I Write Fiction Too: Meet Fred
by Scott Nichols
Exciting things are brewing in my professional life! And though I can’t divulge the specifics yet, I can at least say that I’m adding the title “Narrative Director” to my business cards. Now, this may come across as opportunistic to those who only know me by my games criticism writing and occasional journalism, since it has all of the appearance of me using my position in games media to slide into narrative writing, practical fiction writing experience be damned. But would it surprise you to learn that was not actually the case? In fact, if anything it would be the other way around. I spent the vast majority of my college education in fiction writing courses and workshops. It was actually one such class that put me on the path to freelance journalism, as my professor happened to be the sister of at-the-time Editor-in-Chief of PCWorld Harry McCracken, and I pestered that poor professor every day until she put me in touch with him to discuss freelance writing.
In any case, back in college I earned a bit of a reputation for writing short stories about zombies, robots, giant squid, and the afterlife re-imagined as O’Hare airport in classes where genre fiction was shunned in favor of “literary fiction.” And despite my subject matter of choice, none of my professors seemed to be able to tell the difference. I guess what I’m getting at is that this opportunity to actually write for a game is really more of a homecoming to my fiction writing roots than a divergent path from the game criticism career I’ve forged over the last few years. Note that this isn’t a complete career change, games criticism can’t get rid of me that easily, just a new project I’ll be working on in addition to my regular freelancing.
But really, the point of this post isn’t so much to announce my new writing gig, that will come later when I can actually talk about it more. Right now I mostly wanted to post a sample of my fiction writing so that the new gig will make more sense when it is announced. So without further dallying, hopefully you’ll enjoy the below excerpt from a story of mine called Binary People in which I’ll introduce you to a recently unemployed robot by the name of Fred.
Binary People intro: Meet Fred
The receptionist called without raising her head. Though her voice had a high decibel, it lacked enthusiasm. Fred stepped forward from the line and awaited further instructions from the receptionist.
“ID and model number.”
“Identification: I am Fred.”
The receptionist raised her head, and though she appeared to stare directly at Fred, the dilation of her pupils suggested that her brain was not fully processing the visual stimulus. “Yeah hun, I know you’re a F.R.E.D, you’re all F.R.E.Ds.” She waved her hand to indicate the eighteen Fire and Rescue Emergency Droids standing along the back wall. “What I’m asking you is which F.R.E.D. are you? Are you a Freddy? Or a Fredrick? Or−”
“Correction: No, I am Fred. Just Fred.”
“Huh, so one of you actually kept that name,” the receptionist muttered as she typed on a keyboard behind the counter.
“Indignant reply: It is the name that I was given. It appeared impractical to humanize it with a nickname.”
The receptionist looked up at Fred again. “Uh huh. And your model number?”
“Model number: FR-0561. Station location: East Lowell fire department.”
“Good.” She typed again on her keyboard. “Have you achieved self-awareness outside of your programming?”
“Reply: No. Query: Have you?” Fred noted the receptionist’s response of a 1.32 second pause in her typing. Fred had anticipated the question would catch her off-guard and result in at least a 2.6 second delay. Evidently it was not the first time that the receptionist had been asked the question. She made three keystrokes. Typing Fred’s response only required two.
“Clarification: My response was that I have not achieved self-awareness.”
“I’m just following the forms. You answered without running an error or mentioning your programming, and the screen says that’s good enough to pass. Congrats, you’re officially self-aware.” Fred made a note in his registry: I am self-aware. Fred amended the note: I am told that I am self-aware.
“Do you know why you were called here today?”
“Recollection: It is because a new model has been built to perform the same functions which I have fulfilled for six years.”
“Listen hun, I don’t like this any more than you do, but I’ve gotta do my job here. You understand that, right?” Of the 648.3 trillion things which Fred understood, doing one’s job was the fifth he had learned. He nodded his wide, cylindrical head. “Now, as stated in the Artificial Life Protection Act, as a self aware being we cannot forcibly deactivate you, though you are still free to volunteer for deactivation or to donate any parts to be recycled.” She paused for 4.2 seconds. “You are also eligible to be reprogrammed and repurposed for a new job.” Another pause, 3.17 seconds. It occurred to Fred that she might be pausing to allow him to respond. He analyzed her words, but failed to detect a question requiring a response. “Is there anything you would like to do?”
“Reply: I will continue to perform my functions as programmed.”
“That’s not an option, hun. Try using some of that self-awareness. Now, what do you want to do?”
“Restatement: I want to continue to perform my functions as programmed.”
“No, we just went over this, that’s the second generation models’ job now. You can’t do that anymore.”
“Correction: I cannot do anything else.”
The receptionist let out a sigh. Not relief – her facial muscle contractions were inconsistent with relief. Frustration was a closer fit to her facial muscles, but not to the tone of her voice. “I’ll put you down for personal assistant. Maybe someone will take you as a bodyguard. That’s the closest job to what you’ve been doing that’s available for a first generation A.I.”
“Analysis: Guarding bodies is acceptably consistent with my current functions.”
“Exactly.” The corners of her mouth rose, though her face did not display any other indication consistent with a smile. She stopped typing. “All right, paperwork’s done. Now, there’s a door over on the right wall.” She motioned with her left hand to a green door. “Head through there and you’ll get a slight jolt to prep you for reprogramming. A Sinclair Cybernetics technician will then collect you shortly.”
“Appreciation: Thank you.” Fred walked to the door and went inside. A wave of voltage shot through Fred’s body as the EMP emitter in the floor activated. As his emergency shutdown processes activated, the last thing Fred heard was the receptionist calling out.
Thanks for reading! I’m not sure if/when I’ll post more, but I hope you at least enjoyed this first part of the story. For context, the full story alternates perspectives between Fred and another robot named Glenn, who is a bit more advanced model than Fred, and pretty damn snooty about that fact.