After the Event: first page of a new novel

Photograph by Justice Amoh on Unsplash

INTRODUCTION

All human beings are ultimately alone; but some are more alone than others.

Was that what saved me? The tendency to distance myself from others and figure things out for myself: is that why I was Enlightened so painlessly, when millions perished or suffered torment in futile resistance?

Or was it what Jenny used to call my Mr Spock tendency, that excessive rationality and lack of emotion, which put logic ahead of feeling?

I like to think it was neither. I tell myself that it was because the desire to connect, which is such a driver in all of us, was so desperately strong in me that it made me open to the virus, in a way that I never could be to other people.

The irony of that still makes me smile. The idea that the inner conflict between my desire to connect and my inability to do so might actually have given the virus a boost, fills me with a sort of joyous vindication, like watching England beat a better team in the World Cup. 

It’s as if I jumped clean off the autism spectrum and landed as the best-adjusted person on the planet.

Of course, my joy is qualified by the knowledge that there are only a third as many people on the planet now as there were before I made the jump. Evolution can be cruel; and Enlightenment came at a cost.

They had to go, though. There was no other way. We can see that clearly now.

I realise that I need to revise my opening statement.

All human beings were ultimately alone; but now we’re all connected. 

Yes, that’s better. It’s all so much better now.

This is the story of how it came to be.

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The above text is the draft intro to a Science Fiction novel with the working title, After the Event. I’ve spent several months trying out different styles and approaches and I think this works best: but I’d be grateful for feedback. Some background to the book can be found in my earlier posts in the Sci-Fi category, such as Before the Event; Humanity Version 2; Upgrade Yourself; and Why We Love Zombies.

Why We Love Zombies

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

It’s been building for years. A zombie apocalypse was getting ever more popular in movies, games and books, long before Trump and the pandemic. It’s not just zombies, of course: we’ve been lapping up every kind of dystopian future, from The Hunger Games to Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Why do they appeal to us more than any utopian vision? The answer lies with the zombies.

However good some other apocalyptic renditions may be, zombies are killing it. It’s not just luck and Milla Jovovich that have enabled the Resident Evil movies to gross over US$1.2 billion. The Zombies’ global success reflects our real world social divides, in which we have increasingly come to regard other tribes of humanity as mindless sub-humans.

We want to blow them away, by the thousands and millions. The Walking Dead expresses this perfectly, in the callousness of the survivors towards those they slaughter. After all, they’re already dead, aren’t they? It’s not like they’re human.

No, they’re Trump supporters. Or the Liberal Elite, or Commies, or Zionists, or Muslim Fundamentalists, or LGBTQVWXYZ…  It’s endless. We’ve segmented humanity so far that every other group can be categorised and dismissed as sub-human objects of hate. The idea that every person is equal has been totally subverted. We now fear the others even more than our primitive ancestors did.

Violent video games that objectify the enemy can tell us what’s really going on here. They provide the superficial catharsis and ultimate sense of futility that I first recognised while watching Aliens. That wonderful rollercoaster of a movie revealed a dreadful truth: no matter how many you kill, they just keep coming.

That captures another aspect of our present malaise: the feeling of impotence. The world is going to shit all around us and there’s nothing we can do. So what the hell, let’s at least take as many of them with us as we can. It all turns to rage: the 28 Days Later rage that boils inside us. That rage is turning us all into killer zombies in real life, even as we fight against them in our fantasy lives.

How can we not love zombies? They are us: and the apocalypse is of our own making. Pass me another ammo clip, I’m almost out…

Unless we can find a cure. Something to inoculate the whole world, starting with ourselves. Some natural or God-given remedy that has been with us all along. And then of course we will have to persuade everyone to take it.

After the Event, my novel-in-progress, sees the anti-vaxxers fight desperately to avoid being infected with something that will cure their hate. Their excuse is that it’s an alien virus but that’s not their real reason, just as we all know the cure to what ails us and yet we still fight against it. We would rather kill or die than be cured. You can lead a human to the cup of life but you can’t make them drink.

Trump That

What would happen if some gun-toting Trump supporters encountered an alien? I think we know the answer: they would shoot it.

Later they might ask some questions, like, “That sure is one ugly mother, I wonder what it wanted?” But they’d shoot it first, to be on the safe side and because that’s how they see things.

Why is that? Why is half of humanity so afraid of anything different or “other”? On the flip side, why would the other half so eagerly try to connect with the alien? Why would its otherness provoke fascination more than fear?

Both approaches are risky but the differences go deeper than the rational mind. If you listen to Trump supporters, there is a superficial logic (“they stole the election, we’d won and then all these mystery votes appeared”): but their deep convictions can’t be shaken with facts or rational argument.

Trump’s appeal is based on understanding something that is anathema to rationalists. Most people want to be told that what they feel and believe is right. People want validation of what they really think, deep down. That’s why religion triumphs despite its absurdities. That’s why the religious right support Trump. He shouts out what they believe: and he tells them it’s OK to believe it.

The typical Trump voter, or their equivalent elsewhere, is sick and tired of being told that most of what they feel is wrong. Sick of being labelled racist, sexist, narrow minded, ignorant, prejudiced, obese, irresponsible, stupid.

Trump tells them that they are great. He tells them that they are right to think and feel what they do. He validates them, he empowers them, he makes them feel good about themselves. Make America Great Again really means Make Yourself Feel Great Again. That’s why he doesn’t have to deliver: he already has.

The educated elites just don’t get it. Centrist parties are failing everywhere as a result. They despise half the electorate and it shows.

So how do we make people embrace the alien instead of shooting it? For the purposes of my new novel, the challenge is to figure out what would happen to someone with a closed and fearful mindset, if infected with an alien virus that stimulates rational thought and empathy. Would the conversion be painful or pain-free? Would it drive them mad, or give them a glorious epiphany?

Previously I’d assumed that some would kill at the first signs of infection, rather than face the need to change. Yet why so negative? Religion succeeds by holding out the prospect of redemption, even whilst acknowledging human failings. We need to give people back both the right to forgive themselves and a belief in their ability to improve.

There is something aspirational at the heart of Trump’s message, however cynical he was in creating it. The lesson is that we must learn to love humanity for what it is, warts and all: and if we want to progress, we must hold up a mirror that shows us how great we can be, if only we have faith in ourselves.

Upgrade Yourself

Davros, inventor of the Daleks. Not all upgrades are a good idea.

If you could upgrade your brain, what would you change?

In my forthcoming novel, an alien virus infects humanity, with an effect rather like uploading a new software version to our brains. Memory and personality are retained – we are still ourselves – but some of our capabilities are upgraded. The virus is benign: but what should it improve, to optimise us?

I would not rush for higher IQ, which is a two-edged sword. Even when not socially dysfunctional, people with MENSA level IQs walk a tightrope between being thought arrogant and wearily helping others catch up. Besides, there was a good reason for humans to evolve with varied attributes. Any upgrade must preserve variety, or lose a key advantage of the human tribe.

There are of course many types (and definitions) of intelligence. Which would you boost in yourself? Empathy and social intelligence? Sporting intelligence and the rewards it brings? Artistic intelligence and the resulting creativity?

Or would it be intelligence at all? Perhaps you’d prefer to improve some other aspect of your mental capability, like memory (but would you actually want total recall?) Would you do a Solomon and choose wisdom? Even my clever aliens would find it tough to deliver that. How about greater sensory perception? In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark suggests that AI-enhanced brains could vastly broaden our experiences by processing data from sensors covering e.g. more of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

In fact the electronic upgrading of our brains has already begun. Elon Musk has made characteristically bold pronouncements, on using electronic implants not only to help repair brain damage but also for communicating wirelessly without speech. This raises the prospect of human interactions becoming universal, with inbuilt language translation programs.

Any development of telepathy raises profound questions about how far we want to go. I am too individualistic to willingly merge into a hive mind. But a cloud mind, perhaps… provided we can choose what to upload. My best thoughts I want to share with the world; my worst I want to delete unseen.

Yet my alien upgrades target something different. By enhancing our ability for objective self-criticism, they improve our competence and give us a higher level of self-awareness. We need this to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with low ability in a task think they’re doing great.

In contrast, competent people are stern critics of their own work. That’s such a key quality for a writer that I’m probably programmed to pick it out. Even more than criticism from others, it enables writers to improve: and it underpins good and bad performance in everything from driving a car to being president.

So my choice for an upgrade is self-awareness. It’s an ability that cuts across all others, preserving the variety of the human tribe in all other respects and boosting performance in most of them.

That an alien virus might do this for us is wishful thinking: but AI may get there before we do. The ultimate choice we face may be about upgrading ourselves into a hybrid form, before autonomous AI outstrips us.

If we go hybrid, how do we avoid a split between those who want to upgrade and those who don’t? In my novel, that leads to civil war. Obviously it’s analogous to what is happening right now, in the growing war between those who revel in their ignorance and those who recognise their faults and wish to improve. In the book, The New Enlightenment wins. In reality, it hangs in the balance.

Best of times, worst of times

Pollution reduction over Italy (from ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite)

I cannot be the only one who is enjoying this. 

Despite the disaster unfolding in intensive care units and the awful economic impact, the current crisis may be the best thing that’s happened in my lifetime. As a Boomer, I say this in the full knowledge that Covid-19 may kill me.

In part this is similar to the wartime generation’s refrain that WW2 provided the best years of their lives. (Mind you, the ones who said that never fought in the front line but were either civilians or had support roles in the armed forces.)

There is also an element of the same dark enjoyment that drives the popularity of movies and video-games about a zombie apocalypse, or any other end-of-days scenario, from War of the Worlds to Contagion (which I believe is currently the most in-demand movie on Netflix).

This darkness is the shadow of a larger feeling that society is failing, that we are being led to global catastrophe and that there is little we can do about it. Hence we live in a state of barely-suppressed rage, which feeds a desire to wipe the slate clean and also generates a thirst for justice and retribution.

The main focus for retribution should be the failure of political leadership that has been exposed in every continent. Totalitarian China first tried to suppress the truth, thereby ensuring the virus’s success, and now stakes its dictator’s survival on proving that only the strictest authoritarian control can save the people. If Xi Jinping succeeds, then China will complete its transition into Orwell’s nightmare 1984 state. If he fails, then he and his whole rotten system will fall. I vote for the virus.

In Russia, Putin has shown himself to be just as stupid as the Ayatollahs of Iran and the petty bureaucrats of Wuhan. The virus thrives on disinformation and will shortly demonstrate the limitations of the current Tsar’s power.

In America, Trump is being brought down by the one enemy he doesn’t know how to fight. No matter how much he insults and belittles the virus, it doesn’t care, it doesn’t stop and it is going to achieve huge success amidst a population that is particularly unhealthy and ill-informed.

The democratic anarchy of Italy and the bumbling of Boris are proving neither more nor less effective than most other systems in managing the disaster. Only the rigid conformity of Singapore, South Korea and Japan seem to offer any hope of success: and even they have no exit strategy.

Religion makes things worse. In several parts of the Muslim world, imams and the faithful believe that mass prayers will protect them, thereby ensuring that the virus (aka God or the devil) will correct their delusion.

The virus mostly kills old men. Fortunately, that covers most of the world’s leaders. If I believed in God, I would see this as Divine Judgement, or Comedy.

For a couple of years now I have been telling people that our societies and especially our cities are fragile and that a pandemic or a different global catastrophe will expose their vulnerabilities very soon. With this in mind I took my family to Dubai, saying that I wanted them to see it now because it won’t be there for very long. They thought I was exaggerating but if ever there was a monument to hubris, which deserves to have the giant portraits of its rulers replaced with the words of Ozymandias, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”, then Dubai is it.

I thought the most likely cause of collapse would be global warming, which is set to make most of the Gulf region uninhabitable within the next 30 years. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a relatively mild pandemic would do in two months what all the world’s governments could not achieve in twenty years.

The satellite pictures are unequivocal. The great concentrations of pollution in China and Northern Italy have dissipated as quickly as the contrails in the skies. Those in Flanders and elsewhere will soon follow. Even Greta Thunberg could not make our idiot rulers take quick and effective action: but a tiny virus that only kills about one in a hundred of us, has transformed all our so-called leaders into action heroes almost overnight.

Or so they would have us believe. If the eventual relaxation of lockdown measures leads to a resurgence in the virus, they will be universally seen as super-villains. From this, two wonderful outcomes may emerge. The first is a realisation that their malign incompetence is the true threat. The second is the discovery that real change is not just necessary but possible.

When the Black Death killed over a third of Europeans, it changed society in ways that ultimately benefitted most of the survivors. Feudalism died out, wages and social mobility increased and the church’s stranglehold on thought was broken. We can achieve even greater benefits at much lower cost. 

Unless the virus mutates to a more lethal form that kills the young, we have the prospect of a corrupt old political order being swept away, dead or discredited. Their worship of economic growth may be seen for the idolatry that it is; their inability to own their mistakes and change their policies will be judged unpardonable; and the hold of religious fundamentalism can be weakened from the Bible Belt of the USA to the madrasahs of Iran. We may even come at last to recognise that there are too many of us, that our lifestyles are suicidal and that we must change if we are to avoid the fate of every parasite that kills its host.

The virus is neither our enemy nor our friend: but it can be the saviour of our species, if we are willing to learn from it.

Humanity, Version 2

Marc Quinn’s sculpture, “Planet”, in Singapore

Watching the reruns of Westworld has confirmed my opinion that it’s the most intelligent television series ever made. The questions it poses, about the nature of sentient life and the point at which machine and human intelligence become indistinguishable, have been considered many times before. The best examples are probably Blade Runner and Alex Garland’s equally brilliant Ex Machina. Both morally and practically, those questions are complex and fascinating (rather like Westworld): but what lights my fire is not so much how we might one day treat androids, as the implications for our own evolution.

My limited understanding of the evolution of species leads me to believe that it mostly happens in relatively sudden bursts, with slower and more incremental changes in between. Those bursts probably have external causes (e.g. changes in the environment) rather than just the random mutations that drive a lot of the lesser advances.

In Westworld, the minds of the artificial humans start to develop independently of any human intervention. The original cause is a mix of meddling by their creators and some unforeseen malfunctions but their progress becomes self-driven. I’m not sure that this possibility has ever before been presented as such a dynamic evolutionary process. These are not really androids but a hybrid species whose minds, entirely human in origin, evolve quickly through the interplay between their own logic and some natural processes that are beyond their or anyone else’s control.

Bearing in mind that these Westworld “hosts” are reflections of us, this raises some really interesting questions about how our own human intelligence will evolve as a result of interacting with and attempting to manage artificial intelligences that are rapidly becoming greater than our own.

If ever there was a likely external cause for mankind’s next evolutionary leap, surely this is it. Will we merge with AI to create true hybrids (something that is already starting to happen)? Will we compete with AI, stimulating our own mental abilities in an effort to keep pace with the genie that we have let out of the bottle? Above all, will we come to understand the parts of our thinking that are free will, versus those that are pre-programmed, bio-chemical processes? This is the essence of the struggle that the Westworld characters go through and it lies at the core of our own existential questioning.

I can’t wait to see what the inspired script writers Nolan and Joy make of these issues in Season 3. They wound up the last season by having some key Westworld characters escape into the outside world, so they’re pretty much bound to address them. Meanwhile I’m working on related issues in my new novel, After the Event, where an alien intelligence is infecting humanity rather like a virus, upgrading us despite our best efforts to stay dumb and primitive. It’s spooky but convenient that COVID-19 is happening at the same time, providing a real-world model of how humanity tries frantically to contain the uncontrollable.

In giving birth to AI, we have done more than to create the next great leap forward in science and technology. We have produced a baby Titan that may well evolve into the next version of humanity. I can’t help thinking that it will have to be a big improvement on Homo Sapiens v1.0, if we are to survive.

Before the Event

Ariane rocket at the Cite de l’espace in Toulouse: although it’s impressive, getting there is by far the least interesting part of space exploration. The most interesting issues arise from what you bring back.

Much to my surprise I find myself writing a science fiction novel. This was not what I’d planned and in fact, given that I was in the middle of reworking my second novel and developing a third, it’s bloody inconvenient. But there’s worse. Much worse.

Despite having worked in the space industry for 35 years, I’ve never been much interested in science fiction, nor had a high opinion of it as a literary form. It always struck me that although the ideas were often strong, the quality of the writing and characterisation was generally mediocre: so I stopped reading it.

Consequently, when the idea for a sci-fi book struck me, I didn’t know if it was original. It seemed unlikely, because there’s few things so rare as a genuinely new idea; but I needed to know if it had already been done thoroughly and well. So I used the generous parting gift from my ESA colleagues to buy every sci-fi classic and anthology I could lay my hands on and then gave myself a crash course on the past 70 years of the genre.

What I discovered was something that I probably knew all along, without ever having articulated it to myself. As the editors of one anthology put it, science fiction is “the most important genre produced by our post-industrial age, as its authors invite us to examine exaggerated or altered versions of the realities we have invented, so we might look at these afresh” (Science Fiction for Survival, Valley Press, 2019). To put it another way, the best sci-fi is not really about science and it uses fiction only for convenience. It’s about philosophy, religion and society; and especially about how technological advances drive their evolution.

It turns out that I was right about the genre being stronger in ideas than in other literary qualities: although some sci-fi authors are masters of their art and craft, the genre’s relative weakness in these areas has always led it to be regarded as a poor relation by pretentiously intellectual critics. (Brian Aldiss pointed out that he had four histories of French literature on his shelves and not one of them even mentioned Jules Verne.)

The ideas, though, are far above most of those that can be found in any other genre, as is the imagination and vision of where humanity is going. Nowhere else are the critical factors that will determine our fate so well considered. What passes for “literary fiction” has become a graveyard of self-absorption, whilst science fiction, whether in print or on screen, remains in every sense vital.

As it happens, the idea that sprang into my mind late last year seems not to have been much explored by others, though many have circumnavigated it, rather like those early seafarers who sailed right around Australia without ever chancing upon it, or daring to probe very far into the interior if they did.

My working title is “After the Event”. I thought about calling it “Aftermath” but that’s already in use by others. If the writing goes well, I may post a teaser here when it’s close to publication; and perhaps I’ll discuss some of the sub-themes as I develop them. In the meantime, I still have a pile of science fiction books to read and I’m pretty sure that what I find in their pages will make some profound changes to what I have in mind. For the first time in a long time, I am excited by what I’m writing and have only a rough map of where it will take me.

Alan at the Arthurs

The Titanic museum in Belfast

People often assume that I write science fiction, which I don’t. If I did, they would probably get quite excited to hear that I was nominated for an Arthur Clarke award, because the Arthur C. Clarke awards are as prestigious as it gets for sci-fi authors.

In fact, however, the Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction novel of the year should not be confused with the Sir Arthur Clarke Awards for achievement in the space sector. Commonly known as “The Arthurs”, the latter are also backed by the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation but instead of fiction they deal with science fact. There are ten categories, for most of which anyone can nominate anyone else. Sixty judges from across the space sector draw up a shortlist of three finalists in each category and then choose the winners, with the prizes awarded at a gala dinner.

This year the awards ceremony was hosted by the Reinventing Space conference in Belfast. Hence the photo of the Titanic museum, which like everything else in the very jolly city of Belfast is just a short walk away.

I was crossing the Red Desert of Uzbekistan in a high speed train when I received the notification that I’d been nominated for the Lifetime Achievement Award and it came as a complete and lovely surprise. By the time I got to Bukhara I’d been chosen as a finalist: and that was even more flattering when I discovered that the competition consisted of Professor Ken Pounds of Leicester University and James Burke of the BBC, whose lifetimes have been considerably longer than mine (I mean, come on, James Burke was presenting Tomorrow’s World when I was about nine).

In the end it went to Ken Pounds, which is probably right. And it was only at the awards dinner, after about six glasses of wine, that I remembered my own special connection with Arthur Clarke. Back in 1996 I was leading the project to define Inmarsat’s 4th generation satellite communications system. One of my team was Phil Macridis, a keen fan of Sir Arthur, who persuaded me to send him to Sri Lanka to get a video endorsement of our project from the great man himself. I agreed, which is usually the smart thing to do when your team are smarter than you are. That video clip helped to clinch the deal on what became the world’s biggest ever civil satellite programme.

So, what have I learned from this little brush with celebrity? That it’s nice to be acknowledged even if we don’t win any awards. That Belfast is a fine, fair city which should be visited often. And that I do in fact have an interesting idea for a science fiction novel. More than that, I even think it’s an idea of which the master would have approved. So now I have no choice but to explore this universe of thought, where science fiction has something new to say about mankind’s relationship with God. In the process I will find out just how far short my talent and understanding fall from what Arthur C. Clarke would have made of it. Nothing like setting the bar high, is there?