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Peter Tieryas on first contact and the importance of empathy

An interview with the author of “The Burn” for Better Worlds

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Illustration by Arik Roper

A couple of years ago, Peter Tieryas burst onto the science fiction scene with a fun novel called The United States of Japan, a Philip K. Dick-esque adventure that imagined a world in which the Allied powers lost the Second World War, but it was set in the 1980s with giant mechs. Last year, he followed up that novel with another set in the same world, Mecha Samurai Empire.

For Better Worlds, Tieryas penned a story called “The Burn,” in which a digital artist tries to help his brother who begins seeing fire that doesn’t exist. He begins to investigate the cause behind the affliction and discovers something truly unexpected.

The Verge spoke with Tieryas about AR, first contact, and the importance of empathy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about the inspiration for your story. What about building connections through AR attracted you the most?

I liked the challenge of exploring AR in a positive light and showing how technology can become a bridge in unexpected ways. The inspiration for how I navigated these ideas came from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I still remember the first time I played it; I was expecting an action blockbuster following the adventure of Solid Snake. Instead, I experienced a brilliantly provocative narrative that made me question reality and the implications technology had for the future of existence. The way the artificial Campbell was interfacing with the game re-contextualized everything so that the familiar gameplay became something alien and strange. This was the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Questions about the future of information in light of the mass digital storage capability and how it was resetting the rules of evolution had me pondering everything from the un-erasable nature of email to the influencing factor of social media trends. Were we actually making our own decisions or being molded through a simulation like the “Selection for Societal Sanity” in MGS2 that would succeed in “digitizing life itself”? Was the AI in MGS2 alive? How would humans communicate with it? How do we distinguish between reality and the reality created for us by online news, a prescient question that has had pretty devastating implications in the past two years?

This is the rabbit hole I wanted to venture into in “The Burn.” In many alien first contact stories, there’s usually a shared set of physics, so that actual communication is possible through some form of translation. But what if aliens have a different set of physics from our own, something completely foreign in a way that traditional perception would fail to detect? We rely on the five senses, but what if these aliens had a mode of existence completely separate from them, whether through higher superstring echoes or a different reaction to both gravity and time that would make them impossible to sense? Digitization and its projection through AR became a method of casting aside the human-centric notions of alienness and re-contextualizing alien contact with their perspective in mind.

Looping back to MGS2, the digitization of life, while dangerous, could also become a way of protecting humanity and giving it chances to engage other life forms in significant new ways. If we do end up destroying the planet through climate change, will it be possible to survive through digital evolution? The hopeful ending of the game seems to suggest that technology can enslave but also be a form of salvation. That sense of building up relationships through the struggle is what I was trying to convey through the ending of “The Burn.”

Author Peter Tieryas.
Photo by Angela Xu

What prompts your protagonist’s desire to experience his brother’s crisis for himself?

I hope a desire for empathy. I think the most exciting thing about both VR and AR is the way it allows for endless possibilities in sharing experiences. Videos and documentaries already do a fantastic job of conveying other people’s stories. AR can overlay a programmed framework and help others understand exactly what the subject experienced, whether through visual focus, olfactory triggers, or specific noises that others may have filtered out.

In this case, it’s the alien interference, but it could be anything from physical disabilities to a traumatic experience that someone would want to share with their loved ones. The deeper subtext to the story is that while the outward goal is to figure out what the “Burn” signifies, the more important relationship is the one the protagonist has with his brother and Sabrina with her father. Despite sharing so much, it still requires AR to bring them together. In this case, it’s because of alien interference, but you could symbolically replace that with any other significant external event.

Ultimately, all of these tools we’ve developed are designed to create more empathy. While sometimes this leads to unity and consensus, there is a danger that it can also lead to more divisiveness once we become aware of what others really think. There’s also the implications of total unity, which can have a more positive outlook (a la Iain M. Banks’ Culture series) or a darker one (Star Trek’s Borg), depending on the perspective.

I feel like I’ve read several books lately about alien contact where the characters don’t necessarily recognize sentience in something. How do you go about envisioning something that’s truly alien?

I look at microscopic views of plants, my own mouth, my pupils, my iris. Then I carefully examine video footage of deep ocean trenches, weird sea creatures that have never seen the sun, imagining what the Earth’s core is like and what types of creatures could live there.

I rely on unbridled dream releases, writing them down before they fade from memory, wondering about the fungus growing on my avocado, wishing a bacterial infection hadn’t invaded my body and given me a cold, and wondering about the sociopolitical drama of my white blood cells fending off another invasion. I question whether any voice I hear over the phone is actually real, despite being digitally extrapolated based on the original voice, a hundred sneezes and days of fatigue where the line between wakefulness and sleep is blurred.

I start seeing people who aren’t there and mirages that are actual people who’ve suffered their own nightmares and quixotic visions about futures that never happen, regrets about realities that never existed, praying for dreams that I’ve never dreamt, a slackening of muscles and nerves, axiomatic grinding of lost electrons and meditations on words that were never invented, a language based on an eighth sense, and words that make no sense if one assumes time is linear, sound conveyed through mediums other than oxygen, beings that experience life in reverse, and creatures whose fingernails are the size of Jupiter.

When people imagine first contact with aliens, they usually imagine giant spaceships. Why did you choose to go small?

It’s because I think spaceships would be a cost-inefficient method of traveling unless FTL (faster than light) becomes easily feasible. You would have to put in ridiculous amounts of money and effort to shoot a small craft through millions of light-years of space in the hopes of... what? Engaging some other form of life when the most likely result would be a cold, empty death? I wonder if we are thinking about other life too much from a human-centric perspective of space and time.

The general idea when we look for aliens is to look up and out and into space. But what if our own perceptions of what space actually is are totally wrong? Our own world is so strange and foreign, and we’re just beginning to get a small grasp of how it functions. Probably in a hundred years, people will look at our scientists and think we were fools for some of our theories.

The universe seems so massive and ageless considering humans live for a hundred years (give or take a few years), and the universe is around 14 billion years old. But what is it really? And why is it that our own carbon-based definition of life is the only kind we look for? What if there actually exists other life forms and civilizations on our own planet, but all this time, we’ve failed to detect them because of our limited definition of life?