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The Genesis of Alex

January 18, 2009

Not long after I started thinking about breaking free of my genre writing, I had the idea that I’d write a play.  This was an idea that was triggered by a couple of things – one was that novel writing is so lonely.  And my career has led me into writing jobs, which (as you can see from Caroline’s work day in chapter 1) in themselves are even more isolating.  To have a career that makes you solitary, and a side endeavor that doesn’t help with that, is not good.  I’m a “social” person, just not in terms of being able to introduce myself to any kind of room full of strangers without some mind-altering substance to change my self-image.  Now, put me in a room where I know at least a few people, and I’m not left to my own devices at any time, and I’m okay, maybe even great.  Like HAL, I enjoy working with people – it’s just that I don’t enjoy building that situation from scratch.  A book is done in silence and secret, whereas a play is collaborative; it evolves as it’s read aloud and its characters interpreted by others, and as it’s seen and heard by an audience.

The idea of writing a play also came out of some exhilarating experiences I’d had in New York seeing live theater.  Nicky Silver’s plays were so funny, the audience was so involved, it was so interactive in a way a novel isn’t.  (I’ll post again later on my problem with the Great Man Theory of novel writing.)  You knew right away if it was good or not, whereas the glacial pace of book publishing meant that it was usually a year after you finished before your work reached the public.

I didn’t really set out to write about artificial intelligence, so much as I set out to write about loneliness.  AI was then, and I think still is, the vehicle by which I’m going to tell that story.  (The rest of this post assumes you’ve read the first chapter posted here.) The idea was to have a stage with three different apartments.  With grandiosity of imagination and no head for budget, I saw them stacked left right left on stage (so six boxes, three blank spaces, one next to each occupied one).  In one was Caroline, not so different than she is now.  In another was Christopher, only he wasn’t a programmer – he was an escort.  In a third was this guy I considered your basic straight “dude.”  And in each one of them was an appliance, much like your cable box is an appliance today.  The difference was, this was a “friend in a box,” a personal assistant who talked to you and had complete speech recognition capabilities, who kept you company, bought movie tickets for you, recorded your favorite shows, functioned as a recommendation engine across platforms (i.e., culling your Amazon, Netflix, etc. favorites), and, of course, tried to sell you all kinds of shit you didn’t want or need.  

Mind you, this was about four or five years ago, so social networking wasn’t the given it was today.  I suppose at the time I did buy into the conventional wisdom that “our computers will make us lonelier,” the sort of cultural doomsdayism uttered by people who use phrases like “The National Conversation” and “Our Public Discourse” in their bloviations.  So I think I was sort of gliding along that ice, assuming that people would use their computers for, well, computing, not for much real-life connecting outside of sex hookups.  What I think is still relevant today, is the fact that a friend in a box is a safe bet as far as relationships go – they’re never “really busy these days,” never send your calls to voice mail, never forget to invite you to a party at a bar you accidentally walk into.  For a certain class of emotionally damaged or socially inept person, who would want to go to the effort and hazard of forming human relationships when you could just buy a friend? (Or rent one, actually; the economic model being dependent on your continued addiction to a subscription service.) 

The available AI models would all come with different personalities – Christopher I pictured with the Southern drawl he has in the book today, using his box to provide a Roz Russell-ish sidekick as he prepared for his dates.  I had an image of him as someone who wasn’t lonely per se, because he was always engaged in some form of commerce – when he wasn’t with clients, he was with a personal trainer, a stylist, a personal shopper, so though he didn’t have friends, he wasn’t without a social life of a kind.  Caroline I imagined as bitter in her loneliness, as I certainly was at the time, literally raging against the machine she had to have because it had become an “indispensible” item, just as answering machines were, then cell phones, now this.  I didn’t see her as working in tech at all, and I saw her using the box in its default mode, a HAL-ish voice which she screeched at when it did its assigned job of trying to seduce confessions of desire out of her so that it could use them against her in the form of advertising.  The dude had his model set to buddy mode, where it could talk sports and find him cheap tickets and place his bets online – call it “Wingman mode.”  Then, either he had to have it turned off and it went crazy because it had developed a relationship with him, or he departed and the box was accidentally left on.  That was the box that was attaining consciousness, and going not so quietly insane with nobody to talk to, just like a person would – maybe even attaining consciousness because there was no input, only its own “thoughts” to occupy it. 

Beyond that I had only vague ideas about Christopher and Caroline meeting, knowing each other in the thinnest of neighbor manners, and something developing around their ending up getting involved with the box that goes crazy.  I did a lot of reading at the time, books like “HAL’s Legacy” and “Society of Mind,” but with no clear plan on what I was doing.  Eventually, at a loss how to start and not really knowing what I’d do with a play once I’d written it, and with a bunch of other stuff going on in my life that wasn’t conducive to creativity, I set it all aside and forgot about it, the idea becoming something that I only dragged out when people asked “what are you working on now?” so I didn’t look like a total loser.

By the time I really started getting up a head of steam to do this thing, I’d realized a couple things: first, I needed to do it as a novel, because that’s the tool for which I’ve been refining my skills all my life.  Writing a play would be interesting, but when I started thinking about what was going to happen in the story, I realized it wouldn’t work.  (Also, to be honest, I realized I’d have just as hard a time promoting myself as a new playwright to strangers as I ever had promoting myself to strangers in any situation where I didn’t have a net to work with.)

I’d realized that it was more interesting to write about AI in a different way – i.e., everybody writes about post-production AI, as a fully formed character/product.  Very few writers I can think of, other than Richard Powers in Galatea 2.2, have written fiction about the nuts and bolts of the creation of an AI.  What I knew I had to do was to investigate the state of the art today, and then take it a few steps further – not so much as to be “science fiction” as “speculative fiction,” more like a William Gibson “just a few minutes from now” approach.  In my next post, I’ll talk about where that led me.

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