Tag Archives: Thoughtcrime Experiments

Awesome Dinosaurs

People who know me personally will understand why I find this so awesome. It’s called “Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs,” and it’s by Leonard Richardson, published in Strange Horizons. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in recent memory:

“Don’t guilt me! I love Cass like my sister who’s a different species for some reason. My half-sister. So, I’m putting in the legwork to find out who’s behind this. I did a web search for ‘I hate dinosaurs’ and it’s either the radical birdwatchers or the young-earth creationists.”

“I’ll tell you who’s behind it,” said Entippa. “Some idiot built an unsafe vehicle and another idiot named Cass signed off on it. She’s got carnosaur entitlement syndrome. People get hurt and everyone says ‘Oh, how could this have happened’ and it happened because carnosaurs think they own the world.”

“You’re neglecting the important point, which is, birdwatchers.”

“Birdwatchers.”

“I never realized the depths of their hate, Entippa. One faction that considers us birds, fit only to be watched. And another faction that considers us mere lizards, beneath their notice!”

This story is such a wild ride to read. It makes me want to use exclamation points. Dinosaurs from Mars! Dinosaurs on motocross bikes! Incredibly fun story, and with a pointed ending that makes it matter.

P.S. Leonard Richardson was one of the editors of Thoughtcrime Experiments, which I spent a great deal of time on this blog obsessing about.

P.P.S. In a truly awesome juxtoposition, Strange Horizons published Richardson’s story alongside Brian Trent’s article, “Was There Ever a Dinosaur Civilization?” which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, but certainly will.

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Not Fan Fiction

Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, is related to Ted Chiang’sHell is the Absence of God.” (I discuss this relationship more extensively in yesterday’s post). Both stories are explorations of faith and atheism, using the concept of angelic visitations to drive the action and the philosophical discussion. To be clear, Liu lists the story’s influences as a note at the end, and got Chiang’s permission before publishing his take.

I enjoyed reading the two pieces as a conversation, and, in many ways, this is what literature is about. The flow of philosophical ideas from Plato to Aristotle to Aquinas, for example, is a part of the Great Conversation that makes it so worthwhile to be a reader of writer. That said, Liu’s piece is hard to classify, and I imagine it was incredibly hard to publish.

I think there is a kind of writing that exists that sits somewhere on the spectrum between fan fiction and an original story (if there truly is such a thing). When I get an idea like this, it’s not exactly that I want to write in another writer’s world, but that I want to use another writer’s premise for my own exploration. Sometimes, strong anthologies get created by giving lots of writers the same premise and putting the results side by side, but, for the most part, I groan when I get one of these ideas because I know it’s not going to be an easy road. For example, I love the premise of Catherynne Valente’s book, Palimpsest, and I want to play with it myself. The difficulties with doing this have stopped me, however. Unless I really, really care about the idea, I won’t write it.

That’s one thing that I love about the Creative Commons license. I think labels like that declare that it’s OK to experiment along those lines (as long as it’s not the non-derivative license, I guess). I think it’s good to create a space that truly allows conversation in literature. There’s a lot of healthy activity along these lines, but, for the most part it deals with older works that are out of copyright.

Take, for example, the many retellings of fairy tales, such as those in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red anthology. Or several stories in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things anthology (for example, “A Study in Emerald,” which mashes up Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and “The Problem of Susan,” which questions the treatment of Susan in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia). There’s also a huge and vital community devoted to developing the ideas of H.P. Lovecraft.

Liu’s story makes me wonder why that conversation doesn’t seem to happen as much around more current literature.

I felt this particularly keenly because I’m currently struggling to find a market for a piece that makes many references to Star Trek (particularly the Klingon language), and yet is not fan fiction and is not a Star Trek story. That limbo is an interesting place, but it’s not an easy place to be.

(Note: I wrote this post and then decided to contact Ken Liu to ask him about marketing his story and about influences. He kindly replied. Look for some thoughts from him in the next couple of days.)

Science Fiction v. Fantasy

This is the first of several posts about Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The story provides fertile ground for a variety of discussions–on its central questions about faith and rationality, on the nature of science fiction, and on its relationship to the other works that have influenced it. I got in touch with Ken to ask some questions about the story, and I’ll be sharing some quotes from our conversation in future posts.

For now, I want to focus on how the story’s genre affects its treatment of its premise. SPOILERS FOLLOW. One of Liu’s influences was Ted Chiang’s story “Hell is the Absence of God.” Like Chiang’s story, “Single-Bit Error” asks whether someone who does not have faith can somehow work into having it. In both stories, the main character is motivated to try to have faith by the death of a beloved woman who was a believer. Liu’s story explains it this way:

If Tyler were religious, he could have been comforted by the promise of reuniting with Lydia in Heaven. Or he could have been angry with God, and railed against Him until he could come to accept his life the way Job accepted his. But Tyler did not believe in Heaven or God.

But neither could his lack of faith give him comfort, for he loved Lydia for that light in her, and he had no name or explanation for that light except what Lydia told him. Her faith was what he loved.

To continue in his lack of faith would be to assert that Lydia’s joy was an illusion, and that would kill the very heart of his memory of her. But to believe would require him to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality in his mind and embrace as fact what seemed to him a hallucination. While Lydia was alive he could delay that decision for as long as he was in love, but her death meant that he had to choose.

I believe that Chiang’s story is fantasy, and Liu’s is science fiction, and that this difference influences how the stories play out from here.

In Chiang’s story, the angelic visitations are treated as fact, and the main character must come to terms with them. His problem of faith isn’t exactly that he can’t believe in God, but that he can’t bring himself to love God. He goes on a quest to ensure that his soul will go to heaven, and so he exists entirely within the frame of reference of the religious setting. When he comes to a point of resolution, it is a definite resolution. There is a sense of transcendent mystery in Chiang’s ending–God is ineffable, and his ways are poorly understood. There is no sense of uncertainty about God’s existence.

LOTS OF SPOILERS NOW:

In Liu’s story, the main character would like to believe in the angelic visitations, but suspects that they might be caused by a “single-bit error” in the brain. The story sets up plenty of justification for Tyler’s suspicion. Early in life, Tyler learns that human memory is unreliable when he realizes that a shameful incident that he remembers vividly could not possibly have occurred. Later, the death of his beloved, Lydia, is caused by a strange error in his car’s cruise-control system. Tyler comes to believe that a similar error could occur in the brain, and he sets out to use that to feel closer to Lydia:

If a single-bit error on a circuit board could breach the mathematically perfect type system of a programming language, Tyler reasoned, wasn’t it conceivable that a single-bit error in the brain could break down the system of distinctions between nurses and angels? All it would take was for one neural connection to be broken and randomly reattached somewhere else, somewhere it had no business to be connected to, and all the walls between the types of memories would come crumbling down.

Lydia’s vision of Ambriel, and indeed her faith, was then simply the consequence of a misfiring of the neurons, a misfiring that could have been triggered by fatigue, by stress, by a stray elementary particle, indeed, by anything at all, on that long ago day in the clinic in Boston. It was really the same process that had conjured up his memory of making his grandmother cry.

In order to reason your way to faith, Tyler thought, all you needed was a single-bit error.

Contrary to what you might expect, this theory did not cheapen or degrade Lydia’s faith in Tyler’s mind. For this explanation allowed Tyler to understand, rationally, Lydia’s life. Calling Lydia’s faith an error was a level of indirection that bridged the gap between their worlds.

Moreover, errors, once understood, could be induced. The technically proficient could breach the best software security systems by deliberately inducing errors in the hardware. Couldn’t the rational induce faith in themselves the same way?

Liu’s story ends on a note of uncertainty. Tyler experiences an angelic visitation, but ends up deciding that it was a single-bit error. The story doesn’t reveal what the “truth” of the matter was.

The sense of mystery in Liu’s story isn’t just in Tyler’s questions about God and angels. It also lies in his recognition of the mystery that’s still contained in systems designed to be predictable–such as cruise-control systems. To me, that’s deeply rooted in the traditions of science fiction.

A True Thoughtcrime Experiment

Therese Arkenberg’s “Goldenseed” is the story in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology that best fits the project’s name. Xan, a recognizable, though altered, Johnny Appleseed, wanders the countryside engaged in a political experiment:

“Mostly because they’re beautiful. But also for the gold.”

“No, I don’t want to become rich in the least. But I want more gold in the world.”

“You want to become rich?”

“Not at all.” Xan shook his head grimly. “No, I don’t want to become rich in the least. But I want more gold in the world. Look.” He gestured at the trees. “I’ve planted orchards like this all across the West. They’re all open, unguarded. I don’t care if people take golden fruit by the bucketful. In fact, I want them to take it.”

“So everyone can have gold?”

His head bobbed. “Yes. Free for all.”

“But…” I frowned. “Say someone was poor, with no money, and picked one of these—” I hefted the Orel—“and took it to the store in town. But why should the shopkeeper give him anything, when he can walk out here and pick a fruit himself?”

“There’s no reason he should,” Xan said. “No reason at all. By putting out gold like this, I’m making it utterly worthless. Oh, it’ll still be pretty, good for jewelry, but no path to wealth. That’s what I’m hoping for—though I pity the poor man in your example.”

I looked down at my Orel and felt a sudden urge to throw it away. It wasn’t that I hated Xan’s idea, not exactly, it was just so strange. “But without using gold, how will people buy anything?”

The story is about the reactions others have to Xan’s radical ideas about money–their lack of understanding, their fear, and their greed. It’s a poignant look at how an idea and a person can have attractive vision, and yet ultimately repel and alienate others because that vision asks people to risk too much of the status quo.

Up to the Level

(THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Sherry D. Ramsey’sThe Ambassador’s Staff” appears in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. If you’re worried about spoilers, go read the story and then come back.

COMMENCE SPOILERS…

Ramsey’s story is a mystery constructed around the death of a Martian ambassador. The key to solving the mystery turns out to be a drug called Level, which, in most cases, makes people feel strong and competent while they actually lie on the floor drooling. While most addicts are made useless by Level, a small subset become highly efficient, though they still become dependent on the drug and suffer withdrawal if they don’t get it. It turns out that the ambassador was in this second class, known as Mind-Levelers, and that he got himself killed trying to get a fix.

The story’s biggest strength, I think, is its atmosphere. The setting is well-realized–Cape City is a town built around a spaceport, seeming to consist of poor people who’ve got nowhere else to go and a few extremely reach. There are nice touches, such as the detail that hotels are constructed to extend deeply underground, with artificial sunrooms made to give the proper aura of luxury. The narrator, who’s a private detective, wishes she’d gone to space when she had the chance. The author never reveals why she couldn’t or why she wanted to, but that regret hangs over the story and was, I thought, the main source of its poignancy.

The mystery itself was pretty well-constructed. There were a lot of stock detective-story characters (the cop friend, the uptight assistant to the murdered man who’s obviously guilty as hell, the well-meaning single mother), but they were well-drawn. In the course of the story, the narrator gets injected with Level and turns out to be a Mind-Leveler herself (MAJOR SPOILERS–I’M GIVING YOU THE MOMENT OF EPIPHANY HERE:

Arturo Singh’s phone call about the body in a dumpster fit into the story perfectly. It was as plain as a tri-V scene in my mind: the dealer—maybe more than one of them—making the wrong move, Olara grabbing the staff and using it as a weapon…just too late, since the Ambassador had been killed. If Olara had killed the dealer, even in self-defense, he’d keep it quiet—he had the Ambassador’s reputation and his own to consider. Olara could have gotten the Ambassador’s body back to the hotel, but the broken staff had been overlooked in the street. It all made sense.

But was that me, or the Level? And why was I breathing so hard? Was I tiring, slipping? Buildings sped past me,the rings blending as I flew through them. Maybe adrenaline would keep the drug at bay long enough.

I wished I knew more about Level. I’d have to ask Sally if this kind of delayed reaction was normal. And ask her more about going off-world. Why had I made such a big deal about that? It would be as simple as stepping on a shuttle.

It was the drug, trying to distract me with another imaginary life. I had to fight it long enough to get to Seeth and his mother. Somehow I found the strength to run even faster. Folks on the street seemed blurry, slowed. I wondered if my perception was deteriorating.

By the time the Warrens’ converted home came into view, my lungs were burning like I’d tried to breathe vacuum. In the back of my mind I knew I should not have been able to run this far, this fast, this steadily, and fear clawed at my mind again—none of this is real. I shoved the thought aside. Either this was reality and I had to keep going, or it wasn’t and I was still in my office imagining it all. The only logical thing to do was play out the scenario as well as I could. At the very least, I’d hallucinate a happy ending.

I liked the writing in this section, and the author ends the story nicely by pointing back to the buried thought about space travel (SPOILERS AGAIN):

So I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m a mind-Leveler. Don’t misunderstand me—I never want to touch the stuff again. But I’m haunted by the memory of what it was like to feel that confident. To have an entire messy, complicated problem laid out and see where every part fit, how it all came together. To act on instinct guided by reason and do everything right.

It’s a tempting prospect for a private detective. I just keep telling myself that if I can do it Leveled, I should be able to do it straight. I figured some things out without the drug, after all. That has to count for something.

Seeth and Sally Warren each got a small reward for their part in the case, and I’ve ditched my avatar and hired Sally to be my secretary. She’s a lot better company and the clients like her more. I know more than one who thinks her raspy voice is sexy. And she knows how to deal with the occasional Level-head who wanders in to the office.

And sometimes at night I stare up at the stars and try to recapture that brief moment when going off-world seemed as simple as stepping onto a shuttle. That one…well, that one is the most elusive.

I thought this was a great note to end on, and it tied the story in well with the hints about who the character is. I heard once that a story should be about the most important moment in a character’s life, and this ending establishes that, out of all the cases the main character has taken, this is the most significant one.

But the neatness of it all also leads into my criticism. I was distracted by how common Mind-Levelers seem to be in the story, though I didn’t think they’re supposed to be in the world. Not only is the narrator a Mind-Leveler, the Ambassador is a Mind-Leveler, and the client turns out to be the son of one. The coincidence seems too big to be plausible to my mind, and I think this weakened the plot considerably (there was too much of a deus ex machina feeling in the climax). While I could have handled the existence of two coincidentally-linked Mind-Levelers, three was too much.

On a related note, it was hard to buy that the main character didn’t know what was going on when she was on Level. On one hand, I can see that, considering that Mind-Levelers are uncommon in the world, she wouldn’t expect to be one herself. From the reader’s perspective, however, when it seems like you trip on Mind-Levelers every time you go to the grocery store, it was hard to see why she was being so slow. I think that cognitive dissonance underscores the point–there should be some explanation for why so many rare people are linked. I also think it might have been possible for the author to cut the third Mind-Leveler (the remaining two being the ambassador and the main character).

A Sweet Golem

Daisy,” by Andrew Willett, seems to have been the inspiration for the entire Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology (according to the intro note the editors gave it), and it seems fitting that a classic golem story would inspire the editors to build a creation of labor, love and words.

Most people are familiar with derivatives of the classic Jewish golem story–Frankenstein and similar. These are too far removed from the original legends to preserve some of the coolest parts. One version of the classic instructions for making a golem call for the creator to form the creature out of clay, then write the letters aleph, mem, tav on its forehead, spelling “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth.” To deactivate the golem, erase the aleph, leaving the word “met,” the Hebrew word for “death.” Traditional golems aren’t necessarily considered terrifying monsters–there are stories of them serving great spiritual masters.

Judaism is an attractive tradition to a writer, since it places so much power in the printed word. The Jewish people are sometimes known as “the people of the book,” and in Jewish mystical traditions, the letters of the alphabet are considered to have spiritual power. This is powerful creative ground–fruitful for any writer to explore.

In my own potentially flawed understanding, I think of golems as an extension of the idea of man made in God’s image–man can create, just as God can create, but the life-giving power that a human can invest in an object is far more limited than what God can do. A man can take clay and transform it into a golem, while God took clay and transformed it into a man.

After such a mystical buildup, you’re going to be surprised by how lighthearted Willett’s story is. I wanted to give it good context, in fact, so that I could point this out. Here is Willett’s golem:

There are things I never knew you could buy on the Lower East Side. Schoenfein’s Useful Goods was full of them, and what we brought home was definitely one of them, but from what we could tell it had a devoted following in its obscurity. It was a rectangle of pale sunny yellow, like a stiff piece of thickish cardboard, wrapped in an eighth-generation photocopy of a set of instructions.

“Okay,” I said, opening a container of kosher salt we’d bought on the way home. “Salt, check; dish, check; one cup of warm water, check. Where’s the Sharpie?”

“I’ve got it here,” Jenna said, holding up a sheet of paper she’d covered with black squiggles. “Just practicing.”

I made a circle of salt in the bottom of the dish. Jenna placed the yellow cardboardy thing in the circle, then carefully inked the Hebrew letters from the instruction sheet onto its back in small, neat forms. We held hands and dumped the water into the dish.

Remember those stove-top popcorn dishes? The ones where all of the sudden the little flat tinfoil skillet would mushroom up into this huge thing and it was like watching magic happen? It was like that. Only instead of a big tinfoil balloon, we stood in our living room watching a piece of cardboardy stuff in a Pyrex dish expand into a big yellow kitchen sponge about eight inches tall and shaped like a dainty cat. It had neat Hebrew letters across its back in black ink. It blinked its eyes at us.

“Coool,” I said.

“Mao,” the cat said.

“I think we’ll call you Daisy,” Jenna said.

The boring way to describe “Daisy” would be to say it is the story of a modern couple’s struggles with pest control. Willett invests this plot with mysticism, imagination, and, ultimately, a sense of sweetness and humor. It’s a great example of forging a new path with old (and therefore rich) material.

One quibble I had was that the second-to-last section of the story ends with the sentence, “And that was the end.” It feels complete. It makes sense to me as a stopping point for the story. It’s followed by an additional section, a mini-epilogue, that I thought served only to weaken the story. I have an entire rant about epilogues, actually (hint: I tend to find them unnecessary), which I may try to translate from dinner conversation into blog post at some point. In this case, I think chopping out the last two paragraphs would have given Willett a stronger, neater finish. His subconscious even told him so when he wrote the final sentence of the section that should have been the end.

Million Writers Finalists Posted

Jason Sanford posted the finalists for the Million Writers Award yesterday, along with some honorable mentions. None of my picks made the finalist list, but two of mine were on the honorable mentions list (“Retardo” by Rachel Maizes and “Flyaway Dreams” by Bryan S. Wang). Congratulations to the finalists and other stories!

I’m planning to do reviews of the finalists, as I did last year, so that’s on the way. For those of you who like my series on Thoughtcrime Experiments, I haven’t lost the thread there, either (My print copy just arrived in the mail on Saturday! You should order one, too). This is still a blog about short stories, mostly, even if I’ve been writing about movies and audio in the last week.