What is Last Horizon All About?
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
(No spoilers, craft wonkery, or narrative theory at all. Read away...)
When I was in college, I took a philosophy class titled Minds and Robots. This was in the days just before the internet took off—before Facebook, Google, and even a few years before the iPhone appeared almost overnight. So as we were charging toward our inevitable social collision with our own technological creations, it was impossible to picture what such a crash upon our cultural fabric would look like. What forms would it take? Back then, that wasn’t even a question for most people going about their daily lives, much less the question. Very few could envision a world with intelligent machines or instant access to the entirety of human knowledge at their fingertips. When I brought it up to other people outside my class, almost everyone freaked out and stopped talking to me or gave me nonverbal cues to change the subject. I was so intrigued by the topic, though, that it took quite a few of these similar negative social interactions for me to finally get the point and stop talking about it. But I was no less captivated by the technological future I was certain we were all going to live to witness. Then I graduated college and went out into the real world. It didn’t take too long for me to forget about Minds and Robots.
The familiar narratives about AI all told the same story, more or less—The Terminator story in some form: technology gains self-awareness and decides humanity is a threat to its existence and strikes out before we do. The result is usually some post-apocalyptic storyworld where humans struggle to eke out an existence and survive the machines’ calculated efforts to kill us before we can kill them. That was about the clarity with which the average person saw AI back then, and for quite a few years, I didn’t think about AI at all. I had other interests and a living to make.
In 2011, I quit my day job, closed the small business I’d started, and took a trip to the Caribbean to visit my younger brother, who was working as a musician in a resort town. A few days before the return leg of my plane ticket was approaching, on a whim more than anything, I started looking for a job and a place to stay. I ended up finding a great apartment and a steady job as a barista in a matter of a few days—enough of a minor miracle that I considered it a sign. I stayed.
I’d just finished writing my fourth novel, and I was going through a post-book depression—a real obstacle that visited me every time I finished such a massive project. It’s a bit like saying goodbye to a whole group of your close friends you don’t expect to see again. And I’d dealt with it enough to know how to cope. For me, what usually worked was exercising intensely and reading whatever grabbed my attention enough to immerse me deep in thought—classic misdirection.
I don’t know how I came to it, but in that period of deep reading, I found Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and I downloaded it to my Kindle immediately, probably because its subject matter was a reminder of the philosophy class that had so intrigued me almost a decade earlier. Kurzweil’s prognostications were so tantalizing that I found myself, yet again, talking about the coming merger between humans and robots, and, yet again, finding people put off by the conversation. Even when I spoke of Kurzweil’s rosy visions of benevolent AI’s and infinite possibilities, technologically-assisted perfect health, lives of extreme convenience and computer assisted wonders, something about it still creeped everybody out. I knew I had to write a novel in such a storyworld to suss out the something that was grabbing people at a primal level in ways they could neither articulate nor bear to face head-on.
I also decided that I needed to read a bunch of Jules Verne as part of my research. I figured that he was the best of the Sci Fi luminaries to visit, because his work was the gold standard in the type of future fiction I was hoping to create. Yes, he had some excellent, fun characters in his stories, but his most famous stories weren’t filled with Wookies, Klingons, gigantic spice worms, or dystopian robot overlords. They dealt with the things that were coming—space flight, submarines, trans-continental balloon races, and life in the 20th Century. My hope was to craft such a fiction for the 21st Century. One that would capture the promise of Kurzweil’s vision while also paying a fair bit of heed to the primal reaction elicited by people whenever topics like neurological implantation or nanobots in the blood stream came up. I found Verne’s Victorian style of narration and his cheeky tone so fun that I couldn’t leave him out of the story either. So I decided that, to the best of my ability, I would make him the narrator.
I don’t have any great reason as to why I held onto these stories for six years before putting them out into the world. They certainly would have seemed more original in 2012. I guess I was just too busy with the next story. But as people’s consciousness of the dystopian elements of social media, AI, and self-driving cars becomes more pronounced each day, I figure they can’t sit idle on my hard drive any longer.
I suspect Last Horizon isn’t quite like other Sci Fi out there right now. The technological elements make it a bit futuristic albeit familiar, while the Vernian elements make it somewhat retro in its tone. I hope it captures the characteristics that made Verne’s work and Kurzweil’s work so captivating to me—the fun and the future, the passion and the promise. Last Horizon may be a bit unexpected and quirky. I hope that makes it as endearing to my readership as it was to me when I began venturing back into those familiar fields seven years ago.
Thanks to Ray and Jules, two entirely different geniuses, whose influence, I hope, will shine throughout, and to Philip Grier, who was thinking about the singularity before it even had a name.