Saturday, July 29, 2017

A personal essay I wrote for uni about the influence two books, 1984 and Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, had on my reading and writing.  

The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

                              Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In my mid-teens, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four told me what I already suspected. It confirmed my thinking that everyone I knew – my iffy school mates and more definite school hates, as well my teachers and my parents – were all just like me, desperate to fit in because they were too scared not to. Nineteen Eighty-Four was also full of ideas about how society could be manipulated, and had me thinking what our future world might be like. A few years later I escaped to university and found myself surrounded by outsiders. One of them shoved Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane into my hand. It had a very flawed hero who I identified with. Both of those books had a great effect on my future reading as I searched for more stories that had flawed outsider characters exploring ideas about future societies. I soon found science-fiction novels and magazines were full of such characteristics.         

In an introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History Ben Pimlott claims most of its characters are only two-dimensional. As a teenager, with a limited experience of life, I can’t remember thinking the characters needed to be more fleshed out, they seemed real enough to me. Pimlott goes on to claim that without its political ideas, Nineteen Eighty-Four is just an adolescent fantasy “of lonely defiance, furtive sex and deadly terror”. I really identified with the “lonely defiance”. Winston Smith seemed to be a lot like me, someone who didn’t fit into the world, but unlike me, he resisted the pressure to fit in. His resistance had me questioning my own desire to conform and accept my allotted space in society. Nineteen Eighty-Four had me wanting to read more about outsiders who rejected the need to fit in. Outsiders who were not so much rebelling, more just living their own versions of life.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was much more than a call to defy my peer’s low expectations for me. It was a novel full of ideas that sparked my imagination, and metaphors that explained the world. Ideas like Newspeak and how language could be used to influence and censor thought. Ideas like the Ministry of Truth and how history could be changed to justify those in power. Ideas like Big Brother and how we are all under surveillance and being scrutinised. Nineteen Eighty-Four had me wanting to read more idea driven books. It also had me thinking whether future societies would be oppressive or utopian, or something in between. At the time I read it, I was an avid fan of Doctor Who and Star Trek on television, which were shows full of outsiders, such as the Doctor and Spock, and ideas, such as time-travel and transporters. Those shows also explored what future societies might be like. Maybe in the future the world will have one government, like Star Trek’s Federation. These thoughts led me to reading science-fiction.  

I soon found that science-fiction novels and magazines are full of what I was searching for. They are full of ideas, like genetically-engineered immortality, or living in virtual worlds. They are full of characters who don’t fit in, such as child maths prodigy Francis Conway in George Turner’s The Sea and Summer or the genderless clone Breq in Ann Leckie’s  Ancillary Justice. Science-fiction suggests we might colonise other planets, like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, or an outsider scientist might create a virus that nearly kills everyone, like in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science-fiction novels and magazines had me hooked.  

Three years after I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, I appeared to have escaped the clutches of Big Brother to live in a residential college at La Trobe University. A fellow escapee recommended and loaned to me Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane. In that novel Thomas Covenant is magically transported from modern day America into a world full of sorcerers, spirits, giants, demons and humans. Covenant was brought to the land to battle the evil sorcerer Lord Foul. There was an obvious reason for him being chosen: the magical power of his white gold wedding ring, but why did they choose such a flawed human being?

Covenant must be one of the most flawed heroes of literature. Rejected by society due to his leprosy, he is bitter at his treatment and hates himself. He still wears a wedding ring in the deluded hope that his wife might return. Once transported to the other world, a teenager befriends him, and he rapes her. At the time, he did not think the world was real, while as a reader I was also trying to decide if it was “real”. Covenant doesn’t trust himself for most of the novel, yet by the end of the novel this very flawed character sacrifices himself to save a world that he is beginning to think might be real. Stephen Donaldson says in fantasy the world is an expression of its characters, so Lord Foul is an expression of the contempt Covenant held for himself. Therefore, Covenant is battling himself. This battle within himself had me identifying with him. On a number of occasions my real-life emotions and uncertainty mirrored Covenant’s. He was one of the first really flawed characters I identified with.

Lord Foul’s Bane had me wanting to read more novels with flawed characters. It had me rejecting a lot of American science-fiction due to its formulaic heroes: alpha males full of moral certainty. They usually have a token flaw, like an inability to talk to women, in an attempt to make them appear, what Professor Pimlott might call, more than just two-dimensional. One such near flawless hero in Ben Bova’s Moonrise infuriated me so much that I cheered when he died, suffocating alone on the moon’s surface. In my search for more realistic characters, I found Australian science-fiction full of flawed characters, such as Spider, a penniless, divorced and unmotivated repairman in KA Bedford’s Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait.

Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lord Foul’s Bane not only affected what I read, they also affected what I write. I predominately read and write science-fiction stories that are usually set in the future and explore ideas about society through flawed characters. In my writing, many of my main characters don’t care about fitting in. Like Winston Smith, I hope my writing will tell many outsiders what they already know.   

Friday, April 28, 2017

Whatever happened to the technological singularity?

This is a copy of a speech I wrote for a writing subject in my BA of Internet Communications.

Whatever happened to the technology singularity?

I am here tonight to ask the question, whatever happened to the technology singularity? I ask this question because we don’t seem to be getting any closer to being dragged into its event horizon. The singularity’s supercharged revolution of society is something I desperately want to experience. Rather than just writing about the singularity, I want to live it.    

I can remember my excitement when I first read Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, where he told us of the wonders of nanotechnology. He told us of a future where nanobots - nano-scale robots - can manufacture everything, molecule by molecule. Many Star Trek fans would have immediately imagined that replicators would soon be churning out all the burgers and beer we could ever consume, for free. 

My excitement about the future I would live in super nova-ed when I read Damien Broderick’s The Spike. He wrote of a convergence of technologies that would create a spike in human development, a period of massive change, where a combination of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would turn us into super-humans. We were destined to become technological gods. 

While impatiently waiting to become a god, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. He speculated that artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would lead to humans, like you and me, creating our own starship Enterprise and leaving the planet. You and I were going to the stars. And humanity would eventually saturate the universe.

But, here’s the reality for those of us dreaming of the technological singularity. Engines of Creation was written three decades ago, while The Spike hit the bookstores nearly two decades ago. And The Singularity is Near came out over a decade ago.
So how near is near?

Are we ever going to live lives of leisure and creativity while AI’s run everything for us? Are we ever going to genetically engineer our bodies so we can live for millennia? Are we ever going to use swarms of nanobots to strip carbon atoms from carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere and stop global warming?

What have scientists been doing to ensure the singularity even occurs?
Well, at the molecular level a few of them got together and used a scanning tunnelling microscope to move 35 atoms around so they spelt IBM, thus creating the world’s smallest logo in 1990. While scientists at Cornell University busied themselves constructing a molecular scale nano-guitar, which has strings that can be strummed, but we aren't able to hear it. But other scientists seem more intent on creating something useful. Nature magazine says scientists have created many nano-scale motors and propellers. But these very simple machines are a long way from the complexity needed to make Drexler’s replicators, his engines of creation.

But then 3D printers suddenly materialised, like the Tardis, out of nowhere. We suddenly had a very primitive Star Trek replicator. Many of you would’ve seen stories about 3D printers, like their ability to print guns, single shot pistols that tend to explode. Just as well 3D printers can also print replacement artificial hands.

One or two of you might already have spent the few hundred dollars for a 3D printer.  I envisage that in a few years, every household will have one, using them to print replacement screens for dropped mobile phones or to make a missing Lego block needed to finish a model of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.

Think what you could print if you had an industrial scale 3D printer, like the ones used to print houses in China. NASA has also used them to print out 75 percent of the parts for a working rocket engine. In the future, you might be able to print a full-scale Millennium Falcon, that actually flies.

What about genetic engineering? Seemingly endless trials continue to reaffirm the safety of genetically modified foods. The US Food and Drug Administration says diabetics have been using genetically engineered insulin for decades. And many animals have been cloned including cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. But no one has successfully cloned a human, at least not officially.

One form of genetic engineering that seems to always be in the news is stem cell research. Harvard university scientists have used stem cells to regenerate human heart tissue. They hope a fully functioning human heart will be created using stem cells in several years. There are also many reports of stem cells healing paraplegics. The University of California reported using them to help a car-crash victim regain the use of his hands and legs. While in Japan, the RIKEN laboratory for Retinal Regeneration used stem cells to stop the muscular degeneration of an 80-year-old’s eyesight.

What have the computer scientists been up to? We’re still yet to see an operating system become self-aware like Samantha in the movie Her, but machine learning is taking off. As many of you know, machine learning is where a computer learns to do things using algorithms, rather than being programed to do those things. Such algorithms allow driverless cars, like Google’s, to react to all the new situations the car encounters on roads. Data scientist Jeremy Howard, runs a company involved in machine learning, and he says deep-learning algorithms have enabled a computer to be better than humans at recognising the content of images. Not only that, the deep-learning algorithms enabled the computer to write accurate descriptions of the images. Howard claims that machine learning will enable computers to soon do most service jobs that involve writing, reading, listening and data analysis. And they will do these tasks much faster than humans.

Kurzweil says artificial intelligence is the key to the singularity. Once computers get smarter than you and me they will not only design smarter computers, but they will be able to speed up the development of nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetic engineering. For those of us counting on fully experiencing the singularity, we can hope that an algorithm is currently being written that will soon turn computers into smarter than human AIs. We can hope such an algorithm will be announced next week, seemingly materialise from nowhere, like 3D printers did.

If a full on artificial intelligence enabling algorithm is created soon, many of us here tonight could experience the wonders of the technological singularity and a post-human universe. A universe where the only limitation to our massively extended lives is our imaginations.


Aldrich, M. (2016). Paralyzed man regains use of arms and hands after experimental stem
cell therapy at Keck Hospital of USC. Retrieved from

BBC. (2014). 3D Printed guns of ‘no use to anyone’. Retrieved form

Bernard, L. (1997). Smallest guitar, about the size of a human blood cell, illustrates new
           technology for nano-sized electromechanical devices. Retrieved from

Broderick, D. (1997). The spike: Accelerating into the unimaginable future. Kew, Aust: Reed.

Browne, M.W. (1990). 2 Researchers spell ‘I.B.M.,’ atom by atom. Retrieved from

Coghlan, A. (2017). Vision saved by first induced pluripotent stem cell treatment.
Retrieved from

Drexler, K. E. (1986). Engines of creation: challenges and choices of the last technological
revolution. Retrieved from

Junod, S.W. (2009). Celebrating a milestone: FDA's approval of first genetically-engineered
product. Retrieved from

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. New York:

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2016). Functional heart muscle regenerated in
decellurized human hearts. Retrieved from

NASA. (2015). Piece by piece: NASA team moves closer to building a 3-D printed rocket
engine. Retrieved from

Peplow, M. (2015). March of the machines. Nature, 525(7567), 18. Retrieved from

TedxBrussels. (2014). Jeremy Howard: The wonderful and terrifying implications of 
computers that can learn [Video file] Retrieved from

Walmsley, H. (2015). World-first 3D-printed hand prosthesis inspired by 1845 design kept in
online archive. Retrieved from

Zhou, C. (2015). 3D-printed house built in just three hours in China’s Xi’an. Retrieved from

Monday, February 6, 2017

Hi all,

I thought I better post something just to prove I am still alive. I have been so busy studying that I have not had time to regularly post on my blog.  In fact, I am feeling guilty as hell that I am writing this and not taking notes for one of my subjects.

My course did not stop for the end of the year or even Christmas. I even had an online quiz to complete by the end of Christmas Day, and got the results for it, when it ticked over into Boxing Day. 

I am currently doing News and Politics, a journalism type subject, through Griffith Uni and Critical Thinking, at Macquarie. I am doing well in the latter. For the former, I worry that my latest assignment wasn’t very good.  

I did not have an end of year “best of” of science fiction for this year as it would not have been very comprehensive. I hardly went and saw any films and I only finished reading one novel. It was a pretty average year for science fiction movies anyway, with Arrival probably being the pick of the bunch. I think the very ordinary last Star Trek movie might end the franchise for a while. 

I watched a bit of small screen science fiction though. Westworld was easily the best, with immense production values, multiple plot lines and a Sixth Sense type of revelation at the ending of series one. I am surprised more people are not talking about it because to me it is science fiction of Battlestar Galactica quality. Other series I enjoyed were Class, Dark Matter, Killjoys, Orphan Black, and Wayward Pines. (ed - forgot to include Mars, a very good doco-drama.)

I did very little writing last year, just a few minutes of writing on nearly every day so I could continue to call myself a writer. Currently I am about a third of the way through the second draft of “Branded”.

So far this year the writing and reading has failed to pick up. Perhaps one day I will write for an hour or so, and that night I will pick up a book and read for half an hour, and then do the same the next day, and the next, until it becomes a habit.