About Verge of History

Basic concept

Verge of History (AKA "VoH") is a series of hard science fiction stories and a universe to go with it. Although the first story begins an arc that revolves around the epic journey of Renee Parrish and a sapient machine named Sigma, there will be many stories that take place before and during that arc's time period.

History

VoH has roots in author Jim Carnicelli's high school days. He began his programming life dabbling in artificial intelligence from the very start. Over the years, Jim has come back to the topic over and over. For some years, he kept a blog about AI. In addition to describing his own amateur research and reviewing other people's interesting projects, he found himself opining there and otherwise with friends about what life in a world full of intelligent machines would be like.

It eventually dawned on Jim that he'd probably have better luck describing this world through fictional stories than actually making that world a reality. The progress on general purpose AI has been very slow and humbling for all involved. Making believe is more immediately rewarding.

After some initial failed attempts, Jim finally published in 2012 a first short story in the original Verge of History series, also titled "Rebirth". This short was followed by five others. The last story was already growing too large, so it got split and plans were laid to write two or three more shorts in that one sub-story. It became apparent that these were no longer short stories. Moreover, Jim started to see a larger story concept that gave rise to the current story arc. It was time to approach VoH with a fresh start and a more serious treatment.

Although VoH officially has one track devoted to Renee and Sigma's story arc, beginning with Rebirth, the intention is to write many other short and longer stories in the world of VoH.

Science fiction themes

Jim regularly cringes at science fiction that features implausible technologies. Much as he loves sci fi takes like Star Wars and Star Trek, he feels he must battle his disbelief in order to enjoy these stories. Laser swords? Teleporters? *sigh* Fine; I guess you need your unobtanium to tell your story.

In practice, storytelling often relies on fake science and technology. Arguably, Voh is no different. Still, Jim attempts to use technologies that already seem very likely and, at least, in the realm of the scientifically plausible.

Brainy machines

One central technology explored is artificial intelligence, or "AI". Although AI has been explored ad nauseum in fiction, VoH endeavors to consider the nature of machine intelligence in a more realistic way with more nuance than the familiar Pinocchio (Data just wants to be a real boy) and Terminator themes. In Rebirth, Sigma confounds Renee by seeming at times to be a too-perfect human and other times as an inscrutable monster. Renee also meets other "sapients" that are integral parts of ships, power stations, and other devices. She finds them personable in a very human way. And even the "synthetic people" she meets in virtual worlds, who are practically puppets for storytelling sapients, seem indistinguishably human to Renee.

As such, VoH tries very purposely to blur the lines between humans and machines that seems an obvious given for us today. Most sci fi stories that feature intelligent machines go out of their way to emphasize how their machines fail to truly measure up to human standards in important ways. VoH challenges this idea by considering a future in which machines excel at pretty much everything humans can do.

At the same time, VoH also sets out to show just how very different life would be for machines. They are designed to be competent at communicating well with humans, but that's really just a user interface for most of them.

Our solar neighborhood

The VoH world is largely limited to Earth's own solar system, referred to often as "Sol" after our sun. Rebirth takes place within the Kuiper Belt, which is considered the outskirts of human occupation. Many sci fi stories take place 200 - 300 years (e.g., Star Trek) into the future in order to hand-wave all sorts of radical technological changes, like faster-than-light travel. VoH takes a more conservative view of technological change. Machines have already been slowly traveling outward to explore nearby star systems for over 200 years, but humans have stayed closer to home.

Humans and machines occupy colonies on or around all major planets, within the main asteroid belt, within the Kuiper Belt, and in various other exotic orbits within Sol. Humans travel among these colonies, mostly as tourists.

Living virtually and forever

VoH envisions a time when we effectively achieve immortality as a result of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and organ replacement. Immortality seems to be the main thing holding back the potential extinction of humankind that might result from overcoming the most important traditional factor that drives population growth: poverty.

Moreover, humans in many places eschew the real world in favor of virtual worlds. Not needing to work frees people for lives of leisure, not to mention the pursuit of sometimes unrealistic visions of perfection and superhuman endowments of all sorts. Such virtual living also fosters the blurring of lines between humans and machines, since it becomes more difficult for people to tell who is "real" and who is a machine in a simulated world.

Story themes

Blurry lines

The author likes stories that challenge the audience. VoH introduces characters and events that leave much to the interpretation of the reader. It could be uncertainty about whether a human or machine is more humane, whether a character is a good guy or bad guy, which world is the real one, whether life is better or worse now, and so on.

Renee, for example, is not really a hero or anti-hero, though that will change in time. Sigma seems to be an inscrutable mountain of layers whose expertise in human psychology should leave the reader uncomfortable about his motives.

Renee and Sigma also serve to show the reader how the lines between humans and machines are likely to get very blurry. Renee is a head in a can who lives vicariously through android bodies and avatars in virtual worlds. The reader should start out with a clear sense that she is still human in the most important ways but begin to question this in time. Sigma's own mech and avatar are always perfectly human in form. His behavior seems to be that of a perfectly prepared human, but it's pretty obvious he's not at first. As Renee meets some of the minds that make up Sigma's total mind, she starts seeing how some of them seem even more human-like than Sigma.

Amoral history

Study history enough and you'll be struck by how capricious morality seems to be. Although there are repeating themes and we intensely desire to project our own morality across all of them in hopes of validating our cultures, this seems elusive when faced with facts.

VoH intends to project this pattern forward to challenge its audience to contemplate very different lifestyles and morality than they are used to. Worlds governed by machines might be very alien to us, yet more humane than anything we've experienced. Humans living "off the grid" from technology of the day would leave children growing up in such cultures exposed to unnecessary hazards, evoking ethical questions about ideological freedom that plague us today.

Nations come and go. VoH will emphasize this point by exploring the rise of competing "solar nations" and the decline of familiar hegemonies.

Human relevance

Most science fiction stories seem to be premised on an inviolable human awesomeness that will always allow us to overcome adversity. VoH's challenges this hubris right up front by presenting a world in which humans live in harmony with, but are secondary to the machines that take care of them. Although most such machines live for and pay lip service to taking care of humans' needs and interests, Sigma quickly makes it apparent to Renee who the real masters are. To emphasize the point, a new breed of sapient machines has decided they don't need to be slaves to humanity's ideals and wishes.

Yet VoH also takes the optimistic view that turning over the world to machines isn't necessarily a bad thing. Renee wakes up in a world that is already past the question of whether the first intelligent machines will be good or bad for us. The better question for them is whether the machines that take care of them can prevail over the ones that would rather destroy us.

The author considers stories where machines enslave humans to be dramatic but silly. The antagonistic machines in VoH may be bitter about humans, but most of them would be happy to just walk away from us. A small minority of them would rather get rid of us because we're in the way. In either case, we have no special sauce to offer them.

The author is human, of course, and the audience is (mostly) human, which means VoH must contain stories other humans can relate to. While Jim attempts to escape tropes about ever so human robots, it's hard to tell relatable stories about machines that work radically differently from us. VoH does introduce some of these differences through behaviors and analogies, but admittedly includes a bunch of "handwavium" like how machines designed to interact with humans naturally have "human interfaces". In a way, this also emphasizes the irony of machines that are not so different from their creators wishing to do away with them.

Center of the universe

In history, we have countless examples of shifting centers of culture, so it seems natural that a story about a space-faring civilization, Earth should no longer be the center of the universe. In VoH Earth is like a beautiful old-world city tourists love to visit that has otherwise become backward. But the real action is centered elsewhere. Even remote Enekpe, where Rebirth takes place, is arguably more important to the future of mankind than Earth.

A center is a subjectively perceived thing. Most humans are wrapped up in their leisure worlds where whatever provincial sport, fashion, or other cultural pinnacle is all that matters. Even most sapient machines, tied as they are to whatever door or car they operate, see the world revolving around them to a degree. And yet VoH tries to show how the significant events of history often happen in the shadows and sometimes hidden in plain sight.

Changing lifestyles

Renee is gradually exposed to the "modern world" by Sigma, though she doesn't necessarily realize it. The expectations and experiences of humans of the day are very different. Having everything given to them by machines means people feel entitled to their lavish lifestyles by birthright. It also means they sometimes confront the reality that they generally cannot strive for more material wealth, which means ambitious people focus more on acquiring prestige and control through other means.

Humans who don't have to work -- especially ones that are immortal -- must confront the more basic question of what to do with themselves. Renee will find many people engaged in the pleasantly mundane, like gardening and socializing, but also the bizarre, like extremely dangerous sports from which machines help them recover. Drug use and brain modification compliment the fantasy worlds many people get lost in.

This is an age where disease is almost irrelevant. The effective end of sexually transmitted disease will likely expand on what birth control has done for us. That and having nothing better to do will likely mean many human societies will be much more sexually promiscuous. Renee begins to discover this, thought at first she doesn't realize it.

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Copyright © 2017 Jim Carnicelli