One of the most common questions writers get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Some writers love the question. Many of them come to hate it. When it comes right down to it, the idea is generally the least significant part of the writing process. It’s the characters, the voice, the setting of a scene, the narrative structure and pacing…things like that combine to make a truly remarkable setting.
Generally, the story idea is just a starting point. It’s the piece of paper we start with, and the story is the words that cover it up.
It’s the same with Gods Tomorrow, of course, but given the purpose of this webpage it’s still a conversation worth having here.
The idea for Gods Tomorrow grew out of a religious discussion with a friend. We were talking about privacy, and about the inevitable death of it in the information age, and I mused,
It will be interesting to see what that does to traditional religious morality. So many religions build everything upon the threat (or promise) of total accountability at some future point. But we’re rapidly approaching a point of total accountability in real life, in real time. I wonder what that will be like.
I found the question fascinating. I couldn’t let it go. I wrote Gods Tomorrow, not so much to answer the question as to create an environment to explore it.
Sometime in the first week after I started on the book, while my mind was still ablaze with the newness of the setting, I found myself walking into Wal-Mart trying to imagine what it would be like to do the same thing in a world with Hathor. I figured I could easily look up the precise locations of all the things I needed.
Then I realized I wouldn’t have to. I could just check my display (a smartphone, a heads-up display on some augmented-reality glasses, or the ubiquitous handhelds I settled on for the series), and the system would tell me everything I needed, because it had tracked when I’d used things up. It had tracked when I told a coworker, “Ooh, Cheez-its sound good! I should get some.” It had tracked that I had chili for dinner the night before and already knew I was low on antacids so it probably added some of those to my shopping list, too.
I started thinking through how I would access all that information. How would I choose which information I wanted? How would I filter it all? And how would I request it?
The answer was Services — programs that filtered all the data in the massive database just looking for the specific information I needed at any given time. When I walk into Wal-Mart, I want my Shopping List service to help me out. When my heart rate spikes, I want my Medical service to help me out. When I want a hot, delicious dinner but don’t want to go out for it, I want my Pizza Delivery Service to help me out.
And that last thought turned out to be one of the most important in the design of the series. It cemented the idea of services firmly in place, and it showed me how the whole system would work: voice recognition.
Because if I had a standing subscription to a Pizza Delivery Service, and if that service was monitoring all the data in a world-wide surveillance database, I would want that service to notice when I said, “I’d like a large pepperoni pizza, please,” and make sure one got to me. Wherever I was, whenever it became convenient for me, with the right type of cheese, the right type of bread, the right everything….
Right then, I stopped in my tracks. In the middle of Wal-Mart. And I said out loud, “That’s prayer.”
Gods in the Machine
The service Hippocrates notices when your heart skips a beat, and sends paramedics rushing your way if you need them. The service Midas watches over your income and expenses and makes sure you have what you need, even if you can’t always get what you want. And the service Pizza Delivery Pronto listens when you say, “Please give me a pizza,” and it gets a pizza to you.
That’s where the title came from. The promise of this future is a waitstaff of perfect technology, a host of heavenly angels always ready to serve your slightest whim. They respond in realtime to your needs, your requests, your desperate utterances.
It’s all doable, too. It would be challenging (especially on the scale the novel assumes), but voice recognition software is powerful and getting better. In fact, Google just announced an update to their own Voice Search tool to help it respond to an individual’s voice, learn to understand it better, and even recognize the speaker.
Of course, Google played a big role in inspiring Hathor, but we’ll talk more about that later. For now, imagine what it would be like to live in a world where the vast power of all the world’s computing resources were dedicated to listening to your voice, and responding to it instantly. Constantly.