Tags: artificial intelligence

Theme in Fiction

So all the promotional hype around The Cyborg and the Cemetery has got me thinking about theme in fiction.

Sometimes I get the feeling that aspiring writers -- and especially writers who aspire to write awards caliber fiction -- feel like they need to have a deep and meaningful premise from the very start. They agonize, they search their souls, they try to find a story that "means something". (Or at least, I know I did.)

And it can be done that way. But I've found that, like the cat who will curl up on your lap if you just ignore it long enough, theme often works its way into a story on its own. The Cyborg and the Cemetery is arguably one of my most thematic works, tackling everything from mortality to technological ethics within 3500 words -- and yet I didn't start out with a particular theme in mind.

I started out with an old guy in a graveyard, and a prosthetic leg that whirred on every other step.

Stephen King once described stories as artifacts, something which the author does not create so much as unearth. I've found that to be so. Little pieces of theme tend to emerge on their own as I write a story. I suppose I could leave them along, as little white bits of bone in an otherwise sandy landscape, but I can never manage to leave them along. I find them fascinating, so as soon as I notice one poking through the edges of my story I starting digging around it, trying to see where it goes. Usually, that ends up being pretty deep.

So... yeah. I don't so much build stories around theme as dig up the themes surrounding each story. It's more fun that way. And in my experience, the final product is at least as good.

Cyborgs and Crowdfunding

the cyborg and the cemetery cover art

The Cyborg and the Cemetery grew out of a simple premise. What happens if you hook a guy to a prosthetic leg, then require the leg to interpret, from his past actions and current behavior, whether it’s supposed to step, jump, stand quietly, or kick a soccer ball?

The answer is it can’t. There’s not enough information. In order for an artificially intelligent prosthesis to correctly predict how it ought to behave, you’ve got to piggyback it directly on the host’s neural system. It has to hear what the host hears, see what the host sees, and understand how the host thinks in order to predict the host’s actions. (This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Click over to google to find out about some of the truly creepy things that have been done with cats and thalamus implants.)

However, even that might not be enough. The Cyborg and the Cemetery takes the thought experiment a step further. What if the prosthesis was also hooked to the host’s endocrine system; that complex system of chemical messengers that so often gets overlooked when people try to replicate human sentience. And what if the prosthesis, after getting access to all this information, began to do some thinking and feeling of its own?
It’s a fascinating question that enfolds in unexpected ways.

Of course, none of that is what The Cyborg and the Cemetery is actually about. Smart prosthetics are backstory. The actual plotline involves questions about death, the scope of our humanity, and whether using technological gadgets as extensions of ourselves is unethical.

Originally published in Technology Review, the story is now entering a pledge cycle on Moozvine. That’s a somewhat risky proposition for an author to make. In exchange for a one-time payment from a subset of backers, I’m releasing this story into the wild. Once funding completes, I will no longer have the right to deny access to this story to anyone. It becomes the property of the public under a Creative Commons License. People can copy it, share it, put it on their web site and distribute it on billboards as long as they (a) don’t change the text and (b) provide appropriate attribution.

Am I nervous about this?

A little. But I’m also excited. Out of my current body of work, The Cyborg and the Cemetery includes some of the most fascinating ideas – ideas about who we are, and who we ought to be, and where humanity ought to go from here. Those seem like ideas worth sharing.

If you’d like to back The Cyborg and the Cemetery, you can find it at http://www.moozvine.com.