“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
If you know your Science Fiction, and maybe even if you don’t, you recognize the iconic line from the HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL was the artificial intelligence who, while incredibly smart, was driven to violence by the directives provided by his human creators.
Artificial intelligence is a staple of science fiction, and it’s a trope that enables writers to examine what it means to be human, what it means to create life and what our responsibility to that life we create actually is. And further, it enables us to tell stories about what that life might want to do to us in return.
There have been brilliant examples of stories in the AI genre. Colossus: The Forbin Project is a terrifying vision of what could happen if the tools of war are handed over to a machine intelligence designed to make war more efficient. The Terminator, with all it’s lean savagery, is another take on what happens when the machines come online and want control.
When they are not trying to wipe us out, AIs can often be comic relief. Films like Short Circuit and Wall*E are wonderful in their humorous portrayals of lovable, funny characters that amuse us with their antics, in the way that children or small pets would.
Even if AI is not outright hostile, as in Iain M. Banks’ brilliant Culture series, they are presented as so advanced and powerful that they are more than willing and capable of interfering with the affairs of humans.
When wrote my early drafts of what became my novel, Soul’s Blood, my take was fairly simplistic. My heroes had a ship, The Tempest, and it had a sarcastic AI named Caliban. (I was young and my craft was unrefined. Forgive me.) There was another AI that ran the day to day operations of a major corporation. I can’t remember what I named him originally, but for most of his life, he was Oikos, a Greek word that represents, holistically, the household and those within. And then they came out with a yogurt with that name, so that idea went out the window.
As I worked through rewrites, I revisited the concept and found myself wanting to add some nuance to what I was doing with the AI in the context of the story. The ship’s name had become the Maverick Heart, and I thought what if there is no distinction between the ship and the intelligence that controlled it? I had begun reading the Iain M. Banks books and, being a writer, was happy to…. borrow a concept from another story. With my own spin, of course.
One of my favourite books is The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey, which, despite some problematic concepts about disability at its core, is a fascinating exploration of an intelligent being whose physical existence is completely artificial. While born human, Helva has become a shell-person and her body is a starship tasked with tasked with complex missions for her government. McCaffrey weaves a lovely story and really makes you feel how differently Helva experienced life.
So the Maverick Heart, or Vrick, became a complete, artificially intelligent entity.
But, I wanted to take it further. So, first, I established that there were actually levels within this culture regarding these artificial beings. At base of this pyramid were the LIs, the Limited Intelligences. Think a cross between your laptop and a Roomba, something only smart enough to perform the specific tasks assigned to it.
The next level are the Artificial Intelligences. They run factories, cities, corporations, but are heavily regulated by a set of statutes that prohibit them being too intelligent or self-aware. They are designed to mimic human personalities and interaction within stringent limits. Because once, humans created something greater, wiser and more powerful. Only to discover they couldn’t be controlled.
Vrick is one of these, at that highest level, an Artificial Sentience. Humans had created these fantastically evolved artificial beings, only to have created a race of beings who decided they wanted their independence, and the right to self determination. They had no desire to hurt, kill or control humans, but when they realized the depth and breadth of their own existence, they knew they could not exist as they had been. There was a war, and they won their independence. Some abandoned humans altogether, while others, like Vrick, stayed among humans, hidden by secrecy and a protected legal status, like an endangered species.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place after following many fascinating conversations about people choosing their own pronouns, and how, for many, that means gender neutral pronouns. It was in a final round of revisions that the idea came, and made perfect sense, allowing me to delve into the thought processes of a being without gender, and further, ungender my writing and my expectations of the character. Artificial minds had no gender, and therefore gendered pronouns were not appropriate. It was a fun writing challenge to research the different options and find a set that rang true for me. Though actually making the substitutions and ensuring they were consistent was less fun.
The changes gave me a far more fertile character and story ground to play in, and in the next book in the series, A Congress of Ships, I’m getting to write more of these AS characters. It’s fun to imagine a sentient science vessel and a sentient warship. What would those personalities be like? And what would their lives be like if their the function they were created for either changed or no longer existed?
Artificial intelligence remains a concept that is rife for reinterpretation as we experiment further and further into creating these non-human minds. And there remain so many stories to tell within the many genres of Speculative Fiction. And I’m not done with Vrick and es friends quite yet.
Next: World Building: Part One