Sunday, 23 October 2011

Making Cyberpunk a reality

A comment I got from a major SF imprint when touting my book around was that Cyberpunk was dead - been there, done that. I disagreed for two reasons - first, it's not the major part of my book anyway (now published) and second, surely we're getting closer and closer to it becoming a reality? Neuromancer was phenomenal; don't we need a lot more like it to see what comes next?

We live in a 'connected world' with IPhones, data-sharing on a global scale, drone warfare, and cyber-terrorist threats, which are definitely not fictional (the Chinese government, incidentally, see cyberterrorism as a form of strategic defense, a way to even up the odds against other military options).

One of the problems is that it is hard to keep track/awareness of all these data sources, which are so rich in their variety, fertile ground for viruses and hackers. But people are excellent pattern recognizers, still way beyond machines, able to sift out noise and see what is going on. So, what if we could translate data into visual images, enabling analysts to see anything wrong, anything which didn't fit? Remember Matrix, when Nero sees a cat twice? Straight away the rest of the gang know they've just been screwed over...

In my book (The Eden Paradox), two analysts (cyberpunks?) are analyzing telemetry slip-streaming back from the Ulysses, but someone is tampering with the data, suggesting that all is well, when it is not. Earthbound protagonist Micah uses a device called the Optron to analyze the data, transforming it into a virtual landscape. In his landscape, everything looks fine. Then he enter's his colleague Rudi's 'data-world'...

Micah tensed as soon as he entered, completely unprepared for what he saw. He didn’t know if his physical body recoiled or not, but as soon as he arrived in Rudi’s world, as usual from a medium height above the landscape, he shot back upwards, away from the scene. The sky was a swirling mess of fierce blue and purple, streaks of scarlet zipping from one horizon to another. But that was not the worst. Beneath him was a charred city, bodies strewn amongst the ruins. Mutated human figures staggered amongst the carnage. Micah had difficulty controlling his breathing, and then realised why: a stench of burnt flesh. His own landscape was visual, but some analysts also used taste and smell.
Micah had never seen anything so apocalyptic – or had he? He remembered in training, once, the professor had briefly shown his students a landscape that had been used to develop a highly resilient and aggressive computer virus. 
He thought about it: a virus, but not a normal one that just destroys. What had been done had been subtle, an "Emperor’s Cloak" virus. It prevented real data getting through and supplanted it with fake data, what you wanted to be seen. But this was also a virus in the more conventional sense, eviscerating a vast data-stream. Micah pulled back and gazed towards the horizon. Flames billowed in the distant sky; voluminous clouds of grey-black smoke drifted across the land. He flew, increasingly fast, to see how far it extended, whether the whole landscape was the same, and whether the virus had affected everything.
He covered a dozen kilometers surveying the devastation below, everything dying or dead. Raven-like creatures tore strips of flesh from corpses; it meant non-recoverable data deletion. Although it was sickening to watch, he was impressed – data streams were highly protected by security protocols – to do this inside the Optron environment must have taken immense skill on Rudi’s part. He saw a green flash down below, the colour catching his eye. He dropped down. It seemed to be a figure, hiding behind the large stump of a tree. He was stunned when he got close enough. It was Katrina, the astronaut. Micah had never met her, but ten minutes ago he had been looking at her on the poster, even if she now had a jade green body. The simulacrum beckoned to him. He drew closer, at first reluctantly, and then he chided himself – nothing physical could happen to him here.
"Take me to the South river," she said. Her voice was scratchy, synthetic, she clearly had problems speaking. Micah knew that it meant her programme was degrading. Yet there was desperation in her voice.  He had no real plan in any case, so he nodded, and moved behind Katrina. Then he realised he did not know where South was, so he asked. She pointed to the right.
Weight wasn’t a problem in the Optron landscape, so he picked her up, holding her by her waist as they flew. There was little sensation of touch, Micah noted – presumably Rudi had toned down that particular sense – not surprising given the violence all around.
Carrion birds flocked in the distance. "Higher. Go higher," she gurgled.
Micah complied and whooshed above the birds. They were now so high it grew dark, though there were no stars. Katrina coughed. He knew the simulated air rarity affected her programming, and he made to descend, but she shook her head vehemently.
"Not yet."
After five minutes that included gut-wrenching coughing on her part, she pointed down to the right, and Micah swooped below. He saw green in the distance. He accelerated. With a sense of exhilaration he realised that it was his own landscape: beyond a boundary of red-soaked earth, lay green hills and trees, and a river winding toward the horizon.
"Stop!" she screamed, coughing in spasms that juddered Micah. He slowed down, intending to land on his own territory.
"NO! Stop NOW!" Lime green blood sprayed from her mouth.
Micah stopped dead, and they hung for a moment. Her body relaxed, though the coughing continued. Slowly he descended to the ground. She was a mess. She curled up in a foetal position on the damp red heather, and pointed to the other side, a few meters away.
"Walk," she croaked, and then resumed coughing.
Micah looked from her to the green lawn, and walked towards it. As he made to step onto cool grass, he collided with an invisible wall; it connected with his foot, knee and head, and he bounced off, falling back onto the turf. It hadn’t hurt him, just been a surprise. He got up again and tested the barrier. He could barely see it, but it was impenetrable. No wonder she’d screamed at him to stop. He glanced back to her to check Katrina wasn’t going anywhere, then shot straight upwards at high velocity to find the top edge of the wall. About a kilometre above the ground, the glass curved backward behind him. A dome. No way through or out.
"You should go now," Katrina said, her voice a thin scratch across his ears.
"What about you?"
"You can only help me from the outside. Or maybe from in there." She pointed to Micah’s world. He stared through the glass to note certain landmarks in his landscape to find the border again. He wondered if the Katrina simulacrum would remain there. He doubted it. The carrion birds would erase her first chance they got.
He gave the mental command to exit, and changed the setting on the Optron to his own landscape. In that brief instant he thought maybe he heard a small noise in the real world, but he didn’t have time to check it out; and there was no sign of Rudi.
It was refreshing to be back in his world. Rudi’s had been so stressful. He headed to the far North of his landscape. After some minutes, he saw the landmarks: a telegraph line, a deserted stone farm building, and the river. But he could see nothing of Rudi’s world. He slowed down. In the distance, a similar telegraph line and a deserted stone farm building. He stopped and looked back, then forward. Idiot! He glided down and stood at the bank of the river. He saw in front of him, his reflection; a mirror, the perfect metaphor for reflecting a data-stream back on itself, and one difficult to spot given his chosen landscape format.
He tried to reason it out: Rudi’s landscape was chewing up the real incoming data from Ulysses, and feeding his with false data. But where did the false data come from? Later. He needed to get out before Rudi returned.
He imaged the exit symbol, rubbing his eyes, and removed the headset. He pinched the bridge of his nose between fore-finger and thumb. As he opened his eyes, about to get out of the chair, he stopped dead. Rudi stood before him, aiming a pulse pistol at his face.
"Hello, Mikey, been anywhere interesting?"

The Eden Paradox, available on Amazon in Ebook & Paperback, also Barnes & Noble (Nook).

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