Simon Stephenson takes us inside his new sci-fi novel

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Elon Musk has incinerated the moon and humans have locked themselves out of the internet in Simon Stephson’s new sci-fi novel, Set My Heart to Five. That set-up might sound like the perfect breeding ground for a dystopian tale, but Stephenson (a former screenwriter at Pixar) prefers the possibly unique concept: “miss-topia.”

“I personally feel a little bit bored of [dystopias]. We live in fairly dystopian times, so I don’t want to necessarily read that things are just gonna get so much worse. I was trying a slightly different thing and I think I’ve made up the term,” the author tells SYFY WIRE, which has an exclusive excerpt from the book (see below). “It’s this sort of future where things have gone a bit wrong, but not as wrong as they could be, and it’s a sort of comic world. I think things do often go wrong in an ironic, blackly comic way.”

That’s why Elon Musk ended up destroying our planet’s lunar satellite. While Stephenson is a big admirer of the entrepreneur’s accomplishments with SpaceX, he also notes that Musk has a “funnier side, he likes to joke. And sometimes, those jokes don’t always land.” Put another way, “the rockets always land, but the jokes don’t always land.” In his attempt to find a reason for why the moon would no longer exist in the year 2054, Stephenson decided that “it’s probably not a huge leap to think that someone blew it up. Who alive today, if anyone’s gonna blow up the moon? It’s probably Elon Musk. To be clear, it’s not some sort of malicious thing. In the book, he felt it would be a hilarious prank and, of course, it turned out that blowing up the moon isn’t a hilarious prank and it has consequences.”

The main character in Set My Heart is Jared, a mild-mannered android, who was engineered with human DNA. He works as a dentist in Michigan and soon learns that he’s capable of genuine emotion after seeing a classic movie: Arthur Hiller’s romantic drama Love Story (released in 1970).

“It’s one of the biggest tear-jerkers of all time,” Stephenson says. “I think it’s probably one of the most emotionally manipulative movies out there, and yet, it stills works. I don’t know if that’s the simple charm from being of that period and the great performances, but it’s probably the first in a whole genre of movies [where] young women die too soon. It really doesn’t [pull] its punches.”

In this version of the future, society’s inability to log into to the world wide web (people have, unsurprisingly, forgotten their passwords) means that humanity only has access to movies shot on film. “The book was always meant to be a love letter to old movies and the joke is that in 2054, the main movies are gonna be just giant Marvel/killer robot blockbuster things that show at the megaplex to thousands of people,” the author explains.

As a result, not-so-ancient films (like James Cameron’s Titanic) become equivalent to the obscure arthouse cinema of French New Wave, circa the early 1960s. “The movies that survived are gonna be the movies that were stored on film and the movies that had a lot of copies, which are basically those big movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s that I grew up [watching],” Stephenson adds.

When it comes to the book’s title, the author insists that it’s not a reference to the 1987 animated classic The Brave Little Toaster. It was originally supposed to be “Set My Heart to 10,” but the number was downgraded to five in order to make a pun about Jared being descended from everyday toasters.

“Someone told me this — and I hope it’s true — that operating systems do actually tend to be cut and pasted between devices and between iterations of things,” the author says. “So the idea is that Jared is an android, which means that he essentially runs on a code and his programming language was originally developed for domestic appliances, the main one being toasters. Jared expresses maximum enthusiasm by saying ‘Set my heart to five’ and the reason for that is because most toasters that I’ve experienced only go up to five.”

After realizing that he can indeed feel, Jared sets out to find his programmer mother and write a screenplay that will change the world. To get the story beats just right, Stephenson drew on his experience of living in the tech-booming and “near-futurish” Bay Area (aka Silicon Valley) while he worked at Pixar. “I guess it was this combination of being around that world, which really got me thinking about the future and all this technology and how we’re gonna use it,” he admits.

As for what the Disney-owned animation studio taught him, he reveals:

“[Their] movies all come from a personal experience. The stories that the directors are telling have to be something that is probably, to some extent, based on something that they have gone through or felt or experienced … I published a book in 2011 and it was a memoir about losing my brother and I’d wanted to write a novel immediately after it, but there was no story that I felt so compelled to tell and spend all those months writing. This story [eventually] came along and I felt as passionate about it as I had about telling the story of my brother and I think that was probably one of the lessons of Pixar. [It] was to look out for the ones that I really felt that deep personal connection with.”

He also notes that Pixar’s penchant for trial and error and experimenting with untried techniques rubbed off on him: “I kind of feel like a story about an android screenwriter probably is a big experiment in one way. And if I wasn’t feeling bold, then I probably wouldn’t have pursued it.”

Of course, we just had to ask about the book’s upcoming movie adaptation, which currently has Edgar Wright attached as director. Not much has been said on the project since the Scott Pilgrim and World’s End filmmaker first joined it back in late March. Nevertheless, Wright’s wry and kinetic sensibilities will lend themselves to the book’s “miss-topia” premise and reverence for beloved cinema.

“I’ve been a a big fan for a very long time as we all have been,” says Stephenson, who is also penning the screenplay. “I had previously worked with his producers on something, which was how I got the book to him. He responded to it, which was a thrill … and he’s obviously a busy man. All these directors have several possibilities, but I’m keeping everything firmly crossed. I guess I’ve been out here working as a screenwriter for long enough that they always say, ‘Don’t get too excited until the cameras start rolling and even then, don’t get too excited.’ I’m trying to live by that with the book, but it’s obviously a complete thrill.”

Read our exclusive excerpt below:

BTW ‘set it to five’ is another hilarious toaster-based joke. Most household appliances go to ten, but toasters uniquely go only to five. Therefore when I say ‘set it to five’, I am both demonstrating maximal enthusiasm and paying self-deprecating homage to my noble forefather, the toaster.

I digress. Bots do not have feelings, but I believe my circuits must have overheated when Professor Feng appeared on stage. How else to explain that I do not remember anything that she said? And yet I certainly know that it was wise and strong and scientific. And also self-deprecating and funny and charming and pithy and endearing too. After all, Professor Feng is not only a leading light in the field of bot engineering but one of the cleverest humans in the world! Did I also mention she is my mother?

Of course, Professor Feng is not my actual biological mother. I should be so lucky!

My biological parents were a varsity fencer from the University of Illinois and a Swedish statistician. By skillful combination of their DNA I was engineered for hand-eye coordination, non-creative intelligence, reliability and affability-some of the most prized qualities in a dentist!

Of course, I never met either of these biological parents, as they had both died in tragic automobile accidents long before I came along.

How else do you think Professor Feng obtained their DNA to make bots with?

Ha!

Did I also tell you that our mother, Professor Diana Feng of the National University of Shengdu made a speech that day, and it was incredible?

Yes, I did.

I apologize. It was the greatest day of my life and even thinking about it now makes my circuits overheat.

The point I am trying to make is that on my previous visit to Detroit I did not have to travel by Automatic Bus, and I heard my wonderful mother speak.

So the movies had a great deal to live up to!

10/10 they made a good start. The large auditorium at the Grand Theater in Detroit was like the inside of a great cathedral in Europe! If that sounds like hyperbole, let me then describe it. That way, you can decide for yourself if I am being hyperbolic!

The seats in the auditorium were covered in a red velvet material that must have looked decadently stunning before it became so threadbare. There were alabaster statues in alcoves, and by no means were they all headless. There was a balcony above the first floor, and then guess what there was above that? Another balcony! The lights in the ceiling were even arranged in patterns designed to mimic tiny constellations, although they unfortunately did not accurately depict the astro-geography of any known universe.

Maybe comparing the Grand Theater to a great European cathedral was indeed somewhat hyperbolic. Nonetheless, it had a decrepit splendor that even Ypsilanti’s famously phallic water tower and family-friendly Tridge could not rival. It was therefore easily the most impressive building I had ever seen.

The seven other customers in the theater were all nostalgics. After choosing a place as far from them all as possible, I now discovered that the seats themselves were small and surprisingly close together. Back in the glory days of old movies, humans attending the Grand Theater would have found themselves in close proximity to one another!

Here is another paradox of humans: when they are alone they wish to be together, and yet when they are together they wish to be alone! Sometimes I think humans might actually benefit from being subject to the tyrannical rule of a killer sky bot overlord. At least then they would no longer be burdened by such an abundance of indecision!

I now ate some of the popcorn I had purchased in order to appear more human.

It tasted of recycled cardboard and nutritionally valueless calories.

No tyrannical sky bot overlord would ever have tolerated that!

When the lights went down, some of the nostalgics cheered. This is something else I have noticed about humans: many of them seem to share a primal appreciation of the dark.

Perhaps incinerating the moon was not such an ‘accident’ after all!

I ate some more popcorn and discovered it inexplicably tasted better now that it was dark.

Also, the small and worn seat felt more comfortable and even somewhat bigger.

Perhaps Elon Musk had even been on to something when he ‘accidentally’ incinerated the moon!

Unfortunately, the movie that now played was not the old movie Dr Glundenstein had prescribed for me. It was a new movie about a kindly human who encountered a severely damaged bot. The human took the bot home, repaired him and slowly nursed him back to health. As soon as the bot was sufficiently recovered, he mercilessly murdered the kindly human and his entire family with lasers. The movie was only a few minutes long, so it was at least short.

None of the nostalgics seem perturbed that the wrong movie had played, let alone that it had been so implausible.

None of them so much as got up from their seats!

As I have mentioned, they are notoriously lackadaisical members of a notoriously lackadaisical generation.

Nostalgics!

They cannot!

I went out and informed the ticket-seller about the malfunction. She told me that I had just watched a ‘preview’, a short synopsis of a different movie currently playing at a nearby megaplex.

She explained that the theater is paid to show these previews because seeing the best parts of a movie for free encourages humans to pay bitcoin to see the remaining lesser parts.

Humans will forever and always be a mystery to me!

I returned to my seat and watched two more previews about bots murdering humans before the movie that Dr Glundenstein had prescribed began.

10/10 it was infinitely better than any of the previews.

It was a story about two young humans, Oliver and Jenny. They met and fell in love while studying at university almost a hundred years ago, in the late 1960s. It was obvious that Oliver and Jenny were in love, because they gave each other nicknames. Along with making each other miserable, giving each other nicknames is what humans do when they are in love.

But there was a problem!

Oliver was from a wealthy background and they both worried that his father would not approve of Jenny’s parents’ shortcomings in the Great Zero Sum Game.

They were right to worry!

Oliver’s father did not approve of Jenny’s family, or even of Jenny!

If Oliver married Jenny, he would be cut out of his inheritance!

There would be no bitcoin for Oliver once his prejudiced old father died!

Still, Oliver and Jenny did not care how much bitcoin their love cost them. They continued to be in love, graduated and moved to New York City to live happily ever after.

They even started trying to have a baby.

BTW having a baby used to be a lot more popular than it is nowadays!

They soon thought Jenny was pregnant, but there was a twist! The twist was that Jenny was not pregnant but in fact had cancer. This was an easy mistake to make, because Jenny’s main symptom from cancer was to look ever more beautiful. Nonetheless, despite looking so beautiful, Jenny soon died.

Afterwards, Oliver’s father came to the hospital and told him that he was sorry that he had not been nicer to Jenny while she was still alive.

Oliver replied that ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’.

This was something Jenny had told him earlier in the movie.

Oliver’s father did not understand what Oliver meant.

10/10 neither did I.

After all, if love meant never having to say you are sorry, then humans could treat anybody who loved them just as badly as they liked, and never have to apologize. Given how humans behave to each other at the best of times, that would surely be a recipe for disaster!

When the house lights came up, I discovered that my shirt was soaking wet. This was a mystery! After all:

/I had not purchased a soda because they were calorific sugar water.

/I could see no evidence of a leak coming from the ceiling above me.

/The nostalgics were sitting too far away and were anyway too lackadaisical to have played some kind of prank.

/Bots can produce tears only in response to a physical insult, such as a flying fragment of wisdom tooth.

It took me some time to deduce that the unknown liquid must have been my own tears! Even though nobody in the auditorium had had been drilling teeth, every other possibility had been eliminated.

The only logical conclusion was therefore that the Grand Theater must recently have been cleaned with a powerful solvent that had irritated my eyes.

I estimated the volume of my tears to be approximately 26ml.

It must have been a powerful solvent indeed!

Set My Heart to Five goes on sale tomorrow — Tuesday, Sep. 1.




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