Let me tell you about my last week on Earth....
Before those final days, I'd already said my farewells. My family gave me their blessing: my grandfather, who came to England from Jamaica as a young man, understood why I signed up for the colony programme. He warned me that a new world, however enticing, would have its own frustrations. We both knew I didn't need the warning, but he wanted to pass on what he'd learned in life, and I wanted to hear it. I still remember the clasp of his fingers on my new skin; I can replay the exo-skin's sensory log whenever I wish.
Many years ago, I went to the seaside with a friend. We walked on a cliff-top path by the coast. Beside the path stood a long row of benches, all facing out to sea, and all bearing memorial plaques. Each bench was dedicated to someone who had died, or sometimes two people — say, a husband and wife. Some of the plaques contained quotations, or short messages composed by the relatives of the deceased.
How do you summarise a life in a couple of sentences?
The path stretched out ahead, and likewise the benches went on and on. After a while, the effect became vaguely oppressive. It was like walking through a graveyard, with the commemorative plaques resembling the inscriptions on gravestones.
Memorial benches are fairly common: you see them in parks, gardens and beauty spots — though usually in ones and twos, rather than great rows of them. After that seaside walk, I began noticing them all the time, and reading the plaques. And eventually it occurred to me that a commemorative plaque is severely limited in what it can say. Surely technology could do a better job. I envisaged a memorial plaque augmented by a computer chip containing the encoded mind of the deceased, projecting a hologram so that anyone sitting on the bench could converse with the recorded personality.
A hologram of a dead person is like an electronic ghost. At the shore, all the memorial benches faced the sea. I imagined that when no-one was around — when the weather was too stormy for walkers to sit on the benches — the holograms might activate themselves in order to further their own concerns. Maybe they would welcome the storms, calling in the wind and waves to erode the coast on which they stood.... In my mind I had an image of a ghostly hologram standing on a cliff edge, summoning the storm.
An image is not a story. I came up with a couple of ideas for possible developments, but they lacked sufficient cohesion. (In a successful story, the elements of character, plot, theme and setting all cohere to make a unified whole.) And so the idea languished in my files for some time, while I worked on other material — notably my story "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone", which also contained the premise of a dying person having their personality recorded for a computerised afterlife as a hologram.
Writing that story helped me figure out my approach to the concept, and in particular made me realise that I wanted to deal with an angle that is sometimes overlooked in science fiction. SF writers frequently use the tropes of artificial intelligence, mind-uploads into computers, and so forth. Perhaps for the sake of narrative convenience, writers tend to assume that this futuristic technology will actually work. Anyone who uses computers in their everyday life knows from experience that this is a heroically optimistic assumption. Computers crash, and even when they notionally function, they are perennially subject to infestations of viruses and spam and hackers. SF writers usually hypothesise that this is a temporary condition, to be superseded when the technology improves, but I believe it is more likely to be a permanent part of the landscape. The dark side of computers is the dark side of human nature — and that's not going to disappear any time soon.
In "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone", when explaining the concept of uploading minds into computers, I mentioned this type of hazard:
|"The brochures elided delicately over the security aspects, alluding to protective firewalls and backups — since, of course, the Athanatic residents were a magnet for hackers. Many of the first generation of uploads had been zombified into human spambots touting baldness cures to distressed relatives who only wanted to ask Great-Uncle Wayne where he'd hidden the keys to the safe."|
That was only a passing reference, as the focus of the story lay elsewhere. But for the hologram-augmented memorial bench, clearly such vulnerability would be a major factor, if only because an outdoor bench is accessible to anyone passing by — including the kind of people who write graffiti and vandalise graveyards. Those people would similarly hack into memorial benches, just for the sheer spiteful joy of being destructive.
|"Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me," said Katriona's hologram. "Born in Whitby, spent a few years on a farm in Dentdale, but came back — suck my flabby tits — to the coast when I married my husband. He was a fisherman, God rest his soul. Arsewipe! When he was away, I used to walk along the coast and watch the North Sea, imagining him out there on the waves."|
In this case, the memorial hologram has been hacked so that her conversation is peppered with inappropriate swearing. It's the hacker equivalent of spraying swear-words onto a wall. When writing the character's dialogue, I had to create all the interpolated cursing, and because I assumed that the hackers would (in their twisted way) find it amusing to be as crude and foul-mouthed as possible, I descended to the depths of vulgarity.
However, the result had to be slightly sanitised for publication. When accepting the story for Asimov's, editor Sheila Williams asked me to change the following line: "Felching lessons, bring your own straws!" I therefore replaced this with the somewhat milder line: "Nose-picking tournament, prize for the biggest bogey!"
When I received the galleys for proofreading, I discovered that "bogey" had been changed to "booger", which I assume is the American equivalent. It's certainly nothing that any British person would say. Because Asimov's is an American magazine with a largely American readership, it's not uncommon for British terminology to need adapting for trans-Atlantic comprehensibility. But it can be frustrating, when a story is set in Britain, to be barred from using British expressions. In this case, the story was set in Yorkshire and the character was a lifelong Yorkshirewoman, so the American idiom was particularly jarring. While I could have discussed this further with the editor, and perhaps come up with an alternate form of words, I let the amended version stand, because I realised that it could be rationalised in story terms. The interpolated vulgarisms are the work of the hackers, not the character — the hackers could have utilised a database containing both British and American expressions. Consequently, the jarring transition between the British conversation and the American vulgarism is simply another indicator of how badly the original personality-recording has been disrupted.
Ah, the glamour of the writing life: fretting over the details of felching and nose-picking.
But all this was only part of the story. A bench needs someone to sit on it, someone to arrive at the coast and encounter the hacked hologram of the deceased. This was where I'd stumbled in my initial ideas for the story. However, now that I had more grasp of the story's thematic direction, I was able to come up with a character who could fit into the overall concept. He was a newly transformed cyborg who represented the start of the journey, in contrast with the dead person who represented the end.
The final ingredient was the setting. The Yorkshire coast is constantly eroding away, and this erosion became a metaphor for the changes affecting the characters, the changes that form the theme of the story.
We all erode over the years, battered by the storms of time.