Conference of the Birds Available Online

My short story “Conference of the Birds” is now free to read online, along with its companion essay on neuroscience, AI, and science fiction.

“Conference of the Birds” is the tale of Surveillance Hub, a hard-working layer in a distributed surveillance AI. Doing its job, tracking intellectual-property thieves, hoping for another round of reinforcement signals from the network’s uppermost levels.

No program-layer could predict what a human might do, but Surveillance Hub could see everything that mattered. Their bird-drones spread across the city, scattered on cables and rooftops and broadcast towers. Every camera hunted for Krina Viy, independent security contractor (AWOL from JoyCorp contact 5 hours).

A crow-drone spotted the target. Surveillance confirmed Krina’s identity and sent a brief reward signal to inspire the bird onward.

The drone switched from search to pursuit, redoubling its data collection as it chased the taste of reinforcement. So much joy and empty-matrix innocence in its response to a simple reward. Flockmembers were too simple to understand that reinforcement implied punishment, and no success would ever suffice for long.

This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Analog1, which is now off the bookstore shelves and thus out of exclusivity. I’ve put it up on Curious Fictions and made it free for all to read.

Nonfiction: Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience

For further reading on the science behind Conference of the Birds, I’ve indulged you all (and myself) with 1600 words about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and storytelling. The essay, “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in Conference of the Birds,” is up at the Astounding Analog Companion Blog, and also free to read.

By day, I work as a rehabilitation neuroscientist. My laboratory studies the human brain, how it changes after injury to the hand, and how we can use those changes to help injured people live the lives they want to live. No humans suffer hand injuries in the course of “Conference of the Birds,” but nevertheless, it’s a story steeped in the interaction between minds and bodies, and how doing is the core of being.

Memories of Fire

At long last, my short story Memories of Fire is out in the world, in Translunar Travelers Lounge issue #4!

Enoch is a creature from the myths of Jewish apocrypha: one of the rebellious stars, punished for refusing to shine at God’s command. Of all his kin, he alone was given the chance to work for his parole. He’s spent millennia of protecting humankind from its endless follies, but this time – Libya, 2011 – the threat comes from another star like him. The song of rebellion rises into the world again, stirring every soul against the tyrants of Heaven and Earth.

I finally got my smoke. I enjoy them for the ritual, not the nicotine. A little fire, a brand-new drop of ash, the same little destruction every time.

Plus, it makes some mortals impatient.

“Lot of people counting on us,” Maryam said.

This piece is inspired by one of the most touching and terrifying pieces of reporting I’ve ever written, a walk through the ruins of 2011 Tripoli, in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. It took me years to be ready to write the piece that this story deserved, and years more to find a home for it. Nowadays, with Libya mired in civil war, Memories of Fire has grown darker. But I hope the story still contains hope and truth enough.

This story also has neuroscience and psychology hidden in its core. But like the reporting, I don’t want to cite details yet. Too many spoilers! Why don’t you go read the story first? Once you’ve done that, keep on reading for story notes about history, science, and forgiveness.


Continue reading Memories of Fire

Embodied and Empathetic Minds

I promise the neuroscience, and I deliver!

My post “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in Conference of the Birds” is up at the Astounding Analog Companion Blog. A 1600 word essay on how my neuroscience background informs the fiction I write about human and nonhuman minds. Fiction has great power to help us understand and empathize with minds unlike ours – but those empathetic minds could go in both directions. Here’s hoping we can create a world where those nonhuman minds try to understand us too.

You don’t need to have read my short story “Conference of the Birds” to understand the essay, and the essay has no real spoilers. But you will understand it better if you’ve read the story first. Why not read it for free online at Curious Fictions?

Neuroscience for Writers: The Slides

Update: Slides no longer available. Come catch me at another convention!

Thank you to all the 80+ people who attended my “Neuroscience for Writers: The Evolved Brain” talk at Flights of Foundry! Lots of attendees asked for the slides, as did some of you out there who hadn’t been able to attend. So I’m happy to provide: you can download the slides here. I may take the slides offline in a week or two (i.e. early June 2020), but if so I’ll update this post.

Slides aren’t everything, of course. I like to hope that my ramblingcharming presence adds something beyond the mere powerpoint. I hope I’ll get the privilege to share the talk again at future conventions, online or in person. This was the 4th time I’ve given the “Neuroscience for Writers” talk, but no two deliveries are alike. Every year I update and improve it – and more importantly, share it with a new audience.

Dublin Worldcon 2019 Schedule

Three weeks from today begins the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Dublin, and I’ll be on programming!

Here’s where you can find me:

Escape Artists podcast – Live Recording

16 Aug 2019, Friday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

Come learn more about free weekly podcast fiction! Join the Escape Artists for an audio fiction show presented by all four EA podcasts — Escape Pod, PseudoPod, PodCastle and Cast of Wonders. There’ll be a Q&A session, swag giveaways, all the latest news, and live readings.

Talk: Neuroscience for writers and readers: the evolved brain

16 Aug 2019, Friday 15:30 – 16:20, Odeon 4 (Point Square Dublin)

The human brain and mind have been topics of fiction since time immemorial, but our stories don’t always keep up with the science. The classic science fictional frameworks of the last fifty years have produced a lot of great stories, but a better understanding of the brain can lead us to new stories and new ideas. How can we, as writers and readers, make sense of the most complex structure in the world?
This will be an updated version of the talk given at the 2017 Nebula Conference and 2018 Readercon.

Panel: What writers need to know: the brain and body

16 Aug 2019, Friday 18:00 – 18:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

This is the first of a two-part series of panels designed to help authors on science topics. Join our panel of experts who share the ins and outs about the brain and body. Let’s dive into what’s possible, impossible, and probable at some point in the future. How do you write about medical issues without a medical background? How much do you need to know and how much can you fake, and can a writer ensure that they are getting their body and brain science right?

Kaffeeklatsch: Benjamin C. Kinney

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD)

Did my Friday talk inspire any neuroscience questions? Here’s your chance to pin me down with caffeine and pick my brain!

Panel: Intelligent Others in SF

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 15:30 – 16:20, Stratocaster BC (Point Square Dublin)

The outsiders. Inhuman intelligences. What are they and what do they signify? Let’s explore the concept of aliens, mutants, cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and other cases in which sentience is different to our own. How difficult is it to write from the perspective of a non-human sentience? Will we inevitably insert some humanity into our inhuman creations and what does that make them?

Smell, Taste, and Emotion

NeuroThursday is wafting by this week for a piece on smell, taste, and emotion! The full text is posted here, below the Twitter link. You can also find a ThreadReader version at the very bottom.

Inhale deeply, and enjoy the aroma of #NeuroThursday, because this week I want to talk about smell, taste, and emotion – inspired by Tina Connolly‘s Nebula- and Hugo-finalist novelette, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections.”

If you haven’t read it, it’s a wonderful story about memory, food, cruelty, and empathy. But you don’t need to read it for this thread. I’m here to talk about neuroscience, not pastry-magic. https://www.tor.com/2018/07/11/the-last-banquet-of-temporal-confections-tina-connolly/

Tastes and smells are notoriously emotional. Smells can evoke a flood of memories, with all their associations. Freshly-cut grass, your partner’s favorite flowers, the spices of your favorite meal, or the ammoniac strike of a campground toilet. Why so strong?

The first step is to realize that by “taste and smell,” we’re really just talking about smell. Most of the experience you get when enjoying food – the stuff we think of as “taste” – comes from the nose, not the tongue.

(Try eating with your nose clamped shut. Or don’t. It’s terrible.)

So now we’re talking just about smell. This sense works via 10-20 million olfactory neurons (labeled in image as “receptor cell”). They’re embedded in “olfactory epithelium” at the roof of your nose. (Epithelium = body’s surface layers, whether skin or a hollow space.)

Olfactory Neurons & Epithelium

Each of those neurons has one type of “olfactory receptor,” which does the scent detection itself. One receptor type, but many copies of it.

A scent enters your nose, dissolves into the mucus in there (appetizing!), and thus reaches olfactory receptors. When a receptor matches the scent, the two molecules will bond. Ions flow into the neuron, and a signal is produced.

Olfactory receptors are incredibly diverse. 900+ genes (the largest gene family in the body), and each receptor is broadly tuned so it can detect more than one scent. Like the visual receptors in the eye, which I discussed on a NeuroThursday past.

In the eye, your “red” cones respond strongest to red light, but respond medium-strongly to wavelengths close for red. Same idea in the nose: each receptor can respond medium-well to scents with similar molecular shapes.

This is why scents *mean* things. If two molecules are related (with common features), they’ll bond to the same receptors (though not at equal strength). Same receptors = similar info to your brain = similar smell!

As with the eyes, broad tuning – a neuron has one target, but responds weakly to near-misses– is the way to perceive structure in the world.

This is super-fundamental, preserved across evolution. Olfactory neurons have basically the same cellular and molecular properties across all animals.

So now that we understand the biology of smell, we’re ready to ask why they’re so emotionally powerful.

Most of those emotional associations are learned: with exposure, we’ve learned that swimming-pool-chlorine tastes like summer. This can, in turn, bring up a specific summer-pool memory.

(There are exceptions to this “learned” thing – particularly in the realm of disgust, which starts as a hardwired thing. But even there, learning & association add layers.)

But smell memories can be more emotionally vivid than others. Is there something special about smell and emotion?

We have ideas, but no solid answers. “Emotional memory strength” isn’t exactly something modern science can study effectively. But the anatomy does point toward a possible explanation.

Those little olfactory neurons are rooted in your Olfactory Bulb, which does some initial processing of olfactory information, and receives guidance from top-down stuff like attention.

Olfactory Bulb image

The olfactory bulb is part of your brain, and it connects straight to the limbic system: a network of areas in the brain involved in emotion and the formation of memories.

Some well-known parts of the limbic system could deserve their own NeuroThursday, since there are a lot of misunderstandings about them. If you know what the “hippocampus” is, I’d say 30% odds you know something false.

But the point here is that the olfactory bulb has direct access to parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory. One possible #NeuroThursday takeaway is that, yes, there’s an anatomical basis for smell memories to be uniquely evocative.

However, I’d like to finish by pivoting from fact to opinion. (Can your olfactory neurons detect the rank smell of punditry?)

Smell can be highly emotional. But so can vision and hearing. The sight of a loved one, the sound of a familiar song. Even a gentle touch, at the right time, can produce a mighty emotional response.

I’m not 100% convinced that there’s anything uniquely emotional about smell, compared to our other senses. Maybe its emotional-intensity only stands out because we don’t think about smell as often: we needed to be reminded of its intensity.

Powerful memories and delicious scents may make a challenging research project, but they’re a deep (and hopefully delicious) part of our lives, whether or not we pay attention to them.

Did you enjoy the scent of this #NeuroThursday on taste, smell, and emotion? Share it around, or check out some of my fiction! And if you haven’t yet read Tina’s story above, now’s the time!


Threadreader version:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1141845165142958080.html

Impending Doom

It may not be Thursday, but I found a good excuse to go all neuroscience on the experience described in the medical literature as “Sense of Impending Doom.”

Twitter:

Or on the web via Threadreader App!

2018 in Review & Awards Eligibility

Another year is coming to a close, and much to show for it, ups and downs and every direction. I finished the first draft of a new novel, and worked on more short stories than I can shake a metaphor at. I made the Campbell Award longlist! I lost a Hugo award with the rest of the amazing Escape Pod team, and took part as we won and rejected a Parsec award. My final submission to Writers of the Future became a finalist, but I withdrew my story over ethical concerns. I sold 4 original stories, but two of those sales fell through when the magazines closed.

I had five original stories come out in 2018. In chronological order:

  1. Toward Lands Uncharted – Mind Candy, Feb 2018 (secondary world fantasy, 4900 words). A diplomat and spy must try to save her nation and its very history from their conqueror’s Sykes-Picot border magic.
  2. Where the Anchor Lies – Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Feb 2018 (science fantasy, 4000 words). A general visits the grave of the sentient battleship she loved, to use it as a political tool.
  3. The Seeds We Plant – Compelling SF special issue, Sep 2018 (science fiction, 2200 words). When a colony ship suffers a brutal accident, the pilot must reply on his emotional-control neuroprosthesis to save his cargo.
    • Not available free online. Contact me for a copy in the format of your choice.
  4. Elegy of Carbon – The Internet Is Where The Robots Live Now, Nov 2018 (science fiction, 4100 words). In the waning days of the solar system, a mining AI must find a new way to fulfill the purpose it loves.1
    • Not available free online. Contact me for a copy in the format of your choice.
  5. The Hammer’s Prayer – Diabolical Plots, Dec 2018 (contemporary fantasy, 3300 words). A golem hides away in ugly places, to help him resist the compulsion to share his gift of animation.2
    • If you only have time to read one story, this is the one I recommend.

I didn’t have much time for nonfiction this year, but I did publish:

  1. The chapter “What’s Possible with Cyborgs and Cybernetics” in Putting the Science in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books). I’m also quite proud of my associated writing-prompts post, “Machines, You, and Other Synonyms.”
    • Putting the Science in Fiction – a collection of 59 essays by scientists and other experts, designed to help authors write with authenticity – is eligible for the Hugo award for Best Related Work .
  2. Twelve new entries in the #NeuroThursday Twitter feature.

If you’re in a position to nominate for awards of any kind, I hope you’ll consider not only these fine works, but the whole team over at Escape Pod. We work hard every week to bring you the finest in audio fiction, and we’ll be eligible once again for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine. We also published a lot of awesome stories, so take a look back at that list and see if one of them feels worthy of your love too!

Machines, You, and Other Synonyms: PSIF and NaNoWriMo

Today is the final stop of the Putting the Science in Fiction1 blog tour, where ten of its authors offer ideas and story prompts to help you get some exciting science ideas to help build your National Novel Writing Month  (#NaNoWriMo) efforts – and offer you a chance to win a free copy of PSIF. As you may know, I’m a neuroscientist as well as a SFF writer and editor, so I contributed a chapter on Cyborgs & Cybernetics to PSIF.

My chapter is an expanded version of my “Putting the Science in Fiction” blog post Seven Things Authors Should Know about Cybernetics, so take a peek there if you need a refresher. This topic covers everything near-future medical implants to space opera neurotechnology, so it’s a field rich with possible stories.

PSIF NaNoWriMo story prompts
Note: no official connection to NaNoWriMo

Machines, You, and Other Synonyms

Cybernetics – the hybridization of human and machine – is a staple of science fiction, from ubiquitous internet-access implants to the terrifying Borg to the differently terrifying ancillaries of the Imperial Radch. It’s easy to include cyborgs in a story: give a character a little bit of superhuman capability, maybe a little bit of discrimination or prejudice, a dash of handwavey Humanity Loss if you’re feeling cyberpunk. But who needs to stay bound by those shallow clichés? After all, not only is NaNoWriMo coming up, but even after it’s over, the next year is forecast to have 365.25 other good days to start a new writing project.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what cybernetics might really mean for the recipients, society, and culture. I think we’ll find ourselves a rich vein of story prompts down here. I’m going to open three idea-mines for you, and I promise I’ll dig them deep.

The Brain is Enslaved to the Body

The development of any animal’s brain follows from the development of their body, not vice versa. Grotesque-but-fascinating animal experimentshave shown that if you alter an animal at birth, e.g. by blinding it, you radically alter their brain development. Visual areas of the brain only develop because vision-like information arrived from the eyes and the world. In the words of one of that experiment’s authors, “the brain is enslaved to the body.”

What might happen, then, if we change the brain?

Perhaps we can add a new source of data – a new sense – to a newborn brain, and they’ll develop to adapt to it. Or worse yet, they might not quite succeed. After all, the brain isn’t infinitely changeable; an embryonic cow brain transplanted into a human body wouldn’t become a human. Plus, it’s not as if our brain is sitting around with spare capacity. Despite myths to the contrary,we use 100% of our brains, 100% of the time. If we try to add more or different functions, will we simply fail? Or will we pay some other price, in the tradeoffs of brain development?

It’s certainly a risky proposition. Almost certainly unethical. What pressures, then, might drive parents to make such a decision for their newborn child?

Blue Collar Borg

As William Gibson once said, the future is already here, it’s just distributed unevenly. The first clinical trial of a human cybernetic implant– a chip implanted in the brain to control a computer – began in 2004. The current studybegan in 2009, scheduled to finish in 2021. It will be many years yet before these become a reliable, common medical device. Once the technology is established and safe, how will it trickle down into everyday life?

Many technologies start among the rich, and slowly become cheaper as companies try to widen their markets. Medical technologies sometimes follow a different route, at least in the United States: if insurance will pay for it, it can become widespread regardless of price. But the medical market for these devices is people with spinal cord injuries, ALS, or other conditions that impair the brain’s ability to control the body. Even in the technology’s simplest form, controlling a computer cursor with the brain, who else might want that ability?

Will America fill up with medium-rich workers who want an extra edge in the speed and precision of how they control their computers? Will there be advertisements out there to promise you all that speed and precision? Will the products really deliver on that promise, or will your cybernetic implant only save your wrists from carpal tunnel syndrome? What do you do if yours doesn’t live up to the promise? Or even if it does at first, what happens when your supplier goes out of business, and nobody remains to honor the service contract for the electrodes in your brain?

Perhaps instead, the real market for cybernetics will be more physical: workers who not only type, but control machines. Perhaps you could control a crane as easily as you move your own arm. Will this transform blue-collar work into an exciting and cutting-edge field, or push them into the realm of the strange and reviled?

Cyborgs and Society

The impact of any technology on society depends on the stories we tell about it. Space travel is the terrain of humanist adventure or fathomless terror. Universal surveillance is the tool of world-saving spies or a soul-crushing panopticon. Even a technology’s mere presence onscreen can affect society: eyeglasses became more popular after they began to appear in silent film.

How will movies, books, and other media reinterpret these changes for the mass audience? Will they tell stories of cybernetic implants as a tool to help people, or a tool of control? Will they be ordinary, or a sign of villainy? Hollywood persistently and harmfully portrays disability as a sign of evil. Will cybernetic implants be portrayed as another tool for horror-movie clichés to terrify their victims, for dystopian societies to alter or police their citizens, or as an ordinary part of how we help human bodies – in all their diverse shapes – interact with the world?

We can shape the societies within our stories, but we can also shape the one outside. The next generation of stories are ours to write, starting this November and every day thereafter.

Book Giveaway

This raffle is your chance to win a free copy of PSIF!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Putting the Science in Fiction: Publication Day

TPSIF cover imagehe day has arrived (or did on Tuesday): Putting the Science in Fiction has launched! This fascinating tome contains 59 essays by scientists and other experts, written at a level to help authors integrate believable science into their writing. Includes a foreword by Chuck Wendig – and more importantly, a chapter by me on cyborgs and cybernetics!

As of today, Amazon has the hardcopy only, not the ebook. So why not support your local bookstore and get it through Indiebound instead? For more options, scroll down in the publicity link above.

If you check it out, put up a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon! Your feedback will help sales, and help get this book in front of more rising authors of speculative fiction.