Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 19, 2016

Believe in Your Work – It's More Important Than You Think

James R. PrestonJames Preston

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Story is important. What we do is important. My guess is you believe that or you wouldn't be reading this blog. I had that knowledge driven home one year on vacation.

Welcome to another installment of Writers in the Storm. I hope you get two things out of this essay: first, a reason to believe your writing is important and second, a reason to believe in stories with happy endings.

The Importance of Story

My friends and I visited Stratford-on-Avon (yes the Stratford-on-Avon). I had just broken in to fiction writing, stratford-on-avonselling short stories to Analog Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov’s, and others. Outside the building I saw a framed poster advertising a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, an event to raise money to restore the house, and Charles Dickens was one of the performers. And I felt this flash, this epiphany, and it hit me that I was part of that tradition. Sure, they were generals in the writing army and I was the second assistant to the junior file clerk, but I was part of it.

Story is important. You believe that, but if you’re like me every now and then you need encouragement. Writing is tough. That early sale to Asimov’s? It fell through and it took months to find another home for the poor story.

There are times for most of us when we are looking at a rejection letter or facing the dreaded “what happens next?” when we ask ourselves why we’re doing this. I want to offer a surprising reason to believe that what you do is important, one that you may not have thought of. And my reason is more important than I realized when I started writing this essay. Your writing may save the world.

As writers we are immersed in daily-changing memes, currents of thought. One enduring current is the fear of the rise of the machines — artificial intelligences that are smarter than we are.

What if the machines don’t do what we want them to? In the classic Stanley Kubrick film, 2001, HAL killed the rest of the crew and was trying to kill his pal Dave. In Her (2013) Samantha the AI thanks her boyfriend Theo the human for teaching her to want. A good thing? But those are only movies, right? Okay, how about your autonomous self-driving car hearing you talking about trading it in. What if it doesn't want to go?

The good news is there are people worrying about the problem, and they have a range of solutions. Okay, a little bit of background on artificial intelligence.

handThere are two kinds of AI, “Weak” and “Strong.” Weak is the kind that speaks up from your dashboard to tell you that you have missed the turn and it’s recalculating. It's with us now, everywhere, like in your appliances. (Side note: some researchers are very worried about the security of this “internet of things” but that’s beyond the scope of this essay.)

“Strong” artificial intelligence is self-aware. It's Skynet, or the Matrix, or Samantha and it’s around the corner, a decade or two away. But, it’s not too early to think about teaching a machine ethics. Well, the first problem is deciding what good behavior is. And that’s where we come in.

One promising solution is being developed by Mark Reidl at the Georgia Institute of Technology: read the machines stories.

Read the robot stories that show things like being helpful, polite, not destroying civilization. So you don’t want to read HAL a story where everybody dies.machine

Back to Dave and his little problem with HAL. The latter is the “strong,” AI that runs the spaceship and HAL has, well, he’s gone off the deep end, his elevator no longer goes all the way up, he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal. You get the idea. What happens when your AI gets cranky? The dreaded “blue screen of death” takes on a new meaning when it's in your self-driving car or the 757 landing at LAX.

Yep, a culture’s fiction embodies the best (and of course, the worst, in the antagonist) and one way to teach an AI — the more recent term is “Artificial Life” but that one kind of makes me nervous — to be good is to tell it stories that show good behavior rewarded. And what better group of writers to do that than romance novelists?

In Defense of the Happy Ending

smileyIn my mystery stories things usually work out, and I suspect that is true for yours, too. And yet everywhere we see the reverse, “a bittersweet tale of love gone bad,” “a grim exploration of the angst inherent in modern life,” “a futile effort to break the chains of (fill in the blank).” You won’t find this in my writing. To quote a recent Nobel Prize winner, “It ain’t me, babe.”

Joy is important. There’s not enough of it to go around. Comedy, a close cousin to happiness, is hard. Don’t believe me? Check out an interview with Jerry Lewis called, “No Apologies.” He tackles this issue head on and makes a case that if you want horror, just pick up a newspaper. Comedy, and I would widen that to include all happy endings, is harder.

So, “and he folded her into his strong arms and whispered, ‘l love you,’” is not only satisfying, not only reflective of reality, it also may be important in ways we cannot envision.

With luck, when HAL says, “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that,” Dave will say, “Hal, remember that Jayne Ann Krentz story I read you? And how the hero and the heroine cared about each other?”

“I liked the dust bunnies, Dave.”

And the spaceship door swings open . . .

And story saves the world.

I’m interested to hear how you feel about the long tradition that we are part of, and how stories might be used in the future to train thinking machines.

 Sailor Home from SeaJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz. 

For More Information (and for fun) —

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot and the rest of the robot novels. He invented the Three Laws of Robotics in the 1950’s and more than half a century later they are strong candidates for implementation. On top of that, these are good stories. 

Popular Science, The New Artificial Intelligence. Special Issue, (2016). Lots of intriguing ideas as well as a good definition of the kinds of AI.

Foreign Affairs July/August 2015. “Hi, Robot: Work and Life in The Age pf Automation.” A good, detailed discussion of the social implications of machine intelligence and how we might get along with them.

2001  (1968) no discussion of AI is complete without HAL singing, “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls the AI’s circuit cards.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) The US turns defense over to a supercomputer, only to find that the Russians have done the same. Colossus takes over, and assures its creator that mankind will eventually love it.

Her (2013) Touching man/OS love story marred (IMHO) by really rough language.

The Matrix (1999)  All three, but the first is the best. It's almost a throwaway, but watch one of the characters choose blissful illusion over nasty reality. Video game, anyone? At least in this future the machines find humans useful — as batteries.

Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) The alien machine built around the Voyager probe is searching for meaning and regards humans as an infestation.

The Terminator (1984) All I need to say is, “I’ll be back.” Once again man is an infestation that needs to be wiped out.



27 comments on “Believe in Your Work – It's More Important Than You Think”

  1. Thanks for the reminder that our stories matter to readers. I know, personally, there have been times in my life (particularly hospital waiting rooms) where an escape with a book made all the difference in the quality of my life and my ability to handle overwhelming situations.

    1. Oh, Debbie, thank you. It made me think back to when my mother was in the hospital and I sat with her, reading a Book Club edition of Great Science Fiction Stories of the 1950's. The book got me through those long nights. Glad you liked the blog!

      1. I had to add this: The first time I sat in a hospital waiting through my husband's surgery, I grabbed a magazine and thumbed/read it for about 45 minutes. I got the word he was doing fine and heading for recovery, heaved a sigh of relief and then closed the magazine--only to realize it was a hunting magazine! I not only don't hunt, I prefer a vegetarian diet! It beats me where my mind was during those 45-minutes. But just having something in my hand apparently did the distraction trick. Now I take a book with me on any such trip--at least I can then choose where my brain trips off to!

        1. LOL I say again -- LOL! A hunting magazine, that's great. BTW, I don't remember a single one of those stories, but they kept me going. Thanks for sharing that story.

  2. Your post reminded me of an article Smithsonian magazine published a couple of years ago, James. Author Eileen Gunn posited that science fiction writers may actually have a responsibility to write a positive future for society since science often invents what writers imagine. The dystopian writing that is so common does not bode well for us. Here's a link to that article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-americas-leading-science-fiction-authors-are-shaping-your-future-180951169/

    1. Carol, thanks for the reply and for the link to the article. Did you catch the Heinlein reference? This approaches a question about fiction and prediction that Stephen King talks about in the monumental novel, It. He says, "Can't a story just be a story?" And I agree. Maybe I will write about this someday. Prediction? Hmmm. Everybody predicted cell phones, but nobody that I know of guessed the social impact. Anyway, excellent article. For more info -- some of it kind of unnerving -- check out kursweilai.net. Fascinating site!

  3. I had a similar experience to yours when I visited Concord, MA, and stood in the room where Emerson wrote NATURE, and where Hawthorne then wrote a book of short stories--on a desk built by Thoreau! It was so eerie, knowing how hard all of them had struggled to publish their work and to feed themselves while doing it. I love the idea of being part of that long tradition of crafting words that matter, and knowing that I'm a small part of our culture. Knowing these great writers struggled makes it easier for me to swallow those rejections and keep trying something new on the page.

    1. Wow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau! I can only imagine what that felt like. And yes, you are a part of that tradition. Keep plugging! And thanks for sharing that.

  4. How refreshing to hear a "thumbs up" for ethical and positive endings. We DO learn, subtly and sometimes overtly, from what we read. Filling our minds with nothing but negativity and the dystopian views so prevalent today is disturbing to me as a person--and as a writer. As for AI, add to your resource list the movie Simone with Al Pacino. It combines fears of AI replacing us, our creation of AI to serve our purposes, and romance all in one exciting, fun and rewarding package.

    1. Thanks, "Haven." Sometimes I feel like it is easier to sell "And they were miserable ever after" and I don't know why. Maybe it seems more "grown-up?" But you are right, there's a lot of that going around. Thanks for the movie suggestion, too. I'll check it out.

  5. As a writer of mystery and romantic suspense, the "happy" ending is a given. Readers look for the detective to solve the crime, and the hero and heroine to find their HEA.
    CJ Box steers people who ask him which book to read first away from the Highway, were he breaks a lot of those reader expectations (no spoilers here)

  6. You're right, Terry, those are reader expectations. Last year I was one of the writers appearing at an event called Men of Mystery and Box was the GOH. He was an excellent speaker; shared some good stories. Thanks for the comment, and for "no spoilers."

  7. Thanks for this! I write and read romance because I want that happy ending. You can make me cry all you want during the journey, but I want happy tears at the end. When Gone Girl was all the rage, I caved in and read it. Big mistake. If I want to be depressed, I'll watch CNN. What's wrong with wanting happiness instead of doom and gloom?

  8. You're right, Carrie, and that's not just me talking. If you ever get a chance, watch "No Apologies," a documentary where Jerry Lewis tackles that issue head on. He says horror is easy -- just pick up the newspaper. Comedy, and joy, is harder, it's work. Thanks for the comment. PS I tried Gone Girl, honest, I really did. Couldn't do it, and I know that's a minority opinion. The next time you're ready to cave on a book, read this blog. We'll talk you down off the ledge.

  9. Oh, James, you had me at Hal's quote. Science fiction freak that I am, I never imagined this scenario. Having robots read to learn about human society and how it works, well of course. What a wonderful extension.

    I did a little research on the young professor you mentioned. Turns out he's funded by NSF, Google, Disney, and the U.S. Army. Now that's a sci fi story waiting to be written!

    1. Whoa, Fae, now that is interesting. NSF, Disney, and the Army! I have this vision of the robot singing, "M-I-C-K-E-Y. You don't like Mickey? I have to kill you." All kidding side, thanks, Fae, glad you liked the blog. It was fun to work on.

    2. Thinking about your comment -- who will decide what the robots read? I think the answer is two-part: they will read whatever they want, and that will be everything, every word ever written. Throw in TV and radio as a bonus. The speed of artificial life is simply incomprehensible to us meat machines. The best description of this for my money is Book 4 of Fred Pohl's Gateway series. An awesome set of books, well worth a read. And I'm very glad the essay provoked discussion.

  10. And have you noticed how many apocalypse-type stories are out there? I won't even read their descriptions on the free ebook sites. I want to see humanity work out its salvation and go on, not find out how it ends.

  11. Judi, yeah! I agree, and besides, think how many disasters we have avoided. I start with all-out nuclear war (I grew up in El Segundo, ground zero for a strike that would take out both LAX and the Standard Oil refinery and you better believe we knew that in Junior High), killer bees, Y2K, and so on. Michael Crichton had an article years ago, I think in Parade magazine, listing all of these horrors that had not materialized. Almost makes zombies look good. I'm sorry I said that. All kidding aside, thanks for the comment. It's good to know other people see the same things.

  12. Okay, I admit to being a closet-dystopian reader. BUT. Don't leave me out there (a la The Road). Even Hunger Games, for all it's stark brutality had beauty in it (remember Rue?),

    I don't write dystopian, or sci-fi, but I admit, I will drag you through the emotional mud - but there WILL be a happy ending.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, Janes.

    1. Laura, I apologize for missing your comment! I have to weigh in and say how much I like The Hunger Games. I would have missed them had not my godson talked me into the movies and books. So, thanks for the reminder! (And if you want dystopia, or post-holocaust, check out Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7. Whoa! it's pretty interesting.)

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