The future. Unknown, nebulous, uncertain. Movies and books portray everything from utopias and dystopias to the end of the world. In some stories the future is bleak, a cruel fight for survival à la Mad Max. Other stories take us on incredible journeys exploring space and science along the lines of Interstellar. Sometimes, artificial intelligence is just intent on destroying us (Terminator) while also trying to save us (Terminator…again). My point is that the sci-fi genre is extensive and covers a variety of topics.
Then there is Viral Spark, written by Martin McConnell. Martin is a writer I’ve gotten to know on Twitter through our mutual participation in a monthly Twitter-based writing challenge (check out http://writingchallenge.org if you’d like to give it a go). Incidentally, this is the first published story of his that I’ve had a proper chance to read. Let’s dive in.
In Viral Spark we are introduced to a futuristic society and character named Robert. He seems to go through many of the motions we do today. He goes to school and studies to get a degree in order to make a better life for himself. He works a random job doing robot maintenance to make ends meet until that better life presents itself and he is attracted to a girl with an abusive ex-boyfriend at the eatery where he buys his lunch sandwiches. In other words, on the surface his life seems pretty ordinary, not unlike the lives of many today.
Then random glitches start to happen. People start fighting for what appears to be no reason at all. One minute they’re eating lunch together, the next they’re at each other like they’re fighting to the death. The robots Robert maintain go haywire and create havoc when they should be keeping order. Streaming services are interrupted at random and other electronic devices glitch for no apparent reason. As the frequency of these random events impact the life of Robert and those around him more and more, it becomes apparent that these events aren’t random at all.
What he encounters when he starts digging is unlike anything he’s ever encountered before. All the randomness hints of something intricate and suddenly becomes more sophisticated, a pattern. A tablet suddenly displays the type of reactions you see in an infant. Through playing music, it exhibits the emotions of being happy and afraid based on what “parent” Robert is doing and where he is. Then, before you know it, it attempts to communicate by using simple words. Just like a baby, its intelligence matures to the point where it actually manages to help Robert out with his girlfriend situation and land him a new job that helps him improve his life, just like he always wanted. Artificial intelligence is literally born before his eyes.
Ok, so Viral Spark is short in the sense that you’ll get through the story in less than two hours, easily. Yet, it’s an excellent introduction to a new yet familiar world that’s unlike any I’ve read about before. What McConnell does with Viral Spark is introduce us to AI in a way that is often bypassed or assumed. Whether it’s the HAL 9000 in the Space Odessy series, Terminator or Blade Runner, the last half century and beyond is full of stories about artificial intelligence. Yet, so often the AI in these stories are fully developed, in control or about to take control or spiraling out of control. Viral Spark explores the birth of AI that includes the sense of wonder of discovering new life. McConnell does this by using not only convincing technical descriptions of a network interacting around us but also by exploring the interactions we ourselves see in the newborn life of a small baby. Together, it becomes a convincing narrative of the birth of AI.
After reading through Viral Spark, there was really nothing that I could put my finger on that disturbed the flow of the story beyond a few formatting bugs that I attribute to my Kindle download. Although I’m not used to reading stories written in first person (I tend to prefer third person for some reason), it didn’t take me long to get into the story and once I started reading, I really didn’t want to stop and forgot all about the point of view the story was told from. Really, the only negative I can think of at this point is that there was an actual end (fortunately, the continuation of the story is going to be available any day now).
For those of you that like reading sci-fi that is well thought through and well written, Viral Spark is a must, especially if artificial intelligence is of any interest. And do yourself a favor, once you’re done with this one, keep an eye out for the next chapter of Viral Spark. You won’t regret it.
Or maybe you will…you certainly won’t look at your tablet the same again…
Viral Spark can be purchased at Amazon, among other places.
Find out more about Martin McConnell and his writings on his blog, http://writefarmlive.com/ and keep an eye on Twitter (@spottedgeckgo) for his next release or just a pleasant conversation about writing.