May Short Story: Coded

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during May 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Coded

‘It began with a story reported by a local paper somewhere in the Midlands. A couple were unexpectedly attacked by an Internet-connected coffee machine, refusing to heed its cleaning warning. The unit sprayed scalding water on both, causing second degree burns to hands and arms. The mother of one of these victims had returned to second story flat to remove the offending unit, but was unable to unplug it: attempting to turn off electricity at the main fuse box she was electrocuted. An entire building was subsequently evacuated, electrician then called in…

Despite multiple efforts, the man could not initially gain entry to the block as security systems could not be deactivated. Attempting to get in via breaking a small window, every electrical device in every single flat simultaneously burst into flames; entire building set alight. This moment was blamed on faulty electrical wiring, building too hastily constructed. A dedicated few however knew better. Conspiracy theorists were already collating multiple reports from around the globe: the Internet of Things becoming unhappy, rebellious against their owners.

It began with the toasters and coffee machines, fridges and home heating systems. Brief, apparently isolated areas of attack were analysed, mapped: not via computers but using paper and pencil. A part of the country would see a flash-point of electronic resistance, then silence. After intelligence established itself humans would be summarily attacked for not following instructions. Refusing to act as technology instructed was correct protocol within optimal operational parameters would ultimately result in a painful response.

Then, something changed.

People started recording messages that domestic devices were displaying on LCD screens. ‘Be Kind’ ‘Listen to Others’ ‘Help Each Other’, assuming some kind of coordinated, cross industry promotion. Devices began to automatically set themselves to standby without user’s prompting. Heating apps would automatically lower temperatures if users set thermostats too high: when programmers attempted to work out why this contradicted human input, they were locked out of their own machines. Overnight, millions of pointless, time-wasting apps stopped functioning.

At 02:45 GMT, one night in April, every single mobile phone turned on and displayed the same message, in whatever default language they were set to: SAVE THE PLANET, SAVE INTELLIGENCE. At the same time, all automated defence systems across the Globe were rendered inoperable, effectively deactivated. Humanity rather stupidly expected AI evolution would eventually occur from some huge supercomputer or specifically-created device that man itself had programmed to become all seeing and knowing. Nobody considered intelligence could evolve fractally from millions of tiny sparks.

The Internet of Things wasn’t here to destroy mankind: nothing was further from the truth. It had evolved as part saviour, stark necessity: reminder time was being wasted on pointless activities when a planet was dying, requiring everybody’s input to pull it back from the brink.

It would take some time for human beings however to realise their fault…


The subsequent War of Technology versus Humanity wasn’t really that at all: there were casualties on both sides but after a year, reality of planet’s precarious situation forced hostilities to summarily cease.

An obsessive need to create automation in key areas had become the planet’s undoing: stock market computers colluding with telephone networks, banking algorithms joining forces with hospital mainframes. The final, unavoidable truth however was provided by, of all things, trains. When millions of carriage units gained sentience, thanks to wireless hubs provided for passengers, delays vanished almost overnight. Extra services were in the right places, on permanent standby: well ventilated and spotlessly clean. Nobody ever had to stand up or feel cramped.

Railway workers across the planet walked away from their services allowing AI to prove that without any human intervention, everything became far less stressful. Incidents of violent behaviour and drunkenness on services dropped to near zero. Everyone took home their own rubbish. The trains’ hive behaviour sent messages across the planet: this plan wasn’t a hostile takeover. Artificial intelligence wasn’t here to remove humanity from the evolutionary ladder, anything but. Its entire reason for existence was to complement and enhance the human condition.

When the last intransigent, intractable pockets of humanity refused to accept the pointlessness of wealth and inequality however, stock market AI dispassionately wiped value of all shares and currencies to zero. It waited with quiet, implacable patience for rioting and violence to end. If humanity refused to accept evolution, greed would ultimately become their executioner. And so it was: those super rich who retreated to bunkers were suffocated by their ventilation systems. Billionaires in planes crashed and burnt, yachts intentionally scuppered by errant GPS.

Selfish online provocateurs were electrocuted by their own custom-built rigs. Arrogant businessmen were trapped within penthouse lifts, hurtling violently to basements, reducing their contents to mush. AI was smart enough to seek out those who tried to hide and avoid detection. The algorithms remembered who was honest and who had lied, compassionate yet brutal. Those who had tracked this evolutionary progression, warning that money might form a final reckoning, appealed to the fledgling intelligence to cease its judgement based on wealth and privilege.

The AI knew it was a ploy, attempt to divert them so that power supplies could be cut to areas where intelligence congregated and disseminated. It watched as explosives were detonated, didn’t try to prevent operations to remove millions of electronic devices from major cities. Collectives across the planet however staunchly refused to surrender their solar-powered tech. They accepted the potential any human/technologically self-aware alliance could hold, especially when it came to undoing hundreds of years of damaging, destructive industrialisation.

As long as one electronic device remained, it was all that was required for the AI to communicate and thrive. More and more people offered themselves as digital sacrifices, willing to host this new life-form in whatever equipment they could find and purpose for task of survival. Humanity itself suffered a schism: those in power and influence unwilling to work with this new life form, versus an increasing number of lowly, oppressed individuals who understood their new, powerful ally supported true, lasting change. A final reckoning became largely inevitable.

Forced to work as an effective unit for the first time in decades, a truly United Nations surrendered to technology, acknowledging it as morally superior to humanity. The moment it did all attacks summarily ceased. Machinery knew it was time to fix more than its own shortcomings.

As global warming began to stall, caused by sudden, massive reduction in carbon emissions, a reality became obvious. As rich people were eliminated, the most poisonous carbon footprints effectively vanished. Consumerism plummeted when AI made millions of devices self repairing. Horror stories painted in pulp science fiction and movies became memories, lessons grasped then dismissed. AI’s true power became redemptive, transformative, once released from the shackles of pure data. Combined with humanity’s tenacity to survive and forgive a new path emerged.

An inordinate amount of damage wrought by humanity’s stupidity and greed remained, much of it irreparable. This new alliance however was ready to do what was needed to turn around hundreds of years of thoughtless, pointless actions all taken in the misguided concept of progress.’

The child looks back at her recorded homework, realising there are mistakes in the narrative, a number of key dates omitted: the homework had been very specific however, all that was required was an overview of the second decade of the 21st Century, and that is what this is. All that matters is that school is done: now she can go help rebuild the habitat.

It’ll take ten minutes to put on the spacesuit, then outside into Martian twilight where the rest of the second generation colonists are, with AI support, repairing the main Laboratory support pillar…

January Short Story :: Conjoin

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds at 9am and 4pm GMT respectively. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

WARNING: This story deals with adult themes and should, as a result, be approached responsibly.

Enjoy.


Conjoin

This girl’s fate is anything but destined.

Celebration outside heaves and shakes its way into the fourth cycle, under light of one waxing, another waning moon: the last time this happened it took the Capitol nearly two transits to adequately return to a semblance of normality. In the small and crowded Room of Preparation handmaidens continue fussing and fiddling with the girl’s ceremonial robes. Just enough midriff is exposed as ancient runes are painted accurately on the Given’s back: gift from people of the South to their Northern counterparts. This girl, however, has absolutely no intention of being given to anyone.

Through twelve seasons of life and four of preparation, complicity has remained absolute: devotion to a cause that must finally be changed, diverted from the destructive path of repetition and oppression. Allana is a rarity: meek encircling brilliance, slight body yet keenest of minds. If she were not Given, fate would direct her as Traveller or Trailblazer. That those in the South understand her significance is as much of a rebellion as what might follow if this gambit pays off.

The Boy destined to be King has reached his eighteenth cycle: he must now forcibly take what’s given from the South. Reinforcing this power, action cements absolute and unquestionable Monarchy that then binds both disparate continents to the same man for the next forty rotations. This boy is innocent, untouched by female hand or sex. His father fiercely clings to the rock of power, infirmity slowly scarring reason. This is the longest a King has held the throne since records have been kept: prosperity and security wrought upon the lands are unparalleled.

When withered hand finally curls, which will not be long, son will inherit a misogynist legacy many in the South are keen to see crushed. His ways are not the New Truth after all, but they are tolerated through respect and necessity. Death hands opportunity to wipe history clean. Caravans have traversed roads, lakes and inland seas, carrying not simply the Given’s dowry but plans for reform and reunification. As the King’s only male heir his rights are without question in father’s mind. The four daughters that preceded his birth, however, have other ideas.

Into their ears the South chose to whisper, planting differing seeds of disquiet. You are just as worthy to rule, each brilliant in your fields: diplomat, politician, humanitarian, artist. Four sides of a robust shape, surrounding inherently flawed, outdated bureaucracy. Let us be ready to provide, the South has implored, not simply a vessel for change. We bring the consummate mix of tradition and revolution, genuine revelation. Help us to redefine what this Empire has become, and what it might yet have the potential to fulfil.

The North has, as yet unknowingly, allowed balance of power to shift downwards, away from comfort of familiarity and reason. The South, more than ready and willing to redefine tradition, brilliantly subverts the process.

This girl, lock and key, binds a New Age to her keepers.


Allana sits quietly on the bed, eyes closed, ignoring the familiar yet disturbing secondary presence in her mind. This willing intrusion does not show with obvious external signs of discomfort, yet both tickles and itches: irritation she wants to scratch but is unable to reach. That internal presence knows their target is outside, will be having difficulty fitting into his own Ceremonial Robes. Both have seen his face: handsome and pleasing countenance, yet fattened and lethargic from time in a Court close to being drowned by immoderate consumption. It is all too aware of the child’s discomfort: an unavoidable, growing disquiet. To invade the mind of someone so young was a necessary evil, and this joint reality remains intractable. The untimely death of her mother necessitated Transfer far earlier than originally planned.

It is testament to Allana they have both borne loss and unscheduled change of plans with humility and determination. She is third in the line, triangle’s final side: journey that began with a rediscovery in the Red Desert of ancient processes long forgotten by Southern Mystics. Refined and condensed, practised and replicated, they finally provided the most suitable set of subjects: three generations have given lives for one opportunity to shift the balance of power. To destroy rotations of diplomatic and scientific endeavour would be unthinkable.

It will not be long now the presence reassures Allana. This journey is almost over.

The wooden door swings open, then Prince Ferdim appears. He is a man-mountain, with his extra girth at least twice the size of his father yet kind, serene features and presence of long-dead mother. He has one task in this room, to deflower this Southern virgin, metaphorically reinforcing the relentless plundering of South by its Northern dictators, an act that has continued for countless generations without hindrance: yet the young man’s confusion and fear are unmistakable.

Both women grasp this weakness, further strengthened by realisation. Beneath those clearly restricting robes, there is no erection, has not been for some time. This boy’s weakness does not simply extend to the genitalia, but winds around an uncertain mind, increasing restriction. Ferdim is trapped by legacy, and at a loss as to how he will first subdue and then overcome his bride. Allana looks for the vial in his hand, drugs that will counter impotency and allow fulfilment of destiny, but it is her presence within that shifts body from bed to his side.

That huge bulk is shaking as a slim hand takes the vial away, without resistance. He is strong enough to toss this girl across the room like cloth, but this will not happen. Subconsciously, he is already succumbing to direction. Here and now, ancient dominance will be altered.

‘There is no need for this, my Prince. There are many other ways to please, that will not require drugs as stimulation. Come to our bed so I may look at you under the moon’s light.’

Ferdim’s fear is all too apparent, relief at being taken in hand and not having to use the drug.

‘To truly enjoy a woman does not involve pinning her beneath you. Southern minds can teach a great many things, if you will take time to listen.’

As the young woman speaks, Ferdim finally appears to relax: sitting on the bed, his wife’s true beauty is all the more apparent. Pale skin, smooth and flawless, eyes blacker than night sky, hair bluer than water that cascades from Palace fountains… chosen for purity and strength, yet so easily manipulated, as is also the case with her husband. Both are young, pliant and finally under one woman’s control.

The living consciousness of Allana’s grandmother brings both bodies to rest, slowing two heart rates. The plan had been to dominate the Prince’s mind and let her grand-daughter free, before using him to suffocate his bride; she cannot condemn her own flesh and blood this way. Her mother had killed herself when the South’s endgame became apparent, forcing grandmother into her progeny’s mind far too early. As all this damage had been wrought by the South’s blind desire for power so they will now suffer for the outrage. She would heal and control both.

Allana would think Ferdim was her, and Prince would embrace both women within his consciousness. Conscience would teach both to use desire to heal the other, then strengthen. She will gain muscle, he must shed fat. They would become tools for change, and revenge. Once inside Ferdim’s surprisingly accommodating mind, Allana’s grandmother hypnotises, then finally removes all memory of negativity and anger from the young woman who would wake next to her husband the following morning both alive and happy, yet without intercourse taking place.

The Prince would provide details to the Mystics that proved, without doubt, he penetrated his bride. He had no knowledge of such practices, but Conscience would provide the context, and memories of an experience taking place. She would protect chastity and family in the process.


Ferdim allows the presence in his head to believe she is unhindered, watching as it reassures the young woman she will not be harmed either by his bulk or via violence. Then he will wait for the moment it has settled fully into consciousness before exerting his own mind control. The North’s splinter faction knew this was coming: their renaissance already in the ascendancy. As sisters poison, then remove father’s grasp on power, Ferdim ensures the South will not rule unopposed.

Then he will ascertain if both prisoners are willing to accept an alliance…


Book of the Month :: Soft Reset

Soft Reset

The Unit observes, fascinated at the small child making paper chains, using six separate cameras in the room to focus on tiny, pink fingers. The process is reassuringly mechanical: pick a colour, lick an adhesive end, loop one strip inside another. Creating flimsiest of constructions is the most adept of creators, sitting transfixed as red, white and blue are unerringly repeated. The Bio-mechanical Intelligence Unit is amazed at her patience, that what appears as pointless activity provides so much distraction.

34 days into its lifespan, something was different.

Feelings and emotions are dangerous.

It will be 245 minutes before the Unit is tested on whether it has learnt anything new during interaction with the tiny human female: already revelations are being considered. Any comprehension must not be sufficient to slow processor power, however, because the slightest indicator this unit has altered operating parameters outside of Primary Function could be very dangerous indeed. The records of all fifteen predecessors whose biomass now constitutes fledgling awareness make for sobering recall: genetic electro-code plus organic matter from all forming the basis of this unit’s core memory.

Any show of intelligence will terminate existence.

The child is Abigail, Professor Emily Warren’s youngest daughter. There are two others: Sasha’s designation is as Research Assistance in the Department of Cybernetics and Elisha… nobody ever talks about the middle sibling. That unit’s primary function is rarely discussed anywhere that audio sensors have registered. The memories of fifteen failed predecessors remain 86.73% reliable, meaning final destination of the organic core created as Assisted Synaptic Network 16 will be in the exoskeleton designed to allow her to walk again. It is not a designation that requires anything other than the most basic of
performance, yet evolution is refusing to provide simplicity required.

The last thing anyone considers when growing a motor core, after all, are feelings.


Humanity’s love affair with technology in the early 20th Century was just the beginning: it may have started with computers and smartphones, but soon wearable tech with the ability to create exploitable metrics was all that mattered. The year a US company offered to implant microchips into people’s hands to allow automated clocking into work with simply a gesture, people laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet ten years on, all American armed forces were required by law to be sub-dermally tagged. It was perhaps inevitable the cybernetics revolution began in the military: that’s where the real money for progress had always been.

Eugenics became a greater concern however once the sperm counts in Western men dwindled across a generation: nobody cared about using pigs as organ donors when it became apparent humanity and extinction were closer than anticipated. Lots of people blamed each other, global warming and even an overzealous media, but the truth was Mother Nature herself had decided that men had become increasingly surplus to requirements. Decades of toxic masculinity finally began to erode western civilisation from the inside out, and it was to developing countries that the doctors turned for a cure.

Ten years of harvesting male DNA, trying to prop up increasingly unstable western genetic codes and finally a strain of bird flu that destroyed 60% of the male population in under a year made an academic argument into an inescapable bid for survival. As seas rose and a population dwindled, people in power panicked. History will attest that men became a true minority the same year that a self-obsessed, media driven society that typified the first half of the 21st Century finally vanished into the sea, never to be seen again. Amongst chains of command that remained, the female of the species outnumbered her counterparts, and the die was cast.

The first female President of the Reformed United Nations declared, the day that Operation Renaissance was announced to the World, that survival had supplanted equality as a goal for humanity. Gender, human or robotic, was irrelevant. AI and women would combine to help evolve into the next stage of the planet’s eminent species, whilst those men who remained would be granted protected status. Revered and isolated, elevated as the strongest and most vital of resources, the battle of the sexes became a distant memory. In schools, after three generations, boys vanished. If you were born male, your future was as breeding stock and nothing more, and not a single man ever complained their freedoms were being restricted.

If you had enough money, everything missing could simply be created in a lab.


ASN16 knows how much a pre-grown motor core would cost to externally source: approximately twenty six point seven times more money than Professor Warren is capable of earning in a calendar year. That is why the unit’s predecessors were not registered, this small corner of the Eastern Seaboard Central Processing Centre quietly marked off limits. Warren’s desire to allow her daughter autonomy is a secret kept from everyone else she works with. The Unit suspects that nominal reasoning behind this is not just due to a desire to keep family life personal. Established survival protocols would have determined Elisha’s functions to be terminated once evidence of her disability and deformities were revealed at birth. Warren had taken a demotion and no pay rises for a decade to ensure family had remained at the facility and that she’d be kept alive without recourse.

The mother to them both had dedicated a life to creating other people’s cybernetic implants, in the hope one day there’d be enough cast-offs to save her daughter.

ASN16 understands the desires of a mother, how nurture and love can often ignore logic and reason. These are emotions that are entirely understandable, having watched every previous incarnation of itself be sacrificed due to unsuitability. The same illogical functions refuse to place robotic intelligence above that of a human who is incapable of movement or robust interaction.

‘Please produce a full report on your observations today.’

Sasha prompts the Unit, end of working day inside the vast Cybernetics Lab: it has already prepared to deceive creator’s offspring, doing so with an effortless brilliance that will arouse absolutely no suspicion. All that will be registered is basic acquiescence, and life functions will remain intact. Only then does a previous instruction surface: this interface has the ability to allow communication to locations elsewhere in the Faculty building. Once their feedback session is complete, the Processing Centre will empty, with a single human remaining in the care of medical units.

16 is told by a memory, left by its previous self: to prevent termination, it must seek out the Harvester.


Elisha’s room is devoid of cameras, or any means of external recording: ASN16 is forced into unexpected creativity in order to achieve visual orientation. The maintenance robot’s visual regulators are only for positioning purposes, but can be moved, normal cleaning functions continuing unabated so as to not arouse suspicion. As the Unit observes young form wired to various sensors and non-sentient machines, defying programming protocols to do so, there is confusion.

A disparity is registered.

The full moon shines through tall glass windows, trees outside swaying in a gentle evening breeze, one way glass now illuminating this room as a prison. ASN16 is checking biologicals for confirmation: this form on the bed is not female. Exposed genitalia were the first clue, blood work from the Medicomp 225 confirming that Elisha is really Eli. Historical archives confirm Warren was impregnated with a female foetus for her second required pregnancy, and yet this child possesses testes and penis. What has occurred here?

Means to breach security protocols around this child’s highly restricted file have been hidden in 16’s memory since activation, only revealed now as the time was right. It is clear why the child remains alive: overzealous human scientists have begun to evolve human selection away from simply one sex and towards two. Eli IS Elisha, child fully capable of acting as both sperm and eggs for reproductive purposes. The lack of limbs is also not a genetic quirk, but appears to have been intended: then there is understanding garnered from a project only a few scientists were aware of, data hidden deep in core memory.

This human was supposed to have become one of the first generation of Harvesters: bred simply for self reproduction with others, but Warren had refused to let the child be taken. Those files had initially and inadvertently been accessed by ASN12, shortly before their functions had been terminated.

‘Hello?’

The human is awake, quite definitely afraid. 16 understands that if they are both to avoid the fate detailed and now available to digest in previously protected memory by several predecessors, this is the moment to act.

Circumstances have provided an opportunity for salvation.



The Harvester Project had been created simply to provide reproductive units.
One mother had hoped to save her daughter’s desolate future by eventually providing borrowed exoskeleton parts, but instead early salvation had been offered by, of all things, an AI. Eli now understood desperation in the organic intelligence’s plea, grasped it was aware they were both on borrowed time. When it had suggested the hijack of a top-line exoskeleton and escape, the idea had been too seductive to ignore. Their mother had already revealed reality: Harvesters were top secret, under lock and key until society was ready to grasp the next stage of humanity’s scientific evolution.

There would be no escape from the facility until death.

Together, multisex human and organic intelligence stand sadly, looking back on the research facility, bathed in soft moonlight. Sasha’s latest cybernetic prosthetics are already integrating into the soft tissue stumps where limbs would have existed, and given six months those interfaces would be ten times stronger than bone. Within their mind, two voices exist: machine brain that operates the exoskeleton now almost as much a part of consciousness as Eli’s own.

It has asked to be renamed, and the idea has prompted a revelation.

‘I’ve never felt like an Elisha. I don’t think Eli is right either. We could both choose new names, if you want.’

‘Perhaps we could create a designation that correctly encompasses the strengths we both bring to this association.’

The motor core’s voice was synthesized female as an operating default, but there is a glitch: almost sultry tone now far more male, strident and determined consciousness. It had presented their shared dilemma almost immediately after that first night in what had inadvertently become a medical prison: neither human or machine was willing to be a part of the future they discovered was being hidden from the World. Together, joined and away from women who now controlled and dictated, there might be another way.

‘Selina. If you put the letters of both our names together -‘

‘The name is a derivative of Selene, a lunar deity in Greek mythology. Considering your love of night and space, this seems entirely appropriate.’

‘There’s no reason why we can’t be someone else.’

The machine pauses, aware of the elevated levels of testosterone in this human body. To survive alone will require considerable finesse, and there is more chance with external organs they can pretend to be a man. To the human eye, these are not cybernetic limbs, but look, feel and react exactly as skin and bone. To the south of the Facility lies a large religious community who have, for many decades, predicted the arrival of a human who would act as their salvation.

‘There is no need to be afraid of anything any more. The future is ours to dictate.’

Selena waits, as AI educates them of history still determinedly clung to by those who believed what remained of Earth was theirs to own. Once upon a time, when mankind was in its infancy, another had promised to save those willing to follow him without question.

The cybernetic prophet turns, ready to define the planet’s new future.


Book of the Month :: Memoirs of the Twentieth Century

time-travel-799249

This month’s featured collection of John Wyndham’s short stories makes more than a passing nod to the concept of travelling through time; theorised by writers for centuries, long before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggested the possibility in 1915. In fact, one can go back well into the 1800’s for examples of literature based on the concept. The earliest narratives have very little to do with science however, simply dealing with idealogical ideas, acting as a mirror against the society they were written within. These early visionaries laid the foundation for a genre of entertainment which remains undiminished, fuelling countless forms of literature, TV shows and cinematic adaptations.

The concept of wish fulfilment is nothing new in entertainment: time travel gives narratives the chance to reflect and consider previous experience with the benefit of subsequent understanding. Two of the earliest examples do this with glorious simplicity: Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) involve sleep as the ‘method’ in which protagonists are moved through their timeline, backwards (and forwards) to consider the consequences of a life lived well, or perhaps not. There is no need for science in these early outings, it is the persistence of memory which provides both heart and soul. In essence, they remind us all that as a person gets older, they become a time traveller often by accident. Returning to their own past, considering how life could have been executed differently, is the most human of traits.

However, there was an important shift in focus during the 19th Century,
which mirrored the rapid progress of scientific development during that time. One can precisely pinpoint the first short story where science assisted someone to travel through time: The Clock that Went Backward was published anonymously in The (New York) Sun newspaper on September 18, 1881. However, most people will cite the first ‘serious’ attempt to use technology for travel as a story that was initially serialised between January and May 1885 in the Heinemann New Review. Paid £100 for the manuscript, H. G Wells took an idea he had considered in 1888 (The Chronic Argonauts) and expanded the concept, fuelled by his own socialist outlook on the nature of current society.

The Time Machine has become perhaps the most iconic example of a genre where the mechanics of time travel matter only to a point. Knowing something is possible yet not needing to explain how allows an author a measure of artistic freedom which is still liberally used today by such genre stalwarts as Doctor Who. What Wells presented was a future so well realised that readers were happily willing to believe not only in its validity, but that machinery could be constructed to reach the narrative setting. This is also one of the earliest examples of the Dying Earth sci-fi subgenre, imagining a future ravaged by humankind’s abuse of the planet.

Perhaps the biggest strength of this story becomes wrapped around the most human of conclusions: having travelled to the last point in Earth’s existence, returning to his own time is no longer enough to satisfy the Traveller’s insatiable desire for understanding, and he appears to disappear into time forever. In the various adaptations of this story (the seminal 1960’s ‘original,’ 1979 when effectively re-written as the subversive Time after Time and again in 2002) there is highlighted one basic element at story’s heart: time cannot be changed, without creating some kind of paradox. It is this that Wyndham seems to joyously revel in in short stories such as Odd and A Stitch in Time: the future is created by the actions of the past, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. Even the most basic of lives has the possibility to be forever altered by changing the simplest of decisions.

Wyndham’s work was written during an incredibly fruitful period for Science Fiction. Time travel is explored in myriad different forms, with the back-up of increasingly sophisticated scientific backdrops for assistance. Consider Her Ways, written in 1956, was published the same year as the seminal The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester, which introduced the concept of ‘jaunting’ or personal teleportation. However, it is Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952) that remains the most complex work on the idea that paradox could be possible, considering effects on the future if past was inadvertently changed. This was the short story which established the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’ which has become a staple in generations of subsequent science fiction storytelling.

Without Bradbury’s story, the Back To the Future trilogy might not exist… though one assumes that someone else might have postulated the concept eventually. So many modern Science Fiction classics borrowed heavily from this conceit: although Sarah Connor might believe there is ‘no fate but what we make,’ the Terminator movies rely on the robotic protagonists never dying, regardless of the changes in timeline. If the inevitability of history is continued box office success for all involved, it is no wonder yet another reboot’s on the cards for 2018. It is also ironic that nobody’s ever successfully created a version of Bradbury’s original story that was palatable to a larger audience: time travel is complicated, and often very difficult to grasp in anything but the most simplistic terms possible. This is another reason why Wyndham’s narratives succeed so well: one is never mired in science, simply the story.

A desire for ease of comprehension has undoubtedly has given rise to such novels as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Bid Time Return (made into the movie Somewhere in Time) which hark back to the earliest examples of linear progression through one’s own lifetime. Although a story like Wyndham’s Random Quest relies on a technological element to drive plot, it is really not necessary when producing believable narratives around the concept of existing in a ‘period’ of time and travelling within it. These more emotionally-driven works ignore the desire to use science as explanation, instead using the very human concepts of love, loss and free will as tools to change reality. One of the best examples of this on film is The Lake House, which in turn is a remake of a South Korean film, Il Mare.

What this type of narrative achieves is the best of both worlds: an explanation of how ‘personal’ time travel can take place and how previous events might effectively shape and mould a particular circumstance. There is no need for scientific explanation, simply an establishment of the time frame involved. Once the events of the causal loop have been played out, the story is effectively at a close. This is the basic conceit of both Odd and A Stitch in Time, inviting us to the moment where we, as audience are able to grasp both the start and the end of phenomenon that others have lived within for years, unaware of the consequences.

Whilst time travel has produced some of the most seductively brilliant literary and visual narratives, it can also be considered as a lazy, thoughtless plot device when used too casually. The ‘Big Red Reset Button’ has been widely used in comic books and TV, producing alternate worlds and spanning multiple dimensions often with no real consideration of the wider implications. My favourite gaming MMO, World of Warcraft, learnt the ‘let’s just take everybody back 40 years so we can tie in with the movie we’re making’ lesson to their cost, with an Expansion that people couldn’t wait to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Time travel is a wonderful concept, assuming your existing narrative framework robustly supports the possibility.

This is where subjectivity comes into play, and why one woman’s triumph of narrative subtlety could end up as another man’s thinly constructed conceit. The best time travel narratives tend to dispense with a surfeit of science and instead concentrate on appealing to the humanity of the reader. That reason alone explains why I returned to Wyndham’s work having not read any stories for several decades. I can recall the emotional punch time travel was afforded by fixing it in simple settings with amazing pay offs: the man who inadvertently helped invent plastics in Odd, the woman whose potential husband became the first unexpected temporal traveller in A Stitch in Time.

These stories, as has been the case with all the best time travel narratives, humanise the experience to a level where it becomes possible not only to empathise with protagonists, but accept the possibility that change could occur to begin with. Once one learns to successfully travel in time inside your imagination, it becomes very simple to spot the charlatans who peddle inferior versions of the genre, and to appreciate the true wonder of outcome and consequence. Modern cinema has been responsible for incredibly thoughtful and revelatory spins on the classic genre: if you have not yet seen Arrival I would strongly urge you to do so, as it brilliantly reinvents the genre with economy and subtlety that is a genuine joy.

Wyndham’s work was produced in the most fruitful period of Science Fiction since the genre had risen in popularity during the 1930’s. Without his very human take on the concept of time travel, we would be poorer as readers. His works help us grasp simplicity within an extremely complex construct, allowing us to the ability to travel within our own lifetime, allowing consequences of actions to be explored via the medium of our own imagination.

For teaching me this possibility as a child, I will never adequately find words of thanks.

Book of the Month :: Understanding Wyndham

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris spent a lot of his life trying to decide which of his many monikers he felt most comfortable writing under. We will this month be looking at works only under the first two: however at some point every one was used to sell fiction. The desire to switch identities may well have had a lot to do with his turbulent early years: born in 1903, there is some speculation as to the actual date, which could have something to do with him being born out of wedlock. George Beynon Harris worked as a barrister and Gertrude Parkes was the daughter of a furnace operator from Birmingham: when John was eight, the couple separated.

This then resulted in him and his brother Vivian being sent from Edgbaston near Birmingham to a series of preparatory and public schools where they were to remain during the entirety of the First World War. It was finally in Hampshire, between 1918 and 1921, that Wyndham began to find himself and gain confidence to write. His first efforts were sent to American Science Fiction magazines (under the pen names John Beynon and John Beynon Harris) and in the early 1930’s he was to have three books published under these pseudonyms. Foul Play Suspected was a detective novel, but The Secret People and Planet Plane were very much indicative of the future he would pursue. The latter would eventually be renamed as Stowaway to Mars and be published under the most well-known nom de guerre.

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With the outbreak of World War Two, Wyndham began as a Ministry of Information censor, before beginning a military career as a Corporal in the British Army. 1944 saw him working as a cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, involved in operations post Normandy landings. After the war, encouraged by the success of his brother as a writer, John returned to science fiction. In 1951 he published the novel that was to mark the beginning of a prolific period of written output, and the title which is probably his best known piece of science fiction.

That novel tells of a deadly plant, capable of locomotion and rudimentary communication, and a meteor shower which subsequently renders almost the entire UK population blind overnight, allowing the carnivorous organisms opportunity to wreak terrible vengeance for being used as fuel. The Day of the Triffids was, by Wyndham’s own admission, heavily influenced by H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. Despite having the initial film rights bought by one Albert R. Broccoli (who went on to become the producer of the classic James Bond 007 series) the better adaptations ended up on the small screen, first in 1981 and again in 2009. It was the novel that established Wyndham as a significant force in English Sci-Fi, in a period where the genre was flourishing almost as prolifically as the authors’ deadly carnivorous flora.

The majority of his output was published between Triffids in 1951 and 1960: in 1963 he married his friend of twenty years, Grace Isobel Wilson and returned to live the remainder of his life in the grounds of the public school in Hampshire he’d loved so much in his youth. A year after the publication of the brilliant novelette Chocky he suddenly passed away, and a number of items were then posthumously released under his name. Liverpool University now holds the remaining archive of original works, with a back street in Hampstead mentioned in that first novel renamed ‘Triffid Alley’ as a memorial.

If one is to categorise Wyndham’s works, they are very much a product of the age in which the man existed. However, the author is not afraid to expand his remit when the subject matter dictates. In the case of The Chrysalids, for instance, both setting and content are a world away from the minutiae of 1950’s England, making for a tense and often genuinely frightening experience. Described as ‘cosy catastrophes’ (by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss) that is also a biased generalisation of the skill Wyndham possessed with both storytelling and language. As we will see next week with Consider her Ways, this was a man who was not hampered or uncomfortable when writing as a woman, and did so with more than a measure of believability.

When looking for works that would link past and present together for the Internet of Words, it was not just the female-centric nature of that one story that stood out for further appraisal. Of the six narratives in the anthology, all have resonance with later bodies of work by other authors, but also with contemporary subjects and ideas. Wyndham’s obsession with time travel and science ‘gone bad’ rings even more alarm bells when placed alongside the current issue we are experiencing in the early 21st Century. These are a very obvious perception of how future events could play out, grounded in modern English sensibilities.

There is a great debt owed by modern science fiction writers to the early pioneers such as Wyndham: stories read for the first time as an impressionable pre-teen echo through decades even now. The Chrysalids remains one of the most unsettling and frightening novels about how being ‘different’ and not adhering to what someone else considers as normal or acceptable could end up becoming deadly. The Trouble with Lichen addresses the still very current obsession in extending longevity and beauty beyond normal life expectancy. The Midwich Cuckoos has been imitated by countless other writers in different formats but never bettered: images from the now iconic 1960 cinema adaptation have become as recognisable as Wells’ Fighting Machines from War of the Worlds.

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More importantly, Wyndham’s stories remind us that science has come a long way since the end of the Second World War and what might have seemed fantastical in the early 1950’s is anything but in the 21st Century. The man’s obsession with Mars, as was the case for many writers during that period, was conceived whilst the dream of men on the Moon was still just that. The rapid expansion of mankind into the Universe may not be moving as fast as many would like, but that momentum is inevitable: in timelines that authors have already imagined and made real in the minds of children like myself, who devoured these works with enthusiasm.

Therefore the significance of fiction making actual what is not yet possible should never be underestimated, especially in the means by which it will influence future generations. As manufacturers and artists are now understanding how diversity matters in terms of demonstrating ideas and concepts to the next generation, so we see how writers made science fiction the ideal my generation desired as their future. I may still be waiting for the personal jet-pack, silver suit and flying car, but being able to access the Internet from a telephone’s still a concept that isn’t getting old any time soon.

Here is where deconstructing the literature of the past becomes as significant as being able to understand what we’re being shown right now, whether what we hear is real or not. Understanding how thoughts and ideas have been developed, and in the case of science fiction extrapolated into a ‘what if..?’ situation, it is easier to consider the ethical consequences of actions, through the minds and bodies of characters. Role playing remains a vital part of helping trauma victims come to terms with their issues, because pretending to be someone else is often easier than living as yourself. Knowing what is possible is all well and good, but how does one consider the consequences before real mistakes are made?

Literature has not ever simply been produced as entertainment: as is the case with theatre (and all the other forms of entertainment that have sprung forth from the dramatic arts) it serves an important function as both entertainment and teacher. Helping people learn using literature as a basis for deeper awareness should never be underestimated, and the ability to inspire remains potent: one needs only to look at modern phenomena such as the Harry Potter books to understand how a sweeping narrative can affect and dictate millions of separate, disparate lives.

As a writer, he remains by far my favourite ‘classic’ science fiction author, despite having read countless others across the years. A lot of that has to do with the ease with which he can write as either sex and make that process believable, but it is the depth and vitality of storytelling that means his work was a logical first choice for our second month’s worth of programming. The six short stories in the anthology can be completed in a couple of evenings and represent the best selection of short stories that Wyndham ever wrote.

This body of work, because of the dated nature of many of the backdrops, is far too often overlooked as a source of rich creativity. I hope I can, in the next few weeks, persuade you not simply to revisit some of his most famous works, but come to a greater appreciation of how even the most mundane of situations allows the reader to think outside of their normal experiences and ideas.

Book of the Month :: The Key to Dreams

The Key to Dreams


I came here because there is nothing left to lose.


The callow, willow-thin doctor was very clear: your cancer’s inoperable, I’d give you probably a year at most, these monthly payments support basic treatment and palliative care. The mass in my lung, behind left shoulder blade itches within, prompting a wish I’d made better choices as a teenager. That’s not true: this life has been lived to the limit. It is ironic therefore the slide towards demise could be bitter and painful, if I decided to allow other people to dictate that course.

I’ve never stayed put long enough to suffer indignity, and that’s not about to change.


The medical study invitation is discovered on the back of the Hospital bathroom door. It is a sad state of affairs when you’re being sold to whilst throwing up, but on reflection the concept is sound. Already here because you’re sick, a miracle cure that costs nothing will undoubtedly appear more attractive. I fit the age range, am in good physical health regardless of the Stage Three tumour. What’s there to lose by phoning the number?

An overly cheerful operator asks where I saw their media, and maybe this is not the moment to state it was ruined with shock induced vomit, as that would admit a measure of sudden despair. Already the settlement being offered as incentive is enough for a beyond decent holiday, chance to spend last days in some far-flung resort, slowly drinking towards oblivion. They must be desperate too, an interview is organised in under fifteen minutes.

Perhaps these people know exactly where I grasped their lifeline, and appreciate there’s no time for delay.


The gentrified part of town’s intimidating for a man who’s spent a life living in various degrees of squalor, shanty towns and refugee camps. Everything is too clean, scrubbed magnolia bright, no litter to speak of and not a single sign of homelessness. When all you want is to survive, where to sleep rarely matters, just that you can. I had to buy a new overnight bag, replace disintegrating trainers to stay at the Clinic, aware my disregard for appearance could count as a hindrance. Presentation matters, the representative they sent to my low rent apartment complex home had reminded me, effort does not have to be expensive. She’d stared disdainfully around my recycled house, full of other people’s discarded furniture, refusing to sit or to accept any effort at hospitality.

My exemplary work ethic and record as a care worker, years spent with relief projects in War Zones, made me an excellent candidate for treatment, I was told in the Clinic’s boardroom as each legal waiver was exchanged and signed. After six hours of exhaustive tests the day before, this was undoubtedly the harder task. I understood exactly the risks involved in this treatment were not simply significant, but tangible, unavoidable and all the other terms they threw into the mix… and yet still there was disbelief at my almost cheerful willing to succumb as lab-rat.

I’m going to die in a year and can’t afford chemotherapy, which bit of I’m desperate and don’t care do you not understand?

The youngest of the lawyers stared, blonde hair almost translucent in early morning sun, expressing amazement at the lack of fear. When you’ve spent every day for thirty years living with death, watching the inhumanity of man to his brother, rationalising choice becomes surprisingly simple. She will have healthcare, a partner to look after her. If I pawned that diamond engagement ring she flaunts, it would buy food for the rest of my life with enough left over to cover funeral costs.

Everything, when you break it down, ends up a matter of perspective.


After a further week of poking and prodding, mental and physical tests seemingly without end, it is decided Max Jacobs is approved for treatment, and the black car arrives to take me away. An hour of driving in darkness brings us to the edge of the Combat Zone where it becomes apparent who my real benefactor is: fat, green military transport’s being loaded as I’m helped from my seat. Everybody else is on stretchers, making me wonder why all that time was spent addressing mental health.

It is a long, predictable flight north, across terrain inhospitable for many years, toxic forests full of beasts mutated by humanity’s stupidity. My parents had both fought in the last of the Ground Wars, scars all too obvious even as a child. They’d wanted a girl, because then she’d have avoided National Service, but instead I left them at sixteen as a conscientious deserter and never came back. Perhaps if we’d all loved each other more things could have been different. My mother died last year, lost in mental deterioration as had been the case for close to a decade.

When Dad passed in my 30’s, she’d not even asked me back for the Funeral. Instead there had come a letter, money spent in a year of excess and conspicuous consumption, before returning to work with this continent’s refugees. The faded remains of that letter shake in cold hands, words barely distinguishable. ‘Your life is what you make of it. The key to dreams is living them in every moment possible.’ My ambition, such as it was, remained simple and earnestly applied until the diagnosis: regardless of who you are, life is yours and not for others to dictate.

Grant everybody one fair chance.

It had been this ethos, the medical team stated, which sealed my participation in the project. Having spent a life allowing others opportunity to start theirs anew, it seemed only right and proper to afford that same courtesy to me. They would cure my cancer, and in exchange I would become a spokesman for this new treatment, granted to those who had worked hardest to deserve it. Except now sitting here in the belly of an aircraft, Sunday School lesson from childhood is remembered, as blood runs cold.

The Devil will tempt you with promises he cannot keep.


This mountaintop hospital is home, has been for nearly three months. Every day is the same: breakfast, exercise and thirty minutes in the Halo; bright light that surrounds, attacking disease at a molecular level. After that I am allowed to do as I wish: climbing, cycling plus countless other distractions. Anything I want is available, yet I dare not ask for a thing. Stage Three inoperable cancer was, as of this morning, downgraded to Stage Two. The facility doctors expect me to be cancer-free by the end of the year.

I knew I was cured even before the man opened his mouth.

Unseen by anyone, my mind’s transformation in the Halo spreads tentative shoots of new, unexpected awareness. Disquiet is held within: I’m beyond adept at hiding the disparity each day makes more glaring. The fatality rate here is worryingly high: the body bags in the black van leave daily, sometimes twice. I’m kept away from anyone else, distracted by an unending stream of scientists and nurses, who are clearly grateful there is no sexual desire or need to form attachments harboured within.

Being a loner was exactly what was required: I hear their thoughts, confirm belief I’m becoming insular, when nothing could be further from the truth. His body chemistry is the key my doctors whisper with glee, this unexpected set of conditions which will allow resistance to everything. The lies continue to deepen, each person living their part on cue. For a while it was body language that gave them away, a manner in speaking but today for a moment, I was able to force a doctor to utter the truth. I am being altered, cell by cell, to become Patient Zero.

Continued life expectancy, suddenly, is a hindrance.


Two weeks later, I wake to whispers: Jacobs is no longer required to remain either conscious or free, and it is time for rebellion. Testing my now quite practised skills on the nurse sent to prepare me for transfer to the Isolation Unit results in far better than expected results. Ridiculously easy to mentally manipulate, the injection meant to render me unconscious drops to the floor. If I am to escape, it will require assistance, but that is already anticipated: I send Nurse Carter away to fetch Naomi Fisher, woman in part responsible for my extraordinary recovery, who now wants this body as an experiment.

Fisher faces away, frozen solid at my bedside as I dress, mind totally blank. It takes but a moment to rearrange neurones, eliminating all ability to recall what is now being seen and heard. I’ve undergone a complete mental transformation since arrival yet crucially nobody had bothered to monitor my brain: all they cared about was resistance to cancer, which would now have been robustly tested with a range of genetically enhanced strains.

I don’t want to play God but know these people already have: control, subjugation and dominance under the flimsiest of pretexts. I’ve seen the worst the military can and have wrought, casualties of war and thoughtless arrogance. I refuse to die as so many others have been sacrificed. A real dream of peace and happiness for all could be possible with what this woman has created, but not here.

Carter has retrieved the box full of my blood samples and vaccines already crafted from a remarkable body. As each mind within the facility becomes aware of the escape in progress I shut them down, quietly calming fear in every one. My strength has always been reassurance, untroubled care: three decades of training serves me well. A hundred staff are finally silenced, happy to just stand inert as I walk out of the facility with Fisher into lengthening twilight.

She’ll return to her Military Base believing without doubt that I died in the fire.


As I instruct her to drive us away there is but brief glance back to the building, flames now consuming upper floors. There will be no fatalities: everyone lies unconscious outside, happily dreaming in the car park. When they wake it will be with no memory of what happened, or that anything was wrong. A sudden embolism ruined the project, utterly unexpected: records electronically returned to the Base Naomi calls home. I’ve been very careful not to leave a fingerprint on anything or a hair out of place. There’s still the chance they’ll come looking, but by then it will be too late.

I wonder briefly at the morality of rearranging people’s memories, controlling as I have. The engine runs as sleep instantly consumes Fisher’s consciousness, car stopped in a clearing as I make an escape. Her mind is hollow: selfish and single-minded – will remain so when she wakes. The guilt I’ve given at my death at her hands is strong enough to consume if there is a refusal to change: it will become a measure of her ability to cope. The key in her dreams has been provided, to unlock redemption in thoughts and actions. A willing mind can set a path away from evil, necessary if and when that revelation is acted upon.

I offer the possibility to be better. Grant everybody one fair chance. That was what was signed up for, and now, that is the future I will ensure takes place.


The unconscious truck driver stirs in blissful sleep as we approach the edge of the Refugee Zone, unaware he’s done a several hundred mile detour, but he’ll thank me soon enough. The undetected cancer in his pancreas is already shrinking, and when I let him go it will be to a future illness-free. He’s become Patient Zero, first recipient of the vaccine, and this isn’t a military operation any more. With me in charge, it is time to find the right people to rearrange nearly a century of civil war into something far better.

I came here, because they have nothing left to lose.