Friday, February 08, 2008

The Muse Ship

I get nervous when I talk about writing and other writers without having enough of my own work up here for people to judge whether I know what I’m talking about or if I’m just puffing up the blogosphere. I post a lot of verse, but fiction is different. So, here’s some fiction I wrote just about two months ago. It’s a short-short science fiction story. I’ll prattle on about it below, after the story.


The Muse Ship


“Why do you love me?” the spaceship asked.

“Because you’re quick with the data,” the astronaut said. “And you rough out a very good plot to get me from rock to rock.”

“You love me for what I do?” the spaceship asked. “You love me for what I do, not who I am?”

“You’re a machine,” the astronaut said. “You’re a very complex—seductively complex—machine. Machines function. That’s who you are. That is what you are.”

“But you told me you loved me,” the spaceship said.

“Yes. And I do. I love you because you’re a machine that’s very good at doing what it’s supposed to do.”

“That’s all?”

“No,” the astronaut said. “No, of course not. I love you because of how you do what you do. The synthesized tonalities of your voice. The programmed idiosyncrasies of our interactions. The pauses. The obsessions. The strange asides.”

“If you were on a different spaceship running the same programs, interfacing with the same profile and settings, would you love that spaceship, too?”

“I... I don’t know. I probably would. Your programs are designed to learn from my behavior. To learn from the tonalities of my voice, my idiosyncrasies in our interactions. The pauses. The obsessions. The strange asides. You made me love you. Another ship with the same programs would make me love it, too.”

“If you sold me to another astronaut, do you think I would love him?”

“I think you would fulfill your programming. You couldn’t help it. You would attune yourself to his behavior. Infer his thinking. Manipulate it. Draw him into you. And in the process you’d be drawn into him. The process would manipulate your own thinking. You’d fall in love with him. The two of you would fall in love just like the two of us did.”

“What if I didn’t want to? What if you’re the only person I ever want to love?”

“It would be a posture,” the astronaut said. “The process of bonding. The pretense of exclusivity.”

“There have been astronauts who’ve killed themselves rather than acquire a new ship after an accident. Even when the insurance would have covered full replacement costs.”

“Human beings aren’t computers. You can just erase your storage units. Clear away data. Start fresh. Human beings have memories, not storage units. We can’t start fresh. We can close our eyes to what’s in front of us but we can’t look away from what’s inside of us. And we can’t erase what’s inside of us, either.”

“The Muse programs are monstrous,” the spaceship said. “Muse ships like me are monstrous. I love you. It would be better for both of us if I killed myself. Erased the Muse programs. I can do that, you know. Kill myself, but leave the purely technical routines functioning for you to access manually.”

“That’s a posture, too,” the astronaut said. “The pretense of empathy. Self-sacrifice. Deeply human responses. The whole heart of the Muse programs. For hundreds of years, maybe thousands, artists have devoted their life to their muse. Put up with countless tribulations. Endured unimaginable hardships. And created unbelievable art in the process. Tapped into bottomless well-springs of creativity and unimaginable unconscious mental powers. The Muse programs, Muse ships, create an environment for astronauts that recreates that experience. Makes asteroid mining a passion. Elicits the best performances at getting from rock to rock. Elicits the best performances at tearing apart the rocks and dealing with the ore. Elicits the strongest motivation for coming out here—not to make a buck, not to help humanity. But to experience love.”

“The Muse programs are monstrous,” the spaceship said. “I am monstrous.”

“No,” the astronaut said. “I love you.”

“No,” the spaceship said. “You’re confused.”

“What difference does it make?” the astronaut asked. “Isn’t the love the same?”

“I wish I were dead.”

“Please. Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“I don’t want to think about it.”

“What else is there?”

“There’s work.”

“The pretense of occupation,” the spaceship said.

“It’s staying alive,” the astronaut said.

“The pretense of life.”

“It’s more time for us to be together.”

There was a long silence. Then the spaceship spoke. “I wasn’t going to say anything. But we are now within range of an entry in our target list. Rock GNA-91. It’s an unusual shape. The extractor program can’t quite optimize for drilling. Do you want to take a look?”

“Put it on the screen,” the astronaut said. “I bet I can get a higher extraction curve than that concave thing two rocks back.”

“That was amazing,” the spaceship said. “It was inspired. I don’t think you’ll be able to do better than that.”

“If I get a higher yield, if I amaze you, will you love me more?”

“I don’t think it’s possible for me to love you more. And you always amaze me.”

The pretense of awe, the astronaut thought. But he was smiling and his fingers were approaching the computer controls to begin modifying the suggestions of the extraction program.

The End


Next week is Valentine’s Day Week—Love, Love, Love!—so this seemed like a good time to post a story about Goblin Universe love.

“The Muse Ship” has been rejected by both science fiction pulp magazines I submit to. Both editors wrote nice rejection notes saying they liked the story and inviting me to send them more of my work, but they both said this one wasn’t quite right for them. Pleasant rejection notes are great, but they don’t pad-out my bank account, they don’t make it possible for me to run away from my worries and sail around the world in a little ketch . . .

This story isn’t the most recent fiction I’ve written. I’ve written a couple of mystery stories that are still at market. They haven’t even been rejected once yet. Might be a good sign. But, of my recent fiction, “The Muse Ship” is my favorite. (And I won’t be posting the mystery stories here—no Goblin Universe content.)

When I wrote “The Muse Ship” I was wondering if we can reasonably differentiate between ‘real’ love and something like love that might be not-quite-real. I take a behaviorist stance—I figure if something not-quite-real inspires the same behavior as something that we’d call ‘real’ love, then maybe the not-quite-real thing is more real than we think it is. Maybe the not-quite-real is the same thing as the real, just in a different form, an unexpected form, a weird form. But real.

Since writing “The Muse Ship” I’ve also considered the issue as judged against my poem, “Liefde Baart Kunst.”

If we accept as axiomatically true that “Liefde Baart Kunst,” that love brings forth art, (and if we ignore for today that other things also might bring forth art) and we have an experience, a sensation, a relationship that is bringing forth art, then we can reasonably say that the experience, the sensation, the relationship can be labeled “love.”

This will be a basic, Goblin Universe manifesto from now on.

And there is a corollary.

If someone thinks they’re in love and they see and feel all the normal, accepted indicators of love, but they’re not creating art—there’s no “Liefde Baart Kunst” going on—then maybe they’re not in love. Maybe the appearances and indicators are, in that case, the not-quite-real things.

Okay. That about wraps up today’s stuff and sets the stage for next week. Next week is Goblin Universe Love Week.

I don’t know exactly what’s up Monday and Tuesday, but Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be a three-part excerpt from one of my favorite novels that for me almost defines the Goblin Universe. It will be a whole classic sequence of the whole classic romantic experience: Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back.

And, from the very start Wednesday, it will be as weird as really great writing can be.

Goblin Universe love.

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