My forthcoming e-book, which I am currently fundraising for with an IndieGoGo campaign, will feature four sci-fi stories, each with a strange little twist. Below are new summaries for two of the stories.
In “AutoPhil” the main character, Phil, is a financially desperate human looking for work a few days into the Singularity. He accepts an ominous job archiving human minds for a superior artilect named Rasputin.
Beyond just introducing the idea of a biologically organic search engine (the human mind, which, in this fictional universe, is still evolving) used by machines in order to optimize their marketing tactics, this story poses the question of how post-Singularity entities will compete with each other economically. The way I depict it, things are more cutthroat than ever, with the entire human noosphere open to horrifying data mining tactics.
In my novella “Someday This Will All Be Yours” I trace the life and times of Dr. Jim Jacoba, a biotechnology scientist turned post-human magnate, who, in his quest to achieve an indefinite lifespan, unwittingly assists in the machine takeover, all the while losing his family to death and betrayal.
In this story, I depict the Singularity as the new Manifest Destiny, a spaceward expansion based on privatizing and patenting regions of the solar system in order to mine for computronium. As AI artilects merge, acquire one another, and step on each other to suckle off the all-powerful Dyson Spheres being constructed around the Earth, humans struggle to maintain relevance.
Zardoz is the story of Zed (Sean Connery), a speedo-wearing Exterminator in the year 2293. Earth has been ravaged by an unspecified apocalypse. What remains of the ruling class, the Eternals, has absconded to live in secret utopian cities called Vortices. They have left their chosen warrior class, the Exterminators, in charge of administering (via rape, murder, and torture) the mammalian masses, or the Brutals, who harvest what grain remains on the sallow planet.
The Exterminators, though they do the Eternals’ bidding, have no contact with their rulers. In fact, they have no conception of the larger reality at work (which we will get to soon). They worship the god Zardoz, who comes to them in the form of a giant flying stone head that vomits firearms. In exchange for the guns, the Exterminators supply the head with the grain tilled by the Brutals. It’s an exceedingly logical system if you think about it.
“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth . . . and kill!”
Zed, we will learn, is not an ordinary Exterminator. He is an educated one, having been lured by a mysterious unseen figure to a library. There he feasted on the accumulated knowledge of mankind. It was good times and great oldies….until he came across a particular volume that blew his mind. The Wizard of Oz. Reading the classic, he realized that Oz was the prototype for the stone head of Zardoz, with its “loud voice and big mask.” It was a sinister re-appropriation but, more importantly, an effective way of controlling the Exterminators. Provide them with guns and let them harvest the land.
This is the actual start of the film, when Zed, realizing that their god has been manipulating them, infiltrates the head of Zardoz and hides in a mound of grain. Zed hitches a ride to God-knows-where, and on the way he kills (or attempts to kill) the stone’s pilot, Arther Frayn (who is identified as an Eternal in the film’s prologue).
Zed learns that the stone has taken him to the nearest Vortex. Soon he finds himself surrounded by a legion of bemused Eternals (who look like the offspring of present day hipsters after they have time traveled and mated with 60′s hippies and then forged an everlasting Burning Man in the meadows of Ireland). One of the Eternals, Consuella, wants Zed destroyed, fearing him to be a danger to the community. Another female Eternal, May, who seems to have a bit of a crush on Zed, wants him studied instead. This view is shared by a subversive, irreverent Eternal by the name of Friend. Though Zed is now an indentured servant with the status of brute circus attraction, Friend takes Zed under his wing; meanwhile May studies him, using her psychic powers to mine his barbaric brain for clues as to how he came to arrive at the Vortex’s doorstep.
While the Eternals learn about Zed, Zed learns about the Eternals. Custodians of the past, Eternals live merely to safeguard mankind’s treasure trove of knowledge. They cannot die—a mysterious artificial intelligence called the Tabernacle (with whom the Eternals communicate via crystal rings) is constantly restoring and reconstituting their bodies. They cannot have sex, as immortality’s strain on procreation has phased out the sensation of lust. And they cannot sleep, only meditate. Essentially they live long, boring, privileged lives, paid for with the blood of the Brutals. They are a self-regulating civilization with sophisticated social rules, a cult-like noosphere by which any citizen who momentarily expresses dissent is artificially aged and consigned to live as a “Renegade”. Their legal system, therefore, seems to consist largely of group chants resembling the alien cacophony of choral voices in 2001. Another strange caste of their society is the “Apathetics,” made up of Eternals who, lacking normal human desires, have fallen into unending states of catatonia.
Meanwhile, Consuella and May, using their catty psychic powers, learn that Zed is the end-product of biotechnology experiment conducted by Arther Frayn, the Zardoz god. Though Zardoz used the Exterminators to control the Brutals and provide the Eternals with grain, the more nefarious aim was to use “careful genetic breeding” to create a powerful warrior who, given the right impetus, would storm the Vortex and liberate the Eternals from their everlasting drudgery. Here it is revealed that it was Arther who was the mysterious figure who led Zed to the library, where he discovered the Wizard of Oz. Zardoz wasn’t a god, he was a confidence man, a puppet master.
As the Eternals slowly begin to lose their minds, a decision is made by Consuella to kill Zed. Zed escapes with the help of May and Friend, who has been aged and now resembles a late-career Gene Wilder. Zed organizes a group of Exterminators to storm the Vortex, awakening (accidentally) the Apathetics from their collective daydream in the process. With the end in sight, the Eternals make a deal with Zed. A new exchange: now Zed receives knowledge (previously guns) of the Tabernacle in return for his seed (previously grain), for the creation of a future, mortal, human race.
The knowledge he receives pertains to how the Eternals came to be eternal. He learns they were made so by themselves, or, more accurately, their scientists created the Tabernacle in order to ensure that they could never die, “forcing the hand of evolution.” Now, in order for the liberation to be complete, Zed must defeat the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle challenges Zed. “Would you kill God?” Zed takes the challenge by somehow sliding into the AI’s crystalized, dark hall-of-mirrors nucleus, running around and screaming. It’s sort of like the acid graveyard scene in Easy Rider, only it ends with the destruction of the Tabernacle and, with it, the Eternals being liberated from immortality.
The rest of the movie is Zed and the Exterminators “liberating” (killing) the Eternals with pistols. Most of them, finally released from their Tabernacle-controlled biology and craving death, welcome Zed as the Liberator. In a wonderful stroke of irony, the Liberator must return to his role as the Exterminator, for the only way to liberate the Eternals is to murder them.
The final scene is Zed and Consuella stealing off to bone in a cave. By bone I mean sex, but also literally, turn to bone–as they are shown aging in time lapse, finally left as nothing more than skeletons while their son peaces out into the Brutal/Eternal new world.
There are many aspects of Zardoz upon which we could dwell: the Wizard of Oz as a template for a flying stone head that acts as a god for barbarian foot soldiers; the concept of religion as a tool with which the ruling classes coax the masses into fitting a convenient social apparatus; Sean Connery in a speedo. But my interest in this film stems largely from the idea of mankind creating artificial intelligence as a method by which to prolong its life and attain immortality—technology as an escape from death.
There is a growing faction of futurists—some who identify as trans-humanist, others post-humanist, still others as singularitarians (those who profess to a coming age of exponential technological advancement beyond which nothing can be predicted)—who fervently believe that by successfully utilizing biotechnology, nanotechnology, and eventually artificial intelligence, humans will one day be able to completely erase senescence (death) as an inevitability. The idea of the Tabernacle, though it may not come to manifest itself by way of crystal, is very much a part of contemporary fringe science, even popular culture. This escape from physicality—as post-humanists ultimately believe in uploading their consciousness to non-biological substrates—plays evenly into the hand of Zardoz, in which physicality has been reduced to the historical rubble of statues and violence. The Eternals have no practical application as biological beings: they don’t work, they don’t make love, they don’t even sleep—they merely steward mankind’s accumulated knowledge, much like a piece of software might protect an archive of information. They are beholden to their own creation, technology as represented by Strong AI (the Tabernacle), by which they have avoided the most uniquely physical act in the universe: death itself.
A related point speaks to the rich and powerful using these advanced forms of technology to break away from the doomed human species and forge their own machine-enhanced super-species. While futurist rhetoric speaks to using trans-humanist applications to alleviate suffering in the world, it often sounds suspiciously like the kind of thing a guy whose car broke down might say to get into your house. He might just actually need to use your phone—or he may want to rob you blind. Futurists know good and well that the vast majority of humans won’t be able to afford life extension technologies. It will be the rich and nepotistically connected who will be able to take advantage. Yet, if Zardoz is any guide, despite their levels of technological advancement they will be no more happy or valuable than the Eternals—just rich aristocrats tucked away in a Vortex, living off the sweat, blood and labor of the mortal underclass.
It will come as no surprise to me when the Singularity becomes enslaved to corporate interests, just as in Zardoz the Tabernacle is a slave to the Eternals and vice versa. As mankind merges with its technological creations, it becomes shackled to them, sentenced to a capitalist evolution. And there’s nothing post-human about that.