Tag Archives: science fiction

Excessively close encounters of the cyber kind

I got the tracking suit from my cousin Tiffani who was always too helpful.

The package arrived at my front door one morning. It was brightly wrapped in pink and yellow evaporative paper. When I lifted it from the doorstep, a tinny voice announced, “Dress for the future.” A nanosecond later it changed to, “Track with fashion.”

When I set it on the table, the outer wrapping dissolved, revealing a turquoise pantsuit. The color was attractive, the style current without being obnoxiously trendy. Maybe Tiffani had done something right this time.

“Congratulations,” the tinny voice blared. “You have a unique experience ahead of you! Your tracking suit will help you record your food intake, exercise, heart rate, blood sugar level, menstrual cycle and emotional state. It can warn you of impending PMS mood swings and dangerous glycemic imbalance.”

Then came the usual warnings about the possibilities of excessive egocentrism or walking while distracted. But the instructions seemed simple enough.

I was still wary. What would it look like on me? Would everyone stare at me as I walked in my neighborhood?

With that in mind, I removed my sleepshirt and slipped on the trousers. They molded to my hips and waist, the style allowing for my rather oversize butt. It looked good, I had to admit that. The shirt jacket was just as flattering.

Activating the holo-screen, I examined the result from all angles. It made me look slimmer. The color complemented my dark hair and tanned skin. Yes, I liked it.

Following the directions, I enunciated, “Tracker on.”

I heard a murmuring in my ear. “You are doing well this morning. Your weight is 55.2 kilograms, within acceptable norms, although at the outer limit of the bell curve. Your blood sugar is 104. Your blood oxygen is at 96%. What are your plans for the day?”

I described my usual program of reading the news, answering digital mail, working on my latest novel, then taking a walk.

“You should think about exercise first. It will increase your blood oxygen level and cardiovascular strength.”

A minor change. I could cope with that. I waved open the door of my house and stepped outside. The door closed and locked automatically as I set off at a brisk pace down the walkway.

I strolled the streets of my neighborhood, enjoying the soft spring day. The sun shone off new green leaves, the air was scented with hyacinths and damp earth and birds chirped merrily above.

“You will benefit from increasing your pace. It will consume more calories and provide a better blood flow,” the voice intruded.

It was right, of course. I upped my pace even though my heavier breathing interfered with the happy sound of the birds. As I passed my favorite clothing store, I glanced at my reflection in the window.

“You really should not slouch like that,” came the voice. “If you stand straighter, you will look even better, which will improve your mood and make others admire you more.”

The voice was beginning to sound like my mother’s. But I had to admit it was right. I pulled my shoulders back and sucked in my stomach. I lost the scent of hyacinths.

I reached the turnaround point in my walk and crossed the street. The sun on my back was pleasantly warm. In spite of the uncomfortable stiffness of my shoulders and the tension of keeping my stomach flat, I enjoyed the feeling.

“You are beginning ovulation,” the voice returned. “Now would be a perfect time to think about having a child. You are now 36.8 years old and nearing the end of your optimal reproductive window.”

This was getting annoying.

“If you wore a bit of makeup and socialized more, you could encounter many possible mates who could provide the requisite sperm.”

I ground my teeth.

“You know your mother would like a grandchild, and your cousin Tiffani already has two offspring. An infant would contribute greatly to your well being and make many people happy–”

“Tracking off,” I muttered.

“This device cannot recognize that directive,” it droned.

The sun wasn’t pleasant now. The chirping birds hammered at my head, and the smells of spring were making me nauseous.

“Your appear distressed. You should consider taking a mood elevator when you return to your domicile.”

I should consider ripping off this goddamn suit and burning it, is what I should do. “Shut up.” My voice was louder.

“Your heart rate has increased to disturbing levels. Your breathing is irregular. Perhaps you should–”

“Shut the fuck up!” I shouted.

Several other pedestrians stopped and stared at me.

“A regular workout at your neighborhood gym would help regularize your cardiovascular system. Perhaps you should¾”

I ran the rest of the way home.

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We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!

I’m not good with rules. I’ve been trying to write a page of dialogue for my new work-in-progress, Lessons in Space, and I keep getting hung up.

Some of them are easy. Always put the words between quotation marks, unless the communication is telepathic, subvocalized or expressed in some other way, like light waves or odor. Try to show the speaker’s tone of voice in the tag. You could use an adverb to tell emotion, but it isn’t as strong. Make each character’s “voice” distinctive.

The one I always have trouble with is the injunction to place tags (identifiers) before or after the character has spoken rather than in the middle of the speech. For example:

Dilbert shouted, “That’s a piece of crap!”

Or

“That’s a piece of crap.” Dilbert’s shoulders slumped.

These show, rather than tell, something about Dilbert’s character, and don’t interrupt the flow of his words.

A hard and fast rule, right? But let’s examine it. We all know that there are times when we pause as we speak, perhaps to emphasize a point or hunt for an exact word. Sometimes, we can indicate this in writing by using ellipses. For example:

“That’s. . . a piece of crap,” Dilbert announced.

But if we really want to emphasize a point, wouldn’t it be more dramatic to do it this way?

“That,” Dilbert announced, pointing at the painting, “is a piece of crap!”

Here, we reinforce that Dilbert is an arrogant, opinionated individual who is used to being listened to.

If used sparingly, breaking the speech with a tag can be quite successful. But it violates the rules.

Everyone needs rules, writers of fiction included. We have to check our spelling, and obey most of the rules of punctuation and grammar. Without these guidelines, we can’t communicate effectively, and our readers would throw down our books in disgust.

However, as fiction writers, we are accustomed to weaving words to create a mood or define a character, as deftly and succinctly as possible. We might use an otherwise unacceptable spelling of a word to indicate an accent. A lizardman from Omicron VI would need extra esses to illustrate his hiss, and a Klingon growls his rrrrs.

Maybe insert a sentence fragment. We could even string letters together to show an alien language, make up futuristic slang, devise unique ways of indicating non-verbal communications like snorts or sniffs.

I believe that if we allow ourselves to slavishly follow the rules, we will limit ourselves too much. We have to allow ourselves some freedom. Perhaps, sometimes, the laws of good writing lead to the loss of good writing.

I know others will disagree, and I welcome comments.

Use of commonly accepted grammar and spelling optional.

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“But, officer, I really wasn’t. . .”

In 2013, police departments all over the country started cracking down on driving infractions. Driving while impaired took on new meanings as phone conversations and texting were added to the list of distractions. Then it was discovered that daydreaming while driving was almost as dangerous. And so, many years later. . .

I saw the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror, and obediently pulled over to the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. I hadn’t been speeding, or weaving about. Nor had I been phoning, texting, drinking coffee or engaging in sex.

The trooper who emerged from the black and white was obviously young. And big. The dark wraparound glasses that hid his eyes looked too large for his face. His expression, however, was grim.

I fished my phone out of my bag as he approached and called up my license and registration. Then I gestured to the sensor that controlled the window. The glass lowered silently.

When he stood at the side of the car, towering above it, I handed the phone to him. “What was the problem, officer?” I asked pleasantly.

He took his time syncing my phone to his handheld scanner. When he handed it back to me, he said, “You were daydreaming.”

“No, honestly, sir, I wasn’t.”

“According to my brain scanner, you were actively engaged in an activity involving the creative nodes of your cerebral cortex. That is daydreaming.”

For a moment I was silent. “But the law against driving while daydreaming isn’t due to take effect until–”

“No, ma’am.” His voice was not loud, but authoritative. “It was rushed through. It took effect today. The new law against Driving Under Daydreaming, was pushed through.”

“But I’m not a DUD,” I protested.

“The scanner doesn’t lie, ma’am.”

“No, honestly. I was planning. Thinking. I wasn’t involved in a first-person fantasy world.”

He stood there, broad shouldered and implacable, and didn’t say anything.

“Look,” I said, leaning out the window, “I’m a writer. I was outlining my next book.”

He unbent enough to look at me. “A writer? What do you write?”

“Science fiction. Y’know, space ships, robots, like that.”

“Hmph. Never read the stuff. Were you inhabiting the world you were creating?”

“Oh, no, officer, we writers can’t do that. We have to remain objective. Honest.”

“Well, you WERE distracted. You know that while you are driving you must concentrate on the road, and not on anything else.”

“I’m good at multitasking. I’m a writer. I have to be.”

He unbent more and took off his glasses. “The law against driving while multitasking is still in committee. The Driving Under Multitasking Brainwaves, or DUMB, hasn’t been passed yet.”

I had a brief vision of a bleak future in which any kind of brain activity while driving was outlawed. Where there was nothing but the blacktop and the white line in front of you. Oh, well, I thought, there would be a lot more business for yoga instructors and meditation gurus.

It might make people focus their minds, force them to take a vacation from the billions of distractions that surrounded them. Freed from the constant drain on their energies, they could devote their time to philosophy and art. There would be an explosion of creativity not seen since the Renaissance.

It could be the rebirth of civilization.

The young trooper had returned to his stiff-backed stance and was busy punching something into his scanner. “I’ve issued you a warning, ma’am. No ticket this time.”

“Thank you, officer. I think I can assure you that my mind will not be at all involved the next time I’m behind the wheel.”

“That’s good, ma’am. Remember, road safety is up to you.” He turned and marched to his vehicle.

What a good character he would make for my upcoming novel, I thought. A fine robotic member of the law enforcement community. Or perhaps a young man conflicted about his profession. Or not conflicted. Or actually make him a robot–

I shook the ideas from my head. No more planning while driving, I decided, no more multitasking.

And so, resolving never to think behind the wheel again, I drove off.

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Sombre Meditations

Autumn always surprises me.

Daylight slowly shrinks,

Nights are cooler,

Colors leach from the ground

As the flowers slowly fade.

And suddenly the trees are flame,

An astounding event

Like the sight of gray hair in the mirror

Or sagging papery skin.

I walk through the artist’s palette,

Wondering at the colors,

Breathing the crispness of the air.

This is just the third act,

A different scene

Neither feared nor resented,
But relished for its own joys.

Winter is inevitable

And I will approach it

Strolling through trees on fire

And inhaling the cool air

Of autumn.

 

I guess it’s natural to think of the end of things as fall settles in. But it doesn’t have to be in a negative or morbid sense, but rather in the context of wheels and progressions.

My preoccupation is furthered by the presence on the Massachusetts ballot of a “Death with Dignity” proposition. It would give the individual the right to decide when and how to die, and would ensure that any assisting physician wouldn’t be prosecuted. I think it’s a wonderful idea.

How reassuring it would be to know that pain and suffering wouldn’t be drawn out. That a painless, quick method is available. I don’t mean that the decision should be an abrupt one. You shouldn’t make the leap to end it because you were dumped by your boyfriend of the “wrong” person won the election.

But when you come to the end of things, when, through illness, decrepitude or, perhaps, the feeling that you’ve seen everything you’ve wanted to see and done everything you’ve wanted to do, you know it’s time to end it, you should be able to do so. Further, there should be no worry that anyone helping you in this decision is going to suffer.

In the novel I’m writing now, which takes place in the 26th century, people live nearly 200 years. Rejuvenation treatments are standard, so no one ever really grows old. However, when individuals decide that they have had enough, they can Terminate. There is a party, attended by all their friends and loved ones, to celebrate, and they are then allowed to fall asleep. It’s very civilized and humane.

Even Albus Dumbledore described death as “really. . .like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I would like my end to be like that.

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Educating for the future

The political conventions are done with, and now it’s all over but the shouting—and the vitriol, half-truths and incessant phone calls.

It’s time to get back to writing.

I’m in the midst of fashioning a novel about a teacher in the 25th century who is fed up with the over-regulation of the system and the indifference of the students she teaches. She decides to leave Earth (which has become a steel-encased mega-city) and take a position in one of the “outer colonies.”

Sound familiar? To anyone who has taught in the past twenty years, and anyone who is teaching now, it probably does.

Many of you are probably worried about the future of our planet, as I am. Possibly also the future of our species. Much of whether or not we survive, and thrive, as a species depends on education. It always did. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, education was a matter of which plants were poisonous and which were nutritious, how to avoid predators, which mate would ensure the survival of one’s offspring.

In other words, matters of individual and family survival.

Today, of course, education is far more complex. The human race has amassed a vast compendium of knowledge, and it is impossible to know everything. We can no longer limit the education of our young to the memorization of facts, dates and names. We have to train them to find the necessary information and teach them how to use it. Unfortunately, the standardized tests we employ today don’t allow for that. The emphasis on testing severely limits the creativity of the teacher, and the student.

Children must learn to analyze, synthesize and reach a defensible conclusion. They must also be free to imagine. It’s only from the imagination that new and better machines, techniques and ways of life can come. In defense of the genre of science fiction, it has been said that before engineers can design a technological breakthrough, someone has to think of it, and it has been science fiction writers to whom that task has fallen.

Today, we’re faced with a multitude of problems. Just finding a better machine is not enough. We need new and better ways to coexist without losing identity, to tolerate the ideas and lifestyles of others without giving up our own. And we must do this before we destroy the planet or each other. The ideas have to come from the younger generation.

I’m sixty-eight years old. In another twenty years, I’ll probably be gone. But the kids born now will just be coming into their prime. What will the world be like for them?

You see, no matter how complex or seemingly insurmountable the problems of education are, it’s still about survival.

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A Better Soapbox

So I was rereading C.S. Lewis, the Perelandra series (those who know my preference for science fiction aren’t surprised). It wasn’t my idea, but was urged on me by a friend. I was disappointed all over again.

Why? Because Lewis used his opportunity as a stage from which to proselytize. He chose to write an allegory, similar to those written in the seventeenth century.

Which begs the question, Do we, as writers, have a right to use our fiction to further our agenda?

I don’t see that it’s possible not to. Writers, as all human beings, have their biases and beliefs. Some are strongly held, others merely flirted with. But when we are composing our fiction, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore those feelings.

In my novel several ideas (I hope) come through. One is that we must overcome our homophobia and accept all people as worthy of respect. Another is that global climate change is real and will have disastrous results in the future.

The most important, though, is that we are all connected. Everybody has a responsibility to all people on the planet, as well as to the planet itself. Any talent that one person has should be used for the benefit of all of us.

If I wrote a tract, a blog, a non-fiction piece advocating those ideas, it might be read by a few. It might affect a handful more. My hope is that, in writing it as fiction, it will have a broader impact. When we write fiction, we create characters that our readers will connect with. As they sympathize with our creations, they identify with them, and take their problems to heart.

As such, we have a greater influence on people than others. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be aware of the ideas we put forth in our work. I don’t mean to be moralistic. It’s not that we have to stick to the straight and narrow. However, we do have to be honest, to examine the subtext of our stories. And our readers have a responsibility to parse that subtext to decide whether they agree with it. Not ignore it because it’s difficult or inconvenient.

Reader and writer are collaborators in the fiction business. We dream up the stories and present them, along with our biases and beliefs. The reader opens himself to our creation, enters the world we have imagined for him. Together, reader and writer construct a world that was intended by neither one. Because, whether we writers want it or not, the reader changes the stories we write and comes away with ideas and feelings we didn’t intend.

So, the question returns. I believe that writers have a right, and a responsibility, to advocate for the issues we believe in. We just have to make sure that we acknowledge the issues. We have to be conscious of those drives.

We have a better soapbox. We should use it.

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The Vorlons or the Shadows?

Has anyone else out there been alternately disgusted and appalled by the Presidential campaigns?

Here we have two intelligent, well-educated, experienced men running against each other. Each has a definite agenda, a strong vision of what America should be like in the future.

Yet their speeches devolved into playground insults. “You’re a dirty liar.” “You’re a stupid cheat.” Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Now that Mr. Romney has chosen his second, I hope that a reasoned, civilized debate can take place. Because both men have plans, backed by good evidence, for the road forward. The problem is that the plans are, as I see it, diametrically opposed.

Mr. Romney’s plan, taken to an even greater degree by Mr. Ryan, is one which is based on competition. It is basically what Mr. Romney did in Bain. A company that is not functioning is taken over and broken up. The parts are absorbed by companies that are solvent. The competition makes all the surviving businesses stronger and capable of growing, thereby growing the economy. It is survival of the fit.

President Obama’s ideas, on the other hand, rely on cooperation. His thrust is that we must all work together, helping those who are less able. In that way, we create a community in which all are stronger.

Does this sound familiar? Anyone who was, like me, a huge fan of the TV show Babylon 5 in the ‘90’s should recognize it.

(Those of you who remember the show can skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

In the fictional 23rd century, the galaxy is caught in a dispute between opposing forces represented by two alien races. The “Shadows”, who were portrayed as the bad guys until the end of the third season, urged other races to war. The competition, they said, winnowed the weaker peoples, getting rid of them so that other races could flourish.

The “Vorlons”, who seemed to be the proponents of light, furthered the course of mutual support. By cooperation, they suggested, all sentient species are strengthened.

The resolution, however, was that both superpowers were acting on their own agendas, not those that would necessarily benefit the entire galaxy. In the end, the “younger races” kick both of them out and decide to find their own way, without the leadership of either, forging a plan that is a compromise between the two.

Okay, back to the 21st century (and welcome back fans of B5). Are the two visions necessarily mutually exclusive? Can’t we take parts of each that will form a grand plan, one that will work so much better?

I hope such a compromise is possible. Neither the social Darwinism of one plan, or the unsustainable spending of the other, is acceptable. My initial reaction to the Republicans’ agenda is one of revulsion, but I am trying to keep an open mind. I fervently wish all Americans will also.

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