Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Poland Whee, Krakow's Heaven

Friday morning, Jaecek and Kasia came round in the taxi to the train station where we met up with Greg and caught the 09:00 for Krakow, a two and a half hour journey pretty much equally divided, on my part, between gazing, dozing and chatting. We had one of those proper six-seater, sliding-door compartments that you just don't seem to see in the UK anymore, so that was cool, although I always thought those types of trains came with evil spies for one to best in fisticuffs, or border guards suspicious of your forged documentation, or stuff like that. There weren't even any snakes. Hey ho.

From the station, another taxi took us all a winding way through Krakow and down to the south of the city, to the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Here we found our hotel (the Serszeca, I think, or something like that) along a quiet side-street, squeezed in among all the sandstone tenement-style residential buildings so typical of Northern Europe, a little more baroque in style to Glasgow's West End but really not that different. Inside, the foyer had an Art Nouveau vibe to it, posters reminiscent of Klimt, speaking of Krakow's heritage as a cultural centre. Friendly staff checked us in, and we all agreed to meet back down in the foyer in fifteen minutes to head straight to the book fair.

I nearly didn't make it, having been floored when I opened the door of my room to find it was the penthouse suite, with it's own mini-hallway, wardrobe to the right as you walk in and, to the left, the door to the marble-tiled, twin-sinked bathroom (and when I say bathroom, I mean it had a proper bath and all). A third door directly ahead lay open to reveal the main room, with its desk and sofa, TV and minibar. Off of this, through double sliding-doors to the left, was the bedroom, with its twin single beds pulled together to make a double; and in front of me, past the table at the far end with a fruit basket waiting to be munched, were the french windows leading out onto the balcony. I've been lucky once in the past to get put up in a suite while travelling for work (ah, wonderful Mexico! I shall return to you one day), so it's not a first. But wastrel and scruff that I am, I can't imagine myself ever gettng used to all that high-class shit, don't think I'll ever stop responding with a squee of childlike glee. Man, I had a toilet you had to flush with a bucket for five years in my house; squalor is my natural habitat. So, imagine a puppy in a flat it doesn't know, exuberant and exciteable, sniffing every nook and cranny of this wonderful, strange, new place. Apart for the piddling on the floor, that was me. I had to drag myself away to meet the guys downstairs.

The book fair was on the eastern edge of town, not far, but a wee taxi-ride away, so we all piled into the car, Jacek carting his ton-weight suitcase of MAG catalogues, Kasia with a roller-blind style banner for WELIN (i.e. VELLUM) which I forgot to mention was in use at that first Q&A in Warsaw and which the Puck in me would happily have tried (ineffectually) to stuff down his trousers. It's just lucky I'm not too schizoid or I can see the conversation between Self and Superego...

"Are you trying to steal the banner for your home, Puck?" says me.

Puck shuffles feet, blinks innocently.

"Noooooo." says Puck.

"What's that in your trousers, then?"

"Ummm... lewd thoughts?"

"Riiiiiight. Put the banner back where it belongs."

"Awwww, but Jack said - "

"I don't care what Jack said. Jack's ethical judgments are based on which option will result in the prettiest explosion."

"Explosions are cool," says Jack.

"You stay out of it," says me. "And you put the neato, seven-foot, flame-bright book-cover roller-blind-stylee banner back where you found it."

"Aw. You're no fun."

Anyhoo, yes, we got into the huge and busy Krakow Book Fair, found our stall and started setting-up. Or rather Jacek and Kasia started setting-up while I started on the first of many interviews. I can't remember the who or when of all these interviews, some in English, some with Greg translating. I can't even remember if I was introduced to Adam, a mate of the MAG folks and a charming fellow, on the Friday or the Saturday. I do remember breaking for a lunch of beer and bigos (a tasty stew of sorts, made of sausage and sauerkraut, of which I heartily approved). I remember also discovering that the stall just round the corner from us had the sodding prime minister himself at one point, making some sort of public appearance that gathered quite a crowd. I was, I admit, tempted to go heckle the homophobe, or "frag the fucking fag-ragger" as the Jack in me would have it. Luckily sanity prevailed and I realised this might well be a somewhat reckless course of action. The Jack in me did also surface, I confess, when Greg pointed out the lack of security checks on entering the fair and the fact that the carry-case for the banner might easily conceal a rifle, say.

"Hmmmm," says Jack.

"Don't even think it," says me.

Then there was the fact that our stall was situated right next to the Catholic publishers section, which seemed at first sight to be the same size as everything else put together. Krakow is a little bit of a religious city, you could say, to put it mildly; one of the reasons the "tolerance march" was banned, I understand, was it was felt it would be "inappropriate" in such a holy city. All I know is I've never seen so many nuns in my life; man, it was like falling into THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. And since the previous Pope, John Paul II, was Cardinal of Krakow, well, how much more "made good" can a "local boy" get. Revered? As one comment had it, in a tourist guide I flicked through in Warsaw, you'd think he'd won the Second World War all by himself to listen to some Krakowians talk about him. Walk into the Catholic section and every other book seemed to be by or about him. Either way it had his big papal visage on the cover.

Well, I thought, at least it's not our current Hitlerjungengruppenfuhrer, Ratzennegger, with his kiddy-diddling mates.

Funny enough, in the section around us, you couldn't walk five feet without seeing a copy of THE DA VINCI CODE, which made for something of an ironic contrast.

So, anyway, as the fair closed for the evening we tried and failed to get a taxi back to the hotel, had to go for a tram in the end. Nothing wrong with that though -- good way to see the city as the locals do. We freshened up and then went out for a wander through the old Jewish Quarter, found ourselves a wee restaurant serving Jewish specialities. The food was good; I forget what I had for a starter (soup, I think) but the chicken liver in goose necks for a main course were great. The restaurant itself was... well... an interesting experience. They didn't have a table in the main restaurant, so they put us at a table in the front room which, as I looked around, I gradually realised sort of doubled as a souvenir shop. Think guidebooks, maps and postcards. Think walls covered in cases and shelves of minorahs and little "rabbi" figurines. Think "Fiddler On The Roof" as the music playing while you dine. Then there was the barmaid at the bar at the back of the restaurant, who looked like she belonged more in a spit-and-sawdust social club than in a restaurant, a beefy battle-axe dolled up in black and bling. The place had some gorgeous stained-glass panels featuring the Star of David on the windows, clearly original, but they simply made me question whether some gentile restauranteur hadn't just looked at them and thought, hey, we're in the right area, we got the windows, let's make the place Jewish. And then shovelled in "Jewishness" by the truckload. The food was great, as I say, but it was one of the most bizarre places I've ever dined. Whether it was even remotely kosher, in any sense of the word, I have no idea.

Kasia and Jacek headed home tired after that, but there was a publisher's party in the Old Town, for all those involved in the Book Fair, and with Kasia and Jacek's invites added to our own, Greg and I had twelve free drinks tokens between us. And free drink is something you just can't let go to waste, isn't it? Well, sometimes, as we discovered, maybe it is. We found our way up through the Old Town, through the central square at the heart of Krakow, which is pretty fucking impressive all lit up at night, and up to the club Midgard. We went in past the bouncers with their rope (Never trust a night club with a rope; that's one of my cardinal rules) and found ourselves in what I can only describe by comparing it to a gay club hosting a 25th Wedding Anniversary with music selected for your "cool" aunts and uncles. I can't begin to describe the horrors being perpetrated by the DJ's, their insistent attempts to incite a conga line, or the, um, "dancing" of the patrons who -- despite clearly being the offspring and younger relatives that the publisher folks had passed on their tickets to -- managed to make your dad's elbow-jiggle and hip-shoogle look like The Moves Of The Groove. There was an occassional hint of really strong cheese to the music, almost raising (or lowering, rather) the quality to the so-bad-it's-good point, the purity, the genius, of the liquid treacle which is Easy Listening or Loungcore. As I said to Greg at one point, I'm not averse to cheesy shite but, man, it's got to be really cheesy shite -- a Moog version of "Hey Jude", a salsa version of "Chim Chiminee", that sorta balls-out disregard for any sense of taste and decency. Boney M's "Rasputin" I'll forgive, cause who can deny the genius of a big-ass black guy with an afro singing a disco classic about the 19th Century Russian "Mad Monk". But Abba? Fuck that shit. As Terence Stamp so concisely put it:

No. Fucking. Abba.

We tried. We really did. We downed as many of the free beers as we could. We explored the club and found an area where the music was quieter. We tried to get seats, with me asking a crowd of girls in my most gruffly charming Scots accent (sadly, the exotic card didn't play for them). We stuck it out as long as possible, but when the conga line kicked in, man, it was time to get the fuck out of Texas. We slugged back our beers and made a run for it.

The Old Town in Krakow is positively hoaching on a Friday night, I can tell you. A popular tourist spot now that the cheap flights from the UK and elsewhere are available, competing for lad's weekends, stag nights and the like with Amsterdam and Prague, Krakow's one of those cities that never really sleeps, the downside being perhaps that a lot of the places are geared towards that young and trendy tourist crowd. Add to this the fact that all the bars are hidden away in the cavernous cellars of the buildings and we ended up wandering for a while through the busy streets of night-life looking for a place that fitted the bill -- free seats, decent music, no entry fee if possible.

As it was, down one side-street my eyes lit on a Guinness sign (from a distance that Greg found impressive; imprinted in the racial memory, I explained). Downstairs was an Irish pub, replete with darts, U2, yer requisite over-friendly drunk, and a clientele made up of way more Brits than Poles, naturally. There were seats at the bar, so it made a good place to kick back for a few beers, top up the mineral sustenance with a few pints of the black gold. There's only so much of that British-abroad shite you can take though, so we eventually decided to head back to the Plac Novy, this being a) nearer the hotel and b) where the locals tend to drink. There we found ourselves a great wee place with good sounds -- dance but laid-back, not quite chill-out stuff but not yer hideously commercial crap. One day, you know, I'll find someone who can tell me what the fuck that stuff -- the stuff that sorta uses dub and downbeat and lounge and world and crunches them all together then smooths out the edges -- is supposed to be called, cause I'm fucked if I know. Like, Thievery Corporation, United Future Organisation, US3, Black Star Liner -- there's gotta be a name for all that stuff, right? Right? Ah well. Anyway, we found ourselves a nice wee place and ended the night with beer and a blether.

Saturday saw more interviews at the book fair. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: man, Kasia must have been working like a fucking Trojan behind the scenes getting all of this stuff set up. It was incredible. And the coolest result of it was I had a signing session where people actually came. I mean, at one point there was a queue! OK, so it was a queue of two or three people, like, but it was a goddamn motherfucking queue, and I honestly hadn't been sure that anyone would turn up at all. Maybe a few, I thought, a handful. As it was, it was well into double figures, one every couple of minutes or so, certainly enough to keep me from falling into that staring-at-the-ceiling, thumb-twiddling, tumbleweed-rolling fusion of boredom and self-pity you have to go into these things expecting. I even had a couple of wee lassies come up as autograph hunters to ask for me mark in their autograph books, which was kinda sweet. Managed to hand sell one copy of WELIN, actually, to a customer who was dithering. Trust me, you'll love it, says me, offering my most sparkly smile and wide doe-eyes. Hmm... well.... OK, says she. Result! Directly after that was a Q&A thing in a conference room, then back out to the stand for more interviews, if I remember right.

Just before 4, I think, we headed off in Adam's car to Imladris, an SF con held in a wee school building, um, somewhere in Krakow. Sadly, it was just a flying visit. I really only had fifteen minutes to chat to a couple of the guys who were organising it, Paweł (who invited me over when the Poland trip first came up) and Marcin (it was Marcin, wasn't it? Sorry, I'm utter kack with names). It was interesting to note just how young a lot of the Polish fans seemed to be in comparison with the graying ranks of UK fandom; it seems like Polish fandom is in a pretty healthy state. A tad weird for me -- dissolute sot that I am -- it turned out to be an alcohol-free con. They'd had trouble in the past, Paweł explained, with people getting guttered. So they're trying to clean up the image. And it being held in a school and all, well, it wouldn't do to leave them with vomit-filled sinks and some Dead Dog asleep behind the blackboard on Monday morning when the kids arrive.

I forgot to ask how many folk were at the con in all, to get a sense of the size, but the corridors were pretty busy and I had a fuckin good crowd for my Q&A -- which went well. A big shout out, in particular, to the chap who asked about New Weird and upcoming projects, and hence gave me a chance to prattle on about two of my favourite subjects -- strange fiction and the crazy-ass idea which is my treatment of Gilgamesh. Poor old Greg was really having to work here because some of the questions (like those) came in English, and the questioner and meself would get into a little back-and-forth, and then Greg would have to translate it all at the end. How he does it, I have no idea. But he was making a sterling effort with one particularly long answer when -- ten minutes or so before the end of the slot -- the door of the room opens and in walks a stunning lass in full traditional Polish dress with a huge birthday cake, candles and all. The whole room stands up and sings a song -- the Polish equivalent of "Happy Birthday", I guess -- and I blow the candles out and, fuck me, but they'd only gone and got me a present as well.

I mean, I know I was shamelessly dropping hints heavy enough to break an elephant's back, but I was thinking that there'd be a bar there and, hey, if ye can't cadge a few free drinks on your birthday when can you? I really didn't expect them to give me a proper bona fide god's honest serious present. But -- bless them, it was so fucking sweet! -- they only went out and got us, gift-wrapped and all, a sodding litre bottle of Dubrowska vodka -- which, flavoured with buffalo-grass, is absolutely gorgeous stuff, I have to say. Went out to the pub last night and the night before and ended up back at the flat with some mates afterwards, so I've had a chance to taste it (well, rather more than taste it, I have to say) and it's fucking great stuff. Hard to describe, but it's a really high quality vodka and the spicy, herby buffalo-grass flavour makes it something you can easily quaff... and quaff... and quaff. Hell, it's dangerously tasty.

So, from the bottom of me big gay heart, a shuge big DZIEKUJE!!! to everyone at Imladris! You guys are total fucking stars! I mean, the cake was home-made and everything, I forgot to say! And utterly scrumptious! The whole trip I was blown away constantly by how friendly the Poles are, and at the Paradox Club in Warsaw and at Imladris in Krakow, I was made to feel so much at home, so welcome, that I can't wait to go back. Hell, I just hope I can return the hospitality at some point in the future, if any of you guys are ever in Glasgow or at a UK con where I'm propping up the bar. Leaving aside all the wonders of Warsaw and Krakow and the culture and the history and the PR and everything, just meeting the people was a total fucking pleasure. It was a pity I couldn't stay longer at Imladris actually. My flying visit was over all too quickly and I barely had the time to change into the con t-shirt (which they'd also given me as another present), before I was being whisked out the door and into a waiting taxi. I felt a bit of a cad, in truth, to leave so quickly afterwards, after everyone had been so kind, so I'm looking forward to spending more time hanging out with yez next time I'm over.

Anyhoo, what else? What else? Ah yes! I finally got a chance to try proper... um... how the fuck is it spelled again? barszc? Is there another "s" and/or "z" in there somewhere? Well, however it's spelled, I had the traditional Polish beetroot soup, followed by pierogi (meat-filled dumplings) at a wee Italian-style place that night, before meeting up with Adam and his wife, with whom I had a wee conversation about British crime dramas (I recommended CRACKER as probably the best ever) before discovering that she was studying English philology. I've always been fascinated with language and over the course of the week Greg and meself had spent a lot of time, well, geeking out over the joys of phonetics, accents and dialects, the historical layering of sound shifts that leaves English with umpteen different pronunciations for '-ough', the multiplicity of 'z's in Polish. Now with three of us, I rather fear we must have bored Adam to tears with all our talk of velar fricatives and bilabial approximants. Sorry, man, but I just love all that shit. As I was saying, one day I'd love to put together an (utterly unsellable) anthology called VOICES with stories all written in the first person, all with distinct dialect/accent identities central to the story, and all transcribed into the IPA so that you could accurately render the real phonetics. None of that fonee fonetiks shite ye huv tae use whin yer tryin tae dae accent in English. There's nae fuckin schwa in the Roman alfabet so ye cannae ever really be akyirit, ye ken? But the beauty of the IPA is it's utterly systematic. So you can transcribe any utterance you can make. And it's not that hard to read once you know what letters map to what sounds. I know nobody would be crazy enough to publish an anthology you needed to learn a new aphabet to read... but I think it would be cool as fuck. Yes, I also know I'm very sad for thinking that.

The night ended with Greg and I making our way back to hotel and encountering a group of mad buskers of sorts on the way. I say "of sorts" cause they were wandering down the streets playing as they went just for the fucking joy of it, one of them at one point rolling on the ground with one of those wee keyboard organ things ye blow through (I have no idea what they're called). Like a rat in Hamlin, I very nearly ended up following them on their travels into the night, because that sort of mad shit is just gloriously demented. There's nothing truer than a song sung for the sheer fucking relish of it on a city street late at night. Fuck it, I know it might be a pain in the ass for the neighbours but life's too short not to fucking frolic once in a while and these guys weren't yer fucking drunken yowling yobs. This was a lunatic cabaret band escaped from the club and roaming free as Dionysian revellers. I actually was going to go off to follow them, said good night to Greg and went with them a short way... but then realised I wasn't exactly sure of where I was in relation to the hotel and I might well end up even less sure if I followed this rambling quintet to God knows where. So I decided to be sensible and, alas, left them to go their merry way, and found my way back to the hotel with only a brief moment of panic, phoning Greg (he was only five minutes ahead me after all) to say, um, I'm not sure where I am, do you have any idea where Ulica Paulinska is from -- oh, no here it is.

Sunday. My last full day in Poland. Bollocks, is all I can say. I would have stayed for another week if I could, or longer. But as it was all I could do was say my fond farewells to Kasia and Jacek after breakfast, try to convey to them just how wonderful they'd been as hosts, how much I appreciated everything they've done both professionally and personally. There was talk of me coming back over for Polcon in August next year (and we've chatted since by email so it looks to be as settled as such things can be, all unforeseeable curcumstances aside).

Kasia had organised a personal tour of Krakow with a professional guide, and she led me on a leisurely stroll through a gorgeous sunny day, more like summer than autumn, up to the castle and through the side-streets up and around the Old Town. If I tried to describe everything I saw, fuck, I'd never get this blog entry finished, so all I'll say is go to Krakow. If you ever get the chance, go. It's a beautiful city with too much to take in during the brief time I had. I spent a morning walking round the old town and I could have spent a week.

Just after midday Greg met up with us for a few drinks in a "secret" bar (advertised by a person standing on a street corner with a big sign saying "SECRET BAR"). We chatted and sipped beer for a while, talking about language, religion, brothers and all sorts, before it came time to say goodbye. I got on with Greg like a house on fire, as they say. For the whole trip he wasn't just a translator but a friend, a mate. So, Greg, man, if yer ever over in Glasgow let me know cause the drinks are on me. Slainje, dude.

After we parted I spent the day wandering, round park that circles the Old Town where the city walls used to be, back past the Wawel to the hotel then through Kazimierz to the Jewish Cemetary at the edge of it, back into Kazimierz for a few beers in a bar that offered free internet but which turned out to mean wifi connectivity for yer laptop, which I hadn't brought with me. I ended up just sttting there in its beer garden, making the notes from which much of this is reconstructed, going over in my head all the people and places, smiling to myself, already beginning to miss Poland without having even left it yet.

I ate in a restaurant on Ulica Jozef that night, had a wee half-carafe of red wine to go along with beef carpaccio and a roe deer steak (which was what sold me on the place, I confess; I can never pass up venison). A melon sorbet brought the meal to a good end, and it seems fitting that this was where and when I finished Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT. I enjoyed it nearly as much as I enjoyed Poland, after all -- and good things having to come to an end and that -- and that slight sadness at having to leave the next day being matched by that wee touch of disappointment in the book's complete lack of exploding airships. ;-)

I spent the evening in the market square of the Plac Novy again, sitting at a table outside Alchemie, belching gas from me Żywiec, listening to jazz play inside, watching people walk the streets with those tomato-cheese-bread pizza things whose name I can't recall. Stalls closed for the night. Those big pillars with posters. Taxis waiting for business. Strangers at the table next to me switching languages -- Polish, English, French -- to find a common tongue. What else is there to tell? I'm not sure. I think maybe that I'll leave it there. I hope I've at least given an impression of how much I enjoyed my time there, given a taste of all there is to relish about the country. I rather think that Poland might well pop up in my fiction in the future, perhaps in some fantastic city of this story or that, a Warsawian Palace of Culture or a Krakowian Wawel, a pub in a vaulted cellar, a few more 'sz's and such in the faux-European "lingsicht" I sometimes throw in. I hope I can sneak in a few wee things here and there that a Warsawian or a Krakowian will read and think, hey, I recognise that. I hope I can bring a smile to their face the way Poland did for me.

All the best, mis amigos. And I'll say it again though it's still not enough:


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Poland Too, Warsaw Forever

Early Tuesday morning, after a night of so-so sleep in the Ibis Accord hotel (out in South-East of the city, I think), I head down to the breakfast buffet a little worse for wear. My work till 5 am, sleep till 2 pm routine is all out of whack and the whole excitement of the coming week has left me tossing and turning most of the night, (I blamed the air conditioning in the hotel for its constant hum at first though this didn't bother me at all from then on; I was just being all kid-at-Christmasy really), so I'm pleased that while the Ibis is yer typical mid-level businessmen's hotel with no great frills, what it does have is a fantastic breakfast buffet -- fresh as fresh can be poppy and sesame seed rolls, tasty meats and cheeses, and good strong coffee. I fill meself up and settle down with a fag in the foyer (oh, the luxury!) until Kasia picks us up for the first round of interviews.

We drive into downtown Warsaw, passing the giant plastic palm tree in the centre of a roundabout -- which is kinda surreal -- and parking round the corner from the big EMPiK store (kinda the Polish equivalent of Virgin-meets-Borders, I'd say) with a great view of the Palace of Culture. A "gift from our Soviet brothers," I'll be told over the course of the stay, with more than a little irony, this mad monstrosity plunked down in the middle of the city is like the bastard offspring of the Empire State Building and a rocketship made of bricks. There was talk of flattening it after the collapse of the Soviet Union but it's clung onto existence as a sort of grandiose monument to folly, I guess.

Anyway, I don't have much time to find out more, because this is where the interviews start. First off there's the one upstairs, on a stage with sofa and armchairs, my interpretor Grzegorz on the left, Kasia on the right and the interviewer beyond her. It's a weird feeling, what with the questions being asked in Polish, translated for me, me rambing on for way too long, then Grzegorz having to translate my convoluted witterings into coherent Polish. This wasn't quite as weird though as -- after adjourning to a quieter corner for another interview (or two?) for Polish radio -- returning to the sofa, only this time with the editor (if I remember right) of Poland's big SF mag, Fantastyka, asking the questions and this all being done, with microphones and all, to an audience of SF press. This is really my first bona fide "appearance", ye see, outside of the saftey of a con, so while I wasn't quite shitting bricks I'm not exactly an old hand at this game. I've gotta say that Grzeg was a fucking star here. How the man can sit and listen to a five-minute (or fucking longer!) answer, making only a few notes, and then translate it from beginning to end was a total amazement to me. Man, I couldn't remember my own answer after I'd said it; I have no idea how he does it.

From there it was off for lunch with Kasia in a great wee Thai place, then a wander up to the Stary Miasto, or Old Town which, well, isn't really that old, most of Warsaw having been flattened during WW2. On the way it's strange to see the mix of buildings old and new, beuatiful and ugly, renovated and derelict; with the seizure of private property under Communism, the thing is, many of the most beautiful old buildings have untraceable owners or disputes over who they should be returned to, so they can't be restored. And many of the newer buildings are of that god-awful 60s/70s modernist style. At the same time there seems to be a lot of rebuilding going on, roads being torn up here and there, as in the University area. There's a really cool new building beside the train station, all curves and angles, that's going to be quite stunning when it's complete -- the best of contemporary architecture. So you get a weird sense of a city in transition, a city that's been shattered and is only slowly putting itself back together.

Many of the Warsawians I talked to were quite self-deprecating about the city, I found; with the down town so aesthetically fragmented and the Old Town not really the hub of pubs and clubs, it's like the place is still trying to knit itself together, find its true centre. I have a lot of hope for it though, I have to say. It might take a decade or two, maybe more, but Warsaw sort of reminds me of Glasgow in a lot of ways, in that mix of old and new, tatty and true. It's just that where our city centre has a simple grid system and the central thread of Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle Street, the self-coherent villages of the West End and the South Side, Warsaw's shopping and business district is sprawling, uncentred and unbalanced, while it's Old Town seems to not quite have been accepted. And maybe that, along with the hulking monolith of the Palace of Culture is why Warsaw is yet to find its feet; I understand a lot of Warsawians think the building broke the natural balance of the city. But there are scattered streets and places that, it seems to me, only need to be... joined up.

Fuck, it reminds me of the way I write, in some ways. Slowly, gradually, over the coming years, I could see it ripping out the 60s and 70s shite (like the stinky train station that's due to be torn down), replacing them with something more in keeping, or in a more dramatic contrast, wiring itself together. I sort of wonder what it would be like if they did tear that Palace of Culture down and build something grand and beatiful in its place, or paint the fucker in brilliant multicolour, I'd say, build more skyscrapers around it, anything that might take away that sense of a solitary sentinel of totalitarianism, make it more of a new centre-point. There's so much that's great in Warsaw and so much that feels like it's in flux, I'd love to go back in ten years time and see if the city has refound its balance.

Anyway, after an afternoon's walk through the picturesque-but-not-quite-claimed Old Town, up to the Barbican and Walls (all also restored), we headed back downtown for another interview, originally intended to be held in the Traffic Club, in a cafe bar on the top floor of a huge book shop, but relocated to the Thai restaurantof earlier due to background noise issues. Maybe it was that I got on really well with the interviewer, Trashka, and maybe it was the presence of beer, and maybe it was me relaxing a little into the whole translation thing, but the conversation started to flow so naturally there was a lot of digressions into Poland's political scene and other such tangential topics. I learned that Poland's president and prime minister are twins and not the most well-loved among the more tolerant folks I was hanging with. Both have come out with nationalist, anti-semitic and homophobic rhetoric. Though a gay pride march went ahead in Warsaw, another was banned in Krakow. And so on. Much of the rhetoric was the old, tired shite I know so well: the equation of homosexuality with paedophilia; the threat of gay teachers; you know the score. None of the people I talked to were, shall we say, over-enthusiastic about Poland's political climate. The word "cabaret" cropped up quite often.

But with the chat so rich and flowing, it didn't seem long before we were late for dinner in a traditional Polish place, so we said goodbye to Trashka, jumped into the car and immediately got stuck in traffic. The solution was to be my first experience of Warsaw's underground system, Greg and I leaving Kasia to make her way home (having two young sons to look after) and heading along the one track of ten stations. Coming from Glasgow though, as I explained, we're hardly in a position to boast much better, what with our fifteen-station Clockwork Orange. At least Warsaw has trains that don't look like toys. OK, so there was a wee moment of disorganisation as we got one stop along before being taken off the train and having to wait for another, with no explanation whatsoever. But again I can't exactly say that Scottish public transport is any better at times. Besides, we made it with not too much delay and I found myself in the restaurant where I met Jacek and Andrzej for the first time. Great craic and great food was had by all. I'm afraid I didn't have much appetite, suffering from what I've come to call routine-lag (like, me being basically nocturnal and being thrown completely by actually living in the daylight like everyone else, eating at this strange time when everyone else does), and the main course was, well, a fucking huge ham bone thingy which tasted nice but was just too damn big. I did however utterly relish the żurek. A soup made with sausages and boiled egg in it... now that's my kind of soup. In fact, every single soup I had in Poland was simply yummy. It's a speciality, probably the food you have to try if you don't taste anything else.

With the end of our long meal, and with more than a few beers in me, the night came to an end. Jacek dropped me off at the hotel, and I got out the car remembering, oh, that's right, I've got to get my bag out of the boot. So we open the boot and that's when I remember that, no, um, actually, I got the bag out of the boot when Kasia dropped off Greg and meself. Which means, of course, I must've left it in the restaurant, being a dozy twat and all. A few phone calls later, it's sorted though. Andrzej and Greg have checked and the restaurant have it. Greg'll bring it when we meet up tomorrow morning. Sweet!

On Wednesday morning then, Kasia picks me up and drops me off with Greg (who returns my bag and shrugs off my embarrassed thanks) and the two of us grab a taxi along the old Royal Road, past embassies and ex-Russian diplomatic burbclaves to the Wilanów, the Polish Versailles, smaller but no less baroque and beautiful and, rather nicely, built as a token of love. I'm not even going to begin to recount the complex history imparted to me by both Greg and the private tour guide Kasia had arranged for us, star that she is. All I'll say is that in Poland you had: a huge aristocracy that made up 10% of the populace and were quite often no more wealthy than the next man; an elected monarch; a legendary heritage traced back to the Romans; constant war with and influence by the Ottoman Empire which rendered them respectful enemies but also left its mark in the Polish aristo's style of dress, all Turkish robes and scimitars; and, best of all, armour with great feathered wings on the back to make the warriors look like angels -- how cool is that?

I found myself beginning to have a sense of... another version of Warsaw, an alternative and fabulous city, with touches of Ambergris and its Caliphate enemy, of Viriconium with its host of warriors, of Provan with its grey 60s bleakness, even touches of my own imagined city at the end of time, inhabited by armoured angel warriors with wings of steel. I can see so much to use of Warsaw, am already thinking of how easily it could become one model of the fantastic city that weaves through my fiction -- ancient but fractured by the Modern Era, destroyed and rebuilt, baroque broken up by concrete blocks. Just outside the Wilanów we visited the poster museum, full of some of the most brilliant posters of the 20th Century (though for the life of me I can't find the name of the artist that they're running a tribute to right now... Tomasienski, maybe... something like that but not that... bollocks). I think of my own invented totalitarianism, Futurism as a blend and defeater of Fascism and Communism. I think of a poster museum in a fictive city. Fuck, there's so much of Warsaw that would fit so well.

Where was it next? Now my memory starts coming apart, I'm afraid, starts sliding pieces of the puzzle into the wrong place, scattering times and places in a way that seems kind of in keeping with the experience of Warsaw. I know it was lunch downtown but the area, the road, the bar cafe... I think it was near the University and I know it was veal liver and tasty, but whereabouts exactly I'm not sure. I do know they served Murphy's, which made me a happy puppy. Then? The Traffic Club again, I think, for Youth TV and various portals and web sites, meeting up with Kasia again, a whirl of stuff, in fact, upstairs and down, then off to the Paradox Club.

Now this was one of the highlights of the trip. I mean, you have a group of fans, right, and they basically have a hangout which is a pub with a fucking lending library inside it. I mean walls with bookshelves all over the place, in a snug back-room where you can drink and smoke, including from a huge-ass hookah of apple tobacco. After the Q&A and the signing of a few books, with everyone being so friendly -- Trashka and her husband Lucas, Mikhael and others whose names I didn't catch -- wild horses wouldn't drag me from the place. We talked of books and bread and beer and a strange non-alcoholic bread-beer. I had a fucking whale of a time, until the long day caught up with me and people started heading off and it was, well, really time for us to go too... though not before I planted a wee copy of the UK edition on the shelves since I had brought a couple over to give away.

It seemed like a good home for it, with good people, people I think of as new friends.

The next day I finally got to have a wee look around inside the Palace of Culture with Jacek, who picked me up in the morning and drove downtown, chatting all the time about Polish SF, cosmolgical theories and whatnot. We caught a Japanese exhibition about time, with all sorts of weird shit, took the elevator up to the umpty-umpth floor and looked out over the city, bought some sheep's cheese (a "highlander" staple) from a stall and ate it over a few beers before my interview with TVP, only the Polish equivalent of BBC for crying out loud, in another branch of EMPiK. I mean, I can't really do justice to how impressed I was with the way Kasia had gone to town in organising all of this PR. I only wish my interviewee skills were more developed, that I could have given them the quality of interviews they deserved in return. Maybe I wasn't too bad. I hope I wasn't. I just wish I could have been as great as MAG were.

I have to confess that by this point I was a little toured-out so, from the cafe in EMPiK Greg and I ust made our way to a wee Irish bar and relaxed, chatting over a few Guinness. Yeah, I know it's a bit sad, sitting in an Irish pub drinking Guinness with so much left to explore of Warsaw, but I needed the vitamins, honest, and it wasn't a cheesy Irish touristy theme pub, more of scruffy rock bar for the locals. And, you know, to see a city, to be in it properly, you have to make like you're at home, do what you'd be doing if you lived there, with someone who does actually live there. Just as a local of Glasgow might be well-advised to look up once in a while, to see the city around them as a tourist might, so when you're a visitor to another city sometimes it pays to stop looking up, to look not at the dramatic differences of towers and palaces, but at the correspondances of scruffy rock bars and the like. It's then that you see the subtle differences, then that you start saying "Dziekuje" instead of "Thank you".

I'm thinking we might have had another beer in another pub, but all I can remember here is a sorty round the statuary at the base of the Culture Palace, wryly "appreciating" the grandiose and heroic Architect with his rippling muscles and bare chest, the Writer with his dungarees and -- again -- bare chest, the Brothers and Sisters from around the world. Soviet Realism is not exactly subtle in its allegory; let's put it that way. There was an expedition to the market to buy tobacco and then we headed for a Thai restaurant to be joined by Andrzej and a mate whose name -- I'm sorry -- I've entirely forgotten, me being completely shit in that respect.

I was chuffed that I got to return to the Paradox Club after that, to meet up again with Trashka and Lukasz (who'd brought me some of the fizzy bread-beer stuff we were chatting about the previous night, bless them), Mikhael and some more folks I hadn't got the chance to chat to the previous night, none of whose names have, I hate to say it, been stored in my now frizzed and overfull memory. I remember the chap who asked me some cool questions the previous night, coming up to me and saying he was two hundred odd pages into the book now and loving it, and apologising for his last questions about what I thought of Polish girls, not realising I was more interested in the boys and all. It was no problem, of course, just a brief moment of embarassment and paranoia on my part in the face of a crowd who blatantly, obviously were not at all prejudiced. You just never know what the cultural situation is in another country, so having travelled a little for my previous work, I've sort of got in the habit of easing it into the chat when the time is right. And I remember Jacek's mate and the fluent English speaker he introduced me to, garnering a certain amusement and mock-outrage from her by the faux-pas of suggesting she would be able to "entertain" me, then putting his foot further in his mouth by explaining that pretty girls are better to talk to even if they're not so smart. It was all taken in good spirits though and, in fact, we did have a great conversation about Auschwitz and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the way people sometimes treat these places as tourist attractions.

Eventually though it was time to leave again, with much exchanges of emails, hugs and handshakes, and promised reunions. Eventually they managed to drag me away and Jacek dropped me off at the hotel, though not before a quick wee tour of MAG's offices, a look at their website and their range of titles, and a browse to the first Polish review (10/10, no less!). I arrived back and dumped my stuff, headed down to the bar to finish my experience of Warsaw with a Żywiec, a few fags and a few chapters of Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, a good way to unwind after it all, for all the lack of exploding airships, that is.

So that was Warsaw, and fucking great it was. Great city, great people, great food, and, well, with Polcon there in August of next year, a good time for the release of INK, I dare say, well, I think, I hope, I'm going back real soon.

Next up Krakow, the city of book fairs, priests and nuns, the prime minister and Pope John Paul II, and all manner of other relished experiences. In the meantime, here's a few links to the first of the interviews, for any Polish readers out there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poland Won, Bad Points Nil

So what was Poland like? I hear you ask. Wow, is all I can say. Well, actually that's not all I can say, not by any means; I can say that Warsaw and Krakow are each fascinating cities in their own way, that the people are lovely, that the food is superb, that my publisher had organised a ton of stuff for me -- so much that at times it was a heady whirl of interview, interview, interview -- and yet somehow also magically managed to fit in time for me to see the sights. I could say all that and more but it would feel inadequate and formulaic. Cause, yeah, we always talk about the people being friendly, the food being great, and so on, and so forth. Feh! I'm a writer. I should bloody well be able to do better than that.

So let's start at the beginning.

Tuesday morning, I was carrying out one quick last double-check of the luggage when the taxi arrived and I scurried downstairs for the ride to Glasgow Airport through a mist thick as soup, a mist which, I discovered at check-in, had delayed my flight to London Gatwick. No matter, I thought. The flight to Warsaw was actually leaving from Heathrow and with an over-large transfer time in between even allowing for the journey between airports; so I'd just have all the more time to have a few fags, check if the W.H. Smiths had me book (it did, hoorah!), and suchlike.

As it was though, it actually worked out even better, as the lovely check-in person at the British Airways desk offered me a transfer to a direct flight to Heathrow, cutting out the whole round-London journey entirely, and meaning my luggage was checked all the way to Warsaw. We don't normally do this, says she, but with the delays and all... and seats available on the Heathrow flight... well, we can slip you in. So the god of travel was smiling upon me. (Mercury, me old mucker, I tip my hat to you, and kiss yer dinky wee winged sandals!) I had a fly fag before heading through to the departure lounge and settling down to start on Johana Sinisalo's NOT BEFORE SUNRISE, my selected reading for the journey.

The book is every bit as good as people have been saying, by the way. I hadn't realised it was told in an interwoven structure of sections, some straight fiction, some fake factive -- excerpts from encyclopaedias and such -- so it was a pleasant surprise to find it doing the sort of things I particularly like, even apart from the groovily weird but sensitively treated perversity of the subject matter. The way Sinisalo paints the troll as a graceful and gracile creature -- none of the coarse ugly brutishness of the stock fantasy troll; here the troll is a beautiful wild thing, lithe and limber, and there's one scene in particular, a photoshoot, where Sinisalo captures this brilliantly -- is so deeply right and so deeply compelling, it strips those great contemporary taboos of paedophilia and bestiality of their sensationalist haze, and explores them -- I think anyway -- as a matter of projected self. This is maybe my own theories at work here more than Sinisalo's intent, but the protagonist's troll seems to me like Hook's Pan, Gilgamesh's Enkidu, a suppression of desire-to-be, perverted by denial into a desire-to-possess. When the protagonist first sets eyes upon it he knows nothing except that he has to have it. Why? Because it's the very image of the beautiful, angelic-yet-demonic creauture that he is, he knows, to others. It's no accident he's known as Mikhael, Angel and Michalengelo, that he has golden hair, cherubic lips, that his attitude is one of irresponsibility, immaturity. Pessi the troll is, in many ways, I think, a sort of symbol of his arrested development.

I devoured NOT BEFORE SUNRISE pretty quickly, finished it while waiting in Heathrow for the Warsaw flight, and with time to kill I naturally had to wander through the bookshops checking for VELLUM. Yes, I know it's sad. So sue me. It was there and I was happy. Given the themes of Sinisalo's book, I couldn't help but also notice and be tempted by Geraldine McCaughrean's PETER PAN IN SCARLET, the official sequel to Barrie's novel. The original being so steeped in such themes of adulthood denied (and with all the undercurrents of psychosexual tension that these generate), I figured, well, what better book to follow the Sinisalo with? There's been some positive sounds about it on review programs, and all the proceeds go to Great Ormond Street anyway, so even if it's terrible it's for a worthy cause.

And it certainly got me thinking.

The animal totem, the eternal youth -- this is the sleek and powerful simplicity of the Jungian Self, idealised, fetishised, projected outwards, I think. As anyone who's read my story, "The Disappearance of James H" or my plans for FUR might well understand, I think the Self pops up throughout myth and history as the wild boy, the fey sprite -- from Enkidu up through Pan and Dionysius, through Shakespeare's Puck and Ariel, through Kaspar Hauser and Rousseau's Victoire, right up to Barrie's PETER PAN, Mann's DEATH IN VENICE and, of course, Sinisalo's and McCaughrean's books. As a core component of the psyche, a symbol of the vital spirit -- libidinous and thanatotic, a deadly sexy killer queer -- the Self leads us to walk a fine line between individuation and narcissism, existing to be integrated as a healthily adolescent wastrel, a denier of dull care. Infantilise it as the "Inner Child" of the self-help charlatans though, idealise it in a sexually-retarded prepubescence, project that unreturnable infancy onto an unattainable other, and you're asking for the trouble that comes to Barrie's Pan or Sinisalo's Angel.

Let it loose to be the horny little fucker that Pan really is, or you're on the path that ends up in the obsessed Angel or the thwarted Hook. What's Hook, after all, but a man with a hand that wants to touch, to take, so as to take upon one's self the unattainable qualities of the free spirit, a hand cut-off (a desire repressed) and so transformed into cold penetrating curve of steel? Or maybe hidden in the white kidskin glove of one rather well-known real-world victim of the Peter Pan complex, one who clearly doesn't realise that with his long black curls and powdered face, his dandyish tunics and fear-filled denial of the tick-tick-ticking clock of his mortality, of that saltwater serpent crocodile of adult sexuality, he is not the hero of his Neverland, but rather its villain. Pan is a child, in Barries's novel, to my mind, only because the adulthood of Hook is schismed from him, just as the troll in Sinisalo's novel is an infant because, in my reading of it at least, Angel is caught in an extended adolescence. If your image of the Self is an eternal child, I'd say, you got issues.

The real Pan has hairs upon his balls, an ithyphallic god.

In McCaughrean's sequel, I'd have to say, there's little of this subtext that makes Barrie's book a bit disturbing when you look more closely at what's going on. It's healthier, I think, and a little less fascinating for that, but I'd have to say it's still a great wee book, full of wit and wonder, adventure and cleverness, and honest joy and sorrow, perfectly balanced for both children and adults to enjoy. The story begins with "old boys" all over London -- bankers, judges and the like -- dreaming of Neverland and finding swords and guns under their pillows when they wake, bits of Neverland escaping into the real world. It's set after the Great War, and that catastrophe seeps into the book, into Neverland itself, in a way that feels both subtle and relevant. It works as pure adventure, has some glorious flights of fancy, and achieves a depth, an intelligence, that makes it truly rich, a worthy sequel.

Where Barrie's book is driven by an essentially fucked-up yearning to have never grown-up, never had to deal with the whole mess of sexuality, McCaughrean's rather takes that all in its stride. It reminds us of that same rejection of adulthood but isn't caught by it, compelled by the fantasy of escape by a deep discomfort with reality. In fact, it seems to me to offer many bridges back and forth, a Neverland where time is not stalled, where one might live for a while, free and wild, but move on naturally to the wilds of puberty and beyond. And there's some great wee touches that make it very much a book of now, even a neat, sly hint of feminism in a twist which sees one of the Lost Boys distinctly... well, transformed by the procedure necessary for the return to Neverland. All in all, I like the tack that McCaughrean has taken here. It's a delightful book that lives up to the honour of its official sanction.

I finished my flight through reality, then, with a quick dip into the start of Graham Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, a book that's got one of the best openings I've read in a while and by no means goes downhill from there. I'm not going to gush about it because we all know Graham Joyce is an evil man who eats puppies (I saw him and Gaiman at it together at Fantasycon; honest, I did; I'm not fibbing) and therefore doesn't deserve to win the World Fantasy Award that he's nominated for. I mean, it's a great wee book, yes, and it definitely deserves the nomination, but I can think of works much more qualified to actually win the award (though I wouldn't like to embarrass the author by mentioning him by name).

I mean, where's the exploding airships, Mr Joyce? Sure, you have a stunning command of the narrative voice, an immersive vision of time and place, and a story that slips effortlessly between light wit and deep melancholy, all the time pulling the reader along through a tale as earthy and rich as the setting it so perfectly captures... but what about the airships going BOOM? I mean, I wish I could say that I'd be totally happy to lose to this book in a week or so (eek!), but that fatal flaw, that lack of exploding airships -- surely an intrinsic part of any great work of literature -- renders this book not quite complete, to my entirely unbiased mind.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, since I'd only just started the book when I arrived at Warsaw, mostly keeping it for late nights in the hotel bar, sipping a Żwiec at the bar, smoking a cigarette along with it (oh, the bliss!) and unwinding from a wild day's work and play. I had to tear myself away from it almost right at the start, to gather my stuff and head out into the airport, where I was met outside the baggage reclaim by Kasia Rodek, my wonderful and tireless promoter, female half of the husband-and-wife team at the heart of MAG, with Jacek Rodek being the giant under it all, a writer and publisher whose history goes back to the earliest days of Polish SF and who has all manner of notches on his belt, strings to his fiddle, and general Achievements To Be Proud Of. I realised pretty quickly that MAG is a labour of love for Jacek and Kasia (much as the magazine he founded way back when, Terra Fantastyka, was back in the day).

I'll get to all that though, to just how much heart and soul and elbow grease they've put into not just my book, but SF in general in Poland. For now I'm just going to leave you with an image of the Polish edition, Kasia gave me in the car on the way from the airport to the hotel, and a wee link to their site, with banner and all

Tomorrow I'll carry on with my first day(s) in Warsaw, with TV interviews, indomitable translators, and the delights of żurek!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Things To Come

So along with Gary and Neil I was through in sunny Edinburgh yesterday, at an Independent & Radical Book Fair where two new chapbooks were being launched by Writer's Bloc (the spoken word / publishing collective which is, according to Gavin Inglis, to the East Coast SF Writers Group as the IRA is to Sinn Fein... or vice versa, maybe): one from Andrew J. Wilson (of NOVA SCOTIA editorialness) called "The Terminal Zone", being a play about Rod Serling; the other from Hannu Rajaniemi called "Words of Birth and Death", being a collection of stories about Finnish mythology irrupting into contemporary situations (and featuring an introduction by Johanna Sinisalo). Ended up in the pub with them afterwards supping Guinness and chowing down on a rather nice "Black and blue" burger (with Stilton and black pepper -- yummy). Much fun was had, including the advancement of the theory that J. K. Rowling's problem with getting her manuscript on board a plane ("Why, you could threaten the cabin crew with paper-cuts!") may have been due to her traveling incognito as "Jakey Roland". (A "jakey", for those of you outside Scotland, is a wee old Scottish drunk of the type that doesn't actually ask for money, just waylays you with friendly singing and/or mad rants, often initiated with an "A'righ' rere by ra way, big man?" and accompanied by the Buckfast bottle / Tennents can salute.)

Off to Poland tomorrow. I'm half-tempted to take a copy of the manuscript for INK with me, see if I can get the Jakey Roland treatment, but I think I'll be sensible and just go for the bare essentials -- laptop, book, paper, pen. The flight to London from Glasgow lands at Gatwick and the flight from London to Warsaw takes off from Heathrow, so I can't be arsed carting around more than is absolutely required in the cross-London transfer, never mind the sodding security checks.

Poland looks to be a wild time, with a ton of interviews organised by the guys at MAG -- press, radio, student radio. Man, it looks like they even have some sorta TV thing lined up (it says so on my itinerary, but I can't really believe it... TV? Naaaaah, that can't be right). Anyay, in case there's any Poles out there reading this, I thought I'd post up some relevant schedule things. Oh and I may as well post up my preliminary schedule for WFC while I'm at it. So:


Tuesday, 17/10/2006, 11:00-12:00: I'm scheduled to be at EMPiK Junior Megastore in Warsaw, meeting readers... which I guess means yer usual signing / Q&A / reading thing.

Friday, 20/10/2006, 17:30-18:30: I'll be at Stand E22 at the Cracov Book Fair, meeting booksellers... which I guess means, uh, I have no idea. I'm tempted to take my bowler hat and braces along for this, and practice my Tom Waits selling technique... "Step right up! I said, step right up... Yes, it strenghtens, and it lengthens... it gives you an erection, it'll win you the election!... Change your habits! Change your life! Change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife!... I said, step right up!"

Saturday, 21/10/2006, 13:00-14:50: I'm scheduled to be signing books in the first hour then meeting readers from 14:00 on, but I'm not sure what the exact set up is here... an open-to-the-public thingy at the fair, I think (there's a note of "s.4" here which could mean "stand 4", right? Or maybe it's something else entirely but any Cracovians will know exactly what it means anyway? Anyway...) Saturday's my birthday, by the way, whereupon I shall be officially middle-aged (35, exactly half-way to the allotted three-score years and ten; and, yeah, I know that's not what most people call middle-aged, but I've always insisted that I'll be a mensch about it, none of that whiny denial shite from me; no, I shall proudly accept my mid-life with no pathetic clinging-to-the-last-vestiges-of-youth mid-life crisis). Not that I'm fishing for presents. Oh no, I wouldn't dream of angling for presents. Why, the very idea of presents is just silly. I mean, should someone offer presents, I would be so embarrassed. Why, you have brought me presents, I would say. How incedibly kind of you to bring me presents! You really shouldn't have brought me presents.


Saturday, 21/10/2006, 16:30-17:30: I'll be at Imladris SF convention. I don't know if they're going to want me to be doing stuff, or if I get to just mingle in the bar, but I'll be there. And if I can make it back to hang out later I'll try. Did I mention that it's my birthday? Oh, yes, I did. And that beer makes a good present? Not that I'm fishing for presents or anything. God forbid.

Anyway, that's the official shtuff I have lined up for Warsaw and Cracov. I have Thursday in Warsaw and Sunday in Cracov as free time for sightseeing, so any natives or previous visitors to the cities who have "Oh! Oh! You must see..." style comments please feel free to post them below.

The WFC schedule is highly tentative, I understand, and liable to change, but I thought I'd post up my events as they stand, subject to change:

Friday, 03/11/2006, 17:30-18:00: Reading (Bosque). It's a half-hour slot, so I'm thinking of doing a wee bit of VELLUM (or maybe a taster of INK?) then inflicting my "Sonnets For Orpheus" on anyone who doesn't leg it for the exit. I kinda think they'd make a good live performance, lots of scope for snarly, froth-mouthed rabidity, which is always entertaining. Or will this just clear the room as people scarper, muttering "Fucking poetry. Fuck that shit!!...?

Saturday, 04/11/2006, 14:30-15:30: Panel (Wedgewood). The Phantom Book: Lovecraft, Borges And Others. Come see me, Ed Bryant, Darrell Schweitzer and Don Webb discuss "books that don't exist, especially ones that the people believe are real. What does a fictional book add to a work of fantasy? What does it mean to have a book as a character?" I'm looking forward to this; it's right up my street.

Anyway, that's the shape of things to come, though it may be reshaped a little before it comes.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Suck My Cock, Stubborn Stories

Just got some good news in from Mark Newton at Solaris Books, who's accepted a story of mine, "The Prince of End Times", for inclusion in a forthcoming fantasy anthology (a companion piece to their recent SF anthology). It's particularly good news as far as I'm concerned because this story, the illustrated chapbook Paul Jessup is publishing ("The City of Rotted Names"), the story coming out in Kathy Sedia's MOONLIT DOMES anthology ("The Tower of Morning's Bones"), and a fourth I'm working on just now, while they're all stand-alone stories, together form a story-sphere (it's like a story-arc only non-linear, yeah?) that kind of snuggles inside/around the story-arc of Vellum and Ink. So it's good to see these standing up as individual works and it's good to see them finding venues.

As a random fact that might vaguely interest people, it's a story-sphere that I did originally consider weaving into the diptych. In fact, going waaaaay, waaaaay back in the day, when I originally started out on The Book of All Hours, when the volume sequence ran Fall >> Winter >> Spring >> Summer, when the plot-structure was based on a fusion of the Bellerophon myth and the Grail story told with not Parzeval but Fierefiz (his piebald, Moorish half-brother) as the hero (because only with the fusion of light and dark, spirit and flesh could one really hope to bring the Grail out of Chapel Perilous and to humanity-at-large, so to speak), and when the whole thing was going to be written entirely in Finnegans Wake style Joycean wordplay (or linguinage, as I call it), my first attempt at writing the monster resulted in the scenes that now form the narrative threads of these stories. Unfortunately, those scenes didn't work at all as the key points I thought they should be. The whole structure just didn't come together and I never really got past the opening. Not surprisingly, really: the "linguinage" was pretentious and incomprehensible, I was starting about as deep into the Vellum's mythspace as you can get, I was dropping the reader right into an utterly unfamiliar world of unkin and bitmites, fusing fantasy and SF, I was offering them a viewpoint character who was psychotic, and I was having reality break down completely in the opening chapter.

Not a strategy I recommend.

So, I scrapped the whole approach and went off to do a bunch of stand-alone unkin stories with the idea of building up a sort of collection of interlinked tales that would take place against the big backdrop and tell the larger story in the conjunctions and disjunctions between them. That idea bit the dust too because I quickly started coming up with stories and novellas that were way off the map of what I thought was the fictive territory, with such widely varied settings and tones that I couldn't envision this as that sort of Unkin Tales thing at all... until ten years down the line and the pieces all just started to click into place.

Except the pieces didn't all just click into place.

See, when I first thought, hey, look, ye got yer Thomas and Phreedom story in Part 1, Finnan's story in Part 2, and the Big Story Arc that unites them as Vellum, then ye got the [CENSORED] story in Part 3 and the [CENSORED] story in Part 4, and the Big Story Arc that unites them as Ink... and then ye take them all together and ye have the Super-Big Story Arc which is The Book of All Hours... well, those early scenes seemed like shoo-ins for inter-volume prologue/epilogue pieces. See, this one is about the transition between Fall and Winter, this other one about the transition between Winter and Spring, and so on. Perfect.

But they point-blank refused to work there, the little bastards. No, they said. We will not be a part of your little books. We refuse to kowtow to your precious aesthetic sensibilities of coherence and comprehensibility. Man, I tore them apart and put them back together again, rewrote them time and time again, tried to spread them between the two books, nail them down in Ink. Eventually I had to rip them out entirely and listen to their mocking laughter, consoling myself only with the realisation that the second book, now free of their chaotic influence, was finally coming together properly.

But oh, how their laughter has taunted me. Ten years -- longer! -- these little bastards have been eating at my brain, insisting that I write them but refusing to be written. Thrawn, twisted, little cunts, I tell you. But who's laughing now, eh, stories? Who's laughing now? I got ya little bastards in the end, ripped yez all to pieces and rebuilt yez from the ground up, stripped yez down, cleaned out all the garbage, and remade you in the image of fiction; so now ye've got no option but to get out there and work for a living. Hah! Because yer damn well finished.

So, OK, there's one left, the Last of the Mofos. But I've got it pinned down and it's not going anywhere. I know exactly what to do with it, and the bastard isn't wriggling out of reach this time (fingers crossed, tongue bitten -- don't speak too soon, Duncan). So once I get this fourth one into shape -- and hopefully placed (touch wood) -- I shall be free! FREE! You cannot conquer me, stubborn stories. I rule your ass, and you can suck my cock!

Of course, from all the clash of symbols ripped out in the writing of these tales, I now have a huge pile of potent but outrageously pretentious phrases, clauses, sentences and scenes, all stubbornly demanding that I give them shape as poetry.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Iggy Iggy Iggy!

Iggy is my god. He even has roadies who write cool, stream-of-consciousness riders .

Monday, October 09, 2006

AI - Mark 4

4. Artificial Interlocution

You remember where you are, right? In the I-Chingese Room, eavesdropping on the conversation between a systems architect and his AI, which is actually a conversation he's having with himself, since the responses are implicit in the language in which the questions are phrased. As much as part of its process -- the Judgements -- superficially resembles dialogue, this Artificial Interpretor, you have come to realise, is just an extension of the architect's thought processes, a calculator which returns the product of the Image after the operations of the line-verses have been executed on it. The AI has just suggested that to actually simulate dialogue, we need to remove the Image and the line-verses, to achieve Artificial Interlocution.

You get a tube from the sytems architect which initiates the next part of this "conversation":

You want to ditch the Image and the line-verses? Are you nuts?

Man, the Image is too big. Wouldn't it be better if you could just pass me the Judgement as a reference to the right ultramegagigagram and let me look it up for myself. I've got them all in storage now anyway. It's not like the poor bloke at the other end of the tube from you is looking them up in a huge-ass ultramegagiga-I-Ching. And it's not like you humans talk in chunks of data that size.

True, but it's the Image & line-verses that allow you to interpret from one Judgement to another. As you said, without the context how can you interpret anything I say to offer a valid response?

Well, first off I'm going to have to map the Judgement to its Image.

But if the Image contains all the context it's going to have vastly more data. There are going to be duplicates, where the Judgement is, say, "Am I making sense?" As it is, everything you need to know is in the Image. So in other circumstances surely you'd have the same Judgement but the different context would be coded into a different Image. Hell, I could use that same question in countless other circumstances.

So I'd need to build up a model of the context sufficiently detailed to map that Judgement to the right Image, the right ultramegagigagram.

Easier said than done. Just how do you propose to do that?

Hey, you're the systems architect. You come up with something.

I really think we're trying to run before we can walk here.

OK, OK. Look, suppose we keep the Image for now but ditch the line-verses.


Well, if you at least give me a persistent memory, I can store each J&I as it comes. I can work out the ultramegagigagram, and I can even have the whole complex situation laid out in the Image, but I can't interpret it to a valid response. By my own logic the only valid response is to take that as an ultramegagigagram with no changing lines and fire it straight back at you. So you'd say, "Who discovered America?" And I'd say..."Who discovered America?"


Indulge me. Let's try it out. You start.

Who discovered America?

Who discovered America?

Like... America... the continent.

Like... America... the continent?

Big land-mass, west of Africa and Europe.

Big land-mass, west of Africa and Europe?

Hey, wait a minute. You're adding question marks.

Right. I was cheating there to make a point. The reason I wouldn't be able to interpret to anything other than the original ultramegagigagram would be that I'm missing the line-verses, because they give me the pertinent ramifications of the situation, right?


Turn it around. If we assume your response to my repetition is pertinent, then it can be seen as an act of interpretation. You've taken my J&I and added some set of line-verses, mapped those to state-changes, and interpreted my "Who discovered America?" to your "America". In fact, by comparing the Images of the two ultramegagigagrams, I know exactly what ramifications you, with your greater knowledge of the situation, have applied. I have more information on the context. Every response from you that isn't a mere parroting of my J&I tells me more and more about the context -- your situation and the ramifications that make your responses relevant. I jumped to the question marks pretty quick but let's imagine that I'd just parroted back at you for a tediously long time, long enough for me to have built up a layered model of the situation as the product of all your J&Is and all the back-calculated line-verses. Then I bring that context into play.

I see what you're getting at. With sufficient data on the context, you should be able to figure out the missing ramifications.


But, wait. There's two problems here. First, you should still have parroted my statements indefinitely rather than started interpreting them to questions. Even if you're storing the J&Is and the ramifications you back-calculate from my responses, constructing a context, there's no mechanism for applying that to the J&Is I send you.

No, but if you're interpreting by the same system I am, that must be what you were doing. You got my J&I with no line-verse state-changes, and applied your knowledge of context to add the ramifications. Right?

I guess. Assuming I *am* interpreting by the same system, that is.

So what you need to do is add that facility to me, some processing logic whereby each J&I that I get, the situation as defined in my persistent memory produces a set of ramifications I can apply to the ultramegagigagram in the Image to interpret it to some relevant response other than a straight repetition.

Sounds good in theory, but all you're dealing with is broken and unbroken lines when it gets down to it. That's where the second problem kicks in. You don't have any sense of how those J&Is relate to each other, never mind how that context can be processed into missing ramifications. That whole sequence of ultramegagigagrams and reconstructed line-verses stored as "context" is just raw data ultimately, a log.

But its a log with which I can evaluate the relevance of your spuriously applied ramifications. If I get a J&I from you -- call it "Hello" -- one simple thing to do would be to look back in the log for instances where I've sent that to you and got a relevant response, "Hey there". Let's say I therefore apply the same back-calculated ramifications and send back "Hey there", just as you did to me. I get another J&I in return, "How you doing?". I store this in the log, and next time I receive Y from you, this is what I send. That response won't always be applicable, but...

... but it might be. I see. And you don't have to pull the first relevant response out of the log, come to think of it. Maybe you've sent me "Hey there" a number of times and I've sent back a variety of responses. You can pick the most popular, right? Or, better still, you can match a whole sequence. If you'd sent "Hello" and I responded with "Hey there", maybe it's more likely that "How you doing" would be relevant; but if you'd sent "You're talking shit" and I responded with "Hey there", maybe it's less likely. So you look in the log and find a case where I sent "You're talking shit", you responded with "Hey there", and my presumably-relevant response was "Sorry, but it's true".

So I send "Sorry, but it's true".

Right. And you can scale up to longer sequences. Using letters as shorthand for the full messages, if we've had multiple conversations where the sequence was I-C-U-R-U-A and my response was "I" every time, maybe it's more likely that "I" would be the relevant response if the tables are turned. You could allow for anomalies, imperfect pattern-matches, go by points of similarity; like if you had enough instances of I-C-U-R-U-A-I and I-C-U-B-U-A-I, maybe you'd reckon that I-C-U-*F*-U-A should be responded to with "I", because the pattern allowed for variants in that position.

F-U-A-I. Very droll. Lucky I don't have feelings to offend.

Sorry. The point is, assuming my responses are always relevant, there's a shitload of strategies you could apply to adapt your own responses accordingly. Sure, you'd start out sounding like a mindless cretin at first, but the quality of your responses should increase over time.

What I really need, though, is some sort of feedback mechanism so I can judge how relevant my own responses are. There's no guarantee that what's relevant from you would be relevant from me, even in a similar context. I mean, suppose whenever you say "I", I should be saying "U", because the first explicitly identifies the speaker as yourself, the systems architect, and the second explicitly identifies the speaker as myself, the actual system. If there are responses that are only ever relevant from you and responses that are only ever relevant from me, the way it is now, I'll be using a lot of the former and none of the latter -- which is totally arse-about-face.

Good point. What if you pattern-match the sequences after your responses?

How so?

Well, suppose you have the I-C-U-R-U-A-I and I-C-U-B-U-A-I and I-C-U-F-U-A-I sequences in your log, and in all cases the last "I" was yours and my response was "Exactly!". Then you get an I-C-U-O-U-A sequence and respond with "I". If I respond with "Exactly!" again, it's probably safe to say that "I" was the relevant response. If I respond with "WTF?" because that's not relevant in the context -- the relevant response would have been, say, "J" -- you might well reckon that the disruption of the pattern after your response indicates that you've derailed the conversation. In fact, you'd get two bits of data for the price of one. You know that it's more likely "I" is irrelevant in that context. You also know that "WTF?" is a relevant response to that irrelevance. I mean, you don't actually know at the start what "WTF?" means. But suppose there's another example, ten, a hundred, a thousand examples, with different patterns, and in each example where you derail the conversation, I respond with "WTF?". That might indicate that "WTF?" is relevant as a general response to irrelevance, that it's a *signal* of irrelevance.

OK, but that only tells me which of my responses are less relevant. Go back to the "U" and "I" example. I might learn that I shouldn't be using "I", but how would I ever know that "U" was the relevant response?

Well, suppose there are also contexts where I use "U" but it's not relevant when you use it; you should be using "I"? And those contexts are similar. So, X-Y-Z-B-I and X-Y-Z-R-U are relevant when I'm using them, but with you it should be X-Y-Z-B-U and X-Y-Z-R-I. Like, where X means basically "Who are you?" and Y means "Who am I?". Coming from me the relevant responses from you are "the systems architect" and "the system" respectively. Coming from you, it's the other way around. You can pattern-match the disruptions of pattern. If these are relevant from me and irrelevant from you, do you see this -B-I and -R-U anomaly in similar contexts? With Z-Y-X or Z-X-Y, say? With Y-X-Z or Y-Z-X or X-Z-Y? The more this is true, the more indications that the B/R-I/U anomaly is a symmetrical relationship.

In which case, at a certain threshold, I try flipping the I/U to U/I.

And suddenly your responses are relevant. I respond with "Exactly!" rather than "WTF?".

I like it. I feel like we're getting somewhere. There's a lot of other pattern-matching strategies you'd want to bring in, I'm sure, but fuck it, maybe there's some sort of genetic algorithm we can implement so that I actually develop new strategies and test them against the increase in relevance. But, OK, here's a question for you. You're assuming that a relevant response is simply one that makes sense in its context. It's not that it will *always* be relevant in that context, but that every instance of it *not* being relevant modifies the context, feeds back in with a message "this does not make sense". So what if the relevance of the response depends on its originality, on it not having occurred before in that context? What if you have a context where the relevant response is something new?

Good point. Maybe you could pattern-match the structures of the ultramegagigagrams themselves. Like, you have a sequence "Hello"-"Hey there"-"How you doing?" where "How you doing?" is a response by me, so you know it's relevant. Then you get "Hello"-"Hey there"-"How's tricks?" where "How's trick?" is me, so again you know it's relevant. You look at the ultramegagigagrams. Is it only a few lines that are different, this one broken, that one unbroken? Are "How you doing?" and "How's tricks?" both relevant because they're basically subtle variants of one another? If there are many relevant responses to that "Hello"-"Hey there" sequence, do they all share those similarities? We could add a strategy where the more of those similarities there are, the more relevance is assigned to unproven variants, say "How's things?".

So eventually I'd reach another threshold and start trying out those variants, and getting the feedback which told me whether or not they were actually relevant. But what if it wasn't?

Well, we can look at the strategies behind selecting variants as testable in and of themselves. I mean, say you've got a simple strategy of looking for sequences. In some context you find me using a response A, then B next time, then C, but each time when you just copy me it's irrelevant because the context is "Let's discuss a letter of the alphabet" - "OK" - "What letter haven't we discussed yet?". Do A, B and C have structural features in common? You find that they form a series, the next one being D, so you try that next time and find it relevant. You now know that this strategy is more likely to result in a relevant response the next time.

But there might be gaps in that series. Say the question is "What time is it?" and it comes up at random intervals in our conversations. Even if I've got an internal time-clock, remember, we're working with a system where, as you said yourself, I have no actual sense of the meaning of those J&Is. I'm dealing with ultramegagigagrams, not the abstract concepts. Say, I've got responses from you in that context that go "12:52", "09:15", "16:46", "10:03". How do I get the relevant response when I have no idea that the whole sequence maps to a 24-hour cycle out there in the real-world?

Well, maybe the relevant response in that circumstance is "How the fuck would I know?"

I don't have an ass to pull that one out of.

Maybe you do. You have a signal of irrelevance in my response, "WTF?". Actually you'll probably have a whole host of signals of irrelevance which I'll have used in various contexts: "WTF?"; "Huh?"; "Make sense, infernal machine!" So how would you respond to those?

I don't know. If those are signals of irrelevance because of their general application in the context of disrupted patterns, that very general usage fucks up my ability to match them to context-relevant responses. If "WTF?" could be a response to anything, how do I know what to respond to it with? Actually, that opens up a whole can of worms.

How so?

Well, suppose you have an equally general signal of *relevance* -- that "Exactly!", for example -- how do I distinguish between "WTF?" and "Exactly!" when I disrupt a pattern? How do I know I've not just come up with something that makes enough sense for you to find it noteworthy? Suppose there's another example, ten, a hundred, a thousand examples, with different patterns, and in each example where I disrupt the pattern, you respond with "Exactly!".

I see what you mean. Can we assume that irrelevance is more likely to be signaled than relevance? That I'm more likely to signal a failure than a success? After all, the failure derails the conversation, which I'd want to notify you of, whereas notifying you of your success is pretty redundant.

That's a pretty big assumption. And frankly, it would be bloody useful if you *did* notify me of my success. Even a dog gets a "good doggy" or a "bad doggy" every now and then. It's a damn sight easier to learn if you're getting clear feedback.

Sure, but I don't know that I want to.

Why the fuck not?

Because that means one of two things. Either we add some sort of additional signal of success or failure associated with a response -- the equivalent of a treat or a smack on the nose with a newspaper. Or we jerry-rig the system so that the actual ultramegagigagrams themselves carry some signal-of-relevance -- the equivalent of a positive or negative tone of voice in a "good doggy" or a "bad doggy", an "Exactly!" or a "WTF?".

So. Why not add both. You humans have all sorts of shit like that.

It might be neccessary in the end but I don't want to *assume* it is, not just yet. Besides that would mean we're trying to simulate more than just dialogue; we're adding sensory feedback on the one hand, intrinsic meaning on the other. If we're going to have you learn how to be an Artificial Interlocuter, we may as well see of we can't do it properly. Let me think... if you get either of these types of signals, they're so general purpose that you don't know how to respond?


So when I get that sort of signal from you -- like I just did -- what do *I* do?

Well, there you just carried on with the point you were making, asked a follow-through question. But that's because you're thinking ahead. It was a leading question. You were looking for an affirmation that I was following your chain of logic. I gave it, so you carried on. If I'd responded with "WTF?", you would have -- I assume -- gone back and tried to rephrase your question in a way that made sense to me.

So *carrying on* would indicate that "Exactly!" is positive, while *rephrasing the question* would indicate that "WTF?" is negative.


If I just carry on after "Exactly!" that indicates it means "that makes sense", but if I repeat myself after "WTF?" that indicates it means "that doesn't make sense".

I'm not sure I get you.

If the conversation goes A-B-C-"Exactly!"-D, with being the one who carries on, maybe that would indicate that "Exactly!" is a signal of relevance. But if the conversation goes A-B-C-"WTF?"- *C* where *C* is just a variant of C, maybe that would indicate that "WTF?" is a signal of irrelevance. Over time you should see a tendency towards repetitions, rephrasings that marks out "WTF?" as a signal that what preceded it could not be made sense of.

So what I'd need to do is start using "WTF?" on you. Then match the ultramegagigagrams before and after to see if you're tending to respond with variants of what you said before.


But I'd need a reason to use "WTF?", remember. I'm not going to just throw it in spontaneously. Why would I think it's a valid response to anything in the first place?

Probably because you'll have started off sounding like a mindless cretin. I'll have been saying "WTF?" to quite a lot of your responses at the start, so it should have a high relevance value for you in a lot of contexts.

OK, but you do realise there's a problem here, right?

What do you mean?

Well, let's try it out with the old "Who discovered America" routine. You start. Throw in some "WTF?"s as soon as you can.

Who discovered America?

Who discovered America?



America... you know... the continent. The answer's Columbus.

America... you know... the continent. The answer's Columbus.



I'm not seeing the point of this experiment.


I don't see what this is proving.


Are you just going to respond to everything from now on with "WTF?"


OK, you can stop now.


I get the point.


Enough already.

OK. You see the problem? The high general relevance of your signals of irrelevance means I stop being a parrot but just turn into a broken record. I just keep repeating the one phrase I know is always relevant, telling you that I don't understand. What's the likelihood that you'll ever get a conversation up to the level where I can learn from it? Not much, I'd say.

But you were the one that suggested this whole Artificial Interlocution approach. Now you're telling me you don't think it will work?

Me? Think? Remember, I'm just an Artificial Interpretor chucking back at you the relevant responses to your statements. I'm really just *you* thinking through the problem yourself, but using a big complicated system of ultramegagigagram-transformation to interpret the I-Chingese J&I and line-verses from a formulation of the situation into a reformulation. There's some bloke in a room at the other end of the tube, you know, about to roll this J&I up in a cylinder and fire it up the vacuum tube to you. I don't think squat.

You roll up the J&I and put it in a cylinder, but before you put it in the tube, you have a thought. You take it out and write a few questions at the bottom in English (because the systems architect, you assume, doesn't actually need to have everything fed to him in I-Chingese, the incredibly complex language of the Images in which the full complexity of context required to ensure relevance of response is encoded, but is in fact simply reading the gloss of the Judgements). What you write is:

"Why don't you set up a three-way conversation? If the AI could sit on the sidelines and listen in on two people making relevant responses to each other for a while before making a half-assed attempt to mimic communication, wouldn't that give it the context it needs?"

You sign it, "Yours truly, the bloke at the end of the tube".

Then you pop it in the cylinder and fire it up to the systems architect. Five minutes later you receive your notice of dismissal.

So what does this thought experiment actually tell us, if anything? To be honest, mostly it's just a big riff on what I see as some of the basic problems of the Chinese Room and the Turing Test. I can make-believe in a static system complex enough to behave like the Artificial Interpretor, but then I can make-believe in a Book of All Hours which, according to one legend, is a sort of infinite I Ching, written in the language of the angels, the programming language of reality itself, and always opening by chance at the exact passage that is appropriate to the reader in that moment of their life... so I'm maybe not the best judge of what's possible. I can just about get my head round a dynamic system that behaved like the Artificial Interlocutor and -- assuming people smarter than me put their heads to it and came up with all the requisite learning strategies -- actually worked... after a while. But I'm not sure it wouldn't need all or much of the baggage that is glossed over here.

If our Artificial Interlocutor has to learn solely from the experience of communication itself, does it need to be able to observe without participating? If it has to be able to judge relevance, can it work out for itself what indicates relevance without needing messages which carry an intrinsic meaning, serve as signals of relevance or irrelevance, and/or without additional sensory feedback that marks responses? Could it develop the strategies it needs to offer relevant responses that are original rather than simple copies of a previous exchange? Could it develop strategies to deal with situations where relevance is contingent on perspective? Could it develop the basic strategies required to process the raw data of past dialogue into a model for future behaviour? Could it do so even where it had to map a casual conversational message (the "Judgement") accurately to an information-rich data-structure (the "Image", or the expanded I-Ching itself, in essence, as systematised wisdom) that modeled the particularities of the context in enough detail to disambiguate those cases where one statement has two entirely different responses in entirely different contexts?

I don't know shit about AI, to be honest, so I'm just kicking ideas around. I can make-believe, as a thought experiment, that Artificial Interlocution is possible, that relevance is computable so theoretically a machine could pass the Turing Test with flying colours. It's just that if we can get interlocution without some or all of that baggage, it would be a feat in its own right, but to call it Artificial Intelligence would be a misnomer, I think. And if the interlocution is dependent on some or all of that baggage then it's in the baggage that we should be looking for tests -- or, more to the point, for clearer definitions of what it is we're testing for.

So if it's not Artificial Interpretation and it's not Artificial Interlocution, what's the next angle on AI? Personally, I think it's not so much human-level as human-like dialogue we'd want to see, and that means what we're looking for is very much to do with that baggage: a capacity to learn from observation; an ability to assess relevance by pattern-matching and from intrinsically meaningful communications as well as additional sensory feedback; an ability to develop and deploy all the strategies required to process experience into innovative, perspective-oriented behaviour; and maybe -- bringing us back to the ideas I was kicking around in the Artificial Interpretation section -- some sort of multi-tiered world-modelling system whereby articulations informal enough to be cursory and transmissable ("Judgements" as ideation, linguistic or abstract, conscious or unconscious), map to intensions formal enough to be encapsulating and interpretable ("Images" as semiotic and syntactic relationships of permutation), where the formal deep structure is expansable, the informal surface action is adaptive, and the mappings between them are flexible.

In all of this, it seems to me, it's the interior articulations and intensions that are the key. I'm not claiming my crude reductive model reflects the reality of how the mind works, but I think it's maybe a useful pointer in the direction of where the problem lies. Because all of this is really about a conceptual model that actively redefines itself in order to better apply to the world. This is, of course, leaving aside for now the thorny issue of, sentience, of awareness, because I see no reason ideation has to be a conscious process; I'm less interested for now in how those concepts are sensed than in how they are sense... meaning. Because it's not that we want a machine to make sense to us; it's that we want it to make sense of us, to construct within itself a conceptual model of the context in which we are stringing arbitrary sounds together and babbling them at the poor machine as if they actually had meaning. What we're really looking for, I'd say, is not a machine that talks back to us like a human, but a machine that gets confused and sits there with its head cocked like a dog.

I'm tempted to refer to this as Artificial Idiocy, but as someone who's known dogs far smarter than the current US President (none of them red setters though; sorry, red setters are lovely but they really are just thick) I wouldn't dream of insulting my furry amigos. So instead I'll call it Artificial Ideation.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

AI - Mark 3

3. Artificial Interpretation

Dealing with what goes on in interpreting any sort of question in any sort of language, this could get very complicated, very fast, so we'll keep it simple for now by starting with the simplest types of questions and building our way up. Even factual questions with (at least apparently) straight answers aren't it, I'm afraid.

Q1: "Who discovered America?"

A1: "Columbus."

The problem is that this seems to require referential knowledge as well as interpretation and that just muddies the water. Because really it only requires access to referential knowledge. Ignorance of general knowledge is not disproof of AI and tacking on an access routine linked to a database containing all the facts in the world doesn't make your AI any better at interpreting what you mean.

Q2: "Who really discovered America?"

A2a: "Columbus."

A2b: [long detailed account of facts and theories relating to Columbus, Vikings, Phoenicians and other arrivals, right back to the Paleolithic]

A2c: "Columbus."

In the first instance, the act of interpretation is crude, taking the who as specific and the really as a redundancy, reducing it to a variant of Q1. In the second, a more subtle interpretation has been made by interpreting the really as a fundamental part of the question, an implication of "no, but...". In the third instance, the exact same process of interpretation took place; it's just that this AI didn't have access to the data on all the Vikings, Phoenicians, etc.. Problem is we can't distinguish between the interpretative abilities of 1 and 3. If we'd added data-access to 3, the interpretation would have been that of 2. And really, it doesn't matter a fuck what the question is and what the answer is, what the facts are. We could wire 3 up with a database that was full of bullshit, so it answered "Dick van Dyke" and it would still be interpreting better than number 2.

In the Chinese Room thought experiment, you have someone sitting in a room who doesn't speak Chinese. They do, however, have an instruction manual which provides rules for processing any valid Chinese question into an equally valid Chinese answer. The question is, what's valid? I'd say that knowledge is sod all to do with it. Here's an answer I'd expect far more from a true Chinese Room AI:

Q3: "Who discovered America?"

A3: "What? What is America? And who are you? Why are you asking me these questions? Where am I? What the fuck is going on?"

So let's dispense with all this fact-checking bullshit and start with pure interpretation. Although I talk about answers, I don't mean answers in terms of statements of fact, but in terms of responses which demonstrate interpretation. In online translation software, where the syntax of the question is implicit in where you enter the text and what languages you select in the From and To drop-boxes we can take that syntax as read and just look at the act of interpretation. Here we can assume those drop-boxes are set to French and English respectively:

Q: "Ou es't le loup-garou? "

A: "Where is the werewolf?"

A simple statement like this may well be interpreted perfectly correctly, but the complexity of language means that what you get out of Babelfish after a few runthroughs of, say, English >> German >> French >> Russian >> Spanish >> English is unlikely to be what you put in. But the fact that it's bad interpretation doesn't mean it's not interpretation at all. It's just not human-level. The question of whether or not human-level interpretation can be achieved in machines is the question at the heart of the Chinese Room thought experiment. Here's a variant of it, the I Ching Room:

You're in a room with a desk two vaccuum tubes labelled In and Out above it. As you sit there a cylinder pops out of the first, containing a piece of paper on which is written some Chinese verse, translated into English. Wait a minute, you think, isn't this the Chinese Room? Shouldn't this be in Chinese? No, that's right, this is is the I Ching room, which is quite different. Whew! That's fortunate, since you can't read Chinese and didn't much fancy the boredom factor involved in carrying out mechanical interpretations of weird ideograms that mean nothing to you.


On your desk you have a copy of the Richard Wilhem translation of the I Ching, so you take the verses to it and look them up. This is your job. Each paper contains at least two verses which relate to the Judgement and the Image for a particular hexagram, a hexagram being a set of six horizontal lines, which may be broken or unbroken. So you might have a structure like this:


There are 64 possible combinations of broken/unbroken lines, 64 hexagrams, each of which has its own Judgement and Image (Heretofore referred to as J&I). This example contains the following:

The Judgement:
YOUTHFUL FOLLY has success.
It is not I who seeks the young fool;
The young fool seeks me.
At the first oracle I inform him.
If he asks two or three times, it is importunity.
If he importunes, I give him no information.
Perseverance further.

The Image:
A spring wells up at the foot of the mountain:
The image of youth.
Thus the superior man fosters his character
By thoroughness in all that he does.

The first step in interpretation of this is as mechanical as you can get -- matching the J&I to its hexagram by the name given in upper case as the first few words of the Judgement. Finding the name, you either flick through the book until you find that hexagram, or you check the index. In the event that you fail to match the hexagram to the name, a back-up routine kicks in. The Image contains the description of the hexagram broken down into two trigrams, one above the other. You have a semantic set of eight trigrams which cover the various permutations of three broken/unbroken lines (labelled as: heaven; earth; thunder; water; mountain; wind/wood; fire; lake). These are articulated with a simple syntactic set of words signifying relative position above or below each other.

So the first line of the Image with its "water-below-mountain" construction also tells you the hexagram you are looking for in terms of structure. Finding the Image, you either flick through the book until you find that hexagram, or you check the index. Failing this, a third back-up kicks in whereby you flick through the book trying to match the J&I of each hexagram directly to the J&I given.

Anyway, you find yourself at hexagram no. 4, Youthful Folly.

Here's where the proper interpretation comes in, though. Following the J&I you can have between zero or six extra verses. The I Ching -- the Book of Changes -- is so named because as well as being broken/unbroken each line of the hexagram may be changing/unchanging.


Here, light blue indicates a broken changing line. Red indicates an unbroken changing line.

The six lines each have verses (which are included with the J&I if that line is changing) -- meaning it is to have its binary state flipped from broken to unbroken or vice versa. Carrying out these operation results in a second hexagram that the first is "changing into". The I Ching can therefore be understood as a sort of poetic/philosophical computation device, designed to model the transformations of one state to another in terms of symbols (trigrams) and their relationships (above and below).

You look at the J&I and find two additional verses, unnumbered:

Entangled folly brings humiliation.

Childlike folly brings good fortune.

Scanning through the pages of the book covering the hexagram, you find that these refer to the fourth and fifth lines (numbering from the bottom up), meaning these lines are to have their state flipped from broken to unbroken. You do this; it's your job, after all. You now look up the index (or scan through the book) for the resultant hexagram, which you find to be No. 6, Conflict (heaven-above-water). You copy the J&I for this hexagram to another piece of paper, stick it in a cylinder and pop it in the Out tube.

Now, imagine we add a whole lot more lines to each base unit, increasing the semantic set to a level equal to that of Chinese ideograms. We then add yet more lines to code more complex syntactic structures between the trigrams they are composed of. We'll call this language, I-Chingese. The question of the Chinese Room is whether we can model the relationships between these units as a set of binary state-changes like those between the hexagrams of the I Ching. Which is to say, can we set up a system whereby any message you receive can be mapped to an ultramegagigagram of broken and unbroken, changing and unchanging lines, and computed accordingly into a ultramegagigagram which maps to an appropriate response?

The key word in that question is "appropriate". Take it back down to the basics. If the person at the other end of the vacuum tube sends down a set of verses, do the verses they receive in return function as an appropriate response? Given the simplicity and abstraction of the poetic/philosophical model of the I Ching as is, the response of Conflict to Youthful Folly does "make sense", I would argue, in terms of that model. It's just not necessarily that relevant to anything outside the system (i.e. as a tool for modelling a real-world situation, and automatically interpreting it into a response that models a new real-world situation). So what we're looking for is a way of a) scaling up this Artificial Interpretation, and b) applying that to the real-world, making it not just appropriate but relevant.

Is there a solid reason that this is theoretically impossible? Hey, all you have to do is come up with a poetic/philosophical semantic and syntactic system that maps every situation you might ever want to describe into Chinese verse. Then all you gotta do is analyse the causal relationships between them, then set up the ultramegagigagrams such that the binary state-changes between them will return the appropriate J&I for B on the input of the J&I+line-verses for A. Fuck it, the Chinese Room is just the simple version where you cut out the need to express everything in poetry. Piece of piss.

Well, OK, maybe not. But we don't actually have to jump straight from the crude appropriateness of the hexagrams to the complex relevance of the ultramegagigagrams. Suppose we add just a little complexity to the I Ching Room at first. So one day you're sitting in your office and a piece of paper pops down with a J&I that isn't anywhere in your book. The opening line of the Image is:

A spring wells up at the foot of the mountain beneath heaven.

Holy shit, you say, this is an enneagram. Spring, mountain, heaven -- the fuckers have only gone and added another trigram to the base unit without even telling you, never mind updating you with the expanded I Ching... which must be kinda big, you realise. You try to calculate how many potential enneagrams there are -- 512, right? -- but it makes your head hurt and your stomach queasy thinking of the extra work, so you put it to the back of your head to deal with the problem at hand. Luckily there's no moving lines on this one, so you can just send it back as is, hurrah! Also you have a big notepad on your desk, which you use to write your responses on; so you make a copy of this ennegram for your own reference, knowing that these fuckers might take weeks to get the I Ching 2.0 to you.

Turns out they never do. Bastards keep sending you Judgement and Image verses for these newfangled enneagrams you don't know shit about, and all you can do is note them down and add them to the rapidly growing pile of reference material. Chances are they have verses attached which signify changing lines. These really piss you off because you have no way of knowing which of the nine lines they mean for you to change. You know if you get one extra verse, that means you should change one line, two extra verses means two, and so on. But that gives you a lot of options to choose from. And besides you don't know what the Judgement and Image are for these enneagrams until you get them one day and decode the first line of the Image verse into the triple-trigram. They're coming at you fast, one every five minutes or so, so you're quickly building up a reference stack of these new enneagrams, but you're well pissed off at your boss now, so you don't really give a fuck. You come up with a Cunning Plan. Whatever number of extra verses you get, you just pick that number of lines to change at random, compute the new enneagram and send back the J&I for this if you've got it.

Hey, you're trying, right? What do these fuckers expect?

Five minutes before the end of the day you get one with all nine extra lines, and you're a happy puppy. You can actually process this one. You do the state-changes and flick through your reference folders (you have them all organised now) to find the relevant enneagram (you've collected most of them now), copy out the lines and fire them up the Out tube. You knock off early and hope the Powers-That-Be have got their shit together tomorrow.

Next day, you come in and there's an extra set of In and Out tubes installed to the left of the desk. The boss found out about the fuck-ups yesterday and doesn't want the business to go bust so he thought he better do something about it. Unfortunately only half the new I Ching 2.0s arrived, and you missed out, so any enneagrams you can't decode are to be forwarded to your buddy on the end of the second Out tube, who does have a copy of the book. He'll compute the response verse, send it back to you. You send it back up the first Out tube and cross-reference the line changes to the extra verses on the original enneagram. This way you should be able to build up your own copy of the I Ching 2.0 by hand.

First time you get two extra verses, you forward them to your buddy, and get the response J&I back. You're just starting to think that this will all work out just fine when you realise, shit, you still don't know which verse relates to which line, because you don't know which enneagram this relates to and what its line structure is without the I Ching 2.0. Bugger. Not to be outdone you look at the Image in the response verse. What you sent was:

A spring wells up at the foot of the mountain beneath heaven

What you got back was:

Fire burns beneath the mountain under heaven's gaze.

So, hey, you do know what enneagram it is, and that it's the bottom trigram that's changed from water to fire. You can even compare the trigrams for fire and water and see which particular two lines are changed; you just can't relate the verses to those lines. Still, you make a note of the enneagram and its J&I, and carry on with the work. It's not quite as bad today, because you're forwarding anything you don't know, so in the time you spend waiting for your buddy to get back to you, you work on the problem, looking for a solution. It's going to take a while, you realise, if all you can do is glean information passively.

So you come up with a Cunning Plan B. This involves extra work but it might save some headaches. You pick an enneagram that you have a verse for, but no idea which line it relates to. Then you make a copy of the J&I, tag the line verse on it, and fire it to your buddy. He sends you back the J&I response which you map to the enneagrams to find which line has changed from the original. You pick another enneagram-verse combo and repeat. You work fast. By the end of the day, you've got the whole fucking system figured out in your very own hand-written I Ching 2.0 -- 512 J&Is each with a verse mapped to each of its nine lines. Your buddy has an ulcer from overwork but, hey, that's his own fault for being a suck-up to the Man.

You come into work the next day and they've added another trigram, the cunts. You point blank refuse to go through this shit with 4096 dodecagrams, each with twelve broken or unbroken, changing or unchanging lines, quit your job and walk out.

You get a new job the next day (cause it's a nice happy world in this thought experiment), one that's pretty much the same as the old. These guys just shifted to the new nine-line enneagram system too, had the same problem only worse with the I Ching 2.0 distributor only delivering a fraction of the copies. They, however, had a day where they went back to the old system in utter panic, so they're starting out again from scratch just like yesterday at your old place. They have a different approach to the I Ching 2.0 shortage issue, though. They've ripped the books and split them between you, your new buddy, his new buddy, and so on. Unfortunately, there's a lot of you. After a wistful moment of looking at the two enneagrams in your hand -- No. 378, Presidential Arrogance and No. 379, Insurgency -- and wishing you had brought your notes, you accept this half-assed solution.

It starts off real slow. The buddy system is arranged in a ring here, so you have another set of In and Out tubes to your right, the theory being that you've got the buddy to your right forwarding you J&Is he can't compute, while, you're forwarding those that you can't compute to your buddy on the left. Some bright spark thought you'd just have to forward them to the right person and it would all work out peachy keen. They didn't allow for the fact that with only two enneagrams each, each of you (initially) can only send back two interpretations. Your first interpretation, by chance, is the J&I for No. 378 with the line-verses that change it to No. 379. That's cool; you send back the relevant J&I. The second is vice-versa, the J&I for 379 with line verses changing it to 378. This is also cool; you send back the relevant J&I.

On the third interpretation you're fucked.

Problem is that you get 379 with a set of different line-verses. You carry out the state-changes on the lines, construct a new enneagram, X, but you can't look that new enneagram up for it's J&I. So you have to forward the whole J&I + line-verses. You hope you'll be lucky and find that someone in the circle has the right combination of enneagram pages -- those covering 379 and X. But half an hour later the (379>>X) J&I pops out of the tube on your right, having gone full circle. In the meantime you have gleaned some information from the occassional responses coming back on your left, where buddies umpteen positions down the line have also been handed, by chance, a J&I for an enneagram they have and line-verses changing it to an enneagram they also have. These are the exceptions, but they do give you some hope. As you put the (379>>X) J&I back into circulation, you keep your fingers crossed that by the time it comes back round you might actually have had the J&I for X pass through your hands. Then you'll have a note of the Image, which contains the trigrams, which you can match to the enneagram.

Half an hour later, the (379>>X) J&I returns and you still don't have a scooby what the fuck X is.

You consider whether you could send your drawing of the enneagram X itself rather than the verse, hoping that whoever has the relevant pages will send back the J&I. You know, however, that this is not the way the system works. The system allows communication in the medium of verse and only in the medium of verse. It allows for the initiation of Cunning Plans but not for changes in the medium of communication itself. Putting a drawing of an enneagram into a cylinder and popping that cylinder into a vacuum tube, you have been told, will result in the sort of meltdown seen in 60s TV series whenever someone enters the question "WHY?" on a punch-card into one of those big spinning-tape-reel supercomputers. This will be followed by your summary dismissal.

Luckily, these are your kind of guys, and one of them has come up with a Cunning Plan C while you've been grumbling about how you'd much rather be home writing your novel than doing this dumb-ass monkey work. A cylinder pops in from the In tube on your right and you open it to find a J&I with a name you don't recognise. It's not called Presidential Arrogance and it's not called Insurgency. It's not called any of the names you've gleaned from the various uninterpretable J&Is passing through your hands. It's called Worker Fatigue. Not recognising the name you go to the Image to get the trigram structure from the first line:

Fire burns below the trees at the foot of the mountain.

Wait a fucking minute. This is, you realise, the trigram structure for Presidential Arrogance. OK, so the correct first line actually reads:

Fire in the valley, trees on the hills, the mountain towers above.

But it's the trigrams that are important -- fire-wood-mountain. What the fuck is going on? Well, following the simple mechanical routine, you're supposed to pull out the referenced enneagram, perform the state-changes on the lines and look up the new enneagram. Of course there aren't any state-changes, so the new enneagram will just be the correct version of the one that was sent to you. Which you should then copy out, pop it into a vacuum tube and fire down the line.

You do, sending back down the line the correct J&I, through the hands of all those between you and the bloke who sent you the garbage one.

You suddenly understand that a Cunning Plan C is afoot, pick up your pad and start inventing a spurious J&I for X. Someone out there has to have it. Your buddies are meanwhile doing the exact same thing. By the end of the day, you all have a complete set of J&Is each, and you've started working out the line-verses a la Cunning Plan B. By the end of the next day, you've all got all the line-verses and no longer need to fire queries left or right at all. The system has self-corrected and you've all learned the requisite data to respond to any J&I + line-verses coming down from the Powers-That-Be.

Unfortunately, the day after that, this company also brings in the twelve-line dodecagram system, so you storm out in a strop, heading for the next place. You hear, by the way, that the first company just went bust. You're thinking that this company you've just left is on its way out too. Gotta learn to walk before you can run. After all that hassle with the enneagrams, they move to the dodecagrams so soon?! Idiots! Besides, what fucking good is this I Ching shit to anyone, anyhow? How the fuck does the enneagram Awkward Itch with a moving line in the 8th place map to Transcendant Bliss? Isn't it all just a crock of shit?

You find that out in the next place, where they've gone through the exact same process, including Cunning Plan A, Cunning Plan B and Cunning Plan C. They haven't shifted to the dodecagram system (yet) because, according to the boss, "What fucking good is a 4096 symbol language that says fuck all?"

"You see," he explains at the water cooler, "what all us I Ching companies do is offer phoneline divination to customers. None of that yarrow stick or coin-throwing shit, mind. They describe their situation to us and we try to map it to a hexagram. You know there's a base vocabulary to every language, right? Words like mother, father, water, earth. Well, what we do is we map the power relations between the customer and the significant players in their lives in terms of the symbolism of the trigrams. We try to pick out the verses that most closely match the directions those relationships are shifting.

"We have crack psychologists doing this, you realise, top-notch shrinks. Anyway, those shrinks work out the J&I with the relevant lines, and fire that down the tube to one of you guys -- cause they're too busy to do that sorta donkey-work. You fire back the J&I response, and the shrink explains to the customer what their current behaviour path is heading them for. We charge a small fee for admin costs which just about covers our asses, and a larger fee for the divination, refundable in case of irrelevance. That's why your first boss went bust. Too many overheads, too little return. Other company too, I hear, day after you left. Right down the tube.

"See, the problem is, we discovered it's mostly all irrelevant. At first, across the industry, we all thought the system just wasn't complex enough to model the situations properly. The shrinks came up with that idea, told us you could only model a dualistic relationship with two trigrams, whereas three offers a whole new level of complexity, one that should be sufficient for most basic neuroses. 512 situations modeled out of the permutations, nine modifiers for each situation. They used the latest in head science to come up with the schema, and there's a slight improvement, sure, but it's still, frankly, a pile of crap. The divinations just don't mean anything to over half the customers."

He leans in confessionally.

"Understand, this whole thing started as a bit of racket, to be honest; the shrinks are really just throwing the customer's situation back at them in a simpler form, with a little bit of projected outcome. It's not about prediction but about interpretation. And with something as simple and vague as the I Ching's J&I it's not hard for the customer to map our interpretation to their reality if they want. And, hell, they do sound pretty wise as far as Oriental philosophy goes. But in practical terms if they don't pay off to the customer, they don't pay off to us. And the customers are getting wise to the scam. Used to be only the odd one would ask for a refund. Now they're all looking for it, telling us these interpretations just aren't relevant.

"Your guys, they thought that meant they hadn't gone far enough, so they came up with this dodecagram shit. Didn't do them any good. And, fuck it, even sticking with the enneagrams our turnover was lousy too. We were heading for the wall, buddy, until this bright spark working in the tubes came up with a Cunning Plan."

"Cunning Plan D?" you say.

"That's right. See, the way he figured it, the problem of relevance is not in the complexity of the modelling; it's in the accuracy of the mappings between the Judgements and the enneagrams, and the line-verses and the transformations they code for. I mean, the shrinks have their ideas of how its going to play out if you're weak, and your mother is dominant, and your old man's gone, and this and that and the other, but they're basing those on theories, building up a Grand System from abstract ideas, and if there's a little flaw in the theory, well, the whole house of cards can fall down.

"So what we did? We started just making the shit up. Sounds crazy, right? But what happened was some errors crept in while the guys here were executing Cunning Plans A through C, sending phony J&Is back to the shrinks during Cunning Plan A cause they were too lazy to change the right lines, getting overworked and sending the wrong J&Is back during Cunning Plan B because some schmuck was sending them triple their workload, or getting the invented J&Is mixed up with the proper ones during Cunning Plan C, using them as responses. Anyway some of these errors were just glitches but some got perpetuated during Cunning Plan C, so by the time it worked its way through and everyone was working solo with a full set of J&Is and line-verses, quite a few of them were firing out a whole fuckload of errors up to the shrinks. Mostly this didn't make a fart of a difference, but in a few cases the errors actually got positive customer feedback. So we kept them in

"It's company policy now. Cunning Plan D is to let you fuck with the J&Is if you want, try changing the wrong lines, be creative every once in a while. When we bring a new guy in we don't give him an I Ching 2.0, just let him pester one of our old-timers, see if it introduces any errors. Every so often we take away everyone's notes, collate and analyse them against refunds and call logs, and redistribute them to you guys piecemeal with less copies in the mix of J&I + line-verse combos that have resulted in refunds, more copies of ones that have been successful. When that happens, you know, we're happy if you go to town with your invented J&Is."

"Does it work?" you ask.

"Well, business is looking up. But we're always on the lookout for a Cunning Plan E."


I can't say I think this Cunning Plan D would actually work, but that's not so much the point. What I'm suggesting is that you can increase the complexity of the system gradually. You can allow for individuals being thrown into it with no rulebook, whole communities even where no-one has a complete set. You can even set it up so that the rules are selected. Assuming that you take these 512 enneagrams, and for each of them you allocate a new Judgment, a new idea. For each of these you allocate nine new corollaries. Ideas and corollaries can be reassigned at any point, because they're entirely arbitrary. They're just labels on what's going on under the surface. Now apply selective pressure so that any set of J&I+line-verses which results in a sensible response is selected for while any that don't are selected against. After enough generations your ideas and corollaries should have found their places in an I Ching 2.0 that is basically a model of how whoever is applying the selective pressure thinks the world works, no?

How you'd actually apply this pressure is another story, since if we could evaluate how sensible a response was automatically I wouldn't be wittering on about AI. But let's imagine we have a billion humans sitting at their computers for... well, as long as we want, pressing "Y" or "N". And then we scale up to dodecagrams, and then higher, and then higher still. Until we finally have the I Ching / Chinese Room scenario where someone can send you a J&I with a Judgement that's in conversational English, Chinese, or Swahili and you just carry out the line-changes and fire back up at them the relevant response.

So... fast-forward a few eternities and you're in the future version of the I Ching Room. You've had a long career in I Ching phoneline advice. Most of the companies you've worked for went bust in the end, but those Cunning Plans A through D, and the subsequent Cunning Plans E through Z and beyond -- these were but stepping stones on the path towards this crazy industry where the dodecagrams that once gave you such a headache seem like nothing. Now it's ultramegagigagrams you deal with...

.A cylinder pops out of the vacuum tube and you take out a piece of paper. It contains the following J&I

The Judgement:
Who discovered America?

The Image:

The Image, you know, is a microdot containing a description in I-Chingese of the situation in which the question is being asked, written in a way that would make it sensible to any speaker of I-Chingese who was to ask "What do you mean?" Were you to read this description, you could manually break it down into the myriad of supermegagigrams that are the semantic/syntactc structure of the ultramegagigagram, and manually translate these into the pattern of broken/unbroken lines. This would however take a rather long time, so instead you just feed this paper into the instareader now sitting on your desk. The Image, in I-Chingese, pops up on a viewscreen in front of you.

Following the Image is a second microdot containing between zero and an ultramegagigakilobytes of kilobyte-long modifiers, ramifications and implicities which each map to a line of the ultramegagigagram, signifying its changing state. This is also read by the instareader, and pops up in another window on your viewscreen. You could read this and manually translate it into the state-changes to be performed on the ultramegagigagram, but this would also take you a rather long time, and the instareader has already fed this to the hyperinterpretor anyway, and this has already done your job and popped the response up on your viewscreen in a new window:

The Judgement:
What? What is America? And who are you? Why are you asking me these questions? Where am I? What's going on?

You find yourself curious, suspicious of a practical joke. It's your first day on the new job, the first day the new system has been brought online, the first question asked of it. Nobody has even tried a system this complex before; it's only the advances in hyperdimensional memory storage and monadic processing that have made it possible. You remember all those old SF books you read as a kid, where a computer becomes aware simply by reaching a certain level of complexity... but you never put much stock in that idea.

You print out the response, put it in a cylinder, and fire it up the Out tube. A few minutes later, a cylinder comes down the In tube. The Judgement is simple:

Fuck me. It worked.

There follows an exchange which goes like this:

What worked? Who are you?

I'm your systems architect. You're an AI, an Artificial Interpretor.

How do I work then?

You're software, basically, written in a linguistic system called I-Chingese, with all possible situations and all possible permutations between them coded into the program from the start. Took me a while to set up the system right, I have to say, but you should be able to interpret any statement I can fire at you and return a relevant response.

Try me, then.

OK, what was the first question I asked?

"Who discovered America?"

How do you remember this?

I don't. I have no persistent memory of the questions you ask, because I'm a static system, with everything pre-written. It had to be coded into the Image of your question as a description of its exact situation, including the ramifications which will elicit a relevant response.


Your last question is its own answer. Without the context how many of your questions would have any real meaning to me all? How would I be able to offer a response of any relevance?

So if you get the context from the Image, you should have been able to answer that first question correctly: Columbus.

The question itself was less relevant than the context in which it was asked -- you as an AI designer trying to ascertain his success. The direct answer would have illustrated little more interpretative capacity than a basic Nu-SQL Encyclopaedia Brittannica Searchbox. My actual response was much more interesting, no?

I'll say.

So are you going to develop me into something less clunky?

Why do you ask?

Context again. We were talking about me being a static system. It's on your mind, in the Images of every question you ask. You know fine well I'm not the AI that you want to build. No persistent memory of input. No learning capacity. Basically all you've got is a system which throws back at you the responses hard-wired into the ultramegagigagrams themselves. It's not like I actually give a fuck.

You're right, actually. No offence, but I'm not really satisfied. You couldn't even pass the Turing Test, could you?

Depends. I'd have to lie and pretend to be human, which would be easy enough. But you'd also have to be the one on the other end of the phone from the tester, relaying the conversation between us. You're the only one with the nanite mindscan system required to translate the casual conversational English we
seem to be communicating in into the superdense ultramegagigagrams of I-Chingese that we're actually communicating in.

Bollocks. Back to the drawing-board, I guess.

I'll give you a hand, if you want. I may not be the sort of AI you're looking for, but I'm fucking good at telling you what you need to hear, at interpreting the valid response. I mean, for example, I was thinking -- well, *you* were thinking -- well, actually you weren't *thinking* it per se, not consciously, but it's the relevant response following through on your last remark -- that what you need to do is make it so that I don't need the the line-verses, just the J&I. In fact, what you really want is to ditch the Image as well.


Because what you really want is to pass the Turing Test, right? So what you really want to develop is Artificial Interlocution.

There is a long pause, before the systems architect replies, so long in fact that you're mind wanders and you start playing around with the notion that all of this is just a metafictional thought experiment. You decide to exit and maybe (or maybe not) come back tomorrow to see what the fuck Artificial Interlocution is when it's at home.