Monday, January 9, 2012

What goes into an idea?

One of my books was included on a syllabus reading list, and the course professor contacted me with a question that hadn't occurred to me before about the topic of the book. The reading list was all books about Artificial Intelligence, and I think my book had been included because I'm an AI researcher. But question at hand was: why was this book appropriate for inclusion. The book: The Grand Plan, is, on the surface, the story of an opossum that learns to talk. It's cute and fun. Nobody had ever asked me what I was trying to do with it until now. I hadn't really thought about it in a while because I'd finished the book and edits and, well, just didn't think about it all that much. But the question brought me back to my original impetus. And it made me think about what all does go into writing a story. There's a lot of layers, some very subtle.

Anyway: here's the email I sent back:

oh: regarding the AI aspect.  Well, I don't know if my philosophy has made it through the grapevine to you or not, but a quick sketch of what I was trying to do with this book:

It is motivated by my work in language theory and artificial intelligence (specifically my PhD dissertation into context-aware data reduction (artificial reading, if you will)), and what is the relationship between contextual awareness, language, deduction and actual sentience.  So in The Grand Plan, the forest animals are allegorical for AI in modern society.  I didn't figure that too many people would read a book that was a straight exploration of the tech.  it's pretty dry and it's also too immediate.  In fact: it was a discussion with my writer's group about this very issue, that people are disinclined to read something of a technical and current nature, something that is at once boring and incomprehensible.  Anyway: the discussion was intertwined with another topic about what constitutes a young adult novel or a children's novel versus a regular novel.  And so...  long story short, we got around to Orwell's Animal Farm as a sort of exemplar.  That it meets all the characteristics of a children's novel (and I personally read it when I was 8, which was confusing), but it certainly is not a children's book, and also that it was in fact an allegory for issues that people found vague, dull, whatever.  So: that's where I was at going in: that I wanted to try to couch an exploration of emergent language and sentience in an allegorical form that would explore the topic in a way that was engaging and would share with people the wonder that I feel about the technology and the possibilities of emergent awareness, without the burden of the full details of the technological implementations.  

So there are all those issues that are even now starting to come into play.  i.e. why is it that someone would form an attachment to their laptop or phone, when it's exactly like all the others (or is it? is there imprinting going on?)  What is it that makes something a friend?  People? Animals? Why not inanimate objects?  And on a more serious level, there's the issues of civil rights and so on.  

It's made me most happy to hear that people think The Grand Plan is a cute story, or that it's a heart-string puller, or whatever phraseology, because that makes me feel like I did a good job of relaying my underlying themes in a way that was unobtrusive.  That was entertaining even.  While still keeping the key issues intact.

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