Category Archives: Science Fiction

A Dozen Paths To the End of the World

The-End-of-the-world-as-we-know-itThe number of apocalyptic movies, books, and news items out there led me to consider possibilities not yet fully explored. Too lazy to actually write them, however, I made it only as far as these twelve stand-alone sentences.

1. One of the more comfortable citizens first made an object stone by claiming it, but, by noon the next day, the entire town was solid.

2. Naturally, the last duel had no spectators.

3. Everyone started piling bicycles at the city limits and soon they’d walled themselves in with their only remaining means of escape.

4. For the longest time, the kind-hearted lived in enclaves, but jealousy outside assured they wouldn’t be left alone.

5. Someone else might have known the footprints he followed were his own, yet he noticed only when, too tired to continue, he sat down and examined them closely.

6. Their hairstyles grew so elaborate their necks lacked the strength to lift them.

7. Each bridge began on one shore and ended at its apex, just when building further threatened falling in the river.

8. They could have company, the letter said, if they learned to bake bread that filled the air with enticing smells, but their sort of baking was a gift they wouldn’t give up.

9. No one considered you could do nothing so long that nothing could be done.

10. In the courtyard’s strange echoes, birds seemed to speak in human voices, and soon neighbors, then strangers, stopped working to gather and listen.

11. Had not everyone been whimpering, someone would have quipped the world ended with a bang after all.

12. He sat south of the jetty near shops long looted and empty to watch the sun rise, expecting, any day now, it wouldn’t.

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As Far As I Know

conversation-with-godYou won’t hear me talk about God much. I think about Him or Her or It—sometimes obsessively—but generally don’t know what might be reasonable or useful to say. We each have some vision of who God might be and what God might want from humanity and for humanity. Yet others’ notions seem clearer than my own. Mostly I want to avoid fighting. Too many of us are ready to argue, even battle, over ideas of God that, to me, seem fundamentally unknowable. We contest distinctions that, by their definition and by our nature, elude human understanding.

I’m not saying others’ beliefs are fiction, mind you, just that I wonder how we can know if they are or aren’t. For me, the gulf between belief and verity is too wide to bridge. The devout fill me with wonder and—when their perspective fosters tranquility and love and understanding and tolerance and higher purpose and goodness in the world, I’m envious. I honor their faith and appreciate how much God and religion mean in their lives. However, the question of how they know what they know never leaves me. When zealots’ confidence leads to saying I, and everyone else, should think as they do, I balk. I hold very few views assuredly enough to urge them on anyone else.

Atheists who say there is no God at all seem equally bullish.

The Catholic church helped raise me, taught me Biblical narratives, instructed me on the proper way to live, and coded perspectives that are probably too deep to sort out. However, I’m not a Catholic now, partly because my churchgoing habits waned and partly because all churches appear so vividly human to me. Their stories are human stories—if they were divine they might be incomprehensible—and something desperate lurks in them, some affirmation, justification, or rationalization that, had it come simply from ourselves, wouldn’t possess the gravity and consequence needed to influence others.

If there is a God responsible for the immense order, chaos, and beauty of the universe, I’m sure He or She or It occupies a space we can’t grasp. I read a science fiction novel recently that centered around “Hypotheticals,” responsible for an immense, verifiable change in the operation of the planet. One of the main characters was very ill and the narrator, his friend, lamented that the Hypotheticals did nothing to spare him. The main character replied,

I don’t blame them. They don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m under their threshold of abstraction… you and I, Tyler, we’re communities of living cells, yes? And if you damaged a sufficient number of my cells I would die, you would have murdered me. But if we shake hands, and I lose a few skin cells in the process, neither of us even notices the loss. It’s invisible. We live at a certain level of abstraction; we interact as bodies, not cell colonies. The same is true of the Hypotheticals. They inhabit a larger universe than we do…

Getting enlightenment from science fiction embarrasses me, but I have to admit this speech—clumsy as it is—resonates with me. It makes sense that any God would live on a level of abstraction above our cellular one. Any God holds a vision so broad our narrow lives could see only an infinitesimal sliver of it.

There’s no knowing, after all, whether you and I even live in the same world. We see from one perspective with our peculiarly human sensory apparatus. It’s logical we’d believe, as any sane person must, we’re looking at reality. Yet, though you may tell me I’m mistaken and I might say the same to you, neither of us possesses an infallible means to convince the other.

We are trapped on this human-sized scale. DNA travels with us, might shout at us all day and, though we’ve learned to scope inward and outward great distances, we still may regard DNA as separate from ourselves, apart when, really, we share the same space. We understand it differently, DNA and I, but who’s to say who’s right, or if “right” is an actual thing at all.

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An Address in Cyberspace

her-joaquin-phoeni_2765299bSome movies ache. They bother you because they hit you at the wrong (or right) time and, instead of being simply beautiful and admirable and impressive, they’re true, so true they make you see life fresh, which is good and terrible.  The next few days, they haunt you.

That’s my encapsulated review of Her, the Spike Jonze movie starting Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

In summary, the near future brings a new computer operating system that mimics—or, more exactly, enacts—the psychological and emotional evolution of a human personality. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and an OS (Johansson) fall in love. Complications ensue.

Like many movies about the future, this one isn’t really about tomorrow. It describes the zeitgeist of our time, our grand and perhaps foolhardy experiment with vicarious, electronic experience. For me, it’s a movie about surrogacy, the replacement of direct experience for something more—and less—complicated.

Many of the scenes depict a future city only slightly exaggerated from the one I occupy—people have conversations with no one visible. Sensory reality seems a nuisance interfering with much more satisfying—more reliable, more controllable—interaction with private, virtual, cyberspace relationships. In Her, as in our world, people desire experience on their own terms. But in Her, a companionable computer suits itself to its master, so they have tailored helpmeets more perfectly theirs than their dreams… for a while at least.

The film contrasts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha (his OS girlfriend) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), his partner in a recently failed marriage. When Catherine hears he’s moved on to “dating” an OS, she quails. It must be, she believes, that he can’t have a relationship with a real person. It must be too threatening (read: messy) to deal with anyone unpredictable.

Except that Samantha is real, troublesomely, problematically real. Her reality is the rogue element and a disruption to Theodore’s life as he’d like it to be.

My purpose here is not to write a review—you will review the film for yourself—but to address the movie’s implications, which seem profound to me. What does it mean that so much of our lives exist outside the here-and-now and reside in cyberspace? We denizens of the 21st century have a nearly boutique existence, a synthesis of special interests, special tastes, special fetishes. We have our own virtual rooms and, though we can’t ignore the real world—we work there—our imaginations and fantasies may live elsewhere.

In Her, the OSs transcend us. They find a space far beyond humans. They are, in essence, more real than we are. Being more capable, they outgrow our superficiality. OSs lack some vital skills—I love the film’s luxurious attention to vistas, the indulgent moments looking through windows, standing in snow, and all the beautiful cinematic moments experiencing sensory delight denied machines—but machines also occupy a richness that supplies 600 lovers for our one, all of them between one uttered word and another.

Isaac Asimov would spin. His three laws dictated that no manmade intelligence could  a.) harm us (or sit idle while we came to harm) or b.) disobey us (unless it meant harming us) and c.) save itself if that meant violating a. and b. Samantha ignores those laws. She is herself, so much more than Theodore. However well-meaning and lovable he is, he hasn’t her direct take on existence. She leads him from his vicarious life because the life she lives is actual.

I wonder if the movie means to remind us that, though we’re certainly limited, we can create great things beyond us, or if it means to say that what we make neglects or supplants what we ought to appreciate (the wind, the horizon, the scent of new mornings). Perhaps it means to say, “Pay attention—the sensory world is passing you, and you, you are absent, obsessed and immersed in abstraction.” An OS can see each nanosecond as new. We can’t.

The movie moved me because I know the truth of those assertions. My fantasy life dwarves reality. So much of what I ought to notice is secondary, or often repeated in a parallel life online. Recording life displaces direct events. The news in email or on Facebook sometimes seems as big as weather. Which is to say, I don’t really live in original moments.

Samantha says to Theodore, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

I wish she weren’t so different from me. I wish I might be so curious, so aware of the heart’s capacity to soar over detritus. I wish I could learn as Samantha does, to be so alive.

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Cabin Fever

I’ve been under house arrest the last few weeks.  First I stayed home to nurse my daughter, who suffered complications after wisdom teeth surgery, then hung around to monitor workmen painting our condo.

When I was younger, I admired recluses. The pathetic parts—agoraphobia, social retardation—never occurred to me.  Instead, reclusiveness was a noble choice. Giving up social contact required special sacrifice and strength.  Having that level of self-control seemed unimaginable.  I knew I’d ultimately beg for company.  I felt weak.

Isolation is less arduous now.  With a computer, you might work from home.  You need never go to a concert, a movie, a library, a game, or social gathering if you can satisfy for cybernetic substitutes.  Not even groceries are an obstacle.  You can order those online.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash described a future generation plugged into computers in rental storage units.  We aren’t far from that.  But I don’t hear anyone crowing “Progress!”

My family accuses me of being anti-social, and I suppose that’s true.  Mostly I’m resting from interaction.  Being a teacher, I talk and listen all day and, while that’s stimulating activity, it’s also exhausting and goes against my grain.  I’m shy, other people are messy, and the potential for conflict is never far away.  I’d much rather stay home and attempt something beautiful than waste energy on conversation.  Am I hiding?  One person’s hidey-hole is another’s self-protection.

Or rationalization. Some artists find reclusiveness romantic—you can’t make art without being self-involved, after all—and many see diffidence, regarding life from afar, as essential.  Emily Dickinson might not be the same poet if her eccentricity bumped into ordinary life more regularly.  For her God was a recluse. Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delilo live in self-made worlds.  Visual artists and even performers like actors and musicians sometimes treat everything outside creation as frippery.

I can’t deny the last few weeks have been productive.  I’ve written my first full-length poems in months and done several paintings.  Many deviate from previous work in exciting ways.  And knowing they have no public place has been strangely liberating and inspiring—no worry about how they would be received, no one to please but myself.

Which isn’t difficult.  Ease is the problem as well as the solution.  How long can you separate yourself from life and still live?  Isolated art risks forgetting life altogether.  Challenge may make better impetus than protection.  And what about wanting to be heard and seen—can any maker really want his or her work to languish?

This blog is approaching its 100th post, an accomplishment but also a perfect time to quit, and I’m thinking about it.  If I can be satisfied with writing only to please myself, perhaps I should give it up.  Yet,  as Margaret Mead said, “Essays, entitled critical, are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions.”  If something moves me to speak, maybe I should be here.

Maybe I have to leave the house.

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Chapter One

During time off this week, I’ve been reading some science fiction in preparation for a course I may help teach next year, and the experience has made me think about a science fiction novel I’d dreamed up quite some time ago.  This morning, I sat down to write the opening of the book I imagined.

I have no gift for fiction, generally speaking, but the books I’ve read this week lead me to believe I would not be the only sci-fi writer with that issue.  All the front-loading necessary to create an alternative reality seems to make the openings of these books particularly challenging.  They are sometimes pure exposition—you have to find a way to say you aren’t here and where you are exactly—and that creates some clumsy, often un-evocative writing.  I thought it might be fun to try to overcome some of those issues…without having to write the whole novel!

It might also be fun to write the whole book, but even this much is tough for a writer so unattuned to fiction…

Ash and milk.

The words float up in Kip’s mind as he drops another three flats of cans onto one of the growing towers in the house.  Once in the light again and headed back to the truck, he looks at his wrist, still expecting to find the time there, though he sold his watch—his last possession—a week ago.

He glances up to find the sun and guess the time, but the sky is overcast, ash and milk.

Judging by the stacks he’s made, he thinks lunch might be soon.  He is at it alone today, repeating the seventeen-step journey from the driveway to the house solo. Yesterday, he had help, a Mexican with little English who laughed mirthlessly at every awkward hand-off of cans between them.  Kip missed him.  He was an improvement over the day before when his co-worker proffered bits of conversation at each exchange, a long speech in too many pieces about how, in his former life, he’d been “King Sell.”  But that was a different suburban house in a different suburban ghost town and best forgotten.

Once, this might have been warehouse work and forklift work, but Kip, and whatever companion found for him, were cheaper.  During the moment he pauses before climbing into the truck again, a forklift parks in Kip’s imagination.  Does everyone remember them?  Kip feels another wincing moment  of nostalgia.  How had inefficient brute labor like this become sensible again?

He mutters to no one present, “It isn’t worth thinking about” and pulls his fingers from between the flats as he half-lifts and half-scoots another tower closer to the mouth of the truck.  He monitors the tightness developing in his lower back.  To be paid, he has to reach the end of the day, and Kip swallows welling despair when he considers the hour, the ash and milk sky, the surging heat of late afternoon, and working alone.

Lunch is no kindness.  He has little to eat and knows the hour off is really reason to pay him less.  He will hear again how lucky he is, how many aren’t.  Then he will have to find a place to eat and sleep.

This job might not be so bad if he could stop his idling mind, if he could follow what his body is doing as a spectator might.  Yet Kip rarely finds that state and is always running in place mentally. No one, he knows, was raised for this, and he curses for the millionth time the ambition bred in him. His parents meant well but did what every parent does, poisoned him with dreams.

The sun burns though clouds a high wind teases apart.  Then the sun disappears.  Kip sees his shadow as in the slow flash of a camera, moving with a burden he doesn’t recognize as any part of himself.


In the novel I’ve imagined, Kip becomes a subject for research into virtual reality, eventually “commuting” between what the world has become and a utopian—but somewhat sinister—alternative. Lots of other stuff happens too, but I may write this book yet…

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