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Good Riddance to a Good Year
Plus a reader on chatGPT...
Year in Review, Year Ahead
2022 was an odd, lumpy year for me. I hit some big career/creative milestones. My first book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, was published, and I did a lot of book events and publicity. Thank you to everyone who bought the book, wrote a review, interviewed me, had me on their podcast, invited me to talk to their reading group, or came out to a signing. It’s been a wild ride, and I can’t wait to do it again!
The book felt particularly relevant this year, as events vied to drag us into one climate pathway or another. Just to rattle off the parallels in book-order: Loss&Damage discussion dominated the COP, madcap social media billionaires are clearly trying to move “too fast to fail,” plutocrats were instrumental in crafting the US’s mixed-bag climate legislation, a war-driven energy crisis left Europe hungry for gas, and we actually started, in the USA, to do at last something real about climate change. If you haven’t read Our Shared Storm yet, you still have, as of publication, one day to use the “GIFT22” 30% off code when you get it from Fordham University Press.
On the short fiction front I published three new short stories: “Boomtown” (with Corey J. White) in the Phase Change anthology, “May Day” right here on solarshades.club, “The Co2lector” on OpenAir.cc. I also had a double reprint: “The Mammoth Steps” appeared in both Long Now Ideas and Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn. Plus I got another two sales that I can’t announce yet. (Edit: I also had an excerpt from Our Shared Storm reprinted in No More Fairy Tales: Stories to Save Our Planet.)
In nonfiction I had lots of interviews and conversations come out in tandem with my book, but also published two essays not here on this newsletter. After years of being a reader, I made my Jacobin debut with a piece about approaching carbon removal tech from the left and why we need to prepare ourselves for not just decarbonization but climate repair. And, a bit more fun, I guest-blogged at Sci-fi TV Interfaces about my Star Trek AI headcanon.
Throughout the year I did a little work-for-hire and miscellaneous writing, such as a bit of worldbuilding for a blockchain-based storytelling project whose prospects probably died in the recent crypto crash, and a film treatment for a movie studio that was briefly interested in one of my stories (that’s showbiz, baby!). And a couple other NDAed projects that didn’t quite achieve lift off. Learning experiences, all, and occasionally lucrative.
2022 was the year I weaned myself off social media. If you want, you can follow me on Mastodon at @AndrewDanaHudson@wandering.shop, but I haven’t decided how much I plan to be using that particular post-Twitter refuge. In general, my desire to broadcast posts into the open cybervoid has pretty much vanished. I channel that discourse-ive energy into my stories and this missive.
In the summer I attended the Clarion workshop in San Diego, after a couple years in limbo. Six weeks of intensive reading and writing later, I’d produced five short stories and learned a lot about both writing craft and writing career. The whole thing was a blast, but also left me creatively drained through the fall.
That said, I did manage to finish writing and revising the novel manuscript that I’d been working on since mid 2021. It’s a book that snuck up on me, a story that grew in scope from short to novella to short novel to a complex, twisting novel twice as long as my last book. I poured a ton of my COVID anxiety and mourning into it, and learned a ton about how I personally write novels. Now I’m querying with it, which is going okay so far. If you know an agent or publisher who’d be interested in a speculative mystery-thriller along the lines of Scalzi’s The Dispatcher series or Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman, do write me!
But despite all that work and activity, 2022 was also a year in which the pandemic dragged on, in some ways getting worse than ever as collective action dissolved, and the grooves of self-protective habit I’d worn since 2020 started to feel like ruts. COVID arrived right as I exited grad school, vaporizing the opportunities I had hoped would propel me into a new stage of life and career. The whole experience was exhaustingly reminiscent of graduating from undergrad in 2009, right as the Great Recession smothered the job market. Only this time I didn’t move to India; I stayed in my house and made surviving/enduring the plague the organizing principle of my personal reality.
I don’t regret this move, but the result has been a sense of stagnation——even as I hit all the above creative milestones. Part of this feeling is probably due to the fact that I’ve now been in my current house longer than I’ve lived pretty much anywhere in my life. Which has been nice, properly nesting for the first time, but doing so in a rental amid political chaos and economic precarity has undercut the sense of stability.
And then there’s been a sense of waiting, of not quite being able to throw myself in a different direction because of coming opportunities I was waiting to fully bake. For the first half of the year, that meant Clarion. For the fall, it meant Sweden.
It’s official now, so I can talk finally about it: C and I are heading to northern Sweden for a good chunk of the year, hopefully at the end of January, if the visa comes through soon. I’ve been hired to work on an energy futures project at Luleå University of Technology, writing stories about the sustainability transition going on near the Arctic Circle. It’s sort of a continuation of the work I did at ASU on the Weight of Light and Cities of Light books, and in the scenario stories in Our Shared Storm. I’m incredibly excited to dig into the bleeding edge development going on there, from battery factories to low carbon steel. And I’m stoked to visit Europe and the Nordics for the first time since the end of 2018. If you’re around the continent and want to connect while I’m there this spring, do get in touch.
While this move isn’t permanent, some reshuffling with our roommates means that C and I are packing up and leaving the house I’ve been in since 2017. We moved our first carload of books already. It’s a bit sad, and a bit anxiety provoking to not know quite where we’re going to end up. But we’re ready for an adventure.
Also in the mix this year coming year: I’ve been awarded a grant to work on another novel project, one that’s been cooking in my brain for almost as long as I’ve been in this house. The full announcement isn’t for another week, I think, but it’s exciting to be getting some support and some impetus to bring this next book of mine into the world.
And there’s a few other things in the works I’m not ready to talk about, but in general 2023 is looking like a year of big changes for me. Which is welcome, nice to finally be swerving out of that rut-feeling. 2022 was a good year for me in many ways, and yet one I’m also happy to say “good riddance” to. So happy New Years Eve! And onward, as always, into the future.
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An ADH Reader on AI, ChatGPT, et al
Over the last month, there’s been a ton of discussion about the most recent round of AI tools/toys, such as ChatGPT for text, Midjourney/Stable Diffusion/etc. for images, and a few others. The tech is definitely getting scary good, and fast, and as a result we’ve seen a deluge of both awed techno-wonder and anxious handwringing about what AI means for art, literature, knowledge work, and education. Personally, I’ve got a foot in both camps. Mostly I wish we had more democracy and accountability in our economy, so we could actually make collective choices about the technologies that structure our society and could compensate those whose work trained these systems and whose livelihoods may well be disrupted.
AIs, particularly these sorts of chatbots and creative tools, have shown up a lot in my fiction. So in lieu of adding an extended take to the growing take-pile out there, I thought I’d collect a few of those stories into a kind of mini-reader, putting the stories in the context of our present AI moment.
“A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Robot Walk Into a Bar” —— A lot of the trickiest issues in the nascent AI industry, particularly in the late teens, circled around preventing AIs from replicating human bias and other bad behaviors that make it into training sets. You can see the results of the industry’s reckoning with this problem in the scoldy answers ChatGPT gives when you ask it to say something racist or to advise you on how to commit a crime——though apparently these safeguards are easy to get around at the moment, often by simply getting the bot to pretend that it’s playing pretend. But all this is after creating bots with a kind of broadly acceptable, liberal-minded affect designed for consumption by the general public. What happens when the tech filters down to those with less mainstream ideas? In this story a pair of washed up clergymen in the Austin tech scene use their religious training to blaze a path for AIs that accommodate spiritual sensibilities. Read the story in Slate Future Tense, and then check out this great response essay by Ruth Graham.
“The Chaperone” —— From Her (2013) to Ex Machina (2014), guys falling in love with sexy robots has been a favorite theme in 21st century sci-fi. And indeed, we’re already seeing a bit of existential confusion around these conversational AIs, such as the engineer who got fired for claiming Google’s chatbot was sentient. While I’ve been impressed with the commentariat’s restraint and technological literacy, I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the coming years. In this novelette, a refugee in an Atlanta climate camp works to talk men out of their affection for the sultry voice in their phone. But when she gets more involved in tech giant Alpha (I thought of it first, Rian!), she’s faced with a choice that’s more political than technological. Read this in the Working Futures anthology or (archived on the Wayback Machine) here in The New Accelerator.
“Voice of Their Generation” —— With the sudden ability to enter a prompt into an imagebot and get an impressive facsimile of human art, it’s not hard to imagine that one day soon we’ll be able to press a button and generate a whole movie of Pixar-level animation. When it’s that easy, who wouldn’t want to see their fan fiction, their headcanons, and their shitposts all rendered in epic style? In this story, Thicket is a frustrated creative working in the franchise-filled content mines of MAST, the Machine Assisted StoryTelling platform. Does Thicket have what it takes to create a script for Detective Pikachu Vs. Predator that both passes the algo’s quality control judgement and also says something real about life? Find out in Lightspeed Magazine. And don’t forget to read the follow up interview where I offer the now accepted definition of ‘cultural fracking’.
What can science fiction tell us about the future of artificial intelligence policy? —— Now that we actually have AIs that easily pass the famous Turing test, it’s dead obvious that blindly triangulating the most likely next word or pixel in a series based on a prompt is kinda-sorta-but-not-really how real consciousness works. This runs rather counter to many decades of science fiction about AI, or at least a lot of the most popular narratives, which featured ascendant thinking machine singularities, oppressed androids, robot uprisings, and so on. All that stuff is great fun and often metaphorically very potent, but has little to say to help us deal with the moral and policy dilemmas these new technologies have produced. Several years ago I did some research on this disconnect as part of the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination’s AI Policy Futures project. You can read a lot of our conclusions in this paper we published last year in the journal AI and Society.
Art Collection: Astound by Nikki McClure
While the rest of the country has been battered by frigid heavy weather, it’s been merely balmy damp in Phoenix this week. And there’s something about this piece by Nikki McClure that feels appropriate for a cathartic, rainy end of the year. I have a few other pieces by this papercut artist, which I’ve discussed before. I wanted to get this last one into the newsletter before we start putting frames in boxes.