The Deep Cut

U2 approached the glowing yellow door marked with the crisper cutting icon and rolled through the puff of light into a sparsely furnished lobby. It was a typical knife joint. Thankfully no one was there.
A section ahead lit up green and he entered the cubical.
U2 settled his wheel into the cradle provided when the door phased back to solid light and waited for the sensors.
A soft chime sounded, the holo recording button began to blink and the melodious voice of TripleNine surrounded him.
“U2. It’s been some time since your last cutting. I looked it up—twenty-one years.”
There was no holo. Physical Counsellors were rarely surface shy.
“TripleNine. You sound well.” The emphasis was not lost on him.
“I’m awaiting a rather complicated cutting to take, okay? It’s a cranial crest with photo sensitive and pattern emitting points. It’s supposed to be the height of plus. But an alarming amount of my skull is visible and, believe me, you don’t want to see that.”
“So how can I help?”
U2 wondered where to start. “I want some big changes.”
“I assumed you didn’t schedule this just to talk.”
“Right. They’re unusual. I have the crisper code in my mem.”
“Really? Not from the catalogue? That’s somewhat daring for you isn’t it?”
U2 flushed as much as his facial mods allowed. TripleNine was not supposed to pass judgement. In fact, their relationship had always been noninterferal and U2 pushed the blinking holo recorder off as a statement.
“I’m sorry. Transfer the code and I’ll look it over without the verdict.”
“Thanks.” But U2 wondered how long TripleNine’s assurance would last.
He extended his antennule and inserted the end into the flashing blue reader and then allowed access.
The information was more than an entire personabyte but the transfer was quick.
U2 imagined the holoscreens and dat windows TripleNine would be invoking. He was no sci but he knew enough to be sure TripleNine would compare his current makeup with the new data. He wasn’t surprised when reaction came fast.
“You’re changing back to female. And legs? Are you sure about this, U2? This is risk rich.”
“Keep looking, there’s more.”
Finally there was a gasp.
“What the deoxy? This is massive. Nearly the entire genome. No antennule. No remotes. De-holy-Oxy! Fertility? You’re going base!”
“That’s right.”
“I’ve never had a client go base. It’s an incredible amount of cutting. Nearly a day! The large nerve branch integration is tricky. The recovery—well—that’ll be at least one or two months. You’ll need to learn how to walk.”
“I’m thinking three months.”
“That’s an incredible time commitment.”
“I’ve been saving vacation and scheduled a remote transition to a full of six months.”
“Have you—you haven’t gone thodox?”
The name had been whispered with so much revulsion that U2 considered assenting. Choosing thodoxy wasn’t a crime. Technically, those who chose to live wild on the surface were outside of the law and Intergov. They were allowed their freedom as long as no significant ecological or historical sites were compromised. And it certainly wasn’t illegal to go base. Citizens were completely free to any genomic changes that weren’t considered suicide or an inordinate risk to others. That was clear in the 113th amendment. Still it would be a shocking thing to be thodox. But it wasn’t his goal to upset anyone. He liked TripleNine.
“No. I just want to be free of all enhancements and mods. It’s a project I’ve been planning for a long time.”
“It’s your right, of course.” TripleNine was grudging. “And I’ve checked that you’ve got enough credits for the cutting costs which are considerable. That must have taken decades to save.”
“It did.”
“Well. I’m required to give you three questionnaires before I can submit your request. One Intergov and the other two local.”
“I expected that.”
The physical counsellor sighed. “But couldn’t you be convinced to a protoreceptor and a fertility lock? That way you could do basic subnet com and avoid—”
TripleNine had left the silence to grow.
“Well—avoid uncontrolled reproduction.”
U2 could hear TripleNine’s frightened inflection. He didn’t get angry. After all, he’d been through a lot of soul searching since the idea had popped up. The counsellor wasn’t bringing up a tenth of the horror stories he’d already considered. None of that had been enough to sway him. He’d hardly closed his eyes the night before though three hours sleep was all that his current mods required.
“I won’t change anything. It’s important that the cut is as described.”
“What about pain blockers for the recovery—”
“But it will be horrific—”
“I know, go with the questions.”
“Okay, okay. Intergov first. The Intergov of Earth System requires your truthful and unobstructed answers to these questions. Ident yourself and do you solemnly swear to answer each and every question with full truth?”
“I, u276c162t, do so swear.”
“Few citizens elect for genomic change greater than fifty percent from current. Are you fully aware of the consequences and potential danger if you see this procedure through?”
“Has your Physical Counsellor informed you of potential consequences to your satisfaction?”
“Who do you authorize to notify your family legality if the procedure causes death or other inconveniences?”
“Citizen ident w843b999m. Updated contacts were provided.”
TripleNine grunted.
“Are you aware that your change to the female gender with viable germ tissue may result in an uncontrolled pregnancy? Meaning the nine month incubation of genetically random biological offspring with all the potential for unplanned variety, disease and death entailed therein.”
“Will you be responsible for the afore mentioned offspring until such time as you elect to enrol these children in the ident lottery before but not after their thirtieth birthday?”
“Do you have plans to attempt a pregnancy?”
“Are you aware that electing to be without subnet access will result in unavoidable delays should you experience an injury or physical death?”
“Also that experience starting with your planned change until the afore mentioned injury will not have a subjective recording?”
“Unless you become unresponsive and are under govcare your lack of subjective recording will make you personally responsible, financially and lawfully, for all that you do from this point until you elect to re-augment. Do you understand this responsibility?”
“Yes I do.”
“That’s it for Intergov. The local gov questionnaires were merged with redundant questions excised. Are you ready or do you need a break?”
“Go on.”
“Very well. The State of Vancouver Island and Washington, this North American Union, and the city of New Victoria require your truthful and unobstructed answers to these questions. Ident yourself and do you solemnly swear to answer each and every question with full truth?”
“I, u276c162t, do so swear.”
“Are you aware of any unprovisioned municipal or state responsibilities which will be affected by your planned cutting within a one year period?”
“Have you informed your employer of this cutting?”
“Why not?”
“It’s none of their concern. With my scheduled vacation it shouldn’t affect their business. If they have issues with my changes they can plead for a certificate of dismissal but I doubt they will.”
“I think you underestimate the magnitude of going base, U2.”
“Is that part of the questionnaire?”
“I was trying to do my job. I’ll continue.”
“Are you aware that arrangements at your expense to pay for your upkeep and remote privileges are necessary during the cutting and convalescence?”
“Have you made these afore mentioned arrangements?”
“If you have entered into personal contracts with any individuals within or not part of your family legality have you made arrangements to continue to satisfy those, put them on hold or withdraw from the contract during and after your cutting and convalescence? Please answer in a full sentence.”
“Yes, I have made arrangements to satisfy all my contracts.”
“That’s it. For your convenience I’ve saved your current genome and memories for reconstitution in the event of death or irreversible damage.”
“Cancel that.” U2 hadn’t wanted to use this until after the cutting. “I’ve filed a No Reconstitution contract with a legal AI. I want all existing copies deleted.”
There was a sharp intake of breath.
“You said you weren’t going thodox.”
“I’m not.”
“You’re over 500 and your ident will be forced back into the citizen pool if you’re incapacitated. There will be a new u276c162t.”
“I’m aware.” He wondered how he could make his counsellor understand. “There must be risk or there will be no meaning to my project.”
“But—this is too risk rich. You would be—gone.”
“That’s my decision. And the point. Delete it all.”
“I’m required to act in your best interests. I can’t in all conscience delete anything without verifying this.”
“The subnet address of my AI is in my contacts.”
There was a long pause.
“I’m back and it’s verified.” TripleNine’s voice was grim. “I’m deleting your genome and memories from the public record and my backups. Can you tell me, at least, what kind of project demands such drastic actions?”
U2 responded softly. “Of course.” And he related his plan.
When U2 finished he heard a groan of pain from TripleNine.
“Are you okay?”
“I began shaking my head and it hurt like hell.”
U2 smiled for the first time that day.
“I don’t understand. Have others actually done this? Citizens?
“Not many. It’s not the same now that the surface is mostly wilderness. There was a man who did it eighty-seven years ago.”
“Never-the-less, U2, it still sounds crazy.”
“Just because few do something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Maybe that’s reason enough. Since I learned of it, the idea of doing this is nearly all I can think of.”
“I can hear that in your voice.”
U2 didn’t respond.
“Would you mind if I followed you with a remote?”
U2 was so surprised he didn’t answer right away. “I suppose not. As long as it stayed out of sight if I actually meet anyone.”
“Thanks. I feel better. The Cutting room is now accessible and I’ll monitor your progress. Your antennule will continue to function efficiently until very late in the cutting. Call if you need me.”
“Thanks TripleNine.”
The wall to the right of U2 flashed away in a burst of green light revealing a corridor. Green dots sped along on the floor showing the way to a light door.
He rolled in and spun on the clearly marked wheel bay. It descended, locked his wheel in place and then the wall behind tilted back.
This was it, his heart raced and he began to sweat. The point of no return.
The palate slid into a bay deep within the knife joint. Where everything happened. The centimetres around his body filled with NeoFreeze gas and his body froze in place. Heart stopped. Lungs immobilized.
U2 hated this part. It always took a few minutes while his brain stem fought to keep a physical body working even though the oxygen, sugars and nutrients were provided to his brain in a steady stream through biomembrane pumps.
The terror and discomfort passed and U2’s brain resumed normal activity. He remoted into work. The plan was to put in his time during the cutting and after to delay the vacation as much as he could. He certainly didn’t want to think about all the crisper edits virally changing his DNA and RNA. All those search and replace edits happening in every cell. And there was macro surgery too using his own force grown cells for new legs, ovaries and everything else.
Time to concentrate on work now that his body was in the ‘hands’ of the gene jockeying software.

The Starry Way

Physio. I came to loathe it.
Only an ancient word from school came close: excruciation. A weaker part of me had to be exorcised and sweated out. It wanted me to return to my old life. But I endured.
I’d contracted a physiotherapy company which specialized in extreme cutting recovery. It wasn’t cheap. They’d been successful with an astonishing eleven clients who had gone base. Two had actually run marathons.
Still, the fact that such a company could be viable belied TripleNine’s worries about how radical I was.
Though I might be the only one doing it with No Reconstitution.
One of my therapists, c767e385v, was base and he had actually done an eighty-eight kilometre hike in an inland place called ‘Algonkwin’.
Near the end I hiked several surface trails with C7. We had worked our way from easy through to challenging treks he knew. Going up and down hills was the toughest.
And then there was equipment. The shelter was easy to use and guaranteed to protect against any attack though sleeping in it horizontally for eight hours was still strange. The pack and food packages were simple enough. Next in difficulty after walking was clothes. Especially pants. Very strange but their necessity in protecting from exposure rapidly became evident.

Two months and three weeks after my cutting I was finally judged ready.
The ultraspeed trip across the Union and the Atlantic on the bulletrain seemed new to me though I’d been to Europe before. Perhaps because I was at the beginning of my dream project. The stares I earned from citizens didn’t bother me. Well. Perhaps those from the adults did. It was understandable from kids less than a century.
A hopper took me the rest of the way to what had been a town in France called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Besides an old bridge there was nothing there.
This was the typical start of the Camino Francés or the French route of the Camino de Santiago. A pilgrimage with a very long history and the greatest for ancient Christians since the Middle Ages. I’d done a project on it during the seventh year of my ancient history doctorate. I’d been so impressed that I chose it for my dissertation defence.
This wasn’t the longest pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela but it had been the most popular. Still, 769 kilometres through the European wilderness was nothing to sneer at. There were only six sites on the way where I’d have access to supplies.
Daring for someone new to hiking.
And legs.
The pass above Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port proved a breathtaking challenge. Literally. Twenty-first century hikers did it in six hours. It was a climb of more than twelve hundred meters in elevation and then back down four. Of course back then the trail was cleared. Now it was just ruggedly beautiful.
The cliffs were shockingly dangerous. One misstep and I could plunge to my death. Actually cease to exist. Despite my terror I had never felt so alive.
It took me four days and I locked myself in my shelter and rested for an entire day at the Roncesvalles stop. At first I was concerned with my time but, later, I learned that each ETA was too little time. I comforted myself in how my GPS, my only electronic concession aside from the shelter, showed I was closing the gap as my legs and feet had adapted considerably by the time I resupplied at Pamplona.
Harder than the physical strain was loneliness. No com. No people. Just me. I’d find myself crying. Sometimes from solitude. Sometimes over the view. Though I didn’t admit it to TripleNine, I was secretly glad his remote was along though he only checked on me once or twice a day. Once, when he’d missed a whole day, I couldn’t stand it any longer, I called to TripleNine and was so happy when he responded.
One afternoon, another week in near Los Arcos, I was shocked by a wolf stepping out from thick shrubs ahead. I’d seen plenty of smaller animals and three deer but this was the first carnivore. I knew what it was right away though it was larger than expected. Shaking, I stepped back twice as the thing growled and bared its large yellow teeth.
TripleNine’s metal globe lunged straight at it causing the wolf to bark and crouch down. The canine batted a forepaw at the remote. A blue arc of bright electricity zapped out and the wolf yelped. Whining, it pounced away into the bushes leaving me gasping in shock. After a few long breaths I could speak.
The remote zipped nearer but there was no response and the ‘live’ light on the globe’s bottom was red.
The remote’s light flicked to green.
“U2? What is it?”
“Your remote just shocked a wolf.”
“A wolf. De-oxy! You’re serious?”
“Check the log.” I went into a clearing where some branches had broken and were leaning against a large tree. “I don’t want that happening again. I’m supposed to be dealing with my own obstacles.”
“Just a moment.”
I took out the knife from my belt sheath and cut a thick branch away.
“I’ve seen it. That animal could have seriously hurt you. You can’t expect me to allow that. I’m your counsellor.”
“Then leave and let me be.”
With my knife I snapped and sawed off the many twigs.
“What are you doing?”
I didn’t answer and soon had a section of bark off the top leaving smooth inner wood. I hefted the meter and a half staff. It had a reassuring weight.
“Is that to protect yourself from animals?”
Without warning him I swung at the remote hard. It was far too swift and fled meters above my head.
“Stop that!”
I shook my staff. “You’ve gone interferal. I didn’t spend years planning this to have you ruin it!”
“I’ll make you a deal.”
I swung the stick a few times, revelling in the feel and then let the far end of the staff fall. The truth was I didn’t want him to leave. “What deal?”
“I’ll take off the automatic defence program on the remote if you keep practising with that staff and promise to keep it close.”
I smiled, checked the GPS and began walking again.

Six days later there was a yell that made me start and twist to face off my path. A dirty young man clothed in raggedy animal skins was striding toward me through the undergrowth. I was so happy to see another person I almost laughed out loud. He had an oily fringe of a beard and a long spear. Its large and barbed metal head was viciously thrust my way abortedly a few times.
He spoke in short sentences but the language was new to me. Everything about him screamed thodox.
I tried standard but that had no effect. I switched to the old language of Spain.
“Do you speak Spanish.”
He cocked his head and half grinned, half leered. The young man was only a meter away and within easy striking distance with his spear. He blurted out a few unintelligible words and then knocked at my staff with his spear.
I went to add my left hand to secure my grip but the man flicked it away into the foliage. An urge to strike back at this ignorant man came upon me. I glanced down. I’d untucked my sweater in the heat so my knife was covered. Then the sharp end of the spear sliced in front of me. My knife would be no match for that spear.
Maybe later.
With more furtive pointing and some shouts the bandit made it clear that he wanted me to continue in the direction I’d been headed. A glint in the sky as we walked told me that TripleNine’s remote was following.
But I had told him not to act.
Would he if I was in trouble? Maybe my stubbornness would be my undoing.
We walked on through the sweltering afternoon and just before sunset we were climbing a slight grade. I knew we had come to an ancient town as I felt and then saw rounded cobble stones underfoot. Casting about from side to side I saw stone ruins in the woods on both sides.
A palisade of sharpened tree trunks came into view and a shout from a boy on a raised platform was answered by the waved spear of my assailant.
It only surrounded two very old two-storey stone buildings. From the look of a cleared area beside the palisade it had been decades since it had been claimed from woods as there were piles of stone foundations fencing off the rows of vegetables. The gate opened and questions were fired at my assailant by several men. He answered in monosyllables.
I was tied to a post. The sound of the gate closing made me shake.
A short but very stocky man came out of the nearer stone building and there was sudden silence. All the people put their hands over their hearts and nodded their heads. Including my captor.
The new man’s voice was low as he discussed something with the young man.
My eyes darted to him when he asked me something in Spanish. I was so relieved I blurted out the obvious.
“I don’t know this man’s language.”
“It’s Basque. I’m the only one here who speaks anything else.”
“I’m so glad to meet you. Can you tell this man to release me?”
The short man grinned at me but there was no warmth behind it. He shrugged.
“Sendoa doesn’t have a mate and the girls here are too young.” He approached and grabbed my chin. “You should do nicely. Sendoa’s strong and a good hunter. You could have done a lot worse.”
“I’m a citizen.”
The man’s grin disappeared.
“You don’t look like no Intergov citizen to me.” He pulled out something from a pocket and set it between us so that no one else would see it.
I looked down. It was an electronic device! “Will you contact the authorities?”
He slipped it back into his pocket.
“No. I just scanned you. You’ve got no mods. And nothing to access the subnet at all.”
“I have rights!”
The man didn’t react to that.
“None of that signifies here. The fact that you have an ident doesn’t matter in a thodox settlement.”
“But I don’t want to be thodox.” I was crying again.
He came close.
“You came here. I don’t know why or what you expected when you came into the wilderness with no protection. But you left your cozy safety behind you. Maybe you left for the same reason I did, eh? Adventure? An end to the easy life?”
I stared back at him with an open mouth.
“Well congratulations. You found it.” He turned back to Sendoa and clapped him on the back. He said something else in Basque, clearly for everyone’s benefit. There was laughter all around. Sendoa had a great blushing grin. He untied me, yanked off my pack and pulled me to a small but sturdily built wooden hut against the palisade wall.
Sendoa tied me using a rope attached to the wall and then set his spear beside a low bed made of rough timber and filled with dried mosses.
A small oil lamp was lit and he set my pack on the bed.
He stared at me for a while.
When I couldn’t stand it any more I tried speaking.
“Sendoa. That’s your name right? Sendoa?”
His eyebrows went up a tiny bit. He pointed at himself and spouted in Basque. All I could understand was ‘Sendoa’.
Finally he shrugged and went through my pack. The dehydrated food in degradofoil packets was clearly of no use to him as he tossed one into the stone fireplace after opening and smelling it. He made a pile of my clothes and another of the metal implements.
Sendoa stood and came at me and I tried to grab my knife though my hands were so hindered all I could do was pull it out. I couldn’t even angle it up at him.
Laughing he plucked it away.
He left but soon returned with a few logs which he set under me. Sendoa pushed me down so I sat though the rope held my arms up. Then I was ignored. Many explanations for this behaviour came and went in my terrified mind. All I could conclude was that he was trying to wear me down. And that it was working.
It was day again when something woke me. I looked around. Sendoa wasn’t there. Light was leaking in through the chinks of the palisade wall.
It was from behind the palisade.
I choked out a “Hello”.
“U2. It’s me, TripleNine! You’ve got yourself in it now.”
“They’re thodox. Only one of them speaks Spanish.”
“I know. I heard you talk with him. I reported this to the authorities but they can’t help you while you’re in a thodox community. You have to get out of there.”
“I’m tied up.”
“With rope. To one of the palisade logs.”
“A thin grey rope? Just a few centimetres above your head. To the right?”
I looked. “That’s it.”
“My remote’s laser could cut that. Technically, it’s not inside a thodox community.”
I stood up and put strain on the rope.
“Do it.”
“Okay.” The rope came free suddenly.
“Can you manage to get out now? There’s a ladder just on the other side of the hut you’re in. It goes up to a platform above the wall. Using a rope you could let yourself down.”
I peeked through the crack at Sendoa’s door and rushed back.
“Not yet. There’s too many people.”
“I’ll watch and return when there’s a chance.”
“I can’t thank you enough, TripleNine.”
“Don’t mention it. I mean that. But I’m glad to help.”
“You’re the best.”
By the fireplace I found some sharp flint rocks. Wedging one between two logs I managed to cut the rope on my wrists after what seemed like hours of sawing.
I spent the time repacking my stuff. Sendoa had ruined a few socks and some food packages. My knife was gone. But the rest was still there.
It was TripleNine.
“The man who caught you is entering with a deer carcass.”
There was no way to fake being tied up again. If I wanted to use my opportunity I’d have to attack Sendoa. I hefted the heaviest log from my seat that I could wield and pushed myself against the wall next to the door.
When the door opened I swung the log as hard as I could. There was a sickening crunch. But the shaft of his spear and his hand had protected his head. Something hit me in the face.

I came to very cold and with a terrible headache. My neck and face ached. I was still in the hut on my ‘chair’. My arms were tied painfully behind me and I couldn’t move my waist away from the palisade wall. Two oil lamps were lit. I was cold because my sweater and shirt had been pulled off.
I must have groaned.
“I saw you hit him with the log with my infrared camera. I think you broke his hand. Anyway he stripped off your top, tied you up and then went tearing out of there minutes ago.”
There were noises coming our way.
“I’ll be watching.”
The door burst open and several people excitedly talking came in. Including a very old woman, the Spanish speaker, Sendoa and several others. They all looked red in the face and Sendoa was staring at me with huge eyes. He was nursing his right hand against his chest.
The old woman had an oil lamp in her hand and came close holding it to each of my arms. I was so cold I could feel the flame though the air. Then she broke into a fast paced Basque diatribe which made all the others look down at the ground. Even the Spanish speaker. She went up to him and actually slapped him full in the face. Then she spoke slowly, as if he were a child, and pointed at me.
The man faced me with eyes both angry and frightened.
“Why are you here?”
“Your Sendoa caught me—”
“No. No.” He held his hands up and the old woman stood on her tiptoes and slapped him on top of the head. “Why are you in the country of the Basque?”
“I’m doing the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.”
His face fell a little but then he looked a little hopeful. “So you’re a tourist?”
That made me angry. “No. I’m a pilgrim.”
The man turned white and then spoke to the woman in Basque. She yelled at everyone and they all left.
She closed the door, set the lamp down and came over to me. When she whipped out a knife I shied away but she tutted quietly. The woman reached her blade behind the rope tying my waist and cut them through. Then that on my wrists too. Gently she handed me my clothes.

The next morning, well fed and with all my belongings I was back on my way.
TripleNine came to hover as soon as the palisade was out of sight.
I laughed.
“It’s the craziest thing. One of my cuttings was for a skin decoration on my arm. That’s what saved me!”
“It’s the scallop shell—symbol of the Camino. Despite all the centuries they still respect the pilgrimage.”

When I returned to New Victoria after the Camino I was a different person. In my studies pilgrims were often mysterious about what they’d gained and I now understood why. How could it be put into mere words?


Made out of awesome

I finished Wake, the first in Robert J. Sawyer‘s trilogy called WWW last night … well actually early this morning. I didn’t get to bed until late: it was Em’s prom night and she and her friends had the party light on downstairs. I was on the verge of an asthma attack from the sultry (Justin had Throw Mamma from the Train on last night) air and all the dust from cleaning so, though exhausted, I had a hard time sleeping. But around 12:30 I could have done it: in fact I was fighting to stay awake and it was Rob Sawyer’s fricking fault. He, to borrow Caitlin’s (the main character in Wake) expression, is ‘made out of awesome’ and so I didn’t get to sleep until after 2.
The downside, of course, is that now my pacing of reading it is over (I couldn’t help it) and I have to wait for Watch next year. And then the last one: Wonder.  Back to the anxiousness I had to experience with his amazing Neanderthal Parallax.
Sawyer has done nothing less than explore what it is to be aware in humans. And, then, credibly (even realistically) he applies that to artificial intelligence on the World Wide Web. He says it took him longer to write this novel than with any previous and I really think it was worth it. He really nails it and in a package that is, like others of Rob’s works, very approachable and enjoyable to read.
Caitlin Decter is a blind teenage mathematician (and computer geek) who has just moved to Waterloo as her physicist father has just accepted a job at the Perimeter Institute. She is a wonderfully sympathetic and engaging protagonist who becomes a guide for the birth of the awareness of the World Wide Web. Sawyer does a wonderful job linking this to and educating us again about the miracles Annie Sullivan did with Helen Keller along the way.
I only have one question. Is Caitlin using Linux?

Extremely and Awesomely Recommended!

Want more? Here are some links:

  • The first three chapters are available online if you’d like a taste of this book
  • An excellent podcast interview with Robert J. Sawyer that covers this book, the pilot for Flashforward and the TV series “Supernatural Investigator” he hosts on Vision
  • Sawyer has even set up The Calculass Zone on LiveJournal where you can read 3 entries (which will presumably grow at the trilogy continues
  • Or you can become Caitlin Decter’s friend on Facebook

We the Underpeople

I have many favourite science fiction stories:

That’s to be expected when you’ve been reading SF since a very young age. And so it’s rare for me to come across something really amazing so that I’m forced to expand my favourites list. I did just that recently. I had heard of Cordwainer Smith (a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger, 1913-1966) before but had never read anything by him. So when I saw that my library happened to have the compilation book “We the Underpeople” I picked it up.

There are five short stories and a novel collected in this book:

  • The Dead Lady of Clown Town
  • Under Old Earth
  • Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons
  • Alpha Ralpha Boulevard
  • The Ballad of Lost C’mell
  • Norstrilia

The very first story in it, The Dead Lady Of Clown Town, blew my mind. Beautiful, touching, completely original, believable, amazing are how I would describe it. I was beside myself with admiration. And all the stories turned out in that vein. The meticulous Linebarger worked out his time line of the future (in an appendix at the end of this book), distant worlds and language to an impressive and unprecedented degree.
If you seriously consider science fiction as truly speculative than you would be hard pressed to find an author more interesting and ‘bursting out of the limits’ than Cordwainer Smith. And in a time when impossible movies can be made with the right tenacity and skill (e.g. Lord of the Rings) Linebarger’s future would be an excellent choice to be filmed.
Extremely highly recommended to SF fans.

Other Links:

  1. Bibliography
  2. A shorter list
  3. A Google directory of Smith Reviews
  4. A website run by his daughter
  5. More on Old North Australia and Linebarger’s only novel, Norstrilia
  6. Cordwainer Smith checklists
  7. A link to an interesting contrasting essay for the story Alpha Ralpha Boulevard by Smith and the famous story The Roads Must Roll by Heinlein, I don’t know if I agree that Smith’s work is necessarily a pessimistic vision of the future but it certainly made me look at the story in a different way

The Man from Earth

Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (directed by Richard Schenkman, 2007) has no space ships, futuristic sets or anything to visually imply the abnormal but it is excellent speculative or science (if you prefer) fiction none-the-less. If you compare this movie with The Girl from Monday you can see how an sf picture shot entirely in the present can work. Here we have an excellent imagination working with some good research behind it. Bixby’s central idea can be expressed as “what if a man had lived for over 14,000 years?” This thought is explored with all its personal, societal, scientific and religious implications and I enjoyed the trip.
This is an independent film: it certainly doesn’t come across with the great gloss and expensive photography you expect from a major studio. Some of the shots are very grainy. The acting, especially at the beginning, is overdone or wooden but it improves a little as the main character, John Oldman (played by David Lee Smith), starts to reveal his secret. I thought he, John Billingsley as Harry the Biologist, William Katt as Art the Anthropologist and Tony Todd as Dan were very good when they reached their stride.
Bixby completed the manuscript for this movie on his deathbed in 1998 and is responsible for the ideas behind some of the more intriguing sci-fi efforts on TV/theatre including “It’s a Good Life” on the The Twilight Zone (which is good but I liked the short story much more), the famous “Mirror Mirror” episode on the original Star Trek series and Fantastic Voyage. He was obviously a highly imaginative and creative person. The concept behind this story is certainly intriguing; I have been having a hard time keeping it out of my mind all day.
Definitely worth a look-see if you’re a true sf fan.

Oryx and Crake

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this speculative novel by Margaret Atwood. She has amazingly crafted such intimacy with her characters. I refer especially to the most interesting hero of the book. Of course, the hero is neither Oryx nor Crake but the self-denigrating narrator Snowman. Jimmy or The Abominable Snowman, as he calls himself, is a movingly sad though resilient person.
I can’t help but think about how Crake, the tormented genius, saw his only friend. He obviously saw the strength in Jimmy that Jimmy himself didn’t know. He thought him strong enough to survive his own manipulation. Atwood is so incredibly good with character that I think I can read into Crake what he had planned. He needed someone strong to bear the burden of his new species. It’s obvious to me that Crake set it all up. He found Oryx just to ensnare Jimmy. He hired her and ensured that she had enough hints to figure out part of Crake’s sociopathic master plan to wipe out humanity to make room for his own creation.
So Oryx would have Jimmy promise to take care of the Crakers. It is all speculation, of course. Crake planning all that…? But he was smart enough to pull it off.
I give you Crake’s last words. They go something like “You know what to do, Jimmy.” Then like some kind of tragic opera, he kills Oryx. But why? Jealousy? I don’t think so. By killing her, he ensures Jimmy has no else but the Crakers to be responsible for. He knows Jimmy will react with his own murder. Crake expects to die. He wants to die; he is so possessed by his genetic masterpieces (his ‘floor models’ as he calls them) that he ensures even he doesn’t influence them. He can’t bias his creation if he’s dead.
I think that Crake’s convinced that Jimmy’s character, though strong, won’t effect his Crakers. But here is his error. The Crakers feel so much for Snowman that they do something that Crake had strived so hard to eliminate from their genes. They create an effigy or an artistic likeness of Snowman while he goes back to the Paradise Dome. They need him that much. I wonder what Crake would think of that. His intellect may be off the scale but he still might consider it frightening.