Monday, April 21, 2008

"Horus Ascending" by Aliette de Bodard

"Horus Ascending" was the collision of two ideas I had seen over the year of 2006: first, there was massively parallel computing, in which several computers work together as one. Add to this a conference on image compression and radio transmission that led me to realise that with a proper compression scheme, one could transmit a fair amount of information via a standard radio link. The two ideas collided, and I started to shape a story in which an entire fleet of ships was piloted by one AI--in reality a sum of different processors, linked together by the radio-transmitted instructions. The ships, I decided, would bear colonists to a new planet.

Being a destructive sort of person, I immediately wondered what would happen if the radio transmissions between the ships were cut off. Massive computer crashes would take place, followed, most probably, by the fleet tumbling down from the sky--a disaster both in human lives and in material costs, since little would be salvaged from that ship. It was probable the colony would be very reduced in its first years of life.

That was a cool setting; but I didn't have a character to go with it. The colonists were mostly faceless, and I wasn't really interested in writing a long, dragging story about the slow process of rebuilding. I thought then of what would happen to one of those computer units--one that managed to get itself restarted after the crash, on autonomous. What would it remember of its time in space? What would it be dreaming of?

One morning, I woke up and wrote the very first words of the story: "In my dreams, I'm my father...", and I knew I had found the voice of my main character. The rest followed pretty easily--I added the complication in the person of Amanda, a person whom Horus was bound to loathe; and I drew on my knowledge of computers and image processing to add the technical layer to the story. The final few paragraphs were the ones that gave me the most trouble; I ended up writing three different versions before I found one that satisfied me.

(artwork for this story (in the current issue of IGMS) by Laura Givens: (Aliette's website:

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