The Road to Schenectady: Part 1

My darling wife has done a nice job of kicking off this blog with a spoiler-free overview of how I got and developed the idea for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect After reading that I thought it might be fun to take a longer-range view of my own motivations.

Most of the stories and essays I’ve written were produced between 2001 and 2007 because the site existed. K5 offered a low barrier to entry because anyone with a free account could submit an article to the “queue,” where the other free account holders would vote on it; stories that passed this test were published, either on the front page or to a less prominent section category. At its peak K5 had dozens of truly talented contributors and thousands of regular readers, and it was quite an honor to regularly make the front page.

Before K5, I wrote exactly two stories for my own pleasure, expecting neither to ever find publication. One of those, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, had its genesis in 1982 when a fellow student lectured me on the necessity of constant exponential growth for life to exist at all, a statement so stupid in its ignorant short-sightedness that it demanded a reduction to absurdity. At the age of 18 I could see how, if everything went just right, technology might ride an exponential curve to such an extent that any of us might be able to touch any part of the entire universe instantaneously.

the metamorphosis of prime intellect -- where the idea came from

star sketch by elaine radford

But I couldn’t see what happened next; I couldn’t see how to illustrate the hazard that must somehow interrupt this glorious flowering. It wasn’t until 1994, at the age of 30, that I was able to see the hazard that made it possible to tell a story, a danger not technological but human. Because in that interval I’d seen enough examples to realize that, as Colin Wilson once wrote, the surest way to drive a human being mad is to put him in a situation where he can have anything he wants without effort or cost. The Roman emperors taught us that the Singularity would end in madness if it did not end in extinction.

That morning in 1994 I sat down at the computer and faced the question of whether to report my awkward and twisted vision in its entire glory or bowdlerize it to try to make it publishable. Realizing that I might never have such a vision again I decided to report it in all its ghastly splendor. While no publisher has been willing to touch it the reception it has received in the last ten years has told me that I made the correct choice.

The other thing I wrote without consideration of an audience was Passages in the Void. I’d just read the fascinating and persuasive book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe which argued that an extraordinary series of coincidences had been necessary for the Earth to be stable enough to support the evolution of complex life forms like reptiles and mammals. Shortly after I read a review which claimed that, if this was true, it was “the end of science fiction.” Passages was a demonstration project of SF set in such a universe.

This natural contrarianism doesn’t just affect my writing. Years ago I did one of those exercises to determine what “trigger word” motivates me, and I realized that in my case the irresistible motivator was “impossible.” The surest way to get me to throw all my effort behind a problem is to tell me it can’t be solved. You say I can’t make this microcontroller run that machine? Just watch me. Of course some things really are impossible, and it’s important to be aware of that, but it’s amazing how many things are universally thought to be impossible until someone like me refuses to get the memo.

During the kuro5hin era I had a strong motivation to turn ideas into essays. One of the early ones was the story of our casino adventure, A Casino Odyssey, which turned out to be one of kuro5hin’s most popular articles. After I published first Passages, then by request MOPI, the taunt that I couldn’t possibly surpass Passages turned one story into four. Along the way I related observations from work, from philosophy, from our youthful experiments with what was then called the “New Age,” and various random ideas. Not everything I wrote was for the ages; I was sometimes a bit too quick to hit the Submit button. But much of that work was praised, and I’m very proud of it.

Alas, the K5 era came to an abrupt halt in 2007; the site had been in decline as the social experiment it represented began to fail. The best writers and most enthusiastic readers, commenters, and voters drifted off under an onslaught of harassment which the auto-moderation system could not hold back.

Revelation Passage was an attempt to get myself back in the habit of writing, but after the first of five parts posted one of the trolls created a robot to vote down anything else I submitted faster than the real members could possibly vote it up. Nobody could find a moderator and I ended up putting the story online myself. Without an obvious outlet, I lost the habit of turning my ideas into essays and stories.

I did always intend to finish the sequel to MOPI which I promised in 2002; that effort was stalled by the Tropical Storm Bill Tree Fall of 2003, then by Katrina, then by the demise of kuro5hin, and since then by sheer distance and inertia. It’s always easier to do something else with more promise of immediate results.

My wife created this blog for me as a present for my 49th birthday, a total surprise which I know involved a lot of effort and learning on her part. Her plan for this place is to do some actual promotion, something I never had much heart for myself, to bring my best writing to new readers. But I also know she knows me, and she knows the lure that a comfortable place with a blank form and a Submit button holds for me.

I’m years out of the game. Revelation Passage was supposed to be the warmup to finishing the novel sequel. I’ve totally lost the spark. Couldn’t possibly do a project like that now.

It’s obviously impossible.

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6 thoughts on “The Road to Schenectady: Part 1

  1. Roger,

    I just wanted to say – I read your stories on k5 while I was in lectures and intending to take notes and I loved them. Found this site just now while trying to find your old stories on k5 and thought I’d give you some fanmail.
    I got through many a boring lecture thanks to your stories and (at the time), the community on k5.
    If you ever do publish a novel, consider me a buyer!

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks…by the way in addition to Part 2 of this inspirations essay, I know that Roger is planning a story about the K5 community and how community helps spark writers. Your support really does mean a lot.

  3. Hello Roger;

    I just wanted to say thank you for publishing your works online. Reading MOPI really changed my stance on sci-fi type literature a few years back, and to this day remains one of three books I’ve ever personally rated 11/10. It literally is one of the most intriguing, eye-opening, exhilarating thing I’ve ever read, and I can’t thank you enough for the amount of interest in sci-fi it’s created inside of me.

    (on Revelation Passage, I loved it too – I’m a hard sci-fi guy… your writing style to be very unique.)

    You’ve made a huge difference in my life. I hope all is well, and again, I cannot thank you enough for your works. They’ve truly opened my eyes and expanded my mind far beyond what I thought was possible.

    • Thanks for stopping by. The third installment of this series of posts about my inspirations will be about how you guys, my readers, and kuro5hin in particular were so important to me. Much of what I wrote would never have been imagined, much less recorded, without the encouragement and help of people who took the time to let me know when what I was doing was working.

  4. Hi Roger! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with from here onwards. I’ve been a fan of Prime Intellect since I first read it in 2008. It helped me get into Electrical Engineering! Unfortunately making a better novel than MOPI at this point is clearly impossible.


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