Sunday, April 29, 2007


I'm not really a science-fiction guy. The only science fiction I've ever read has been Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and William Gibson and none of it solely for the purpose of reading science fiction. I watch Dr. Who and spot the enormous plot holes (seriously, my bitches, when the pig slaves were attacking Hooverville, Solomon -- who had fought in World War I -- took up the weakest defensive position I've ever seen), and the episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in which Picard learns to play a flute* made me cry, but beyond that I don't really watch a lot of science fiction, either.

Yet, I find myself constantly thinking up lame science-fiction ideas. Case in point, the TV series in my head. And this morning I thought up something new:

Shortly after New York City is completely destroyed by a category 5 hurricane, the United States government finally decides to respond to climate change. Typical of American extremist mentality, it outright bans the use of oil and coal (except for its own military necessity). This move sparks a boom in the use of solar panels and soon the whole of America has an environmentally-friendly dark silver sheen. Western Europe is happy to follow along, as are a number of South American, Asian and African nations. Although it has yet to happen, it is implied that those slow to convert to solar energy will find a U.N. military contingent knocking at the door.

So, the world is becoming a better place but in a slightly uncomfortable way. Amid this, one of the main side-effects is that the cost of silicon jumps rather dramatically. The cost can be offset by using less-efficient, easier-to-produce silicon for the solar panels but the cost of the quality silicon needed for computers bumps up by 900 percent.

At about this same time, an MIT biochemist hooks a special processor to a live chicken's brain and is able to create a shockingly powerful computer, one with vastly more memory than most existing technology. The discovery goes over incredibly well: Chickens are cheap to feed and maintain, they don't require deadly chemicals to create, they are considerably easier to dispose of, and the only power needed is that for the access box (the processor device attached to the chicken's head connects via a simple cable to an "access box" that feeds to a monitor, keyboard and mouse). And, much to everyone's surprise, this bio-computer is impervious to computer viruses. Within a short time, "PC" comes to stand for "personal chicken."

The only drawbacks are this:
1) The chicken has to be alive.
2) Using the computer knocks the chicken unconscious. This has no lasting negative effects, but it does mean you have to shut the computer off so that the chicken will wake up and eat and continue to live.
3) Chickens have a short lifespan.
4) Chickens are difficult to interface.
5) Chickens are troublesome to transport.

These issues lead to further experimentation and eventually Apple develops a hip mouse-based bio-computer that is easier (and cuter) to carry around and, due to the way its brain works, easier to interface. The drawback is that the lifespan is shorter and your computer runs risk of being eaten by the family cat.

At this point, as almost always happens in science fiction, someone works out that human brains are the best suited to this whole bio-computer thing. The size and power of our brains mean that the bio-computers are, in effect, infinitely powerful, we interface brilliantly, and we take direction better than mice and chickens.

But there remains the issue of knocking the "computer" unconscious when it's being used. For the average user then, a person-based bio-computer is unrealistic. Getting a person to carry around your unwritten novel and Frank Sinatra albums in their head is tricky because you run the risk of them deciding they don't really like you anymore. Imagine asking for an extension on your master's degree thesis because your girlfriend is mad and won't let you access your files. So, most people stick to mice and chickens.

But corporations, as they are wont to do, are perfectly happy to use people as computers. People are hired on to basically spend eight hours a day sleeping. Corporations choose candidates who are intelligent, relatively well-adjusted, live healthy lives, and inclined to be loyal to the corporation; a lot of Mormons get jobs as computers**.

And so we arrive at the protagonist, Milo, whose enviable life involves being paid to sleep, eat well, and live healthfully. It's a pretty good life. The corporation puts him and his wife, also a bio-computer, up in a great home and treats them both quite well. Thanks to advanced interfacing technology, they are even able to take vacations, albeit only to corporation-sanctioned locales.

This bio-computer technology is different than William Gibson's microsofts technology which allows a person to input information into their brain and use it. For example, with microsofts you can put a chip in your head and suddenly speak Spanish. With the bio-computer technology, the information is not accessible to the person carrying it. It's just there in their head and they know nothing of it. Occasionally, though, and for unknown reasons, the people serving as bio-computers will experience a "mental burp," in which some bit of data suddenly reaches their consciousness. For the most part, these are short, irrelevant bits of binary. For example, in the way that a smell can suddenly flash a memory of a girl you dated in high school, unspecified situations can suddenly cause the bio-computer to see a stream of binary in his or her head (the headline to this post is "Milo" written in binary). But sometimes, mysteriously, these mental burps will actually produce snippets of intelligible information: "...Davis and I contacted..." "...activates 29 August..." and on.

Milo has been experiencing several of these as of late, all coming from what seem to be the same document. His guess is that it is being accessed and updated frequently, but it's none of his business to bother about what they put in his head and he doesn't pay much attention to it until he wakes up one afternoon and five of his fellow bio-computers are dead, including his wife.

A weak explanation is given and Milo is given a few weeks off to mourn. In that time, he is tormented by the mental burps. He suddenly realises that the document he keeps seeing contains the true explanation of what killed his wife and co-workers, and that something important, something big is set to occur on 29 August. But all these things are totally unclear.

The novel, then, follows Milo as he goes on the run and tries to figure out the mystery of what happened. To access the information, he needs to find someone he can trust -- since he has to be asleep and defenceless when the information is accessed -- someone who can hack the corporation's security codes, and some way to access the information without it being immediately obvious to the corporation (the computers are so well integrated that as soon as the information is accessed, the corporation would know exactly where to find him).

This leads him to hunt down an old work colleague who lives in one of the remaining "carbon nations." Suspiciously, at exactly the same time, a war kicks off against the carbon nation and Milo finds himself pursued by the corporation, government agents from both the carbon nation and the United States, and possibly some other nefarious entity.

And that's what I was dreaming up this morning as I lie in bed staring at the ceiling. My only challenge now is, uhm, thinking up what the hell the big secret is and how Milo could save the world. You know, the plot. I've got an amusing premise and absolutely no substance. Typical.

*You know which episode I'm talking about. If watching that didn't make you weep like big baby, you have no soul.

**A nod to my favourite nutjob theory, that Mormons are behind an elaborate conspiracy to take control of the United States.


heatherfeather said...

i am exhausted.

Anonymous said...

Let's see... Tom Cruise is a bit too old to be believable as taking that job... Gosling maybe?

~the editor

Wierdo said...

I would SO read that book!

Only if you stop dissing Dr who. He might have been traumatised during the war and thus causing amnesia (I'm sure that happen). Or, it could have been that he was confronted bu alien PIGS. I mean, I'd forget everything!

Chris Cope said...

Mari, another thing that bothered me was when Laslo said of the pig slaves, "They're trained to slit your throat with their bare teeth."

1) What else would their teeth be but bare?
2) If the pig slaves only lived for a few days, it was rather inefficient of the Daleks to spend so much time training the things.

But I'll give Solomon the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he reckoned that his men -- armed with slightly anachronistic rifles -- weren't particularly threatened by unarmed pig slaves. Sadly, he failed to consider the presence of Daleks with bad aim (they only managed to hit one person -- Solomon, and that's because he was standing perfectly still 10 feet away).

Lucky said...

Dear god that's funny.

...As a nod to Woody Allen, the secret could be the world's best egg salad recipe.

Or not.

Anonymous said...

One of Us:

David T. Macknet said...

OK, with the binary-esque number there in your title? Did you mean it to read left to right (in which case the leading zero is irrelevant) or right to left? In other words, did you mean 989,782 or 435,599? And why?

Those of us who are curious are bothered by illogical and random binary numbers.

You should get that guy from Johnny Mnemonic to play in the movie version of this story. It could be the sequel / prequel.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Oh, David. Sigh. Honestly.

And Chris, I love that episode of Next Generation. However, I've seen it about a gazillion times in the past year thanks to Spike TV...

Your idea's a good one. Actually, my first thought was to wonder what the subjective experience of each human computer is while they're "asleep." Are they in normal sleep, like REM sleep or something with the normal ups and downs of the sleep cycle? Or is it an artificially induced deep dreamless sleep?

Tad Williams' Otherland trilogy is good--it's a sort of near-future virtual reality scenario in which a top secret virtual world has been created and sort of begins evolving a rudimentary consciousness of its own. Then some people get stuck there, others get kidnapped, and havoc ensues. It's a lot more complicated than that and it is a bit long, but I liked it.

Anonymous said...

Not a bad plot. I could see the U.S., the corporation, the carbon nation, which would be serbia in my thinking and the other evil entity, or china rather, chasing milo. china wants milo for the info, so it can be sold at a steep price. serbia wants him dead so they can be left to deal with the war. and the us/corporation both want him captured for differing reasons.