some books are written especially like this, but I think there’s some truth to the idea that every beginning is born united with its end, a pair of potent opposites yet one and at heart the same. That’s the way I’m going about Andala, anyway. Even if that ending is as so very far away as I think it may be.

In all the time that Alpha has been kicking about in my mind, I’ve not settled on the exact start. For a good while, I thought a fair way to begin would be with Alexander waking from a dream. Yes, I was not yet aware of the cliché. Here’s the draft, which ends with a section break and is followed by the headline that we are, indeed, in 2301.

Silently, brilliantly, the arc of indigo, white and blue drifted into his sight. As large as the world, as long as the day, as great as the horizon, he had seen it a million times before but still it surprised him. It did not seem as though a man should ever see this sort of thing, even though we are all looking for it. Somewhere before him it was midmorning or perhaps late afternoon, he didn’t know which, but it looked just as beautiful from his vantage point. For that silent and inconceivably simple yet ornate curve, creeping into his eyes was the Earth, the beginning and the end, the inescapable and the eternally free.

Mankind had once awoken there, countless generations ago, with the gift of intelligence but not a word as to what it was for. There the years, millennia and aeons had turned just as days, while the ancestors of us all lived their lives as best as they could, from one meal to the next, precious little ever left of them to speak for their personalities, treasures or accomplishments. It was good enough that they survived. That one day, with the collective gifts of a history of creativeness, some of them would ascend through the skies and be awarded with the indescribable vision of the land that had made them. Delicate and pristine, even at this late point in human time, the immortal globe that has seen everything.

"Wouldn’t you know? We made it!"

—June 2004

"Silently, brilliantly." I do like that pair of words, even if they are egregious adverbs, but I’m not at all sure that it works as an opening line. And I’ve certainly come to dislike the idea of starting with such a prose-heavy, "zoomed out", descriptive-yet-not-describing slab. One couched in passive voice, of course. Having read Stephen King’s best book somewhere along the way since, and just read more in general, I can see the error in my otherwise, I suppose, not so hopeless ways. A sleepy awakening to the orb of the rising Earth is a cinematic kind of start. But I’m not riding with it. Even the bit where he rose with a jolt at Katerina’s voice and, weightless, thumped his head.

Another plan involves a swing in the opposite direction. It starts with the spy. We witness a flying chase through the streets of three centuries hence Rome. It’s night, midwinter, and the rain lashes down while the vehicles twist through the past and future city half oblivious to their struggle. Arriving outside the guarded gates of a palace, whose energy shield sparkles as it boils the falling rain, the spy leaps out his vehicle and holds his hands behind his head as armed men pounce. He yells in English: “Fortitude 359! Fortitude 359!” And the quick scene ends with a policeman butting him with a gun.

Too little. Too much. Right? Old Goldilocks here is seldom easily pleased.

The spy story serves a purpose. Events are afoot on Andala, and the foreknowledge of this back on Earth is something I want to play with as part of the wider Zinoviev plot. There’s not much room for all that in Alpha, but if there’s something I’m fond of it’s a grand foreshadow.

Oh, there’s another. Alexander, the one human on the Dragonfly, has a habit of thinking a touch too hard about the endlessness behind the stars. He may be a fair talented physicist, but he shares with me more than just a little of the mystic lodged in the firmament of his mind. His wavering path from eldritch childhood to hapless lynchpin between the two worlds is one we follow quite a bit. Instead of his waking up with a start, could I have him explain his trick himself? Just another thought.

But what is Andala, the whole thing, really about? The discovery of another world, eerily and unmistakably like ours, but with a people whose uncanny power is the bane of our hitherto unrivalled existence. It’s about the individual people thrust into this, and how they come to terms with what and who they truly are. It’s about a living, breathing, dreaming and awakening world quite beyond our own; and a few more we built besides. Goodness, I can’t really say I have a good grip on it. I just know that it is, not what. And somehow, amongst all of this, I have to find an introduction.

So there is no answer today. What a surprise. But I’ve no shortage of options. Whatever sneaks up and becomes the obvious and shining solution while I’m not looking, that’ll be the one. That’s how this process always is. Intuition. No one ever knows until the deed’s already done.

The Artifice of Intelligence

A fine Scots blizzard of April sleet and hale made for an apt setting to take a sick day. What I did get up to, however, was listening in to an episode of the BBC’s Horizon on artificial intelligence. Can’t say I recommend it, as the necessary thrust of the show was a tech-dizzy sense of inevitability as progress surely marches ever on. While IBM’s Watson, and a parade of variously impressive robots, were given their praise, not once was the presence in the background of this little thing we use millions of times each day. Google, you might have heard of it. (And rivals.) The internet, I’m not the first to reckon, is a closer step along the path to whatever AI we might ultimately discover. And the fact that we can index and search it, this endlessly complex and forever changing thing, to serve up half decent results in an instant is an everyday feat I find naturally more convincing than acing chess or Jeopardy.

I’m being a touch unfair, of course. AI is a an age old problem, as is its coverage. A much better documentary, as I remember from digging it up a good while ago, was The Machine that Changed the World. It may be twenty years old, but its impressions of the imminence of our artificial peer’s arrival were pitch perfect for today’s. Telling. And they even bothered to cover the internet, in charming period dial-up modem and virtual reality treadmill style. Is there anything quicker ageing than technology?

But all this is to say that I’ve the problem to address for myself, writing of a future so often supposed to contain Turing’s answer. Rummaging in my 2010 notes again, I see that I’ve considered this before.

(Put on Yarus by John Berberian if you like. Yes, the archives have a soundtrack. Why would you think they didn’t? Oh, right. Well, this one is a mood piece. See if there’s sense in it.)

(And beware distant spoilers. But they are so very distant indeed. Aegean? What in the name of epistemology has that to do with this? Don’t expect complete answers. Work. In. Progress.)

Andala Tech: Computers

The Extent of AI

Let’s just lay it down here: there is no hard AI in Andala. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Real, old-school, artificial intelligence is the stuff whole stories are made out of. And I’m quite sure to their eventual detriment. It’s not to say that my avoidance of what is, thus far, quite beyond us is in any final sense better. You can well shake your head at the internet’s absence in so many an old future’s tale. Foretelling the future’s a mug’s game, it really is. But for those of us who insist, we can at least remain consistent to our own, doomed, rules.

Within the narrative: why not?

Philosophical questions abound wherever “AI” is spoken. As good a warning sound that bull lies ahead as we all often know. It’s only natural, I suppose. A mind with a power switch? An alternate, potentially infinite, realm of existence? All the ancient unknowns the humblest of computers used to garner, how quaint, are turned new again. We really don’t know how this story goes. And so the fiction.

But that’s not especially useful to me. Not for this particular novel and universe. Hence my determined scowl to side-step the whole ado.

But I could still use an answer for why not, from my people’s perspective.

I’ve heard word of great equations with hard AI and various quantum or statistical limits. Oh really? Not that I’ve gone back to check their reasoning, but it sounds perfect hogwash. Intelligence, for as much as we typically find it awkward to analyse and place within our systems, is here already. There’s nothing unique about the conditions within the human brain. Practically speaking, we may not have gotten anywhere close yet, but there’s no magical barrier holding back our eventual progress. I don’t doubt we will experiment in very synthetic intelligence, discovering as we do quite how common or arcane our own natural kind turns out to be once you’re running the process. Emergent phenomena have the hint of transcendence to them, effervescing somewhere above our day to day intuition and handiwork. But we will know them. And they very well may change us. Boy, that would be a second computer revolution to witness, or to miss.

Yet I’ve got to put it off.

Various different realms of excuse occur to me. Computational density is a good one. A wholly practical “no can do” on elaborate brain emulation thanks to incomplete technology. It’s my safest bet. Though obviously at odds with my eventual plans at Mintaka.

A rather more involved alternative is the prospect of a ban. Perhaps it was achieved in the meantime, and prove so wildly disruptive in whatever place that it did, that the whole thing was sealed in embargo. Has a ring of conspiracy about it, typically something I don’t like but which fits with the Aegean much better than my simplest choice. The real promise to this one (if I can find it in myself to accept any such thing as Pandora’s Box resealed) is its partiality. Most may not have AI, but some can, so long as they know to keep entirely quiet. Yes, this is the one a writer’s instinct would snap at, I know. I’m thinking synthesis.

Truth be out: I suppose I’ve already decided all of this in the past, now that I consider the first two options to come to mind. The events at the Aegean are about something essentially equal to the hardest core of all AI. Universal simulation: the superset of every conceivable mind. So here at least AI is a foregone conclusion. You know, if they needed it, in the explicit HAL sense of old.

I’ll write another section about simulation and the practical limits on computation in the Andala universe, as I consider it a separate subject, hence my dawning surprise. But as for computers which think they are human, or operate with apparent consciousness and free will, I’ve already described why I’m against it. The in-world reasoning may be identical, but I should also remember mind playback, come to think about it. Thoughts in progress, I tell you, even if they are for the most part just memories.

—September 2010

By and large, I think I was right. (What a surprise!) As much as I respect 2001: A Space Odyssey, copying it is not a goal, and that includes HAL. Besides, between now than then, I read Stephen Wolfram’s take on emergence, and adopted some of what I thought of it for the physics of my story.

Quite besides Andala, I’m more convinced now that Turing Machines the like we have today throughout our technology, are a poor match for the hard intelligence problem. What we have managed to construct, thus far, is something of an endlessly elaborate Mechanical Turk. Software is still a painstaking craft, every bit as specialised and handmade as the realm of industry before mechanisation. We’re the ones deciding at every step of the way, whether we use these machines directly as tools, or beforehand when writing the code that enables this. There’s something else to intelligence. Nothing holy or sublime, but something self realising, self improving, a self in the first place if you will. This is why I fear for algorithms alone to ever get there. Rule based we are not. What we are is about as emergent as it gets.

Just trying to figure out how to explain my view is a little taste of the quagmire I’d find throughout my book if I let it loose in there. And yet…

Eventually, just like the hosts of these breathless shows, I reckon AI is ultimately around the corner. The prospect is so disruptive that I can’t have it any sooner than the end of my story, should it ever get there. And that’s what I was on about with those vague allusions to “Mintaka” and “Aegean”. All that stuff about mind uploading has stuck with me longer than I imagined. There’s something I can’t quite comprehend lying in wait for Andala. That may very well be every bit as nutty a path as it sounds. But I wouldn’t be too sure. Writing is a curious, shrouded, inscrutable thing. Just like intelligence.

Messier 45

As for when the Pleiades did come up as the perfect place to put Andala, that took a winter sky. Literal, outside my frosty Edinburgh window, as well as virtual within another on my PowerBook. So obvious, and yet to my surprise still fairly novel. Apparently.

Well here’s an idea. How about moving the whole thing to the Pleiades? I was playing in Celestia an hour or two ago in the eventual evening quiet, trapped still by feline will, when they caught my eye and I remembered how close they are. Almost conveniently close. Rotating the view, I figured Merope lay at the centre and ran my scripts and spreadsheets based from there. What a cluster. Also what a pick for a point of interest, as Merope has one of the most gorgeous nebulae I’ve beheld. A speedy calculation yielded the result: what looks like 30 arcseconds of filament here would be 60 degrees of night filling grandeur there. And pretty damn notable throughout the region. Merope itself, as with all of the dazzling keystone stars which light up that far flung sky, is too mighty to consider for Andala. Or so I think. Plugging in the numbers, my crude model yields a terrestrial orbit way out at 25 AU – between Uranus and Neptune’s – lasting 60 years. Being big and blue, Merope spins and must bulge like Vega, but so much so that its equatorial plane is spun with an Xray-rich wind. Hmm. Habitability aside, Barnard’s Merope Nebula would be a wonderful setting for a certain misty fight. Not least if it is close enough to be apparent from Andala, and embedded in their sky lore.

There seems to be a bit of confusion as to how far the Pleiades lie away from here. The Hipparcos satellite brought them a fair bit closer than expected, leaving niggles in the region both sides of 400 lightyears. That’s a mere six times farther than I had envisaged in my calculations, making it doable if not identical. I just think there’s so much to win in setting their world there, for both what its sky looks like and for what our journeys there are made to be. Plus it is such a little revelation for ordinary folk who never took the time to look into the stars before to see that cluster staring them in the face. I remember my old friend’s first reaction (when I pointed out that strange blur of tight packed stars, hidden in plain sight upon the sky) as though it were mine. No need to worry about sixth magnitude anonymity, even if I do go with one of the “appropriately” fainter locals. So long as it’s that way, they’re there.

It’s a start at least. You know how I love those.

—December 2009

Andala’s star, Aira, is not Merope. But it’s fairly close. I’ve yet to lay my hands upon a sufficiently detailed catalogue (Hertzsprung’s, anyone?). Oh, actually, scratch that: here it is. Thank you internet. So, what I mean to say then, is that I can indeed have a little sift through that and pick a specific real life star for Aira to be, if any take my fancy. There is a case for not being nailed down to a reality which can always prove you wrong, but I need my coordinates whether fiction or otherwise.

All this rummaging about in my notes spells the fact I’ve still a world of work to do. At least. The next matter in hand being a definitive table of transit and communication speeds. Now I’m sure I had one already made around here somewhere… (Damn it.)