Save “Minority Report”, an intelligent look at seeing the future in the future

surfing rainbowsThe little boy in the desk next to me in first grade insisted that there were other earths. I thought that the little boy was cute but crazy, and I went to the school library to investigate his strange claim. Yup, these things were called “planets” and they were real. Wow. Who would have thought. My attraction to him only lasted another month or so, but I have been fascinated by outer space and by science fiction ever since.

Today, I have a degree and years of work experience in the field of science. When it comes to reading and writing, science fiction is my first and greatest love, even though I am probably overly critical of sci-fi based on bad science. Mind you, I don’t object to no science. If the writer gives me a soul searching story of love and growth and in the process invokes a barely explained phenomenon called, I don’t know, whiskey holes and they are what allow the story to happen, I’ll go with it. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. What I can’t handle is explanations that are just plain stupid or wrong.

For example: the Back to the Future movies. Fun, but such bad science. The universe doesn’t get unraveled by time travelers. People vanishing into nothingness as their adolescent parents consider not marrying does not fit with modern physics of the past fifty years. In fact, most of the time when the story involves either predicting the future, or traveling to the past or future, modern science gets thrown under the bus to accommodate improbable plots.

I’ve been pleased to run across a few television exceptions recently, and then been distressed to discover that the ratings people do not share my tastes. Last year I found the short lived show “Almost Human” to be a fascinating look at the near future. It brought both brains and heart to the question of when does artificial intelligence become a life form and not a machine. What a shame it was cancelled, while sillier shows with more action or name recognition were kept.

This year, I was dubious about a TV series based on “Minority Report”, an okay film of several years ago. The pilot episode quickly established that the writers had found a clever way to pick up the story years later. While some things, like clothing, show a suspicious lack of change, other elements like the ubiquitous advertising, are clever and ring true. Episodes are spiced with amusing references to the past, like the photo of Obama that shows up on the money.

minority-reportThe plot itself revolves around the three “precognitives” once used by the police to predict and stop murders before they happened. Freed and given new lives, the three precogs part ways in a believable fashion. One uses his gifts for wealth and pleasure, one remains hidden and fearful, and the third is driven to help people. This last precog, Dash, joins forces with a cop and is the hero of the series.

I gave the original movie bonus points for postulating that the near future is almost set in stone but not completely. The possibly that a would-be murderer might change his or her mind at the last minute is the basis of the famed minority reports that the police chose to ignore in the movie. In the TV version, this probability curve idea plays a larger role, as Dash and his newfound friends set out achieve a less likely outcome than murder, time after time.

I really like how there is no angst about altering timelines. No one starts to vanish into thin air because Dash has changed the future. The writers understand that a lot of different things can happen and only the most likely one is murder. I appreciate that the show keeps this clean and simple, much as I believe the universe does.

I was hopeful that this series would continue to provide intelligent food for thought about both our near future and about how seeing ahead into the future might work. However, once again whoever rates sci-fi shows on TV has different tastes. Ratings are low and falling according to a fascinating blog about science fiction TV likely to be cancelled. I don’t know how one goes about trying to save a show, but this post is my contribution. If you like thoughtful sci-fi and haven’t seen Minority Report yet, consider watching it. And if your TV set is one of the few used to determine what shows live and die, please, just turn it on to Fox on Monday night  9 PM EST. You’ll be doing the rest of us a big favor.

Putting your mother’s fears to good use

Ariel is in her mid-twenties and is adept at yoga. I’ve practiced a much simpler version most of my life, and only recently begun to explore the art more. I’m now taking classes, learning to breathe better, to chant, to try harder positions, and to be open to the unexpected.

There was such a surprise on Friday. “We’re going to go back to when you were in the womb.”

“We’re going to what?”

Apparently I was attending a class for a branch of yoga that believes that we inherent issues from our ancestors in general, and from our mother in particular during gestation. In fairness, maybe all branches of yoga believe this, I’m not sure.  Anyway, the goal of today’s session was to heal some of the problems arising from our pre-birth experiences.

“That’s ridiculous,” the cynic in my head says.

“Oh be open,” I reply. “Give this a try.”

As my breathing slows, becoming deeper and more regular, I recognize that I do know quite a lot about my mother’s state of mind when she was carrying me. She was afraid, very afraid that she would lose me. She’d had two miscarriages already, and she and my dad had begun talking about adoption.

I feel her fear. I breathe. I tell her it’s going to be okay, I will be her first child.

zig ziggler 2But wait. She’s scared about more. She’s scared that I will be born, and will change her life in ways that do not entice her. She’s never particularly liked babies, and she feels bad about this. She has a job she loves, directing the content at the local radio station.  She’s good at it too, and obviously will be quitting soon. Some guy not half as capable as her will take over, and get to do all day what she loves.

She adores my dad and their dates, she loves to dress up and fix her hair to look like Liz Taylor and go out to dinner and have “highballs”. She likes trying to be glamorous, she’s driven to have a lifelong love affair with my father. A baby is not going to make that any easier.

Oddly enough, I am not at all bothered by her ambivalence at my arrival.  It makes sense to me. When I had my own children, I was conflicted about work and child-raising, but I had choices.  She has none and it seems a shame. I understand why a part of her dreads my birth. I want to tell her that much of it will be okay.  She will come to love me, she will do a reasonably good job of raising me, and decades later we will be friends. She’ll never get back her career, but she will keep my dad’s love and do many other interesting things.

I tell her that I think she should let go of the guilt about the way she feels. Unfortunately, I also know that wrapped in that guilt is another layer of fear. She is afraid that her lack of enthusiasm is somehow causing the miscarriages. She is driven to please my father, and having children is very important to him. If she loses me, she strikes out for that magical third time. She will be deemed not capable of producing his child, as they move on to adoption. The adoption will really be for him, because she is even less excited about the prospect of raising the child of another woman than she is about raising her own. But she will do it, for him, even though she is afraid that she will do it poorly and that he will think less of her because of her failures.  So much fear, so much worry.

“It’s really going to be okay,” I tell her. “You’ll have a second daughter eighteen months later.” I know that problems in that pregnancy will convince her not to try for more, but my father will adore his two children and be content. Raised in a highly patriarchal rural culture, he will insist that he has the perfect family and he will instill confidence in his two daughters and give them every opportunity. I will benefit greatly.

“See? It’s all going to be okay,” I assure my pregnant mother.

“You never lose the emotions that overwhelmed your mother while she was carrying you,” the instructor says. “But you can learn to work with them, and mitigate them.”

Seriously? Okay, maybe I am a little inclined to worry. I do fret a bit about all the possibilities. In fact, when I wrote about Ariel’s premories and how the futures she sees the near fringes of probability cause her distress, I was thinking about my own tendencies to imagine less than likely possibilities and get concerned about them. “You know, a tornado could come through and blow that thing over.” That sort of thing.

Good grief.  Am I life long worrier because of my poor mom? That seems a very unfair thing to lay at her feet.

True voice 7Of course, all that worrying about the outliers is where my stories originate. Every plot, and every plot twist, comes from the same part of me that frets about finding a bear in the woods. The instructor has moved on and in fact the entire class is moving into the restful meditative savasana pose that finishes each class.

I know that I am now supposed to clear my mind. Let my thoughts turn into wisps of clouds that move on in a bright blue sky. But I have one thing I need to say first.

“Mom. Just in case this guy is right and you’re the source of these crazy worry stories that fill my head and my life and my books, I just want you to know that I’m putting all those fears of yours to really good use. So thank you.”

That’s it. On to wisps of clouds and blue sky and total relaxation.

Amazing Sprawl

I believe that one telling characteristic of a person is the music they enjoy. So how could I not feel the same way about my characters? I think about how Ariel likes popular indie music, usually by female artists, just like I think about how she likes sushi and yoga and the color blue.  For me, this is part of the process of getting to know her.

With the help of a young woman with musical tastes similar to Ariel’s, I was able to put together my character’s own distinctive list of favorite songs, many of which are woven into her story. When my books appear on Kindle, I  link the song title in my text to the chance to purchase it on Amazon.

My other electronic versions are distributed through Smashwords where no such link is allowed. I’ve tried various other approaches with my other books, but with d4 I’ve finally found the approach I like best. For every song, I’ve found a live performance that I think shows a little of a the personality of the singer and the band. I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of fun seeking these out. Often the quality of the video isn’t as good as the more glossy clips, but I’ve picked each one for a reason.

In the case of Arcade Fire, I had the great good fortune to see them perform at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion outside of Houston in April 2014. The entire concert was amazing, but the performance of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), with so many talented musicians on stage all singing in harmony and playing more varied instruments than I had ever seen used for one song, well, it was was one of my most incredible concert experiences.

I knew then that this song would find its way into d4, and that I would find a clip from the show I had seen, or a performance very close to it.  Well, I never found the video from the Woodlands concert, but this one from their performance at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival two months later could have been it. Enjoy!

Here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 15 of d4, where Sprawl II is mentioned.

Ariel both reasoned and premembered that the less time she spent in Iceland the better. It was a real shame, because the country itself was gorgeous and the people outside of Baldur’s boardroom were friendly and welcoming. She’d turned on her music so she wouldn’t have to make conversation, and she had to smile when one of her favorite songs began to play. Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II” was a melodic worry about endless strip malls covering the earth, and the beauty of the scenery she was driving past could not have been a better antidote to those concerns. Ariel turned up the volume, put her phone away and simply enjoyed the views for the rest of the trip.

Once they arrived, they were met by their assigned host and taken to an ultramodern lounge where they could shower privately and change into swimwear. Ariel studied the famous murky turquoise water as they walked, and the combination of all the shades of blue and green in the mist created a feeling of wonder unlike anywhere she had ever been. She marveled at the many small geysers that shot into the air and at the sheer size of the stunning lagoon.

She’d already been told that there would be a catered lunch, time to relax in the healing waters, individual massages and skin treatments, and more spa time before the group headed to what was certain to be a lavish dinner. Under other circumstances, this could have easily been the best day at work ever.

You can buy Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II” at amazon.com. You can also buy all of d4 for Kindle for only ninety-nine cents.

Seeing the future

Ariel, the hero of d4, lived in my head for years and I knew what she could do. She could see into the future. It wasn’t until I began writing her story, however, that I realized how complicated the very idea of precognition is.

27-Courage-23I’d already given serious thought to the pros and cons of a fixed future, and I’d thrown out the idea of a predestined universe.  Over my adult life I’ve heard compelling arguments that in a universe ruled by cause and effect, the future is as immutable as the past. Perhaps it is. But as long as I’m writing the book, there are going to be surprises and free will in the story, and any bits of prescience will work on the assumption that the future is a probability curve. Guess you could say I can’t write stories any other way.

But it turns out that there are many more vexing questions to consider.  How far into the future does she see? Why? How much does she understand about what she sees? Why doesn’t the whole process happen all the time and leave her overwhelmed and unable to function?

To sort some of this out, I researched famous psychics from Casandra and Nostradamus to their more modern counterparts. It seemed like many reduced their input by relying on divination techniques like crystal balls or going into a trance. They willed their visions, and went about a relatively normal life the rest of the time.

I knew that this wasn’t the way Ariel saw the future. In d4 it was going to come at her unbidden. Historically, psychics who experienced unwilling visions almost always had very little extraneous information to help put their data into context. This vagueness is often translated into fiction, and it has certainly made for some great stories over the years, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend half my book writing about Ariel trying to figure out what it was she was seeing. So I decided to approach clairvoyance more like memory. I assumed that a sight or sound or smell could touch off a short video clip in the mind, and that the brain would supply the context much as it would when one remembers, for instance, blowing out the candles on ones twelfth birthday.

That left the question of how far ahead she saw, and in that quandary I found the roots of my story.

Below is an excerpt from d4, taken from the scene when Ariel first meets another person who shares her gifts. Once I wrote the scene below, I had a pretty good idea of how precognition was going to work in the world I was creating.

Ariel stepped off the plane to her first view of the barren rocks mottled with bright colored lichens that make up the tundra. She had never set foot inside of the Arctic Circle before. Tiny flickers and flashes erupted as her boot touched the ground.

My premonitions are stronger here, she noticed with surprise. The cold dry air? The earth’s magnetic field? There had to be a reason. She added it to her list of things to try to figure out later.

While they were waiting for the luggage to be brought into the waiting area of the airport, Ariel wandered off, looking for a bathroom. She turned into an office and noticed a man’s legs sticking out from under a desk.

“Are you okay?” She felt like she should say something.

She heard him chuckle. “No, I’m in serious need of somebody to grab the other end of this wire. One man doing a two man job.” Ariel saw that he was trying to get some sort of computer cable to go up through a small hole in the desk.

“Let me help.” She came over, pulled the cord through and by acquired instinct plugged it into the monitor where it was clearly intended to go.

“Thanks,” he said with appreciation, as he wriggled out from under the desk. Then he noticed that she’d connected the cable. “A helpful tourist and one that knows how to connect hardware.”

“I can manage considerably more than plugging in a monitor,” she laughed. “IT training here, though I don’t use it enough these days. I’m Ariel. Passing through trying to hunt down the ladies room.”

“You came all the way to the arctic to find a place to pee?” he teased.

She rolled her eyes and when he held out his hand she took it without thinking.

“Siarnaq,” he said and Ariel saw a small spark in the air before their hands touched.

Then for a few seconds, neither of them could have said a word if they had wanted to.

For Siarnaq, the images he saw were so much larger than those he was used to—close-up and huge, like looking at something right in front of your face with a pair of binoculars. Amidst the blur of something too big to take in, he knew that he was finally seeing the future from his own lifetime. The prospect filled him with joy, but the images were just so close that he had no way to make any sense of them, The accompanying knowledge in his brain seemed to be coming at him like hundreds of birds chirping. We must not be designed to see what comes in our own lifetime, he reasoned.

To Ariel, the flickers of the distant future went wild in the corners of her brain, like far off flashing lights too remote for her to see the images that they were illuminating. This man matters in a future too far off for me to see, she thought. I wish I could enlarge these images somehow. We must not be able to see past the next several months. I guess that makes sense.

He let go of her hand slowly.

“You’re a seer.” He said it like he knew it for a fact. He studied her red hair, fair skin and blue eyes. She wasn’t of the People, or at least if she had Inuit ancestors they were few indeed. Had he ever met a seer who wasn’t mostly Inuit? He didn’t think so.

“You get visions of the future?” Ariel’s heart was starting to beat louder. She had never expected to be asking this question, much less to be in this situation for a second time in her life.

The Inuit man laughed. “The world is full of seers,” he said.

I had no idea that would be so good to know, she thought.

Siarnaq added gently. “You have a lot to learn. You’re with the tour group?” he asked. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Today, they give you time to shop and sight see. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

Two of my more useful written sources were:
Clairvoyance August 3, 2009 by Charles Webster Leadbeater. Publisher: Merchant Books ISBN-13: 978-1603862417
Seeing Your Future: A Modern Look at Prophecy and Prediction March, 1990 by John E. Ronner. Publisher: Mamre Pr; First Edition ISBN-13: 978-0932945389.
On a more humorous note, Rational Wiki offers a nice list of predictions about the end of the world (or universe). It sort of puts everything into perspective.