The Night-Side of the River
Welcome to a ghostly month of Otherworldly Encounters
When I talked with Substack about being their Writer in Residence we all got excited about a new project I am making called:
The Night-Side of the River
It’s a series of ghost stories – 13 of course – built around different themes;
Clothes: Rooms. Objects. Places.
For the last 4 years I have deep in the world of AI – both with my 2019 novel FRANKISSTEIN: A Love Story, and the 2021 collection of essays, just published, 12 BYTES at AI: How we got here. Where we might go next.
I wanted to lighten the load on my brain and have some dark-nights fun and shivers. For me, fiction is practical. It’s making something out of nothing.
So, I shall be entertaining myself over these next few weeks, and hopefully giving you a few good stories to read with a glass of wine – or to read out-loud to your friends. Or read out-loud as a group. Ever tried that? It’s like being in a small choir or a band. The rhythm, tone, beat, occupy the space differently.
Light a candle. Watch the shadows. Read on…
Set alongside the fictional encounters in these stories, are encounters of my own with the supernatural – things I can’t explain. Things I am not sure I believe could happen but that seem to have happened. As a fiction writer the divide between imagination and reality doesn’t always seem so strong. That divide is hazy enough when we are dreaming, or, on the cusps of sleeping and waking.
How do we explain what we can’t explain?
November is a cold dark month and what could be better than starting on Halloween?
All Hallows Eve is the night before All Saints Day. Those ‘night’s before’ have special significance in our cultural calendar.
Think of Christmas Eve. Many countries, especially those with dark cold northern nights, consider the night before Christmas to be the important day of the holiday festival. It’s the night St Nicolas, or Santa Claus, goes travelling with his gifts. It’s the night magic happens.
Halloween is also a fire festival. These days, that’s usually visible in the pumpkin lanterns children love to make, with the eerie glow of the night-light shining through the orange slits.
In Mexico, and across central and southern America, the Day of the Dead is a huge 2-day festival falling across November 1 and 2nd. The spirits of the departed are remembered and honoured. Families set a place for the relative most recently deceased. The elaborate dressing up and ritual involved – the skeleton suits, skulls, black food, processions of coffins, is simultaneously both a welcoming in and a warding off. There are spirits you might want around, and spirits you surely don’t want around.
Behind these stories is the belief that at certain times of the year the veil between the living and the dead is lifted.
It’s as though a door appears between the realm of mortals and the Otherworlds. For a short time, the Others are able to visit us. With the right kind of magic spell, humans too, can pass through to the Other Side.
Over the course of this month I want to engage with humankind’s enduring fascination with supernatural encounters.
Why do so many people all over the world believe in ghosts and spirits?
How do we explain personal sightings or manifestations?
Is the brain unable to accept death?
Why do we find it hard to accept that biological death is also the death of the self?
Death is a disruption. Not just for the person who dies – but for everyone connected to that person.
Is the Afterlife a challenge to that disruption?
We could say that the Afterlife Industry is the world’s first disruptive start-up.
What’s for sure is that everyone loves a ghost story.
This month I’ll post 4 new ghost stories. One every week, appearing across the ether into your inbox, just around midnight.
And there will be discussion amongst us living folks – and who knows who else might drop in?
Right now, how would you know?
Ghosts are non-embodied phenomena…. But so is AI
If we can invent what feels like life-forms – chatbots, virtual PA systems, interactive apps, then where does that leave the usual distinction between embodied and non-embodied entities?
The idea of a non-material presence is the foundation of all religion. It is also the coming world of AI and AGI.
Humans are uncomfortably comfortable with non-materiality.
Across the world, and across time, angels and demons, spooks and spirits, have taken their place alongside 3-dimensional beings. Across the world right now, people are praying to various sky-gods, who, whatever they are, are not material as humans are.
And the key thing here is not whether sky-gods are a fact or a figment – but that humans believe in the non-materiality of their most important being.
It could be that our belief in god, or gods, and in our own ghosts, is really a way of talking about a deep truth; that mind is not a ‘thing’ the way your body is a ‘thing’, but a pattern.
Religion assumes that the pattern relocates outside the body. Ghosts are a manifestation of that relocated pattern.
At present, life as we experience it, is not separate from matter, even though the essential characteristics of life – organisation, complexity, process, are non-biological.
At death, the components of life are all in place for a while, and recognisably so, until decay sets in. That is what is so upsetting about the just dead person. They look the same, but they are not the same.
Death destroys the pattern.
Our patterns are entangled. The grieving process is about re-making the pattern without one of the pattern-makers.
It isn’t surprising that we can imagine presence/process/pattern, outside of materiality – and as we move into a world of non-biological presences, matter will seem less necessary.
Cognitive phenomena are non-material – for now they are embodied in us – but that is changing.
We already to talk to non-human non-biological operating systems. Chat-bots write us email messages. While no system has yet passed the Turing Test, where we really will not, and cannot, distinguish between AI and human, we often can’t tell the difference. That might say more about humans than operating systems…
‘How was your day?’
‘What do you want to eat tonight?’
‘Sushi, maybe. Or steak.’
‘Did you pick up the dry cleaning?’
I mean, our daily interactions really are at the level of the most basic bot….
But what if we decide to keep the Dead with us?
Microsoft thinks we should.
In 2021 Microsoft filed a patent for an App that will trawl the social media data of your Dear Departed, and copy their style, their voice, their sense of humour, their way of chatting with you – so that you don’t have to let Doctor Death end the conversation.
Well, we’ll talk about that some more soon.
If we do push forward with AI and AGI that doesn’t die as humans do – because it isn’t made of meat, as humans are, and so not subject to decay and death, then perhaps we will form valuable relationships outside of the biological nodes that have been the basis of human connection. Will our operating systems miss us when we’re gone?
Could we become the ghost in the machine?
And will the new life-form I believe we are creating alter our notions of not only life – what life is – but also of death?
Light a candle. Watch the shadows. Read on.
i lost my son, four years of age one dark february morning. in his sleep he died. but i felt his soul circling my legs like an affectionate feline. not all ghosts approach bearing omens of ill will.
I am so excited to read what you have to say here. I love your work.