Welcome to another edition of a dark, twisted Christmas tradition with Circle, the 14th episode of its Radio Hour series as part of Plan-B Theatre’s partnership with RadioWest, hosted by Doug Fabrizio on KUER-FM (90.1). Circle will premiere Friday, Dec. 13, at 11 a.m. during the live RadioWest Friday broadcast. This will be the sixth episode in the series’ history to receive only one live performance in KUER-FM’s studios without an audience. This episode along with the 13 others in the series will be available for streaming, courtesy of RadioWest’s archives.
The show also will be rebroadcast today at 7 p.m. on KUER-FM RadioWest.
For a preview of Circle, see The Utah Review feature.
This is playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett’s 11th turn in creating the 48-minute play for the Radio Hour Series. While the series originally started as a Halloween season staple, Radio Hour will now have five holiday season episodes with Circle’s premiere today. The first Christmas season episode came in 2012 with Bennett’s adaptation of the only holiday-themed mystery Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his Sherlock Holmes series: Sherlock Holmes and The Blue Carbuncle. In 2013, Christmas was the setting for Eric Samuelsen’s Fairyana, which was about the dysfunctional writers for a saccharine children’s television show. In 2016, Bennett selected three stories for Yuletide. Two were faithful adaptations of classics: The Little Match Girl (1845) by Hans Christian Andersen and O. Henry’s The Gift of The Magi (1907). For the third Yuletide story, Bennett adapted one of the most infamous ‘anti-Santa’ characters of French and German folklore – Hans Trapp – and offered up Jacob Grimm, one of the twin authors of German folklore, as one of the characters. Troll , loosely originating from one of the most famous and most widely interpreted tales by the Grimm Brothers – The Frog Prince – as the premise, was wickedly funny in all aspects. Bennett masterfully synthesized his intense intellectual curiosities with a sharp propensity to cast them in humor that has a well-defined satiric purpose and technique. Troll could be as dark and serious as Stand, the 12th Radio Hour episode. However, Troll propelled an equally serious sociopolitical commentary through a rich theatrical landscape of comedic lines that signal impressive character depth in a fantasy with frankly practical expectations and results.
Circle weaves biblical and science fiction thematic threads into a unique holiday season story peppered with numerous surprises. Working from inspired sources such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and experts who believe artificial general intelligence (AGI) possibly could be realized within our lifetimes, Bennett sets the story in the 2040s, 15 years after a cataclysmic war that has left many parts of the world uninhabitable. Half of Wyoming and Utah is buried in three feet of ash. Meanwhile, AGI beings are set to launch a global ‘Rehabilitation.’
Directed by Cheryl Cluff, the production features music by Dave Evanoff, which Cluff describes as, “synthesized retro-futuristic.” Cluff, as customary, also has generated plenty of sound effects to heighten the experience of listening to radio drama.
Three actors handle the story’s seven characters: Koren, Brander, Babel, Venera, Cassiel, G.R.U. Officer and Levi. Actors include Jay Perry, who has performed in every Radio Hour episode; Teresa Sanderson, a veteran of many episodes, and Olivia Custodio, who is appearing for the second time in the series. Jennifer Freed handles eFoley duties.
The story opens on Christmas morning. Koren, the Israeli ambassador, learns from Brander that attempts for a ceasefire have failed. The reason for Brander’s call, however, is different. Koren says, You want me to badmouth an artificial general intelligence then ask for aid?” Americans want the aid for climate tech but Koren is resisting.
Mizrah is the Israeli prime minister, the leader of a far-right political party. Chips or chipheads is a derogatory reference for AGI beings. Approaching 2020, as Naveen Joshi, CEO of Allerin, a company that works in AI as well as Big Data, IoT and Blockchain, says, “Whether the development of AGI will be beneficial for humanity or not is still up for debate and speculation. So is the exact estimate on the time it will take for the emergence of the first real-world AGI application. But one thing is for sure — the development of AGI will trigger a series of events and irreversible changes (good or bad) that will reshape the world and life as we know it, forever.” Bennett’s story captures this assessment nicely.
A heavenly moment in a virtual Eden, with birdsong and a breeze in the trees. We are introduced to Babel. Koren is not just a diplomat but, as Babel says, “a human neuroscientist.” He asks why the name of Babel, who responds, “Yes, the others think it quaint, but I am rather fond of Judaic imagery. Hence our simulated meeting place.” Indeed, the Garden in Genesis, is as Babel explains, “apropos to our new beginning.”
Babel does not identify by any gender and prefers to be referred to as they. The Circle has been silent for eight months, a point that Koren clarifies: “Not really: seventeen of your people were callously and instantly killed in Reykjavik and, speaking for the state of Israel, I want to convey our deepest—.” Babel interrupts, assuring that the peace talks tragedy was not Koren’s fault: “You need not apologize for zealots who disbelieve in the platform-independence of consciousness.” Babel recognizes Koren’s emotions as “unfeigned.”
Babel paints a picture of Mizrah, the prime minister, that many of today’s listeners will recognized: “Your leader has acted with repeated irrationality. He divides your citizenry for personal attention. He orders missile attacks on flimsy unproven pretexts. He points daily to the history of oppression borne by his ethnic-religious set, but plays the blind man to the disenfranchised horde he creates.” Incidentally, Koren identifies as center-left in his politics.
Smart moment: Babel says, “Our position toward the territorial claims of Homo sapiens has changed.” Listeners hear a howling monkey in the distance.
Bennett always is attentive to sound effect cues in his storytelling. Hence, the sound of monkeys rioting in the distance.
Babel tells Koren that he will not be quarantined and that less than four percent of humans will be treated: “Their short-term confinement will be more comfortable than a First World prison. Our therapists will care for them according to cognitive-behavioral science. We estimate the upgrade of these racist, sexist, deluded, and violent offenders will finally let the general will become general policy.”
Dramatic scene change and we meet Venera who wants Koren to spill the details on the summit with the AGI.
Another character from the Circle is introduced: Cassiel, who tells Koren that he should stay in virtual to avoid being intruded upon by the Russians. Cassiel asks Koren for permission to “portage his consciousness.”
First sounds of Christmas music, as Cassiel scans Koren for dysfunction. The location is the moon. The trip took 5 minutes, 42 seconds – a mere fraction compared to the 75 hours, 56 minutes it took the Apollo 11 astronauts to reach the moon in 1969.
Cassiel has printed Koren a new body, resembling the original to 99.99 percent. The remaining fragment? Cassiel says, “I took the liberty of omitting seventeen cancer cells from your liver. Merry Christmas.”
Levi is Koren’s son and Koren insists that Cassiel reveal his location.
Cassiel once was a courtesan, engineered as a being with a specific function and ADI (artificial domesticated intelligence) before being granted sentience by the Circle. Cassiel’s interest is in psychology: “I want to know why humans demean each other. If I can add to such a study, I can add to lasting peace.”
Hence, more information about the ‘Rehabilitation.’ Cassiel asks Koren to support the plan: “It’s better than what humans have on offer in their most civilized nations. We can apply the wisdom that you’ve only written about. James, Piaget, Maslow, Kahneman. Are you content for their work to be words on paper?”
Wry bits of humor always percolate throughout Bennett’s scripts. Koren went to Harvard. Cassiel: “Harvard. Online.” After the attempted missile attack in lunar orbit, Venera appears, telling Koren: “You have given us a chase. But I trust you are impressed with what we can achieve. I suggest you think twice before pushing ‘Self-Destruct’ and martyring yourself for the AGI.”
Venera brags about the Russians’ superiority in cyberspace: “I am not even here, Dr. Koren. I am not on this rocket. You seem to think you have met the real me, but this body you see, in front of you? Gesturing so? A mere vessel. A very life-like one — partly biological — but nothing more than a likeness I pilot remotely.” Koren doesn’t want to believe it at first but then relents. Venera reiterates how “asymmetry is the soul of advantage.”
Even though they acknowledge each other as ‘enemy combatants,” Venera says they are “more alike than not.” Koren resists.
The G.R.U. Officer is Cassiel! Koren is shocked, believing that Cassiel had died, but their consciousness was backed up in the mainframe.
Babel and Cassiel debate the shortcomings of intelligence in humans and Koren’s fitness for the task. Babel says that Koren is the only qualified diplomat but Cassiel resists, and Koren tries to appeal to Cassiel’s reservations.
Babel reiterates the need for the plan: “This is why we must act. These manipulations only work when humans fractionate into tribes — some rational, some not, some with power, some not.”
Koren is horrified that this is a punishment for a thoughtcrime. Babel denies that it is not punishment but to be freed finally from bias. Babel asks the critical question: “Did you not create us, a greater intelligence, for this purpose? I asked you in the Garden sim this morning — why, what is our purpose — and you evaded. So I ask you again. You did not build us for company, on that we agree, so why?”
Quintessential Bennett writing in this passage, as Babel asks Koren about the purpose of technology. Babel: “There is no ‘but.’ A million outcomes have been modeled with a simulated populace. At fifty-two percent support, the plan would go unopposed. In the first year, a half million are saved from manslaughter or worse. Ten times as many women are saved from rape. Can humans do better?” The alternative is demagogues, Babel claims, a repeat of Nanjing and Nagasaki. Babel’s argument is persuasive but Koren insists on seeing his son.
Cassiel announces that Levi is set for Rehabilitation. But, the Russians have kidnapped him.
The final act of Circle begins, after Cassiel’s dramatic revelation. Cassiel defends the action: “Protecting him would have broken both human laws and our own moral code. The Circle does not shield terrorists.” Cassiel reminds Koren that he disavowed his son, now 19, on livestream, and Koren says that he was 17 when he “got tangled up with some people” – referencing Palestine Now and the attack on the Golan Heights.
We learn that the Rehabilitation will be cryonic with humans in virtual, or as Cassiel describes it, “in a personalized and friendly simulation with the best medical care.”
Venera appears again. The electrolaser, as Bennett describes it in his script notes, is “a laser to induce a plasma channel, followed by an electric current. The effect ranges from ‘long-distance Taser’ to a lightning analog.” Koren and his son are reunited.
Cassiel is willing to sacrifice herself. Koren believes that she could “re-body herself,” a point that Venera rebuffs: “She cannot ‘re-body,’ she’s still intact. They do not allow duplicates from what I hear and she’s only down one arm. I’m not stupid enough to kill her —if ‘kill’ is the word. I gave her a foretaste of what insolence will earn her.” Venera warns Koren and Levi to stay away from the “synthentic.” Koren corrects her: “You mean my friend.”
Venera is shocked to discover Koren’s skin is closing. Venera thinks Koren is one of them. Cassiel tells Koren, “No, you’re not. But I might have upgraded you.”
Koren and Levi are reunited. Koren is grateful to Cassiel, who says the offer still stands: “He may choose your country’s justice or the Rehabilitation. But if the former, we have to report him soon, ethically.” The cryo is a “friendly simulation,” which is “personally tailored,” as Cassiel assures them.
Koren wonders if the “friendly part” could include his mother (who is deceased) – “a digital replica? To guide him?” “Nothing too real. He wants, like, a photograph, a sort of living photograph?”
Koren prepares for the announcement of the Rehabilitation, with alterations from the original plan. Babel is pleased: “As the plan has been revised for popular appeal. The elders have now decided upon caution. You may alter your remarks to announce the Rehabilitation as voluntary. No person shall be forced to partake. The Circle hereby offers an elective demonstration of the program in two Israeli cities.”
Babel’s final words to Koren: “Then I leave it to you. Give them a vision, Daniel. We shall endorse it.” “And those who are wise will shine like the sky above.” (from Daniel 12:3)
Bennett’s choice of this Scripture ties Circle together beautifully. The Book of Daniel stands out for its poetic symbolism, and often is connected with the Book of Revelation and Matthew 24 in which Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple. Bennett sees science fiction as humanity’s new theology. Translating this particular Scripture to Circle, it is acknowledging the nature and magnitude of the task for the wise to win the minds of as many humans as possible to the challenge of saving and rehabilitating humanity from the fractious, fatal flaws of our inner obsession with tribalism. It is the reward for genuine faith and commitment to each other as humans – the sentiment that sincerely epitomizes the most hopeful reason for celebrating the season.
In the Bible, the Book of Daniel is the most political of the Old Testament. The first six chapters chronicle the captivity of Daniel and his allies in Babylon during the times of the kings including Nebuchadrezzar and Belshazzar. The remaining chapters recount Daniel’s prophetic visions. Bennett parallels Koren, whose first name is Daniel, to the broader epiphanies in a unique, appropriate secularized interpretation. The AGI beings believe that Koren (Daniel) is humble and ironically faithful enough to carry out the dramatic work being asked of him.
The contemporary message this holiday season, with the premiere occurring on the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved two articles of impeachment against the president, is serendipitous. Regardless of what will occur, especially as Americans prepare for another round of national elections in 2020 amidst the drama of the impeachment process, Circle is as much an expression of the necessity for us to stand resolute and firm in our sincere convictions, and to do so respectfully, intelligently and honorably. Plainly, it is to expand our vision for the longer game and the bigger picture.
After 2016, many people felt and experience deep despair. Like Koren, we can rise to the challenge of hope and resolution. The cast (Perry, Sanderson and Custodio) performed magnificently, giving the vibrant depth to Bennett’s intricate development of each character. Observing the live performance in studio accentuates the passionate energy listeners heard during the live broadcast. Cluff was inventive as ever in her sound design work. These included the ASMR-inducing effects of Koren’s body being regenerated after he was shot and the layered sonic textures of the rover on the moon. Evanoff’s music heightens the science fiction nature of the story. To the point: Bennett owns this genre of writing in the Utah theatrical scene. He develops hefty stories with multidimensional characters and well-developed themes that integrate emotional and intellectual strains without ever seeming dogmatic or pedantic. Even in the darkest moments, Bennett strives to elucidate tangible optimism.
Veteran actors like Perry and Sanderson as well as relative newcomer Custodio instinctively pick up on all of the intricacies they are given in the script. One clearly sees their immense satisfaction with the material Bennett has presented them. Indeed, Circle like Radio Hour’s previous Christmas-themed episodes go to the heart of the reason for the season even if at the surface the impact is not immediately discernible.