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Midnight Mass
AI & Human Creativity

Midnight Mass

05 January 22
 | 25 MINS

The work of novelist, short story writer and NUI Galway lecturer, Mike McCormack casts a unique light on technology. In 2016, McCormack’s Solar Bones – “a hymn to engineers” – won the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year and Book of the Year. In ‘Midnight Mass’, the novelist responds to the Cois Coiribe winter theme of ‘AI and Human Creativity’ with a glimpse into the future – pretty or otherwise.

The warm night has drawn a good crowd to the church. Outside, those of us who’ve left mass early, can hear the choir within closing out the final lines of O Holy Night. We stand around in our light dresses and shirtsleeves with the sky overhead lowering down to its full darkness beyond the village.  

‘Happy Christmas Sophia.’ 

I recognize the voice and the child standing before me.

‘Happy Christmas Aoife.’

‘We’re going to the beach,’ she says eagerly, ‘are you coming?’

‘It’s very late, after midnight, what about Santa Claus? Shouldn’t you be in bed.’

‘It will only be for a little while, will you come?’

‘Maybe, I’ll see.’ 

And then she is gone. She turns on her heel and with a swing and swirl of her little dress she is running towards her parents car that is parked inside the gates. Her father raises a hand to me and opens the door to let her in. Eithne, her mother, is in the front and Adam, her older brother is head down in the back. 

I watch as they turn out the gates.

A line of cars runs through the village now. From the church at one end to the crossroads at the other where they turn right towards the sea, the tail lights all spread out in a line. And at this late hour the village itself looks like a film set. The Xmas lights overhead and the green neon cross over the pharmacy on the square lend the whole place an air of not being fully real. 

I move into place behind the other cars for a mile or so before I turn right to where my cottage stands on an elevated site less than a hundred meters from the seashore. From my front door I can see the cars gathering in the caravan park below. Some of them have pulled up on the raised ground behind the sand dunes beyond which rises the green glow of the sea itself.   

It’s only a few years since this late night visit to the sea has become part of our local Christmas festivities. In the early years, when it was not so spectacular, it was just a curiosity for that handful of people who recognized what it truly signified and made witnessing it a part of their Christmas ritual.  

I will walk over and see it for myself. I have not missed a year yet and as one of those witnesses from the earliest days I would not want to turn a blind eye to it now. Were I to ignore it there would be something missing from my Xmas, something incomplete about it. 

Midnight Mass

The walk across the fields is beautiful in the warm air and by the time I get to the car-park most of the people have already moved on over the dunes to gaze down on the high-water mark below. The men and women around me in the dark keep their distance; they do not wave or acknowledge my presence. They take their children by the hand and move quickly ahead. 

Earlier this year I upset these people. They asked me to show them the future and when I did they did not appreciate it. Initially I refused.  

‘You won’t like it,’ I said ‘it’s not pretty.’ 

Eithne was adamant. ‘Sophia, we know your work, all that actuarial stuff you do for insurance companies. Now is your chance to show us what’s coming towards us.’ 

‘Look at the figures,’ I protested ‘they’re clear as day, what more do you want?’ 

‘A picture,’ she said, spreading her hands by way of illustrating that it would clarify everything. ‘Figures are one thing but a picture tells a better story. You’ll get more of an audience for it than for one of your sermons or dire warnings.’ 

‘Your faith is gratifying.’ 

‘You can make it happen Sophia.’ 

So I made it happen. On a cloudy night towards the end of summer I showed them the future in the middle of the local football pitch. The technology was old school – a 3D holographic projection – but the data was current, the latest stats and projections from various global climate bodies and oceanographic institutes. And for twenty minutes the people of this little village and its surrounding town-lands – about seven hundred people in all – stood in a circle around the middle of the pitch and watched how, in the next quarter century, the rising sea level would back up the river and flood this delta plain as far upstream as the fishery weir. Farms and homesteads and bridges and roads all gradually disappearing under the rising tide. In twenty minutes they saw their homes and holdings inundated, the water swelling under the arches of the bridge and rising up the center of the village. The silence which closed over the final moments of the presentation left me in no doubt that I had upset these people. They moved off without a word towards the changing rooms where their cars were parked. 

‘I made no friends with that,’ I said to Eithne. 

‘So it seems,’ she replied. It was clear she was visibly taken aback at their reaction, no word of acknowledgement from any of them, much less thanks. 

‘It must have been difficult to watch,’ I conceded, ‘it couldn’t have been easy.’ 

‘I have less sympathy for them. Especially when they know in their hearts and souls that they are complicit in the whole thing.’ 

There was no arguing with that. But I have to admit also I had not anticipated that reaction; it was never a part of my calculus. Nor had I any data or projections that showed the distance that opened between myself and them that night, a distance that has not been closed since.    

I’ve had a CPU upgrade since last year. An ocular and visual cortex augment was part of the package.’ Aoife’s eyes are wide open. ‘So what else can you count, the hairs on my head?

 It is true to say that rising over the dunes and seeing for the first time the lights in the shallow waters is a thrilling experience. Tonight they spread from pier to headland in a wide swathe, about five hundred meters wide and reaching about a hundred meters out into the bay. The green iridescence which each of these jellyfish contributes swells and falls along the shoreline in a pulsing rhythm which runs through the massive shoal. Further out in the bay, the turbine blades turn slowly like ghosts waving their arms. 

‘There must be millions of them,’ a little voice says. 

‘Aoife Needham, are you following me around.’ 

‘No I just came to see how you were.’ 

‘You’re very kind, where is your mum and dad?’ 

‘Behind me,’ she says airily. ‘How many do you think there are?’ 

Pier to headland it takes me less than two seconds to do a particulate scan. 

‘Guess,’ I say, ‘guess to the nearest million.’ 

‘One hundred million,’ she bleats. 

‘Not bad,’ I say, ‘ one hundred and twelve million.’ 

‘You counted them all?’ 


‘Every one of them?’ 



‘I’ve had a CPU upgrade since last year. An ocular and visual cortex augment was part of the package.’ 

Aoife’s eyes are wide open. ‘So what else can you count, the hairs on my head?’ 

‘Yes, but not in this light.’ 

‘The stars in the sky?’ 

‘No, not the stars in the sky. Not even I can see that far.’ 

Eithne and Aoife’s older brother Adam come down over the crest of the dune and take up position beside us. One moment later Aoife’s father plunges his way down the soft sand and steps in beside us, both arms crossed on his chest. 

‘It appears you lied to us Sophia,’ Eithne says 

‘Did I?’ 

‘Oh yes,’ she says with a broad smile, ‘you said the future wouldn’t be pretty. If this is not pretty, I don’t know what is.’ 

The light from the sea has intensified now, concentrated in a ribbon which is moving out into deeper water. You do not have to reach too far to see that this is indeed beautiful. 

‘So this is what it looks like,’ Adam says. The note of adolescent belligerence in his voice is clear. 

‘How do you mean?’  

‘All hell breaking loose, this is what it looks like.’ 

‘That’s what you said last year,’ Eithne replies. 

‘And the year before,’ Aoife adds. 

‘It’s a classic,’ Adam says, ‘material like that will never get old.’  

For a moment Adam seems content, happy apparently to have taken a good rise out of both his mother and sister. But his contentment does not last long. 

‘Lets just see it as it is,’ his father says. 

‘We know what it is,’ Adam blurts in sudden rage. ‘Jelly-fish! Fucking jelly-fish all the way from the Azores where they are boiling in their home habitats. And them migrating north to find a home in latitudes that should know nothing about them.’ 

‘Adam!’ Eithne implores, but it is too late. Adam is in full spate.  

‘And we stand here admiring them, the beginning of the end, the end of the world coming not as a bang but as a light show along this coast, the northern lights drawn down to earth and fallen into the sea.’ 

‘It’s Christmas Eve Adam, give it a rest for gods sake.’ 

Adam draws into himself, plunging both hands down into the pockets of his jeans. He tilts his chin up to open his mouth behind a huge yawn. It was now almost one thirty and most of the people along the dune are turning from the sea to walk back to their cars. Aoife’s father takes her hand 

‘Come on little lady, it’s time we were going, Santa will be here soon.’ He hoists her up into his arms and starts to plough up the incline. Adam is already five paces ahead of him. Ethna takes a step towards me. 

‘What are you doing for Xmas day Sophia?” 

‘Oh, I have the usual things planned, calls to friends and so on.’ 

‘You’d be welcome at our house, I hate to think of you lonely over there.’ There is a knowing smile around her lips. ‘I know you’re not lonely but I still can’t bear the thought of you being alone on Christmas day.’ 

Her offer is genuine and it comes from a good place. People describe Eithne as a kindly soul, someone who would not see you stuck. Nevertheless, my mind is made up. 

‘I think it would be better all round if I stayed with myself.  But I might call over for an hour in the evening, I have a present for Aoife.’ 

‘You shouldn’t have but she’ll be thrilled.’ The face of the dune is moving now with the shadows of those moving away. Eithne moves closer. ‘Has anyone spoken to you, anyone said anything?’ 

‘No, you’re the only ones who’ve spoken to me.’ 

There is no mistaking the disappointment in her face. ‘Christmas Eve,’ she says sorrowfully, ‘wouldn’t you think…. I’m sorry I ever asked you to do that. I should never have asked you.’  

‘Yes, you should.’ 

She nods. Her lips tighten as she walks away.  

I wait a while to let the last of the people move off. They pass around me but do not speak. From this distance I can see the Xmas tree glowing in the window of my cottage; below that I can see the cliff face that is slowly being eroded back. I know the projections on that; in ten years the distance between the cottage and the shoreline will be halved and the high water mark will be less than thirty meters away. 

The ribbon of light is looping further out into the bay now and it looks as if it’s tethered to the pier at one end and the headland at the other. In another hour it will light up the turbines from below, the blades turning slowly in the warm breeze, drawing the green light up into the night sky. But I won’t wait for that, the sooner I get back to the cottage the sooner I can make a couple of calls. This is the time of year to reach out to people, people like myself who find that even as the world gives us a glimpse of its own end, it does not cease to dream up entirely new ways of leaving us alone.  

I head off. 


Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Mayo. In 2016 he won the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year and Book of the Year prizes for Solar Bones. In 2018 Solar Bones also won the Dublin International Literary Award (formerly known as the IMPAC). The novel was also shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Kerry Group Irish Novel Award. In 1996 he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and in 2007 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. His previous work includes Getting it in the Head (1995), Crowe’s Requiem (1998), Notes from a Coma (2005), which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award, and Forensic Songs (2012). He lives in Galway.


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