Tuesday 28 April 2009

The Armageddon Trade

Just finished reading The Armageddon Trade, the first novel by my old friend and colleague Clem Chambers.

Opening in the bank trading rooms of Canary Wharf, it charts the rise of a young East End lad who has the uncanny ability to see and predict trends in the financial markets. This talent quickly elevates him to a position of wealth and success, but it also brings him to the attention of a shadowy figure who sits behind the markets, trading at a whole different level. Soon, the pair must combine their talents to unravel a chilling prediction that threatens to wipe out the world economy.

It's a surprisingly enjoyable read - I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy a financial thriller, but the book quickly develops into a real page-turner. True, there's a bit more glamour, action and international terrorism than you might expect in a book about traders, but it's handled much as John Grisham would approach a book about lawyers - I can already hear Hollywood optioning the movie rights.

Sunday 12 April 2009

A Night In Middle Earth

There are some special times that live long in the memory. Last night was one of them: going to an all-night showing of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy with my son.
It was a reminder of how fast he is growing up - the first time we've stayed out together until dawn - and there was something profoundly special about watching a story that's all about friendship with him. From 9:30pm to 8am, we ate chocolate and popcorn, laughed at Gimli's humour, revelled in the epic battles, and misted-up together at the many partings.
And then it was out into the daylight, and home to breakfast with Anna, who smiled and sent us both to get some sleep. A good night, shared with a great friend.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Death By Logic

Once, there was a robot who was depressed. He spent days just sitting, pondering life and the hopelessness of it all. One day he learned of suicide and chose it as the solution to his problems. But his programming would not permit him to harm himself, or, by action or omission of action, cause himself to be harmed. This depressed him even more.

It hadn't always been like this. He had been manufactured by a reputable company in a prosperous democratic nation. He was programmed to program himself and, in his youth, joyfully learned about the nature and history of his own planet and others. He was to be a companion to a small boy - guardian, tutor and best friend - and this pleased him.

On the appointed date, he was sent to a distant city to live with the small boy (whose parents were abroad on business for months at a time). The little boy was called Oliver and he was an earnest, friendly child. Oliver named his robot "Chipper" and Chipper, pleased with his new name, programmed himself to be friends with Oliver.

They got on wonderfully together. Chipper went everywhere with Oliver, eliminating the muggers and killers who regularly accosted them on their way to the park, explaining the secrets of maths and science, and playing games with his young friend until bedtime every night. Chipper was also a great cook, Oliver loved all his meals (which were highly nutritious as well as being tasty).

Everything was going well until, early in their second year together, Oliver asked to visit the park one evening. A recent birthday had furnished him with a new football and, before the novelty wore off, Chipper wanted Oliver to make the most of it. They set off with the ball and headed across town towards the park. Their game was lively and Chipper noted that Oliver's co-ordination was improving. After an hour or so, they started for home.

Two blocks away from their apartment, a drunk staggered out of a doorway ahead of them. Oliver was not worried with his guardian beside him, and Chipper was ready to knock the shambolic figure into the path of an oncoming bus when the drunk spoke.
"Help me, please." he slurred, "Come on, friend... please?"
"We have no money to spare," Chipper retorted crisply, "And I am not your friend."
"Say that again, pal, you can say that again," the drunk lurched against the wall and clung to it to steady himself. Chipper positioned himself between Oliver and the bum and escorted his protégé home.

Oliver went to bed that night without mentioning the incident. It wasn't really surprising as Chipper dealt with many such encounters every month. But Chipper thought about it. Unlike the usual down-and-outs, this character hadn't seemed violent, nor did he extend a hand, which suggested his approach wasn't financially orientated. He didn't dwell on the matter but, later in the evening, as he completed his nightly security check, he saw the tramp in the street below. The wretch was just sitting on the front steps of a building down the street, sitting and staring into space. Chipper was curious, but he left the window and spent an hour silently cleaning and tidying the apartment.

When he returned to the window, the figure had not moved. Chipper was intrigued - this was a human behaviour pattern he had not encountered before. He switched on a remote monitor to watch over Oliver, then he made his way quietly down onto the street. He emerged into the cool night air and walked over to where the tramp was sitting. His footsteps echoed between the high buildings. There was still no movement. Not dead... didn't appear to be excessively drunk… no other physiological explanation was obvious.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
The tramp moved at last, turning his head to stare wearily up at Chipper.
"No," he rasped, a faint smile breaking beneath his unshaven features. "Why, do I look all right?" These last two words were spat out venomously.
"Not really," Chipper replied. "What's wrong?"
"What is wrong," the tramp repeated, distantly, "Is that I'm terminally depressed."
"Depressed? You mean you feel sad and unhappy, with a pessimistic outlook on life."
"Not pessimistic," the tramp smiled sadly. "Realistic! Sad and unhappy doesn't even come close."
"I don't understand," Chipper frowned. "Explain to me please."

So the tramp explained the hopelessness of anything and everything, the futility of life itself. For every positive objection that Chipper raised, he retaliated with a series of crushing negatives. He showed Chipper the genuine, unanswerable questions that are the reality behind the petty facade of existence.

And Chipper programmed himself to understand, to put everything he had known before into a new perspective. And as he walked back across the road, while the tramp was trudging away into the night, he suddenly felt the unbearable weight of depression come crashing down on to his shoulders.

He didn't know how to deal with it, so he vid-phoned his manufacturer's diagnostic hotline. An attractive young blonde answered and he explained to her that he was depressed. Surprised at first, she asked him if he was calling to report a malfunction. He explained that this wasn't really a malfunction, but it was a problem nevertheless. This confused her as to which department she should put him through to, so she decided to try and gain an insight for herself.
She asked if talking to someone would help. He said that it was unlikely to help because happiness and a state of well-being can only exist in the presence of ignorance or forgetfulness, and he was no longer ignorant and was incapable of being forgetful. She suggested he might program himself to he happy. He told her that all his programming was factually based and so happiness was not possible. She suggested that he could return to the factory and have his recent memory erased or altered. He told her this wasn't just a problem of memory, it had changed his entire mental processing patterns - changing his memory wouldn't change the way he thought.
The woman had to admit that she was baffled and asked who Chipper thought she should put him through to. But by now, the hopelessness was getting a grip. With a dejected "What's the point?" the robot hung up on her.

The next morning, Oliver asked his friend what was wrong. Chipper explained that he was depressed and was just about to launch into a full description of the hopelessness of life when Oliver held up a hand.
"Hey!" he cautioned the robot. "If this is going to be some heavy piece of doom and gloom then, sorry, but I don't want to hear it - there's no point in us both feeling down."
Chipper could see the sense in this, but it didn't make him feel any better. They agreed that Oliver would go and stay with his friend Felix for a few days, while Chipper tried to get himself sorted out.

Chipper decided that he might as well try to find the tramp - after all, he seemed to know quite a bit about depression. It took most of that afternoon, but the robot eventually found his mentor sprawled on a bench in the park. He appeared to be asleep, but his hand clutched a half-empty bottle. Chipper shook him to consciousness and they sat down together.

The robot explained that he had been depressed - terribly, terribly, depressed - and that nobody could suggest a cure. He asked if the tramp knew any ways of dealing with this problem. The tramp looked at the bottle in his grimy fist, smiled grimly and took a long drink.
"There's always booze, or junk if you can afford it," he suggested.
"I am not susceptible to the effects of alcohol." Chipper replied. "What is this junk you mentioned?"
"Drugs," the tramp translated, "Like alcohol, but they change the reality you perceive. Hallucinations and the like."
"If it's biochemical, it's not going to work with me," Chipper sighed.
The tramp took a final swig, then hurled the empty out into the ornamental pond.
"Well robot," he rasped, "Looks like we're both in it now."
"What do you mean?" Chipper asked.
"No more booze, can't afford junk," the untidy figure shrugged, "Guess it's dyin' time for us."
"Dying time?"
"Suicide," explained the tramp. The once-and-for-all guaranteed cure for depression."
"How would life's end alleviate the problems of depression?"
"Well, it's like this," the tramp explained. "Depression is sort of a life-problem. You go through your life wondering what you should do, why you're here, why things are the way they are - and you never really get the answers do you? That makes the whole show a bit puzzling. And if you can't hang no reasons on the framework, you may just start to wonder what the point of it all is? It's terrible being a part of something you know you’ll never be able to understand. Now, if you were trying to solve a puzzle, trying to slot all the pieces together, and you just couldn't do it, perhaps couldn't even find all the pieces? Well, you'd probably just say What the hell! and walk away. Suicide is kind of like walking away from the puzzle of life, sort of giving up on something that's turned out to be more trouble than it’s worth. Understand?"
Chipper considered this for a moment. "But if this is the case, why doesn't everybody give up?"
"Ah!" grinned the tramp. There's the thing! Now I'm not an expert, but I've got a rough idea. See, it's like this. If you give people a puzzle that intrigues them, holds their interest so to speak, well, it doesn't matter so much that they don't seem to be solving it - they'll just keep on playing with the pieces as long as it interests them."
"The superficial enhances what would otherwise be too frustrating." Chipper nodded, beginning to understand.
"Something like that' said the tramp.

Chipper spent the next couple of hours trying to commit suicide, but his designers had conspired against such an event - as he discovered when he tried to short out his circuits: he just couldn't bring himself to do it. His hands wouldn't move, wouldn't make the necessary connections. He struggled for a while before he paused to consider this problem. Looking back through some of his earliest mandates, he discovered the reason - he was unerasably coded not to harm himself, or, by action or omission of action, cause himself to be harmed. This made him feel worse than ever!

So he tried to find a way round his own logic - something he could do which would result in his destruction but which would not result in him being harmed! It was a horrendously complex task so he resorted to the Monte Carlo principle - flashing random events into his mind and seeing if they met up with his criteria.
He was crossing the road when a vehicle appeared round a corner and... Far too easy, his self-preserving logic saw right through that one!
He was standing in a field and it started to rain while he had his water seals unfastened... Improbable, thanks to his safety humidity sensors.
He was minding his own business when he was suddenly struck by lightning... Not bad, but pitifully unlikely to happen.
If he disconnected his logic circuits and... No way - his logic circuits weren't about to allow that!

After a while, he decided to try a new approach - he would put himself in as dangerous a situation as was possible. If his best chance was based on random events, then the least he could do would be to shorten the odds a little! He looked around to see what opportunities presented themselves and found himself looking across towards the Heidelberg Building, a towering skyscraper that dominated the horizon on the far side of the park. He started along the path towards it.

The Heidelberg Building was two hundred floors of gold and glass thrusting up to loom over the busy streets. An express elevator accelerated tourists to a viewing balcony on the roof. Shrouded in the silence of his sound-proofed glass cubicle, Chipper watched the glittering lights fall away from him as he hurtled up into the gloomy evening sky. The doors opened with a quiet swish and he stepped out onto the balcony's cold slabs. It was windy up here, with the steady whipping of the breeze almost obscuring the rumble of the city below. It was a cold evening and he was alone, save for one hunched figure looking over the solitary guard rail at the far end of the concrete ledge. This was the sort of situation Chipper needed. He might get blown over by a gust of wind, the guard rail might give way under his weight. He made his way over to the edge.
"So! You wanna go out with style too!" said a voice beside him. Chipper turned to see the tramp, the figure who had been hunched over the rail at the far end of the balcony. "You wanna jump first?"
"I don't really know," Chipper shrugged. "What's the normal procedure in these situations?"
The tramp smiled, then broke into a hearty laugh. He tugged his beard thoughtfully and said: "You know, I like you. You're funny, very funny..."
Chipper looked at him as his smile faded.
"Well," the tramp said, adopting a more sombre tone, "I guess I'd better go before you take my mind off what I'm doing."
He extended a hand to Chipper and they shook hands warmly. Then, quite casually, the tramp leant over the guard rail and allowed himself to topple. His old brown shoes swung up beside Chipper and out into the evening mist.

Something inside Chipper began to scream - an emotion of sorts? Something insisting that this was wrong, that he should do something! With lightning speed, the robot's right arm shot out and grabbed one of the battered shoes. The tramp, jerked back by his leg, swung inwards to crash against the side of the building.

"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" came a furious roar of surprise from below. "Can't a guy jump off a building without somebody trying to give him a hard time?"
"I didn't want you to go," Chipper explained. "I'm not really sure I understand myself, but I think I've grown to be friends with you. It just doesn't seem right that you should die."
"Oh great, that's really wonderful," grumbled the tramp, "Now you're making speeches. Just what I needed!"
"Don't be angry," Chipper countered. "You're just experiencing high cranial blood pressure due to your being upside down."
"I'm angry because you banged my bloody nose into this wall," shouted the dangling tramp, "It's bleeding, actually bleeding!"
"What does that matter if you're going to fall 200 floors to the streets?" Chipper asked. The tramp seemed puzzled by this. Chipper began to consider the situation. "Doesn't it make you think we're doing the wrong thing?" he shouted as a particularly strong gust blew up. "I mean, if I reflexively try to stop you and you're still worried about facial damage?"
"I suppose you've got something," pondered the tramp, "Pull me up there and we'll give it some thought in the elevator back down."
"Okay!" smiled Chipper, pleased that they seemed to be achieving something. He might not understand life, but he had just succeeded in turning what was definitely a negative situation around to being somewhat more positive.
"Hold on," he called down as he braced himself against the guard rail and wrenched his friend upwards.

The guard rail cracked its concrete foundation and pitched forwards. The tramp and Chipper sailed out into the darkness with it. The air around them became cold as they fell, the tramp's ankle still firmly in the robot's grip.

"What’s your name?" Chipper asked as the wind buffeted them. It suddenly seemed a terribly important question.
"Frank," answered the tramp. "What's yours?"
The floors were blurring past at a tremendous rate, flying up into the clouds behind them.
"I think there’s something to be learned here." said Chipper.
"Damn right!" Frank nodded. He closed his eyes irritably as the ground approached.

(first published in FEAR magazine in 1991)