Tag Archives: rationalist writing

Chapter 36: The Shape of Things to Come

Red watches the clefairy walk away, mind stuttering and restarting between thoughts.

I notice…

No seriously what-

IT’S A TALKING CLEFAIRY

…that I…

-is that a talking pokemon I didn’t see its mouth move-

CATCH IT NO WAIT BRAIN DAMAGE(?!)

-but the sound definitely came from it or maybe the house behind it-

…am confused.

“The fuck,” Leaf finishes in a deadpan voice.

And then the clefairy reaches the front door and vanishes.

Red’s brain finally lurches back into gear as it processes this final bit of information, and everything snaps into place.

Red glances at Leaf, whose expression of sudden understanding mixed with both relief and disappointment makes him suddenly begin to giggle.

Leaf looks at him, then begins to giggle too, until they’re both laughing full out. Red falls to one knee and Leaf stumbles over to the wall to lean against it, face turning red as she struggles to stay standing.

“Your… face…” she eventually says between bouts of smothered giggles. “It was like… your brain was melting!” And then she’s laughing again.

Red picks his hat up and wipes a tear away, still giggling. “You weren’t much better,” Red gasps, trying to catch his breath. “I think that’s the first time… I heard you curse.”

Leaf shakes her head, still giggling. “Nope. You didn’t hear anything.”

“Fair enough. And I definitely didn’t almost think I saw a talking pokemon. In fact, as far as anyone else will ever know, we both comported ourselves like the intelligent, level headed trainers we are.”

“Agreed.” She takes a deep breath, then pushes away from the wall, testing her balance for a moment before being satisfied. She turns to the front door, still smiling. “Why does he even have a clefairy hologram outside his house in the first place?”

They both jump as an arbok suddenly appears in front of them, swaying from side to side with its hood flared. “Would you have preferred something like this?” the voice says. “The point was to bring you this way without making you feel threatened.”

“W-why wouldn’t you just use the speakers instead?” Red asks, pulse once again dashing frantically at the sudden appearance of the arbok. Red can definitely tell the voice is coming from the direction of the door now.

“The answer will be obvious once you step inside. Which you still haven’t done. Now hurry up.” The arbok vanishes.

Red and Leaf exchange a look.

“Think whatever he’s using to watch us has a recording of us losing it?” Leaf asks, face straight.

“Almost certainly,” Red sighs. “Ah well. So much for secrecy.”

Leaf nods sagely. “Fuck it.”

And the two begin giggling again as they step toward the door, which automatically opens to reveal a straight, bare hallway.

The temperature inside is cool, the lights dim but steady. At the end of the hallway the clefairy waits for them, and in the dimmer light it’s easier to see the latticework of thin colored beams coming down from dots on the ceiling to make the image. As they approach, it takes the left hand path, leading them through a living room. There’s an attached kitchen, and the clefairy stops outside it.

Red and Leaf stare at it a moment, and then Bill’s voice makes them both jump. It’s loud, coming from all around them. “Grab me a soda, would you? Feel free to help yourselves too.” He sounds distracted, and Red hears the hum of an open mic for a moment before it cuts.

The two exchange glances, then Leaf slowly steps forward and opens the fridge. “Um. Preference?”

“Uh, anything’s fine.” Red takes the can and looks around. He spies a bathroom through an open door, and a bedroom in yet another. All of the rooms are barely furnished with bare walls. “Should we wait here?”

“This way.”

The clefairy walks toward a stairway in the corner, and disappears. Red wonders if it would reappear at the bottom, but when he and Leaf descend, they find themselves facing a door made of some strange, opaque glass. A red beam quickly scans them from head to toe, causing both to recoil and wince, and then the door begins to make pneumatic noises as it unlocks, shifts in place a bit, then slides open.

The first thing that Red notices is the music, a light and quick instrumental song, mostly composed of the violin and piano. It’s loud enough that Red is surprised he didn’t hear even a bit of it before the door opened.

Red and Leaf stare at the laboratory beyond the doorway. Rows and rows of work tables, stocked with every kind of biochemical equipment known to man… and quite a few that look completely alien to Red.

The rows of different microscopes are easy to identify, but next to them is something that looks like a cross between a fridge, an incubator and a thermocycler. Meanwhile, the actual thermocyclers are on their own table next to some vortexers.

The most extraordinary sight, however, is the sheer movement of the lab.

Centrifuges are spinning, racks of stoppered vials shift up or down, contents plucked by robotic arms and placed in temperature controlled containers or other equipment.

The music cuts off, and Bill’s voice fills the room. “Well? Come in.”

The two step over the threshold together, and the door closes behind them in a way that Red can’t help but find ominous. All the strangeness is starting to worry him. How much does anyone really know about Bill, anyway? The guy is notorious for being secretive, yet he invites two strangers into his lab without apparent reason? Professor Oak wouldn’t send us here if Bill was some crazy hermit…

Unless Bill went crazy recently.

“Uh. Hi, Mr. Sonezaki,” he says. “Are you here?”

The clefairy appears ahead of them, floating over a round indentation in the floor and ceiling. It doesn’t move, but merely points an arm. Apparently the hologram network isn’t as extensive here. Red studies the indent in the floor as they pass it, but can’t see anything that explains its purpose.

They pass rows of freezers and other chemical storage containers, all labeled with a dizzying amount of materials. Electrophoresis boxes, fume hoods… is that a hazchem suit draped over the back of that chair?

“Just one person works here?” Leaf asks as they pass some NMR and chromatography work tables, with enough spectrophotometers to take up their own wide table.

Red stops moving for a moment to study a series of 3D printers set against one wall. “I don’t think even Pallet Labs has this much equipment.” He keeps walking, then has to resist the urge to stop again and study what look like automated DNA extractors. “I knew he was rich, but the amount of money he could make renting this place out…”

“I think I have a new definition of the word,” Leaf murmurs as they pass from one section of the lab to another. Another holopad appears every so often, with floating clefairy pointing them first one way, then another as the lab continues to expand in different directions. One finally points them to a man, sitting in front of over a dozen glass boxes.

“Give me a minute,” the man says, back to them. “You can pour the soda in here.” He tilts his head to the side to indicate an empty cup with a straw in it.

Leaf and Red approach to look over Bill’s shoulders at his work station. Screens show each box containing a large petri dish with small, thin teal vines, all roughly the same size. As they watch, a drop of purple liquid falls onto each from small droppers suspended over them. Another drop falls, then another, then another, every few seconds.

“What are you doing?” Leaf whispers, both cans of soda still in her hand.

“Testing…” Drip. “The regenerative power…” Drip. “Of tangela cells.” Drip.

Red leans closer. “What’s in the-oh.” Red watches on one of the screens as a drop of the liquid hits a vine and makes a part of it wither, the vibrant teal turning brown… for a moment at least, until it suddenly fills out and regains its color again. Red watches the liquid etch a scar down either side of the vine to collect in the edges of what he originally took to be a petri dish: instead it’s a plastic lid over some kind of drain.

“Roserade acid,” he says, typing with one hand and reaching for his cup with the other. “They look like they’re fully recovering, but they weren’t always this small. Biomass decrease has been mostly linear. We should be near the end soon… Hey, the soda?”

“Oh!” Leaf says. “Right.” She opens a can and pours it into the cup, slowing as the foam builds up.

“Thanks.” He immediately turns his head a bit and begins drinking from the straw.

Red watches him, feeling a bit surreal. Whenever he imagined someday meeting Bill Sonezaki, it was never like this. Up close, the legendary inventor appears older than in videos and pictures. Though still in his mid thirties, there are already silver streaks in his hair, and deep lines around his eyes. He has a few days worth of scruff on his cheeks, and there’s an odd device around one of his ears, attached to a small screen in front of his right eye. It looks familiar to Red, and after a moment he realized it reminds him of an anime where people had devices that would “scan” a pokemon’s “power level.” He can see data on the lens, though he can’t read it, and watches Bill’s eyes as they alternate between watching the camera feeds on the monitors and going out of focus to read the smaller, closer screen.

“So, uh. You said you needed help with something? Is it this?” Red leans down to get a closer look at the thin vine.

Bill sucks the last of the soda from the cup, and straightens. “Ahhh. Nope, just wanted a soda. Thanks.” He belches. “‘Scuse me.”

Red stares. “A soda.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to leave in the middle of the trial.”

“But… Professor Oak called me over an hour ago,” Red says, speaking slowly. “You’ve been sitting here that long?”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Ah, then what-”

“I’ve been here about… how long is it now, Eva?”

A woman’s voice speaks all around them, causing Leaf and Red to jump. “Three hours, seventeen minutes and thirty seven seconds.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. This latest sample blew past my expectations, or I would have brought more to drink.” Drip… drip… drip… “Looks like they need a refill.” He gets up and goes to each container, refilling their drippers with wide vials of bright purple acid.

I thought Bill lived here alone? Red’s about to ask about it, when Leaf speaks up. “Um. Mr. Sonez-”

“Just Bill is fine.”

“Bill, okay. So, um, why did you invite us here?”

“Hmm.” Bill continues to drip the acid with one hand as the other changes the magnification. “You know, I can’t remember. There was something I wanted you to do for me, but I was a bit preoccupied with this when Oak called. And thirsty.”

“Was it about the abra?” Red asks. “I want to use your land, to catch some. I have an idea to-”

“No,” Bill says, frowning. “I don’t think that was it.”

Red’s stomach turns to lead, and he exchanges a look with Leaf, who gives a helpless shrug. “Are you sure? The Professor said-”

“Right, right,” Bill says, gaze still on the screens.

Red blinks, waiting for more. He wonders for a moment if Bill is carrying on two conversations at once, through his earpiece. “So… was that a yes? On the abra thing?”

“Acoustic displacement, right? Herding them into a hazard zone? Yeah, sounds fun.”

Relief floods through Red, and he sees Leaf hesitate before saying, “Sooo… the thing you asked us here to do for you… Could it have just been to bring you a soda, then?”

“No, no.” Bill slowly refills the acid in one of the drippers, one hand leaving the beaker for a moment to scratch his hair. “Maybe.”

They stare at him.

“A bit. I’m sure there was something else too though.” Bill checks the amount in the dripper feed, then moves on to the next box. “Eva, did I set a memo?”

“No, sir,” the voice says.

“Damn. Memo, Eva: ‘Make more memos. Especially after phone calls.’ Maybe if I listen to a recording of the call I’ll remember.” He continues his work silently for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nope, didn’t help.”

“I can start naming things?” Red asks. “Free association?”

“Go for it.”

“Something to do with pokemon. Something to do with catching them. Catching abra. Psychics Types. Something to do with us. Leaf Juniper? Red Verres? Um.”

“People, places, things,” Leaf says. “Pallet Town, Pewter City? Maybe about what happened with us at Mt. Moon?”

Bill stops shaking his head, brow raised as he lifts the acid container and looks at them. “Wait, what happened at Mt. Moon?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“I don’t really follow the news. And by really I mean pretty much ever.”

“Um. Well it probably wasn’t that then.”

“Was it an activity you wanted to do?” Red asks. “Talk to us about something? Our journey? The new pokedexes?”

“You know, I’m starting to think it might have been the soda,” Bill says, voice thoughtful as he finishes with the last container.

“You didn’t invite us all the way out here just to give you a soda,” Red says. He’s not sure if he’s trying to convince Bill or himself. “Inviting strangers into your house, just for that? Aren’t you a really private person?”

“Ha. The media just say that because I won’t let them step foot on my property. Or grant interviews.” He returns to his desk and types something out that brings up a bunch of graphs, displays of the weight of each sample over time. “Also might be because I don’t go anywhere. People tend to irritate me. Well, I’ll figure it out. You guys are welcome to hang around while I finish this.”

“Is this… something you do often?” Leaf asks as she circles a container, then kneels a bit to look under the dish. Red wonders how she feels about watching a piece of a pokemon get experimented on. Maybe it’s not so bad since it’s just a vine, and tangela lose bits of them all the time… though Red has to wonder how big this one was when it started.

“Yes, but normally it doesn’t take so long. This new strain is definitely going to shift priorities around. Hopefully I can get this all fully automated by the end of the week, so I can start the next trials soon.”

Red blinks. “New strain? You made this vine?”

“Tweaked it. Tangela cells are pretty efficient at regeneration, and occasionally you’ll find one in the wild that heals at ridiculous rates. I just had to find out which genetic markers were different between them and the others, and see if I could improve it further.”

“That’s amazing,” Leaf says as she watches a vine regenerate over and over again. “Are you trying to design a better potion formula?”

“Nah, I’ll leave that to Devon. I’d rather just give people these abilities instead.”

The lab is silent but for the movement of machinery, and Bill’s fingers moving over his keyboard. Red and Leaf both stare at him, then look at each other. “Is that… possible?” Red asks at last.

“Possible? Sure, why not. Probable? Dunno. But regenerating cells is something our body knows how to do already, and if we can make them better at it, the payoff would be huge. Rapid healing, disease resistance, limb regeneration, and if we’re lucky, even stop the effects of aging. Maybe eliminate them altogether.”

Red tries to wrap his mind around humans having such powers. It would be… amazing. Just one of those would make people so much safer, reduce so much suffering. But all of them, together? It’s like something out of science fiction. He can’t help but be skeptical, but if Bill Sonezaki thinks it can be done, is committing his time and energy to doing it…

“And pokemon?” Leaf asks. “Are you trying to give them these abilities too?”

“Naturally.” Bill frowns at a screen, then brings up a code editing window and examines it. “I’ve spent half my life writing TMs to give pokemon new abilities. Mostly for combat, because that’s what the market wanted. But this has combat value too. The next steps are to try and spread this regeneration to other plant pokemon, then non-plant pokemon, particularly mamm-Ooh, yes, that’s it.” He sits forward, eyes on a new window that popped up on his screen.

Leaf raises her head from the box she was examining. “What-”

“Shut up, I need to concentrate.”

Leaf’s mouth drops open, eyes wide. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shhh, shshshsh…”

Red feels anger boiling up in his chest. Don’t upset him, we’re guests, he might kick us out, the abra- “Hey! There’s no reason to be so rude after she came all this way to bring you a soda!”

Leaf rapidly shakes her head at him while Bill frowns, gaze still on the screen. “Okay, sure. Please shut up, would you? Go explore the lab for a bit. Don’t touch anything.”

Leaf is already moving toward Red before Bill finishes speaking. She takes his arm and drags him away before he can say anything else. “It’s okay, really,” she whispers. “I don’t think he means to be rude.”

“That’s not really an excuse,” Red whispers back as they leave Bill behind. “Who goes from a normal conversation to telling people to shut up without warning?”

“Someone without people skills. Maybe something important came up. Come on, let’s look around.”

He and Leaf make their way back through the lab, and before long the music comes back on through the speakers all around them. They drink their soda and find some more automated equipment to study, watching on monitors as data is gathered and recorded throughout dozens of trials. The sheer scope of the research Bill is getting done here makes Red envious.

“And this is just one building,” Leaf says. “We haven’t crossed over into one of the others underground, have we?”

“No, I think they’re all something different.” Red looks at some transfer slots, silver container balls resting in their docks. He can imagine Bill ordering the equipment he needs into them for easy distribution around the lab. “All this stuff has been just for biochem.”

It takes almost half an hour for Bill to join them, and they still don’t manage to see everything in the lab. He walks toward them with a purposeful stride, then passes right by. “Walk with me. There were other things I planned to do today before that took up my whole morning. Luckily none of it is time sensitive.”

They follow him through the lab as he checks on equipment and the results of certain trials, occasionally muttering to himself. Red realizes he’s probably talking to the woman, Eva, whoever that is. During one of the silent stretches, Red summons the courage to ask, “So, is it okay if we speak now?”

“Speak about what?”

“I mean ask questions. Talk.”

“Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”

Red sighs. When he imagined meeting Bill, he always expected someone a bit more like Professor Oak than Blue. “So, that clefairy hologram. Why, exactly?”

“The external holograms are useful in general for scaring off pokemon that get too close to the buildings. The clefairy is just the least threatening one I have, so I use it to interact with people without having to go up.”

“Right, but why not use yourself instead of a clefairy?” Leaf asks.

“They’re modeled after the pokemon that have been rendered for sims. I never bothered to digitize myself.”

They reach a door like the one they entered. Red’s pretty sure it’s not where they came in, and sure enough when it opens they face a completely different type of lab from the first one.

Instead of chemistry equipment, this area seems to be full of computers and robotics. There’s a lot less movement of ongoing experiments, but a lot more visibly identifiable projects. One desk is cluttered with parts for what looks like a new pokedex prototype, while another has a dissected pokenav. Each table has mechanical arms situated around them, most of them motionless.

As they enter, the music around them changes, this time to some electronic song with an industrial sound and heavy beats. After a moment Bill mutters something, and its volume drops to a background whisper.

“Is this where you work on storage?” Red asks. Bill’s development of the interregional storage system is what he’s most famous for, but Red doesn’t see anything that looks like it would be related.

“No, storage and transmutation tech is in the physics lab. This is where I study machine learning, particularly improving narrow AI and solving alignment problems.”

“Narrow AI?”

“Weak. Focused. Able to hold a conversation or perform tasks about just a few specific things, no matter how deep that thing is.”

“Opposed to being able to learn everything?”

“Yeah. Like your pokedex. It’ll tell you all you want to know about pokemon, but ask it how to cook your breakfast and you’re out of luck.”

“Oh. Isn’t that pretty easy to program in though?”

“Sure, you could program it for any number of tasks, hardware permitting. But it’ll never learn new ones on its own. You don’t know all this? What are they even teaching in schools these days, just how to throw a pokeball?”

Red flushes. “That, and how to stay alive.”

“You’re one of Oak’s though, aren’t you? I figured you’d know more than that.”

Red catches Leaf’s glance, and takes a breath to calm himself. “I never really studied computers much. Mostly psychology, physics, chemistry, and pokemon biology.”

Bill tsks. “All that’s not going to matter much if AI keeps improving at its current rate. Should’ve studied computers.”

“I did, a bit,” Leaf says before Red responds.

“Juniper, right? I helped design your granddad’s species tracking algorithms.” Bill leads them past more machinery and electronics, then stops at a holopad and pulls on some gloves that go to his elbows. “Fun guy to work with. Even funner to drink with.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“So tell me, spawn of Cedric, what you think you know about AI, and how you think you know it.”

Red blinks. He’s only ever read that phrase in Giovanni’s writings, and those that read him. He wonders if Bill does too.

“Well,” Leaf says as Bill mutters something, and the hologram suddenly comes to life, showing some complex shape Red can’t make heads or tails of. It looks like three series of spheres spaced out with lines drawn between them in three dimensions. “I guess the first thing I think I know is that general AI is hard. And the reason I think I know that is that if it wasn’t, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Go on,” Bill says as he studies the hologram a moment. Spheres and lines shift as they watch, and eventually Bill extends a hand and casually waves it along the side of the projection, shifting the whole image to view it from “below.”

“General AI would be… well, like a person. It would be able to think for itself, or at least think so broadly it might as well be considered conscious. But it would be smarter than us, be able to think thousands of times faster. All the speed of a computer with all the flexibility of a human mind.”

“And what would this AI do?” Bill asks.

“Well, whatever we ask it to. It could run tests faster than us, solve coordination problems, collate all the data in the world and examine it objectively to make connections we wouldn’t.”

“Mhm.” Bill turns the hologram again, then reaches in and manipulate some of the lines and orbs around, faster than Red could follow before pulling back out to look at it again, and watch how it changes in response. “So you’d just use it as an Oracle?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh boy. Okay, let’s keep this basic. There are a few ways to classify AI. Some popular ones are Oracle, Genie, and Sovereign. Oracles are basically question boxes. They can’t act in the world other than to transmit information. You give the AI a set of data, ask it a question, and have it tell you the answer. Basically like the pokedex, but more broadly intelligent. Able to figure out answers you didn’t explicitly program it with.

“Genie aren’t contained. Hook a Genie up to a robot, give it a blueprint, and tell it to build you a house according to the blueprint using the materials you put in front of it, and if it’s made well, it’ll do that, then stop and wait for further orders. Or, to use an example of what’s coming soon to roads near you, put the Genies in cars that will drive you around anywhere you tell them to. A narrow Genie might choose from a set of predetermined routes to preset locations, but a more general intelligence auto could figure out its own route to custom locations. Tell it to drive you to a lake in the forest, and it’ll do it.

“And Sovereigns are the least tightly bound AI. They can take more complex orders, and carry them out in novel ways, without waiting for human approval at every step. Instead of giving the Sovereign the materials to use, you’d ask it to build you a house with whatever it could find. And if you’re not blisteringly stupid, you would put limitations on it to ensure those materials aren’t people, or pokemon, or from other houses.”

Red frowns as he watches Bill change the color of two of the spheres, which drastically alters the arrangement of the lines before he changes them back. “Are there any machines like that yet? Sovereigns?”

“Sure, in the narrow sense. Any machine that works independently on loose goals is a Sovereign. Computers trying to maximize returns in the stock market, for example. They have a goal and that’s about it.”

“Seems like a fine line between a Genie and a Sovereign,” Leaf says.

Red turns to her. “I think it’s about level of control, not intelligence. Sometimes they’re tangible, like, an Oracle like the pokedex can’t open doors or move anything, so it’s obviously constrained that way. But a Genie like an automatic car might have to ask you for permission and show its route before taking it, so you can stop it from driving you through a river. Whereas a Sovereign wouldn’t have to ask permission, it would just… do things?” He turns to Bill questioningly. “Why would anyone make a Sovereign, anyway?”

“Because sometimes you don’t know how to get to your goal at all. Remember, if AGI is being used, it’s being used to do something humans can’t. If you ask it to figure out a way to stop humans from aging, it might do it by manipulating our genetic code, or it might do it by synthesizing some wonder drug. You don’t actually know what you want it to do, you just know what you want done. It’s up to the machine to figure out what your actual desire is, your coherent extrapolated volition.” Bill frowns at his holograph, tweaks one more thing, then makes a gesture with his arm that shuts off the display. “Eva, prepare some food for us above the computer lab. Twenty minutes.” He strips the gloves off and sticks them in his pocket as he starts walking again.

“Certainly, sir. Preference?”

“Steak.”

“We have tauros and bouffalant in stock.”

“Tauros. What do you guys want?”

“Uh, anything’s fine,” Red says in surprise.

“Come on, kid, pick something.”

“Um. Come back to me.”

“No pokemon for me, please, Eva,” Leaf says, voice raised.

“Understood. I can prepare a salad of mixed greens with tangerine slices, walnuts and feta cheese to ensure a balanced nutritional meal. Is that acceptable?”

“Very acceptable, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well?” Bill asks as he pauses to watch a mechanical arm disassemble and reassemble a series of small, complex metal pieces. It keeps trying new permutations, and Red is distracted by the blur of movement for a moment before he realizes Bill is talking to him.

“Oh, uh, pidgey burger? Please?”

“Certainly.”

“Thank you, Eva,” Red says, looking around for a camera or microphone to direct his attention to.

“You’re welcome.”

“So is Eva a Genie, then?” Leaf asks, and Red suddenly feels very stupid. “Since she—it—can’t act independently, and just follows your direct orders?”

“Yep, though she has a number of autonomous routines, as you’ve seen,” Bill says as he types something into the console beside the robotic arm, causing it to stop moving and reset back to a resting state. He then leads on, walking deeper into the lab. “As far as I’m aware she’s one of the four strongest AI in the world, but that just makes her less narrow than the others. She’s still a long way from true general intelligence.”

“So you’re trying to make her smarter?” Red asks. “Win the race for AGI?”

Bill barks laughter. “Fuck no, and I’ve had to sabotage a number of projects trying to win that race. Haven’t you been listening?”

“I think so? Wouldn’t strong AI help you out a lot? I mean, you’re not, uh, ‘blisteringly stupid,’ right? Eva’s not going to turn us into hamburgers just because she, I mean it, runs out of pidgey meat.”

Bill sighs. “Ok, let’s see how smart you are, Mr. Verres. What do you want? What’s your goal in life?”

Red pauses a moment to consider how this might be a trap, then says, “To learn. Specifically, I’m most curious about the origin of pokemon species. Study how they arise, where they come from.”

“That’s it?”

Red blinks. He’s not used to people dismissing his aspiration as too low. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the world. And… there are so many hypotheses and beliefs out there, none with any real evidence to support one theory over another. Learning the truth about reality is important to me.”

“One of Oak’s, alright. But try to dream a bit bigger. What do you really want, if you could have anything, even supposedly impossible things?”

I want my dad back.

It takes Red a moment to shove that thought away, after the pain of it echoes through his chest, again and again and again, reverberating with his heartbeats. He puts on a thoughtful face until it passes, breaths suddenly shallow.

He knows Bill said “impossible,” but the impossible has a quality to it that the merely improbable lacks. Even if a computer had a sample of his dad’s DNA, then flash grow a clone, at best the new Tom’s experiences would be made up of imperfect and disjointed memories from those that knew him. It could reassemble Tom Verres atom by atom, but where would it get an image for the brain? Short of time travel or some evidence of an afterlife, Red’s father is dead, and no scientific breakthrough, no matter how miraculous, is going to change that.

Once the ache fades, Red says, “I guess ending death would be the most important thing. Not just aging and disease, but also pacifying all wild pokemon. Make the world a truly safe place to live.”

“Fine, great, you’re an enlightened humanist. Now, what are your challenges, if you use AGI?”

“Um. Can I have a minute to think about it?”

“I would be disappointed if you didn’t take at least five.”

Red ponders this as they continue to walk around the lab. Leaf asks some questions about the future of human interface virtual reality while Red tries to think it through. He takes out his notepad and starts writing down ideas.

“Isn’t that kind of important though?” Leaf asks. “People could use that to train their pokemon so much more safely-”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of boring.”

Leaf’s eyes widen.  “Boring?”

“It bores me.”  Bill watches a group of small robots navigate a maze for a moment, then pulls up the past trial data from the screen beside it.  “So I don’t do it.”

“But… it could solve so many problems! Help so many people!”

Bill shrugs, eyes on the screen. “So let someone else figure it out. I’ve got more important things to deal with.”

Leaf frowns. “So is it because it’s boring, or because it’s not important?”

“Both. Have you noticed that people have a hundred new problems and crises every year? They never stop finding new limits that they need someone else to help them overcome. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with it all.”

Leaf watches a robot stop moving as Bill types something on the keyboard, then start its maze over by trying a completely different route. “You talk like you’re not one of them.”

“I try not to be, when I can help it. I moved out here to get away from all their pointless needs.”

Leaf frowns. “Why bother with any of the things you do, then?”

“Because the problems I’m trying to solve matter. And before you ask, yes, I’m qualified to determine that. Especially since it’s my time and money I’m spending.”

“I didn’t mean to-”

“Yes you did, but it’s fine,” Bill says as he closes the program and starts walking again. “You’re still young. And that’s not an ageism thing, it’s just an objective metric of life experience.”

Red is only half listening to their conversation as he finishes sketching out his thoughts, but he catches the look from Leaf and smiles at her.  “People skills,” he mouths, and her expression clears as she smiles back. “I think I’m ready,” he says.

“Alright, walk me through it.”

“Ok, so I’m not using a Sovereign at all. If I just say ‘Figure out a way to stop people from dying,’ it might just start capturing everyone in pokeballs. If I explicitly rule that out, it might make a nanobot army and go around knocking people out to put them in suspension pods that keep them alive indefinitely. If I add qualifiers like ‘make sure nothing else about them changes,’ it might find a way to stop people from dying that keeps aging. If I explicitly include a stop to aging in the requirement, it might make us stop being able to change at all, because I said ‘nothing else about them changes,’ and technically that could be interpreted as literally, everything else has to stay the same. There are just too many ways it might go wrong.”

Bill nods. “Basic, but you get the point. There are way worse things it could do.”

“Like what?”

“Remember that it’s a machine, not magic. It has to have the resources to accomplish whatever it sets out to do. It has to prioritize. Should it go for the big win that stops everyone from dying, or go for faster, smaller wins? Maybe it cures diseases first to save those people, then changes human genes to cure wounds in seconds to stop those deaths, then tries to stop aging to save the older people from dropping off.”

“None of that sounds bad,” Leaf says. “It might not be the most efficient, but it’s still saving people. Actually, it might be the most efficient after all. It’s smarter than us, isn’t it? Maybe its method of deciding would be better.”

“Better by what values? Is the life of a great grandmother with advanced dementia as valuable as the life of their great granddaughter? Even if we all agree that’s the case, and we input different weight to every category imaginable, ever see an AI play Chess, or Go?”

“Right,” Leaf says, speaking slowly. “It’ll start making decisions that don’t make sense to us.”

“It might even seem like it’s malfunctioning,” Red says. “How would we know? It might decide the main priority to save humans from dying is to stop the sun from eventually expanding, and waste all its time and the planet’s resources pursuing a path to stopping that. To us it would just look like it’s crazy and we’d pull the plug.”

Bill nods. “All this, of course, changes the more human-like the machine is in its intelligence. And it’s why it’s absolutely essential that it can communicate its intentions and actions clearly. We need to be able to understand what it’s doing and why, at all times. But that leads us to the question of autonomy. Who, ultimately, is it explaining its actions to? Who’s giving it orders? Its creator? Lot of power to put into one person’s hands. A committee? Just kill me now.”

“What about itself?” Leaf says quietly. “If it’s truly sapient, anything else would be slavery.”

“Give the girl a star!” Bill is getting more and more animated as the conversation goes on, and paying less attention to the various tasks he stops to do around the lab. Red wonders how often he has visitors, and if he misses company to talk with, even if they’re not his peers. “If we’re talking about a truly sapient machine, that’s a whole different mess. Me, I’m not bothered by the moral question as much as I am the security risk it poses. Anything with sapience and even the slightest bit of self-preservation is going to pose enormous existential risk, even if it’s just a box with a text screen.”

“But even without sapience, a strong enough AI could end humanity by accident,” Red says, thoughts spinning. “Why haven’t I heard about all this, anyway? An existential threat this big…”

“It’s too big,” Leaf says. “People can’t grasp it. It’s like worrying about a meteor strike.”

“But we know this meteor strike is coming, and soon,” Bill says. “Sure, ‘soon’ may be twenty years, or it may be fifty, or it may be a hundred. But it’s not an if, it’s a when. So, knowing all that, Mr. Verres, you still haven’t finished your explanation.”

“Right. Well. Sovereign is out, like I said. But so is Genie. Even if it’s one task at a time, that’s all it takes sometimes, especially if I’m not the only one with access to the AI. The more people it might take orders from, the higher the chances that it does something wrong, or does something the wrong way. I’m sticking with an Oracle. I teach it everything we know about biology, and ask it to tell me the instructions for designing a retrovirus that will end mammal aging. When it does, we study the design, and if it seems okay, create a batch and test it on pokemon. If it seems to work, test it on human volunteers.”

“And that’s how you would word it? ‘End mammal aging?'”

“Yeah. Even if it decides that killing something ‘ends aging,’ we’ll know from the pokemon trials before we try it on humans.” Leaf makes a face, but Red just shrugs. “Whatever the problem is, just keep re-iterating until we get it right.”

“And what if it’s communicable? You said ‘end mammal aging.’ Sounds to me like you want to end all mammal aging on the planet.”

“We’d test it in sterile chambers,” Red says. “Obviously.”

“Obviously. So, you’ve maybe got a beginning of an idea of one of the problems we face with advancing AI technology. And you started with Sovereign and worked your way down, which is the ideal way to think about AI safety.”

“There’s more to it than that though, right?” Red asks as he thinks through all the complications in designing a system that can think and act on its own “What about incentives? If it’s sapient, how do you get your machine to want to do things for you? Once you program its values, how do you program its incentives? There are so many ways it could go wrong!”

“Now you’re getting it.” Bill smiles. “I’m glad inviting you here wasn’t a waste of time.”

“I’m still stuck on the whole ‘slavery’ thing,” Leaf says. “There’s no way to actually stop an AI from becoming sapient accidentally, is there?”

“Not unless neuroscientists isolate what exactly consciousness is, and the brain structure responsible for it,” Bill says as he leads them to another door. Red wonders if they’re about to enter another lab or go upstairs to eat. “Until then, for all we know it might just be an emergent property of sufficiently broad intelligence, and could arise on its own if we make a computer that’s smart and flexible enough.”

The door opens to reveals a flight of stairs, leading them into a living room that looks exactly like the one they first entered to go into the biochem lab.

Bill walks into the kitchen, where three plates of food sit waiting, with a can of soda sitting beside each… the same flavors that they took earlier from the other fridge. “Help yourselves,” Bill says as he takes his plate over to the table, and Red and Leaf follow to do the same. Now that he has a moment to study it, Red notices there’s barely any room in the kitchen for someone to cook or move around: most of it is filled with a series of machines that Eva uses to prepare meals. Red looks up and sees motionless mechanical arms attached to rails on the ceiling.

“What do you guys want to look at while we eat?” Bill asks once they sit down. “Beach?” The walls suddenly have yellow sand, rolling blue waves, and piercing blue skies projected onto them in every direction, as if the three sit on a tiny island. “Forests?” The oceans are replaced with endless brown and green, and the slow roar of crashing waves is replaced with birdsong and wind rushing through countless leaves. “Cafe?” Now the walls show bustling sidewalks in Cerulean city, the forest sounds replaced by ambient chatter and traffic.

Red stares, mouth open mid-bite at the changing environment around them. “Is this… live footage?” he asks, watching a woman in a long coat with an eevee perched on her shoulder walk by on the wall to his left. If he pays attention, he can just make out the fuzziness of the image as it’s projected onto the blank walls.

“Nah, goes for about thirty minutes before it loops.”

“It’s awesome,” Leaf says. “This one’s fine with me.”

Red nods, finally biting into his burger. It’s delicious. “I think this is the coolest house I’ve ever been in,” he says, mouth full. “And the coolest labs. Thanks for inviting us here, Bill, even if it was just so you could get a soda.”

“I know there was something else,” Bill says as he starts to cut his steak. “It’ll come to me. In the meantime, let’s talk about your plan to catch abra.”

Red pulls his gaze away from watching someone ride by the street next to them on a tauros. “Sure. So, we’ve got some speakers, and I figured we’d use them to set up a field-”

“I know the basics. What I wanted to see for myself is what kind of person you are. Oak doesn’t give licenses out to just anyone, but it’s always good to be sure.”

“And… what kind of person am I?” Red asks.

“The kind who probably won’t get himself killed on my property and make me have to deal with the media. So when do you want to do it?”

“Oh. Well I figured we’d wait for Blue to finish at the gym for today, unless he gets out late. In which case, tomorrow?”

“No.” Bill shakes his head. “If you’re doing this on my land, you’ll wait till next week.”

Red blinks. “Um. Sure, if you insist. Why next week?”

“Because you’re going to spend the time between then and now preparing. You’ll find the best spot to do it, set up mock trials, and practice drills. Once you’ve got an idea of what to expect and how to respond, then you can try for real.”

“Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense. Are you going to determine if we’re ready or not?”

“Ha. Like I have time for that. No, I’m not going to babysit. You’ve got the land and the time you need to figure it out. The rest is on you.”

Red nods. “I appreciate it. More than I can say. Is there anything you want out of all this? Some of the abra, maybe?”

Bill waves his knife to the side dismissively. “Let’s just say you’ll owe me a favor. Nothing particularly dangerous, and nothing illegal. It’ll probably be whatever that thing is that I can’t remember wanting to ask you to do. Sound fair?”

“Yeah, more than fair! Thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. Oak said you’re doing this for research, right? Not just to get rich quick? Because it’s a great idea for that.”

Red swallows his mouthful and washes it down. “Yeah.” He explains his ideas, and is surprised to see Bill’s attention sharpen away from his meal.

“No luck with the research journals so far, huh?” Bill asks, tipping his soda can back as he takes a swig.

Red shakes his head, suppressing a sigh. “I probably should have taken Professor Oak up on his offer.”

“Don’t let it get you down. The whole system’s broken, believe me: I’m self funded, sitting on top of a dozen new breakthroughs a year, have an AI to make writing research papers a breeze, and I still get frustrated by how broken the world of science publishing is.”

Red stares at him. “Uh. How is that supposed to not let it get me down, again?”

Bill purses his lips, then shrugs. “Alright, so it should probably get you down. If it helps, it’s just another problem I’m hoping will be solved soon.”

“How?”

“Something called Raikoth that should turn the scientific publishing world on its head.”

“Is it a research Oracle?”

“In a different sense. Think of a system of linked prediction markets. Kind of complex to get into right now, and probably a few years away from ready. But in the meantime, if you ever manage to find something solid in your research, let me know. A better understanding of psychic phenomenon might be enough for me to build a whole new lab.” Bill rubs his chin. “I’ve thought about diving into it before, just didn’t think it was worth it.”

“Well, if you want to fund some exploratory research…” Red grins.

Bill chuckles, shaking his head. “You can use my land, but without some solid justification that your idea has merit, even a few hundred dollars is money I have better priorities for. No offense.”

“No, I get it,” Red says, feeling only a little disappointed. It was a long shot, but now that he knows what Bill spends his time working on, Red can’t begrudge him higher priorities.

“Are you interested in psychic research to help with AI value alignment?” Leaf asks as she spears a tangerine slice with her fork.

“That and I’d like to be psychic, if I can. How’d you know?”

She smiles. “Seems like the best way to make sure it understands what you really want.”

Bill nods. “Find out how psychic communication works biologically, and we may be able to get it to work mechanically. Not only could we control machines telepathically, we could ensure that our actual CEV is more likely to be followed.”

“CEV?”

“Coherent extrapolated volition.”

“You mentioned that before,” Red recalls. “I understand the words individually, but as a phrase I’m not sure I get it. It’s just what you want? Making sense of your will?”

“It’s Yudkowsky’s term for the ‘end game,’ so to speak. Remember when we were talking about oversight? Who’s the computer listening to? Eventually we should probably make sure that one person can’t use the machine for evil, which means programming it with the ability to make all the best decisions for everyone, itself.”

“I can’t imagine people being happy with that,” Leaf says. “They’re barely content with other humans that they elected deciding things for them.”

“Again, end-game. You wouldn’t design your first AI to do this, it’s at the end of the hierarchy of getting it to do what you mean, and not just what you say, to the point where you may not even have to say anything anymore.”

“That would mean getting every part before it right,” Red says. “Not just what you value, but also what you will value, which means… knowing how you think? How you will think, in any given situation?”

Bill shakes his head. “More than that, even.”

“What can be more than that?” Leaf asks.

“Okay, so first you want to make sure the machine knows what you consider important, so it can avoid altering those in the wrong way, or let you know if something you ask it to do will require it to. So if you ask it to find a way to clean pollutants out of the air, and it knows that you care about there being a certain amount of oxygen in the air for humans to breathe, then it won’t use a solution that alters that.

“Second, you want the machine to be able to model and understand what you believe, so it can tell you if something you believe is wrong. If you ask an AI to find a way to undo the effects of a human entering a pokeball, the AI should be able to understand that you’re under the assumption that they’ll be restored back to their former self.  If a treatment the AI comes up with would restore a human’s intelligence but wipe out their memories and personality, it should know to let you know that.

“Third, you want the machine to be able to model your desire in asking them to accomplish something. This is the classic idea of a wish being granted in a literal fashion rather than in the way the wisher intended, and of course, it’s incredibly complex and difficult. Like before, this is the machine knowing that when you ask it to end aging, you meant that you want to end the negative effects of aging on your mind and body.

“And finally, coherent extrapolated volition. Not just what you want, given the knowledge and beliefs you have, but what you would want, if you had all the knowledge the AI does, and could better consider arguments for and against your beliefs, and could better judge and understand yourself and your desires.”

“That… sounds incredibly hard. And dangerous,” Red says. He stopped eating while he listened, and brings the burger halfway up to his mouth before lowering it again, still deep in thought. “You’d need to teach the machine ethics that everyone can agree on.”

“Meta ethics,” Leaf says. “The very idea of how we know what right and wrong even are…”

“Bill, who else is working on this?” Red asks. “Not just you, right?”

“No, I mostly just fund research and do some consulting work once in a while. Bostrom, Müller, Amodei, Taylor, Russell, and many others are doing the heavy lifting. As you saw, I’ve got too many other projects to work on.”

“How much more important can they be?” Red asks.

“Well, first off, I want to live long enough to see the singularity,” Bill says as he inspects a slice of the meat and mutters something to himself, or probably Eva. “Which means I need to help make sure society doesn’t come crashing down from a series of catastrophic pokemon attacks. Improving trainer tech makes for a fun hobby, and is economical to boot, which means more money I can donate to fund other worthy causes. Then there’s solving the actual dying problem itself, whether from some antibiotic resistant pandemic, a degenerative disease, or just old age.”

Leaf twirls her fork around on her plate, looking pensive. “I have a question.”

“What’s up?” Bill asks as he uses a piece of bread to start sopping up the juices on his plate.

“When AI is built, it’ll have a body, right? Even if it’s just a box, there’s a physical location that is, in essence, it.

“Yeah, and it might actually be pretty big too, depending on how powerful it needs to be. Might be a literal box, like the old computer towers that sat beside people’s desks.”

Red sees where Leaf is going. “Oh, shit. What happens if that physical object becomes a pokemon, like beldum?”

Professor Oak told him about that: the interregional panic during his school days, when a lab in Hoenn was destroyed overnight from within by a swarm of the new pokemon. Investigations showed that their computers were all gone without a trace, and endless steps were taken worldwide to try and find out what happened, either to replicate it, or avoid having the same thing happen elsewhere. Efforts on both sides met with limited success.

Bill nods, face serious as he toys with the last of his food, gaze down. “It’s been talked about, believe me. Best case scenario is we get something like a super metagross, smarter than most. Worst case, well…”

“It might be sapient,” Red says, feeling a chill.

“With the way inanimate objects gain sentience when they become pokemon, it’s distinctly possible. AGI is frightening enough when it’s just limited to what computers and machinery can do. A pokemon that’s smarter than a human, and has Electric or Steel or Psychic powers? Arceus help us all… and I don’t even believe in that thousand-armed horse.”


A week, Bill said, before Red could try his abra catching experiment.

Sometimes a week feels like a lifetime. This one, Red knows, would be the blink of an eye.

As he and Leaf ride back to the Trainer House from Bill’s, his thoughts are still on all they learned from the inventor. There’s a sense of emptiness in his stomach that his burger is doing nothing to combat.

“You okay?” Leaf asks as they cross Nugget Bridge. “You’ve been quiet since we left.”

“Just thinking.”

“Your notebook isn’t out.”

Red looks at her. She’s smiling, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “It bothers you, huh?”

He snorts. “What, the part where everyone’s going to probably die in a generation or two?”

“Or the part where stopping that from happening will probably involve enslaving a newly created, intelligent being?”

“Or the part where the vast majority of people don’t care enough to do anything about it?”

Her smile is more genuine now. “Or the part where if you do anything else with your life, it might all just be meaningless?”

He chuckles. “Or the part where all our other problems are ‘boring’ and unimportant?”

“Are they, though?” she asks, turning serious. “Is he right?”

Red stretches his arms over his head and leans back. “I don’t know. Maybe he is. If so, I should probably just abandon what I’m working on now and start studying computers.”

“What if you’re not good at computer stuff?”

Red smiles. “I guess I’m just not that important then. What about you, you said you liked it well enough. Are you going to change your goals, now?”

“Ha! No way.” She shakes her head, tossing her hair over her shoulders as her eyes gleam in the passing street lights. “The weeks I spent in Pewter, learning about people, how to change their minds, write in a way that speaks to them… None of the things I’ve tried before have felt as right.”

“Or as important?”

“Yeah. I want to be influential enough to make a difference in how people think about pokemon, and maybe get more people to treat them like I do. Stop people from eating them, or glorifying battles for sport. And I’m still going to do that, if I can. But why stop there? If I can convince people to stop eating pokemon, why not also convince people to take existential threats more seriously? I’m still going to make a difference, and I’m going to do it my way.”

Red watches her, chest warm with admiration. “You’re pretty awesome, you know that?”

Her cheeks color as her eyes widen. “Um. Thanks.”

Red looks away. “Sorry. I was just… I was having trouble with it. But hearing that helped.”

“Well. Uh. Good. I’m glad.”

They ride in silence again, and after a few moments Leaf pulls her phone out and begins typing on it. Red stops trying to look casual and at ease, and eventually his awkwardness fades as he considers what Leaf said. There’s no reason to give up what he’s good at, what he’s passionate about, if it means he can make a difference in his own way. He’s not going to stop trying to learn about where pokemon come from, and the best path to figuring that out for now is still in trying to understand what psychic phenomena are. Bill even said that would be useful for potential value alignment in AI.

But what Bill talked about still makes him feel small. Helpless.

Red feels his fingernails cutting into his palms, and looks to see them clenched into fists.

…for the clever mind does naught with thought but lights a shuttered room…

He slowly forces them open.

…with these handsspeak ‘break!’and split the world in two…

Red takes his phone out and sends a message to his mom. A few seconds later she responds:

Hey Red, how are you?

Good. Just checking in.

Thank you hon. Are you enjoying Cerulean City?

Yeah. I met Bill! His house was nuts… he has like five of them, all connected to labs.

Exciting! What’s he like?

Red smiles. Unique. He had a hologram outside his house of a clefairy, and when he spoke through the external speakers Leaf and I thought it was talking at first!

Ha ha! That must have been fun for you 🙂

Almost had a heart attack xP But also it reminded me, you said you found a good price for a clefairy, right?

Yep, still watching it for you. No one bought it. Want it now?

Yes please. Send it to Cerulean North’s Trainer House.

Will do. After vetting it should be available by tomorrow.

Thanks mom. Love you lots.

You too dear, say hi to the others for me *kiss kiss*

Red exits the messenger and immediately opens the pokemon market app. He checks the clefairy entries, and refreshes until he sees the one his mom mentioned disappear.

Nine hundred dollars. He told his mom he wouldn’t sell it unless he caught one at Mt. Moon… which he hadn’t.

But that was before he and Leaf nearly died in the forest fire. Before his first research project was so inconclusive. Before he found out how expensive psychic training was. Before he lost his rattata and spearow. Before Blue and Leaf almost got killed by a Renegade.

Before he met Bill, and learned just how small his ambitions and goals might actually be.

He can’t afford self-imposed disadvantages like this. He really wouldn’t mind having a clefairy of his own, but that $900 investment would easily fetch three times the price once Daisy reveals her new routine at the next Coordinator event, which will be at the end of the month, if Red remembers right.

He’ll need every resource, every scrap of luck or talent he can leverage, if he wants to make a difference in the world of today, and the future that’s coming.

Sorry, mom. He tucks his phone away, staring outside the window as the cab navigates the lively nighttime streets of the city. He rests his forehead against the cool glass and closes his eyes. I warned you I wouldn’t live up to your expectations.

9 – Antagonists, Part 1

Daystar and Alexander explore what makes for compelling story antagonists, and discuss some of their favorites.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links

The Stand, by Stephen King

Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

Timestamps

0:34 What Makes an Antagonist?

2:38 Shallow antagonists

9:06 Favorite Antagonists: Randall Flagg

12:41 Favorite Antagonists: Lex Luthor

17:54 Basics Do’s and Don’ts

25:16 Creating Motivations

(32:15 Seriously guys please don’t blow anyone up)

34:10 Favorite Antagonists: Magneto

Advertisement:

For those of you who somehow haven’t heard of Audible yet, it’s a great platform for finding and listening to audiobooks. You can help finance the podcast and other projects like it by starting a free trial with the link below. You even get one free download!

http://www.audibletrial.com/rational

Thanks for listening!

5 – Rule of Cool

Daystar and Alexander discuss the Rule of Cool trope, and how rational fiction tries to create organically cool moments without sacrificing the story’s integrity.

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Timestamps:

0:40 What is the Rule of Cool? Is it inherently good or bad?

5:45 Swords vs Guns, Lightsabers, Waif-Fu

11:07 Why avoid it in Rational Fiction?

13:00 Ways to minimize negatives of Rule of Cool

19:20 Breaking the world

26:40 Is it better to fully explore an idea, or minimize its

role so as not to “cheat” the plot?

29:40 When to kill your darlings

34:15 When to run with the craziness

37:55 Recap of the three approaches to mitigating loss of coolness when rationalizing.

0 – History

A brief history of the Rational and Rationalist fiction genres, their roots in the LessWrong community, and the influences from flagship authors of HPMOR and Luminosity.

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Websites mentioned in episode:

www.lesswrong.com

https://www.reddit.com/r/rational

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationalilty

Luminosity

Friendship is Optimal

Transcript by an anonymous fan:

[The intro plays.]

DayStar Eld: Hello and welcome to Rationally Writing. I’m DayStar Eld.

Alexander Wales: And I’m Alexander Wales.

DayStar Eld: And this is a brief history of the rational and rationalist writing genres. A great place to start I think is with Eliezer Yudkowsky, who you will probably hear referenced a lot on this podcast, either by name or just as EY. He is currently a research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and is one of the founders of the LessWrong website.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. 2006, I believe, is when LessWrong is created. He started that after he was on Overcoming Bias with Robin Hanson. And then Overcoming Bias became Robin Hanson’s personal blog. LessWrong is a community blog: Elizier, Yvain, AKA Scott Alexander–

DayStar Eld: Who runs Slate Star Codex.

Alexander Wales: Luke G, Alicorn and Gwern.

DayStar Eld: And the main point of LessWrong was to help people learn about rationality, share their thoughts about rationality, improve their thinking, comment on each other’s attempts to improve thinking. And the Sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky were a major part of that effort.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And they spread out in a lot of different directions. Like artificial intelligence, and many-worlds theory, and things like that. And there’s a heavy focus on computer science as well. Rationalist fiction as a named thing begins in March of 2009. Eliezer posted on LessWrong about rationalist fiction. He named Null-A and David Sling as works that evoked that rationalist aesthetic and encouraged rationalist thinking.

DayStar Eld: Yup. And LessWrong is also where Eliezer posted his first published rational fiction, The Sword of Good. Which was a very short story, satire of a lot of fantasy novels where someone from our world goes to another one and is told “Hey, you’re the long lost king. Go kill this evil wizard and take the throne”. And it examined the story elements of that through a rational lens. And the next one he published there was Three Worlds Collide, an eight chapter science fiction novella exploring metaethics and rational conduct through the implications of humanity making first contact and meeting aliens. And after that he started HPMOR on Fanfiction in March.

Alexander Wales: March 2010 is when the first chapters of HPMOR — Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality — was posted under the pseudonym LessWrong, but everyone knew that it was Eliezer by chapter five.

Daystar Eld: Right. On fanfiction.net it’s still LessWrong. But…

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And HPMOR was essentially a reimagining of the world where Harry is raised by Petunia, and Petunia instead of marrying Vernon Dursley marries an Oxford professor who teaches Harry all about science and rationality so that when he gets his letter from Hogwarts he approaches the world of magic with a scientific rationalist perspective. There’s a lot more to it than that but that is the ten second pitch of what the story is about.

Alexander Wales: Right. And it’s quite long. There’s a lot of stuff in it. And well worth reading in my opinion.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. I’ve recommended HPMOR to basically everyone I know, even people who were never big fans of the original Harry Potter. And I’ve gotten- I want to say at least half of my wider social circle and friend group into it.

Alexander Wales: So it ran from 2010 until 2015. There was a long period of slowdown, I think about a year where it wasn’t updating at all. The HPMOR subreddit in that time was quite active with people talking and theorycrafting and recommending other stories. Both of us were heavy posters there.

Daystar Eld: Right. This was a very — to me — enjoyable community to be a part of, because I’ve been part of communities about ongoing fiction works before obviously, but this was the most involved one that I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just people posting “Oh, you know this artwork reminded me [of something]” or “This guy made some fanart” or “This person met the author and interviewed them and these are some questions and answers”. It was actually a lot of analysis, it was a lot of deep reading, it was a lot of questions and discussion surrounding the characters, their motives, the plot. Which I think can really only be fully done in the more complex works I’ve read. Books like Song of Ice and Fire series have a very vibrant and in-depth community about that because George R.R. Martin does a very good job of foreshadowing, planting clues, having complex characters. And the amount of foreshadowing and clue-dropping in HPMOR is truly impressive.

Alexander Wales: And you know I’ve been on lots of subreddits and community sites and stuff like that. And most of them in the off-season — which was basically what HPMOR had — it just, they turned to crap really, really quickly. A Song of Ice and Fire is not one of them. That’s a rare exception. But a lot TV shows just, the off-season is the time to unsubscribe if you don’t want to see just, ridiculous stuff that has only tangential relationship [to the content].

Daystar Eld: But the HPMOR subreddit and wider community stayed very involved and very interesting to be a part of and I enjoyed my time there quite thoroughly and apparently enough people did where eventually a subreddit spun off. But I think that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The next thing in our timeline is Alicorn posts the first chapters of Luminosity, which is basically a reimagining of the series Twilight, where Bella is a rationalist rather than her sort of braindead canon self.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. I enjoyed Twilight. I’m one of the few people I know who actually read the whole Twilight quartet, and I’ve got serious criticisms of the series as I’ve written on a number of places on the Internet. But the core idea behind it, the worldbuilding that it did had a lot of potential and I think Luminosity really delved into that potential and brought it to great fruition and had wonderful examinations of the side-characters and made them all work really well with each other and with the new and improved and rational Bella.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. I actually sort of liked Twilight too. I actually did read all four books as well. I thought a lot of the side characters in Twilight were more in-depth and well-rounded than Bella. Bella was my big problem with the series.

Daystar Eld: Absolutely. Yeah. Luminosity basically took the integral weakness to Twilight and made it a strength so that everything kind of clicked into place once that was done.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. So it was Luminosity, and then Radiance is the sequel to that. And that’s the first of I guess what I would call…

Daystar Eld: Inspired-by works?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It’s this rational character who comes in and sees all this crazy stuff and analyzes it and then it diverges pretty wildly from there.

Daystar Eld: Yeah, yeah. The logical consequences of the changes in the canon start to expand to ripple effects that affect everything. Again, to great effect. This is one of those stories where everything seems to change from the canon but still make sense based on the canon. You can have characters that are reacting to new situations and new circumstances that are going on but don’t feel out of character, they still feel like themselves. Which I think is one of the rarer things about fanfiction and one of the things that to me at least made Luminosity such a great fanfiction. And I would say that Luminosity being as good as it was is part of what made the rational fiction genre begin to open up because people saw HPMOR and they’re like “Wow, this is a great Harry Potter fanfiction about rationality”, and then they saw Luminosity and they’re like “Oh look, this is a great- you can make a rationalist Twilight fanfiction and make it really good, there’s nothing you can’t make rationalize and make good, potentially”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Which brings us to November 2012, when Iceman posted Friendship is Optimal. I believe that was all posted over the series of a few days, this was all prewritten. But Friendship is Optimal is about these people developing a My Little Pony MMO type thing and it becomes this sentient artificial intelligence. And it’s not actually fanfiction. I get into that discussion with people a lot, I had some disagreements about whether or not it qualifies as fanfiction. But that was well loved, spread a lot around the LessWrong crowd, and I think that became one of the primary things that people would recommend when you were on the subreddit or on LessWrong. People were like “I’m up to the in-progess point on HPMOR. What do I read next?”

Daystar Eld: Right. It was much shorter than HPMOR and Luminosity, which cover a number of themes. Friendship is Optimal covered the AI theme very powerfully and very well. So it was a great introduction also into the wider discussion of artificial intelligence risk for a lot of people. And to this day every time I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t really understand artificial intelligence as an existential risk to humanity, I still think, “You know, why don’t you check out this short story?” And it’ll do a pretty good job of priming you towards the real questions and real struggles and concerns in the community.

Alexander Wales: So May in 2013 is when Lighting Up the Dark got released by Velorien. In HPMOR there are two, possibly three chapters where there are omakes, which is a Japanese term from manga and anime, it just means bonus or extra. They are non-canon, small segments that are like several paragraphs long, rational takes on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Lord of the Rings, and a bunch of different things where problems can be solved in a matter of seconds. So I think that Lighting Up the Dark is probably the first- it’s a Naruto fanfic that specifically in the author’s notes at the beginning says that it was inspired by the Naruto omake in HPMOR. I think that’s probably the first of the more widespread progenitors. The foundational canon of rational fiction, when it actually started to get a canon. Because you had HPMOR, Luminosity, and maybe Friendship is Optimal as things that people would recommend. Lighting Up the Dark is when I think that started to become a canon of work instead.

Daystar Eld: You can also say it was one of the first fan[works].

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was HPMOR-originating rather than LessWrong-originating.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And once the first of the people who read HPMOR and possibly Luminosity and Friendship is Optimal said, “Let me try my own hand at this”. That really- then the floodgates opened.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And 2013 was during the slump in postings on HPMOR. And May was Lighting Up the Dark. And I’m not one-hundred percent sure that’s the first one, but internet archaeology is fairly hard.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. It’s possible there were other stories between those but as far as I’m aware, that was the main one that was completed. And following that one came Branches on the Tree of Time which you wrote and put up on Fanfiction, about the Terminator world and a rationalist computer programming Sarah Connor who actually addresses what it’s like to fight an artificial intelligence. And addresses what it’s like to have time travel as a reality in the world and a tool to use at your disposal. So that was again really fantastic, really explored the themes in a way that to me in any case, ruined the Terminator series forever. If the next Terminator movie — I know Genesis came out somewhat recently and it was from all accounts fairly shitty, but- I mean, okay, most Terminator movies past the second one are fairly shitty in my opinion but — if the next Terminator movie is not Branches on the Tree of Time or something very similar to it, there’s really no reason for me to watch another Terminator movie because the — in my opinion — best exploration of artificial intelligence plus time travel is your story, so.

Alexander Wales: I really liked the Terminator canon. They’ve got a comic book series that’s collected in two anthologies that I mostly enjoy but it’s one of those things where you don’t want to look at the background all that heavily or it starts to really confuse you, at best. So, yeah. I wrote that in September of 2013. And then in October you post the first chapter of Pokemon: Origin of Species. Which I thought was much closer to HPMOR I’d say, in terms of vocabulary and the way it’s approaching the world.

Daystar Eld: Yeah definitely more inspired by HPMOR and Luminosity in the sense of, take a canon, find a protagonist, make them a rationalist, see what happens.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And that’s sort of where we get our rationalist/rational distinction from, is between those two types of work. Because I wouldn’t call, for instance Branches on the Tree of Time rationalist because it’s not trying to much to teach anything.

DS. Right. Sarah Connor is a rational person and she is — well, she actually may be considered a rationalist herself — but she is a rational person who is using the tools at her disposable in a rational way. But she is not explicitly thinking about or communicating rationalist ideas. So it would be a gray area in my opinion but I’m okay with calling it either rationalist or rational.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Whereas Origin of Species is much more rationalist. It’s got things to teach in most chapters, right? So then in December of 2013, there had been very many posts about “What should I read next”, or “What are things like HPMOR”. In December is when the rational subreddit was created. Which I really wish that they’d gone with rational fiction instead, because that’s caused many problems down the line with people just being like “Oh yeah, let’s just post things that we’d post to LessWrong”, which was not really what the subreddit was taken over for.

Daystar Eld: Right.

Alexander Wales: So that was December 2013. The initial mods, I think it was…

Daystar Eld: Eatyourbrains, I believe?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was Eatyourbrains and Seraphnb, I think. Who has now deleted their account. I think those were the founding two. The mod team is currently myself and PeridexisErrant. Who actually might have been one of the original mods too. This all happened following a post in HPMOR in December, where it was asking what are the characteristics of rational stories. And there was this post by Vivificent who basically laid out what is currently the sidebar of our rational. And that’s changed a little bit as time went on. Things were added and removed to that. But I think it’s fairly close to being the same as his initial comment.

Daystar Eld: Right. So the subreddit was created. A lot of the recommendations that people have been making over the months get posted there including Branches on the Tree of Time, your other story The Last Christmas. I start posting Origin of Species around that time, and originally I was posting a chapter in both HPMOR and rational, but then after the fifth or six chapter I was just posting it in rational. Because a lot of the people in the HPMOR subreddit had subscribed to rational by then, so it was essentially the same community.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That was our feed population, was HPMOR. There are some people now, I occasionally see comments with people who don’t know what HPMOR is and have never read it.

Daystar Eld: Which is great, because now they’re one of the lucky ten-thousand.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And there was a post on the subreddit recently talking about what is the point of entry, and it’s sort of grown beyond HPMOR because people disagree on whether that’s a good point of entry to the genre. Even if it’s like, the Ur-example. Which I’m sort of on the fence about.

Daystar Eld: I mean yeah, I kind of just maybe out of personal preference, I would like everyone to read HPMOR if they’re at all interested in rationalist fiction just because I feel like it’s such a good example of it. But I definitely understand if some people aren’t huge Harry Potter fans or get turned off by the… well, that’s a different…

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s a different episode.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. Around this time also Yudkowsky recommended Worm, which is not a rationalist fiction. Kind of but not really a rational fiction. I would be okay with calling it a rational fiction but I’m okay with other people saying it’s not too.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. This is one of the things you can get in fights with people on the subreddit about. Whether or not Worm is rational. And I don’t think it is, partly because I know wildbow, he’s expressed some hesitance about that label. And I think that if you’re an author and you say “Well, I don’t think that label applies to my work”, especially for a label like rational, I think that’s your prerogative. I’m willing to accept it in that case. I think that the label got applied to Worm by a lot of people, not Yudkowsky and himself.

Daystar Eld: Right. I definitely wouldn’t want to pull anyone into our community against their will. But I’m more than happy to recommend it to people in our community as something they’re probably going to enjoy. First off, it’s a superhero fiction where essentially the idea of what happens if superheroes are real really is explored from top to bottom. At the basic kids in high school that wake up one day with superpowers, to the how governments interact, how governments treats the superheroes, how superheroes interact with the government and civilian populations, privatized, public, all that stuff. Everything’s examined. Everything is interacting with each other. And in and of itself, it’s just a great character-driven story, plot-driven story, amazing fight scenes, all that good stuff. And what gets it called a rational fiction a lot or a rationalist fiction by some people even, is the fact that the main character is, in all respects intelligent, thoughtful, and good at examining how to get the most out of her powers or the powers of those around her. She’s a munchkin. A term that generally just means someone who uses the rules of the game to their advantage. And in some respects maybe cheats the rules a bit, uses loopholes, things like that. And she’s able to get quite a lot out of her essentially not on it’s face impressive power of controlling insects. And that’s really one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable read for a lot of rationalists or rational readers.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And I think a similar one that I don’t- it doesn’t come from inside the genre, it comes from outside the genre. Mother of Learning was not written as rational fiction. It sort of adopted that label, or gotten into it. Harry Potter…

Daystar Eld: And the Natural 20.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 has similarly been called rational but it wasn’t written as rational fiction and I kind of prefer not to try to interpret works as rational if that’s not what the author has been intending because I think that’s part of the reason for wildbow’s hesitance there is that a lot of people come in and they say “Oh, this isn’t rational and this isn’t rational”, and it’s like, well, that’s not what it is.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 is a delightful read, very funny. It’s a great examination of the rules differences between the DnD and the Harry Potter magic system. But it’s main character Milo is a munchkin first and foremost, not a rationalist. Not a rational character in many respects.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The Two Year Emperor, also.

Daystar Eld: Yup.

Alexander Wales: I am pretty sure that was in late 2013, but that was one of the early ones and sort of widely talked about in rational subreddit.

Daystar Eld: The Two Year Emperor is a…

Alexander Wales: A portal fantasy.

Daystar Eld: Portal fantasy, yeah.

Alexander Wales: And it goes into DnD “rules as written”, which is a sort of a term that came out of the character optimization boards. And if you take the DnD rules as written, they are absolutely insane. And Two Year Emperor has a lot of fun with that. I think 2014 is sort of when we get into the sort of mainstream current history. In May I wrote A Bluer Shade of White, which is a Frozen fanfic that I originally wrote for a bitcoin bounty. Someone had offered a prompt with a bounty if someone could deliver, so I wrote A Bluer Shade of White. I never got that bounty because it took me more than the stated week, but then I wrote, or I posted the first chapter of Metropolitan Man.

Daystar Eld: I have to admit that I have not read A Bluer Shade of White. I actually haven’t seen Frozen. So I’ve been kind of waiting until the inevitable “Oh, I guess I should see Frozen”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. You should see Frozen. Frozen is a good movie. I would say it’s in the top twenty-five percent of Disney movies. I like Frozen a lot, but it also, like a Disney movie, doesn’t really care about a lot of things.

Daystar Eld: I know at the very least that there is a lady who has ice powers and at some point creates a sentient talking snowman and this is not explored at all in the story.

Alexander Wales: Right. He’s comic relief.

Daystar Eld: Right. I fully look forward to seeing how you expand on that which I’m sure you do. But Metropolitan Man was again, just another amazing exploration of Superman. The golden age superman specifically, back in the forties, fifties?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Well, golden age is forties/fifties, Metropolitan Man is actually set in the 1930s. I think it’s ‘34 and ‘35.

Daystar Eld: So, right. So Lex Luthor is the main character. He’s a rational protagonist who is examining this alien god who has come to Earth and is dispensing justice. And it does a great job of examining why Lex Luthor is not an evil insane person who just wants to stop everything good and just about the world for no reason. He is someone who is on the less empathetic side, doesn’t really care about killing people if they get in his way or, having people die as a result of his plans. But his main concern is the continued existence of planet Earth and its people. So when he sees Superman show up and understands what it means for there to be a 0.1% chance even of Superman at some point destroying the world realizes, okay, it’s probably best to kill Superman. And it was widely received fairly well. It’s another story that I recommend to most people I know. Most people enjoy it.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The reaction was — I don’t want to say mixed, but — a lot of people had the reaction of, “I liked that story but I’m never going to read it again”.

Daystar Eld: Ha, that’s what I always wanted to do with the ending. But I’m not going to, I don’t know if we should say that because of spoilers, spoiler alert. Most people have mixed reactions to the ending.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. I mean we can talk about that at a later point.

Daystar Eld: Absolutely. I’d be thoroughly happy to have an episode about Metropolitan Man.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. But that basically brings us up to — I think — current history. The stories I’m following right now is Animorphs: The Reckoning, there’s a lot of Worm fanfic, I think that’s pretty common. It’s Taylor with a different powerset.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And there are a number of other stories, we can’t really name all of them. But just off the top of my head, I remember there was a Death Note fanfic that was doing pretty well. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been discontinued at some point.

Alexander Wales: The Waves Arisen. That’s complete now, and that’s one that I recommend.

Daystar Eld: Yeah, another Naruto fanfic. And there’s a number of stories now that you can find on the subreddit r/rational. We’ve got everything there from fanfiction to original fiction, from short stories to web serials, one-offs. Scott Alexander from Slate Star Codex is writing Unsong.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s one of the ones I would not consider rational. But I don’t have any qualms about that being on the subreddit. I just would like people not to take it as rational fiction. Because I think if you come into it with that mindset you’re not going to enjoy it as much.

Daystar Eld: Right. I was just going to say. One of the things about the community now is that it’s fairly open. We don’t need to restrict necessarily the works that are posted to the subreddit, as long as we know the difference between them and they’re clearly marked. So I’m always happy to talk about and engage in conversations about stories that are enjoyed by the community and see people talk about them. As long as the tags and the guidelines and things like that make it clear what is and isn’t rational and rationalist fiction, you can go to the subreddit and enjoy a wide variety of stories without necessarily thinking, “Oh well, if something isn’t rational I can’t post it here and talk about it with other people who enjoy rational fiction”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

Daystar Eld: So that’s pretty much the recent history of the still fairly new rational community. I should say rational fiction community, the rational community is a much wider thing. And it’s not exactly important to know for people who are getting into the genre, but if you ever plan on going to the subreddit or are wanting to discuss the topics or the stories that lead you there with other people, that’s just an idea of where it came from and what it meant to at least two of the readers and participants in the community. It’s at the very least been a positive and constructive influence on my life, so I’m happy to be part of it.

Alexander Wales: Yeah, me too.

Daystar Eld: Alright. Thanks for joining us, and starting with episode one, we’re going to start discussing in more detail what the rational fiction genre is, what the rationalist fiction genre is, how to tell the difference. And from there go on to giving advice and discussing the stories and genres. So hope you’ll join us for that.

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

[The outro plays.]

1 – What is Rational Writing?

Webserial authors Daystar Eld and Alexander Wales share their thoughts on what rational writing is, and describe the Rational and Rationalist writing genres.

 

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

Websites mentioned in episode:

https://www.reddit.com/r/rational

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RationalFic

http://hpmor.com/

http://www.thebayesianconspiracy.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Chapter 8: Priorities

When Red next wakes, he feels much better rested. His phone shows almost eleven, and a text from half an hour ago tells him Blue and Leaf are waiting in the common room.

Red takes his time showering, then heads to the laundry room to pick up his clothes from last night. The small holes in his shirt are barely noticeable without any blood around them, and the smell is completely gone. He packs them back in his bag, then goes downstairs.

The common room isn’t as crowded as it had been the night before, and he quickly spots Leaf and Blue seated across from each other in a square of couches with a table between them. Bulbasaur sits in a potted plant beside Leaf with his eyes closed, and Leaf rubs between his ears.

“Jerk,” Red says, taking his hat off Blue’s head and sniffing it experimentally before putting it over his damp hair. He’d taken it off during the break in training the night before, and it hadn’t absorbed the smell of Charmander’s smoke nearly as much as the rest of his clothes had.

“There you are,” Leaf says with a smile. “Have trouble sleeping last night?”

Red sighs and flops down on a third couch. “You could say that. Is this food for me?”

“Yep.” Blue nudges the plastic box across the table with his foot.

“Thanks.” Red opens it and chows down on the cold noodles and strips of beef. “Sorry I couldn’t join you guys.”

“So what kept you up?”

Red swallows his mouthful, picking his words carefully. “In my attempts to mitigate optimism bias, I fell prey to the planning fallacy.”

Leaf raises a brow. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I hate it when that happens.”

Blue snorts. “I’m pretty sure it’s nerd for ‘I screwed up.'”

So Red summarizes his night as he eats. His friends seem particularly interested in how the smoke works, and Red passes his notes to Leaf as Blue takes out his pokedex and looks up a video of it in action.

“The pokedex really is an amazing tool for training,” Leaf says. “I spent some time virtually training my pokemon last night to reinforce their target priorities, so it’s even easier for them to recognize friendly pokemon like Charmander or Squirtle if there are other pokemon around.”

Blue scratches his neck. “Are you going to work on training your rattata and pidgey too, or focus on Bulbasaur for now?”

“I want to at least get comfortable with all of them.”

“What about you, Blue?” Red asks.

“YouBlue.” Leaf giggles. “Hey, what’s new, Blue? Say it isn’t true, Blue! What’s your favorite hue, Blue?”

Blue ignores her. “Well, I’ve had a few ideas for what my core team is going to be…”

“I know you always wanted a pidgeot on it.”

Blue nods. “Which is why I’ve already started working with Zephyr.”

“Zephyr? Oh. When did you name him?”

“This morning.” Blue grins. “Leaf and I did some practice maneuvers on the roof, and he flew circles around Crimson.”

Leaf rolls her eyes. “Circle. Singular. He flew one circle around Crimson, and it wasn’t even during a race.”

“Technically still happened. I’m counting it.”

Red finishes eating as they argue, and spies a trash can to throw the box out. On the way back to his seat, he sees Amy sitting across the lobby on her own. Today she’s wearing jeans, a sleeveless blue vest over a white shirt, and a white cap. When he waves to her, she waves back, then walks over to their couches and sits on the one across from him. “Heya Red.”

“Hi Amy.” The other two are looking at her curiously. “These are my friends, Leaf and Blue. I met Amy last night in the training rooms.”

Amy smiles. “Nice to meet you all.”

“You’re a battle trainer!” Blue says, spying the red Volcano Badge on her hat. “Are you here to challenge Leader Giovanni?”

“I actually already have the Earth Badge.” She turns over the left side of her jacket, where a cluster of colorful medals gleam. “It was my third.” Red leans forward and sees the small green badge, along with the Marsh, Rainbow and Soul Badges.

Blue’s eyes light up as he examines them. “Nice. What are you in town for then?”

“I came up from Cinnabar to meet my brother. He just got his last badge and is about to head to the Indigo Plateau.”

“That’s awesome! How old is he? What was his last badge? Does he plan to go to Johto? Do you-”

“Breathe, Blue,” Leaf says. “I’m sure she didn’t come over here to answer endless questions.”

Amy smiles. “It’s fine, really. Twenty-seven, Thunder Badge, and not yet. He wants to try his hand at the League first while he waits for me to catch up.”

“Are you heading up to get the Boulder Badge after, then?” Blue asks.

“The Boulder Gym is in Pewter City, north of Viridian Forest,” Red explains to Leaf.

“I know, I’ve been reading the map.” She smiles at Amy. “I’m from Unova. We’re heading to Pewter City too, if you want some travel company.”

Amy looks between them. “You guys didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?”

Red gets a sinking feeling, and takes his phone out to check CoRRNet as Amy says, “A sudden storm developed in the Pewter Mountains. It’s far to the north as of this morning but the whole city is on high alert. I’m going to hold off until we know for sure where it’s headed.”

Leaf looks around in the quiet that follows, studying their tense expressions. “Is it one of them?” she asks, voice low. “What kind of storm is it?” Her fingers lie still on Bulbasaur’s head, and after a moment he shifts a bit, eyes slipping halfway open. He growls quietly, and she resumes rubbing between his ears.

“Lightning,” Red says, reading the report, which warns citizens in the area to check back every few hours to keep track of its movements. “Low precipitation, still a single cell… but a single cell that’s been going for two days now.” It goes on to call for experienced trainers to gather in Pewter and Cerulean in case of attack. Red’s stomach clenches, and he looks at Blue, who’s watching him. So soon… We’re not ready!

“A storm that small lasting that long is definitely not natural,” Amy says. “Which means Zapdos is active again. I’m thinking of taking a detour to Vermillion City until he blows himself out. I suggest you guys hang around here for a bit, wait to see where it moves to.”

Blue is leaning back against the couch, arms crossed. He looks at Red and nods, and Red takes a breath before nodding back. “No,” Blue says. “We’re going.”

Amy blinks. “Going… to Pewter?” She looks from Blue to Red’s determined faces, and her expression hardens. “I take it back Red, you are dewy-eyed. Maybe even stupid. What do you think you’re going to accomplish, other than getting yourselves or your pokemon killed?”

Red opens his mouth to respond, but Blue cuts him off. “What do you care? Run off if you want to; the real trainers will be there with us to defend the city.”

Leaf’s eyes widen, and Red winces. “What he means is-”

“He said what he meant,” Amy says, voice level as she meets Blue’s gaze. “Who do you think you are, kid? You’ve had your pokemon, what, a day or two, and you think that makes you a trainer? Have you ever experienced what the storm gods can do? I have. Watching vids on the net and fantasizing about catching one doesn’t give you a clue of what it’s like.”

Blue drops his gaze to his splayed legs. “My parents were killed when Moltres flew over Fuchsia. I’m not going so I can try and catch Zapdos. I’m going so I can help protect the people there.”

Red listens to the other sounds in the lobby in the quiet that follows. One of the people working at the front desk is chattering on the phone, and some trainers across the room are spread out around a flatscreen watching a subtitled movie, its volume on low. There’s a loud flapping to his side, and he turns to see a spearow with a hood over its eyes perched on a trainer’s gauntleted arm as he walks toward the elevators.

Leaf is watching Blue sadly, and Amy’s expression is a bit softer, though her brow is still furrowed.

When it’s clear Blue won’t say anything else, Red clears his throat. “We made a promise, when we were younger. Swore that we’d do whatever we could against the trio, once we have our own pokemon.” He turns to Leaf. “You don’t have to come. It’s not your fight, and it’s not your region. We can meet up again after the danger’s past.”

Leaf bites her lip. “As great a chapter as it would make for my book, I’m not exactly eager to rush into a storm caused by a legendary. We have our own trio in Unova, and I still have nightmares about the time Tornadus swept through Accumula Town. If mom found out I ran headlong into a Tier 3 threat the first week I got here, she’d tear up my trainer license herself.”

Red feels a stab of guilt at that. Be careful, Red… He shies away from the thought of what his death would do to his mother. More visceral than that, fear coils in his belly as he remembers the death and destruction the Storm Birds, or “Storm Gods” as some still call them, can bring.

Fear that he knows his father had probably faced down dozens of times, against one of the trio or lesser threats. Can he hold himself to a lower standard?

But it’s too soon! We were supposed to have more time to prepare than this. Surely it’s safer, saner, to steer clear for now, and get more experience and pokemon…

Red studies the set of Blue’s jaw, the way he glares down, arms crossed. As things stand, Blue will go with or without him. And despite what he said about his motives, Red knows Blue would try to kill the Storm Birds if he has the chance. I need to review my options for changing his mind.

He tables the thought for later. Even if they end up going, he can still keep his word to his mom, and take rational precautions. “We’re not going to run headlong into it,” Red says. “There are things we can do besides try to drive off Zapdos ourselves. Even if it’s just to help with the evacuation, or those who get injured.”

Blue nods. “We’re not stupid. I wouldn’t send Squirtle or Zephyr out in the middle of a lightning storm, and we don’t have any ground pokemon between us. There are still other things we can do though, especially if we catch some new pokemon on the way.”

Leaf twists her hair around a finger, then lets it go and takes a deep breath and nods. “I’m okay with using CoRRNet to help with any periphery tasks they need help with.”

“That’s the idea,” Red says. “My dad was a Ranger, and he always talked about the need for more trainers in the area. Most local pokemon go to ground and wait the storms out, but some can go wild and attack anyone in the area.”

Amy frowns, but says, “Well, that’s a bit more sensible. Just remember that the storms move faster than normal weather. You could be dealing with some minor threat one minute, and be at the heart of it all the next. And then there’s the Pressure…”

“We’ll be careful,” Red says.

Amy taps her foot a bit, seems about to say something, then nods and settles back in her seat. “Alright. As long as you’re aware of the risks, which it seems you are. Sorry I called you stupid.”

Red smiles. “No harm done.”

Blue notices Red and Leaf looking at him after a moment, and frowns. “Yeah, no harm done. And… sorry I implied you’re not a real trainer.”

Amy shrugs. “You’ll get it once you’ve experienced it as a trainer yourself. It takes a lot out of you and your pokemon, wears on you psychologically. Go every time and you’ll get strung out, start jumping at shadows and making dangerous mistakes.”

“The Leaders show up whenever they can,” Blue says, though not accusingly.

She smiles. “Yeah, well, that’s part of what makes them Leaders.”

“When was your last encounter with one?” Leaf asks, taking out her phone fiddling with it. “And do you mind if I record this?”

“Uh… no I guess not. It was a few months ago. Articuno flew by Lavender near the end of winter, nearly buried the town in a blizzard before it was driven off. My brother and I got severe hypothermia, and he lost a couple toes to frostbite where his boot was cut open by some ice.”

“Do the birds come yearly?”

“Yeah, each one is seasonal,” Red says, and Leaf turns the recording end of the phone to him. “The exact days vary, but Articuno usually becomes active in the winter, Zapdos in the summer, and Moltres in the fall. This is really early for Zapdos. They’ve been spotted flying around at other times, but they don’t bring the storms. Or maybe it’s better to say the storms aren’t around to attract them; there’s a lot of controversy over how the two interact.”

Leaf nods. “Same with our Forces of Nature and their elements. So no fourth bird for spring?”

“There may have been, once,” Red says. “There are legends of a fourth god that flies in spring, with rainbow or golden plumage. It didn’t cause storms in its wake, so if it’s still around, it’s hard to notice. It might even be entirely mythical, people just trying to fill the pattern of the seasons with a made up pokemon. The stories say its feathers had rejuvenating powers, and could even restore life to the dead, so mythologically it fits the spring theme pretty well.”

Blue snorts. “Maybe it was real at some point, and someone knocked it out of the sky to steal all its feathers.”

“In any case, spring is a nice breather,” Amy says. “Most years it’s not a big deal; they fly around the wilderness, and everyone stays on high alert in case they wander near any towns or populated areas. A bit stressful now and then, but you get used to it. The year before last we only had to deal with Moltres getting too close to some farms, while Zapdos just circled the mountains for a few weeks, and Articuno turned some uninhabited island into a glacier all winter.”

As they continue to discuss the last few years of the storm trio’s activity, Red closes the CoRRNet announcement and sees an update on his ticket from yesterday. A ranger had closed it, with the comment “Rattata nest found and relocated farther from path. Pallet-Viridian Route secure.” A small bubble of pride warms him. However minor, it’s good to know that they made a difference, and that their experience helped keep others safe.

He does a search for open tickets in the area and spots a few. Most are flagged for Rangers, others for any experienced trainers in the area. Nothing in the city at the moment that requires the help of newbies.

“We boring you, Red?”

“Hm?” Red looks up to see Leaf smiling at him. She doesn’t have her phone out anymore, and he belatedly realizes that he hasn’t heard any conversation for the past few seconds.

“Nah, he probably just had a thought and completely forgot we existed,” Blue says, stretching his arms behind his head. “He does that.”

Red’s cheeks flush, and he closes CoRRNet and puts his phone away. “Sorry, did I miss a question?”

“I asked if you still want to go to the Earth Gym, or if you’d rather head up to Viridian right away.”

“Actually, I want to do some shopping, if that’s alright with you guys.”

“I thought you were trying to conserve your cash?”

“I was. I did my best to pack everything that might be useful, and thought it was enough. But last night’s training drove home how woefully unprepared I am. I’d rather have the gear I need now, like my own gas mask.”

“If you guys are headed north soon, there’s a supply store on the way-” Amy’s phone chimes, and she takes it out. “Excuse me.”

“See that?” Blue says to Red. “Manners.”

Red frowns at him as Leaf covers her grin. “You’re one to talk.”

“Hello? Hey! Yeah, I’m at the trainer house. Are you… cool, I’ll come out now. See you in a bit!”

She ends the call and stands. “My brother’s here. You guys want to meet him?”

“Sure,” Blue says as they all get to their feet.

“This way,” she says, heading for the elevators. “He doesn’t like landing at street level.”

Leaf returns Bulbasaur to his ball in a flash of light, and they go to the roof. The noise of the city washes over them as soon as they step out into the sunlight, a bit muted by their elevation. Other buildings rise up around them, most much higher than the trainer house, though not as wide. Some trainers fly by now and again riding their pokemon, but Amy gazes upward, her eyes shaded against the sun as she searches.

Red studies the landing platform that takes up a third of the roof, marked off by divisions for multiple pokemon to land at once. Another third of the roof is divided into dozens of squares the size of a small closet, designated as a safe spot for psychic trainers who have keyed the trainer house as their pokemon’s “home” to teleport in.

Not for the first time, Red finds himself watching the teleporting zone, hoping to spot someone pop into existence with their pokemon. There was a similar area in Pallet Town that he used to spend hours watching when he was younger, hoping to see someone pop into existence. His dad had come home that way once, and Red had stayed up as late as he could to greet him, only to succumb to sleep a half hour before he arrived.

Even in a major city like this, the teleportations are rare enough that he knows he probably won’t see anyone. Most people train their pokemon to warp directly to a pokemon center, which Red finds a bit pointless, since one of the greatest benefits of pokeball technology is that they can freeze their pokemon at any level of injury and get them to a pokemon center without worry. First teleport priority would probably be the nearest hospital. Second would be home for when I want to visit Pallet, third maybe the Celadon City Department Store

“There he is! Hey Donny!

A distant screech answers her yell, and they turn to follow Amy’s gaze as she waves her arms. Above the tallest building, sunlight flashes off something metallic. For a moment Red thinks a hang glider is swooping down at them, until he sees the red frills and a thrill goes through him.

The skarmory pulls out of its dive when it’s level with the roof top, and sails over the edge and onto one of the runways. Its legs kick as it touches down, bouncing it back up a few times with its wings flared until it finally slows to a stop.

The trainer on its back unbuckles himself from the leather harness and hops down. Amy jogs forward to meet him, and Red and Blue exchange amazed grins as they run forward to join her. By the time they cross the roof to the end of his runway, Amy’s brother has fed his pokemon something from a pouch at his waist and is stroking its neck.

“Hey Bro!” Amy tackle hugs the other blonde, who’s a head taller and easily spins her around. He’s dressed in a thick leather aviator jacket and pants, loose buckles hanging from his belt where it had attached to skarmory’s harness.

“Hey, Sis.” He puts her down and pushes a pair of goggles to his forehead to reveal eyes as light as Professor Oak’s. “You didn’t mention you had a welcome party waiting.”

“These are some newbies I met. Red, Blue, Leaf, this is my brother Donovan and his skarmory, Mags. How’s it going girl?” She runs her nails over the metallic bird’s fin, which causes it to preen, its plate-like feathers lifting and falling in a ripple that sounds like a quick rain of coins.

They exchange greetings. Leaf admires the skarmory and says “Your pokemon is so beautiful! I didn’t know there were skarmory in this region.”

“There usually aren’t,” Blue says. “Did you trade her from someone in Johto?” Red had expected Blue to bombard the competitive trainer with questions, but so far he’s showing remarkable restraint.

“Nah, I took a trip down to the Sevii Islands a couple years ago and found her there.”

Red smiles. “Her nickname, Mags. That’s short for magnesium, right?”

Amy looks smug. “Yep. Guess whose idea that was?” She sticks two thumbs at herself, and her brother grabs her wrists and tries to point them at himself.

Red sees Blue and Leaf’s bemused looks and says, “The metal that skarmory are coated in is a unique magnesium alloy that’s lighter than others. It’s still incredibly strong given its weight, though it’s still about as combustible as most Metal types.”

Blue puts on a thoughtful expression and nods as he side-whispers, “‘Metal’ types,” to Leaf, who smiles and elbows him.

“Would it be alright if I pet her?” Leaf asks.

“Sure, let’s see if she’s in a good mood first.” He tugs on the thin chain around his neck and pulls a whistle out the front of his jacket. Watching his skarmory, he blows a few sharp whistles, then a low warble.

Red doesn’t notice any particular response from Mags, but apparently Donovan reads something from his pokemon, because after a moment he takes the whistle out and says, “Okay, we should be good. Approach slowly from her side and keep your hands free of the area around her wings, they’re very sharp. Also, be sure to stroke from front to back. Ladies first?”

Leaf grins and steps forward, hands carefully held up. Mags notices her when she’s a few steps away, and the pokemon’s attention sharpens, whole body going still. Leaf pauses while Donovan soothes Mags until the skarmory seems calm again, then continues forward until she can run her hand tentatively down the bird’s side.

“Oh!” she gasps. “It’s so… not soft, exactly, but… not hard either. Strong, but yielding.”

After another few moments she steps away, and Blue goes next. Mags shuffles from foot to foot, but allows herself to be stroked without complaint. Donovan watches his pokemon carefully, whistle held up near his lips as he instructs, “Just there… right. You can explore a bit, but no sudden movements. A few more seconds… okay, now slowly step back.”

When it’s Red’s turn to approach, a knot of tension forms in his stomach, and he hesitates. His eyes dart to the razor sharp edges of skarmory’s wings, talon and beak, imagination painting a far too vivid picture of what it would look like tearing through his body.

Donovan wouldn’t let us approach if he wasn’t sure of his training. He tries to step forward, feet doing an awkward half-shuffle. His instincts ignore rational argument and continue to insist that he get as far away from the metallic death machine as he can.

Only a few seconds have passed, and the others are beginning to glance at him curiously. The shame propels him another half-step forward, but no further. This is mutiny! he yells at his jelly legs.

Then the thin iris of the skarmory’s eye meets his, and Red sees an assessment in its alien gaze. Is he a friend, a foe… or possibly food?

Red takes a deep breath, and focuses on his thought process. What are my priorities, and how do my actions align with them?

Priority one: Learn as much as possible about pokemon so I can become a Professor, which also helps-

Priority two: Become an effective trainer, so that I can –

Priority three: Protect the public, benefits of which includes –

Priority four: Gain respect among tribe members and wider community, which helps-

Priority five: Get funding and support to discover the origin of pokemon species.

This paralysis hinders all of the above priorities. So what is its purpose?

To protect the self, loss of which also hinders all of the above.

Exaggeration: The life as a trainer requires far more dangerous risks than this. How can I expect to help Blue against the storm birds if I can’t even do this?

Irrelevant: Possibility of future justified risk doesn’t excuse present recklessness.

Strawman: Present risk is not reckless, and is justified by mitigating future risk through contribution to priorities one and two. What purpose, value, or priority does this fear serve?

Another couple seconds have passed, and a drop of sweat creeps down the back of Red’s neck as he continues to meet the skarmory’s gaze. Some pokemon flies near the building, but doesn’t land on the roof with them.

None. It just is, the simple consequence of acknowledging reality. If someone as capable as dad could die, so can I, and far more easily.

Red lets out his breath. Dad wasn’t ignorant of reality. He knew the risks. And if he could overcome his fear, so can I, or I might as well go home now.

Red takes a step forward. The next is easier, but on the third the armored bird shifts a bit. Red stops, sweat breaking out all over his body. Donovan strokes Mags’s beak, and when she calms down again, Red forces himself to take another step, wiping his clammy hands on his pants. He’s acutely aware that the others are watching him, but as long as he keeps moving forward, he doesn’t have to feel ashamed of the fluttering in his belly.

Once he’s close enough to touch the skarmory, he stops and looks at Donovan. The trainer studies his pokemon briefly, then nods at him. Red slowly reaches out a hand and rests it on the skarmory’s thigh… and sudden wonder blows his fear away.

What looks like a smooth metal body is in fact thousands of small metallic feathers. Each is incredibly fine, but their combined overlapping strength gives the pokemon its incredible physical durability.

“Make a stroking motion, so she knows you’re friendly,” Donovan says, and Red does so, amazed by the distant feel of the warm body beneath the cool metal coating. He’s never felt anything like it.

“Is it alright if I look closer?” Red asks.

“Sure, give me a sec.” Donovan snaps his fingers in front of Mags. The skarmory fixes her attention on her trainer, then the bright blue pokepuff he pulls out of a pocket in his jacket. “Okay, go ahead,” he tells Red, keeping his gaze on his pokemon.

Red crouches forward and examines the glossy coat from an inch away. From here, he can just barely make out that the ripples of distortion on the pokemon’s metal coat, which he’d originally taken to be lines of impurity, are actually super thin divisions where the scale-like feathers overlap.

“Got a few more seconds,” Donovan says. Red nods, and after a few more strokes, steps away from the pokemon. Some of his nervousness returns now that he’s no longer touching it, and he backs away until he’s with Leaf and Blue again.

He braces himself for some comment by the others, but Blue just claps him on the back, and Leaf smiles at him. “Pretty awesome, huh?”

“Definitely.” Red turns to Donovan and Amy. “Thank you very much.” That seems inadequate, so he puts his hands to his sides and bows from the waist, at about a thirty degree angle. “It was an honor to be able to interact with your pokemon, Donovan-san.”

Blue bows beside him, and after a surprised look Leaf mimics them. Globalization had faded much of each region’s unique culture in the times of Red’s grandparents and great grandparents, homogenizing everything from names to language to currency, but children are still taught the basic historical etiquette.

The older trainers look amused, but Donovan returns the bow after a moment. “It was my pleasure.” He gives Mags one more scratch along her neck, then steps back and returns her to her pokeball in a flash of light. “So what’s the story with you three? From around here?”

They tell him where they’re from as they walk back to the roof access and take the elevator down. Once in the common room, Red notices a bigger crowd than there had been earlier. Most of them seem gathered near the entrance.

“What’s up?” Blue asks one of the trainers nearby.

“Someone said Reza Salur is on his way here.”

Reza’s here?” Blue stands on his toes and cranes his neck to look over the crowd.

“Ah, shit,” Donovan says with a rueful grin. “I was hoping he’d get bogged down in Cerulean a while longer.”

Red scratches beneath his cap. “Why is that name familiar?”

Blue gives him a flat look. “Do you ever listen when I talk?”

“Depends. Is he a battle trainer you admire, or did he actually do something important?” Red looks at Amy and Donovan. “No offense.”

Amy grins. “None taken.”

Blue rolls his eyes. “He’s the dragon trainer that single-handedly stopped a kangaskhan herd from flattening Rifu Village last year.”

Red frowns. “Rings a faint bell.”

“You know him?” Leaf asks Donovan.

“Yeah, a bit. We met for the first time a couple years back in the Saffron Gym. It was his third badge, my second. Since then we’ve been keeping tabs on each other’s progress. He-”

The front door opens, and a young man with dark skin and a black jacket walks in. He seems surprised for a moment by the number of people near the entrance, but quickly continues forward to the front desk. His hair is worn long, and swept to hang over the left side of his face.

“Younger than I expected,” Amy says.

Donovan nods. “He’s about your age.”

When he finishes checking in, Reza makes his way through the common room, gaze on the elevators ahead as he ignores the looks and whispers of those around him. Once Reza is past the crowd and fully in sight, Red sees the heavy scars that run along his left jaw and cheek, partially obscured by hair.

Donovan gives a casual salute with two fingers. The dragon trainer glances at him, then smiles in wry amusement and nods back. As he passes, Red notices the conspicuous lack of an ear under his hair, and wonders how far the scarring goes.

“So he’s challenging the League too?” Red asks once he passes.

“Yep. Part of me wants to see how good he is for myself, but I won’t complain if he gets knocked out before that. Fighting dragons is never fun.”

“Nor training them, from the looks of it,” Leaf says, and Red nods. As I’ll find out for myself, someday. His thumb rubs the roof of Charmander’s pokeball.

The crowd is beginning to disperse, and the group makes their way through to the front desk to check out. When it’s his turn, Red swipes his trainer card, then pays four dollars, plus another two for the use of the training room.

“Thank you for staying,” the receptionist says. “We hope to see you again soon!” Red thanks him and joins the others outside.

“Well, I’m starving,” Donovan announces once they’re outside. “How does seafood sound to you, Ames?”

“Right behind you.” She turns to them. “Care to join us?”

“I already ate.” Red looks at the others, “What do you guys think?”

“We should probably get going,” Blue says. “I want to get to Viridian Forest today.”

Leaf nods. “It was great to meet the two of you!”

Amy smiles. “It was. I hope you enjoy your time in Kanto, Leaf.”

“Thanks, I’m loving it so far!”

Blue turns to Donovan. “Good luck in the league. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

They say their farewells and part. Red’s a bit disappointed that Amy won’t be traveling with them, but his excitement to be back on the move quickly dominates his mood as they walk up the street and head north.

“Okay, so there’s a few stores on the way that have what I need,” he says as he checks online. “Is there anything you guys want to pick up too?”

“Wouldn’t mind getting a whistle and chain,” Blue says.

Leaf looks up at the summer sun as it beat down on them. “And I’d like to find a nice hat.”

“Hat, whistle, gas mask…” Red types with his thumbs, watching stores fade from the map until two are left. “Got one.” He puts his phone away, already thinking of what else he’d like to buy. “The closest is on the northern edge of the city though. Do we want to leave just yet?”

Leaf checks the time. “Well, I’m glad we met Amy and Donovan, but we’re behind schedule.”

“Yeah, I’d like to get to the forest before dark,” Blue says. “What say you, master fallacy planner? Think we can make it?”

Red rolls his eyes and shrugs. “Sure, as long as no more than three moderately interesting or disrupting unexpected things happen along the way.”

Blue smiles. “Those odds aren’t so bad.”

Just then, an exeggutor runs out from a restaurant ahead of them, a food held in each of its numerous mouths. Cars honk as it dashes across the street, and someone in a suit runs after it, pokeball in hand as he tries to get a lock on his pokemon. The two are followed by a pair of angry restaurant staff, and the trainers watch them all run by, then look at each other.

Blue steps to the edge of the sidewalk and holds up a hand at one of the stopped cabs. “Taxi!”