Today we welcome Mark McClelland, author of the science fiction novel Upload. Mark studied Creative Writing and Computer Science at the University of Michigan's Residential College, where he won a Hopwood Award for poetry. For twenty years, he has focused on software development but is now finding the call to write hard to resist. He writes in search of truths that defy simple, direct expression and publishes to share his discoveries with others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Nancy, and two cats and is currently working on a children's story featuring a fox named Cyril Frolix. He also writes poetry for his wife, sole member of the Poem-of-the-Month Club.
What role do you believe speculative fiction plays in society?
As science and technology race closer and closer to the core of what it means to be human, I believe science fiction plays an increasingly important role, inspiring visions of human potential and raising alarms around human shortcomings. In Upload, I explore the philosophical pitfalls of virtual society—a world increasingly populated with computer personalities, whom we cannot view as peers so long as we control them.
As computer simulations of life become more accurate and complete, it will be difficult to draw the line between “valuable” life and life which can be reproduced verbatim on-demand. This in turn could lead to abuse and to a devaluation of life in general—something you see taken to an extreme in Morgan’s Altered Carbon. We’ll need laws around the humane treatment of artificial life, the punishment of criminals who can spawn multiple copies of themselves, social programs for people who are essentially immortal—all sorts of ethical questions lay before us and may be much closer than we think. Books like Upload can spark discussion and debate now about decisions we will soon face, as our species becomes increasingly god-like in its power to create, alter, and destroy life.
I also believe speculative fiction serves to inspire. I recently sent gift copies of Upload to several scientists involved in the Human Brain Project and invited them to share the book with their colleagues. It’s my hope that they will make connections between the “science” of Upload and their own real science, cutting-edge research that could uncover and potentially change what it is to be human. If my own vision of the future contributes to such research in even a small way, I’ll be overjoyed. It’s not hard to find examples of scientific pioneers who were inspired by speculative fiction, and I publish my writing in part because I hope to do some inspiring of my own.
Why do you write in this genre?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I was drawn to the mind-blowing possibilities that come with virtualization of the human brain, and Upload is the story that gradually formed around my fascination with this future technology. I can see someone like Raymond Quan becoming obsessed with the potential to live in a world completely of his own creation—what introverted dreamer hasn’t felt like an estranged outsider, craving the realization of their escapist fantasies? (Not to suggest extroverts don’t experience the same thing. I just happen to have a lot more experience on the introvert side of things.)
Looking back over what I’ve written, I would say at least half of it falls into the realm of speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, and surrealistic stories that feel lifted from dreams of an alternate reality. I’ve always had an active imagination, and speculative fiction allows me to run wild with it and then share it with other people. It’s the sharing part that’s really exciting—turning my mental visions into an artistic expression that others can absorb into their own minds. It’s like magic!
How did you come up with the idea for Upload?
Reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines was what planted the seed. Then I read Mapping the Mind, a wonderfully information-packed book by Rita Carter, about the state of brain research back in 1999, when it was written. My imagination went nuts with all the possibilities of artificial life and virtualized humans—brain and body, since they’re so intertwined—and I thought it would be fun to cast an antihero with a criminal past into a situation where he finally learns to value human connection just as he’s about to go into hiding, via what he sees as the most spectacular getaway in criminal history.
What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
Video games, an active social life, and a magnetic attraction to hobbies. But I suspect that’s not what you’re looking for here.
Here’s one big challenge… I chose early on to strictly adhere to a third-person narrative told exclusively from Raymond’s point of view, and to limit the language and nuance to match his personality. I deliberately avoided rich prose and subtle insights that I thought Raymond incapable of. While I’m proud of the unity of character and language that I believe I achieved, I also felt at times that I’d clipped my own wings. It made the writing harder work, and I’m loving my current writing all the more for the freedom to pepper it with all the color and lyricism I crave.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting to take notes on a sequel of sorts to Upload, but my primary focus is a children’s story. I’m very early in the process, with lots of bits and pieces that don’t look like they could possibly fit together, but I think the main thrust of it will be sort of an inversion of Walden. Thoreau cast worldly possessions aside, to focus on nature and introspection. He sought to learn from the animals. In my story, you have just the opposite: animals get their hands on a shrink-ray and start going gaga over all the gadgets and creature-comforts they can bring into their lives. It’s up to the hero, a contemplative fox named Cyril Frolix, to put an end to greed, envy, gluttony, and distraction.
As a side thing, I’m working on something I’m calling functional poetry, or utilipoems: little rhymes that serve as mnemonics and mantras, to help with willpower, life focus, and my lousy memory. It’s a very outdated notion, I think—a throwback to nursery rhymes and folksy aphorisms. But I’m finding they have a place in my own life, and they’re just fun to play with.
I’m also working on a couple of short stories which have been knocking about in the back of my head. Upload dominated my writing for the better part of thirteen years, and it’s so exciting to be able to focus on shorter pieces and jump from project to project.
His criminal past catching up with him, a troubled young man seeks escape into digital utopia by uploading his consciousness into a computer—just as first love casts his life in a new light. In this thrilling near-future science-fiction novel, Mark McClelland explores the immense potential of computer-based consciousness and the philosophical perils of simulated society.
To escape the hacker crimes of his youth, Raymond Quan has worked out a brilliant but extremely risky scheme. Taking advantage of his position on the University of Michigan’s Human Mind Upload Project, he plans to upload his consciousness into a computer but make it look like it failed. It will appear to others that he died, while he secretly whisks his uploaded mind off to a remote computer, to live out his life in a virtual world of his own creation, free from society and the far-reaching eye of the law.
In the midst of all this, he works up the courage to reach out to Anya, an attractive and outgoing scientist on the upload research team, and much to his surprise he discovers the attraction is mutual. He finds himself entering the first meaningful relationship of his life, just as pressures force him to accelerate his already-dangerous upload plan. To make matters worse, the technology he intends to use has not yet been tested on humans—he would be the first person to make the jump to a pure-digital mind.
“Like Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Upload is fast paced and full of action, a story-noire set in a not too distant dystopian society… a well written story that not only tackles the scientific possibility of digitizing consciousness along with the ethical questions that arise with it, but also asks the question: Can you really run from your past?” – Hazen Wardle, author of The Triumph Detective series