“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” Annotations

Warning: contains spoilers

General Notes

Way back in 1997, I tried writing several SF murder mysteries with a recurring detective character. None of them worked out — this was the year before I made my first sale — but at least a couple had concepts worth revisiting. One was called “Ashes, Ashes,” and featured essentially the same crime scenario used in this story, though with a different killer and motive. You can probably see how the lyrics of “Ring Around the Rosy” apply metaphorically to the situation.

Three years later, I tried doing a story called “Hijacked on the Cislunar Railroad,” in which a Strider family’s sapient ship was hijacked by a cyber-liberation activist and the AI objected to being “liberated” without being consulted. It was inspired by my history studies in college, pertaining to the tension between white Americans’ perception of emancipation as an indulgence they granted to the slaves and African-Americans’ ongoing struggle to win true freedom and agency through their own efforts. But it was far too weak, preachy, and clumsily expository to work. Finally, in 2003, I had the idea to combine these two ideas, with the murder mystery giving higher stakes and drama to the tale of cyber liberation. I also worked in some of my thoughts about consciousness uploading, as a critique of the popular SF assumption that copying a mind would be the same as transferring it.

The Cislunar Railroad, of course, is a play on the Underground Railroad which smuggled escaped slaves out of the American South. “Cislunar” means “within the Moon’s orbit,” the idea being that cybers would theoretically be safer and freer in UNECS space. At least, that’s what the CLRR believes; the reality would probably be messier.

No date is given in the story, but my notes place it in February 2092, some 15 years before the main story of Only Superhuman, and about four months after the Ch. 3 flashback scenes featuring the 6-year-old Emerald Blair. At this point, Zephyr would have been about 3 years old, probably making him one of the younger cybers in Stavros DiCenzo’s possession. UNECS would be about 15 years old, and the Troubleshooter Corps would be a bit over 8 years old; however, as seen in Ch. 1 of OS, Troubleshooters would not be welcome in UNECS space, including this story’s low Earth orbit setting.

Further discussion of the terminology and backstory used in this novelette can be found in the Only Superhuman annotations.

Page numbers are for the version appearing in Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman. The original page numbers from the June 2016 Analog are given in parentheses/italics.

Scene 1

p. 141 (p. 92)

I’ve long felt that sapient AIs would see “robot” as an ethnic slur, since it comes from the Czech word for forced labor. So Ramanathan is using “bot” as a conscious insult.

A “rotovator” is a type of momentum exchange tether in planetary orbit, a rotating length of superstrong cable that’s used to assist in orbital transfers and captures. I’ve misused the term a little here, since strictly speaking it would refer to a cable that reaches all the way down to near the planet surface and lifts objects into space or deposits them on the ground or in the atmosphere in a single maneuver, while this is more of a short-tether orbital transfer station. See http://www.tethers.com/MXTethers.html for more.

The war between Striders and Earth was established in OS (mainly in Chapters 1 and 3), but the term “Orbit War” makes its debut here. I had originally called it the Belt War, but in revising OS, I established that it was largely a conflict between ground-dwellers and genetically modified space-dwellers, which put Earth’s orbital habitats more on the Strider side and meant that cislunar space would probably have been a key battleground. So “Orbit War” seemed a better choice.

p. 142 (p. 93)

I’ve long felt that the fear of AIs being a threat to humanity risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we pre-emptively oppress or attack them, we’ll only give them reason to turn on us in self-defense. So I’m not comfortable when people like Stephen Hawking encourage us to be afraid of AIs. I think we have a unique opportunity to overcome prejudice against a group before that group even exists, which is why I tend to portray cybers in a positive light in my fiction.

p. 143-4 (p. 94)

DiCenzo’s torture of Athena is one of the primary changes I made in the final draft to make Athena more sympathetic. A “kick the dog” moment is often an effective way to influence (okay, manipulate) the audience’s sympathies. It’s also informed by what I established in Only Superhuman about how DiCenzo had mistreated his other cybers. Even so, figuring out what the equivalent of physical torture would be for a cyber took some thinking.

The scene also helps make March a bit more sympathetic by showing him standing up for Athena. I wanted him to be a fairly cold and detached character with a lot to learn, but it would’ve been too alienating without some sign that he was worth rooting for.

Scene 2

p. 145 (p. 94)

The station manager had a whole scene in the first draft, and I worked out a background and personality for him along with the other key roles, but he proved extraneous. “An overweight petty bureaucrat, believing himself to be worthy of a higher position even though he’s already reached his Peter-Principle niche. Constantly passes on lame ideas to his superiors and assumes they’re rejected because of politics, because he isn’t in the right cliques. Easily manipulated into overlooking the CLRR’s activities. He knows there’s something going on, but is easily swayed by Bian into delegating all investigations to her.”

p. 145 (p. 95)

Bian’s hair is close-cropped because she works in a facility with low and variable gravity, so long hair would be an encumbrance. I probably also established it to desexualize her. I’d originally portrayed Bian as an aspiring Mata Hari, blatantly attempting to use her ingenue sexuality to manipulate people, but not fooling anyone except the aforementioned manager. I meant it to be funny, but it came out a bit cruel at Bian’s expense, and gratuitous, since her personality still comes across well enough without it. I don’t know why all my characterizations in the original story were so cynical. Maybe because I approached the whole thing through March’s cynical eyes.

Scene 3

p. 146 (p. 95)

DiCenzo’s characterization of UNECS “losing the war” is biased. In fact, as discussed in OS, the war was ended by the Great Compromise, a treaty that granted the Striders autonomy in exchange for ceding all space within the Moon’s orbital radius to Earth (hence “Union of Earth and Cislunar States”). So both sides won something and lost something.

Scene 4

p. 148 (p. 96)

The first draft included the full code-phrase exchange, which I cut for length:

March let out a sigh.  “…Harriet sent me.”

…“From… from Cincinnati?”

“Yes.  We met at Union Terminal.”

“I, uh, I prefer the other museum.”

“Yes, it has very nice quilts,” March finished with a long-suffering tone.

This, of course, was a reference to Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, and to Cincinnati’s role as a “station” on the Railroad, a bit of local history in which I take some pride. Union Terminal is an old Art Deco railroad station that’s now the home of the Cincinnati Museum Center, where I once briefly worked as a guide on a Star Trek exhibit. (Union Terminal was also the inspiration for the Hall of Justice in Super Friends and other DC animation productions.) The “other museum” is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the Cincinnati riverfront. The “quilts” line refers to the disputed idea that the Underground Railroad employed coded quilts to convey information to escaping slaves. The idea was to convey that the CLRR saw themselves as the spiritual successors to the Underground Railroad, if that wasn’t clear enough from their name.

By Vietnamese naming convention, Lam Hang Bian would be addressed as “Ms. Bian” (or the equivalent) even though Bian is her given name and Lam her family name. Lam means forest or jungle. Hang Bian means “hidden moon-angel,” which I felt would be appropriate. Now I feel it’s a little contrived, but maybe it’s an alias she selected to infiltrate Nexus One.

p. 150 (p. 97)

I attempted to find some earlier place in the story where I could establish March as African-American, but I couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem forced, since he was the viewpoint character. I decided it was probably just as well — that way, readers who defaulted to imagining him as white would reach this point and hopefully realize the error of jumping to that conclusion. (David Gerrold did something similar in his novel Jumping Off the Planet, although it didn’t help that the African-American lead characters were portrayed as white on the cover.) Besides, even if I had established it, many readers would probably have overlooked it — like certain Hunger Games fans who were startled when Rue was black in the movie even though the novel had explicitly described her as dark-skinned the first several times she appeared.

Toussaint Louverture was the most famous leader of the Haitian Revolution, the first slave uprising in North America, which led to the founding of the Republic of Haiti. Vicente Guerrero was an Afro-Mestizo general in the Mexican War of Independence who became the second president of Mexico and abolished slavery there. I assume that Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama need no introduction, at least to my American readers.

My understanding of the nature of consciousness is heavily informed by Douglas R. Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. There were probably other influences on my thinking at the time I wrote the original draft, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember the specifics.

p. 152 (p. 98)

Anamorphic images use distorted perspective to create illusions that can only be seen from the right point of view. You can see some examples at http://illusion.scene360.com/category/anamorphic/ . The effect is also featured in the Doctor Who episode “Flatline.” In this case, seen from the side, Athena’s lower body would be projected onto the floor, stretching back and outward to merge with an oversized image of the rest of her in the wall, but the perspective is such that from March’s POV she looks like she’s standing right in front of him. Normally you have to be standing in just the right place to see the illusion, but since her avatar is an animated CG image, she can adjust to his eye tracking to correct the perspective in real time.

“Augreality” is short for “augmented reality,” the projection of virtual images into one’s field of view so that they appear to be interacting with one’s own real environment.

p. 153 (p. 99)

At the start of OS Ch. 11, in the scene delving into Zephyr’s backstory, I mention that some of DiCenzo’s enslaved cybers were activists pushing for change. That was meant specifically as a reference to Athena.

Scene 5

p. 153 (p. 99)

“Soligrams” were established in Only Superhuman as constructs of shapechanging smart-matter gel that can simulate solid, tangible objects or people. If Roth has soligram artworks in his quarters, why does DiCenzo only use 2D images or augreality projections for Athena, instead of giving her a soligram avatar like Zephyr has in OS? I considered giving Athena a soligram form in the latest rewrite, but the implications were too disturbing, given how much DiCenzo sexually objectified Athena as it was. Perhaps Athena’s ship lacks a soligram system in order to save mass. But if anything, I think DiCenzo would be repulsed by the idea of having sex with a cyber, not wishing to humanize them to that extent. So he’ll give Athena a sexy nude avatar he can ogle and demean, but he won’t take it farther than that. Not out of respect for her, but out of what he sees as his own self-respect.

Scene 7

p. 155 (p. 100)

Kiribati is a small republic consisting of a string of coral reef islands and atolls in the Pacific, northeast of Australia and southwest of Hawai’i. It’s pronounced “Keer-i-bahss,” basically.

Scene 9

p. 161 (p. 103)

We know from OS that DiCenzo’s cybers will eventually be liberated with the assistance of the Troubleshooters. It’s a fair bet that the efforts of Athena and March will help lay the groundwork for that outcome.

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