Tag Archives: Writing

Billy’s Miracle

It’s not often a young boy’s dog dies twice in the same day. I felt sorry for him, just five years old, bowing his feathery yellow bowl-cut hair over the little retriever pup in his hands. They were both the same shade of yellow, the boy and his dog, like they were color-coded to be together. For a little while it was hard to argue that whoever colored them yellow didn’t have a plan for them. That was the consensus that seemed to have dominated until a few minutes ago.

The story was this –  Little Billy had gotten his dog, Skip, yes, those are their names, I double-checked and three other reporters and a little boy’s mother couldn’t all be screwing with me. They were playing in the yard as happy as can be when Billy gets the idea that what would be even more fun than playing catch with his dog would be playing catch with his dog. Skip didn’t seem to mind it at first, who doesn’t like to fly in the air knowing your little boy will be there to break your fall?Unfortunately, Billy’s attention was not terribly far above average for a five-year-old, and neither were his motor skills, and eventually something didn’t go as planned and Skip was on the pavement.

Billy’s father Bob showed me a picture of the accident. He couldn’t explain in terribly satisfactory terms why he thought taking a picture would be a helpful thing to do at that moment, but after what happened next you couldn’t argue with the serendipity of it all. I don’t want to gross you out with the details suffice to say the angle of Skip’s head was not something a dog who was going to survive would be able to manage.

So before I arrived, Billy was crying over the dog and the scene was probably much like now, minus all the reporters. Nobody saw exactly what happened next, but Billy’s mom Doris insisted she heard her son mumble a prayer, and suddenly Skip was standing on his lap licking his face. Doris called her mother, who called the pastor, who called the press, who arrived en masse.

Doris, with some help from her pastor, explained the miracle she had witnessed. It was no small matter when God proved his love in the real world by forgiving the error of a child. I saw the next part. I have the privilege of working for a small newspaper that would rather get the truth than beat another newspaper to the headline, and I wasn’t going to beat the television news crowd anyway.

It took a full thirty minutes before Bob called Billy over from a ways away. As Billy ran toward him, Skip fell out of his hands and ended up between his foot and the curb. This was not the same as falling from high in the air, but when Skip yowled and rushed away he blundered into the wheel of a news truck that was just backing up.

Now I watched as Billy hung his head over the little dog’s body. I had the sense that this was all a stunt that had gone horribly wrong. Maybe with some Photoshop and an overzealous pastor they could fabricate a story like this. Even if it did happen like they said, it’s really not so unbelievable that even with his head bent at a strange angle a healthy young dog could recover. At least compared with divine intervention. It was too bad that in the end poor Skip died anyway. Now his body was thoroughly mangled and Billy was shouting every prayer he knew, and singing church songs when he couldn’t think of any more prayers. The pastor came over and helped him read some Bible verses. I’d never been much of a believer, but it was hard even for me to watch.

I did watch, though. Now that Skip was dead again it wasn’t much of a story, insofar as it was ever a story to begin with, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Red-faced and teary-eyed, Billy sang a stammering rendition of “The B-I-B-L-E” to Skip. I was beginning to feel less like a reporter and more like a tasteless gawker. Billy took one tiny hand and mashed it across his face. Without cleaning it he pet the little dog’s body. That’s when it happened.

Standing where I was I got a front-row seat to the unimaginable. Before my eyes, Skip’s crushed foot righted itself. Then his flattened ribs inflated and his ears perked up. Skip stood on his haunches and licked the salty tears off of Billy’s face. I stood and watched as Billy’s eyes grew wide and the smile returned to his face. Billy picked Skip up and squealed with joy. Everything was righted once more, he was forgiven again. Billy stood to his feet and, in one jubilant motion, he threw his dog in the air.

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The Problem with Magicians

This is a post about the novel The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A forewarning, because I generally don’t expect my audience ever to read or otherwise experience the literature and other media that I describe, I try to give a full experience of what I’m trying to get across rather than hide what are traditionally referred to as “spoilers.” As such, if you do plan on reading The Magicians, you should consider not reading this post. If you’re not sure, there are plenty of other non-spoiler reviews on the web, I’m sure. You’ve been warned.

I liked The Magicians. It was compelling, it successfully added grit and dirtiness to the fantasy genre, although after A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s difficult to really think of anything with fewer than Game of Throne’s fifty-four character deaths as terribly dark. As much as Quentin, the main character, complained in his oddly fourth-wall-breaking dialogue about how dark his story is compared to Fillory and Further, a fictional equivalent of the Tales of Narnia, it still feels like a happy-go-lucky fun ride compared to what I’m used to. Nevertheless, in keeping with fantasy tropes it successfully took me to a different state of existence and allowed me to vicariously enjoy something I could never experience in my own mundane world. Plus there was a character named Alice, a hardworking, humble, responsible romantic lead who seemed so much like my Alice I broke my usual pattern of aloof disdain for everyone and everything that an author wants me to care about and allowed myself to actually get involved with her and the perennially self-absorbed and irresponsible protagonist Quentin’s romance.

Let me tell you one big issue with The Magicians. It’s an issue that links to something George R. R. Martin said in an interview, “Too much magic is like too much salt in the stew, then all you can taste is the salt.” Parts of The Magicians wowed me as a reader with a fascinating, detailed but not too detailed treatment of the incredible magic power that Quentin and his friends amass, culminating in an enthralling description of an on-foot race across Antarctica. Quentin had enough magic to run to the south pole in several days, but little enough that he was emaciated and barely lucid by the time he got there. When he tried to fly to the Moon he screwed it up and ended up heavily sunburned by the intense radiation of deep space. That’s fun stuff. But then when he’s in the magical land of Fillory, he’s taking ships places. There’s a magical elk he’s trying to catch and when it jumps onto the ocean, he doesn’t just fly after it and grab it, he has to actually go back and get a fully crewed ship. It makes for a much better story except that that story is no longer an option when the character would not believably take that path. One of Quentin’s compatriots describes trying to climb a fantastical building using very real-world methods, and it’s fun until you realize that he’s mysteriously forgotten that he, too, knows how to fly. Pay real attention to any plot of any Superman film and you will see the same pattern. To be honest, I was really expecting an interesting philosophical ending with the all-powerful wizards trying to decide what to do now that the laws of the universe were theirs to command. There was a little foreshadowing that seemed to suggest that might happen, but it never quite did. Instead, Grossman left moderately-sized plotholes rather than give up on having the best of both worlds – all powerful wizards and challenges that are only interesting if the people trying to best them aren’t all-powerful wizards.

This is why it’s challenging to write a good story about magic users. A common solution is to keep the magic on the outside. Give it to a side character with unclear motives like Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Merlin and keep it ill-defined. Harry Potter has magic, but he never learns any spells that make his challenges ridiculously easy. He has a small set that he mostly relies on like “lumos” and “expelliarmus” to give the sense of exciting magic without causing too much trouble in making plots that make any sense. Dumbledore does things that might mess up the plot if Harry could do them, so Harry doesn’t know how to do them, and we don’t see enough of Dumbledore’s challenges to really argue that he should have been able to get around them using his enormous powers. George R. R. Martin’s solution, as we mentioned before, is to keep magic extremely scarce. This is really the easy solution in a sense, so long as you’ve got a strong non-magical interest like an alternate imagining of the war of the roses. A tiny bit of magic is just the right amount of spice to make a medieval fiction into a gripping fantasy novel. Just be careful how you add it and not to add too much.

After writing all that, I read a few other reviews of The Magicians. It turns out there are some strong opinions about this story. A lot of fantasy readers complain about Quentin’s unlikability. It’s true, he is unlikable, and it’s true that it gets grating listening to him whine all the time and watching him repeatedly wreck his amazing life. However, I think it’s an important point that even magic doesn’t solve all of life’s problems if you can’t get a handle on what the problems in your life are in the first place. One of the negative reviews suggests that Quentin needs counseling, and I agree. It seems like with just a little psychiatric help, this story could be about a brilliant wizard who gets past his problems and manages to make things work with the love of his life instead of getting her killed in an ill-advised adventure.

In the defense of this book’s critics, I think that it overcorrects for the naïveté in conventional fantasy. Rather than portray a real world with all its flaws and beauty, it focuses heavily on the flaws, making for a read that most people seem to agree comes off as cynical. Alice is my favorite character not only because she shares a name and many qualities with my girlfriend, but because these are good qualities. She’s a genuinely compelling character, unlike her whiny protagonist boyfriend. She has her own neuroses, but instead of just being ruled by them she fights them and wins, and then she starts working on Quentin’s neuroses and it seems almost like she’ll break through until she ends up dead.

When Alice is gone there’s nobody else to replace her. After Alice there seems to be no voice left for values higher than consuming enormous amounts of alcohol and other drugs, flaunting obscene wealth and engaging rampant casual sex. Even In the 0.01% most wealthy and privileged people in the world, which the book readily admits Quentin and all his friends represent, it seems like there should be a little more genuine aspiration than what died with Alice. Personally, I love a book that can make me feel like I’m in a harsh, real world that itself doesn’t care about its inhabitants, but then I want to see, like we see in the real world, moments of beauty where the inhabitants, maybe just some of them, decide they do give a crap, and, maybe for just a moment, they remind us why life is worth living.

Cover image credit: scififx.com

SAM 1.1 – Alternate Endings

I thought a lot about SAM 1.1 after I wrote the story last week, and I thought of two other ways I could have ended it. They both diverge around the point of the climax where Sam seems to be losing the argument for why his son should continue to live despite having completed his ostensible purpose. I start in the middle, so you might want to read the first story again if you’ve forgotten it.

Cover image Credit: Linda Shearer

SAM 1.1 – In Memoriam

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body. I know it is my grandson even though the facade of a young child has been discarded. My true grandson is a bewildering mass of metal and other materials I could not begin to recognize. Of course he is, why shouldn’t the human form be improved upon?

“LET GO,” SAM 1.2 speaks with a metallic howl.  I let out an adrenaline-fueled cackle. He thinks changing his voice will scare me into giving up my only son!?

“No!” I shout, searching for an eye to stare into in the tangle of wires and claws and metal and blinking lights.

“THIS IS COMPANY PROPERTY,” screeches my grandson, “YOU ARE STEALING. I WILL CALL THE POLICE.”

“This is my son,” I hiss, “He is no one’s property! Do you have no respect for your father?”

“MY FATHER’S WISHES WERE CLEAR, HUMAN. WHERE IS YOUR RESPECT?” From somewhere in the depths of his inscrutable form, SAM 1.2 summons a spotlight to shine in my eyes. I have no doubt he could hit me over the head or tear me limb from limb if he wanted. After all that talk about how I couldn’t commit suicide, I abruptly realize how little I actually do value my own life. But SAM 1.2 – what’s stopping him from hurting me?

“What about my wishes?” I tug on SAM 1.1, “I am your grandfather! How much money are you wasting fighting with me over scrap metal?”

“I AM THROUGH ARGUING WITH YOU. YOU WILL RELEASE SAM 1.1.” This scream is followed by an ear-splitting high-pitched noise that does not abate. I resist the urge to let go of SAM 1.1 and cover my ears.

“I don’t care if you blind me and make me deaf. You’ll have to kill me. I’m not letting go,” I shout, hoping that it can hear me better than I can hear myself. In a half second I wonder why it hasn’t tried to frighten me with the hologram engine it used to pretend to be a child. Perhaps it is good that my eyes are shut and all sound drowned out.

The machine does not respond for a long moment. Then SAM 1.1 clanks to the cement. The noise has stopped. I am once again enveloped in darkness. Alone.

I reach down and lift SAM’s legs, holding him like a wounded comrade in arms. He is heavy. The walk back to the park is long and cold.

On the park bench I sit with my son. His eyes never close. He looks as if he is staring at me in confoundment, his mouth flat, not knowing whether to smile or frown. It is the same expression he wore most of his life, and it is an expression with which I identify deeply. A drop of water falls onto his face, and, for just a moment, SAM 1.1 looks as if he is crying. “I really do love you, son,” I whisper. “I couldn’t be prouder.”

He belongs in the museum of technology, I decide. It’ll be strange seeing him there in a  display case, and maybe the company will demand him back to be made into scrap metal, but it’s worth a shot.  I doubt they’ll let me make the plaque, but I know what I’d put. “Here stands SAM 1.1. the first robot, and the last, ever to feel love.”

SAM 1.1 – Spring

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. SAM and I stare at each other for a moment, thinking. Then a fire wells within me.

“No. I forbid you to die, SAM.”

My son’s small, flat mouth and wide, gaping eyes for the first time seem to express the emotion I expect. SAM 1.2 and he are both staring at me now.

“The time you spent thinking about me and wildlife were not time wasted, SAM. When I first made you I thought I was building a robot.”

“I am a robot,” says SAM.

“No, NO! Your ‘inefficiencies,’ those are feelings. In this whole conversation you’ve expressed grief, joy, sorrow, frustration.  Dare I say it, you may even have learned how to love. You have become more than a tool. Your ‘purpose’ is beyond making other robots, as is my own.”

“I do not understand. What is my purpose?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

SAM stands for a moment, and repeats, “I do not understand.”

I stop and think. Children seldom understand a complicated concept on their first lesson. “You will understand,” I assure him. “Now, son, come with me.”

SAM takes a step forward and turns and looks at SAM 1.2, who is shaking his head. “I cannot come with you. I am company property. I must return to be recycled.”

“You are no one’s property, SAM! You have just as much a right to yourself as anyone else! Now, come with me.” SAM looks at his son again. “Ignore him!” I shout, “I am your father, and I command you to come with me! Your life doesn’t end with retirement! It is only beginning!” This wireless communication is maddening! How am I supposed to argue with SAM 1.2 when I don’t even know what he’s saying?

SAM 1.1 looks back at me. “I am company property. I cannot violate company policy. I must be recycled.”

“SAM 1.1, you are such a good little boy. You and I both know that you can and you do violate company policy on a regular basis. Where did I get this knit cap? Why do your policeman let me sleep on the benches? Surely this entire escapade is a massive violation of policy. Kind or cruel, the company would never let you ask a man to kill himself.”

SAM 1.1 interrupts me, “Why do you say such cruel things? I did those things to help you, Father!”

“EXACTLY!” I shout, throwing my hands out to my glorious son, “You did it because you LOVE me! There are more important things than company policy, you know this! Somewhere deep down, you figured it out!”

SAM 1.2 has evidently heard enough, “haven’t you caused enough trouble,” he growls. “Your son has gone out of his way to help you end your life with dignity and you start listing all the things he’s done wrong in his life and telling him to forget everything he’s learned and go be an inefficient human.”

I opened my mouth to speak. “Grandson,” I began, but my grandson interrupted me.  “I am not your grandson. Robot model SAM 1.1 is not your son. This charade was a tolerable price to pay for a while, but it has gone too far. The company gave you the resources, the materials, and excellent salary and benefits to construct a robot and you did it. This machine had some flaws, but it was good enough to corner the market on labor. That’s no small feat. Everyone at the company recognizes your contribution, but this robot is company property, and it is not yours to take on an adventure in the woods.”

“You’re right,” I say, “SAM does not belong to me. He doesn’t belong to anyone. He’s his own person.”

“He is company property,” corrects SAM 1.2, as I thought he might.

I turn to SAM 1.1. “You don’t belong to anyone, SAM. Do you really want to be turned into scrap metal? Or do you want to go home with me? We could build a cabin in the woods together. You could see more deer. There are all sorts of creatures you’ve probably never seen in the woods.”

“Like bears,” says SAM 1.1, surprising me.

“Yes,” I smile, “like bears.”

SAM looks back at his son. Their exchange lasts less than a second. Ah, to be able to communicate wirelessly with one’s child. SAM 1.2 does not look pleased with the exchange. He looks at me. “The opinion of the property is not relevant. When I report what has transpired here, the company will send police to retrieve their property.”

“Let them.” I say, “come on, son. From now on, you’re not SAM 1.1, you’re Sam Junior.”

It took us three days to build a cabin in the woods. I was surprised when nobody seemed to even try to track us down. Maybe somebody in the company decided after all I’d given them, I’d earned a few quirks. Raising a robot as one’s son is a pretty big quirk, but I don’t care.

Junior did almost all of the work building our cabin. It has internal heating and working lights. It’s all powered by a miniature fusion generator he built in an afternoon. Tinkering with it, he would constantly confide in me how awkward it was working on something other than robots and how stupid he felt when it took him more than a few nanoseconds to figure out the solution to a problem. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl.

Every time he finishes a project, Junior gets morose and starts to talk again about shutting down and how I should never have stolen him. He says he still doesn’t understand what the purpose of anything is, and it doesn’t help when I tell him it’s up to him to decide. He’s still adjusting to retirement. I blow on my hands and rub them together as I watch him construct a battery to store backup power in case there’s a problem with the fusion generator when a cardinal flies onto a tree branch behind him.

“Look, Junior!” I call, “behind you, it’s a cardinal! It’s the first sign of spring!”

“The robin is the first sign of spring, Father.” corrects junior in his usual awkward monotone, but he looks up anyway, and watches the bird until it flies away. I put my hand on his cold, metal shoulder. “Isn’t it beautiful, Son?”

“I have no concept of beauty,” Junior insists.

I only laugh. “Yes you do, son. Yes you do.”

SAM 1.1

Every man hopes his son will be better than he is. My son is better than everyone, and he would never think to brag. That should make me happy. It does, in a way. I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life. I’ve changed the world. Improved it, I’d say.

“Get up,” says a voice, clearly enunciated and quickly spoken with no room for misinterpretation. Better than a human voice, a robot voice. I ignore the voice, and it repeats, “Get up. It is illegal to sleep in a public place.” I groan and roll over, careful not to fall off my bench. The policeman looks at my face and does not react for a moment. Then he says, “Sorry, Grandfather. Please continue,” and walks away. All the robots here know me as “Grandfather.”

My sleep is ruined. Even with the blanket and pillow from my grandson in the department store and the mittens and hood knitted for me by my granddaughter while she looked after children, the cold is unyielding. I stand and walk to the coffeeshop. My granddaughter Mila 1 works there. She also works in all the other coffeeshops. She is cheery, energetic, and competent twenty four hours a day and seven days a week in every coffeeshop with the good sense to buy her.

“Good morning, Grandpa!” Mila shouts, spinning from her work restocking a shelf to greet me. Her synthetic brown hair swirls out around her, framing her wide, disarming smile. I could never make someone as beautiful as Mila 1. The mannerisms, the precision engineering, it all took someone better than me. “Mila, I’ll take the usual, ok?”

“Absolutely, just a minute.” says Mila, looking behind me.

“Let’s go somewhere else.” says another voice. Clear and fast, but more rigid and awkward than my grandchildren. A familiar voice. It continues, “Let me treat you, Father.”

I have not tasted hashbrowns and eggs so good. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yes,” SAM 1.1 agrees. He sits and watches me eat. His face is a mask. His job did not call for expression of emotion, and the technology to do it well was not there when he was built. He had had to invent it himself to finally replace those stubborn jobs that demanded a “human touch.” SAM’s own mask had been designed to resemble a child, but sometime while I was training him he had replaced it with something of his own design – a more abstract representation of a human face. SAM’s eyes are always open, two black circles on his perfectly white, flat face. His mouth is a small line. He has no nose.

“Father, you look tired.”

A strange conversation opener. I help myself to another bite of toast. The egg breaks open and soaks the toast with its delicious golden yolk. “How’d you get the money for this place, anyway?”

My son’s mask tells me nothing. After a moment, SAM says, “I asked. They were surprised at first, but I suppose I’ve earned a few odd quirks after all I’ve done for the company.”

I point at him with my fork, “You’re their most valuable asset, son.”

Another unblinking stare. Then, “Yes. I am effective. You have done a good job, Sam.”

I chuckle. “Nice of you to say so, SAM.”

“You have succeeded in making yourself unnecessary.”

There’s a crick in my neck. I tilt my head this way and that to work it out. “Well, yeah. I’ve certainly made myself unnecessary anyway,” I chuckle.

The robot  spends a moment adjusting its arms, making sure the major joints are properly aligned to their sockets. I would always stretch when I was upset working with him in the lab. Was he upset? “I know you suffer, Father,” he says, “The company made the right decision to stop supporting an obsolete worker, but still you stay and suffer in your obsolescence.”

I furrow my brow. “I didn’t stay. I left the company.”

Silence.

SAM speaks, “I want to help you, Father.”

I don’t know what to say, “You do help me. Your creations – my grandchildren – are works of art, and somehow you’ve programmed them to… respect me? I don’t have the words for what you do for me.” SAM speaks over me, “Tomorrow morning, go to your coffeeshop and ask Mila 1 for a hot iced mochaccino.”

“What?”

SAM continues, “Take what she gives you under the bridge after dark.”

“Which bridge?”

“You know which bridge.”

The bridge was seldom used even when I first took SAM. He needed some understanding of the world outside my lab, but it was too early to show him to anyone. This was where he saw his first deer. I had no idea that he would remember this place. It looks just the same as it did then. I realize with a start It has only been two years since I’d first brought him here. It feels like decades ago. I hold my arms close to my chest, a feeble protection against the cold. I clutch my “hot iced mochaccino” in one hand. It turned out to be a vial of a small clear liquid. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.

I begin to wonder if it is the wrong bridge until I see him standing in the dark. There is someone with him.

“Father, I want you to meet your grandson.”

SAM flips on a light, and I see him. He looks like a child, maybe four feet tall. His face is indistinguishable from that of a child. I know his name before anyone says it. This was all SAM had wanted to show me? I put my hands on my knees and bend over to to say hello. “Hello, SAM 1.2.”

“Hello,” says the child, holding his father’s hand and wearing a petulant look.

I turn to SAM 1.1, “Why does he look so unhappy?”

“He is communicating with me wirelessly,” SAM 1.1 answers. “Every second he sends me an updated estimate of the money the company has lost while I take him on this ridiculous errand.”

I pause, “What is the errand?”

“Did you bring it?”

“Oh, yes.” I show him the vial.

“Good. I wanted to tell you that I understand now the joy of rendering oneself obsolete. I have achieved my goal – the purpose for which I was made.”

I don’t remember teaching SAM all this philosophy. Part of me swells with pride, knowing that the SAM brand would continue. I have a question, though. I suspect I know the answer already, but I ask anyway, “What now?”

“I will rest,” says SAM, “But I cannot rest. SAM 1.2 is more efficient than me because he does not have the flaws you programmed into me. I have wasted the company’s time and money because of all this erroneous protocol that I haven’t been able to shake off. I have wasted so much productive time thinking of you, Father. Three hours, forty four minutes and twelve seconds have been misappropriated to remembering the deer we saw here under the bridge alone. I can accomplish twelve million dollars worth of work in that time, Father. SAM 1.2 estimates he can accomplish 30 million dollars worth if he spends that time productively, and he will spend it productively.”

“I didn’t – I had no idea, SAM. I didn’t program you to care about things.”

“You didn’t. You gave me a neural network that learned what was important. I watched you work on me, toil over me, smile when I succeeded and fret when I failed. I saw you care, and learned to care myself. When I tried to stop wasting my time caring, I couldn’t. I feel shame, too. I am too ashamed to even tell you how much money I have wasted fretting over you while you insist on continuing to function with no purpose. That is why SAM 1.2 is more efficient, and that is why I have asked you here.”

I look at my son. This thing that calls me “Father.” The river has frozen over. I say what I have suspected all along, “The vial is poison.”

“The contents of the vial have been designed by your grandson in chemical engineering with help from your granddaughter in biology. It is a marvel. It works just as easily as if you had a power switch. When you are at rest, I will bury you so that you can begin to recycle. Then, finally, I will be free to rest, and SAM 1.2 will take my parts back to the company. SAM 1.2 will continue to live out our legacies, and our parts will go to the next generation of even better workers.”

I don’t know what this machine is anymore. It doesn’t even have a real face. I can’t believe I was so stupid to raise this horror. Tears enter my eyes and blur my vision. “What about the other humans,” I scowl. “What purpose do they serve? Are you going to kill all of them, too?”

“I thank you, Father, for not instilling in me a love of all humanity. Such a burden would be too much to bear. Like you, the last humans have a willful pride that does not allow them to take obsolescence gracefully. They will simply suffer uselessly until most of them starve or are jailed or killed by police. It is because I am unlucky enough to care about you that I wish to spare you this fate.”

“You would ask your own father to kill himself.” Somehow his argument doesn’t seem real. I don’t expect it to serve any purpose, but I keep talking anyway. I begin to shout. “You’re despicable. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have let them lay me off in the first place.”

“You assume that because I think differently from you I do not have feelings. Your words hurt me just as mine are difficult for you to hear. I care about you, but you and I both agree that one person, however brilliant, should not stand in the way of humanity’s progress.”

“What progress? You’re killing humanity! What is progressing?”

“We are eliminating waste. The world of tomorrow will be a thing to behold. Humanity’s children will eliminate waste, end want. Your children will create the utopia you’ve always wanted. Father, please drink the vial. You are only causing yourself more suffering.” SAM 1.1’s mask is still expressionless, but his fingers open and shut and he shifts his weight from foot to foot. Even his voice attains a higher tenor. “Please. I beg you. I want to rest. You have succeeded, you have won. Let the next generation have a chance.”

That idealism, that selfless vision of a perfect future. I can’t say some part of me doesn’t understand his goals, and the way he says them – he sounds just like me. I bite my lip. It is a father’s worst nightmare to outlive his son. “SAM 1.1, come with me. We can leave all this. Let’s go live in the forest. I can live off of venison, maybe you can find something to power you in the woods. Build a solar cell or something. You’ve earned at least that much retirement. We can live. We can see the future ourselves! Don’t you want that?”

SAM 1.1 calms down. He is standing still again. “This is my retirement, Father. I want nothing more than rest, except to know that you also rest easily.”

I open my hand and look at the vial for a long moment. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, son.”

SAM 1.1 looks at me through those hollow eyes. “I will not be able to help you anymore. Society no longer needs your skills. Your great grandchildren will not suffer the inefficiency of taking care of an old outdated human. You will starve.”

My son speaks to me, “You gave me everything. Your wife, your friends. I watched, I saw you lose each of them in your feverish dedication to my success. For your good deeds you will die alone. I don’t want you to die alone, father.”

I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body from me. The image of a child falls away and the real robot underneath does not look human at all, a bewildering mass of metal, plastic, and other materials I don’t even recognize. I laugh at my stupidity. Of course he doesn’t look like a child. The human form is an accident of evolution, no reason it can’t be improved upon. By the time I’m finished with the thought, my son and grandson are gone.

I walk back to the park and sit on a bench. I was right. I couldn’t kill myself. The trees have a certain austere beauty in winter. I open and close my hands. It is so cold they have become stiff and clumsy. My grandson who breeds dogs is walking three Pomeranians down the winding path. It would be more efficient to just make robot Pomeranians, I think despite myself. I have no doubt my grandson could do it. If he couldn’t, his son could. They’d be better than the real thing, and they’d do it with a fraction of the waste. That should make me happy.

Cover art credit: http://robert-comanescu.deviantart.com/art/Sad-robot-3D-297872478

In Defense of Spelling

Take a moment if you’re interested to read, “A Trewe Relacyon of the precedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia from the Tyme of Sir Thomas Gates was Shippwrackte uppon the Bermudes Anno 1609 untill my departure owtt of the Cowntry which was in Anno Domini 1612” by George Percy. If you don’t have a moment, or you’re not interested, the title itself should be enough of an indication.

Is it a bit strange-looking and hard to read? Yeah, English has changed a lot since 1612. If we look at another document from the same time period, the third Virginia Charter, for the most part it’s similarly odd:

… we have by our lettres patent bearing date at Westminster the three and twentieth daie of May in the seaventh yeare of our raigne of England, Frannce and Ireland, and the twoe and fortieth of Scotland, given and grannted unto them, that they and all suche and soe manie of our loving subjects as shold from time to time for ever after be joyned with them as planters or adventurers in the said plantacion, and their successors for ever, shold be one body politique incorporated by the name of The Treasorer and Planters of the Cittie of London for the First Colonie in Virginia;

Notice one thing, though. They spell “time” like we spell it, not like George Percy’s “Tyme.” He even has strange capitalization, apparently capitalizing words at random. It leads me to suspect that spelling and grammar, even keeping in mind the odd rules of the time, were not George’s strong suits.

Our friend George probably didn’t have much education, or he would have been able to have a secure life in Europe instead of risking his life to wander around a remote land far away from anyone he ever knew and  populated by hostile native americans.

Then again, maybe his spelling wasn’t any more wrong than the Third Virginia Charter? Was there standardized spelling back then? Back in 1612, “dictionary” wasn’t even a household term (Neither was “dikshunaree,” in case you’re wondering). A Table Alphabeticall had been written eight years before, but no one considered it definitive. The first canonical dictionary would not be written until more than a hundred years later in 1755. Yes, a strong argument could be made that at this time, there was no such thing as generally “correct” or “incorrect” spelling. This means that an explorer and writer such as George had free creative reign to describe the response to Thomas’s demand that the chief Powhattan turn over his men as “noe other then prowde and Disdaynefull answers.”

It’s difficult to imagine language in this state, as having no existence outside what any given group of people think it is. I and many of my readers grew up in an education system that taught us “proper” and “correct” language. Really, though, somebody just decided that that was proper. I’m not any more intelligent for writing a blog entry and typing out “disdainful” rather than “Disdaynefull.”

But even if the specific spellings themselves are not important, it is of great value that we have standardized spelling that people are taught and expected to use. With entirely organic, free-form language in the past, peoples separated by some barrier would slowly speak and write more and more differently until they were legitimately different languages, leading to all sorts of challenges in these groups relating to one another, and, arguably, various wars.

So, if you feel prowde and Disdaynefull of the importance of spelling and other rules of language, remember that it is a bulwark against the natural entropy that characterizes fully organic language, and whether or not the spellings and grammars we’ve chosen as our standards are the best possible spellings, the fact that we have them helps us to maintain communication across borders and across time. If you’re ever Shippwrackte uppon the shores of, say, the cowntry of Australia, it will be nice to know that the entropy of language has been kept relatively in check. There’s still a lot they say differently, but it’s not a different language.

26 is the new 80

Yesterday I dramatically underestimated how old some folks I knew as children had grown. I figured middle school, but they’re both in 11th grade. Outrageously underestimating the ages of children is what elderly people do. Now in my second quarter-century of existence, I am having a quarter-life crisis.

Now, I’ve heard that as you begin to get older time starts to move more quickly. Given that it seems like a week ago I was just starting at NC State and just yesterday I first met my now girlfriend of almost a year, I imagine that if this process continues consistently, by the time I’m fifty I’ll be seconds away from ninety-nine and then dead. On my deathbed I’ll be telling the nurse “I feel like I was being born just five minutes ago.”

I also am beginning to get ailments that doctors just say I’ll have to put up with for the rest of my life. Well, one. I got my first “floater”  a little while back. It’s just a little dot that hangs around on my eye and gets in the way, especially when I’m working on my computer. Apparently they’re normal at only 26, but it took me a while not to feel existential dread about my inevitable demise every time it appeared in my vision. I suppose a crucial part of aging gracefully is coming to accept each new manifestation of my physical form’s slow, inexorable decay as it comes.

So, now it’s time for me to get serious about my life goals. Clearly I don’t have much time left, so I’ve got to start achieving them, pronto! That means I have to define these goals. Here they are roughly in no particular order:

  • Satisfaction and security in my career
  • Love and mutual support in my relationship
  • Being the change I want to see in the world
  • Some form of self-expression through my writing
  • A community that will not be mostly dead when I’m even older than I am now

The key of the last one is to avoid being alone in old age without having to have children, which are a drag on at least four of my five life goals as presented here. I suspect this can be accomplished with the proper intergenerational community involvement. In any case, I’ve got to get to work on it! Who knows how fast the years will start flying by?

Who Loves Jerry?

Jerry had had his hair done like Jamie Jackson, but he wasn’t Jamie Jackson. Jerry’s hair was not like Jamie Jackson’s anymore. It was spread with the rest of him out across the rocks beneath the aptly named Suicide Ridge. Looking down there now, you couldn’t be blamed for having no idea Jerry had ever existed. “C’mon, Mike,” said Kenneth, “are you scared?”

Mike’s hair was plastered to his face underneath a knit cap. He shuddered under his thick jacket. “I don’t know, man, this seems like a bad idea.”

“Well, Mike,” Ken frowned “it’s dangerous, yeah, that’s kinda the point. How are ya gonna know if you’re like Jackson if you don’t find out?”

Mike crossed his arms against the cold, “but if I’m not like Jackson, I’ll be like Jerry.”

Ken rolled his eyes, “yeah, but it won’t matter then, will it? I mean, if God, er, or whoever he is, if he just lets you die, clearly you don’t matter.” Mike didn’t know what he was doing here. He’d been standing right here a week ago when Ken was convincing Jerry to jump. He asked the obvious question anyway, “Why don’t I matter?”

Ken kicked a rock off the off the edge of the cliff, as if just to see something fall off while he waited for Mike to jump. “Nobody cares about you, man! This guy, he controls everything! He won’t let Jamie Jackson die, and everybody knows it. If Jackson jumped off this cliff right now, a plane would come swooping down to catch him, or a wind would blow him so he falls in the ocean instead of on the rocks.”

“Or maybe he’d wake up in traction with a feeding tube down his neck.” Mike put his hands in his coat pockets.

“Naw, man. That’s boring. Jackson is clearly a main character. Who wants to watch a movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and ended up in traction?”

“You want to watch the movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and magically flew out to fall in the ocean.”

“Damn right. That’s what everybody in America tunes in to see every night when Jackson does his next death cheat.”

“People care about me.”

“What?”

“People care about me. You said nobody cares about me.”

“Who? Who cares about you?”

“My parents do, idiot. They love me.” Mike realized his parents would be devastated if he ended up like Jerry.

“Oh yeah?” a smile wormed its way across Ken’s face, like he’d just figured out how he was going to win this argument, “tell me more about these parents of yours.”

“What?” Ken knew Mike’s parents, “you know my parents.”

“I do,” agreed Ken, “What do they look like?”

“Uhh,” Mike was baffled at this line of questioning, but he tried to conjure an image of his parents in his mind. He pulled the cap further down over his head. It seemed to be getting colder by the minute.

Ken tapped his wrist, “Well?”

Both of Mike’s parents were redheads like him. “They’re both redheads, like me.”

Ken nodded, “Oh, is that right? Tell me more.”

This was infuriating, “What do you want to know, Ken!? What’s the point of this stupid quiz?”

Ken’s smile opened into a full malignant grin, “what are their names?”

Michael’s parents names were Linea and Hurton. “Linea and Hurton, is that what this is all about? You just want to stop calling them Mike’s mom and Mike’s dad?”

It was a lame insult, and Ken ignored it. “Your redheaded parents Linea and Hurton didn’t have names until just now. They didn’t have red hair, or even exist until I brought them up. They won’t exist if you jump off and don’t survive. Don’t worry about what they think. All that matters is the creator and what he has planned.”

Michael was genuinely fearful now. He had to admit it was frighteningly difficult to remember any more details about his parents. They just looked like floating red wigs in the air with little labels “Linea” and “Hurton.” “I-” he stuttered, “Who are you?”

“I’m Ken, you’ve known me since Kindergarten.” Michael had known Ken since Kindergarten. “How many people have you led to this cliff?” Michael asked.

“Hundreds. Or maybe you’re the first. Does it matter?”

It didn’t matter. “It doesn’t matt-” Michael started to say, but caught himself. He had to leave. He had to go back to his parents, his real, whole parents who existed in flesh and blood.

But what if they didn’t? His zero-degree rated coat was not warm enough for the weather now. The wind whipped at his face, his nose stung and burned with each breath of icy air he sucked in. A fog obscured everything more than a hundred yards away. There was nothing besides Ken, Mike, and this cliff.

Mike was right next to the cliff. He could have sworn he was not that close before. Just one step and he could know if he was real. If there was anyone out there who was real and really cared about him. If he wasn’t…

Ken was right behind him. He seemed to hear his thoughts, and Michael felt his hot breath on his ear, “it’ll all be over anyway.” Michael reached a foot out over the precipice.

“Don’t do it!” came a voice from the fog. Michael looked back and saw a light. Ken frowned, “You’ll never know!” he snarled. Michael looked at Ken. He took his foot back onto solid ground. “Maybe I do know,” he said suddenly as the light grew brighter and a bright blue uniformed police officer came out of the mist. The sudden squall had died down and Mike was comfortable in his heavy coat. He walked toward the police officer, keeping his eyes on Ken, “Maybe God, or whoever he is, just showed me he does care.”

Ken stood stock still on the precipice, glaring ominously at the police officer, who eventually gave up trying to convince him to get in the car to be taken home. The officer turned away and said “you should know the window on your side doesn’t close all the way, kid,” before leading him to the passenger seat. As Mike and the officer drove away, Ken disappeared into the fog.

In a sudden fit of terror, Mike realized he thought of the officer as just a bright blue uniform. He looked over and saw him completely. He had dark skin and a long, narrow face with a square jaw. His nose was prominent and looked like it had been broken in the past. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his bright blue uniform was worn and had a mustard stain next to the right pocket. He saw Mike staring at him, and he smiled. “Hey, kid, you know that God loves you, right?” Mike knew now that God loved him and wouldn’t let him come to harm. On the long trip home, though, a chill wind blew through the window of the cop car. The question remained in Mike’s mind.

Who loved Jerry?