First came a Lettie Prell who “went from horse and buggy days to man on the moon.” Now her granddaughter Lettie Prell takes readers further, exploring the future of consciousness and artificial intelligence in thought-provoking stories. Her latest for Analog is “Uploading Angela,” in our May/June issue [on sale now]! Read on for “Uploading Angela”’s origins, Lettie’s thoughts on the singularity, and the best conversation she’s ever had over a couple of beers.
Analog Editor: How did this novella germinate?
LP: My first story for Analog was “Baby Steps” (November 2015 issue), which was about quarantining a strange computer virus. A computer tech friend of mine remarked that he liked how I’d kept the end open to a sequel, because while the virus had been quarantined, it hadn’t been deleted. I hadn’t realized that, and the idea of it once again running amok was compelling. So, the idea of “Uploading Angela” was born.
AE: Can you talk about more of your history with Analog?
LP: “Uploading Angela”is my fourth story in Analog. In addition to “Baby Steps,” there was “Artifice of Eternity” (May 2016). It was about a murder trial, in which I explored how the legal definition of death might be turned on its ear if a person’s consciousness were uploaded into a synthetic body. “Emergency Protocol” (September/October 2017) was about people suddenly being activated via remote control to respond to critical incidents as determined by whomever—or whatever—was manipulating their bodies. It was reprinted in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.
AE: I sense a common theme in your writing emerging here. Does your science fiction often touch on issues surrounding technological advancements?
LP: Oh yes, although I’m also drawn to social science fiction as it pertains to the justice system. There is so much awareness and activism surrounding this issue now. Just as science fiction in the 1970s often explored issues like sex roles, race, and ecology, it seems timely to write science fiction that explores concepts of justice, as well as ways to sanction people who are convicted of crimes beyond the model evident in Escape from New York.
But getting back to technology issues. I read once that there are two great scientific mysteries left: the universe and the human mind. I’m fascinated with the latter, and my science fiction reflects that. The concept of someone uploading their consciousness into a computer raises so many issues, beginning with the big question: if I were to upload, would it still be me? Or just a copy of me? And will anyone be able to tell? It’s another version of the Star Trek transporter paradox. If I beam up, is it really me that rematerializes? Or was I destroyed in the process?
I also write about artificial intelligence, which comes with its own set of questions, some of which seem like they should be straightforward to answer, but they aren’t. For example, how do we define life? There’s some debate among scientists on whether viruses are alive or not, and it all hinges on what definition of “alive” one uses. How to determine whether a machine is sentient or self-aware is an even knottier problem. There’s even a difference of opinion on what term should be used in a conversation like this. How does consciousness emerge? How is it that we ourselves are not only conscious, but are capable of asking questions like, “What are we?” and, “Where did we come from?” If a machine were to become reflexively conscious like that, meaning capable of asking those questions, the answers would be simple for them, unlike for us.
This is where I love to go in my writing, taking this leap from science into the realm of the unknown and even the unknowable.
AE: I feel like you’re leading me down a philosophical rabbit hole. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve researched while working on a story?
LP: That would be more of a black hole than a rabbit hole in my case. Writings on the technological singularity fascinated and disturbed me all at once. That there are people like Ray Kurzweil who are not only confident it will actually happen, but also looking forward to it, gives me a weird chill.
The technological singularity postulates we’ll arrive at an unknown event horizon beyond which we cannot know what will happen. There are various thoughts on how we might get to this singularity moment. We could create an artificial superintelligence that understands things that we are biologically incapable of understanding. There’s only so much brain matter we can fit into our skulls. However, there are other ways a singularity could happen. All that’s required is some tipping point of advancement beyond which we cannot go back to the way we were, and instead become something else.
What we might become should the singularity happen includes some disturbing options like in “Emergency Protocol.” However, what if it goes the other way, like Kurzweil and others envision, and we become something greater than we can presently imagine? I’ve encountered one or another science fiction story that gave me a sense of awe, that pulled me out of myself for a moment. There’s a power in that kind of fiction to make us see ourselves, or the world, in new ways.
This is where I love to go in my writing, taking this leap from science into the realm of the unknown and even the unknowable. In short, I’m like any other science fiction writer. I necessarily use imagination and, yes, philosophy, to explore the singularity idea. I have quite a lot to write about on that topic.
AE: Is “Uploading Angela” part of a greater universe of stories, then?
LP: Yes, this is the first glimpse into a world I’ve built that I call the Houston Singularity. Other stories of mine are set in different locations, where the singularity happens differently. And that’s logical to expect, absent international guidelines and ethics, and absent passage of legislation that anticipates these kinds of advancements and prohibits certain applications, as has been done with gene-editing technology. The singularity will be privatized.
AE: Are you a singularity optimist or pessimist?
LP: Both and neither. I’m not here to push a particular scenario about the singularity. I want to explore the whole thing. Great advancements bring great problems with them. That’s good news for fiction, which needs conflict to make it interesting.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
LP: There was another Lettie Prell, my grandmother, who was born in 1892. That makes me sound ancient, but I had older parents. Anyway, when I was in high school, my grandmother told me, “I went from horse and buggy days to man on the moon. You’ll see even greater changes.” Those two sentences captured my imagination and never let go. It’s no wonder I write science fiction.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
LP: I have a long-standing career in justice system research and statistics. Just like the proverbial busman’s holiday is a road trip, I’d come home from doing research all day only to plunge myself into books on quantum physics and all the rest we’ve been talking about here. I also like to research for my science fiction by talking to people who are experts on a topic. An electrical engineer once helped me fix an alternative energy system I’d invented for a story. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had over a couple of beers.
Doing the research is one thing. Communicating one’s findings clearly to non-experts is a completely different and necessary skill. Fans have told me they enjoy how I can explain a complex concept simply, and I have to credit all those years writing research reports for my ability to do that.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
LP: My website, http://lettieprell.com, contains my current and past blogs on writing, science fiction, and other topics, as well as a list of published stories, some with links to audio or text. My upcoming events are also there, although that’s been considerably curtailed due to the pandemic. My twitter handle is @lettie_prell and I’m on Facebook as well.