4 July 2018 – If you want to explore any of the really tough philosophical questions in an innovative way, the best literary forms to use are fantasy and science fiction. For example, when I decided to attack the nature of reality, I did it in a surrealist-fantasy novelette entitled Lilith.
If your question involves some aspect of technology, such as the nature of consciousness from an artificial-intelligence (AI) viewpoint, you want to dive into the science-fiction genre. That’s what sci-fi great Robert A. Heinlein did throughout his career to explore everything from space travel to genetically engineered humans. My whole Red McKenna series is devoted mainly to how you can use (and mis-use) robotics.
When E.J. Simon selected grounded sci-fi for his Michael Nicholas series, he most certainly made the right choice. Grounded sci-fi is the sub-genre where the author limits him- (or her-) self to what is at least theoretically possible using current technology, or immediate extensions thereof. No warp drives, wormholes or anti-grav boots allowed!
In this case, we’re talking about imaginitive development of artificial intelligence and squeezing a great whacking pile of supercomputing power into a very small package to create something that can best be described as chilling: the conquest of death.
The great thing about fiction genre, such as fantasy and sci-fi, is the freedom provided by the ol’ “willing suspension of disbelief.” If you went at this subject in a scholarly journal, you’d never get anything published. You’d have to prove you could do it before anybody’d listen.
I treated on this effect in the last chapter of Lilith when looking at my own past reaction to “scholarly” manuscripts shown to me by folks who forgot this important fact.
“Their ideas looked like the fevered imaginings of raving lunatics,” I said.
I went on to explain why I’d chosen the form I’d chosen for Lilith thusly: “If I write it up like a surrealist novel, folks wouldn’t think I believed it was God’s Own Truth. It’s all imagination, so using the literary technique of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ lets me get away with presenting it without being a raving lunatic.”
Another advantage of picking fiction genre is that it affords the ability to keep readers’ attention while filling their heads with ideas that would leave them cross-eyed if simply presented straight. The technical details presented in the Michael Nicholas series could, theoretically, be presented in a PowerPoint presentation with something like fifteen slides. Well, maybe twenty five.
But, you wouldn’t be able to get the point across. People would start squirming in their seats around slide three. What Simon’s trying to tell us takes time to absorb. Readers have to make the mental connections before the penny will drop. Above all, they have to see it in action, and that’s just what embedding it in a mystery-adventure story does. Following the mental machinations of “real” characters as they try to put the pieces together helps Simon’s audience fit them together in their own minds.
Spoiler Alert: Everybody in Death Logs Out lives except bad guys, and those who were already dead to begin with. Well, with one exception: a supporting character who’s probably a good guy gets well-and-truly snuffed. You’ll have to read the book to find out who.
Oh, yeah. There are unreconstructed Nazis! That‘s always fun! Love having unreconstructed Nazis to hate!
I guess I should say a little about the problem that drives the plot. What good is a book review if it doesn’t say anything about what drives the plot?
Our hero, Michael, was the fair-haired boy of his family. He grew up to be a highly successful plain-vanilla finance geek. He married a beautiful trophy wife with whom he lives in suburban Connecticut. Michael’s daughter, Sophia, is away attending an upscale university in South Carolina.
Michael’s biggest problem is overwork. With his wife’s grudging acquiesence, he’d taken over his black-sheep big brother Alex’s organized crime empire after Alex’s murder two years earlier.
But, Michael was holding it all together until one night when he was awakened by a telephone call from an old flame, whom he’d briefly employed as a body guard before realizing that she was a raving homicidal lunatic.
“I have your daughter,” Sindy Steele said over the phone.
Now, the obviously made-up first name “Sindy” should have warned Michael that Ms. Steele wasn’t playing with a full deck even before he got involved with her, but, at the time, the head with the brains wasn’t the head doing his thinking. She was, shall we say, “toothsome.”
Turns out that Sindy had dropped off her meds, then traveled all the way from her “retirement” villa in Santorini, Greece on an ill-advised quest to get back at Michael for dumping her.
But, that wasn’t Sophia’s worst problem. When she was nabbed, Sofia was in the midst of a call on her mobile phone from her dead uncle Alex, belatedly warning her of the danger!
While talking on the phone with her long-dead uncle confused poor Sofia, Michael knew just what was going on. For two years, he’d been having regular daily “face time” with Alex through cyberspace as he took over Alex’s syndicate. Mortophobic Alex had used his ill-gotten wealth to cheat death by uploading himself to the Web.
Now, Alex and Michael have to get Sofia back, then figure out who’s coming after Michael to steal the technology Alex had used to cheat death.
This is certainly not the first time someone has used “uploading your soul to the Web” as a plot device. Perhaps most notably, Robert Longo cast Barbara Sukowa as a cyberloaded fairy godmother trying to watch over Keanu Reeves’s character in the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic. In Longo’s futuristic film, the technique was so common that the ghost had legal citizenship!
In the 1995 film, however, Longo glossed over how the ghost in the machine was supposed to work, technically. Johnny Mnemonic was early enough that it was futuristic sci-fi, as was Geoff Murphy’s even earlier soul-transference work Freejack (1992). Nobody in the early 1990s had heard of the supercomputing cloud, and email was high-tech. The technology for doing soul transference was as far in the imagined future as space travel was to Heinlein when he started writing about it in the 1930s.
Fast forward to the late 2010s. This stuff is no longer in the remote future. It’s in the near future. In fact, there’s very little technology left to develop before Simon’s version becomes possible. It’s what we in the test-equipment-development game used to call “specsmanship.” No technical breakthroughs needed, just advancements in “faster, wider, deeper” specifications.
That’s what makes the Michael Nicholas series grounded sci-fi! Simon has to imagine how today’s much-more-defined cloud infrastructure might both empower and limit cyberspook Alex. He also points out that what enables the phenomenon is software (as in artificial intelligence), not hardware.
Okay, I do have some bones to pick with Simon’s text. Mainly, I’m a big Strunk and White (Elements of Style) guy. Simon’s a bit cavalier about paragraphing, especially around dialog. His use of quotation marks is also a bit sloppy.
But, not so bad that it interferes with following the story.
Standard English is standardized for a reason: it makes getting ideas from the author’s head into the reader’s sooo much easier!
James Joyce needed a dummy slap! His Ulysses has rightly been called “the most difficult book to read in the English language.” It was like he couldn’t afford to buy a typewriter with a quotation key.
Enough ranting about James Joyce!
Simon’s work is MUCH better! There are only a few times I had to drop out of Death Logs Out‘s world to ask, “What the heck is he trying to say?” That’s a rarity in today’s world of amateurishly edited indie novels. Simon’s story always pulled me right back into its world to find out what happens next.