Moral Code Zero

And now, we return (momentarily) to Earth, where Warren Ellis has found a particularly inane screed from the Science Fiction Writers of America’s current vice-president. Quoting just a little bit:

I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs claim they’re just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they’re undercutting those of us who aren’t giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work.

The comments on Ellis’s site are, for the most part, scathing (although one person already wonders if it’s all a joke). Snide remarks about “webscabs” are just the sort of thing which make me want to give words away for free. Unfortunately, I don’t have too much science fiction sitting around in such a state that I would call it ready for release. . . .

One SF vignette follows below the fold. Nothing serious — just some text with which one can play “Count the Allusions.”


The author sat in the upper reaches of Manhattan three-space. His window faced Central Park, letting nighttime enter his den. The study where he hammered upon an obsolete word processor was buried within the apartment, lit only by wide-spectrum electroluminescent panels. On a beautiful evening like this, however, when he had nothing more pressing to do than sop up a tall glass of hot chocolate with a plate of shortbread cookies, chatting with a friend on the netphone, why then it was a perfect occasion to enjoy the view.

He had been there to see New York put itself back together. In those first few weeks, all he had known to do was record the best and kindest deeds he had seen take place around him, trying by instinct to make some fraction of it unforgettable. Now, almost two years later, the City glowed again. You could still find the empty spaces, the fissures left by chaos, but they no longer resembled wounds or even scars. Each pause in the City looked for all the world like a place where they’d be building a parking garage, the monumental sense of history chipped away by a million citizens still changing for the E train, eroding the mightiest of evidences by the mere act of living.

Great Space, he thought. Maybe we’ll all be better for it.

“What’s been keeping you busy this week, my friend?” asked the bioinformatician on the phone. The young woman’s voice came from Southern California, where the sun had not yet set.

“I think I’m close to closing a deal with the Japanese folks,” he told her.

“The anime company?” she asked.

“Yes. We’re on the cusp of agreeing on the story arc, at which point I’ll be able to start work on the screenplays for the individual episodes. They’re budgeting for twenty-six episodes of half an hour apiece, with strong hopes for additional seasons to follow.”

“So, at two point two hours per script, you’ll be done with the first gig in —”

“Har har. Actually, I’ve found it quite intriguing. A continuous development over thirteen hours of screen time gives me lots of room to build up the ideas, build up the people and the way they live. It might just be enough time to get science-fiction done right, and wouldn’t that be a nice change?”

“Can you tell me the story arc, or would that violate some non-disclosure agreement, signed in peculiar red ink and all that?”

“The premise,” he said, “is fairly straightforward. Start early in the next century, when we’re busily leaving TwenCen behind. Robots are doing more and more of humanity’s manual labor, and at least in the industrializing countries, the standard of living has never been higher. Each robot is programmed with a Hippocratic ethic, first do no harm—”

“I couldn’t see you doing it any other way.”

“This was the only non-stupid way I could see to achieve the starting condition they had wanted me to extrapolate upon. But once I sketched them the back story I had developed, they fell in love with it and the possibilities it offers for later seasons.”

“Mm-hmmm. Continue!”

“Robots are, of course, programmed to guard their own safety, since they are far from cheap. Human orders can override that instinct, if necessary, but preserving human life against both deliberate harm and incidental happenstance is an even higher priority. That’s Moral Code One, as we’re calling it.”

“So far,” she said, “your robots don’t sound very different from the best of our own breed.”

“The only rule more fundamental than Moral Code One, which insists that robots respect and protect human life, is the injunction to preserve humanity as a whole. The only way they can allow themselves to falter in their protection of the individual is to safeguard the whole. Of course, this program only comes into play for the highest-grade robots with the greatest responsibilities and the most subtle functions.”

“And the ‘protect humanity from all enemies, foreign and domestic’ rule is Moral Code Zero.”

“Right. Now, how would you imagine we set up a conflict?”

“Well, with the robots being as decent as only you could make them, I can guess that it’s the humans who screw things up.”

“War. Senseless and bloody war between the last remaining superpowers. Biological, nuclear, detonating the methane hydrates — whatever horror we can make lurk in the background.”

“You’re sure a chipper fellow.”

“Hey, you know me. I write a murder mystery, I put the murder offstage and have it happen before the story even gets going. Only stands to reason that I’d do the same for a global thermonuclear war.”

“But wait, the robots survive, don’t they?”

“And, compelled by Moral Code Zero, they preserve the last traces of humanity, shielding both their bodies and their minds from the wasteland which human beings made of the world. Human civilization continues inside a virtual reality, a million bodies and brains wired in parallel and sustained by nutrient broth grown on hydroponic yeast farms. Fusion reactors power the lamps under which brews the intravenous food of all mankind —”

“Yes yes,” she said, not too hurriedly. “Sacre noir, my friend, I knew you were a claustrophile, but I would have thought living inside a vat was too much even for your taste.”

“There’s more open space inside the virtual reality than I had put into my first metropolis,” he reminded her.

“So what’s the conflict that drives the show?” she asked.

“Not all humans live inside the simulation,” he said. “A few refugees survive in the bleak and blasted real world, and they strive to overthrow the order which has, as they see it, enslaved humankind within invisible bonds.”

“Nice. And of course, the machines, impelled as they are by Moral Code Zero, must fight to preserve the majority, which means they have to kill the rebels.”

“Now, which side would you say has the moral high ground?”

“Oooh. . . .”

“Aren’t you glad I’ll have thirteen hours to work it all out? And that’s in the first season alone!”

He heard a doorbell chime in the background, in Pasadena. “That’ll be my dinner guest, I’m afraid,” the bioinformatician said. “Please give my best to your fiancee and your typewriter, not necessarily in that order.”

“Next year in Jerusalem,” he said.

“Godspeed, comrade,” said the genome specialist, and the netphone connection flickered out.

While the writer delicately crumbled a shortbread cookie, the woman in Pasadena spritzed herself with a puff of perfume against the arrival of her dinner guest, whose tastes in romance had turned out to be far more eclectic than he had suspected even six months before. All through dinner and the rites which followed, she turned a sentence over in her mind, spreading its shades into a spectrum, trying to tell if the odd lines she almost surely detected were only innocence shifted the wrong way by her rapid motion intrigue-ward, or if those telltales marked a breach of secrecy.


Okay, so this one was already available for free. I wrote it as an offbeat X-Mas gift and decided to share it around. Lucky move. I got a great X-Mas gift in return, when David Brin said,

Dang. That’s professional-level writing. Not standard fiction POV, but very articulate and smooth.

3 thoughts on “Moral Code Zero”

  1. Hey, the prose is at least as good as Gibson. Which, coming from me, may be a bit of damning with faint praise, but feel free to take it as you will. At least it’s not as ramblingly incoherent as my Tobasco da Gama stories. ;)

  2. Nothing will replace a good editor, that’s for sure, but the democratization of publishing will end up a net positive, eventually.

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