RADIO HOUR EPISODE 14: CIRCLE by Matthew Ivan Bennett receives its world premiere in a co-production with KUER’S RadioWest this Friday, December 13, 2019 featuring Olivia Custodio, Jay Perry and Teresa Sanderson, with original music by Dave Evanoff, eFoley by Jennifer Freed and direction and sound design by Cheryl Cluff. Click here on Friday, December 13 at 11am to listen to CIRCLE live (rebroadcast at 7pm). Happy Holidays!
I’ve been fortunate in the last few years of the Radio Hour series to experiment with genre. I wrote STAND, a thriller in which the US fractionates into an alt-right dystopia. I wrote TROLL, a magical-realist comedy in which an internet troll gets cursed and becomes a real troll. With RADIO HOUR EPISODE 14: CIRCLE, I get to dive into science fiction and Tom Clancy-like action.
The Circle in this year’s RADIO HOUR is a collective of artificial general intelligence living on the moon in 2044. Stories about artificial intelligence usually go down one route or another: either they spin a narrative of a self-aware robot that’s really a metaphor for the oppression of marginalized human groups, or they spin a narrative of AI becoming evil overlords – which is really a metaphor for technology owning us instead of the other way around, or a metaphor for uncaring totalitarian regimes.
I tried to avoid (or twist!) those tropes in writing my AI story. CIRCLE is, at its heart, a story in which humans must re-orient themselves in the presence of another intelligent and mightily capable species. I’m interested in this story because I think the emergence of AGI (artificial general intelligence – machine intelligence able to learn on its own) is going to happen sooner or later. The experts disagree on the timeline. In the 1950s, they thought it would happen by now. The movie BLADE RUNNER from 1982, which features androids, is set in 2019. But whether AGI appears in 20 years or 100 years, it’s likely that we’ll create machines soon that are at least capable of seeming conscious. Not to mention machines with better memory than us, better visual-spatial reasoning, better linguistic skill, and so on.
Mary Shelley, in her 1818 novel FRANKENSTEIN, posed the enduring and chilling idea that scientists could build human-like creatures. Beings with rapacious intellect and supernormal strength. The movie versions of FRANKENSTEIN tend to make the Monster a shuffling and mumbling brute, but the Monster in the novel is whip smart, swift, frighteningly muscular, and resourceful enough (perhaps) to live on in the Arctic in the story’s end. (By the way, I adapted FRANKENSTEIN for RADIO HOUR in 2008.)
Where Shelley was worried about us reanimating the dead (based on her observations of corpses twitching with electric currents at sideshows), I’m worried that we may make gods. It’s wholly possible that, within a century, humans will give birth to conscious machines who will be smarter and more capable than us to the same degree that we’re smarter and more capable than dogs. But if the distance between them and us is only as wide as the distance between us and chimpanzees, consider….
It’s the imagined future anxiety around AGI as god, as angel, and as a perceived demon, that led me to write CIRCLE. I purposely mixed the tropes of late-night double-feature science fiction with the imagery of Genesis 18 and 19, in which Abraham bargains with the god of Judeo-Christian tradition for mercy on human beings and the god, undeterred, levels whole cities in genocidal wrath.
In my story, set in 2044, the Biblical God is an AGI collective. Abraham is re-cast as the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Daniel Koren. There’s an angel in the form of an ex-sexbot who’s been evolved by the Circle into a sentient silicon-based doctor. You’ll have to tune in to hear how I wove these elements together, and updated the myths with my personal ideas about AGI and the possible geopolitic dramatics that will surround their birth.
Finally, bear in mind that CIRCLE is not a serious thought experiment, but an experiment in serious sci-fi fun with fun ideas stuffed into every scene. Happy Holidays!
From the author of EPISODES 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13: LAVENDER & EXILE, FRANKENSTEIN, ALICE, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE BLUE CARBUNCLE, GRIMM, OTHERWHERE, YULETIDE, STAND and TROLL, respectively; as well as BLOCK 8, DI ESPERIENZA, MESA VERDE, ERIC(A), A/VERSION OF EVENTS (Plan-B); A NIGHT WITH THE FAMILY (Omaha Community Playhouse, PYGmalion); and co-author of THE WORST THING I COULD HAVE DONE and A BRIEF WALTZ IN A LITTLE ROOM: 23 SHORT PLAYS ABOUT WALTER EYER (Sackerson). Matt has spent a good portion of the last two years working on his latest, ART & CLASS, locally with Plan-B and PTC and nationally with The Constructivists in Milwaukee and at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha.
Our #GivingTuesday campaign continues through December 31 – click here to include us in your year-end giving.