William Prince

Lost in Sci-Fi Bucolia: An Organic Being Considers a Post-Singularity World

William Prince

I have been dreaming of a strange, bygone era—a period of antiquity so remote, so alien from our current condition as to be nearly unperceivable in the arena of modern thought.  In this peculiar age, people went shopping at grocery stores—for food and other sundries—and brought them back home.

I know, I know.  I’m being histrionic; we’ve still got grocery stores, you say.  I suppose my sepia dreams warrant some further explanation, then.

The other day, I found myself in woefully short supply of my favorite piece of guilt-free sustenance: those characteristically dippable baby carrots.  Feeling like my petty, insulated world could very well become unhinged from such deprivation, I absconded quickly to the nearest Trader Joe’s to replenish my fridge, and maybe waste some time foolishly looking for a hot sauce I know to have been discontinued nearly three years ago.  I really loved that hot sauce.
But the trip was miserable, curious.  It left me fraught with tension, dejected and estranged.  No, they weren’t out of carrots—I bought two bags.  It’s what elapsed over the course of my idle cart-pushing that filled my mouth with that brackish taste of whatever-it-is.

I found myself checking my phone—an iPhone 4, synced to my MobileMe email, my personal calendars, filled to the brim with a significant portion of my music collection, and pages cluttered with apps that I’ve used no more than six times—ad nauseum.  I’ve been waiting on some emails from editors and an agent that are due to dictate the course of the next two or three years of my life.  They still haven’t come, but I was transfixed on my phone, reloading and reloading and reloading.

I received a couple of texts, too, most while in the produce aisles.  My girlfriend asked me to call her immediately—I did, but she just wanted to ask a question about cats and hyperthyroid disease that could have easily waited until after I was done shopping.  My friend wrote out a joke we’ve been working on, which came in as three separate texts.  It’s a long joke, and it isn’t particularly funny to anyone but the two of us.

My mom called me and I let it ring.  Seconds later, the phone buzzed—a voicemail from her.  As I aloofly passed an endcap of tortilla chips, an email came in:  my online bank statement notification.  I just wanted some carrots, I thought, but instead found myself walking home with a bevy of data, questions, and obligations beyond the brain bandwidth of a tired writer hungry for beta-keratin.  Didn’t people used to be inaccessible while trolling the aisles of Shop Rite?  Wasn’t your shopping time sacrosanct, predicated on an inviolable alone-ness that allowed you to think about your week, process the weight of the unknowable world, read with dismay the number of calories still present in “low-fat” ranch dressing, or dream up a culinary concoction unknown and unseen in the annals of budget home-cooking?

Before I continue, I’d like it to be known that I’m something of a technophile.  I take great pleasure in marveling at the inexorable march of progress; I’m riding willfully on the carousel of technological change.  And yet I can’t help but feel that there is something very wrong when I enter a room of eight people and six of them are looking down at a small LCD screen.  Nowadays, if you want to make that hilariously baroque chili for under ten dollars, you whip out your phone and google the recipe.

Those emails, those texts.  All those calls.  I feel as if my anxieties have been digitized, converted into bytes, and uploaded into my pocket.  I can stream my neuroses from The Cloud.  I’m pinged with reminders of how little money takes residence in my accounts, how sick my favorite cat is, how lonely the people I know are.  All of it comes in at high-definition and is painted like a screen upon my nerves and conscience in a fine coating of circuit-board titanium.  It’s inescapable, unavoidable.   And it makes shopping a drag, all your troubles following you with heat-seeking accuracy and persistence.

Back to those people in the room, the ones looking at their phones:  I’ve started to be taken with Vernor Vinge’s idea of “technological singularity.”  In his essay on the “post-human era,” Vinge lays out the basis for our post-singularity future, where technology evolves so rapidly that existence  is rendered qualitatively different and generally unpredictable.  The invention of super-intelligence—robots so advanced as to outmode human intuition—would result in those very artificial beings creating their own complex inventions beyond the limits of human intelligence.  It could rewrite its own source code, amplify its own problem-solving prowess, and accelerate so quickly in recursive self-improvement that there would be no upper limits.  We, us folks at the grocery, would be old hat.

It gets scarier… Ray Kurzweil, futurist of my nightmares, furthers this notion by positing that the Singularity would transcend the need for our organic bodies and brains—we’d just upload our consciousness onto a hard drive and listen as it whirs from frame to frame in binary.  We would, by that logic, be immortal.

This is all the stuff of science fiction, but my fateful trip for some earth-grown vegetables would seem to indicate that we’re sort of already there, or at least in the infancy of our own immortality.  Human emotion transmitted onto machines—like my pulsing anxiety in the form of an email inbox.  Eternal thoughts glow in the information-sphere with each insipid tweet, our flash-in the pan notions and cognitive ephemera forever grafted onto the cyber-stone of a webpage.  Your inanities live on in the source code, reloading and reloading and reloading.  Maybe when Revelation occurs (you don’t have to believe in God to worry about the Apocalypse), the next Noah’s Ark will just be made by Western Digital, a few thousand terabytes of storage space, with two pictures or phone-shot movies uploaded by firewire cords.

For all my hyperbole and inferences of some radical future, I can’t deny that I find it difficult to be an organic creature in an increasingly technological world.  I yearn to “unplug” from information so that I can, for lack of a better phrase, plug back in to the corporeal plane.  Things happen in the grocery store:  you exchange glances with a pretty girl; you’re lost in nostalgia as a good song plays over the loudspeaker radio; you have a discussion with someone about how great a now-gone hot sauce was; you buy carrots and can feel alone of your kind, or at one with all kinds, and are free to process nothing but the world that is playing out before your eyes.

What’s the point of all this prattling?  I guess I’ve appropriated a new mantra, and I just wanted to share it:  look around.  Leave your phones at home every so often, and maybe try to make up a chili recipe in the beautiful computer that’s your own human brain.  Exist, for just a little bit, outside the realm of technology, because it’s only going to get more complicated, and that Singularity might be just around the corner.

I got home from Trader Joe’s that night and loaded my fridge.  I fed my fish, George, and watered my bamboo plant.  I read a little, enjoyed the feel of the cross-knit strands on the end of my wool blanket….then I sat at my computer and streamed ABC television from an unused cable box in New Jersey, via a combination of an inscrutable set-top device and a Byzantine sequence of codes relayed to an OS video application, all so I could watch an IBM computer outdo and outthink the two winning-est Jeopardy champions known to man.

Then, I shut down.

Will Prince is a comic book writer from the Upper West Side.  For more info, email (not while grocery shopping) princezero@mac.com.

A Hero’s Head Is Laced with String

William Prince

Gus, now eighty, for some or no reason at all, thought of his first attempt at bravery. His first foray into the wilds of the unknown. At twelve years old, inspired by the garish pulp covers of Amazing Stories magazine, he prepared himself for peril. Determined to leave his mother’s home for the cold embrace of the dangerous world, Gus set about his room packing and taking registers of necessary provisions: a K45 Swiss Army knife, with mini-shears and a built-in pocket light; a velvet bag of marbles; two scarves and three pairs of gloves; over a pound of jerky he had bought for fifteen cents at his father’s store; a coverless atlas, its leather casing pulled off and exposing a frail set of places, tattered and tannin with coffee stains; enough magazines to read for a year; and a small compass, encased in pristine stainless steel, ready for its first adventure.

With compass in hand, he stared at a map of the globe on his wall, plastered carefully to the space above his junior bureau. Stuck into the thin paper were pins, dangling with colored string. The strings correlated to a little map key Gus had scribed in crayon, blue string from a pin denoting somewhere he wanted to go, red string signifying the places too dangerous to tread, and orange string marking those places that he had already been.

There were two pins with orange string: one pressed into east Albany, his home, and the other stuck into a southern part of what he believed to be Connecticut (there were no lines delineating states on the map, just a large mass of America with its terrain penciled on in a faded graphite).

Red string hung off a number of places, the storied locales Gus knew to have a propensity for swallowing humans: the Bermuda Triangle, the Pacific Ocean, the icy tundras of Alaska, and portions of the Wild West of America that were still prone to marauding cowboys and cold-eyed reprobates. Gus’s knowledge of the world was confined to dime tales and magazine yarns, and so he could guess, with some or no certainty, that these places were worth steering clear of.

And the rest was blue string. Everywhere he had never been, a map of infinite blue possibility, caveats in red and a giant expanse of world ready to receive a splash of orange.

Gus fastened his knapsack, busting with his tools for travel. His mother and father were in bed, the morning yet to fully arrive, which provided unnoticed and unquestioned passage through the house. Dressed in layers of thermal, a worn pair of snow boots, and a sea captain’s hat atop a fuzzy set of earmuffs, Gus stomped his way through the hall of his home, ready to conquer his empty map, and eager to escape the confines of Albany and the tame, boring pall cast over the entire city.

Gus was ready for war. Or possibly not—war was horrid and Gus had never heard of anyone surviving it without sacrifice. He thought of the mothers on Palgrave Avenue, their black veils blotted with tears as their sons were paraded in a cavalcade of flag-draped coffins. No, war was possibly too much.

But Gus was ready for torrential rain and a deluge of snow. Though, as he thought long and hard about it, there were stories he had heard, of men lost in the blinding white wilderness. These men, the frost on their noses and fingers turning their skin black, were rumored to have begun devouring each other, the Colorado mountains painted a dark crimson by the spilled blood of man-as-food. Gus shuttered at the notion. Cannibals? No, he was not ready for cannibals. And so maybe the inclement weather of the Andes could wait.

And so Gus thought, with absoluteness, that he was at the very least ready for the open road—by bus or train or spacecraft. The limitless unknown. But the unknown could be tricky—a precarious thing. Gus had read of the plains of Mars, the sands of the Sahara, the storefronts of South Texas. Occasionally, even the heroes of the pulps were laid to rest by the trouble that lurked at the margins. Indians, lawless men, fanged space creatures. One could never be sure what dark figures were waiting in the wings, no matter where you were. Gus certainly wasn’t ready to die, especially with such a vast world to explore. So maybe the unknown could wait.

Going over the quickly shrinking infinity in his mind, Gus approached the door, the marbles and wool scarves weighing down his bag and pulling his small body towards the ground. He opened it, careful to not let the hinges squeak, lest his first adventure be prematurely snuffed by his parents.

With a mighty stride, Gus stepped through the doorframe and into the amber dawn. The world was only half awake, the murmurs of the bakeries and pharmacies echoing through Gus’s ears and heart. Adventure. This was it.

Gus stood on his porch, and couldn’t help but take notice of how cold the wind was at the back of his neck. And the day seemed too precious for danger—the sunrise was beautiful, splashing the treetops with a deep purple that made him think of Thanksgiving at home. And maybe he didn’t need the marbles? He was awfully fond of them, but in truth, he knew he’d probably be better-suited with more jerky. The weight of the unknowable world seemed heavy, leaden. Not today, Gus thought. And so with his bag full of tricks and compass clutched firmly in his sweaty digits, Gus turned around and went back inside, the autumn breeze smacking the hairs on his nape for hours after his retreat into the house, back into his bed, back into a place where danger dare not speak its name.

Alchemy, Heresy, and Panel Transition

William Prince

A comic book writer discusses faith and stories

A few months ago, a friend graciously invited me to attend an Easter service at the church of her preference. It was an olive branch—an offering of communion to someone she knew to be wildly secular and thus wildly alone during the long weekend. I balked a bit, reminding her via gentle caveat that I am a devout atheist; I believe in Darwinian evolution, graded ramps of progress, and, through a scientific consciousness-raising predicated on those two notions, the profound absence of a guiding hand in the way the world operates. But I ultimately assented, happy to be thought of, and fully aware that I’d likely disagree with every word of the sermon.

The church was a modest affair, a borrowed space utilized by a number of local Presbyterian groups seemingly without alms to fund a proper home. The congregation was, for lack of a better word, scruffy—an amalgam of Brooklynites boasting tattoos, consignment clothes, and interesting hair. I suppose I was an alien two-fold. But, all told, they seemed a tender bunch, buoyed by their faith and enthusiastic about their communal gathering in celebration of their death-defying Messiah. (I insist that this is in no way meant to be interpreted in the pejorative-sarcastic sense, as I think will be more clearly indicated a little later).

The sermon held all the typical trappings of Easter storytelling: the crucifixion, the despair, the empty grave, the zombie. It was, more or less, much like many other Easter sermons I have heard or read through research and a variety of other gentile invitations I’ve accepted over the course of my life.

There was, however, one poignant moment, the denouement and overall message of the sermon, that made my ears perk, thrusting me forward in my seat, probably drawing the attention of both my host and the other members of my pew. The sermonizer was calm, with a sort of mawkish soprano voice that seemed to belie his station in the hierarchy. Though not verbatim, it went something like this: All you need to do is recognize the inexorable and unequivocal truth of the resurrection, and you will be lead to take Jesus into your heart. There is no denying that this man, once dead, rose from the grave. And since no one can deny that happening, because it most definitely happened, everyone, whether they know it or not, has taken the first step towards salvation.

This was, disregarding its fallaciousness and oversimplified conceit, something I thought to be absolutely brilliant. He was saying, on a certain level, all you have to do be saved is understand that this fiction is a reality. If you take a story, something not so concretely engraved into historical annals, and understand its binary value as true, then you are on the righteous path. Moreover, everyone understands that this story most certainly is true, and thus we’re all “getting there,” in our own way. It was magical to watch/hear—he seemed to be performing some sort of alchemy or reverse sublimation, transforming the gaseous matter of an a priori occurrence into a solid, densely moleculed version of the truth. Science, as it were.

I’m an atheist, as stated. But even more heretical and loathsome is my identity as a comic book writer. I currently pen a book called Judah, a fantastical/mythological romp positing that Judas and the twelve apostles were cursed with immortality for failing to save the son of God. They have thus roamed the Earth, essentially becoming a cadre of weirdos, for centuries ad infinitum. Considering my scientific predisposition, and well-known lack of rearing in the ways of biblical lore, writing this book requires an exhaustive amount of research on my behalf. I’ve read the Bible, countless versions of such; I’ve studied the Gnostic gospels, the Acrostic gospels, the George Carlin gospels; I’ve read innumerable fictions regarding the position of Christ (and those possibly better suited for the job) as Messiah. I am, for all intents and purposes, knee deep in scripture, constantly learning new things, new merits, new plot holes, new pratfalls, and new stories of the most sacred text on the planet. And though he might disagree, I believe I do the same thing that diminutive sermonizer suggests: I alchemize a fiction.

Now, I’m not indicating that there is any historical truth to the tale of an immortal apostle grueling his way through demon transvestites and rapacious gnome-librarians, all towards the mission of dispatching himself. (At least, no more truth than that of man rising from the dead and ascending). It’s a fantasy story after all; I’m creating a world. But I think there’s something to be said about the alchemy of fictions; the rendering of a fantasy, either in rhetoric or pen-and-ink, as something veracious—a living, breathing, happening thing.

That was sort of the idea with Judah. What if we took all that magical stuff as the truth? What if it just happened? Well, if it did, wouldn’t it occur in the same sort of world where naughty British children stumble through a wardrobe into a magical realm, or at the very least, share some sort of fictive real estate with monsters and mutants? Simply put, if one magical thing must be real, then shouldn’t all magical things?

I’m reminded of two Borges quotes (who, by no coincidence, greatly inspired Judah with his fictional meta-essay “The Three Versions of Judas.”). The first states, “What good is a story if it isn’t true?” The second, diametrically perhaps, “Reality is not always probable, or likely.”

Both quotes, in the labyrinthine dialectic perfected by the Argentinean goliath, seem to speak to the well-flogged notion of the confluence of actual and fictive worlds; we are, for better or worse, exiled to the borderlands between the two nation states, living in a very real, but ultimately very surreal playground of joy, rapture, horror, and the absurd.

I sat in awe of the sermon’s coda, not converted by any means, but awakened to the harrowing congruencies between faith (or belief) and disbelief (or, maybe more precisely, an acknowledgment and full-fledged enjoyment of fictional worlds—which, of course, relies heavily on a judicious suspension of one’s disbelief). So that’s all it is, I thought. Some reality chemistry—two drops of liquid skepticism, four parts fantasy, seven sprigs of selective dismissal, and a mortar and pestle mashing the bits together; cold hard science resulting in a mythological world taken as the Real McCoy, if only for a moment.

I may not be a Christian, but on these grounds, I most certainly am a McCarthian, a Borgesian, and a Chabonian. I expressed these feeling to my friend who responded, rather aptly, “I believe that Jesus speaks to us through narrative.”

And as a raspy Faulkner character calls to me from the pages of a book, as Lester Ballard scares me from the murky black waters of Child of God, as Denis Johnson taps out Morse code through the dot-dashes of waifs, mendicants, and fiends, I find myself buoyed by my own faith, just like the congregation. A man of science, a man of fantasy. A man who renders biblical characters as gluttons, pimps, and honorable chaps. A man whose fictions must be real, because it’s the only path to salvation he knows.

My point is that whether in a comic, a sacred text, or a tidy State of the Union address, we are forever creating our own realities. We forge fictions, bring the two-dimensional into stunning 4-D corporeality. Our minds are great Think Machines, capable of taking the most far-fetched of cartoony inanities and transforming them, irrevocably, into something we can believe in or rely on. I am not a man of God, this much is true. But I am a man of stories—a willing lab assistant in the great scientific experiment that is storytelling, fashioning a world of escapism and intrigue in direct opposition to the a posteriori. Though it never happened, I imagined pulling the man standing before the congregation aside, and telling him that he was doing a good job. “You’re getting there,” I told him. “You just need to add some more lasers and dragons to get me on board.”

Read pages from Judah and find out more about the author at judahnowandforever.blogspot.com