Author Interview – Stephen Oram

 

Stephen Oram 4M - Copy

Stephen Oram is one of my favourite contemporary authors. His debut novel, Quantum Confessions, had a significant influence on me; in fact, it was the book that inspired me to start writing my own. His work primarily examines the way our society works, and how it could be affected by technological developments in the near-future. Stephen works closely with future thinkers and scientists, most notably as part of the European Human Brain Project, and extrapolates their research into accessible, thought-provoking narratives. There is often a dystopian feel there, a warning perhaps, which is all the more poignant once you realise how close to reality some of the ideas really are. Recently, I was lucky enough to be selected to share some of my flash fiction at an event he curates for Virtual Futures, and he kindly agreed to let me interview him for the Orchid’s Lantern blog. I hope you enjoy reading his well-considered answers as much as I did. Continue reading “Author Interview – Stephen Oram”

Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

A great write-up of the second Near-Future Fictions event of the year, which featured my brand new story The Test.

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future FictionsSalon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist…

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Psychopomp

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Johnny found Psychopomp while browsing drug categories on the dark web. It had 6,000 logged purchases worldwide but no user ratings, which the seller said was a true mark of its success: this was a trip from which there was no coming back.

It was three months since Romeo had passed. Accidental overdose. Johnny knew what they were all thinking, but they were wrong. Romeo wouldn’t do that, not even after the money and creativity had dried up. “You should be back out on the scene by now,” his friends said. They meant well, he knew, and cooping himself up in the flat staring at a dead man’s poetry on the walls was surely not a healthy way to spend his days.

He tore himself away from the bedsheets and reached for the fridge, taking out a three-day-old milk carton. A tentative sniff, a moment’s hesitation, then he drank from it anyway, not caring how much spilled. He wiped his mouth on a bare arm and turned back to look in the mirror beside the bed. Could use a shave. A wash, a hair comb; a pair of eyes that weren’t so grey with goddam heartache. His thoughts were interrupted by a clatter at the letterbox: fast, anonymous courier delivery. Psychopomp had arrived.

Continue reading “Psychopomp”

Connections

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“Help! I’m stuck in the Internet!”
“Nan, you can’t be stuck in the Internet. You mean you’re stuck on the Internet. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to get out!”
“OK. Well do you see a little cross in the top right-hand corner?”
“No I don’t Eamon, sorry. There’s just lots and lots of little boxes with faces in them.” She turned her voice to a whisper. “Some of them are other body parts!”
“It sounds like you’ve got a virus, Nan. I’ll come over and sort it out again OK?”
“Oh you are a good boy. Maybe I just need a kickstarter, eh?”
“See you soon Nan.”

***

There was no answer when Eamon knocked on the door, so he let himself in. Nan’s laptop was out on the kitchen table with the Windows default screensaver scrolling. Sticky notes bearing passwords in her distinctive scrawl were everywhere, but the woman herself couldn’t be seen.
“Nan? Where are you?”
“Oh hello, lovey! I told you, I’m in the Internet.”
The voice did indeed seem to be coming from the computer.
“Nan, what are you up to? Come out please.”
“Oh don’t be silly. I’m stuck here, else I would!”
“I haven’t got time for games, I’m supposed to be at a lecture in half an hour. Where are you?”
“I think you just have to give the mouse a waggle, that usually sorts it.”
Eamon gave the mouse a nudge; he had little choice but to play along with whatever prank the old lady had come up with this time. Sure enough, Nan’s image came up on the screen. Her hair had been freshly curled, and she’d put on some blusher and her favourite violet cardigan. Eamon looked for clues in the background as to where she might be hiding. Continue reading “Connections”

The Surrogate – Gavin Jefferson

C.R. Dudley author Orchid's Lantern blog

The Surrogate is a science fiction novella and debut release from author Gavin Jefferson. The setting is a world in which obesity has been eradicated, leaving behind a ‘healthy, beautiful, and promiscuous’ populous. All, that is, except for one man: a man named Ronald Calico, a.k.a. The Surrogate.

This book grabs the reader from the intriguing first scene where we meet an old man (with a much younger public face) boarding a cruiser with his robotic assistant. It is through his eyes that we are shown the way society has developed, and through his conversation that we learn who The Surrogate is and how his unusual career came about.

This is a straight forward read, and a quick one at just 100 or so pages. What amazes me is that in so little space, and without being immediately obvious, Jefferson skilfully poses important questions about the way we interact and, in particular, the way we perceive intimacy. The Surrogate addresses such issues as body image, sexuality, personhood, and the messages filtered down to the masses from powerful decision-makers. I was left contemplating the role direct and diverse human contact plays in our sense of connection, and whether it could be considered endangered as we reach new levels of scientific and technological discovery.

The characters are well-rounded: likeable but realistic, and the ending made me a bit emotional!

There is also a bonus story included in the book called ‘The Collector’, which is a great teaser for Jefferson’s next release ‘Almost Surely’. I am very much looking forward to reading that and more from this author.

The Future is Near

I was thrilled to find out this week that the two short stories I submitted to the Virtual Futures Near-Future Fictions team have both been selected to be read and recorded at their events in London.

The first event will be held on 20th February at The Library, Covent Garden, where 8 stories about the potential future of disease will be performed. Multi-award winning science fiction author, Geoff Ryman, has been announced as a special guest and will be giving a talk and reading of his own. I have a brand new story – Toxic Duck Inc – for this event, in which the protagonist tells of her terrifying experience with a new kind of virus affecting the human brain. The recording will be shared publicly on YouTube later in the year, but for those of you who are local there are tickets available to attend the live event here.

The second event is on 20th March, at the same venue, and the theme of this one is potential futures for personality. My story – The Test – follows a protagonist desperate to gain a badge of authenticity in order to promote her crowd-funded brand. Like Toxic Duck Inc, this is a brand new story written especially for Virtual Futures.

In a similar vein to the successful UK series Black Mirror, the idea of these stories is to highlight possible ‘traffic jams not automobiles’, so I can’t wait to hear what mind-bending ideas the other authors have come up with!

Virtual Futures are an organisation committed to exploring the convergence of art, culture, philosophy, science and technology. They regularly run conferences with high profile guests and field experts, which are later made available for free on their YouTube channel.

*****

Have you ever wondered how future technology will affect the human psyche? What defines the line between imagination and reality? Whether it is possible to find spirituality in science? Check out my new book, Fragments of Perception, for 36 quirky, bite-sized stories to make you contemplate!

The Scheme

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

 “Sounds like you need to start selling your petaFLOPS, mate.”
  That is what Dave had said back in the good old days when they drunk in the Queen’s Head. At the time, Geoff had lost his job as an Accountant for one of the big 5 firms and was struggling to adjust to a life of leisure. He’d find himself staring into space for hours at a time, unsure of what to put his brain into next. Once upon a time, a GP might have prescribed him some ‘happy’ pills, but diagnosis of depression and stress was a thing of the past: the symptoms had long been recategorised as ‘misused capacity in the mind’.
 Dave’s suggestion for money-making wasn’t unusual, and the papers said the scheme could even become prevalent in years to come. With six pints swimming around his system, Geoff imagined he might be ahead of the curve; one of the trendsetters that would mark a new and enterprising use for the human brain. And, once the hangover of the next morning had subsided and he swore never to drink again, it still seemed like the only logical thing to do.

  Geoff signed up to have a tiny sub-dermal chip installed in his head that connected him to the worldwide network. It was a simple procedure, done under local anaesthetic, and had a surprisingly fast recovery time: in just two days he was ready to come online. He popped the prescribed pill under his tongue, sat back in his La-z-Boy and selected ‘join game’ on his console.
  And that is how it was, 9-5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. As per the deal, he would do one of two things: play a match-3 game or watch sitcom re-runs on TV. The former gave him enough of a dopamine hit to keep him awake and powered up; the latter allowed him to enjoy taking a passive role while still earning a healthy income. Repetitive, predictable tasks that used only a small proportion of potential brain function were essential, so that the remaining neurones could be isolated by the drug and fired over the network to perform a range of data-crunching tasks.
  Any number of corporations could bid for the use of human processors, which were sold in petaFLOPS. For them, the efficiency in terms of energy usage, space and cost was unparalleled. For Geoff, it was a dream form of employment. He bought Dave’s drinks all night whenever his generous pay packet came in, to thank him for his valuable suggestion.
  “Honestly mate, you can’t tell anything’s going on back there,” he told him one day. “You just sit making rows of colourful sweets all day without a care in the world, and you get paid for it. And another thing: you feel like you’ve done a day’s work. I feel as fulfilled as I ever did being a bean-counter.”
  Dave swigged his drink and wiped away froth from his beard. “Aren’t you ever tempted to – you know, take a peek behind the curtain as it were?”
  “Ah it’s against the rules.”
  “Not even once?”
 “To tell the truth, I wouldn’t even know how. Besides, I’m onto a good thing here, why would I risk throwing it away?”

  But a seed had been planted, and come the next Tuesday morning, Geoff was wondering. What exactly are they using my brain for? By Friday, he had decided to try and find out. He split one of the little pills in two, and put just half under his tongue. He spent the morning building up his puzzle game score as usual, but after lunch during Only Fools and Horses, columns of moving numbers began to overlay his vision. They made no sense at first; they were just vaguely hypnotic. He was elated that his brain could be used for feats he did not understand. To be a cog in a machine that would better the world was enough for him, and he swore to go back to taking the full pill straight away. But then he began to notice patterns in the numbers: it was a code, and it was recording transactions. Geoff grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling down what he could see.

  On Saturday, his access to the game was prohibited: the agency had locked him out. A message appeared on the screen: Security violation detected. Await instructions. Geoff’s mind worked overtime thinking about what that could mean. It had to be something to do with what happened the day before. Did they think he knew something?
  “I swear,” he said aloud, “I saw nothing but a series of random numbers.”
  “Tut tut Mr O’Brien,” said a voice from behind him. “We can’t have our operators breaking the rules. Our confidentiality has been breached. You must be disconnected now.”
  A big hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Another pushed his head back against the chair, and a third sliced into him with a scalpel, removing the chip amidst Geoff’s screams.
  “I swear!” He cried out in desperation,”I swear I know nothing!”
One of the hands held up the notebook he had used to scribble down the transactions.
  “But I don’t know what it means, it’s just a load of numbers!”
  “It’s all up here,” the man tapped his temple. “And now we have to remove it.”

*****

For more dark imaginings of our future with tech, and fictional explorations of ontology, check out my collection of very short stories: Fragments of Perception.

Eating Robots – Stephen Oram

Dystopian future fiction and sci-fi short stories

Imagine being a hedonist forever’…

Eating Robots is a collection of 30 short stories, offering bite-sized future visions based on technological advances, while holding up a mirror to our current social tendencies.

Most often I find compilations of short stories a bit hit and miss: there are powerful pieces, but hidden among weaker ones. As such I end up stalling, and taking much longer than usual to complete a book. Eating Robots is not like that at all. It is a strong collection with no weak links, and I couldn’t put it down. The stories are very short, sometimes only a page, and yet even in such brief pieces Oram manages to make a big impact. Of course, there is little space for character and plot development, but it is the concepts that are important here and they are conveyed in an innovative and distinctive way.

How do you think the world might look if we had an electronic universal credit system, whereby everyone received the same income? Where everyone would have adequate funds for food and clothing? It sounds wonderful. And yet maybe there would still be social outcasts; maybe new prejudices and poverties would emerge, because maybe that’s the way the human race works.  Continue reading “Eating Robots – Stephen Oram”

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