Love in the age of spyware

Their affair was nurtured by a robot and watched by millions -- but its ratings were shaky.

Published July 16, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Lastly, consider Brian Hayes of Oak Knoll Drive, South Pasadena.

Mr. Hayes, 34, sits on a low retaining wall behind the Griffith Observatory, legs dangling over a darkening garden landscape of flowering plants and deciduous shrubbery. Further down the mountainside the vegetation thins out to pine and scrub, becoming lush and green again at the level of the first swimming pools and multimillion-dollar homes. Beyond even that, the monstrous logic of Los Angeles begins to reveal itself in the dusk as headlights, streetlamps, and other point sources switch on for the night, electrical impulses in a vast motherboard whose most sensational computations will output to the eleven o'clock news.

Hayes breathes in deeply of an organic perfume that overwhelms even the omnipresent reek of hydrocarbons. He luxuriates in the scent, and half a million (and slowly declining) subscribers luxuriate with him. As do we. His vital signs chart a map of contentment and arousal. On some level he must understand he's a political pawn, deployed as entertainment to promote public acceptance of the coming parolee spyware program. But it doesn't seem to be something he or the other six subjects think much about.

"Smell that, L.A.?" he asks his companion. "Moonflowers. That brings back memories."

His companion, standing behind him and to the left, raises its face and turns its head left and right, as if testing the air. It is a robot, man-sized and -shaped, spindly, but armored in highly burnished chromiplate. The waning sun makes its skin a furnace of molten gold, rust, and blood. Only the LAPD Traffic Control shield inlaid on its chest, frosted with a dull matte surface, stands out distinct amid the reflected conflagration.

Hayes leans forward and plucks a white flower, six inches across, from the twining vines that festoon the wall below him. He holds the trumpet-shaped bloom against his face like an oxygen mask, its petals having just untwisted for the night. The sweet scent is overpowering -- but despite the erotic charge it carries for Hayes, subscribers are dropping out by the tens of thousands, flipping over to one of the other subjects or just getting back to their own lives. Exit polling indicates they'll be back later this evening for the fireworks with Sandra when Hayes finally goes home. But this flower-sniffing interlude? Booor-ing.

The robot, a standard enforcement unit with moderate autonomy, has lowered itself into a clumsy squat, one hand touching the ground and the other questing vainly over the wall for its own moonflower. Hayes' muscles tense as if in anticipation of a tumble. "Here, take mine," he says, holding out his flower.

The robot pinches the stem gingerly, straightens, and holds the flower to its mouth-grille.

"Now you're making fun of me," says Hayes. Annoyance scribbles its signature in his voiceprint and blood pressure. "The robot can't smell that."

"Not fine details," says the robot, its voice plummy and its diction stilted, "but I can distinguish the scent of flowers from other airborne chemicals."

And through the robot, we say, "These units are much better at recognizing smoke and hazardous gases of different sorts, but yes, they can smell the roses. Of course, we get a much sharper image through your senses than its. According to your nose, that's Ipomoea alba, sometimes classed as Calonyction aculeatum."

"That's very interesting," says Hayes, obviously (along with his still declining subscribers) finding it anything but. "That's just ace." He reaches down to snap another moonflower from its vine. Resting his weight on one hand, he leans back and relaxes as he breathes in the blossom's heavy perfume.

It's moments like these, as sense memory carries muscles and biochemistry on a virtual journey back in time, that convince many subscribers they can read the subjects' minds. Moods, yes. Minds, no. Disclaimers and demonstrations do little to disabuse them. But not even we can know for certain what the subject is thinking unless he chooses to say. Or lets himself be prompted.

"You mentioned memories a moment ago," we say through the robot.

Hayes smiles, and his subscribers feel their faces split with sly, involuntary grins. The dropouts taper off and ratings plateau. "It was the first night I spent with Sandra," he says. "She had this little rented bungalow in West Hollywood, moonflowers and morning glories growing all up the side of the house and onto the roof. She kept the window open, and that's what we smelled all night. And I mean all night."

His blood pressure spikes with the onset of arousal -- as a hundred subscribers comb public records for the bungalow's address -- but a clench of his stomach follows almost immediately. "God, I'm such a shit," he says, shaking his head.

"Brian, what makes you say that?" we ask -- though it's a dead certainty he's thinking about his evening bar outing with Naomi Warner.

When Hayes looks up, the robot is regarding him with its head tilted at an almost human angle of concern -- our doing, not its. The moonflower dangles from its left hand like a forgotten offering.

Hayes sighs, a soul-rending sound from the depths of his thorax. "Even with a million people watching, I can't be a decent husband. Hell, a decent person." He stares morosely down the hillside. "I may as well just throw myself off this mountain. Or take a dive off the Hollywood sign like that actress, whoever she was."

"Peg Entwhistle. But that was over a hundred years ago. You could never get near it now."

Hayes glares at the robot. "Well, assuming I could, then I would. It'd be better for me and for Sandra."

"You don't mean that."

"I do," says Hayes, though from his respiration and heart rate we know that he doesn't, though his self-pity does run high. "At the very least, L.A., I think I should pull the plug on the spyware."

That he does mean, and suddenly the boards are abuzz with shocked protests and I-told-you-so's. It's fortunate that Hayes can't follow the commentary in realtime, but even more fortunate that we cannot betray our secret thoughts in the myriad ways humans do.

"The park closes at sunset," we say. "What you do say we continue this discussion on the road?"

"All right," says Hayes, and the robot extends a hand to help him to his feet -- its initiative, not ours.

Upright, Hayes gazes a moment due east, and it doesn't take a mind reader to intuit he's looking toward South Pasadena and home. He fingers the moonflower still in his grip -- then opens his hand and lets it fall.

The robot, its arm a blur, catches the flower before it's dropped a foot. "No littering," it says.

"It's a flower," says Hayes.

"Yes," says the robot.

"If it fell off a vine, would that be littering?"

"It fell from your hand."

"Jesus," says Hayes, walking up the path and around the observatory's dirty white flank, into shadow.

He does not notice the robot lower itself carefully to its knees where he left it, on the stone path amidst foliage and crushed blooms of all sorts.

As Hayes comes around to the front of the observatory, heading for the parking lot, several more robots are emerging from their posts in the trees and at the corners of the old deco-style building. They form a loose phalanx around him, moving with him. His subscriber base effervesces with a fractal pattern reminiscent of the motion of air molecules against his skin in the warm twilight breezes. Users drop in and out -- some drawn by the rumor of a plugpull, others just tracking his progress toward home and the fight that's sure to come -- but overall his ratings are making a slight gain.

Not that you would know it by looking at him. Hayes moves at a heavy shamble past the James Dean memorial, like a man on his way to the gas chamber.

The last couples and families are packing up their cars, and some, catching sight of Hayes and his honor guard, nudge one another, wave, and try to attract his eye. Hayes bears this with resigned grace -- he is really an ideal subject for the experiment, regardless of what he and the public think -- but he flinches at the sudden sound of squealing tires from the road beyond the parking lot.

We've been tracking this Thunderbird as it winds through the park, of course, particularly since all eight occupants are active subscribers now logged in -- including the driver, who has the car on manual. Half a dozen LAPD autoscooters, parked until moments ago, are already forming a blockade fifty yards ahead of Hayes, signaling on every band for the car not to cross. The robot phalanx tightens around Hayes.

But crossing the line is not what these twentysomething college students, frat brats from Occidental, have in mind. The red, tricked-out Thunderbird slews to a sideways stop just beyond the scooters, drunken kids hanging out the windows and gesturing lewdly. "Ditch the bitch, Brian!" shouts one, and another: "Pound Sandra! Make her give it up!"

The rest are chanting together: "Do the nasty with Naomi, do the nasty with Naomi..."

Vitals through the roof, Hayes turns his head, at least denying the hecklers their chance to see themselves through his eyes for any length of time. His sense of loathing, though, both of them and of himself, rocks them back in their seats like a skin-crawling slap -- as does the Thunderbird's acceleration as we override its console and send the car humming back down the drive to Vermont Canyon Road, trailing hydrogen exhaust. They've lost manual privileges for the evening, and they'll find that no matter where they want to go tonight, their autodrive will choose the most congested route to get them there.

"Are you all right, Brian?" we ask through the nearest robot, concerned by his sudden lightheadedness. Hayes consistently pulls in the lowest ratings of any of the Spyware Seven, largely because he's only had sex twice in the three months of the experiment -- both times with his own wife. Cesar Murguia and Star Jarrett each do it daily, if not more often, and always with new partners, of which there is no shortage. (The highest-rated three hours of the series so far was Murguia and Jarrett together.) The other four subjects aren't nearly as sexually active, but they are still more active than Hayes. We know this sticks in his craw, but it's also part of what makes him our favorite of the seven. But we can't tell him that.

"I'm fine," he says brusquely. "Let's just get out of here. God, I hate assholes like that."

A patrol car rolls up before him and Hayes gets in, sinking gratefully into the gently vibrating back seat. One mirror-skinned robot enters through the opposite door to join him, while the rest of his escort board the humming scooters. The entourage pulls out onto the canyon road in perfect formation, the outriders winking pop! pop! pop! from sunset red to brown and dark forest green as they descend into the shadow of Mount Lee.

Beside Hayes, his current robot companion settles into its corner of the seat, right arm resting along the top of the upholstery. Hayes squirms as deep as he can into his own corner.

"Sometimes I feel like such a fugitive," he says, watching the stunted trees rush past the window. "Like I'm not a guinea pig but a genuine parolee on the run."

"Is that why you want to pull the plug?" we ask.

Hayes turns away from the window. "Hell, it's destroying my marriage. Isn't that obvious?"

"You'll forfeit the payout, you know." The subjects each receive a monthly stipend from the city to offset any lost income -- skittish clients fled Hayes' law practice initially, for instance, though his roster's now bursting with incautious exposure-seekers -- but only receive their full compensation if they stick out all six months. "You can make a lot of repairs on two million dollars."

"I know, I know." Head in hands, Hayes squeezes shut his eyes. Atlantic City is currently giving 7:2 odds on a plugpull by week's end -- another thing Hayes is better off not learning. "But can we make it long enough that there's anything left to repair?"

We refrain from pointing out that two million dollars can go a long way toward mending a broken heart also. Instead, the time has never been more ripe to float our trial balloon.

"Brian," we say, as the robot lays a companionable hand on his knee. The touch through Hayes' chinos is neither cool nor warm. "Brian ... what if we could help you preserve your relationship with Sandra?"

"What, you? A computer?" His wash of confused brain chemistry is swept away an instant later on a tide of amusement and anger.

"'Weak A.I.' would be the proper, if somewhat misleading, term," we say.

"Even so," says Hayes. The amusement is winning out. "What exactly are you proposing? Threats? Coercion? Mind control?"

"Nothing like that. Just some simple advice."

"Advice. About women." Now Hayes laughs out loud. "L.A., my friend, men have been trying to figure that one out since before the dawn of time. What makes you think you've nailed it?"

"We have three advantages humans don't -- near perfect observational ability, massive parallel correlational capacity distributed across a hundred processors, and no emotion to cloud our conclusions." As word of our conversation spreads, subscribers are hopping over to Hayes' spycast en masse. "You can place confidence in our recommendations, Brian. In fact, we can promise never to offer you counsel without at least a ninety percent confidence level in its efficacy."

Hayes shakes his head. "Ninety percent? Now I know you don't know what you're talking about. No given interaction with a woman is reproducible."

"You do yourself and them an injustice if you think so."

Hayes waves a peremptory hand. "What makes you so keen on helping me, anyway?"

The robot awkwardly shrugs its shoulders, then folds its arms. "We serve the public interest. Traffic control, emergency dispatch, municipal surveillance -- they're all critical, but it seems to us that the most effective public safety initiatives are preventative rather than reactive."

"Ah, yes, the theory that marriage counseling today heads off domestic violence tomorrow."

"It's not just that, Brian. Think about this technology. The experiment's been successful beyond anyone's expectations. Spyware fittings for registered offenders will no doubt go into effect next year. But why stop there? Can you imagine having a therapist, a financial counselor, a social secretary, a nutritionist and personal trainer at your beck and call twenty-four hours a day? You'd like to get rid of that spare tire, right? We could help you. Really."

Hayes shivers, though the climate inside the car is perfectly controlled. "Sure," he says. "And I could have the whole world watching everything I do, for the rest of my life."

"Well, if everyone had it, how many folks would have time enough to watch you? And anyway, as long as you kept a clean record, you could black yourself out anytime you wanted. But stay online and your chances of, say, getting mugged go way down, because there's always someone watching -- even if it's only just us."

"L.A., it's never going to work," says Hayes. "Trust me, no one wants a nanny looking over their shoulder every hour of the day."

"Some will," we say, spawning an untraceable anonymous instapoll to pose that very question to Hayes' subscribers, whose online numbers are approaching 700,000.

"Not many."

It turns out Hayes is right, by a factor of nearly six to one.

The patrol car and its entourage have left Griffith Park behind and now cruise through a moderate river of headlights on these residential streets. Hayes turns left from Hillhurst onto Los Feliz Boulevard, and the eastern sky lowers like a darkening purple bruise. People in neighboring cars are honking and waving: the formation seems to have found itself in the midst of a fanbush. The scooters spread out and around the patrol car, forcing the other cars further from Hayes, though one bouncy, exuberant commuter manages to flourish a noteslate reading NO BIG BROTHER in large block letters within Hayes' sight before her vehicle drops back into the trailing pack.

"Can you imagine this chaos to the tenth power?" says Hayes.

"It wouldn't be like that," we answer. "Not with everyone wired up and the novelty gone."

"It's a stupid idea."


It's not far to the freeway onramp. Traffic isn't bad. Hayes cruises southeast for three miles on I-5, then northeast on the 110 six miles to the Glenarm exit. Less than fifteen minutes after leaving the park, the entourage is rolling along the wide, quiet streets of South Pasadena, through a neighborhood of hulking Tudor-style homes crouched far back on expansive lawns behind screens of spreading oak trees. The fanbush follows at a respectful, prudent distance, pulling over to both curbs as the patrol car and its outriders turn into Hayes' driveway. The car stops next to Sandra's ice-blue GMW.

"You're sure we can't offer some tactical advice?" we ask through the robot as it and Hayes cross the fairway-smooth lawn.

Orange light from one upstairs window casts an emberlike patina on the robot's skull as Hayes fixes it with a skeptical eye. "Just stay out of it," he says.

The robot inclines its head. "As you wish."

Hayes squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath to calm his churning stomach, and marches with over one million subscribers (and rising) to the front door of his house.

"Good luck," we say behind him, watching (among several million other things) the odds on a separation fluctuate.

The other robots are dismounting and assuming their sentry posts around the property as Hayes palms the front lock and steps into the refrigerated air of the entry hall.

"Is that you, Brian?" calls a sweet, alto voice from upstairs through the dimness.

"It's me, sweetheart," says Hayes. He begins climbing the stairs to the second floor, the polished oak of the banister cold beneath his hand, his tongue dry and blocky in his mouth. "I'm finally home."

"Good," Sandra says, appearing at the top of the stairs, backlit by the soft-white bulbs in the hallway behind her. "Enjoy it. You've got it to yourself."

Hayes stops dead, halfway up the stairs. "What are you--?"

His eyes focus on the overnight bag dangling from her right hand. She wears a scuffed leather bomber jacket over a tight white T-shirt and dark jeans, rather than the sweats she usually has on this time of night.

Sandra begins descending the stairs, lips stretched in a cold and frozen smile. "How was your evening?" she asks, something crystalline underlying her voice, something that threatens to crack wide open.

She pauses two steps above him, and Hayes catches his breath (as does at least half his audience, many of whom proffer words of unheard advice that would no doubt hurt his cause more than help it). His eyes flick in turn to her long black hair, green eyes, wide mouth, slim hips. The smell of her sandalwood shampoo is nearly intoxicating, and his head seems to wobble on his shoulders. "Pretty miserable, really," he says unsteadily.

She slings the overnight bag over one shoulder and folds her arms beneath her small, high breasts, looming above him like a headsman. "Oh, right, you really acted miserable, out having drinks with that overinflated bimbo you used to date. Not that I caught all of it. My mother had to message me to log in. My mother."

"Honey, you know nothing happened," says Hayes, putting a hand against the wall to steady himself. "I ran into her on the street, she invited me for a drink. That's all."

"Right, like she just happened to run into you, when your location's charted more minutely than a hurricane. How dumb can you be, Brian? How dumb do you think I can be?"

"Sandra, you're not dumb, you're--"

"Oh, I must be. Nothing happened," she spits. Her lower lip trembles, and a tear seeps from the corner of one eye. She looks toward the high ceiling, blinking furiously. "I was there, Brian, like the rest of the country. Everywhere you looked, I looked. I felt the way you reacted. Heck, I practically wanted to jump across the table and fuck her. Do you know how humiliating that is, to experience your husband's lust for another woman? God, I feel so filthy having been in your head. How could you?"

Sandra punctuates this last question with a series of flat slaps at Hayes' shoulder as she pushes past him down the stairs. The commentary boards go nuts, Sandra's fans (there are some) cheering and Hayes' legion of detractors hooting. Hayes reels on the stairs, inducing much nausea across the country. "Honey, let's talk, come back, where you going?"

"I'm going to my sister's. Just leave me alone." She waves a dismissive hand over her shoulder.

"Please, wait, Sandra."

But she's already out the front door, which snicks shut softly behind her.

Hayes hears the low hum of Sandra's GMW as it backs out of the driveway and speeds away down the street. "Oh, Jesus," he whispers, head bowed, arms hanging limply at his sides.

A soft ping sounds from the kitchen, followed by the voice of Sandra's brother-in-law Tom. "Hey, Brian, pick up. I know you can hear me. All right, don't pick up, that's ace. But don't worry, man. She'll cool off. Donna'll talk some sense into her. All right, man? Listen, you need to talk, I'm here, buddy, okay? Aw, don't do that, man, come on."

Hayes, in the entry hall, has sunk to the cold tile floor, and now finds to his amazement that he's crying -- shoulders shaking, breath hitching, fiery tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Oh, shut up, you prick," he mutters under his breath, shivering.

"Hey, it's ace, man, I know you don't mean that. I'll be over in a bit with some cold beer, how's that? Girls' night here, guys' night there."

"Christ," says Hayes, wiping his eyes as he levers himself to his feet. He stumbles out the door and speaks it locked behind him, shutting out Tom's grating voice.

After the air conditioning, the warmth outside is like stepping into a greenhouse. A robot still stands sentry at the bottom of the porch -- the same one that rode with Hayes in the patrol car, though replacements have already been rotated in for some of the perimeter guards. "L.A., do you know where she is?" Hayes demands.

"Of course," we answer. "Would you like a little advice?"

"No, just a ride. Can we catch her?"

"Easily. She didn't go far. Her car's at the near corner of Lacy Park."

Hayes doesn't wait for the ride. Full body screaming with irrational urgency, he takes off running up the sidewalk and around the corner. Catching sight of him, the fanbush makes as if to follow, but we interdict their vehicles for the time being. Hayes and Sandra need some time alone.

It's less than a third of a mile to the park, across the city limits in San Marino, but that's still a long run for someone with Hayes' exercise habits. A million-plus subscribers, lungs burning and heaving in sympathy with his, watch as if through a pounding handheld camera as the patrol car pulls up even with Hayes on Old Mill Road.

"You sure we can't offer you a ride?" we call through the open window where the robot rests a casual elbow.

In answer Hayes puts on a fresh burst of speed, making the left onto Mill Lane. The patrol car and scooters pace him from the street.

Three minutes into his run, he spots her blue GMW under a streetlamp on St. Albans, at the edge of the park. She's sitting on the hood, arms folded around her long legs. The park, its border thick with trees, falls away into darkness behind her.

Hayes half-slumps against the side of the car after he staggers into the light of the streetlamp, his breathing loud enough to wake the dead -- or at least to obscure the words Sandra says without even turning to look at him.

"What?" he asks.

Silently, the robot escort take up discreet positions in a ragged circle fifty to sixty feet around the car.

"I asked, why did you do it, Brian?"

Hayes flops awkwardly back onto the hood of the car, exhausted, feet still on the ground. "It was only a couple of drinks," he gasps.

Sandra shakes her head. "I don't mean this evening. I mean this whole thing -- going through with the project when they picked you in the lottery. I mean, why? When you knew how I felt about our privacy."

"Well, the money," Hayes says between gasps.

"Don't tell me the money. Tell me something that means something."

Hayes rolls onto a shoulder so he's staring at her back. His mouth opens several times, but nothing comes out. Sandra turns and looks back at him over her shoulder, her expression harsh and unreadable in the streetlamp's chiaroscuro. "All right," he says. "I thought it would keep me faithful. I'd been having, you know, thoughts. Adultery in my heart and all that. I figured with all these people watching I'd never dare to act on them. I thought it might save our marriage."

Sandra sags, letting her head fall to one side. "You dope," she says wearily. "You've known me for almost ten years. Am I really so scary you can't say something like that to me? Am I?"

"Sometimes," Hayes says.

They sit there in silence for nearly two minutes, while Hayes' burgeoning subscribers grow ever more impatient, and their posts ever more ill-tempered.

Hayes is just straightening up to walk dispiritedly away ("Bad move!" scream the polls) when Sandra says, "I thought you might come chasing after me, you know."

He stops. "You did?"

"Sure," says Sandra, gazing up at a sky where no stars are visible. "Remember that game we used to play in MacArthur Park when we were first getting serious? I'd ask you if you'd ever let me get away, and then I'd run as hard and fast as I possibly could."

Hayes can hear the distant sound of freeway traffic, and a warm breeze stirs the hairs at the nape of his neck. "So I'd run and I'd catch you," he says. "And just as I was catching my breath you'd do it again. Run away."

"I wouldn't stop until I knew you were past spent."

"I hated that fucking game." Hayes follows Sandra's gaze to the blank monitor of the sky. "But I couldn't let you win."

"You still don't get it. I only won when you did." Sandra turned her head, drilling Hayes with her eyes. "Brian, are you going to let me get away?"

"I ... of course not."

"Really?" Sandra says -- and takes off running into the trees.

Hayes and his subscribers let out an exhausted groan, but he follows, across the grassy verge and into the trees. Quietly efficient, the robots follow.

The boards go crazy, and the oddsmakers are off to town.

Dark clutching shapes crash crazily about Hayes. The stitch that blazes almost immediately in his side sends thousands of viewers groping to dial down their sensory input. But it's not far through the trees, and Hayes sees Sandra ahead beginning a sprint across a wide playfield. As he emerges into the open, body awash with equal parts adrenalin and despair, she's already halfway across and pulling ahead.

Fifty yards further on, Sandra vanishes into another screen of trees. Hayes pushes himself to the limit, knowing he'll have to catch her while she's slowed down by the foliage. When he reaches the trees, he plunges in without slackening his pace. Branches lash and rip, but he keeps on.

In the next clearing waits a children's playground, and he sees Sandra stumble two steps into the soft sand as she tries to skirt the jungle gym. He catches her there, grabbing one shoulder to spin her around. "Gotcha!" he gasps. But both lose their footing, and together they tumble to the sand.

Instacash changes hands all over the country, minus a small percentage.

Sandra rolls atop Hayes, her weight lightly pressing his abdomen, knees in the sand to either side of him. "Now who's got who?" she asks breathlessly.

"I've still got you," says Hayes, staring up at her towering figure.

"I'm still mad at you, Brian." She seems about to say more, but her nostrils flare and she lifts her face into the air. "Hey, do you smell that?"

"Smell what?" says Hayes, chest heaving. The air is sultry, and the sand still warm against his back.

"It's like ... don't you remember?" She rests her hands to either side of his head and slowly lowers herself to where she can kiss him on the mouth.

Galvanized, Hayes takes her head between his hands and returns the kiss. He pulls back, pulse racing, only long enough to enunciate, "Spyware, terminate."

A command box appears in Hayes' vision, occluding Sandra's puzzled face:


And as a million subscribers howl in protest, Hayes says yes. Like a birthday candle, the spycast puffs and scatters to black.

The boards resound with indignant cries of foul, but only a handful of subscribers think to access the public security feeds from the spotcams scattered throughout Lacy Park. The few that do, have eyes only for the two lovers entwined on the summery playground sand.

None see what they might, if only they would look: the half-dozen silver-chased robots that lurk in the trees, fading into the darkness in a widening ring as crushed white moonflower petals drop from their hands like bright jewels.

But they are human, N.Y., and they do not, will not, look. Surely none of them would credit the excellent health of the experiment, nor suspect how very long yet it will run. But they'll have cause enough to thank us in the end, never fear.

That concludes our report. And how are things proceeding at your end?

By William Shunn

Nebula Award nominee William Shunn works as a senior software developer for, a division of the National Council on the Aging.

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