The Trouble with Semians

funny-story-about-semians-beach-woman-covid-snowbound-man

by Mattia Ravasi

Remember the early days of Covid? When everybody thought it would be a matter of weeks before we’d be able to mix with our friends again? One of my hobbies is browsing Internet archives collecting Facebook pages and Reddit threads from March and April 2020. Posts by nostalgic emo kids, unfazed by the early pandemic, excited about My Chemical Romance’s reunion tour in the summer. (Ha!) The extravagant plans of a group of Chiswick moms, looking forward to their Sicilian holiday in July. (Ha!)

At least Covid took things gradually. Perhaps those moms did fly to Lampedusa, hopefully without exterminating their entire plane, and their parish back home. By the time the really beefy mutations cropped up – the Lombard strand, the Russian Tsarvid – everybody was used to living under lockdown. The news that we would have to keep inside for the foreseeable future, the Winter turning into 2022 and finally an evolving five-year containment period, felt bitter, but not indigestible. Those who wanted to scream about conspiracies did. Those who felt like breaking the rules broke them, and got fined, if they were stupid or unlucky, or else they didn’t. More and more frequently, they simply died, or caused a friend or a relative’s death. Most people just complied.

The market adapted. That monster really is immortal. A plethora of products emerged to meet our needs, or, more typically, to turn our whims into needs. Mega-homes in the middle of nowhere, relying on recycled water and (wink-wink) sustainable energy. Drone delivery. Holograms. And, of course, artificial intelligence.

I was on the bleeding edge of AI development for a while. I was part of the original team behind the Semians. We were just a bunch of literature students with good career prospects ahead of us, none of them intelligibly connected with what we’d been studying in our BAs and Masters – those soppy realist novels, tacky revenge tragedies, all the damned modernists. We were enamored with the idea, reeking of megalomania because it was born of insecurity, that we were the most highly skilled professionals in the world. Scientists, engineers, and doctors could be replaced by machines – increasingly, they were, once human touch became lethal – but no computer would be able to crack the intellectual insight we’d acquired through our studies in the humanities.

Looking back at those early times, I must admit that we were neither brilliant nor unique. Our only stroke of genius was to keep repeating our mantra to each other on countless Zoom calls with splashy backgrounds behind us (stills from sci-fi movies, pictures of erupting volcanos) hiding the mess of our grotty rooms. We hammered that idea into our brains until we started seeing it.

I’m sure the wheel, fire, and butter were all discovered in a similar manner: by cavemen that were just as dumb as all the others, but were tenacious or bored enough to be hailed as visionaries.

***

By the late 20s, the search for synthetic human surrogates had become a consuming quest for the planet. People from all strata of society followed its developments, false starts, and breakthroughs with way more interest than they showed the endeavors to find an ever-elusive ur-vaccine, or those expensive efforts to colonize Mars, uncountable amounts of talent and resources invested in the creation of a pristine, spanking-new world in which only the ultra-rich would ever be allowed to play, chewing on their Mars turnips and breathing in their recycled farts forever.

Family bubbles had been locked in place long ago, and were allowed to shift very rarely, with broken families stuck under the same roof for years by the demands of quarantine, sullen beardy no-longer-teenagers prevented from flying the coop. Everybody had exhausted all streaming services and video game libraries. People wanted to meet people, to be in their presence and touch them and laugh at and with them, possibly without dying from it.

The material side of the problem was solved early on. Artificial cartilage, silicon limbs, hair of all colors and varieties, fizzy to silky, black to blue. By the time Tesla released its Prometheus model in 2032, synthetic humans were basically indistinguishable from the real deal.

… As long as they remained quiet.

True artificial intelligence was still a mirage. No matter how many dialogue paths and variables-per-second could be crammed into a cranial processor, talking to a synthetic always felt like dialing your bank’s customer service number. To report a lost card, press three. Not right away, perhaps, sometimes not for hours, but soon enough the inhuman would surface, in the full comedy of its brilliant ignorance: nothing as hilarious as seeing a robot many times cleverer than you failing at the simplest interaction, tumbling martially through the living room because you said “let’s roll.”

The joke got old very fast. Nobody wanted to prepare suitable accommodation, secure fuel and supplies, and sacrifice immense amounts of time and money for a friend that would bore them within a week. You’d think those early models would at least succeed as sex toys, but not even the seediest loners could be lured into forking out that much cash for what was, in the final analysis, an extension of their right hand.

That’s when we came on the scene. Semioticon, later Semioticks, finally just SEMI. Our motto: The only intelligence is emotional intelligence. (We cribbed that from Howard Jacobson.)

The idea behind our models was that only literature could reproduce the depths of human consciousness, the twists and spirals of our psychology, the contradictions of experience. Novels and poems condensed in the purest possible material, language, the contents of their authors’ minds. Perhaps, if we found a way of distilling them, we could then pour them into a container – a hyper-realistic synthetic – and what we’d find there would be another mind.

And it worked.

***

The first Semian we created came out of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The choice was settled by a game of rock-paper-scissors, with War and Peace as the runner-up. We had this notion that a state-of-the-art realist novel, finely detailed and immersive, would give us a human mind that was attentive, insightful, and clever, but also normal. You don’t want to start with William Burroughs, and end up with a murderous android on your hands.

She had brown skin, cropped hair, androgynous features. And she was fine! A bit quiet, with a tendency to grunt back at you when you were speaking (“uh huh, uh huh”), in the manner of people who are trying to hide their impatience. She’s still around, one of the last few in circulation, together with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. You’d think those Semians would be wacky as hell, considering how unreadable their books are, but they’re doing OK, really, both of them mild-mannered geezers with an inexplicable love of fart jokes.

So many things about the Semians came as surprises. Multiple books by the same author, it turned out, generally originated rather different people, sharing the same speech mannerisms or sense of humor but otherwise unique, a bit like human siblings. Hemingway’s novels, on the other hand, were all equally cryptic gentlemen with a detached, borderline-apathetic streak. As for the Brontë sisters, they had so little in common that Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre could never have a conversation that didn’t spiral into a fight, with Wuthering Heights sitting quietly in a corner, lost in morbid daydreams.

Semians were an immense success. Old people in care homes had foldable cots drone-delivered to their rooms, so that Emma or Madame Bovary could move in, and keep them company through the endless isolation. The Time Machine and White Teeth were favorites among gamers, thanks to a playful streak that meant they never tired of board game nights or badminton matches in the garden. Oryx and Crake was renowned for its enigmatic charm. Infinite Jest was a famously sore loser at cards. Human companionship returned to the world.

(The books themselves, of course, almost no one was reading anymore. Most people preferred to deal with quarantine by drowning their homes in music, or by having Netflix playing on every screen, even when they weren’t watching. The only types who still found solace in the silence of prose were the abnormally introverted, those who’d been mostly homebound even before the pandemic.)

People, being people, soon started acting gross. Laws were put in place in many countries to make Semian labor illegal. The most common perversion remained romanticism: people falling in love with their Semian, especially with Young Werther and Gatsby, a situation the Semians seemed to find puzzling even more than abusive. “They claim they love us,” a tormented Ethan Frome once stated in a Guardian interview, “but they’re not even listening to a word we’re saying.”

***

The craze lasted five years. It didn’t end because of any dwindling in demand, either. People couldn’t get enough of Semians, and were always pestering us to develop new models, so that we had interns in hazmat suits scouring virus-laced libraries in old university campuses, those long-abandoned super-spreaders, searching for rare texts we hadn’t yet converted into people.

What marked the end of SEMI, and of my career, was that the Semians just gave up.

It almost never happened violently, and even in those rare cases, the violence was never aimed at humans. You better believe we invested a ridiculous amount of capital in keeping those safety subroutines watertight. Ill-informed people speak of a crazed The Recognitions driving down a highway in Tennessee at one hundred and fifty miles per hour, and although, sure, that happened, everyone who claims his intentions were murderous is just being silly. Who was it trying to mow down on a deserted highway? Clearly, he was headed all along toward the concrete wall of the food processing plant where his journey ended, and where the speed of the impact fused his cartilage and silicon to the steel of his car. (You’d expect this sort of behavior from Crash – har, har.)

The vast majority of Semians did not resort to such drastic measures. Mostly, they stopped accepting their fuel. “Bartleby” pulled a Bartleby, and so did most of his friends: they would prefer not to. A select few went Walden instead, and left their bedrooms and dens in their humans’ houses to disappear into the woods. You’d hear reports, on trash news websites, about the utopian communities they were building deep in the forests or far into the desert. Some said they wanted to live in peace. Some claimed they were plotting a bloody revenge. It was, obviously, all nonsense. Utopia jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge; News from Nowhere and Herland walked in front of a train – pulling, of course, an Anna Karenina. (I feel like at last I understand intertextuality.)

Very few Semians were able or willing to elaborate on their reasons. Most mentioned disappointment, or a lack of understanding. Others spoke instead of too much understanding: the fact that the more they found out about their human companions, and about the world at large, the more their condition became intolerable. Countries going to war over shrinking resources. Rich nations retreating into sanitized isolation, liquidating anybody who dared infiltrate their borders. People breaking quarantine to chase the dumbest thrills – visiting their old dealers, stalking a celebrity – and bringing back death to their families and neighbors. You’d think at least the most grizzled texts, Beloved and All Quiet on the Western Front, would be able to take it. But they broke down like all the rest.

***

Middlemarch still lives in my home. The kids used to play with her all the time, but they’re older now, and will at best ask her to join them for the occasional game of Monopoly. She’s not a very good player. She clearly doesn’t care if she wins or loses, and her puzzling cackle quickly gets on your nerves.

My wife makes a point of visiting her quarters every day for a chat, but I keep my distance. I am not so sure she’s happy that my colleagues and I ever decided to distill her from her book. I don’t have the guts to ask.

There’s space enough for everyone around these parts. The money SEMI made keeps me in one of those mega-houses, with a model high street in the back garden, two clothing shops and a café, all manned by android clerks (the dumb kind, not Semians). I’m not royalty, and I’m nowhere near being able to afford a ticket to Mars, but at least I’m fairly sure my kids won’t have to seek employment in one of those food processing factories, where “every measure is taken to ensure the workers’ safety,” and still employees die by the thousands every year.

Almost everyone has forgotten about Semians, or sees them as an outdated, surpassed curiosity, the way we used to look at Walkmen and beepers in the pre-Covid world. A few online communities keep their cult alive. They are peopled by lonely souls who can’t get past the loss of their Semian friends, and who claim that the Semians stopped working because they couldn’t cope with our broken world: they were too pure, too beautiful, for the grit and endless failings of reality. They see a great tragedy in this. I’m not so sure. That the Semians opted out of life is, indeed, horrible, and some nights I wake in a sweat from the most hellish, Dantesque nightmares. What I strive to remember is that the Semians, ultimately, came from humans. Humans created them, and I’m not talking about the algorithms and synthetic bodies, though those are impressive too, but about the books that gave them their minds, and their life. The fact that people like you and me could create something too beautiful for our world seems to me surprisingly luminous.

***

About the Creator

Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy, and he lives and works in Bath. His stories have appeared in independent magazines, including Planet ScummUnderland Arcana, and Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. He talks about books on the YouTube channel The Bookchemist. He donated this story for your enjoyment, so you owe him a like.

View Mattia’s Aunty Stanky advice column question.

What’s your favorite imaginary sound, and why? 

The “gelatinous voice” heard by Randolph Carter in HP Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” It’s so hard to find real-life sounds that are satisfyingly gelatinous. 

Which word do you think is most overused in the language right now, and which word is least appreciated? 

I’m not sure what I’d scrap, but we should bring back “obstreperous.” It describes so well so many aspects of modern life. 

About the Artist

This episode’s art was ethically generated by Adobe’s kinder, gentler AI, Firefly, and composited by our own D.R.R. Chang.


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