Welcome to our 43rd issue. Our theme this month is loosely based around the idea of "growing and changing". The stories reflect this theme regardless of their genre.
Arthur Doweyko, our featured author, writes a short-story about Andrew "the last model scheduled" by Systems to be "upgraded". Even half-robot half-humans have to grow and change, or "upgrade". Although, some "upgrades" are better to be avoided if possible.
If someone asked me if I was a "sci-fi" reader, I probably would say "No". However, after reading Doweyko's top ten list, I realized that since I have read most of these books and own about half of them, that in fact I should really reconsider my answer. I took a long look at my book collection and pulled out all my "sci-fi" books. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would. Turns out one of my top three favorite "sci-fi" books are "Mary Shelly's - Frankenstein", "Philip K. Dick's - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", and "Peter Watts - Starfish". I realized in that moment that I love reading about the darkness of humanity. I also have a slight obsession with Neil deGrasse Tyson's research into "dark matter" and "black holes". I even went to the Fort Lauderdale Science Museum just to see their black hole exhibition.
The way I see it "sci-fi" is a cross between real science that explores our world in order to make sense of it, and the deep exploration of the role humans, with their many complexities, have within that same world. There has to be darkness in order for there to be light. Failure precedes growth which precedes evolution.
For writers to delve into the endless possibilities that sci-fi has to offer, they must be prepared to leave the light. Are you afraid of the dark?
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"Sir, did you hear?"
Andrew lowered his cup of coffee, watching its condensate on his kitchen window—ghost-like, reaching outward, retracting, and disappearing. He caught Seth's reflection, craning its head through an opening which led out to the den.The robot's burnished surface left the impression of a halo hovering across its metallic dome. Andrew continued staring out at the bay. His island cabin was perched high enough to see the remaining rusty red tower of a suspension bridge jutting up through the morning mist. The city of Francisco was history, and soon perhaps, he would be as well. He lowered his cup and turned to face Seth, who added, "Systems just announced they will be here later today. Marin Island is the last on their upgrade list."
"You are the last model scheduled, sir."
"I'm not a 'model'."
Andrew didn't mean to be so harsh.
"Sorry, sir. My error."
Andrew poured the rest of the coffee into the sink. His plastic tongue ran along the roof of his mouth. He enjoyed coffee. He had to admit, that even with all his mechanical parts, Systems did some good work. He still had senses as he remembered them, when his brain rested in a human body. When he looked up, Seth was gone. Why not leave well enough alone? After the two quakes and the epidemic which followed, the human race was virtually gone. The lone survivors, androids like himself, proved to be immune to the outbreak. How many were there? A thousand?
He angled into a kitchen chair and activated a wall-mounted view screen. The Franciscan Watch blinked on. It was the only feed still active.
The animation spoke to him, but his mind wandered as it tended to do in recent years. "Systems have announced the Union-wide upgrades … Francisco sector scheduled next … replacements being heralded as a major breakthrough … scientists feared eventual infection by the virus … upgrades will be compulsory …"
Old news—at least a week old. He had forgotten, or had he wanted to forget? He heard that after the upgrade there would be no need to drink, or eat, or even breathe. The thought gnawed at him as he waddled out to the porch to an Adirondack facsimile. He sat back, closed his eyes and began humming. He liked humming.
"I think I know that song, sir."
Seth sat in an Adirondack next to him.
"It's not a song. It's a dirge … something from Chopin. You wouldn't know what I'm talking about."
"I believe it was a rather loose rendering of the third movement of Frédéric Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 35, although you seem to have selected a different key."
Andrew gaped at Seth. A pair of optical slits stared back at him. Even without facial expression, he swore the robot turned up an invisible nose at him.
"Sir, are you feeling well?"
Andrew closed his eyes again. "It's this thing with the upgrade. An electronic brain will replace my human brain. They say it will be identical in all respects—memories, likes, dislikes, the way I talk … the way I think. But how can they be sure?"
"I'm not certain I follow, sir."
"Self-awareness, Seth. Will the upgrade be self-aware? Will my new brain still be me?"
"I'm sure the Systems scientists have thought of everything, sir."
"Ah, but that's the rub. I don't think it's possible to tell. For all we know, they've been replacing human brains with facsimiles. They'll talk, and they'll walk, and they'll behave exactly as they did before. But ..."
"They will lack a soul, sir?"
Andrew sat up and opened his eyes. Seth was gone.
Long shadows slipped through the cabin windows, darkening the den, running their bleak fingers across the planked floor. Andrew lay on a cot, eyes wide open. His mind circled endlessly on the upgrade process—a memory dump to the synthetic brain, and then a sedative, a few slices, and voila, out with the old, in with the new. He would awaken as if nothing had happened—he wouldn't even recall the procedure.
"Why the hell was it compulsory?"
He threw aside the covers; covers he wouldn't need anymore.
A rumbling, like distant thunder, approached from the west. Andrew leaped from the couch and sidled over to the window. An occasional cloud of dirt betrayed the movement of a vehicle along the switchback leading up to his cabin. He steeled himself for what had to be done.
He paused at the porch steps, rifle slung over his shoulder. The surrounding woods began adopting the gloom of early evening. As he stepped off the deck onto a carpet of yellowed needles he inhaled the pine and the cool air. Would they take that away, too?
"What are you going to do, sir?"
Seth stood at the porch entrance to the cabin—one gleaming arm braced against a post, the other extended, as if to call Andrew back.
"Get back inside. It's none of your business."
"But, sir, you are planning to hurt someone."
"Not someone, Seth. These creatures, the ones from Systems—they only look and act human, but there's nothing there. No consciousness. Nobody home. They're robots, a lot like you, for that matter."
Andrew wished he could take back that last statement. Instead, he slipped into the thicket to the side of the cabin. When he looked back at the porch, he was relieved to see that Seth had once again disappeared. The sound of the vehicle grew louder.
"You should really think this through, sir."
"Damn, damn, damn." Seth appeared at his side. "Will you just go away?"
"There is something you have not considered, sir."
The high-pitched whine of an electric motor cut off further commentary. An oval-shaped white vehicle appeared at the bend leading to the cabin. Neon lettering glittered across its rounded top spelling out 'Systems.' The time had arrived.
The car pulled up by the cabin's porch and its electric buzz faded away as doors on either side slid open. Two figures, both appearing as males in white uniforms stepped out and approached the porch. It depressed the door chime. After a minute, it knocked on the door.
Andrew raised his weapon, a pulse laser capable of boring holes through two-inch steel. Its cross-hairs settled on the back of the head of the figure nearest the door.
"Sir, don't do this."
"Damn it all. It's the only way, Seth. They're here to kill the Andrew Seegers you know. Don't you get it? I may be the last human being on this continent. I don't want to die." Andrew brought the weapon up and aimed.
"Sir, you are mistaken."
The figure on the porch shrugged and started to climb down the steps. Andrew tracked him as he descended. He breathed out and his finger caressed the trigger.
"And I can prove it."
Andrew fired. Seth's last statement irked him enough that the silent laser bolt overshot its target and threaded a hole through several trees beyond. The two men turned toward the disturbance. After a few seconds, they re-entered their vehicle. As it pulled away, Andrew dropped his rifle and sagged against a tree.
"I don't know what I'm doing. Look at me. I almost killed a thinking creature, man or robot, it doesn't really matter. I'm going out of my mind, Seth." Andrew let himself sink to the ground. He held his head in his hands and began sobbing.
"It's all right, sir. I am here."
Andrew felt Seth's hand on his shoulder. "When they come back, Seth … when they come back, they'll replace me with someone else, or something else."
"I think you do not need to fear them, sir."
Andrew rubbed his eyes. He stared at the moisture on his fingertips. Was that tears?
"Sir, can you remember how long I have served you?"
"You've been with me for years."
"And do you recall what happened recently?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Come with me, sir."
Seth stepped out into the clearing in front of the cabin, and Andrew rose up and followed.
Minutes later they stood at a precipice overlooking the bay. A thin ribbon of a road hugged the undulating contour of the deep blue water's edge. A speck of white moved along the curving stretch, engulfed by a veil of rose-colored mist.
"That's them—the Systems people. What else am I supposed to see here?"
Seth pointed down along the rock face. "There, sir, do you see it?"
Andrew crept up to the overhang. A pile of freshly cleaved rocks some hundred feet below projected outward toward the bay. Several gaps and irregular fractures were wide enough to swallow houses. Andrew was about to turn back when he saw an oddly-shaped glint of bronze deep within one crevice. It looked like a doll, or a mannequin … or a robot.
"What is that?"
Andrew drew himself back from the rim, feeling sick. His skin prickled in a way it should not be able to. His throat became impossibly dry. He was becoming nauseous.
"Look again, sir."
The twisted metal shape was no more than a dark outline. The shadow of a darker figure next to it took shape. He backed away, tripped over scrub and fell on his side. Seth was gone.
Sweat beaded on his forehead—another thing that should not be happening. He shuffled to the darkening trail leading back to the cabin. A few minutes later, he stood at the foot of his porch steps, body drooping. He was thirsty and cold. With one foot on the first rise, he stared up at the door as it squeaked open.
"How do you feel, sir?"
"That was you down there, wasn't it?"
"So, you're not real. I'm talking to myself."
"That all depends. Do you think me as real, sir?"
"Yeah, yeah … but you're still an hallucination."
"What else did you see, sir?"
"Someone … there was someone next to you in the rocks."
"Come in, sir. I've brewed some fresh coffee."
Andrew stumbled to the kitchen table and collapsed into a chair. He was thirsty, so very thirsty. The feeling in his arms and hands was fading. He lay his head down and closed his eyes. "Please, Seth, tell me that wasn't me down there."
Andrew heard coffee being poured into a cup, followed by the sound of the ceramic sliding on the tabletop. The aroma licked at his nostrils.
"How do you feel, sir?"
Andrew lifted his head, but couldn't speak.
"Systems were here a few days ago, sir."
"That's when we ran, sir."
He closed his eyes again. In the swirling patches of recall, Andrew suddenly felt tree branches whipping his face. It was dark. He couldn't see the trail. He and Seth were running through the woods. He was flying. The ground at his feet crumbled away and he was flying. His legs and arms flailed. He wasn't flying—he was falling. Seth's round head floated before him. He reached out and opened his mouth to scream.
"The coffee will help, sir."
Andrew eyed the robot, studying every detail. "What's going on, Seth?"
Seth sat down opposite him and rested its arms on the table. "It is perplexing, sir."
Andrew took a deep swallow. "You're right, this helps."
"I believe you've managed to be the last one, sir."
The light in the kitchen dimmed. The gentle chorus of the surrounding forest, crickets and songbirds, ebbed to a distant, muted harmony. He heard the sea lapping at the rocks. The icy Pacific felt warm against his skin, embracing him with its ageless arms. The last tendrils of sunlight faded into a grey mist. He thought about the lone tower just beyond his view, dissolving into rust, waiting to slip into the sea.
"Will you stay with me, Seth?"
"Always, sir. Always."
Arthur M. Doweyko
Being a scientist and an avid fan of science fiction, my favorite things naturally revolve around any media incorporating science fiction, which includes books, movies, TV and comics. I grew up on the last two. DC and Marvel comics captured my imagination the best with great art and unforgettable superheroes. Early TV shows were like Greek plays—simple special effects with much left to the mind of the viewer. The best of these shows was and still is Dr. Who, a BBC fan favorite running from 1963 to the present. Who could ever forget the world-dominating Daleks and their toilet plunger ray guns?
I've listed below the ten biggest influences on my life and writing:
1) Isaac Asimov – A scientist, author and editor of more than 500 books, including the Foundation Trilogy, for which he is often remembered along with his Laws of Robotics. His works are startling examples of how hard science fiction can be both compelling and entertaining. I especially enjoyed his Robot Series (short stories) which inspired movies like I, Robot and The Bicentennial Man.
2) Arthur C. Clarke – His 2001 Space Odyssey was a masterpiece of hard science fiction, both in writing and on the screen. Rendezvous with Rama is another example of a mind keen to probe the boundaries of human understanding. Childhood's End, a short story about our first encounter is a brilliant allegorical tale about human bias, which is now a TV series.
3) Stanislav Lem – A Polish writer, perhaps not well known in the USA, is certainly popular. Lem wrote Solaris, a clever take on alien intelligence which was made into a movie. His sharp wit and philosophical insight is well-brought out by the Star Diaries, a collection of short stories that will make your head spin.
4) Aldous Huxley – Yes, it's a Brave New World. Huxley was a troubled man, with a vision of a utopian future, which raised more problems than it solved. He was a visionary whose work preceded Orwell's 1984.
5) Frank Herbert – most famous for his Dune, and a number of sequels. Dune is considered by many to be the best science fiction novel of all time. And why not? It had epic vistas, noble heroes, dark villains, a mysterious spice, and gargantuan monsters. What's not to like? For years I wondered if a film could dare to try to encompass the world of Dune. Several attempts were made, with each falling short, as will always be the case—too deep and too wide for the screen.
6) Philip K Dick – introverted, paranoid, and with a brilliant vision, Dick used his distrust of society and government to create mind-bending tales questioning reality. In his own words, "In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real." His singular views have lent themselves well to highly popular books (Man in the High Castle) and inspired a number of successful movies (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report).
7) Robert Heinlein – writing with a libertarian bent, where the only true citizen in a society is a soldier, Heinlein is still considered one of the best science fiction writers of all time. Of course we have some famous words and expressions he introduced: grok (Stranger in a Strange Land), now a dictionary word; TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, from the Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and even terms like Space Marine (Starship Troopers) and Speculative Fiction (more fantasy than scifi).
8) Ray Bradbury – most well-known for his novels Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, but even better known for his short stories (at one point he wrote at a one-a-week rate), a huge number of which found their way into TV and comics, including The Twilight Zone and a TV series under his own name. His mantra was always to write, write, write.
9) H. G. Wells – I will always remember my first introduction to the Time Machine, a 1960 movie with Rod Taylor as the Victorian-era inventor travelling into the future. Who can forget the simple-minded humans, the Eloi, and the Morlocks, creatures only interested in treating the Eloi like cattle. Wells was a pioneer in science fiction, writing epics like The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, read by millions and made into movies and comics for generations to enjoy.
10) Mary Shelley – This one should not be a surprise – Mary was only 18 years old when she began writing Frankenstein in response to a bet as to who could write the scariest story. Published in 1818, she adopted the science of the times, the showmanship of Giovanni Aldini combined with the science of Allesandro Volta demonstrating the effects of electricity on dead human tissue, and created a story of personal tragedy, human weakness and the greed for fame. Considered by many to be the first real science fiction novel ever written, remarkably, few have taken the time to read this masterpiece, and I believe it may be because it is written in a style considered today as too long-winded for attention-span challenged readers. Take the time … it's simply amazing.