Imagine: You are an artificial being imprisoned for being a little bit too human, in ways human beings would rather forget. On your journey into the light, you learn to love the darkness. And how to stop being an automaton.No doubt that you're already familiar with this blurb. I know. It's pretty cryptic. Forgive me, because 60 words is all we get in the program. OK, there are only 51 here, but I've tinkered with the wording for weeks, and I couldn't think of nine more which wouldn't just get in the way.
Now that we've got some space, perhaps you'd like a broader description?
Robots of DawnI've long been fascinated by the notion of machine intelligence. Computer programmers learn very quickly that in order to instruct a computer to perform a task the programmer must acquire an intimate knowledge of the task. And we also learn just how cursory our knowledge of most tasks is when we try to get a computer to perform them. Much to the consternation of computer scientists everywhere, human intelligence just happens to be one of the toughest nuts to crack. And since you can't really build an intelligent machine until you've cracked the nut, uncovering the secrets of human intelligence ranks very near the top of the computing research list.
The concept of Artificial Intelligence, AI, was bandied about long before you might think. It's no coincidence that Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein was first published in 1831, a year after Charles Babbage conceived the design for the Analytical Engine, mankind's foetal expression of the modern computer. Gripped by the onset of industrial revolution, Western civilisation began to believe it might be possible to manufacture anything, without recourse to gods or magic. Early in the 19th century we were already dreaming of a science that could create not only raw intellect, but life itself.
I ate that stuff up. And then, in the 1980's, while feeding my youthfully voracious Sci-Fi reading habit, I encountered a contemporary printing of Isaac Azimov's novel, Robots of Dawn. The novel itself isn't all that remarkable, but the cover art put a different spin on the whole question. It depicted a robot, head thrown back, right forearm to forehead, with a facial expression which could only be described as despair.
The heck with machine intelligence. Artificial angst! If we think AI is hard, we haven't even made a dent in building a computer that can respond to the world in the same way humans do. We have a difficult enough time managing our own behaviour.
But why stop at synthesising emotions? Why not go for transcendence? What would happen if mankind managed to manufacture the next messiah? Imagine, an electric Buddha.
I'm traveling--and I wake up suddenly in the silence before dawn in a strange hotel room, in a poor country where my language isn't spoken, and I'm shaking and shivering.So begins Wallace Shawn's monologue, The Fever. The fever that has befallen the narrator is as much metaphorical as physiological. A psychological meltdown ensues as the character battles two diametrically opposed convictions.
The first of these reflects the "your future is in your own hands" philosophy of the narrator's upper-middle-class upbringing. The second, is increasingly revealed by narrator's travels into Third World countries. It is not enough that the future of the people in these countries is not in their own hands. No. The narrator's own past, present and future have been assured at the expense of the world's poor.
Well, maybe for certain people--maybe for certain people who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century--what was hidden and unconscious was the inner life. Maybe the only thing those people could see was the outward circumstance, where they were, what they did, and they had no idea at all of what was inside them. But something's been hidden from me, too. Something--a part of myself--has been hidden from me, and I think it's the part that's there on the surface, what anyone in the world could see about me if they saw me out the window of a passing train.This theme finds its way into PRISONERS in the forms of "All is not as it seems," and "I am not who I think I am." The conflict is internal, between an old, reactionary voice, and an emergent, desperate one.
Yet The Fever's most important influence is structural. Before I could even get to the first draft, however, I needed a few more elements. I needed a place to set the story, and a reason to set it there.
Prisons We Choose To Live Inside
I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this--that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past. But that very little of it has been put into effect. There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves. The information is the result of mankind's still infant ability to look at itself objectively. It concerns our behaviour patterns. The sciences in question are about how we function in groups and as individuals, not about how we like to think we behave and function, which is often very flattering. But about how we can be observed to be behaving when observed as dispassionately as when we observe the behaviour of other species. These social or behavioural sciences are precisely the result of our capacity to be detached and unflattering about ourselves. There is this great mass of new information from universities, research institutions and from gifted amateurs, but our ways of governing ourselves haven't changed.These are Doris Lessing's thoughts, as expressed in her Massey Lectures of 1985 entitled, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside. Her lectures' influence on PRISONERS is obvious not only in the play's title, but even in the cryptic 51-word description above: "too human in ways human beings would rather forget." Moreover, this theme dovetails nicely within the The Fever's sense of "which self do I know? And which do I need to know?".
It was by combining elements from both The Fever and Prisons We Choose To Live Inside that I was able to fill out the play with a setting, the character's central internal conflict and the method by which the story is told. And so we have a deeply divided narrator, confined in a small space and struggling to free itself from the prison of its own nature.
Not too surprisingly, it didn't turn out anything like I'd originally intended. The play, as it stands now, hardly resembles the first draft. Most significantly for the play, perhaps, is that the internal conflict of the narrator was being voiced by two such distinctly, well-drawn 'characters' that we've double-cast the narrators role and given the voices to the two actors who helped me delineate them. One of these voices speaks for the machine in all of us, the left hand that does not want to know. The other speaks for that objectivity Doris mentions above, the unflattering, dispassionate self-appraisal we need to pursue if we ever really want to know ourselves.
The dao that can be told is not the eternal DaoAll that would have made a marvellous play, but life's not usually that easy on us, so why should theatre be? There is another theme, a fourth inflection: Mysticism. Balance. The influence of the Dao De Jing. Afterall, though objective reasoning has identified the conflict, it may not be adequate to resolve it.
And if the Electric Buddha I've been wanting to write for so long didn't find a voice in PRISONERS, at least I have something of an Electric Pilgrim, intent on finding The Way...or, at least, a way. If a machine can appreciate that meaning is not an objective quality, and that what constitutes being itself is beyond computation, then perhaps humans can too.
Come and see...To tell you any more than that would give too much away. But there is a wicked car chase!
Perhaps you were better off with just the 51-word descriptive blurb...