Mercurio D. Rivera informs me that my story “Love Engine Optimization” got a nice write-up in Locus from Rich Horton: “[The story has] a timely central notion: a way of using deep data (with realtime help) to attract romantic partners. The question, of course, is how “real” such a romance would be. Kressel makes the story work by focusing on the character and drives of the protagonist, with an honest and dark twist of the knife at the end.” Here’s the story if you want to check it out.
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel is a science fiction story about a dying writer who is trying to finish one final novel on the distant planet he settles on for his demise. His encounter with a young girl triggers a last burst of creativity.
My wife and I were on vacation last year in Barbados, and we were both powering through Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. The book’s subject matter made me ponder the transience of things, how we take so much for granted. It struck me too that the activity we call “reading for pleasure” might have a finite lifetime in human history. What would happen, for example, if we could get stories fed directly into our brains? Would we have need for the literature of words anymore if we could experience stories first-hand? “The Last Novelist” describes such a potential future, many centuries from now, when books are to the people of the future like clay tablets with cuneiform, odd and obsolete.
While on that same vacation, there was a small dead lizard in the back-yard porch being eaten by ants. At first I was disgusted by its leather carcass, and I pushed it off to the side with my shoe. But day after day, I watched the ants work, and by the third day I was severely impressed by how thoroughly they had dissected the animal, how efficient nature was. Nothing dead is every really gone, it’s just changed.
Anyway, that’s how the dead lizard made it into the story. 😉
The story’s cover art is by the amazing Scott Bakal.
I’m excited to be participating in a panel called “From T-1000 to Hal 9000: How Realistic Are Sci-Fi’s Robots?” at the 10th annual BRITE Conference held at the Columbia Business School. The panel will be held on March 6th from 11:10am-12:00pm. The official panelists are: Dan Abella, Director of the New York Sci-fi Film Festival and Philip K. Dick Film Festival, Matt Kressel (yours truly), Nebula-award nominated sci-fi author, Peter Asaro, PhD and Assistant Professor at the New School, and Mike Massimino, former NASA astronaut. The panel will be moderated by Christopher Mahon.
From T-1000 to Hal 9000: How Realistic Are Sci-Fi’s Robots?
Sentient robots have been a classic science fiction trope for decades, and with the popularity of works like Her, Ex Machina, and Westworld, they’re not going away anytime soon. In this panel, artificial intelligence and pop culture experts discuss famous depictions of sentient AI and their respective levels of scientific plausibility. Is Samantha from Her the logical extension of Siri and Google Home? Do we need to preemptively afford artificially intelligent robots “human” rights in order to avoid the enslavement of sentient beings? If we ever build a robot that can approximate emotion like Hal 9000 or Ava from Ex Machina, would we ever be sure that they are *feeling* emotion rather than simulating it? Join us for a discussion of all of the most fascinating questions (and most entertaining pieces of fiction) about the burgeoning growth of artificial intelligence.
ABOUT THE BRITE CONFERENCE:
Now in its 10th year, BRITE ’17 (March 6-7, Columbia Business School, NYC) will bring together 500-600 executives, entrepreneurs, academics, and students to discuss the future of business, technology, media, and society. Participants at BRITE come to learn about how innovative ideas are changing society and the ways that brands are built and maintained. Current confirmed speakers for BRITE ’17 include: Maryam Banikarim (CMO, Hyatt), Dana Anderson (CMO, Mondelez), Jonathan Becher (CDO, SAP), Raj Subramaniam (EVP, FedEx), Andrew Kassoy (Co-Founder, B Lab) and Chris Welty (Senior Researcher, Google).
Over at Tor.com I participate in a discussion about “The best and worst aspects of Cyberpunk,” with authors Madeline Ashby, Stephen Graham Jones, Cat Rambo, Nisi Shawl and Alyssa Wong. Which of course is just an excuse for me to pepper my answer with covert Blade Runner references. Here’s the lede:
Cyberpunk. It’s about cybernetics, neuroscience, nanotech, and transhumanism—and much more than that. The upcoming anthology from Hex Publishers, Cyber World, looks at how the technological changes we all face have inspired new stories to address our fears, hopes, dreams, and desires. All this as Homo sapiens evolves—or not—into its next incarnation.
Some of the most talented science fiction writers of today contributed to Cyber World, which presents diverse tales of humanity’s tomorrow. Today six of those authors answer the question “What are the best and worst aspects of cyberpunk, as either a reader or a writer?” Read their answers and tell us your own thoughts in the comments!
You can read the full article here.
Ask most people what they think the future will bring in the next 10, 20, 50 years, and you’re likely to encounter pessimism. Drought, famine, war, disease, scarce resources. The planet is warming up, we’re killing of species by the hundred-fold, destroying this one and only planet we’ve been given. Right now we have Ebola, Global Warming, ISIS, and a newly elected American Congress that has promised to roll back much-needed health reforms. The future does indeed look bleak.
Few people you will meet will expound the optimistic views of the 70s and 80s. Colonies in space. Environmentally friendly cities. Famine, disease, war rendered obsolete simply by the fact that we have moved from a society of scarcity to one of plenty.
Our optimistic visions of this:
Have been replaced with this:
Our defining vision for the 21st century is dystopia, at least so far. Part of this is fueled by the media we consume. Film, video games, television. But they are not to blame. Art echoes stark realities, casts a mirror on our inner psyche. While some live in utter luxury, others on this planet must scour garbage of others to survive. While we send probes to the planets and beyond, loft massive ships into Earth orbit, a ten year old boy dies of Ebola, alone, suffering, without adequate care, to be forgotten.
It’s easy to be bleak, pessimistic. Our politicians like clockwork fail to live up to their promises, or fall into scandal and shame. Instead of propping up the forward-thinking, most intelligent, philosophical and artistic among us, we praise those who have the prettiest face, or are the most obnoxious, or who, by nature of their birth, simply have more money than we do.
Some called Gene Roddenberry a utopianist, but I think he had it right: humanity needs a vision of the future that is grand instead of bleak, optimistic instead of dire. And he was wise enough to know that a post-scarcity world does not mean that all suffering will be eradicated. It simply means that, barring exceptional circumstances, all individuals will have the opportunity to pursue whatever they can imagine.
But this is not the world we live in. If you are lucky enough to be born into a class or society where you have access to healthcare, food, education, you are already ahead of the game. But even so, most in the Western world struggle with crushing debt, an economy that favors the top as it exploits the lowest among us.
We do have plenty, as William Gibson said, it’s just not evenly distributed.
I think our problem — and I want to say up front that it’s a solvable one — is that we — we as in humanity as a whole — have no singular vision for the 21st century. And so, because we choose not to strive for an ideal humanity, or because all the billions of shouting voices just devolve into noise, we revert to the stock image of the future that we’ve been fed via media for the past several decades: dystopia.
Stop for a second. Name one film, book, video game, or other media you’ve encountered in the past five years that presented a view of the future that wasn’t bleak. Can you name ten? Five? One?
Now, how many of the dystopian variety can you think of? Fifty? A hundred? More?
Part of our problem is a lack of foresight. Unless we plan for a different future, unless we actively strive for a future that we all can embrace, we will instead receive that which our subconscious automatically creates, and that will be fueled by our default vision of the future. Instead of this default vision, can we imagine a future in which:
- Everyone on the planet has affordable or free access to food, water, clothing, shelter, and healthcare
- Everyone on the planet has access to affordable or free education up to any level their minds desire
- A massive reduction in fossil fuel use to be replaced with sustainable resources
- A slowing of population growth to sustainable levels
- Reduction and eventual elimination of war and the reasons for it, which are typically: land, religion, resources
- A massive ramping up of the search for life in the Cosmos
- A massive slowdown of resource depletion concomitant with renewed efforts to preserve and protect all living species
- A commercial, private space program with an intent to expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth
I’m sure we can think of more, but these would be a good start. And the most important thing is that all of them are very much possible, especially if each of us, individually, work towards one or more of those goals each day. Even if only a small percentage of humanity’s billions took up these goals, think of the change that might be possible. The mode we are living in now: scarcity, debt, war, poverty, a surveillance state…this inevitable slide into dystopia is but one mode of many. And all we have to do is shift our consciousness a bit to realize that another mode is possible. And that can just as easily be inevitable too, so long as we make it happen, so long as we consciously act to bring it into the world.
Jason Sanford has a short but excellent post on Medium.com about the notion that science fiction does not predict the future, but in fact creates the future. In the article he cites Cory Doctorow’s Locus essay, “A Vocabulary for Speaking About the Future.” I was particularly struck by the assertion that when science fiction writers believe they are predicting the future they may in fact be inspiring. Who/what are they inspiring? Young readers who may grow up to be scientists, engineers, filmmakers, novelists, visionaries. People, in other words, who shape the future.
I sometimes read the blog The Last Psychiatrist. While the author, Alone, can sometimes come off as acerbic, if you wade through her rhetorical arguments, you will find genius buried within. While she tends to focus on the pervasive problem of narcissism in our society (and by “ours” she typically means America, or any culture that mimics or shares our value system), one of her arguments is that advertising in our culture is aspirational and not inspirational.
Note that I mention “inspiration” again. I’ll come back to that.
But first, I want to explore the difference between aspiration and inspiration. Aspiration, of course, is the “ardent wish or desire for something, chiefly that which is elevated or spiritual.” (source: Wiktionary) Whereas inspiration is “the act of an elevating or stimulating influence upon the intellect, emotions or creativity.” In other words, aspiration is the desire for something you don’t have. Inspiration pushes you to act with what you already have.
My point is that, based on my read of The Last Psychiatrist, and my take on Cory Doctorow’s and Jason Sanford’s essays, that most of Western culture (and by that I mean pop/materialist/consumerist culture) is stuck in an aspirational loop. We are desiring things we do not have, only to desire yet more things when we acquire these material items. We are left perpetually unsatisfied because a core need is not being met. I think this need is a sense of purpose. For many, religion has failed to provide that connection to a greater force. And while some gape in awe at the grandeur of the universe without need for a divine being, most cannot muster the will to appreciate that which is so unfathomable (that is, the immensity and complexity of the cosmos). For most it is easier to retire back into a sort of mindless trance, where we indulge in television and video games and ever more reclusive forms of self-numbing, because all seems utterly meaningless outside of our comfortable zone.
Well, I say, fuck that. If we cannot find meaning out there, then let’s make our own meaning right here. Let’s use the tools at our disposal, in other words, let’s inspire people toward greater things. And we can use science fiction as a backdrop to explore those grand ideas. This is probably echoing a lot of what Jetse de Vries tried to do with his Shine: Optimistic SF anthology. And I say, let’s dream bigger. Why can’t we write stories, novels, films, video games that show the following:
o) a world without poverty, pollution, hunger, disease that is not a frightful dystopia
o) the human race expanding into the solar system and beyond, not to conquer, but to explore and learn. Spaceships, in other words, without weapons and explosions. Yes, I’m thinking Star Trek, sans battles, but why is this view of the future considered quaint by many? It’s because we’ve been conditioned to be cynics, to believe that dystopia is the only possible future. We’ve been taught to be pessimistic. Note that I don’t mean there is a conspiracy, per se, but that our collective unconscious fears have been affecting us for a long time. It’s time we create our future worlds more consciously, the way we want them to appear, not how we fear they might.
o) a common dream for humanity, echoing what Carl Sagan says is his famous Cosmos tv series, a long-term goal for all, and with very real immediate milestones to be met. In other words, short-term inspiration towards long-term aspiration.
I believe science fiction has the tools to do all of this at its disposal now. SF can inspire us to greater things. And in fact I would argue that it is the only medium/genre/voice which has such power to shape and mold the future. Let’s not let our unconscious fears and behaviors rule us as if we are automatons, dreaming up default grotesque dystopias of corporate control and diminished individual power, of worlds smog-choked and polluted and dying, of wars and more death. Let’s consciously choose to create a different, better future, and let’s use science fiction as the tool to inspire it.*
* One last note. I do not suggest here that all stories of dystopia are bad. In fact, dystopias can often teach us how things can go wrong, and how we might avoid such a dark fate. But I think the balance of pessimistic vs. optimistic stories are skewed heavily toward the former, and a drastic shift is in order.