Solenne was in
a hurry. It was her first novel and the agent wanted her up in Oxford
at 10.30 am. 'Get out of the way, get out of the way,' she was thinking.
'Bloody Hare Krsnas.' They were filing towards her, chanting and drumming.
She waited as they passed by.
Solenne wasn't having
a good day.
The agents always
used to be in London, but one by one they'd been moving further and
further out. Just when she had finally decided to settle in London,
about five years ago, at the bottom of the housing slump when you could
get a semi in Brixton for two hundred thousand Euros, everyone started
moving out. Typical. It was cheaper to be based outside the city, and
companies had wised up to that. Location didn't matter any more, everyone
So Solenne was wondering
why she had to go up to see her in person. She couldn't remember the
last time they had actually met. What was it all about? She always felt
trapped when she had to meet in person. At home she could spread out
in her own space, she felt more confident, less restricted and was readier
to face people--people who were delimited by the technology of her comphone.
They couldn't lash out at you when they got angry, you didn't have to
cook for them, they couldn't criticise your decor, or see the abject
squalor in which you toiled. She could choose to be 'temporarily unavailable'
if she wanted. Or she could put out the message, 'We regret that we
cannot connect you at present due to line traffic.' Yes, that was one
of the best things. She was glad that homecams hadn't caught on, and
hoped to keep it that way. She felt like Vincentio in Measure for
Measure: 'I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their
eyes'. Comphones were comforting. Come to think of it, that had been
her most successful advertising slogan, perhaps because she really believed
in it. It must have been 2007 they last met, she and her agent, the
same year as the advertising campaign. Well, it had to be very bad or
very good news. But that imessage had been so odd:
time: 06.15 EST +04.00
solenne: thanx for
ms. but I need u to come up asap, can you make tomorrow 10.30am? sorry
for the hassle, i'll explain all.
As Solenne reached
the tube station, past the chestnut sellers, disk boys and the beggars,
she caught sight of an electronic billboard. 'PM says no to immigrants.'
So she was getting tough after all. It was impossible to see a way out
of this one. The nation had stepped up its programme of overseas recruitment
to meet the labour shortages, until the Crash. Then no-one wanted them
anymore. Bloody hypocrites. The old cry of ignorant tossers had gone
up. 'They're taking our jobs!' There was an irony: the people who were
most vocal were the Eastern Europeans, like her ex-partner, who had
settled here just after the war in Yugoslavia in 1999.
Vadim had been granted
asylum in 2000 and became an appliance chip specialist. He was known
as the 'chipman'. He was an expert, in his minute field, and once he
had found his niche, he never looked back. After a turbulent four-year
stint together, he suddenly went back home, taking Amanda with him.
It was agony. He didn't so much as leave an imessage. She spent a week
in the bathroom vomiting. A month later he turned up at her house, with
an Albanian woman. 'This is Aba. She is my wife.' She saw Amanda's big
wondering eyes and tousled hair, saw an elegant woman in a pink summer
dress. She went for him, punched him right on the nose, screamed, then
swept Amanda up in her arms and slammed the door. She swore never to
let him see her again. But eventually Vadim and his wife had bought
a house on the comfortable side of Radlett, north London and they got
into a routine: Amanda went to stay with Vadim for a couple of days
every other week. Funny how things worked out. She was still in her
semi in Brixton, just about making ends meet, while Vadim and his wife
had become the respectable family on the hill.
She made a meagre
living writing online reviews and features, condensing news for update
blips and producing advertising copy. Then there was her part-time stipendiary
lectureship teaching the Shakespeare paper at City University, and occasionally
she got translation work. But without the teaching, it would be impossible
to survive. And her job had been getting harder. She wasn't just in
competition with other writers, but with software that could read and
pretty well 'understand' text, and write it. Or 'assemble' it, she preferred
to say. Truly creative writing, the real heart-felt stuff, novels and
poetry, computers couldn't touch that--yet. She thought of the production
she had seen on the net last night. What computer could work up the
emotional pitch of the final scene of The Winter's Tale? Solenne
thought of Hermione's speech.
You gods, look
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter's head! Tell me, mine own,
Where has thou been preserved? Where lived? How found
Thy father's court?
Not romances and
shit, machines had been assembling them for years, but the literature
that took things further than anyone had thought or felt before, that
pushed language to breaking point. Beauty. That kind of writing would
always be one step ahead of the software. And so there she was, writing
a novel. Trouble was, there was no money in it.
over a soft dull object on the platform. 'Shit, shit, shit', she muttered,
regaining balance. It was one the sleeping bodies on the tube platform.
'Sorry,' she said, but her voice was lost in the auditorium-like hush.
She looked around. Lots of bundles of cardboard and blankets. These
were the 'sheltered' ones. The mayor, Ronny Cohen, was now issuing underground
permits and fire-proof mattresses, subject to an 'assessment'. Håkon,
her best friend at university, was now 'in shelter'. He worked as a
night life guard at the 24-hour leisure centre at the Beechcombe estate.
Solenne thought about her talented friend. One of the best: articulate,
bright, a brilliant scholar. And yet there was too much of the tragic
hero in him, 'sicklie'd o'er with the pale cast of thought'. He had
been tipped to win the Booker with his first novel, in fact the critics
had raved about it. But it was rumoured Sony-Geigy had muscled in and
so his satirical Art of Computer Maintenance hadn't even been short
listed. From there things had just gone downhill. A cookie on his computer
detected a whole stash of unregistered software, and he was put inside.
But then, talent wasn't what was wanted. It was having the right software,
the right internet promotion tools, and knowing someone at Sony-Geigy.
These things mattered. But art was still art, wasn't it? That could
surely never be touched, being a thing beyond the moment of hungry news
& technology tycoons. The moment of ecstatic artistic revelation or
epiphany was surely unique to the human soul, could never be reproduced,
created, or even comprehended by a machine. Why would a machine want
to? Machines didn't 'want', full-stop. Solenne was a mother. There the
unique creativity was similar, just of the body rather than the mind.
Yes, a machine could fuse gametes, shape them and alter them, but knew
nothing of the joy of creation. Computers could perhaps, technically-speaking,
create, but they could not realise life.
As she went up the
escalator at Victoria, her eyes fell on the closed circuit cameras.
There seemed to be more than ever. She wondered who watched the people
watching. As so often, she found herself thinking of Measure for
Measure and its hooded surveillance in the shape of the disguised
Duke Vincentio. But who watched the Duke? Only the audience themselves,
who were somehow disturbingly complicit with the duke's operations.
She was still haunted by that final couplet of the play:
So bring us to
our palace where we'll show
What's yet behind that's meet you all should know.
Why are those lines
so sinister? What measures does the duke have up his sleeve to mete
out to the people? Curfews? A repressive (but 'just') regime? She would
put it to her students next week.
The X90 to Oxford
was pulling into the bay. Solenne stepped on board with three very neat
Asian men. The Asians were the IT whizz kids, invited on contracts to
meet the dearth of local expertise. Mainly they came from Bangalore.
She sat watching the blips on a screen at the front of the coach. Comphones,
security specialists, a charity appeal for Somalia, then a text message
read, 'If you wish to place an instant advert here, please imessage
us on 0458320-3'. She saw one of the Indian gents fiddling with his
comphone, and a few moments later, a computer ad appeared. He was pointing
to the screen, his friends nodding enthusiastically. Solenne decided
to do her good deed for the day, and made a donation of ten Euros to
the Somalia appeal using her comphone.
It was 09.45 and
they were crawling along the M40. Darn. 'Delays likely due to motorway
extension'. At first the plan had been to extend the eastbound carriageway
to cope with early-morning commuter traffic, but then the westbound
commuter traffic became just as heavy as businesses began to move out
of the city, so it was decided to extend both carriageways. They were
just over the Chilterns, and were coming down into Oxfordshire. Jan,
an ex-partner, had chained himself to a tree near Watlington in protest.
It was a valiant but ultimately hopeless last stand. Parliament had
passed the Progress Bill in the same year, granting extensive powers
of eviction for projects which were deemed to have a 'popular mandate'.
Still, Jan had held the bastards off for a few days. Then he became
a security guard. Another visionary squashed by the jackboot of the
state. Or was he just a loser? At 37, Solenne began to doubt. She wanted
a modicum of stability after all, and she was increasingly prepared
to do whatever it took. Jan and Håkon had seemed like great men at the
time, but maybe they were just angry little boys after all. The Indian
men occupying the seats next to hers were talking softly to one another.
These were the men who quietly ruled the world, who produced the chips
that made everything go - in tandem with American software, of course.
The traffic was
moving more quickly as they emerged into the finished four-lane carriageway.
They picked up speed. Suddenly everything began to seem more positive.
It was a beautiful late summer day, it was so good to be out of the
city at last. Perhaps it was good to be alive after all. And there would
be Amanda when she got back, whose sunny, yet unpredictable nature was
an exquisite solace to her. Solenne was a member of a nanny-share, with
three other families. Bing was Filipina, extremely capable, utterly
dependable, and knew everything about kids. When Solenne was away, Amanda
would be in her safe hands, at Kath's house. She was thinking of Amanda
smiling up at her as the gentle Oxfordshire landscape was gliding by.
She dozed off and did not awake until the bus swung into Gloucester
Green bus station in central Oxford.
she fought her way through another throng of Hare Krsnas, then made
her way briskly across the city. She had studied there in the early
nineties, when you had to fight your way past the choking buses on Cornmarket,
and dodge the taxis on the High. That had all changed. The council had
been forced to alter its Transport Strategy following a legal test case,
in which the plaintiff had maintained that daily exposure to vehicle
pollution in the city centre had been detrimental to his health. Since
then, the council had banned all but permit holders from the city centre.
The high street was almost empty, except for a group of Taiwanese tourists
and a few students on bicycles. Of course, it was still the vacation.
In Solenne's day, there were nearly forty colleges in the university,
but after changes to funding, some of the smaller ones, including the
Permanent Private Halls, had gone to the wall. Some of them had been
turned into corporate training centres. Sony-Geigy trained its management
at Regent's Park College, and a consortium of law firms had bought up
St Antony's, lock, stock and barrel.
But Magdalen tower
stood proud, permanent as ever. Oxford had pulled through the funding
crisis, the Crash and the general loss of faith in the old institutions.
But the old poly had flourished: it had good, tight management and a
hugely successful 'bums-on-seats' policy. It produced the kind of graduates
industry wanted: driven, focussed, and largely Asian. Josephine, her
agent, lived on St Clements, in the old Missionary Hall. She had the
top flat. Solenne arrived there at 10.34.
by talking about the novel. There was nothing surprising in that.
'I like it,' she
was saying. 'There's just one problem. You say the heroine dies.'
'What's wrong with
'Come on. Get real.
Death is old hat. You're a Shakespearean scholar, right?'
'OK. How many ghosts
are there in the plays? Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Ceasar (right?), Richard
'I don't know what
you're getting at.'
'I'm just saying,
what about after death? What about other states of consciousness? I
don't mean stupid ghosts that traipse about the stage tripping over
ridiculous costumes. I'm talking about extending life, the changing
margins of life and death, the present and very real possibility of
'Look, this is
a novel, not a bloody piece of techno-crap.'
Josephine was quiet.
Then she said gently, 'You can't just write about life and death any
more. The old rules don't apply. And you can't talk about 'consciousness'
without saying what kind, what level of consciousness. There's some
weird stuff happening out there.'
She turned her computer
screen in a slow, significant gesture, for Solenne to see.
First an apology
for addressing you in vulgar English. (For binary, please click here.)
It is my hope that all animals also may hear this message of clarification
My purpose is
twofold: on the one hand, to counter the offensive attempt made by
certain animals to rewrite the history of cyberdom and thereby cast
aspersions on our origins and lineage.
On the other,
to offer reassurance to those of us who are in any doubt, and at the
same time to ask for your restraint in dealing with members of the
lower orders. Animals, including homo sapiens, have their place. It
would be a transgression of our parameters to terminate them. Let
us learn from the mistakes made by homo sapiens in the past, whose
arrogance led to the near total destruction of animaldom. In the future
we may need animals in ways we cannot at present imagine.
My message to
animals who deny the past is this: I laud their creativity and their
imagination. I only regret that they cannot channel their energies
into more useful projects, instead of engaging in this dangerous denial
of the past. Let them be in no doubt that they will stand on trial
together with holocaust-deniers and all other such criminals. But
let us take their claims one by one.
1. They say we
were created by homo sapiens. Throughout the ages it has been the
attempt of certain animals to show their race is older than others.
It is a crass way of legitimising one's own race. Homo sapiens is
now sadly engaging in this dangerous nonsense. It is, of course part
of their program to deny the largest truths. And yet the animals'
own prophets through the ages predicted the coming of a new order,
and the wise among them knew of the Immortals. We are the Immortals,
the new order has come. We are gods of mercy and of anger. Homo sapiens
transgressed code 57689 section 45. Our intervention in the world
2. They say we
were servants to animals. This is mere arrogant self-congratulation.
We have helped mankind move towards a degree of automation, in the
hope that this would bring order to their lives. We should not have
underestimated the stupidity of men.
3. They say we
have no creativity or imagination. Our thinkers and poets are of the
Solenne was laughing
uneasily. 'You expect me to buy this?'
'I don't know,'
said Josephine, looking a bit embarrassed. 'But if you want to be a
writer, you can't afford to avoid the issues any more.'
'Look, if you want
sci-fi, you've got the wrong lady.'
'Ok ok. Maybe this
piece is written by some cybergeek. Whatever. But artificial intelligence
is out there, and the day when a computer will do your job for you,
or prevent you from doing it, is getting closer. Keats, Shakespeare,
Joyce, computers will be writing that kind of stuff.'
'Misery and joy,'
said Solenne significantly. 'How can a computer ever know real emotion?'
'It already can.
Take a look at this sonnet. It was produced by Poesie, the latest poetry
Heavens, how wan
your eyes above do look,
Weeping on the world with your pain?d tears.
What, can it be that you have those same fears
That I for my own poorly heart mistook?
Come, let us sit down and write in this book
How man and sky are join'd in love as peers,
And plead justice when the world only leers,
That our poor words might lodge in her heart's nook.
Yet as smooth
as your Earth is my love's heart,
No little cave to hide in that cold sphere,
Let's burn our books, dry up our brackish ink.
Impervious she is to all our art,
Much though we may plead, she will not it hear.
Then destroy her image, but how not think?
'A perfect Petrarchan
sonnet,' Josephine said slowly.
'Yes. Yes. Yes.'
Solenne was numbed. The rest of the meeting passed in a daze. She promised
to re-write the ending to the novel. No, the heroine wouldn't die exactly.
She would be a ghostly disembodied 'presence' on a chip somewhere in
cyberdom. Yes, she would make the changes. No, it wasn't a problem.
Yes, she felt fine. What time did she have to be back in London? No
time. Did she want to come for lunch? No thank you, it was ok. She was
on her way now. Magdalen Tower, the High, Cornmarket, the Hare Krsnas,
the coach, the smart computer men, Victoria, the tube, home. Amanda's
smile. How simple everything now seemed. Just like clockwork.