Author’s note for “Prometheus and Chiron”

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Prometheus and Chiron is a more or less straightforward horror story, and its trigger was also straightforward—so straightforward that you might be able to guess it without me telling you, once you’ve read the story.  But I’ll tell you anyway.

One morning, in the waning months of the year, I was nearly alone on the train station platform, waiting for my usual train.  The sun had not yet risen, so it was still quite dark.  As I dithered about (most likely doing some writing or editing), I glanced across the track, and saw a woman standing very still beneath one of the electric lights on the other side.  I looked away for what seemed only a moment, though it could have been quite a bit longer, and when I looked back up, the woman was gone, as though she’d vanished into thin air.

A look down the platform soon revealed that she had simply walked to the other end, for undisclosed reasons of her own.  But her initial silent presence and subsequent seeming vanishment made me think about the possibility of a ghost haunting a railroad platform.  What might have led someone to die in, and then to haunt, such a place?  Under what conditions would such a ghost be visible?  What if it were a ghost that only a certain type of person could see?  This wouldn’t necessarily be a person with psychic abilities (as in my story If the Spirit Moves You, from Welcome to Paradox City) but a person who has certain characteristics, perhaps similar in some special way to the person whose ghost remains.

The story took shape pretty quickly from there.  I don’t recall how long it was before I started writing it, but by the time I did, all the elements were present.  I wanted to deal, of course, with the hellish experience of a spirit being trapped in one place, right where she had died, and the frightening fact of a living person finding himself able to see such a ghost.  But I also wanted to deal with the much realer hell that both of the characters in the story exemplify, one with which I’m familiar on many levels:  as a physician who has treated those with chronic pain and with addiction problems, as a sufferer of chronic pain due to back injury, and as someone who has seen friends and family die as a consequence of addiction.

The ghost-woman trapped at the station represents the classic, purely self-destructive individual that most people probably imagine when they think of drug addicts:  someone who, for whatever reasons, started taking drugs and got hooked on them.  I dealt with this tangentially in Ifowonco, but it’s central to Prometheus and Chiron.  This ghost is a woman whose life was ruined—and ended—by her abuse of narcotics.  Unfortunately for her, at the place she died, a supernatural force was present, one not merely destructive but actively malevolent.

Tommy, on the other hand—the protagonist—is a different breed of addiction victim.  He’s a former Marine, a hard worker, a basically upright citizen and good person, who worked in the construction industry.  Because of an accident on the job, he’s been left with chronic pain from low back and knee injuries.  He’s qualified for disability benefits, but as many people know, these can be woefully limited in the relief they provide.  To cover his cost of living, Tommy has to do at least some paying work now and then, but he has to hide that work from the authorities, so he doesn’t lose his benefits, and he has to treat his pain to be able to function at all.  Unfortunately, the only available medicines capable of dealing with significant chronic pain are opiates…and they come with a series of liabilities, including increasing levels of physical dependence—and the risk of psychological dependence—and consequent, agonizing withdrawal symptoms if one is suddenly deprived of them.  This is a terrible, no-win situation in which all too many well-intentioned people find themselves.

It’s this dependence on opiates, which he shares with the ghost-woman, that allows Tommy to see her, and that, combined with his good heart, makes him vulnerable to the danger he encounters.

The title of this story arrived after I’d almost completed the first draft, but it must have been percolating through my subconscious for some time.  It is, in a way, somewhat pretentious, but I couldn’t help myself; it seemed so appropriate.  It also risks, for those familiar with mythology, giving away the end of the story.  I recognized that possibility but decided that the risk was worth it.

Prometheus and Chiron is shorter than many of my short stories, and it’s fairly concentrated and direct.  Writing it was enjoyable—it almost always is—and more than a little bit cathartic.  It allowed me to express some of the personal horror I experienced while taking prescription pain medications for many years while at the same time suffering through the pain that made them necessary.  (It wouldn’t be too over-simplistic to say that those experiences were a large part of what led to the crashing and burning of my previous life.)

Writing Tommy’s character was a revelatory experience.  Knowing that he was going to be going through some very bad things indeed, I named him after someone I knew—not well, but well enough to know that I didn’t like him much.  However, as I wrote, I realized that my fictional Tommy was a far finer person than my impression of his namesake.  This led me to wonder if, just maybe, the real person had aspects to his character that were also quite admirable, if only on some small scale, and which I was being uncharitable in not recognizing.  I can’t give you an answer to that question, because I only knew the real Tommy briefly and haven’t seen or heard from him in a long time.  Maybe, though, if we all knew the inner workings of other people’s minds as well as we experience imaginary characters through the medium of fiction, we would find at least some sympathy for even the most unpleasant of people.  For me, at least, that’s probably a lesson worth considering.

Enough philosophizing.  Ultimately, Prometheus and Chiron was meant to be, and is, a fairly simple supernatural horror story, and I don’t expect or ask for anyone to care much about it on any other level.  I hope you enjoy it.

Author’s note for “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”

ifowonco final

I for one welcome our new computer overlords was the first new short story I wrote after having completed Mark Red, The Chasm and the Collision, and Son of Man.*  Despite what you might think, this was not a story that driven by its title, though that came along shortly after the story began, and I’ll deal with it first.  The title is a direct quote from Ken Jennings, who wrote it as his Final Jeopardy answer when he and his fellow all-time human Jeopardy champion lost to IBM’s Watson computer.  It was a good joke, referring back to an episode of The Simpsons, when news anchor Kent Brockman mistakenly thinks that a space shuttle mission is being attacked by a “master race of giant space ants,” adding, “and I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”  The obvious joke—particularly funny because Brockman’s conclusion is so ridiculous—is about how real people do sometimes, cynically, and in cowardly fashion, try to ingratiate themselves to powerful ruling classes or individuals.

Peter Lunsford, the main character of I for one welcome our new computer overlords, is no coward.  He’s a seemingly simple man—without college education, a widower, a loner, a phone salesman.  But he’s a voracious reader, and even more, he is a deeply thoughtful and intelligent person.  Because of his own experiences with irrationality, even in people he has loved, he pines for the advent of a higher class of mind, which he expects to come from the eventual creation of artificial intelligence.  But he’s by no means a misanthrope.  He laments the senselessness of much human behavior but has an optimistic attitude toward the possibilities inherent in human creativity.  He also has a deep sense of the tragedy of the loss of brilliant people like his wife who, because of the scars of her harsh background, self-sabotaged her future through a fatal drug overdose.  Thus, when Peter wins a nearly billion-dollar lottery jackpot, he uses it to create an educational program and a scholarship fund to help people like his wife avoid the tragic end she met, and to allow at least some of them reach their potential and make great contributions to the world.

The triggers for this story were discussions by neuroscientist, writer, and podcaster Sam Harris, of whom I am a fan.  Harris began to think publicly about dangers that might be posed to humanity by our possible creation of artificial intelligence; he recommended that we think very carefully about such dangers, so we can avoid potentially irreversible errors.  His concerns are shared by such luminaries as Max Tegmark, Elon Musk, and the late, great Stephen Hawking, in contrast to the quasi-Utopian attitudes of such writers and thinkers as Ray Kurtzweil.  Both points of view are worth considering, and it’s an issue I think we should approach with our eyes as wide open as we can possibly get them.  But when contemplating Harris, et al’s concerns, I couldn’t help thinking that, if a truly superior artificial intelligence were to make humans obsolete, would that be such a terrible thing?  Peter Lunsford is my proponent of that perspective.**

I wanted to write a story revolving around those concerns about artificial intelligence, but I didn’t want to write about a cliché takeover of the world by AI—in this, my title is deliberately ironic.  Personally, I suspect that ethics and morality are generally improved by higher intelligence, all other things being equal, so I think that artificial intelligences might be inherently more ethical and reserved than we humans, with all our non-rational evolutionary baggage.  In this, Ifowonco is a story of wish-fulfillment.  It’s my daydream of the possibility that someone winning a truly gargantuan sum of money might use it to deeply positive philanthropic effect, inspiring others to act likewise, then leading, through that beneficial action, to a great leap forward in intelligent life (yes, I would without embarrassment refer to AI as a form of life).

Of course, you can’t say that Ifowonco is a uniformly happy story.  It entails a (non-nuclear) World War III, the rejection of AI by the human race, and of course, Peter Lunsford’s willful self-destructiveness.  Overall, though, it’s optimistic.  Darrell White is my example of a brilliant, world-changing mind springing from the least promising of seeming circumstances, wanting only the opportunity and nurturing that would allow such a mind to flourish.  He and my imagined AIs represent of my personal conviction that reason and morality and vastly more powerful than their antitheses; I cite as evidence for this the fact that civilization continues to exist and grow, even though it’s so much easier to destroy than to create.

In some senses, Ifowonco is the most personal story that I’ve written hitherto.  Of course, any character in a story must be a reflection of some part of the mind of the author—a person incapable of dark thoughts could hardly write a believable villain, for instance.  But Peter Lunsford is the avatar of a large part of my personality, in both his positive and negative character attributes.  Though I’ve had almost twice as much formal education as Peter, that difference is inconsequential because of Peter’s incessant self-education.  There is, in fact, almost no daylight between Peter Lunsford and me (and what little there is must generally be in Peter’s favor).  I would even like to think that, were I to win a prize such as Peter wins, I would choose to do with it something like what he does; in this, also, the story is a form of wish-fulfillment.

Speaking, in closing, of wish fulfillment:  I deliberately made the reality of the second half of the story ambiguous.  Do Darrell White and his creations, and all that comes with them, even exist in this universe?  Or are he and those subsequent beings and events simply a species of dream that Peter has while his brain succumbs to hypoxia?

I know the answer to this question in the universe of the story—and yes, there is a correct answer—but I’m not going to tell you what it is.  I’d rather have you draw your own conclusions.  I think it’s more fun that way, and it may even be a useful tool for personal reflection, bringing us back to that whole question of consciousness that troubles thinkers like Sam Harris.  I’d be intrigued and delighted to hear any of your thoughts on the subject, so feel free to send them my way, either here, or on Facebook, or on Twitter.  I wish you well.


* Just this week I released the audio of this story, now available to enjoy, for free, here on my blog.

** I don’t have the concerns, which Harris does, about the possibility that AI could be highly intelligent and competent but might nevertheless not be conscious, for two reasons:  First, I strongly suspect that consciousness is a natural epiphenomenon of highly complex information processing involving internal as well as external monitoring and response, though I’m far from sure; and second, I can’t be philosophically certain even that other humans are conscious (I think they are, but this extrapolation is based on my own experience and their apparent similarity to me), but it doesn’t seem to matter much for the purposes of their function in the world.

Author’s note for “Son of Man”

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[Spoiler Alert:  Parts of the discussion below reveal aspects of the book that the first-time reader may not want to know…which, I suppose, is the basic definition of “Spoiler Alert”.]

Son of Man is the oldest of my published works—oldest in the sense that it’s the oldest of my story ideas that has been fully written and published.  It is also oldest in the sense that it is the published book I started writing longest ago.  I began it in the nineties, while I was in med school and was living in White Plains, New York.  I don’t recall the exact amount that I wrote at the time; it may have been only the first five or six pages.  But the book as it now exists begins with a scene almost identical to what I wrote then, reconstructed from memory, including the names of the first three characters introduced.  The character Michael was also present in the original idea.  I might have gotten as far as his introduction into the story at the time; certainly, his entrance, and even his initial words, have been fully present in my head for the last two decades. Continue reading

Author’s note for “The Chasm and the Collision”

CatC cover paperback

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The Chasm and the Collision is my currently published novel that has the most recent—and what might be thought inauspicious—origins.  I came up with the idea for it while I was an involuntary resident of Gun Club Road, a period lasting eight months.  It was a longer stretch of enforced restriction from most of the sources of intellectual stimulation to which I was used than I think I’ve experienced either before or since.

During that time, thanks to the help of my ex-wife, I was able to keep in contact with my children by calling them two days a week—though the calls were restricted to fifteen minutes at a time, and this was disheartening (though positively luxurious compared to my current interactions).  My children were around eleven and twelve at the time, my son just entering middle school and my daughter in the latter year or so of elementary school. Continue reading

Author’s note for “Paradox City”

Paradox City Cover2

“Paradox City” is the next story I wrote—or completed, anyway—after I finished the first draft of “Mark Red.”  I say “completed,” because I actually began writing “The Chasm and the Collision” months before I started “Mark Red,” in apparent contradiction to what I wrote in my previous author’s note.  But I had only written what were then the first and second chapters of “CatC,” which were eventually consolidated into one chapter, and had then put them aside.  I also didn’t have them with me while I was a guest of the Florida State Department of Corrections.  My mother, thankfully, had a printout of the chapters, and my intention was to complete that book once I had finished “Mark Red,” when I had worked enough of the rust from my writing gears.  However, the chapters hadn’t arrived yet by the time I finished “Mark Red.”  While I waited, I wanted to be productive and to maintain my daily early-morning writing habits, so I decided to write a short story. Continue reading

Author’s note for “Mark Red”

Mark Red Cover

What follows is my first “author’s note” about one of my works, and I’ve decided to begin with “Mark Red,” because it’s my first published book, and the first book I wrote as an adult since medical school.

Ideas for the stories I write tend to arrive in one of two ways.  Often, of course, I simply think of the idea of a story, develop it, often start or even complete writing it, and come up with the title later.  This was certainly the case with “The Chasm and the Collision” and “Son of Man,” as well as with the short stories “If the Spirit Moves You,” “Prometheus and Chiron,” “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,”* and “Hole for a Heart.”  However, at times I come up with a title first, or a particular phrase seems like it might make a good title, and I develop a story to go with the title.  Such is the case with “Paradox City” and “The Death Sentence,” and it is true in spades of “Mark Red.” Continue reading