I’ve recently released my debut novel When Winter Calls. Here is an excerpt from the book (line formatting altered for web reading), as the steely bartender-owner of Skye Tower Bar argues with one of her customers about the new neural interface technology that is beginning to be seen in action throughout the city-corporation of Caldera.
“I tell you what, you node-heads are too much for me!”
The darkly toned voice of the bartender cut through the conversation, her lithe figure resting against the bar as the group parted to include her. “I make my days talking to people, enjoying their company and shooting the breeze. Last week or so more and more of you are coming in here that just don’t stop yapping on – from one thing to the next, it’s not normal. If I want to have a conversation with a talking encyclopaedia I could jump into one of the immersion sims and speak to an AI.” She wasn’t making any attempt to hide her disdain, much to the man’s chagrin. “At least then I might also get a chance to get myself off at the end of the night!”
“I heard that they’re making people sign contracts for any discoveries you make. Is that right?” a questioning voice asked from the group. “Also, that they’re transferring you out of the hubs and into the tower blocks.”
“Well, it’s like everything we do here. Sentivue owns it all, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Just the way things are, and we get a lot in return by living here – don’t forget that…” The man was clearly becoming more defensive, justifying his decision to those increasingly suspicious of the interface.
“You leaving us for a view of the stars?”
“Nobody’s said nothing to me about moving. Why would I want to anyway? I like seeing the ocean from my window, not the dome. The people up in the towers, a lot of them don’t want to be reminded that they’re living all the way out here. Me? I relish it. It’s what keeps me here year after year. I could have gone back any time, but I kept staying on. Wouldn’t move into the towers even if they offered me one of the penthouses!”
His chest puffed up with pride as he made the passionate statement of loyalty. It seemed to impress some of his friends who responded with jeers of approval and sharp slaps on the back.
“Hugh Tinson moved out of my hub just last week, said he was being recruited and by the next day his bunk was empty. Haven’t seen him since.”
The man shook his head at the news, clearly disappointed by the actions of whoever Hugh was.
“Good riddance to them,” the bartender came back with a bite. “The way some of you talk, it’s like you’re forgetting what it’s actually like back home these days. As if you’re just going to head back and suddenly not be hanging on the streets anymore waiting for the recruiters. Sticking a bit of metal in your head doesn’t make you any better in the eyes of those above.”
“Knowledge makes you a better person,” the man replied, defending himself more forcefully. “It doesn’t change who I am – how I make my decisions. The research done by Tindell and Rogers over at NYU on the first augmented cognition devices proved that. When I make my decisions now, I know what I’m talking about. Unlike you, sitting here behind the bar judging me like some kind of worthless skav.”
The two sized up to one another, the thick wooden bar standing between them. Given the deadly look in the bartender’s eyes, Jared thought it was lucky there was a gap between them or the man would have already been clocked over the side of the head with a hefty liquor bottle.
“I’ll judge you all I want. I’ve got no need to prove myself to anybody by faking what I know. You’re living up to their standard of what it is to be better. Knowledge doesn’t make you a better person. It just takes you away from your roots and before too long you’ll be another suit with a porcelain smile, selling your nan’s last tooth to meet the weekly quotas.”
Jared leaned into Vica as they listened in on the argument.
“Think this is going to kick off?”
Vica patted his thigh, shaking her head.
Getting up from the stool, she took his hand and walked across the room as if to look out the window. Jared steeled himself against the feeling of dropping through the floor with each step, fixing his eyes slightly upwards towards the roof. One of the bar’s walls was also made up of perfectly transparent glass, and once they stood against where wall met floor it felt like they were in mid-air. Floating with a strange assortment of chairs and tables alongside them like some kind of dreamscape garden party in the sky.
Jared pushed his hands against the wall as a reminder that it was actually there.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
“I know, why do you think I brought you down here?” Vica was grinning widely, clearly enjoying Jared’s discomfort as much as his wonder. “It’s a good test of a real man, see if they can handle it!”
“Ha!” Jared responded with a feigned confidence. “I’m fine here because it’s not like there’s any way out. Just a big glass box really, who would be afraid of that?”
“Daniel for one, he could only be down here for about five minutes before we had to leave.”
“You were down here with Daniel?”
“Yeah, just last week. For someone who works on those little critters running along the foundation columns he sure didn’t like seeing them in action from this viewpoint.”
She laughed freely, drawing Jared in by the way her cheeks dimpled and eyes lit up.
“Anything between you two?”
“Would it matter if there was?”
“Not at all,” Jared lied. “Just that he was giving me the evils the other night, and even before that when you first walked off with me from the courtyard tables. It might make a bit more sense why if you two were an item.”
Vica looked annoyed by the reference peppered with jealousy.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about. Sure, we hooked up once. But it wasn’t like it was anything serious, and besides…you’re much more fun to hang with.”
There was barely enough time to process her comments before there was a loud crash from the bar. The bartender had her arms wrapped around the man she had been goading just moments earlier, glasses knocked off the bar top and shattering. Coloured liquid pooling on the floor as he tried to control her sudden outburst.
“I’m not having any more node-heads in this bar – you hear me!”
She shoved him towards the exit. Others nearby leapt up to intervene and motioned for the man to leave, some of them coming out with him as he fumed and pointed back.
“You’re out of here on the next transporter! I’ll make sure of that, you violent skav. There’s no room for your kind in Caldera, can’t even control yourself in a civil conversation. Transporters are too good for you – you should be chucked into the cargo hold of one of those compactor rust-buckets like the sewer rat that you are. Tech-free amongst the trash!”
“I’d rather be tech-free and ignorant than another corporate shill, giving away my identity so that they can put you to work like an automated invention machine! You think you’re free, but what if you’re just unable to see past the vision they’re shoving into your little mind?”
She pushed the other patrons off as they held her back from rushing the man.
After a few moments of bitter confrontation from across the room he left in a huff, bringing a few others that had sprung forward to be by his side – consoling and talking heatedly in equal measures…
Robert A. Gordon is an anthropologist and social commentator who has been writing about the ethics of future technology for the past decade. His debut novel When Winter Calls is a science fiction thriller, set on the ocean city-corporation of Caldera, which explores the boundaries of our personal and collective identities in an ever-changing world.