Monday, February 8, 2016

Writing is hard

Writing In General
It took me way longer than I expected to write my first short story over at weeklywordsmith.wordpress.com - which means this year-long project is going to be a lot harder than I originally expected. On the days that I could actually write, I wrote at nearly NaNoWriMo pace (about 1,000 words per day) but still had to edit, revise, re-write, and edit all over again.

Unless I decide to switch to shorter "vignettes" or flash-fiction for at least some of the weeks, I am basically going to have to give up all of my hobbies, social events, and outdoor activities if I am going to pull this off. That sounds like zero fun. But I'm going to give it a couple more weeks before I make the decision about whether to switch to occasional flash-fiction, or cut my goal from 52 weekly stories down to 26 bi-weekly stories; mainly I just to see if I can get any faster or more focused before admitting defeat.

Writing "Adam"
My first story, Adam, is loosely inspired by a 1968 science fiction short story written by Damon Knight, a prolific writer of science fiction short stories. Masks is one of the few short stories I've read that actually stuck with me, so it felt like the perfect jumping-off point to start this writing journey. It's about a human who has his brain transferred into a robot body (I don't remember why), and losing the ability to feel slowly drives him crazy. Seriously. He kills a puppy.

I remember reading the commentary that the puppy represented everything he was not: soft, small, cuddly, pure emotive expression unbridled by reason. And that's why he killed the puppy. But I think the premise would need revision if this 50 year old story were written today.

The robot-person (whose name I can't for the life of me remember) shows two clear signs of impending insanity: first, fitful bouts of dreams in between the lab-approved, regularly-scheduled dreams and the pre-programmed "wake up" command; and second, a fear of germs. The first is a small rebellion, the physical brain attempting to chemically balance itself. It's probably harmless, and it's completely normal. The second is an irrational defense mechanism, the personality attempting to calm itself by imposing an element of control over the world, requiring visitors to wear masks and the laboratory to maintain a positive air pressure (like a CDC lab).  It's also pretty harmless, and also completely natural.

But neither of these reactions is enough to give the brain a sense of normalcy, and the second impulse develops into something sinister; the robot-person (sorry, let's call him John) begins to become repulsed by ordinary facets of life: sweat on a brow, grease on a forehead, a pimple in the corner of a nostril, a droplet of saliva expelled while talking, and, ultimately, the puppy, who sits there not hurting anyone but breathing and panting and drooling and shedding.

So why does any of that affect John? I don't think it would be as simple as the story from 1968 envisioned; it isn't the otherness that affects him, because he still intellectually remembers those things. Instead, I think the breakdown is more fundamental: his physical mind has lost the structural connectedness of being part of a living ecosystem.

Yeah, that sounds weird. But there's a concept in psychology and, increasingly, in artificial intelligence research called embodied cognition. I'm not qualified to teach it, but think about this: why is up good ("cheer up"), and why is down bad ("he let me down")? We use words about the way we feel--physically--about the world to describe more abstract qualities about the more abstract things that happen to us in that world. Up, high, and big are good things, whereas down, low, and small are bad things.

These descriptions are almost universal, because we all have bodies, and our brains perceive the world through them. Physicality is the primary filter of self-awareness. When John loses his body, he loses his ability to perceive the world the way other sentient beings do. As his neurons re-train to control the robot instead of a human body, they lose the pathways built around experiencing the world, interacting with the world, being a part of the world. His brain rebuilds itself into a CPU interface, translating raw thought into 1s and 0s. (There is even a line about how difficult it would be to upgrade his body because there aren't enough nerves to operate fingers, or facial muscles, with the kind of "analog" control that ordinary humans completely take for granted.)

After his transfer to a robot body, John is still sentient; but there is something cold and piercing about his intelligence, something distant about his self-awareness. Without a human body, "warm" is no longer inherently good in his mind, nor is soft. So he feels no remorse in dispatching something that embodies those qualities.

And that leads me back to Adam. I tried to be a little ambiguous, without being annoying about it. Maybe Adam is an AI who was given an android body, or maybe he was a human who had his brain transferred into a new body like John. Maybe Dr. Thayer, the man who fell, committed suicide, or maybe Adam threw him from the roof. It doesn't matter. Because the point is, Adam is an intelligent being in a synthetic body. (The pulp-fiction tagline for this story is "He was the first of his kind. Will he be the last?" Originally, I had imagined him as a prototype AI who went berserk on his creator, but with Ex Machina, Uncanny, and The Machine in my Netflix history, I didn't want to dwell on the implications of what it meant to create an AI so much as I wanted to explore what that AI would feel.)

He has a body, for better or worse; and he has a mind, and it seems to be pretty sharp. He thinks he should be able to feel things, and presumably he's walking around the city in the middle of the night trying to experience fear, isolation, a chill in the air, a sense of rebellion, something; but at every turn he is repeatedly deprived of that satisfaction. His synaptic interface is based on real technology being developed by IBM but it begs the question every child asks: how do we know that the color "blue" is the same for everyone? what if my "blue" sky is what you see as "green," but you call it "blue" because you know the sky is "blue?" If Adam feels things through a synaptic chip, how can he know if that's the same as feeling things through a nervous system?

Adam can feel temperature and texture and the pull of gravity. He can see color and hear sound. His synaptic processor is designed around processing these signals the way a human brain would, and there's a scene that looks like pain-gating (where the brain effectively ignores new sensory inputs when it's busy dealing with existing ones). But is that enough to feel?

Dr. Thayer's fall was the reader's first glimpse of what that answer might be; Adam can describe the instinct that might lead a person to pick a scab, but it doesn't appear he can conceive the pain that comes with picking at a scab. He is able to describe the sensation of falling, but only in hyperbole. He can't actually feel anything.

And it drives him mad. So he does increasingly daring things, desperate to feel anything at all. And at the very end, when it looks like he is going to do something truly terrible, completely unambiguously bad, he realizes that what he's been experiencing this whole time is emotion, or a "feeling"--just not the one he expected. Watching Dr. Thayer fall was as painful as picking at scab, he just didn't realize the analogy he was drawing. He could only tear the skin from his limbs because his brain was already consumed by the pain of grief: anger, denial, bargaining. And that realization saves him, even if he's a little broken by the experience. And later, of course, he learns what every child who wonders about the color blue learns: shared labels for abstractions are simply a part of human existence. We agree to call certain things by certain names on little more than the faith that the experience is the same for all of us; we can never truly see through someone else's eyes or feel through their skin.

This story was a little darker than I intended my first story to be, but the opening line kind of came out of nowhere and I really had to run with it just to see where it would take me. Once my character told me a little more about himself, Masks came rushing up out of some sub-basement of my memory and I knew who Adam was.

I had to rewrite the first scene once, and the second and third scenes a few times each, which I won't have the luxury of doing if I try to keep my goal of 52 stories in a year. I still have a lot of studying to do when it comes to the art and technique of writing a short story, so maybe I'll figure out how to outline in the interest of saving time.

All in all, this was fun; it might be one of my better crazy ideas.

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