2 for 1 Special: Legacy Mode / First Lesson
Creative examples from the technology ideation process described in Part 1. (2/3)
[This is Part 2 of 3. Jump to Part 1 or Part 3.]
As promised, this week’s ‘Part 2’ newsletter highlights two examples of the ideation process I described in my last newsletter – practice what you preach!
To refocus on my theme: innovation is a mysterious process, poorly understood even by creators, let alone policy and money makers.
Serendipity plays a big part in innovation. Being prescriptive as to how people should think (and spend public-funded research dollars) leads to less original research. Smartphones are cobbled together from innovative technologies that were never created in a corporate laboratory. So give luck a chance. Any mind, including a writer’s, should be free to think, experiment and speculate. Ignore anyone making money from telling you otherwise.
It’s an old adage that a specific technological ‘innovation often disappoints in the short run, but exceeds expectations in the long run’. The most recent example is a Nobel Prize winner who was demoted from her university position for lack of research funding. Her single-minded determination has eventually led to a series of innovations which will help prolong millions of lives.
But the myth of the lonely genius didn’t apply even to this eventual success story. Innovation not only comes about by chance, without directives from on high, but also as a result of human interaction. It’s a collective, emergent phenomenon. When writers are told to ‘read as much as you can’, both within and without any preferred genre and experience, what’s really being said is:
Mix together lots of random ingredients (not just fiction, or even books) to form a brain-soup;
wait some more;
ruminate; procrastinate; play with a pet/child/partner;
indulge in baths/walks/exercise/crappy TV;
Then, one bright day – with zero warning – it will happen:
With an exultant cry of release (optional, but highly recommended), a once in a lifetime epiphany will burst from its mystical mindcave into your frenetic consciousness.
Seize without delay your phone/pen+notebook/sponge alphabet letters and spell out whatever popped into your head before it vanishes forever.
Let’s be honest, not even your favourite bath-time toy can achieve this…
I want to endeth this part of the lesson with an important caveat:
Innovation isn’t the same as invention. Remember my initial criteria: “feasible, plausible, useful - but not necessarily comprehensible”. Holding a widget in your hand isn’t enough. You still need to turn it into something of practical use. This is the job of the speculative writer.
“A technologist might imagine the flying car. The responsibility of the speculative writer is to imagine the traffic jam.”
OK, enough of the theory. You’re here to read something shiny and new – I get you.
The technology I’ve selected from the ad-hoc listing in the previous post is ‘Brain-Computer Interfaces’ (BCI). Fear not, I won’t be diving into neuroanatomy and cortical communication. Remember: it’s all about the story, not showing off with lengthy expositions of fanciful tech.
The first example is a new piece of flash fiction titled ‘Legacy Mode’ . The second, ‘First Lesson’, is an extract from my first novels’ manuscript.
As I mentioned before, it’s a good idea to subscribe to a wide range of sources for amassing potential ideation prompts. The prompt for Legacy Mode came from a BCI related news item highlighted by one the MIT Review newsletters. In my unaffiliated opinion, these offer high quality, accessible material for speculative authors. Yes, worthwhile content can also be found outside of Substack!😉
As I emphasised last week, the key to making the below stories feasible, plausible – or even useful – is in achieving the slip-wise braindrift which allows 1+2+3 to make 100.
With ‘Legacy Mode’, I speculate what happens when devices willingly implanted inside human heads are treated by tech companies in the same way as the ones we now hold in our hands or sit on a desk. Because we don’t really own those, do we? I hope this piece meets your expectations more than Sara's, the story’s protagonist. Do let me know in the comments.
As a deliberate contrast, ‘First Lesson’, takes the already nascent potential of human-to-computer communication, assumes human-to-human communication as an obvious next step (telepathy within marriage, anyone?), but then leaps into the unknown with interspecies communication. And why not? Commune intimately with a purring cat, a racehorse, or a willing dolphin. Knowing what they really feel and think might finally help us save more of the natural world than even Sir David Attenborough.
But this might still be too tame for a speculative fictional novel. So I’ve taken the concept a step further and permanently paired a character’s mind to creatures who will fight to the death alongside them in battle.
Again, I hope this novel extract meets both yours and any prospective agents’ expectations, as I continue to gamble with this chip in the traditional publishing casino.
Until next week.
P.S. For the writers amongst my readers: Why not use the same or a similar prompt to create your own story? Feel free to post a link to your piece in the comments below.
It was profit, not knowledge, preventing Sara's headware upgrade. Surgically possible, financially improbable, her doctor had noted, with more than his usual dissatisfaction.
She'd arrived at the manufacturer's shiny office with little hope for any resolution. After an hour of talking, her expectations were being met.
“Why now?” she repeated to the three suits sat across the polished office table.
The middle one – younger, blonder, smooth of both skin and voice – replied, “Your device's legacy mode is both safe and reliable, and will continue to support your requirements.”
“‘Legacy mode’ is just another way of saying ‘do nothing’. But my requirements have and will change. I'm not a robot.”
“As previously stated, we're happy to offer you a full device upgrade at a substantial discount.”
“I don't want another risky operation. The wiring is fine. I just need the software updated. How can it be so difficult? For five years now, I've been doing whatever—”
“Due to our recent restructuring we—”
“Yes, I saw you're playing corporate rename games. Can your latest investor guarantee this won't happen with a newer device?”
“Guess not.” As Sara thought the stand command, the suit on the left – greyer, older, dour of demeanour – pushed a piece of paper across the desk. “What's this?”
“A proposal to better structure our ongoing conversations,” said left-hand legal suit.
“You mean a gagging agreement,” Sara replied, her servos whining to the vertical. “Conditional on…?”
“In exchange for your confidentiality, medical conversations notwithstanding, we promise to provide key security updates for an additional year.”
“A year! And then what – I walk around with an openly hackable head because of your shitty maintenance policy?”
The right-hand suit adjusted his multifocals and, without eye contact, said, “Your device has granted you unprecedented freedom.”
“You sound like your adverts,” Sara retorted. “It's not my device, it's yours – plugged into my brain. A revenue generating machine which prioritises your potential profits above ‘legacy’ patients like me. A device deliberately configured to deny me the freedom to use a competitor’s software.”
Taking a deep breath, she stared at the dotted line below the dense legalese. No, she couldn't. She wouldn't. Hundreds like her had followed in her footsteps, who'd trusted the videos she'd been cajoled into making. She'd met them in the lab, on the ward, during rehab. They deserved to know. They deserved better. They deserved to keep walking tall. Together.
She'd said all she could. Carefully couched bribes and threats would follow, but she still issued a thought to leave them, which their device obeyed.
For now. Always for now.
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Hope you liked that piece. Now for the second example, an extract from my query-phase first novel. Prompted by by the similar sources to the first example, certain details have been omitted to preserve plot twists and character anonymity - thank you for your understanding.
We find some shade behind a large rock on the escarpment ridge. As my breathing calms, I track her three eagles with my battered binocs. They’re riding the updraughts from the Lake’s furnace-like air, almost invisible dots wheeling in a tight circle in the azure sky. At intervals, she calls out with a high-pitched keening voice, similar to their own cries. They take turns to peel off, stooping down at immense speed to a rocky bluff jutting below us, worn smooth by ancient ice and now moisture-sucking winds. As we’d scrambled over it during our climb, she’d stuck small red flags into each of several low stone cairns piled up on its surface.
The birds’ mastery of flight is absolute as each dives from on high to grasp a flag between their talons, before swooping up to us without a wing flap. Gliding onto her outstretched arm, she exchanges the inanimate prey they’ve retrieved for a morsel of meat, which they devour before re-joining their fellows. I applaud every capture. She seems surprised at how impressed I am.
“Do they have names?” I ask.
“Yes, of course. How else to call them?” she replies, before doing just that. The largest bird folds its wings and plummets towards us. Swooping past in a blur, close enough to touch, I suppress a shriek as a flurry of wind hits my face. “That was Lysander. My first”—she leans towards me and lowers her voice—“and my favourite.”
I laugh, partly in relief. “He’s a beauty. Don’t worry, I’m sure they can’t hear you.”
“‘He’ is a she,” she corrects. “Yes, they hear me, but not with their ears, of course.” She’s obviously very close to her pets.
Another two calls in quick succession and the remaining pair simultaneously drop like stones, corkscrewing around each other as they plunge towards us. “These two are Vulcan and Nimrod. They are from the same nest.” At the last second they pull up and split their formation, passing to either side of us. The turbulence from their flypast bends my hair.
“They’re incredible,” I say, triggering an equally stunning smile. “Do you take them from the nest when they’re young?”
“Not take. They were made and incubated in our labs. They are engineered.”
Wow. “But why not just collect the eggs? Isn’t that less effort?”
“No, you do not understand. We breed them to fight. With me they are a weapon.”
“So their display is not a fixed sequence? They can change it mid-flight?”
“No and yes,” she says, her lips twitching in amusement. “I already tell you, they can hear what I say. I train them to fly this way.”
But her two-tone calls wouldn’t control a sheepdog, let alone command these precise aerobatics. The eagles are climbing away from us, but the hairs on the back of my neck still rise. “So how… how do you control this ‘weapon’?” I ask.
“We have… neural… organoids,” she says, parroting another’s words. “My human neuroid is the master”—she taps the back of her head, behind her left ear, as if having such an implant is perfectly normal—“and connects to their brain interfaces. The eagles were keyed to me when they hatched – five years ago. They only listen to my commands. They are mine.”
A note of possessive pride has crept into her voice – as it should. The rumours I heard as a child about interspecies brain mods are true. The wirelessly linked neuroids would elevate these eagles to canine-level intelligence, able to follow her commands as if through telepathy. I don’t know whether to feel terrified or privileged, but I’m a sucker for a weaponised woman with a triplet of screaming eagles. My language student is getting a thousand gold stars for this apple.