From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: An Owomoyela

“Abandonware” gets a lot of little obscure computer facts right, which was great for a computer nerd like myself. Do you have a computer science or enthusiast background?

The short answer is “yes”. When my brother and I were kids, mom made the astute observation that we’d need to know our ways around computers when we got older, so she made sure to have them available to us. I grew up wandering around the DOS prompt, installing software in series of five-and-a-quarter-inch diskettes, and following technology along as it progressed: I still remember when a thirty-megabyte external harddrive represented a very nice storage expansion, and watching the palette of displayable colors on a computer screen grow was great fun.

A game called MegaZeux was probably my first exposure to code. (Technically the game was Caverns of Zeux and MegaZeux was the game engine, but we knew the game as MegaZeux.) It was this little ASCII-based game, but the magical thing was that once you were done playing, you could jump in and start programming your own expansions. I still think that no game innovation has yet trumped the ability to add on to the game yourself, in terms of coolness and replayability. As an introduction to coding it was pretty neat, too.

By the time I moved to college, I had been playing around with computer languages enough to land a job designing web pages for the student union, at which point I taught myself scripting and database design and was promoted into designing web apps. I had a brief and mostly unsuccessful flirtation with a Computer Science degree—for the sort of web programming I was into, CS curricula are outdated by the time their books work their way into classrooms—and managed to land a job as a web application developer anyway. I like to say I fell into my career path on accident, but the fascination was always there.

Your story has some meditations on randomness and predetermination that touch on the nature of computing. You also have Andy dying in a seemingly random way, while the fact of death itself is about as predetermined an experience as humans have. Did you consciously draw that parallel while writing your story?

Haha, no, not as such. I won’t claim to know what my subconscious does while I’m not watching, but the parallels I was explicitly drawing were about how bad people are at dealing with both randomness and predetermination, if we let it overtake us—we want to be able to predict things, but we also want control, and in some ways knowing what will happen and determining what will happen are contradictory ideas. In any case, I had the idea that both David and Andy find it hard to cope with this program that’s telling them how their lives are going to turn out. (I wouldn’t be terribly charmed by that, either.) Andy, it’s hinted, becomes obsessed with proving it wrong; David eventually decides to go on with his life without focusing too much on what it might mean.

Even SELDON.crn sees its own demise, after all. And that didn’t help it any.

“Abandonware” has several nods to Isaac Asimov. Do you consider his work an influence? Inspiration?

Influence, inspiration, fascination. I read the Foundation novels so long ago that I can only remember disconnected bits and scenes, but I was enchanted with Seldon’s psychohistory. I love to play with systems, and the idea of one so complex and nuanced that it could predict entire zeitgeists was fantastic—in both the “wonderful” and “fantasy-like” senses of the term. One of the ideas I toyed with in “Abandonware” was that if sociology is extrapolated from psychology is extrapolated from biology is extrapolated from chemistry is extrapolated from physics—my friends will tell you that I know an XKCD for every topic, and this one is served by http://xkcd.com/435/—then everything about the universe has to be predictable according to the laws of physics, and if you could map those out, you could predict seemingly random events. When David thinks that SELDON.crn might as well be a map of the universe, he’s hitting it right on the head.

Of course, I have sincere doubts that a map of the universe could fit on a Quadra or a Zip Disk, but that’s what makes it science fantasy.

For part of the story, at least, David seems to consider the possibility that SELDON.crn is some sort of artificial intelligence and maybe even Andy herself. Some folks have theorized that “uploading” our minds into a computer could be a way for humans to survive physical death. What do you think about such a possibility?

I find it a compelling idea in fiction, but often under-explored, for my tastes. We’ve been remarkably bad at creating a human-like computer; the things which humans are good at (synthesis, inference, novelty, innovation) and the things that computers are good at (computation, rote recollection, logical processing) are so different that we’d need either a sea-change in computer science before we got around to uploading our brains, or a sea-change in human cognition afterward. Those changes are the things I’d love to see explored, more than the immortality itself.

Not to mention the profound shift which would occur in how we related to the world. Losing physical referents like rooms and property and bodies would just be the tip of the iceberg. How does one relate to a world one perceives without sight, touch, smell, any of the senses a physical body perceives by? What is perception in a virtual world, and is it important? How does one relieve stress without a body, or does stress exist? Are there still “things” to interact with, or would we exist in a world of nothing but information? What aspects of our culture are tied to our physical bodies, and what transcend? For example, how would African-American culture be constructed in a world where being black might not be a marked state? How do people who tie body modification into a sense of identity recreate or replace those markers in a virtual world?

(Actually, a good friend of mine was writing an examination on the ways in which we constrain virtual worlds to make them more “realistic”, and the inherent paradox therein. Sam, if you’re reading this, you should really finish that.)

As far as its prospects for real-world application, I usually relegate it to the realm of space elevators, cold fusion and post-cryogenic-storage resuscitation of the dead: so far as I know it hasn’t been conclusively proven impossible, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll hope that affordable and reliable cybernetic implants hit the market in my lifetime, instead.

Do you have any thing you’d like to tell us?

Well, I’d like to include a shoutout to Cat Rambo, who requested a rewrite on the first draft of this I submitted. Her notes on that request resulted in a much stronger story than what I’d first written.

I’d also like to throw a big “Thanks!” to Matthew Herreshoff of the Fangs of God group, who gave me the story’s seed in a challenge. “Abandonware” began life as a riff on D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner,” substituting a video game for the rocking horse; I dragged it back a few generations of technology and started off writing about a divinatory game of ZORK. How it made its way from ZORK to SELDON is a mystery unfortunately lost to the ages, but I think it’s a very common sort of mystery which afflicts most writers who don’t hew to outlines—and many who try to.

And finally, a shameless plug. I’m writing for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon through July 30th, and I’d be thrilled to have people sponsor me. Clarion West is a nonprofit educational organization, so donations are tax-deductible in the US, and besides that it’s a wonderful workshop which has helped me and numerous other writers immeasurably.

William Sullivan is a writer, computer programmer, and musician living in Austin, Texas. You can find his website at http://enkrates.com.