Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing "Kylene Has Two Children"

So, here's that lame and nerdy piece of prose about a piece of fiction that's not even available for youall to read, yet. Because the fiction won't go live for another four or five months, and I posted something about the ideas in it...here are the notes on the story. Spoilers, but I'd like some of the bright and witty young things at Reason.com to read this blog, and I'd like them to understand where I'm coming from with my reaction to that recent interview with Gary Johnson.

In July, I entered a contest I don't expect to win, writing a piece of science fiction from prompts proposed by a client. I wrote the story for my own growth as a writer. None of my own speculative fiction has been as science-driven as “Kylene Has Two Children.” The assignment was like, wow, Jules Verne stuff, I never thought I'd be able to write Jules Verne stuff, but yes, with new technology...!

(By "Jules Verne stuff" I've always meant the kind of science fiction that's actually useful to practicing scientists, engineers, technicians, etc. Often the best fiction in this category isn't all that interesting from a literary point of view--Jules Verne is widely regarded as unique in that respect, and some question even his place in the literary canon--but as science it's awesome.)


The purpose of this story was not to present a vision of mine, but to give a fictive body to the client's. That kept it out of my own alternative world, for sure. The specifications included (1) a story written to be shared with city councils and mayors, (2) set in the near future, (3) in a city, (4) where “5G Wireless” technology (5) would radically change the way people thought of ability and disability, (6) in, overall, a good way. This is the kind of thing the client probably had in mind at first:


This is the kind of thing that kind of thought brings to my mind:


So the real-world story is about how all that cognitive dissonance was mixed, shaken, and stirred into a piece of science fiction.

If you spend much time in cyberspace, you know that those specifications meant science fiction about improvements in gadgets of which clunky primitive forms already exist. I chose to focus on “future generations” of three types of electronic devices that help people compensate for three physical conditions that have been seen as handicaps or disabilities:

1. Handscreens: Optacons and Readers already convert printed words from a hard computer screen into touchable patterns on a soft screen or audible words played through speakers. My Handscreens of the future use soft screens to display touchable, moving, three-dimensional images. People who’ve become accustomed to “seeing” what’s ahead of them through a Handscreen can use one to “see” the street and walk down the street without a cane.

2. Wheels: These mobility boosters have corrected some of the features people don’t like about Segways and other stand-up scooters. About one meter square and two meters high, they have sturdy zip-on roofs and walls, bench seats with storage space, super-efficient pedal-and-solar-powered batteries, sensor-activated brakes that prevent crashes, and GPS steering options. They can be hooked together; children go to school in a chain of Wheels called Schoolwheels. 

3. Stunners and Belts: In this fictional future, women refuse to let femaleness be made a “disability.” They arm themselves with remote control switches that activate taser-like devices wired into the non-removable Belts men are required to wear. Of course, to discourage abuse, Stunners also activate siren sounds and summon emergency responders. Nevertheless, if a little girl “Belts” little boys who’ve been staring at her toys, adults tell the boys they shouldn’t have been staring.

(What about little boys and homosexual molesters? I seriously, scientifically believe that homosexuality is a way living creatures react to overcrowded living conditions, so there wouldn't be much of it left in this fictive world.)

When the focus of science fiction is on gadgets, the next question is likely to be “How did the characters get from a world like ours, where these gadgets don’t exist, to one like theirs, where they do?” There are several traditional answers. My preference has been “By being in an alternate universe,” which the structure imposed on this story ruled out. Optimistic science fiction, like Ozarque’s, often postulates that humans are evolving into a more enlightened species; in order to explain very much, that kind of science fiction needs to postulate several centuries of progress, nothing “in the near future.” Fantasy, which Stephen Hawking made the category for stories set on “other sides of a multidimensional universe,” simply postulates a world different from ours, for readers to take or leave alone, according to what they consider the story deserves.

When I picture the kind of changes 5G Wireless is likely to make in a world like ours, which has war and rape and pollution in it, I have to say that overall a 5G Wireless cloud would be a bad thing. That kind of technology could be a good thing only if we postulate a world where people have learned to be much nicer, more respectful of everyone’s privacy, than humankind as a species are today.

In our world, the kind of people who are charitably called intellectuals and introverts, or less charitably nerds, geeks, freaks, wonks, or “creatives,” are (often) much nicer and more respectful of everyone’s privacy than the average human is. We may or may not seem shy and awkward, or just “different,” or maybe just very polite and charming (because we listen) at parties. We are, however, able to car-pool, share machinery and appliances, even share houses and flats, because we have a certain hard-wired sense of respect for one another that many other people seem to lack. We are the people who are likely to design and build 5G Wireless gadgets, which is dangerous, because we do not instinctively think the way those other people who are likely to want to use those gadgets think. For example, if Stunners and Belts technology were available to us, a few little girls would test it once, at school, but most of us could get through our entire lives without ever actually using it; it really would be just a way to eliminate rape-terrorism from the world, not a way to replace it with taser-terrorism.

So how, in one human generation, can you get from a world where polite, respectful, intellectual introverts have generally had a lot of sand kicked in our faces, to a world where polite, respectful, intellectual introverts are either the entire population or the norm that other people try to emulate?

Masses of science fiction stories have selected for one type of population or another by postulating that a lot of humans are colonizing different planets. That, too, seems to be further ahead of us than “the near future.” 

Another way to achieve a nicer, more respectful society is simply to reduce population density—by any means necessary. All humans want to control their own immediate surroundings; as long as there’s room for people just to back away from one another, they can sustain love and loyalty. This reaches amusing proportions in ancient literature, where if the scholars are translating the words correctly we read that partners stayed “together” for eighty years, or maybe eight hundred years (sometimes the meaning may have been that their families maintained an alliance for that long), but during much of this “togetherness” they were living a hundred miles apart. But don’t knock it; good distance makes good neighbors.

The easiest way to thin the population “in the near future” would be either a plague or a war. A war might open up more space among people but would not select for a population who were more respectful of interpersonal boundaries. I postulated a plague that was especially deadly wherever people were living in crowded conditions, so cities, especially, were opened up to become more congenial environments for people with a good sense of interpersonal space.

When I think “city” I automatically think of my city, which is Washington, D.C. Washington is unique because it’s the home of the federal government. This complicates city government issues, so the story needed to be set in a more generic city. A generic city all Washingtonians have visited is Baltimore. I think of present-time Baltimore as a city that features two ways of creating lots of interpersonal space: beautiful old houses with big gardens for rich people, rotting-out slums where nobody wants to be for poor people. In the future Baltimore of the story the plague has expanded the effects of both of those features of the city.

People think of each other as neighbors and townsfolk whether they can actually see one another’s house from their own front door or not. They’re glad to claim any neighbors at all, because these people are plague survivors. Kylene is blessed with two living parents, one of whom, her father, is famous. Most other adults she knows, including her husband, lost their parents long ago.

There’s room in this post-plague world for people to lack things they need—although Kylene doesn’t—but it’s not because of limited space or resources. People work for what they need; they don’t meddle; their primary weapon doesn’t do any permanent damage, and their big crime problem, which is not really a focal point but is mentioned in the story, injures people but doesn’t kill them. (Schools and workplaces still do regular blood screening for the plague, and for other things. All self-respecting high-tech worlds have instant blood screening…so they have markets for freshly stolen blood.) And most adults are orphans.

Within this setting, I’m sorry to say that the plot is a cliché, the kind of thing science fiction writers do when we’ve used up most of our time working out the setting and just dropped in a piece of public-domain boilerplate, at the last minute, where the plot needs to go. If science fiction is about adaptive technology for people with disabilities, doesn’t the plot have to be about how someone with what would be a disability, in our world, was actually an advantage because it made our protagonist familiar with the gadget s/he uses to save the other person or the planet?

The disability I chose to focus on is blindness, because that took the least research; cataracts run in my family and microphthalmia runs in a friend’s family (as it did in Lois Henderson’s family). So first we have old grandpa Kyle, who could see colors with one eye when he was younger, wanting to try the latest Handscreen that uses temperature to indicate colors. When he tries it he finds it distracting, frustrating—which is the way my father used to react to every new adaptive device people used to offer him. He worries that he may have an additional disability, but in time he learns to use his new gadget. Kylene doesn’t bother about the color feature because she’s never seen colors at all. She hears color terms like names. That person is Helen Hsiu because she said her name is Helen Hsiu. The toothbrush is green because Trevor said it’s green. Kylene “sees” with her fingers, and she’s able to “see” the road, “see” people’s faces, and work as a librarian, with her Handscreen.

Because Kylene was born totally blind, and her father had dedicated his active life to building devices that would turn most kinds of physical disability into minor nuisances, in the story there’s relatively a lot of attention to this idea being part of Kylene’s relationship with her father. Some readers may need to be reminded that this does not mean she’s closer to her father than to her mother; her parents are still married, living with each other not with Kylene. Kylene’s father is a celebrity, so she’s accustomed to talking about him and his work. Her mother is a private person, so all Kylene says about her mother is that she’s there. Her mother’s name is Michi. Did I leave that in the story? I forget; now, looking seems like cheating.

In my mind Kyle has a gene for partial albinism, or leucism, which produces the coloring that also runs in the family from whom I learned about microphthalmia; Kyle was born with white-blond hair, which turned reddish-blond as he grew up, and he has pale blue eyes and pale, sensitive skin. (That’s a separate gene, but both genes are common in northern Europe.) Trevor inherited Kyle’s coloring. Michi has black hair, still more black than white at seventy, and dark eyes, and eyelids with epicanthic folds. Kylene looks like a Japanese-American with whom I shared a flat in the early 1990s, a throwback to a European ancestor, with medium brown hair and freckles. (I didn’t think my flatmate looked Japanese at all until I saw a similar body shape and gait, from behind, and thought it was my flatmate, and then saw that it was another Japanese-American woman, older, whom we didn’t know; Michi looks like her.)

The other characters are similar. They have a mix of names that’s typical of the Baltimore telephone directory. Some of them look “typical” for the ethnic types their names suggest, some don’t. Kylene doesn’t necessarily know or care. She’s learned the way people describe her famous father and learned that her son inherited a similar look. She recognizes most people by their voices and the way they move.

Kyle’s working partner, Rayvon, died of the plague. Kyle survived, got rich from an invention they worked for together, and insisted that Rayvon’s child, Bernice, share the money. In my mind Rayvon was, and Bernice is, Black. Kylene may have heard them described this way but it didn’t mean much to her. How did that happen in color-conscious Baltimore, where even into the twenty-first century emergency responders would still ask whether an emergency patient was Black or White—and prioritize their responses accordingly? One change the plague produced was that people think of themselves as neighbors fighting an enemy, the plague, together, rather than ethnic groups whose ancestors didn’t treat each other well.

Another change is that, because crowding was associated with the plague, it’s become normal for both parents to be sterilized whenever a baby is born. People think having more than one child in a house is perverse and dangerous. So although Kylene doesn’t think of Bernice as Black, she also doesn’t think of Bernice as her sister. She tells us that her parents wanted them to think the main difference between them was age—but people don’t talk about having brothers and sisters any more. “Kylene has two children” has become a startling thing to hear, a way to provoke questions about how that happened, just like “Heather has two ‘Mommies’.” The default explanation would be twins, and some parents of twins would try to arrange for one twin to live in a different house as they grew up.

Since city government was specifically suggested by the client, we attend a town meeting and learn that Baltimore’s town meetings have become similar to the ones Takoma Park used to have, which were fun. City government business is taken care of fast, no politicking, lots of consensus, and then the people who’ve attended the meeting reward themselves with a party. Anybody can “prepare” for the meeting by reading/viewing/listening to the history of the material on the agenda. Anybody who’s prepared can speak and vote. Other people, including the children, just go to meetings for the food, music, and socializing.

One detail in this future Baltimore was a bit of a private joke of mine. In real life I went to Shoemaker Elementary School, and kids from other schools used to joke: “So what kind of shoes do you make?” In the 5G Wireless world, most adults “tele-work” and most school subjects are taught online from people’s homes, thus minimizing traffic and conserving resources and so on. Kylene does most of her work as a librarian from home, interacting with library patrons on screens. The children go to school one day every two weeks. That’s the day when they do the things school children actually do in groups—sports, music, and shop. Trevor reports to his parents about the shoes he worked on in shop class at school, and his mother wonders what Colonel Shoemaker would think of the students actually making shoes at school. In this world where humans have been selected for niceness and intelligence, more of the survivors might have gone to Berea College, or at least they’ve absorbed Berean ideas about scholarship being compatible with useful labor and schools supporting themselves through profitable industry.

Some other things I wanted people to recognize from real present-time Baltimore. They still have those big wide avenues downtown, those big old city buildings…and even though people have moved in, planted hedges, and tried to reclaim it, Douglass is still a mean street...and although they've finally agreed on a better verse to sing, the state song is still a variant of "Maryland My Maryland."

But the biggest change we see at the city council meeting is that everyone is aware that trying to control other people is a disease, a disability. People like Kyle and Rayvon have made it true, as our "Left Hand Man" likes to say, that most of the time things like blindness or loss of a leg are “inconveniences” more than disabilities. The human nervous system can adjust and compensate for many kinds of damage, even brain damage. Technology is one more way we compensate for physical disabilities. The real disabilities that prevent people from being able to live and love and work are mental disabilities, like a nasty, controlling personality…

To me it seemed obvious, although to some readers it might not, that the little girl who stuns the boys for looking at her stuff has Problems that have something to do with an abusive adult. I think that to any feminist of my generation who reads the story, that part of the plot is probably just so dead obvious it hurts, and to some other readers it may even seem obscure. I don’t know whether my middle-ground approach to telling the story reaches, or misses, both sides.

Anyway, if you’re one of the readers who automatically think, “That hypervigilant, defensive little girl must be a victim of some sort of abuse! Why don’t people rush in and intervene?” the answer is that people know that rushing in is not an option. It’s been tried, and even if there’s a small chance that the girl might be in danger and a hasty, intrusive intervention might save her life, there’s a large chance that she’s not in danger and would be more harmed than helped by any intrusion.

So the nasty character gets enough rope to hang himself, as the generation before mine used to say. He presents a sort of revive-socialism manifesto at the city council meeting. Kyle the famous inventor tells him off. Because people are proud of Kyle, and they remember that socialism was a bad idea, they give Kyle a standing ovation and mutter about watching the nasty guy in case they might be able to help him. What happens when they start watching him is, to me, just the way this plot always has to go. If I’d taken more time I might have thought of a more creative variation. I didn’t. Almost up to the deadline I was thinking about the gadgets and the society where they'd be good things.

Anyway, people who don’t read a lot of science fiction don’t mind the clichés as much as science fiction fans and critics do. I did not write the story for Ozarque, Diane Duane, Pamela Dean, Neil Gaiman, or Elizabeth Barrette; I don't expect to live long enough to write science fiction up to their standards anyway. I wrote it for people who read more law and politics than fiction. My excuse was that to them it might still sound fresh.

Being an introvert, thus prone to second thoughts, I’ve had second thoughts about this story for this audience. Washington is full of introvert policy wonks, but most actual politicians are extroverts, who may still exist in Kylene’s world but who'd be severely constrained by its social mores. I think that even if total introverts from our world could visit Kylene’s world, people might seem, well, aloof to us. It’s not only that Kylene has never actually seen anyone’s eyes; it’s that distance between people is part of her plague-survivor culture. Keeping a healthy distance, in her world, is not just an introvert/extrovert comfort issue. It could still mean survival. People try not to bring up two children in one house, they try not to have two households on one acre of land, and they don’t touch when they dance. That was the only way I could see humankind, in just one or two generations, evolving the kind of sense of boundaries I think people would have to have in order to be able to use 5G wireless technology in a healthy sustainable way. It’s not produced by the technology; it’s an element of the story that I believe has to be there in order to prevent the technology producing tyranny and/or war. It’s the best possible way I think this story could happen, but I’ll admit it’s harsh. I'd rather see more caution about the technology than live in Kylene's world.

Because all of our electronic communication technology has brought people closer together in some ways, it’s forced us to develop more rigid and restrictive senses of boundaries in other ways. My grandparents’ generation didn’t have telephones; they didn’t do a lot of visiting in each other’s houses—they wrote a lot of letters—but they felt a need to keep some part of their home ready to receive drop-in visitors at any time. If an accident occurred on the road, people would try to get the victim to the nearest house and send for the nearest doctor. By the time I came along, that didn’t happen any more; if an accident occurred, people would look for the nearest telephone booth and call for an ambulance—and it was unpardonably rude to drop in at a friend’s house without even a phone call first. Now the relative prices of land phones, cell phones, e-mail and text messages, are causing friends to re-negotiate the rules of etiquette. Friends who could and did talk for hours on land phones know better than to waste half a minute on social pleasantries when calling on cell phones.

In order for wireless technology to coexist with a healthy, peaceable society I think it will inevitably force more of this kind of re-negotiation of social boundaries. We already have GPS technology that can tell a delivery truck driver exactly how to get to the appropriate entrance to our place of business. We have people working on the idea of building self-steering vehicles that, e.g., someone who’s been drinking could just program to take him or her safely home, or a friend could. When we think about this, many of us have a reaction like, “How do I keep my home out of the GPS system? How can I make sure that, if someone tries to use GPS to find me, GPS will redirect that person, and/or vehicle, drone, bomb, to a police station?”

In the story “Kylene Has Two Children” I didn’t raise the question of how harmful wireless technology might be to people living in a city that’s wired into a wireless cloud. There’s a reason for that, too. I think that’s a valid question, but it won’t be answered “in the near future.” In the story I’m postulating that, if constant exposure to the cloud is going to do Kylene any harm, it will take long enough that noticing it will be part of Trevor’s generation’s story. I’ll be greatly surprised if 5G wireless emissions do more harm to my generation, as a demographic group, than aging would have been likely to do anyway; we just won’t have been exposed to them long enough. The millennial generation, the generation in which a lot of men are called “Kyle,” will be the ones who build and use most of this stuff. The “guinea pig” generation whose experience reflects the long-term health risks of using it would be Trevor’s generation, and in a 7500-word story I didn’t try to work out which of them are the control group who grow up outside the cloud, although I think there needs to be such a group—maybe self-selected as the people who choose not to live in the wired cities. That’s a problem for the young to work out among themselves. Even without a plague, few of my generation will be there to see how much harm a wireless cloud is likely to do.

What we’ve always needed to work on, and what the young need to continue to work on, is that sense of respect for other people’s boundaries. Too many of us grew up hearing, “Don’t be shy! Why let other people ignore you? Reach out and touch someone! What a pity and a shame if anyone’s allowed to be lonely! Let other people have the pleasure of knowing you!” when we should have been hearing, “If other people do have feelings ‘just as you do’ then most of them, most of the time, are concentrating on living their lives and do not want to be interrupted. If anyone does want you to ‘reach out and just say hi,’ that person is probably a bore—if not Mr. Stranger Danger himself! What a pity and a shame if anyone doesn’t have the opportunity to make his or her own choices about how much s/he wants to connect with other people. Let other people invest some effort in convincing you, and themselves, that they want to know you.”

We all need to become “shy” as we think about wireless cloud technology. We need to bear in mind that most people don’t want any of their personal affairs to become part of an information cloud that might someday get scrambled into an entertainment broadcast on the other side of the planet…and those who do are either very stupid, or trying desperately to sell something…and if they have to try all that hard to sell something, there’s probably a reason. We need to realize that most of the people currently living on this crowded planet feel that they’re already well enough connected to other people and don’t need more gadgets just to increase this connectedness. If you don’t already know that e-mail consists of 80% spam (unwelcome garbage) and 15% bacon (legitimate news of which you needed only the headlines), you’re not a real cyberspace entity yet.

In Kylene’s post-plague world, so few people are still alive, and so many have or are developing physical, er um, inconveniences, that wireless technology is a wonderful thing. People really can think of Handscreens as something blind people use to “see” their grandchildren, rather than something sales pests use to annoy blind people or terrorists use to kill them. How can you not say the sooner the better? But if we hope to build that kind of world, we need to work harder on becoming the kind of people who can live in that kind of world…the kind who understand that, no matter how much we may need to increase sales, no matter whether we’re physically hungry or in need of expensive surgery or maintaining our web sites from homeless shelters, we can’t sell our kind of product to our kind of people by spamming anybody, ever.

A world where it even occurs to anybody to try to raise money through a bogus personal appeal to a stranger (“This urgent last-minute appeal just for you, Cash!” pleads a spam e-mail addressed to “Cash Customer”) is a world where it’s more important for more people to get our home addresses out of the GPS system than to get our vehicles into it. I'm sorry, because I liked the idea of the goodies of Kylene's world too, but I think we need to work on our society before we adopt those goodies--even if prototypes for early forms of some of the gadgets are already being used in our real world.