Is Our Robots Having Fun Yet?

I recently came across a news item worrying about whether sex robots could be hacked to murder their clients. This opens up a whole new can of first world problems. My immediate reaction was the thought that while the future might be terrifying at least the headlines are going to be hilarious. As usual these days, one can only be ahead of one’s time by moments. Yesterday Amazon Prime released their new original series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and judging from the first 3 episodes I’ve seen so far, contemporary science fiction writers have moved on from worrying about whether robots will kill us to the far more vexing concern of whether our robots might not have had an orgasm. Perhaps the series is following the usual binge pattern pioneered by HBO and adopted by Netflix where there is a lot of sex and nudity in the first few episodes in order to get viewers hooked before they tail off into the more mundane tedium of character development and soapy delights. I had hopes for this series, seemingly produced by the same people who’ve done fairly well with Man in the High Castle, but even the presence of Brian Cranston and other fine actors hasn’t helped too much so far. Dick was terrible at writing sex scenes, terrible at relationships in general, at emotions in particular other than anxiety and fear, but he was certainly terrific with excrutiatingly fucked up scenarios. But now instead of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep we are getting Do Androids Have Wet Dreams. At least we’re well along the path towards gender fluidity and ethnic variety. Just imagine how dreary it would be if all the actors were still the drab cis white bread stiffs from 1960s staples like Bewitched or 1-Adam-12. The eye candy factor is fairly high in this series, and I am almost moved each time a middle-aged lesbian robot moans with erotic pleasure. You’ve come a long way, baby-bot. Thanks for not killing us all, yet.

(episode 3: Human Is, should be retitled: Boring & Obvious Is)

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Our Lady of the Requisite Backstory

Oh the rules of fiction – in order to have the Obligatory Character Development one must provide the Requisite Backstory, even if we’re talking about your basic Canadian Cable TV Science Fiction. This series has several good ideas (Travelers, on Netflix), many good ideas in fact, that routinely get positively drowned in gooey, syrupy, dismal and dreadful back stories. The one guy’s tedious wife has a terrible pregnancy. The medic has her empathy surgically removed. The hot head is married to a wife beater. The drug addict gets addicted to new and exciting drugs. The teen football sensation who is also the world’s oldest human suffers from A.D.D. (asshole dad disease). They are a team, sent from the future by an Advanced AI (The Director) in order to change history so that there will be no such future and no such people because the future is gonna be shite. In the meantime, several sensational ideas are casually dropped in:

  • the travelers take over the bodies of people at their moment of their otherwise death (awesome!)
  • young children are temporarily used as involuntary messengers when The Director has to change plans at the last second
  • time travelers sometimes have to try six, seven, eight even nine times to fix problems, each time a new candidate occupying a dying host and then dying themselves upon failure
  • there’s a guy (Philip, the drug addict) who has every trivial detail of the known future memorized.
  • but then how every time a mission occurs the future is changed in some way so that pretty soon nobody knows what the fuck is going on
  • So Philip gets a green pill update with the new future every now and then
  • The travelers occupy bodies that are nothing like their original ones, so the black lady was never a black lady at all, the teenager was 100 years old, the medical specialist is stuck in the body of a mentally defective young woman.
  • Of course there’s a Faction (I assume they are fans of Lemony Snicket’s VFD) who are fighting against The Director but exactly How or Why or When or Whatever is never very clear.

BUT, in between all these sometimes ingenious plot devices we have minute upon minute of Exposition, Character Development, Backstory, Personal Issues, Hugging and Learning, trying so hard to get us to give a fuck about these particular “hosts”. OMG! It’s just the writingness of the thing that drives me crazy. You can just see the writers room busily filling up boxes on the story board, checking off items, working out details. Marcy needs to learn how to fuck with genuine feeling! Jeff  has to get off the booze somehow! Grant really needs to show Kat how much he truly madly deeply loves her even though she is as annoying as anyone has ever been in the history of the modern world. Trevor is goodness no matter the cost and Philip, well, Philip better damn well stock up on yellow pills because they’re the only thing that keep him from visualizing multiple alternate timelines concurrently (another nifty notion, seriously).

Every episode I’m torn between watching and turning it off, even moment by moment. Sometimes I just have to pause the show and Scream, which family does not appreciate. I want to give this show every god damn award and then take it away immediately. Love it. Hate it. Wish I could just get the parts I like dripped intravenously. Maybe The Directory can make that happen for me.

Stop It! a very short story

This postcard came in the mail the other day: I can help you stop thinking about whatever it is you are thinking about. Call me. Followed by a name and number, both of which I’ve since forgotten. In fact, I’ve forgotten pretty much everything about my life before I received that postcard in the mail, and almost everything since. I am still, in my mind, standing there at the mailbox, looking at the postcard. On the front of the card is an old-fashioned 1950’s-type American businessman, complete with Clark Kent suit and glasses. He is standing in front of a mailbox, a postcard in his right hand. On the postcard is an image of a cowboy, dusty and dirty and scratching his head with his left hand while looking at a piece of paper he is holding in his right. I can’t see what is written on the paper but I’m pretty sure it’s much in line with what is written on the back of mine: I can help you stop thinking about whatever it is you are thinking about. It’s a serious business. That was what I was thinking, at least. This message, passed down through the generations, through all the variable timelines. It must be important. Clark Kent thinks so. The cowboy thinks so too. We are all focused, preoccupied. We want to stop thinking about whatever it is we are thinking about. Rain forests? How much damage can be done to a cloud before it breaks? What color would the wind be if the wind had a color? Is there an asteroid coming and when? If you could cut an atom with scissors would the world explode or just be raggedy? I was not thinking about any of these things before but now I am. Now I am standing there holding the postcard in my hand and I am thinking all the things, all at once. I can’t stop thinking. I remember someone telling me once that there is no such thing as neurosis; it’s just people thinking too much and when you think too much you run out of things to think about and then you go a little crazy. I am going a little crazy right now. I think.

Intro to Skinny Longhead

You would think that people would learn a lesson, but the Bone Macaws were not the lesson-learning kind, so when little Jimmi Macaw picked a fight with Skinny Longhead, it was purely the result of lessons not learned. Most everyone agreed he’d have it coming, whatever it was that came. He called her out in the middle of English class. He stood right up at his desk while teacher Williams was still talking and he looked right at Skinny Longhead and said, in the least crackly voice he could muster,

“Skinny Longhead, I am calling you out.”

The other children in the room snickered nervously, and teacher Williams cleared her throat and said “ahem” but Skinny Longhead merely whipped her yellow ponytail around and snarled viciously,

“I hear you,” she said.

She paused a moment for effect and then added, softly,

“Now sit the fuck down Jimmi and I’ll whip your ass later.”

“Skinny Longhead!” teacher Williams nearly shouted. “Language!”

Skinny Longhead laughed out loud watching Jimmi quake a little before sitting back down in the row beside her.

“Now class,” teacher Williams continued, “Let us continue with our lesson. Where were we?”

“Whipping his ass later,” Joudy Smallbird said and all the children snickered again.

“Romeo, Romeo,” teacher Williams corrected her. “We were talking about the word “wherefore” and what it means in the context Juliet uses it.”

“Wherefore she going to whip his ass real good,” said Antic Monsoon-Feeder, as always eager to get in on the misbehavior.

“He’s going to learn a lesson for sure this time,” Rosary Alders added.

Teacher Williams sighed. She knew very well that Jimmi Macaw was not going to learn any lesson, not now and not ever. The Bone Macaws were not the lesson-learning kind.

45,000 Lawns

When I was five years old I wanted to have a life’s work. I didn’t know what that meant. I just overheard my mother use that phrase. She said it as if it was something very valuable, something not many people possessed, only the very lucky few. She said she was not one of those people. As far as she could tell, she would spend the rest of her days doing other people’s laundry and taking out their trash. So I asked her, if you could have a life’s work, what would it be? She thought about it for a moment, and then said, you know? I can’t think of anything!

I was not happy with that answer. I was only five, and didn’t have much experience with the world, so I couldn’t think of anything either, but I decided right then and there to make it my mission to have a life’s work. I locked myself in my room and told myself I couldn’t have another pretzel until I’d thought of a life’s work of my own, and since I loved pretzels more than anything, you can tell I was really serious. I stared at the walls of my room. I stared at the floor. I stared at my toys. I looked out the window. That was when I had my big idea.

Lawns.

I grew up in a small city in the mid-west where everybody had a lawn, even the poorest of the poor had a small patch of something in their back yard, maybe it was only weeds, and maybe it was mostly broken cement, but they counted. Even my mom’s sorry excuse for a backyard counted for a lawn. I looked at that patch of dirt and dandelions and I said to myself, George? (my name is George). You are going to make that lawn count if it’s the last thing you do. But no, I said to myself. Not make the lawn count. Count the lawn! That’s the thing. I was going to count the lawns, every last lawn I ever encountered for as long as I lived.

I did not originally have a target number in mind. I thought maybe there were about a hundred lawns in the world, and at the time, one hundred was the biggest number I knew. I didn’t hesitate. I was never a dawdler. I ran right down the stairs and raced outside and stared counting lawns.

It wasn’t enough to see them. I had to physically occupy them in one way or another, even if only for an instant. That’s how I came upon the strategy of “one step, one vote”. I ran up and down the street, “tagging” every lawn in the neighborhood with either my right or my left foot (never both). I soon got quite carried away, so carried away in fact that by the time I counted my forty-fifth lawn I was already blocks from home and had no idea where I was.

When the police woman found me all I could tell her was that my name was George, and that my house had the sorriest excuse for a lawn, and that my mother did not possess a life’s work whatsoever. I don’t know how they ever tracked her down, but they did.

Of course I never told her what I was up to, not then, and not ever, not even when I graduated from high school some eleven thousand, two hundred and eighteen lawns later, and not when I graduated from law school, where I studied property law and amassed a total of twenty six thousand four hundred and ninety lawns by the time I passed the state bar. Somehow I knew it was nothing to be particularly proud of, especially on those occasions when my life’s work got me into trouble.

I was something of an expert on trespassing by then, but even experts make mistakes.

Still I kept my secret, even under severe cross-examination and throughout the lost years I spent in prison when I stepped on no lawns at all. I can promise you that the first thing I did on my release was begin to make up for all that time. I racked up hundreds more within my first few months of freedom.

I became a connoisseur of lawn treading. I began to resist the urge to stomp on every mere patch, reserving the right to refuse steps for lawns that didn’t measure up to my increasingly lofty standards. Now my lawns were required to be cared for, to be respected if not always treasured. My lawns deserved a degree of dignity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a figure had begun to take shape, the number 45,000 began appearing in my dreams and randomly occurring to me even during daylight hours. Perhaps it was a shadow, a reflection of those early forty-five, the first I had counted before I got lost and had sat down by the side of the road, sobbing and miserable and certain I was doomed forever.

Now, as I approached the numinous integer, I applied my standards ever more rigorously, until there was hardly a lawn that qualified for my attention. I stalled out in the mid forty-four thousands, and for an entire sixteen months I stepped on nary a lawn. Finally I decided to break through this blockage, this self-inflicted obstacle barricading me from the achievement of my life’s work, and I resolved to trod on every lawn until I reached that sacred figure and that once I did, my journey would be complete. Only then could I rest.

So you see, your honor, that’s what I was doing in Mrs. Jenkins backyard on the evening of the 27th. I was certainly not attempting to break into her house, and of course I always wear all black when I go out counting lawns. Doesn’t everyone?

 

(the narrator would like to think that this story has been illustrated in the manner of the classic children’s book, Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millions_of_Cats)

Pink Salt Chronicles

I continue to find myself unexpectedly switching to a different timeline at the most unlikely moments. They are tricky things, these other worlds. You could hardly tell them apart if they did not give themselves away through subtle but unmistakable errors. I could provide an abundance of examples, but a couple of the most recent should suffice.

Case in point number one: Two days ago I was riding my bicycle in its highest gear – 21. I bought this bike more than a decade ago. It has always had twenty one gears; three on the left and seven on the right. I went to shift down as I was getting a little tired, and as I did I noticed the gear on the right went down from 8 to 7. Impossible. It never had eight on the right before but now I can clearly see the number 8. I just checked again. There are now 24 gears on this bicycle.

Case in point number two: Last week my wife and son brought a small shaker of pink salt to the kitchen table. What is this? I asked. Pink salt, they said. Now I know very well that in my original timeline there was never any such thing as “pink salt”, yet now my very own family is telling me there has always been pink salt. They tell me it’s also been a long-standing family tradition. Who are these people? They certainly look like my wife and son, and in every other respect they behave like them, but there has never been any such thing as pink salt. I would stake my very reputation on it if I had one.

It’s quite disturbing. The worst thing about all this is that nothing important ever seems to vary between these timelines. It is always trivialities. We still have war, greed, incompetence, racism, malice and misogyny. But now, I suppose, we are to be grateful for the sudden existence of deliberately mis-colored sodium. I won’t do it. I won’t comply. I will sit here and frown with dignity and purpose until the timeline shifts again. What will they think of next? Bread that’s served in slices?