Wednesday, 14 November 2007


There I was, feeling - well, clever - because my book is on Amazon, when my computer silently announced it was configuring and shut itself down. I waited, outwardly calm, for what seemed a long time. At last a little white arrow appeared, hovering in the centre of the darkness, like the finger of God: Let there be icons.... I waited. No icons, but a little flag appeared. I waited for other shapes to emerge from the blue haze on my screen. My computer sent me another message. Tablets of stone? Configuring updates. "Fine," I thought, "configure all you like. I'm not worried." I was aware of my fingers, tapping wildly on the desk top. (That's the top of a desk, to me.)

I sat, staring at the ocean blue of a screen teeming with life, whirring invisibly beneath its surface, until a tiny revolving circle appeared; a spinning planet had emerged.

I was late for work but couldn't tear myself away until my screen was restored. So I sat suspended, a fly in amber from a vanished universe, clinging to a world I will never understand. I was thrilled when my computer made a small beep. Something was happening within its hidden depths. I glanced at the green light for reassurance and it gave me hope.

Is this the equivalent of some religious mystery, I wondered, this unholy trinity of hard drive, mother board and screen that reveals its meanings to us? Its high priests are technicians who can fix malfunctions (which happen when I've done something wrong)? I'm an enforced devotee, at heart a heretic.
I thought I really would be late for work, when a familiar icon appeared. Click. My screen was back. A small box appeared, ghostlike in the corner of the screen. Click here to see the solutions found for your computer. I didn't want to know, didn't dare click any more keys, but I heard myself murmur, "Thank you."

E.M. Forster set a story in a future where mankind has become entirely dependent on technology. People's limbs have withered through lack of use and they can barely move. There is no need; machines do everything for them.
The story is called 'The Machine Stops'.

27 comments:

Julie said...

Leigh, that sounds like BSOD

Blue screen of death in gremlin speak

Jes let me read it thru again...

Leigh Russell said...

Hey JULIE

I don't really care what happened - my computer has resurrected itself!

I do seriously find it hard to believe that a human brain can understand how a computer works. It really doesn't seem possible to me.

Julie said...

I know what you mean. I have a son in the area and its like he can see through walls.(PhD)

Do you back up? I know one guy who lost three years of work when his hard drive fried.

I burn to CD when I clock up about 150K - but as its mostly been journaling it wouldn't be the abyss of losing anything professional. Sounds like you make a lot of paper copies from what you've previously said.

Leigh Russell said...

I save all my writing on two memory sticks - someone told me they're not 100% reliable - and I keep hard copies of my work. There's so much of it now, that I'm starting to not print out every change, and it would take a while to type half a million words out again if I had to!

I've no idea how to burn to CD or anything skilful like that, but when I got my new computer, the guy who put it all together for me made 'recovery discs' for me so everything I'd done up until that point is saved on CD.

Much as I love my computer, and appreciate that I probably wouldn't have written 500,000 words in 9 months without it, the whole thing scares me silly and my dependency on something I don't understand makes me feel very vulnerable. It's the same with my car, and my mobile phone...

(Perhaps I should revert to pen and paper - BUT PLEASE DON'T TELL THE GREMLINS I WROTE THAT!!!)

The Wisdom of Wislon said...

Wow on Amazon! What did we do before puters????

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Wisdom of Wislon, it's good to hear from you.
I was just about to go to bed, and now I'm all excited again. Yes, Amazon!

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Wisdom of Wislon, it's good to hear from you.
I was just about to go to bed, and now I'm all excited again. Yes, Amazon!

Charles Gramlich said...

What power the machines have. To serve humankind? Or is it that we must serve them? Generally they are benovelent, but at times they express their displeasure and we tremble.

ANNA-LYS said...

Don't know if it is my bad English that makes its apperence ... but, my title would be "Human stops" ... the machine does not ... or?

Leigh Russell said...

I was all of a tremble yesterday, Charles, I can tell you. Still , I'm proud to say that with a self control remarkable in one so young (you can't see me, can you? so I can be as virtually young as I like, can't I?) I didn't throw a tantrum. More a kind of temporary catatonic shock...

Leigh Russell said...

Hi, Anna-Lys,
Thank you for comment. Brilliant. It made me laugh out loud, but I guess we're not the ones who should be laughing.... it looks like we may not have the last laugh. I heard a serious discussion on the radio yesterday about Artificial Intelligence, and machines that can "think". At the same time, there do seem to be a awful lot of people incapable of intelligent thought... including several politicians, I might add. If I could write scifi there's a chilling story in all that somewhere. Maybe the gremlins* are working on it right now.

*I refer, of course, to the gremlins in my comuputer.

Leigh Russell said...

By the way - there should be a new paragraph after heretic but try as I might, I can't enter one successfully. It appears in the edited version but won't publish.

Note: Gremlins don't approve of my heresy. It's a sign.... If I believe in their omnipotence, will a paragraph break appear?

iwillgetthere said...

I am beginning to realise that facing your fears is half the battle - as is true in most cases. It is going to take time with my friend but I think he's going to be alright. My problems are nothing in comparison.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Invest some of your advance in a Mac. A Mac is much more reliable and user friendly than a PC. Congratulations on your Amazon listing! I'm still a fan of people buying books from independent bookstores. They are an endgangered species. I'm off to Blackwell's today. My budget makes me a fan of their used section on the top floor.

Julie said...

Hi, Leigh -

Morning. Yawn. I've just spent an hour working on my blog; could have done with Bill's knowledge of Latin at one point.

Think you're right about memory sticks. I'm using a fairly hefty laptop at the moment (because of family interests our house looked like the bridge of the Enterprise with computers networked for years)

- and it has a facility to burn to CD rom - which is actually quick, just a couple of clicks - stick a blank disc in the CD drive and select the right icon, basically. Laser process...

Your 'back up discs' will restore your original computer settings if the system crashes. However, we have had a couple of hard drives clap out completely with intensive use and need to be replaced, so nothing is foolproof. CD burn seems to be the safest bet.

AI and swarm theory are interesting areas...

Leigh Russell said...

some of my advance in a Mac? I think most of it went in celebratory champagne!

I totally endorse what you say about independent bookshops vanishing, crushed by the weighty megastores and internet outlets. Our lovely local bookshop has disappeared to be replaced by a Starbucks.... I'm tempted to launch into a full scale cynical rant, but seriously, we're slipping so quickly down a very sad decline that we'll wake up one day and find there are no small independent outlets left and Dolly the sheep will become a fitting symbol of our society. The terrible truth is that the only force that is driving this change is the drive to acquire more and more money. That's our new "morality". Anything can be excused in the name of commercial success and we "respect" people if they are wealthy. Why?... I'm starting to rant, aren't I?

Leigh Russell said...

Last was to SARAH LAURENCE and sorry, Sarah, I was so involved with answering your comment, I totally forgot to thank you for visiting. Thank you.

Hi JULIE - I know my (actually wonderful and I totally love it) new computer can do all that clever stuff. It's me that's the problem! I don't speak Gremlinish (should that be Gremlish - you see the extent of my ignorance!)

Juliet said...

When my PC crashes the panic that sets in is extreme - I am LOST without it - work . . . communication by email . . . research . . . blog . . . everything. But this is mainly to say 'hi' and let you know that this blog marketing thing really works - I have pre-ordered a copy of your book!

Leigh Russell said...

Hi JULIET and what a wonderful way to meet you! Thank you so much. I look forward (with some trepidation) to hearing what you think of Cut Short in due course. I hope you enjoy it!
Leigh

Julie said...

Gremlish sounds about right.

Computers are good as a means to an end....

Mima said...

Well, I have just been to visit Amazon, and bow down to the wonderful world that it opens up to us, and this mysterious novel has just made it all the way through checkout, now I just have to have patience!

I hope that you have been backing-up your work, something like this is a reminder that it can just disappear everything in a really short space of time which is awful and really distressing when it happens.

As to how it works - I have no idea - I just say thank you everyday that it does and gives me such a wonderful window on the outside world.

Bill Clark said...

we're slipping so quickly down a very sad decline that we'll wake up one day and find there are no small independent outlets left and Dolly the sheep will become a fitting symbol of our society.

Isn't Dolly dead? What does this portend for society as we know it?

Sarah is absolutely right - get yourself a Mac. You will be amazed at how much better your life will be! And you won't have to worry any more about Gremlinspeak.

Any word from your editor about possible ARCs of Cut Short?

Julie said...

Didn't Dolly the sheep become a victim of the genetic engineer's inabilty to clone without creaing a capacity for vastly accelerated arthritis?

....makes me wonder about RSI - repeated stress injury re computer keyboards. Ergonomic, and with wrist support...

Julie said...

PS

Thankyou for your comment on my swan. All serene on the surface, and paddling like mad underneath.

It used to be an ugly duckling once..

palette48 said...

Congratulations, for having your book on Amazon! I can't wait until the book comes out.

When my computer starts acting up, I
start to freak out as I have had it crash once before and it was not pretty. I do have another hard drive that I use to back everything up but I am afraid that may not be enough.
It is true, we are so dependent on these machines, it's scary.

Caroline Deacon said...

My computer has developed a really interesting and scary little habit.

Because my book is so long by now, 284 page word document, if I try to move around it too fast it falls over and says microsoft word has encountered a problem and will close.
"no! no!" I scream having just written the definitive sentence , made numerous excellent changes, and been so totally in the zone that I forgot to hit save regularly.
I have a feeling that somewhere in microsoft is a little gremlin whose sole purpose is to destroy writers. It says, if someone has been particularly productive for a long period of time, ie been writing furiously, and has not saved, then fall over. That will serve them right for thinking they are capable of producing anything meaningful
I think computers make us quite superstitious. I talk to mine reassuringly when it does things like updates or other mysterious functions, hoping it will respond to kindness in the way that plants do
Caroline Deacon

Lily Moon said...

Computers are terrifying beasts at times. Having had one hard drive crash, I can appreciate the terror. I've had the experience of not breatihng for several minutes to try and stop the screen from blanking - it didn't work. Now I save everything twice, just in case