What would it be like? When the answer came it appeared quite naturally.
The change from human to cyborg would feel like a snake shedding its skin. Of course.
The instrument of transformation 1988–1992
Chapter 2 of my 2004 PhD Thesis “A Journey of Integration”.
I learned to use a computer in 1985 as part of a B.A. Hons degree in Humanities¹. Prior to that my only intimate experience with complex mechanisms had been using a manual knitting machine, with which I made knitwear at home to sell. At that time I had not yet even learned to drive a car. My interests lay in handicrafts — sewing, knitting, crochet, weaving, cooking and gardening. I had not written creatively since my teens in the late 60s.
My most significant discovery about computers was the notion of programming. I was intrigued by the reliability of code. It seemed somehow entirely trustworthy — as long as it was properly written with no errors, it would perform perfectly over and over again. I learned how to write simple routines in Basic, including the concept of the recursive loop, and the IF-THEN-ELSE statements of algorithms. They were a revelation. They reminded me of a job I had had in my late teens when I worked as an accounts clerk for a confectionery company and my duties included balancing the takings for 135 shops. I had enjoyed that weekly task, shaving a day off the schedule and always completing it early. It had been thrilling to achieve a balance, especially when it involved detective work to discover errors in the figures. Working with code seemed very similar — there was always a deep and secure sense that perfection lay somewhere within if procedures were followed correctly, and if failure occurred it would be possible, eventually, to identify the reason even if one could not always remedy it. It was simply a question of applying the rules, and since the Learning of Rules had been germane to my upbringing I quickly connected with the notion of a rule-based environment.
I was raised in England, the eldest child of three in a Dutch family who had largely thrown off their Dutchness but were reluctant to fill the vacuum with the Englishness of their chosen country. We saw ourselves as outside the norm, different and probably superior to, the traditional English ways of life around us. We frequently moved house and my style of speech mutated from a slow rural Leicestershire, to singsong Newcastle Geordie, through clipped South Downs, and on to a rounded Nottinghamshire. My father made sure that none of us adopted his suave Netherlands burr, insisting that we adhere perfectly to the rules of English grammar as he had learned them, despite our protestations that he might have misunderstood one or two of the technicalities. (Example: It is rude to say ‘what’ under any circumstances. Never say ‘What is that?’ Always say ‘Which is that?’).
This was made more complicated by the fact that sometimes my family played by Dutch Rules and sometimes by English Rules. It was most often Dutch Rules at Sunday lunchtime, the only occasion when we were encouraged to speak the native family tongue and when we learned many food nouns but virtually no other parts of speech beyond the Dutch for ‘Please pass the…’ (which I have now forgotten anyway). It was Dutch Rules when I was taken to church, when I was bought sensible shoes, and when I had to be home an hour before any of my friends. Dutch Rules were implemented by my father and were all about control.
English Rules applied when he was out at work, or had given up in disgust, at which points my mother, never much interested in parenting, allowed the kids to run wild until Dad returned and restored order. English Rules were about doing what you wanted, letting it all hang out, being rude and irresponsible, and expecting to be given money rather than earning it for yourself by doing housework or having a Saturday job.
And then there was a third set of rules for when the extended family came to stay — Canasta Rules. Since only my parents were properly bilingual and few of the Dutch relatives could speak English, the most rewarding and efficient way to interact with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents was to play hours and hours of Canasta, which needs no words, only Rules. This odd paralingual atmosphere resulted in peculiar cultural instabilities:
‘all my relatives spoke Dutch around me but we children were never taught it. As a result, the three of us grew up as foreigners in our own family.’²
All through my growing up I was given to understand that a thorough application of the Rules would lead to harmony. So when I eventually discovered computer programming I was ecstatic that now, at last, I had found a set of clear and unbending parameters. Furthermore I developed an enduring affection for all those clumsy mechanicals and meat-based life-forms who long to fit in with human society but somehow cannot ever get it quite right.
In my second undergraduate year at Nottingham Polytechnic a new option was introduced, The Craft of Writing, my first creative writing course. I wrote, naturally, about the delights of computers, starting with my first short story for over fifteen years. Entitled ‘The Adapted Woman’³, it optimistically described the wonderful potential of being able to programme lovers to remain devoted, plus other similar benefits which I have now forgotten. That story was closely followed by another, the humorous ‘The Wondrous Jewel of Zar’⁴, in which a woman becomes empowered by defeating enemies in a computer game and then goes on to release herself from her loveless marriage. Both stories were glowingly optimistic about the future of computers, and so was my final year undergraduate dissertation Close Encounters of the Machine Kind, which examined popular responses to ‘intelligent’ machines. I wrote:
Computers are perhaps no different from all our other mechanical achievements, but they seem different. Their versatility permits us to create an ever-widening range of experience, and through them we can come to feel the machineness within ourselves.⁵
It was this notion of ‘machineness’ which would inform my writing for the next fifteen years and which continues to intrigue me.
In the summer of 1988 I completed my degree and attended an Arvon Course in Writing Science Fiction, taught by Iain Banks and Lisa Tuttle. That week I felt as if I had finally found my intellectual and artistic milieu, and as soon as I returned home I began work on the full-length work that would eventually become Correspondence.⁶ Like most first novels, it arose from a personal obsession. I had been gripped for some time by the burning desire to leave my Midlands city and find a country retreat where I could… what? I didn’t really know what I would actually do in the countryside, I was just desperate to be there. At the weekends I would drive a mile or two out of town and wander around the fields, drunk with mud, intoxicated by birds, lusting after hedgerows, and when I couldn’t get away I pored over Ordnance Survey maps and footpath guides. But family circumstances meant that a house-move was out of the question, and in the end there was only one thing for it — I would have to call in fiction to the rescue. I resolved to invent a character and send her out instead. On my behalf, Rosa would investigate the truth of the pastoral fantasy and thus, perhaps, ease my own longings.
On my return from Arvon I began writing this new story, which had already been circulating in my head for about a year, but while Rosa roamed through the countryside, always growing on the page, I was also continuing to explore my fascination with computers in a story about a female programmer who was slowly and doggedly transforming her body into a machine. Her job is that of a ‘compositor’, an empathic conduit through which data is streamed to be reprocessed into a constructed fantasy — more of a sensory experience than a computer game. I invented the use of ‘compositor’ to mean an artist who combines all types of media into a new format⁷:
Compositors spend years researching and absorbing every facet of human experience and perception and relating them to their current brief. For example, a typical project might be to build a fantasy of warmth, for sale to geriatric hospitals. The compositor will spend twelve months absorbing every physical sensation of warmth. They will read descriptions of the ways in which people visualise being warm, and learn the associated colours, smells and musical tones. Then they construct a multisensory experience which could be used to revive patients suffering from hypothermia.⁸
This character had suffered a terrible bereavement when her husband and sons were killed in a car-crash, leaving her with a surfeit of unfocused empathy which she redirects into her work. But the process is repeatedly painful and so she plans to escape by transforming herself into a machine which acts but does not feel.
For six months I developed the two narratives side by side but neither seemed to be satisfactory. Finally, the transition which merged the two incomplete stories into something much more viable came through a simple writing exercise. At that time I was teaching a number of creative writing classes and one of the exercises I encouraged my students to do when they felt creatively blocked was to take their characters outside the story and invent either a monologue or a conversation between them — no matter how unlikely that would be within the context of the narrative they were trying to construct. It was a little like automatic writing and involved simply listening to the characters in one’s head and scribbling down whatever they seemed to be saying, as fast as possible, with no attempt to censor or shape. Effectively it was about allowing them to speak without constraint.
One day, in a spirit of play more than anything else, I decided to try this exercise for myself and wrote a dialogue between the characters in my two stories — an unlikely pairing of Rosa, the suburban and sensual country-lover, with the nameless and isolated computer programmer. What they ‘talked about’, much to my surprise, was romantic love. It turned out that they had a passion for each other.
As a consequence of this unexpected encounter, my programmer story began to take on a different shape. Twenty-five pages into what is now Correspondence, Rosa appears for the first time in a section called ‘From your given data you create Rosa’.
But let’s not rush things — she’s not yet properly sentient. She’s only a composite built of data, and although you’re excited by the prospect of her journey, she herself is not yet even aware of it. She lives and breathes in your imagination and it’s not yet time for you to meet her. But she will be here soon, and her story will unfold itself.⁹
When I told friends that I was writing a novel about Nature and about computers, they laughed in disbelief as if the two could never occupy the same universe. But clearly this was the way the narrative was going, and it felt comfortable to follow it. It is important to note that this was very much a first book and I had no idea how to write a novel nor any template for the unusual combination of subjects I was seeking to work with. Very early on I chose to reject the form of the plotted story, preferring instead to allow the narrative to unfold itself so that I could then shape the material which emerged. In essence, writing this book was as much a process of personal discovery for me as it was a process of building a coherent narrative.
My main problem, and one which always recurs when I write fiction, was point of view. I wanted my reader not just passively to listen to the story as it was told, but actually to utilise the tropes of computer life which had become so familiar to me. Although I was making a book rather than a piece of interactive software, it was important that the reader should have a sense of engagement in the narrative, to feel that in some way they might be part of it. I wrote and rewrote from different angles, and finally settled upon an unusual and somewhat difficult perspective which nevertheless felt most appropriate — the book would become a roleplay in which the reader is the player directed by the narrative in the same second person voice used in roleplay gaming. At that time the most popular form of computer game was the text adventure and I was enthusiastic about featuring some of these functions in Correspondence. In a print novel, I could not make them actually work, but I could nod in their direction.
Early computer text adventures were completely plain text but I also experimented with games that were both text-based and a combination of text and image. Both, however, operated on the basis of a dialogue with the user via typed instructions which the programme did or did not understand. There were no half-measures, no broad ranges of interpretation. In ‘Towards a Theory of Interactive Fiction’, Nick Montfort describes the basic elements of computer text adventures:
· a text-accepting, text-generating computer program;
· a potential narrative, that is, a system which produces narrative during interaction;
· a simulation of an environment or world; and
· a structure of rules within which an outcome is sought, also known as a game.¹⁰
I did not play these games for long because I found them frustrating and annoying, but I was certainly interested in the way they operate. The designer not only devises the story of the game but also writes all of the input and output, so each one is totally dependent on the skill and breadth of that person. This kind of game requires the player to enter commands for the programme to follow, but in order to do this the programmer must list as many kinds of input and responses as possible — the more of them, the richer the game. Commands can be abbreviated for speed. So, for example, the command to look at your surroundings can be reduced to ‘look’, and movement through the story can be driven by a simple compass direction, e.g.:
User types> Look
Screen output> You are standing in a large lounge filled with sunlight. Portraits hang on the east wall. At the north end of the room there are French windows leading out into the garden.
User types> North
Screen output> You pass through the French windows and find yourself standing on a close-cropped lawn. Birds are singing. You can smell the perfume of red roses. There is a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass’.
This seems smooth enough until the typist makes a mistake, at which point most programmes, especially the early ones, will resort to a standard reply like ‘I don’t understand that’. Programmes can have a very limited vocabulary and be confused by longer texts and natural speech: so to use a command with the correct meaning but not in the game’s dictionary makes everything grind to a halt until the typist finally hits on the right word or phrase — and types it without errors, since most games at that time were tremendously textually inflexible:
User types> What’s in here?
Screen output> Sorry I don’t understand that
User types> Where is this?
Screen output> Sorry I don’t understand that
User types> Look around
Screen output> Sorry I don’t understand that
User types> Look
Screen output> You are standing in a large room filled with sunlight. Portraits hang on the east wall. At the north end of the room there are French windows leading out into the garden.
User types> Nort
Screen output> Sorry I don’t understand that
This functionality provides a new level of narrative not available to the writer using a static print format, and also echoes the playfulness of some post-modernist writing. See, for example, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short story ‘The Secret Room’, a description of a room which turns out to be a description of a painting of a room. This detached prose could itself be the text for a sophisticated game scenario, with its specific yet oddly neutral topological descriptions of an individual frozen in time, perhaps waiting for the player to direct the next move:
At the very top of the stone staircase the little door is open, letting in a yellow but continuous light, against which the dark silhouette of the man wrapped in his long cloak stands out. He has only a few more stairs to climb to reach the threshold.¹¹
The reader of Correspondence is also its player, addressed in the second person and given instructions on how to proceed by a rather whimsical tour guide.
…if I could just interrupt for a moment — it’s time to give you all some input about your role. Just a little bit of background to help you, and then you can proceed. Could you all retune to the Guidetron frequency… I’m switching you in now…¹²
I was growing very preoccupied with the difference between machines and people, principally because I was becoming increasingly convinced that there was not much of a difference. The Turing Test, that famous experiment designed to determine the existence (or not) of a recognizable dissimilarity between human and machine, seemed to have little to do with the real world, where the meat/machine distinction was fast disappearing in a way that Turing had not anticipated. By the early nineties, thousands of people were already mixing up their bodies with machines, and cheap prosthetic limbs became widely available. Plastic, micro, and nanosurgery were all commonplace. Human and animal organs were being transplanted as a matter of routine (as early as 1988 UK surgeons had successfully transplanted living brain cells). I was increasingly fascinated by this potent mixture of bodies with machines and I wanted to know how it really feels to make electronic contact with a machine. What was the new digital sensorium like? I imagined it as heightened sensation:
You love that feeling of logging on! It’s turned you into a junkie. You hook in, and you want to stay there. You can feel the feather-duster tickle of digital switches clicking in your brain, and when the power is high they send frissons of electrical charge through your body like a series of impulse orgasms.¹³
Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’, written in the seventeenth century, seemed to describe the same kind of sensual encounter:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.
‘That Ocean where each kind/Does streight its own resemblance find’. Here at last was the conjunction I had been striving to discover. Marvell had identified the buzz of a meeting which would excite the hacker three hundred years later — not in a garden hung with peaches, but in an infinite space swirling with colours and abstractions. This was the cyberspace famously described by William Gibson:
A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.¹⁴
In Correspondence, the character being ‘played’ by the reader is a professional compositor of dreams, an artist who draws on her own empathy to create intense experiences for her users. In this instance, however, the compositor is also recreating herself, undergoing a series of operations to transform herself into a cyborg mix of flesh and machine. Locked into working harder and harder to earn enough money to pay for her successive surgeries, she craves to be liberated from the lived body, longs to be driven by programming rather than desire:
Sometimes you wonder what it will be like when you have no emotion. You try to imagine it, but it always escapes you. Right at the beginning you asked your specialists if it would be possible for you to retain a little joy, or at least pleasure, but they only smiled and began to explain it all over again. (You wonder if you will be able to smile.)
Pleasure is only the reverse side of pain, they said, and both have no equivalent that we know of in the inorganic world. On the other hand, they said, we can’t say for sure that inorganic subjects do not experience it. When the time comes, if it is possible, we would like to ask you about that. The problem is, they said, that once the transition is completed your testimony will be unreliable since you will no longer have any trustworthy data with which to make comparisons. In fact, we don’t know whether we shall be able to communicate with you at all. Of course you will be able to output data, even words, but the concepts behind those words may be meaningless to us. We shall have to wait and see, they said.¹⁵
In the 1983 film Android¹⁶, the android Max has the opposite problem — he longs to become human. In his private quarters, he practices tipping his Bogart hat and strutting a Bogart walk, his desire to get it right matched only by his evident puzzlement about the meaning of the thing. He wants to be human, but it is not instinctive in him, so even as he works hard to walk the walk and talk the talk, the result is simply comedic and sadly clumsy.
There are two scenes in Android which have influenced my thinking a great deal. In the first, Max watches Dr. Daniel having lunch with Maggie, a criminal fugitive who has recently arrived at the research station where Max works alone with Dr. Daniel. Maggie is the first real-life woman Max has ever seen, and he quickly becomes obsessed by her. Monitoring the pair on the control room screens, he concurrently runs a video of the moment in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis¹⁷ when the doctor activates the android Maria. His eyes flash between the two scenes as he plays James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, and the lyrics of the song take on a peculiar resonance when heard by a mechanical individual.
Man made the cars to take us over the road
Man made the trains to carry heavy loads
Man made electric light to take us out of the dark
Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the ark..¹⁸
Max is processing a great deal of data in this scene, and most specifically he is learning that being a human male is not just about sex but also about the control and exploitation of both women and machines. This is further emphasised in a second key scene, when Dr. Daniel removes his ‘moral governor’ microchip. At the moment the chip is withdrawn Max becomes intensely disorientated — his rich 3D colour vision is replaced by a monotone graphics matrix and his language is reduced to an incoherent stutter. His face twitches between grimaces and twisted smiles as he cocks his head to hear imaginary sounds. ‘I hear ships!’ he exclaims. ‘Do you hear ships? Woo woo!’ Then his jaw contorts again as Dr. Daniel’s tools whine like dental drills and the veneer of programming which has made Max appear so disarmingly innocent is removed to reveal a brutal killing-machine with no scruples. He is, after all, a mechanical device under the control of its designer. ‘You have been of great help to me, Max,’ soothes Dr Daniel as he works, gently touching Max’s chin to bring his head into the correct position. ‘You have kept the floor spotlessly clean.’ While the nameless character in Correspondence wonders what it will be like when she has no emotion, in Android we are voyeurs of Max’s transformation between the two conditions. This scene also links back to an essay I was writing at the time for Lucie Armitt’s collection Where No Man Has Gone Before¹⁹ in which I discussed two films, Tron²⁰ and Short Circuit²¹, which both feature a relationship between an adolescent boy and an intelligent machine, and in which a female character enters as an interloper, or mediator, or both, and the machine acts as an intermediary between childhood and sexual maturity. The essay begins with an account of Metropolis, once more echoing the scene in Android, and ends with the testimony of one of the hackers interviewed by Sherry Turkle for her book The Second Self:
I think of the world as divided between flesh things and machine things. The flesh things have feelings, need you to know how to love them, to take risks, to let yourself go. You never know what to expect of them… I stay away from the flesh things. I think this makes me a sort of non-person. I often don’t feel like a flesh thing myself. I hang around machines, but I hate myself a lot of the time. In a way it’s like masturbating. You can always satisfy yourself to perfection. With another person, who knows what might happen? You might get rejected. You might do it wrong. Too much risk.²²
At the end of Correspondence that divided world is endorsed because the protagonist does not merge the flesh and machine: she opts for one above the other. But by mistake she takes with her Rosa, now translated into a software virus and joining her inside the computer, never to be separated:
She’ll be there, living within you, when you dip your toes into a cold moorland stream; when you taste a strawberry; when you enter your lover’s secret places — Rosa will be looking through your eyes and reaching out through your fingertips. And all the while our input will be streaming through you. Rosa will show you Life as it should be lived.²³
Critical response to Correspondence was very positive. It was short-listed for the 1992 Arthur C.Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and also for the James Tiptree Jnr Award. It received an Encouragement Award in the European Science Fiction Awards. Although little reviewed in England outside the science fiction press, it was warmly received by the general literary press in the US and received a number of excellent reviews including two pages in The Village Voice:
‘She writes about our machined, manipulated landscape with bold sensual accuracy. Billed as a ‘roleplay’ as well as a novel, CORRESPONDENCE is formally inventive with a rich sense of humour’.
The literary reviewers, mostly American, commented on the experimental construction of the novel and were attracted by the philosophical challenges I set out. In The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Lance Olsen wrote:
‘Sue Thomas’s first novel is a highly original, highly complex and highly cerebral self-reflexive piece… an interesting textual cyber-ambush’
and the Los Angeles Reader said that it
‘successfully addresses issues of spiritual transcendence in the context of a good story.’
Since those early reviews, however, Correspondence has been written about by academic critics and in that context it seems to have taken on a different potency wherein I am featured not as an author of ideas, but as a feminist author. Presumably this is because I am a woman and the book was published in the UK by a feminist publisher. For example, Correspondence is discussed in some detail in Mary Catherine Harper’s essay ‘Incurably Alien Other: A Case for Feminist Cyborg Writers’ where she draws the conclusion that
‘the transformation of Thomas’s protagonist indicates a blatant critique of the feminine dependence on husband and family for self-worth’.²⁴
And in Reload: rethinking women and cyberculture²⁵, Flanagan and Booth describe it as ‘an account of women writing women’²⁶, although they are more alert than Harper to the metafictional nature of the experimental narrative. It is ironic that in trying to escape the body I find myself pinned down by my own physiology, my writings viewed through the glass of agendas I had not particularly adopted. I have never set out deliberately to explore feminist politics and although of course I espouse feminism my artistic interests lie in other areas — problems of history, technology, and phenomenology.
Ironically, it is the male critic Steven Connor who recognises the ways in which I used the structure of the narrative to echo the digital experience. In The English Novel in History 1950–1990 he writes that Correspondence
uses the established reading patterns and expectations of the novel, as a text which proceeds from an individual author to an individual reader, to embody and explore the much more complex and decentred forms of communication and exchanges of information characteristic of computer culture.²⁷
The publication of Correspondence marked the end of the first cycle in my thinking about computers and physicality. During that time I had obsessed over controlled and programmed behaviour and the transformations that can occur when such rigidity connects with the messy natural world. The works were euphoric, even evangelical, placing full trust in the potential of a human/machine symbiosis and applauding programming as a modern instrument of transformation. I touched on many areas of awareness without fully understanding them, and while parts of the book were deliberate and highly-tooled, other sections were written from a mildly hypnogogic state where I could not predict the outcome. This is very evident close to the end of the novel, when the reader/player/protagonist awakes after the final surgery. What would it be like? I had asked that question many times during the writing, and when the answer came it appeared quite naturally. The change from human to cyborg would feel like a snake shedding its skin. Of course.
The snake awakes to find itself enwrapped by white roots whose hairs have dipped into its flesh to seek the moisture. You remain motionless in order to feel the tendrils encircling and caressing your length. Your unblinking eyes observe the green translucent umbrella which bends before you. Droplets of water have gathered on the underside of the leaves, and you reach out to drink.²⁸
 At what was then Nottingham Polytechnic and is now Nottingham Trent University.
 Thomas, S. 2004, Hello World: travels in virtuality, Raw Nerve Books, York. p.114.
 Thomas, S. 1987, ‘The Adapted Woman’, unpublished short story.
 Thomas, S. 1987, ‘The Wondrous Jewel of Zar’, unpublished short story.
 Thomas, S. 1988, Close Encounters of the Machine Kind (Unpublished BA Hons dissertation) p.26.
 At Arvon I also met Ann Kaloski for the first time. A fellow student on the course, she would six years later become my editor and the publisher of Hello World.
 It is odd to read this excerpt in 2004, fifteen years after it was written. It describes the approach of what we would now call a multimedia artist.
 Correspondence, Overlook paperback edition, p.18.
 Correspondence, p.27.
Robbe-Grillet, A. 1961, ‘The Secret Room’, The Penguin Book of French Short Stories, ed. Marielle, E. Penguin, Harnondsworth, p.407.
 Correspondence, p.17.
 Correspondence, p.59.
 Gibson,W.1984, Neuromancer, Gollancz, London, p.67.
 Correspondence, p.141.
 Lipstadt, A. Android, USA, 1983.
 Lang, F. Metropolis, Germany, 1927.
 Thomas, S. 1990, ‘Between the Boys and their Toys’, Where No Man Has Gone Before Ed. Armitt, L., Routledge, London.
 Lisberger, S. Tron USA / Taiwan, 1982.
 Badhan, J. Short Circuit, USA, 1986.
 The Second Self, p.203.
 Correspondence, p.153.
 Harper, M.C., 1995, ‘Incurably Alien Other: A Case for Feminist Cyborg’, Science Fiction Studies Volume 22, p.417.
 Reload: rethinking women and cyberculture, p.46.
 Reload: rethinking women and cyberculture, p.46.
 Connor, S. 1995, The English Novel in History 1950–1990, Routledge, London, p.39.
 Correspondence, p.148.