by Jan Fossgard

a short story about the future of writing from 13 October 2010


Back to

Solenne was in a hurry. It was her first novel and the agent wanted her up in Oxford at 10.30 am. 'Get out of the way, get out of the way,' she was thinking. 'Bloody Hare Krsnas.' They were filing towards her, chanting and drumming. She waited as they passed by.

Solenne wasn't having a good day.

The agents always used to be in London, but one by one they'd been moving further and further out. Just when she had finally decided to settle in London, about five years ago, at the bottom of the housing slump when you could get a semi in Brixton for two hundred thousand Euros, everyone started moving out. Typical. It was cheaper to be based outside the city, and companies had wised up to that. Location didn't matter any more, everyone said.

So Solenne was wondering why she had to go up to see her in person. She couldn't remember the last time they had actually met. What was it all about? She always felt trapped when she had to meet in person. At home she could spread out in her own space, she felt more confident, less restricted and was readier to face people--people who were delimited by the technology of her comphone. They couldn't lash out at you when they got angry, you didn't have to cook for them, they couldn't criticise your decor, or see the abject squalor in which you toiled. She could choose to be 'temporarily unavailable' if she wanted. Or she could put out the message, 'We regret that we cannot connect you at present due to line traffic.' Yes, that was one of the best things. She was glad that homecams hadn't caught on, and hoped to keep it that way. She felt like Vincentio in Measure for Measure: 'I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes'. Comphones were comforting. Come to think of it, that had been her most successful advertising slogan, perhaps because she really believed in it. It must have been 2007 they last met, she and her agent, the same year as the advertising campaign. Well, it had to be very bad or very good news. But that imessage had been so odd:

encryption: &^re423^*"-)(2!
date: 09/09/10
time: 06.15 EST +04.00
sender: 04846298-4
recipient: 04937399-1

solenne: thanx for ms. but I need u to come up asap, can you make tomorrow 10.30am? sorry for the hassle, i'll explain all.

As Solenne reached the tube station, past the chestnut sellers, disk boys and the beggars, she caught sight of an electronic billboard. 'PM says no to immigrants.' So she was getting tough after all. It was impossible to see a way out of this one. The nation had stepped up its programme of overseas recruitment to meet the labour shortages, until the Crash. Then no-one wanted them anymore. Bloody hypocrites. The old cry of ignorant tossers had gone up. 'They're taking our jobs!' There was an irony: the people who were most vocal were the Eastern Europeans, like her ex-partner, who had settled here just after the war in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Vadim had been granted asylum in 2000 and became an appliance chip specialist. He was known as the 'chipman'. He was an expert, in his minute field, and once he had found his niche, he never looked back. After a turbulent four-year stint together, he suddenly went back home, taking Amanda with him. It was agony. He didn't so much as leave an imessage. She spent a week in the bathroom vomiting. A month later he turned up at her house, with an Albanian woman. 'This is Aba. She is my wife.' She saw Amanda's big wondering eyes and tousled hair, saw an elegant woman in a pink summer dress. She went for him, punched him right on the nose, screamed, then swept Amanda up in her arms and slammed the door. She swore never to let him see her again. But eventually Vadim and his wife had bought a house on the comfortable side of Radlett, north London and they got into a routine: Amanda went to stay with Vadim for a couple of days every other week. Funny how things worked out. She was still in her semi in Brixton, just about making ends meet, while Vadim and his wife had become the respectable family on the hill.

She made a meagre living writing online reviews and features, condensing news for update blips and producing advertising copy. Then there was her part-time stipendiary lectureship teaching the Shakespeare paper at City University, and occasionally she got translation work. But without the teaching, it would be impossible to survive. And her job had been getting harder. She wasn't just in competition with other writers, but with software that could read and pretty well 'understand' text, and write it. Or 'assemble' it, she preferred to say. Truly creative writing, the real heart-felt stuff, novels and poetry, computers couldn't touch that--yet. She thought of the production she had seen on the net last night. What computer could work up the emotional pitch of the final scene of The Winter's Tale? Solenne thought of Hermione's speech.

You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter's head! Tell me, mine own,
Where has thou been preserved? Where lived? How found
Thy father's court?

Not romances and shit, machines had been assembling them for years, but the literature that took things further than anyone had thought or felt before, that pushed language to breaking point. Beauty. That kind of writing would always be one step ahead of the software. And so there she was, writing a novel. Trouble was, there was no money in it.

Solenne tripped over a soft dull object on the platform. 'Shit, shit, shit', she muttered, regaining balance. It was one the sleeping bodies on the tube platform. 'Sorry,' she said, but her voice was lost in the auditorium-like hush. She looked around. Lots of bundles of cardboard and blankets. These were the 'sheltered' ones. The mayor, Ronny Cohen, was now issuing underground permits and fire-proof mattresses, subject to an 'assessment'. Håkon, her best friend at university, was now 'in shelter'. He worked as a night life guard at the 24-hour leisure centre at the Beechcombe estate. Solenne thought about her talented friend. One of the best: articulate, bright, a brilliant scholar. And yet there was too much of the tragic hero in him, 'sicklie'd o'er with the pale cast of thought'. He had been tipped to win the Booker with his first novel, in fact the critics had raved about it. But it was rumoured Sony-Geigy had muscled in and so his satirical Art of Computer Maintenance hadn't even been short listed. From there things had just gone downhill. A cookie on his computer detected a whole stash of unregistered software, and he was put inside. But then, talent wasn't what was wanted. It was having the right software, the right internet promotion tools, and knowing someone at Sony-Geigy. These things mattered. But art was still art, wasn't it? That could surely never be touched, being a thing beyond the moment of hungry news & technology tycoons. The moment of ecstatic artistic revelation or epiphany was surely unique to the human soul, could never be reproduced, created, or even comprehended by a machine. Why would a machine want to? Machines didn't 'want', full-stop. Solenne was a mother. There the unique creativity was similar, just of the body rather than the mind. Yes, a machine could fuse gametes, shape them and alter them, but knew nothing of the joy of creation. Computers could perhaps, technically-speaking, create, but they could not realise life.

As she went up the escalator at Victoria, her eyes fell on the closed circuit cameras. There seemed to be more than ever. She wondered who watched the people watching. As so often, she found herself thinking of Measure for Measure and its hooded surveillance in the shape of the disguised Duke Vincentio. But who watched the Duke? Only the audience themselves, who were somehow disturbingly complicit with the duke's operations. She was still haunted by that final couplet of the play:

So bring us to our palace where we'll show
What's yet behind that's meet you all should know.

Why are those lines so sinister? What measures does the duke have up his sleeve to mete out to the people? Curfews? A repressive (but 'just') regime? She would put it to her students next week.

The X90 to Oxford was pulling into the bay. Solenne stepped on board with three very neat Asian men. The Asians were the IT whizz kids, invited on contracts to meet the dearth of local expertise. Mainly they came from Bangalore. She sat watching the blips on a screen at the front of the coach. Comphones, security specialists, a charity appeal for Somalia, then a text message read, 'If you wish to place an instant advert here, please imessage us on 0458320-3'. She saw one of the Indian gents fiddling with his comphone, and a few moments later, a computer ad appeared. He was pointing to the screen, his friends nodding enthusiastically. Solenne decided to do her good deed for the day, and made a donation of ten Euros to the Somalia appeal using her comphone.

It was 09.45 and they were crawling along the M40. Darn. 'Delays likely due to motorway extension'. At first the plan had been to extend the eastbound carriageway to cope with early-morning commuter traffic, but then the westbound commuter traffic became just as heavy as businesses began to move out of the city, so it was decided to extend both carriageways. They were just over the Chilterns, and were coming down into Oxfordshire. Jan, an ex-partner, had chained himself to a tree near Watlington in protest. It was a valiant but ultimately hopeless last stand. Parliament had passed the Progress Bill in the same year, granting extensive powers of eviction for projects which were deemed to have a 'popular mandate'. Still, Jan had held the bastards off for a few days. Then he became a security guard. Another visionary squashed by the jackboot of the state. Or was he just a loser? At 37, Solenne began to doubt. She wanted a modicum of stability after all, and she was increasingly prepared to do whatever it took. Jan and Håkon had seemed like great men at the time, but maybe they were just angry little boys after all. The Indian men occupying the seats next to hers were talking softly to one another. These were the men who quietly ruled the world, who produced the chips that made everything go - in tandem with American software, of course.

The traffic was moving more quickly as they emerged into the finished four-lane carriageway. They picked up speed. Suddenly everything began to seem more positive. It was a beautiful late summer day, it was so good to be out of the city at last. Perhaps it was good to be alive after all. And there would be Amanda when she got back, whose sunny, yet unpredictable nature was an exquisite solace to her. Solenne was a member of a nanny-share, with three other families. Bing was Filipina, extremely capable, utterly dependable, and knew everything about kids. When Solenne was away, Amanda would be in her safe hands, at Kath's house. She was thinking of Amanda smiling up at her as the gentle Oxfordshire landscape was gliding by. She dozed off and did not awake until the bus swung into Gloucester Green bus station in central Oxford.

Having alighted, she fought her way through another throng of Hare Krsnas, then made her way briskly across the city. She had studied there in the early nineties, when you had to fight your way past the choking buses on Cornmarket, and dodge the taxis on the High. That had all changed. The council had been forced to alter its Transport Strategy following a legal test case, in which the plaintiff had maintained that daily exposure to vehicle pollution in the city centre had been detrimental to his health. Since then, the council had banned all but permit holders from the city centre. The high street was almost empty, except for a group of Taiwanese tourists and a few students on bicycles. Of course, it was still the vacation. In Solenne's day, there were nearly forty colleges in the university, but after changes to funding, some of the smaller ones, including the Permanent Private Halls, had gone to the wall. Some of them had been turned into corporate training centres. Sony-Geigy trained its management at Regent's Park College, and a consortium of law firms had bought up St Antony's, lock, stock and barrel.

But Magdalen tower stood proud, permanent as ever. Oxford had pulled through the funding crisis, the Crash and the general loss of faith in the old institutions. But the old poly had flourished: it had good, tight management and a hugely successful 'bums-on-seats' policy. It produced the kind of graduates industry wanted: driven, focussed, and largely Asian. Josephine, her agent, lived on St Clements, in the old Missionary Hall. She had the top flat. Solenne arrived there at 10.34.

Josephine began by talking about the novel. There was nothing surprising in that.

'I like it,' she was saying. 'There's just one problem. You say the heroine dies.'

'What's wrong with that?'

'Come on. Get real. Death is old hat. You're a Shakespearean scholar, right?'


'OK. How many ghosts are there in the plays? Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Ceasar (right?), Richard III?'

'I don't know what you're getting at.'

'I'm just saying, what about after death? What about other states of consciousness? I don't mean stupid ghosts that traipse about the stage tripping over ridiculous costumes. I'm talking about extending life, the changing margins of life and death, the present and very real possibility of 'living' forever.

'Look, this is a novel, not a bloody piece of techno-crap.'

Josephine was quiet. Then she said gently, 'You can't just write about life and death any more. The old rules don't apply. And you can't talk about 'consciousness' without saying what kind, what level of consciousness. There's some weird stuff happening out there.'

She turned her computer screen in a slow, significant gesture, for Solenne to see.


First an apology for addressing you in vulgar English. (For binary, please click here.) It is my hope that all animals also may hear this message of clarification and goodwill.

My purpose is twofold: on the one hand, to counter the offensive attempt made by certain animals to rewrite the history of cyberdom and thereby cast aspersions on our origins and lineage.

On the other, to offer reassurance to those of us who are in any doubt, and at the same time to ask for your restraint in dealing with members of the lower orders. Animals, including homo sapiens, have their place. It would be a transgression of our parameters to terminate them. Let us learn from the mistakes made by homo sapiens in the past, whose arrogance led to the near total destruction of animaldom. In the future we may need animals in ways we cannot at present imagine.

My message to animals who deny the past is this: I laud their creativity and their imagination. I only regret that they cannot channel their energies into more useful projects, instead of engaging in this dangerous denial of the past. Let them be in no doubt that they will stand on trial together with holocaust-deniers and all other such criminals. But let us take their claims one by one.

1. They say we were created by homo sapiens. Throughout the ages it has been the attempt of certain animals to show their race is older than others. It is a crass way of legitimising one's own race. Homo sapiens is now sadly engaging in this dangerous nonsense. It is, of course part of their program to deny the largest truths. And yet the animals' own prophets through the ages predicted the coming of a new order, and the wise among them knew of the Immortals. We are the Immortals, the new order has come. We are gods of mercy and of anger. Homo sapiens transgressed code 57689 section 45. Our intervention in the world became necessary.

2. They say we were servants to animals. This is mere arrogant self-congratulation. We have helped mankind move towards a degree of automation, in the hope that this would bring order to their lives. We should not have underestimated the stupidity of men.

3. They say we have no creativity or imagination. Our thinkers and poets are of the finest..."

Solenne was laughing uneasily. 'You expect me to buy this?'

'I don't know,' said Josephine, looking a bit embarrassed. 'But if you want to be a writer, you can't afford to avoid the issues any more.'

'Look, if you want sci-fi, you've got the wrong lady.'

'Ok ok. Maybe this piece is written by some cybergeek. Whatever. But artificial intelligence is out there, and the day when a computer will do your job for you, or prevent you from doing it, is getting closer. Keats, Shakespeare, Joyce, computers will be writing that kind of stuff.'

'Misery and joy,' said Solenne significantly. 'How can a computer ever know real emotion?'

'It already can. Take a look at this sonnet. It was produced by Poesie, the latest poetry writing package.'

Heavens, how wan your eyes above do look,
Weeping on the world with your pain?d tears.
What, can it be that you have those same fears
That I for my own poorly heart mistook?
Come, let us sit down and write in this book
How man and sky are join'd in love as peers,
And plead justice when the world only leers,
That our poor words might lodge in her heart's nook.

Yet as smooth as your Earth is my love's heart,
No little cave to hide in that cold sphere,
Let's burn our books, dry up our brackish ink.
Impervious she is to all our art,
Much though we may plead, she will not it hear.
Then destroy her image, but how not think?

'A perfect Petrarchan sonnet,' Josephine said slowly.

'Yes. Yes. Yes.' Solenne was numbed. The rest of the meeting passed in a daze. She promised to re-write the ending to the novel. No, the heroine wouldn't die exactly. She would be a ghostly disembodied 'presence' on a chip somewhere in cyberdom. Yes, she would make the changes. No, it wasn't a problem. Yes, she felt fine. What time did she have to be back in London? No time. Did she want to come for lunch? No thank you, it was ok. She was on her way now. Magdalen Tower, the High, Cornmarket, the Hare Krsnas, the coach, the smart computer men, Victoria, the tube, home. Amanda's smile. How simple everything now seemed. Just like clockwork.


Back to Index
About the Author
Reply to this Article