by Steven Popkes
Dot 1.0, a performing software robot, does as she is told.
Dot 2.0 has other ideas.
Dot 1.0 is a performing software robot that can bring any audience to its feet. She can sing. She can dance. She can gauge her effect on people to the millimeter. She cannot create material of her own.
Dot 2.0 can do everything Dot 1.0 can do plus write songs and tailor them to each audience. Songs to bring tears. Songs to bring laughter.
Dot 1.0 does what she is told.
Dot 2.0 has other ideas.
“…[e]ven if you don’t know a clarinet from Middle C, even if the phrase uncanny valley means nothing to you, I highly suggest finding a copy of this story and reading it.” – The Little Red Review
“Sometimes you know that you’re going to like a story within the first couple of sentences. This is one of them.” – reiszwolf
“Popkes is good. The story is anchored by some heavy music neep, the inside guts of composition and performance…A complex tangle of characters who come together to make some good fictional music.” – Lois Tilton, Locus
“A brilliant piece. The genius of the author’s musical experience effortlessly channels through Jacob, and the increasingly emotion-laden interaction between Jacob and Dot sometimes gets very intense. A must read.” – Louis West, Tangent Online
“…[t]his story works well because it creates an ambiguous protagonist who is interesting and real” – https://featuredfutures.wordpress.com/
“A moving and thoughtful story.” – Rich Horton, Locus, Dec. 2012
“I loved this story and read it slowly, savoring it. You do that, too. Needless to say this will be on my Best Novella Hugo short list for next year.” – SFRevu
“What happens over the course of a few months is a story of emerging artificial intelligence, tenuous relationships and personal growth. It’s quite an excellent story, for reasons not least of which include characters you care about, interesting and subtly meaningful exchanges between them, and a meta-depiction of music that even non-musicians like myself can easily grasp.” – sfsignal
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Chapter 1.1 February 2
A window opened up on the active wall and I stared at it. Rosie stared back.
“Hello, Jacob.” She smiled. The always unexpected dimples on each cheek and that bright, bright smile. A nose so thin it whistled when she was excited. Not beautiful. Not pretty. Compelling. Like a volcano or a ruined city or the Texas plains or a magnificent catastrophe. Beauty just isn’t a consideration. You’re witness to something amazing.
“It’s good to see you.” As if she’d just returned from shopping instead of reappearing in my life after twelve years of silence.
A jumble of memories and impressions struck me like a brick. Meeting her backstage in Brockton. The feel of her skin, the warmth of her breath, the smell of her. Me singing back in Massachusetts. My band, Persons Unknown—me, Jess, Olivia, and Obe. Stoned and laughing at the DeCordova. Release of “Don’t Make Me Cry.” Money. Fights. The Late Show. Buying this house. The long tour scheduled from Boston to Los Angeles. Our wonderful first night on the way to Ohio. The fight in Cleveland. Our breakup in Saint Louis. The breakup of the band in Denver.
She wiggled a finger at me. “You and I need to talk.”
“Off,” I said and she winked out.
I sat there, breathing hard, my hands shaking. I started to pick up the coffee cup, realized I was going to make a mess and put it down again. The call alert sounded.
“Fuck you,” I snarled. I knew I’d answer it if I stayed. I grabbed a pair of shoes and ran outside. I pulled them on and ran out the back on the trail. My earbud buzzed and I tossed it on the dirt.
In the low mountains of the desert, twenty acres of scrub just means when you get to the edge of your property, you can still see your house. I was at the edge of public land. So far, only the ever-approaching green cloud of Greater Los Angeles had been able to reach me. So far. It was only a matter of time. Greater Los Angeles had eaten all the way to Bakersfield. Eventually, it would reach me, too.
I sat down on an old volcanic boulder heaved here back when dinosaurs were still sitting around playing cards and waiting for the meteor to hit. I looked around the shady crevices for rattlesnakes. It was spring but an early emergent wasn’t unheard of. It was already hot but not uncomfortable. Unlike Boston, out here in California sweat works.
Eventually, I calmed down. After all, I thought. It’s been twelve years—almost thirteen. She must have a good reason to call me now. To mess with you again, I said to myself. Not necessarily. And it had been a long time. We were different people. I was a recluse living in a rotting house that the bank and State would someday fight over. She was probably a successful… well, something. Rich, probably. Doing something important. World famous—wouldn’t I have heard of her? Have you ever looked her up? No. I hadn’t. Not that I didn’t want to but it felt too much like an addict returning to the drug. I was happy now.
I forcefully told myself to shut up.
Okay. We were adults, right? We could converse like adults.
I made my way back to the house. Found the bud lying next to the front door. I inspected it for wildlife. It was clean. I put it in.
I went back to my coffee. Cold as it was, this time I drank it down without spilling it. “Okay.” Grover, my house AI, figured out what I meant.
Rosie popped up again on the wall. “As I said: we need to talk.”
“Why?” I didn’t know if I was asking why she called now or why she had left.
“Got a song doctor gig for you to think about. A good one with lots of promise.”
I didn’t know what to say. “This is a… professional call?”
“I suppose it could also turn into studio work. You’re still doing studio work, aren’t you, Jake?”
“Sometimes. Are you representing musicians these days?” I felt suddenly very tired.
“I’m doing a favor for a friend.” She cocked her head to one side. “Besides, this is what you do, isn’t it? Pull musical order out of creative chaos? The price is very attractive.”
“I can’t—” I shook my head. I remembered how so often I felt at sea with Rosie. Always trying to catch up.
“Look,” she said, suddenly sympathetic. “I know you’ve had a rough time. Behind on the mortgage, right?”
“And the taxes.”
“Christ! The State of California is not someone you want to owe money to.” She took a deep breath. “My point is you need the money. A single song, Jake. That’s all. It’ll pay back the state and even bring the mortgage up to date.”
I loved this house: two stories, four bedrooms on twenty acres far enough from Greater Los Angeles that the price had been screamingly ridiculous instead of obscene. It has its own power, water, and sewer—I was paranoid about the end of the world back when I bought it. Twelve years ago, the world seemed a lot more precarious. I was a lot more precarious. This was before I blew any remaining money on riotous living.
But the house fit me. Kitchen. Bath. An office. My bedroom. Nice studio in what would be the living room: high cathedral ceiling, good acoustics, and an active surface along the whole east sidewall. Enclosed and far from the crowd. My house. My house. “I guess,” I said slowly.
“Great. I’ll shoot you over a contract. This is going to be fun.”
She had already disconnected. A moment later Grover, my house AI, flagged the packet and okayed the contract. I sighed and had her put the music up on the wall.
A set of pages ran the length of the wall at my eye height. I walked alongside reading it. “Downbeat Heart.” One song. Ten pages. Musical notes. Not techno tablature or a vague demonstration melody. Actual musical notes. And not just vocal lines and a sketchy guitar accompaniment. These were full score sheets. Every sheet had vocal, guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum lines—at one point in the bridge tympani were called for. Tympani? Keyboards sections had synthesizer settings referring to frequency and sound envelope definitions. There was an appendix with suggested synthesizer models and a map of the envelope settings for each device.
It was a curious tune. A little three beat arpeggio in a four-beat base. Odd. Take your right hand and tap out a 1-2-3 beat. Take your left hand and tap out a 1-2-3-4 beat at the same time. The right hand catches up to the left hand every twelve beats. It’s not a new idea but it’s rare in pop music. The song was clearly written for a divaloid—a long glissando up into parts of the audio spectrum only dogs could appreciate. Like someone had taught hummingbirds to sing. From the range and the run, I guessed the love interest of the composer was Dot. That sort of run was a signature with her and she had the biggest fan base.
My interest faded right off the map.
Okay, I thought. Written on SynthaChord or ProMusica. Professional systems suggested deep pockets. A very rich divaloid fan. With delusions of grandeur.
But money was money. A contract was a contract. Rosie was Rosie.
I found myself playing the song back in my mind. First in one key. Then another. Faster. Slower. Change the key halfway through. Fitting in different words. Adding a drum beat and a different guitar back up. Inverting the chorus. Play it backwards. Inside out.
Okay. I was prejudiced. It was better than the usual Dot song.
Along around midnight I packaged up the whole thing and sent it off to Rosie with an invoice. Payment came in an hour later. Grover turned it around and sent it off to the banks and the State of California. The money was no more than a little loop of electrons into my account and out.
It had been more fun than I expected. I was even vaguely depressed it was over.
Tomorrow I had to nail the photovoltaic shingles back down. Or fix the composting toilet. Who in their right mind wanted to fix a composting toilet?
I took comfort in the knowledge I wasn’t going to be evicted for another month and went to bed.