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This interview follows an earlier one with Liza Groen Trombi and Mark R. Kelly.
There’s nothing more depressing than seeing your universes being expanded, one after the other, and being alternated between them without a chance to rest. The experience with Liza and Mark had been scary enough, and there was nothing I wanted more than a few days off. Falling on a pile of wooden boxes and seeing them break under my weight was unpleasant. Well, at least it was better than a high-altitude free fall with no chance of survival.
When my balance was restored, I paid more attention to the scene around me. I realized in surprise that some men were pointing guns at me. All of them looked shocked, alternating glances between me and the ceiling, wondering where I had come from.
I tried to get up but two of them stepped forward, pushed me with their feet and forced me to lie down, resigned. The last thing I wanted was to get shot. My head was spinning and I didn’t know where I was or with whom I was going to meet.
The quantic watch on my wrist was nothing more than an accessory.
Two individuals with shoulder epaulets arrived, probably officers. They pulled me up and searched me. Apparently satisfied – since I carried no weapons – they released me, allowing me to breathe easier.
“Who are you?” Asked the man whose epaulettes exhibited a fluorescent blue color.
I gulped and took a quick look at the place. It was a gigantic hangar. The arched ceiling climbed at least three hundred feet up and the closest wall wasn’t less than a thousand feet away. The whole place seemed to be taken up by forklifts, metal and wooden boxes of various sizes, and people: a lot of people working.
For a while I lost myself trying to remember who I really was.
“Tibor Moricz,” I said after a moment.
“Where do you come from?” The second question was quick as a shot. They looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and caution.
“From SkyHolm,” I answered without hesitation.
They looked at each other, startled. Two men positioned themselves next to me and, holding my arms, led me through corridors that were sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. I had a good view of the place: the blocks full of boxes, the large objects that didn’t fit in a box and were covered by wide blankets.I also saw sad men, heads down, defeated expressions, working hard.
We went through an automatic door and left the hangar. I was soon left alone in a room with a table and four chairs. I was still picking a chair to sit on when the door opened again and another officer, one with red phosphorescent epaulettes, entered the room.
“SkyHolm, you said …” began the man, as he pulled up a chair and sat down. I did the same.
“Yes,” I answered.
“As far as we know, SkyHolm was destroyed two hundred years ago by a group of saboteurs. There are records of a certain Tibor Moricz, as well as a Roberto de Sousa Causo, a Christopher Kastensmidt and a Luis Filipe Silva among those men. You claim to be Tibor Moricz, right?”
I stared at him in obvious astonishment. Two hundred years, he said? Two hundred years have gone by? I was livid when I realized it had been that long since I last peed.
“Yes, I am Tibor Moricz. But I ain’t no saboteur. I’m just an interviewer.”
“SkyHolm was one of the enemies of the Matsushita conglomerate, which is still the conglomerate that protects us. Power usually moves from hand to hand easily but Matsushita has lingered at the top since then, without bowing to political tensions.”
Those were comforting words. Despite being considered a potential saboteur, I was not an enemy.
“How did you end up here?” The man asked as he thumbed through some seemingly old reports.
I was about to explain everything about the quantic watch, the several parallel realities, the alternate universes, about travelling through all of them searching for the interviewees, and about the From Bar to Bar website, when he interrupted me.
“Oh, yes. Parallel realities, alternate universes, a quantic watch. Curious. A very sui generis way of travelling, isn’t it? It explains why you aren’t old,” he dropped the reports, closed them and looked at me, “or dead. The boss will want to meet you.”
“The boss? Who’s the Boss?” I was worried, since the last boss who wanted to meet me also wanted to kill me.
It was a stupid joke, I know. And completely out of place. The officer looked at me like as if I was an imbecile and shrugged. He got up and motioned me to follow him. I followed him for several corridors, we walked up steep, narrow stairs; we passed through rooms full of people and trash. That place seemed like a huge deposit. After what seemed a long time crossing that maze, we reached a small room, which was dusty and full of papers. Behind a desk as messy as the room around itwas the big boss. Apparently a simple man, hidden behind round glasses, with a tired look on his face. I sat before him while the officer with the red epaulettes left without a word. The man before me removed his glasses.
“Resting glasses. One gets tired easily here. I also have great eye drops to moisten your eyes. Lots of dust, cobwebs and dirt. I’ve thought of ventilating the place, but it would be unrecognizable. When I want luxury, I go to one of the Martian colonies. Women, drinks and fun. It’s everything a wealthy man needs.”
I listened to him in silence. He studied me for a moment, looked at my outfit – a gift from Jeff VanderMeer – and put the glasses back on.
“That outfit is very outdated. You know who I am, don’t you?” He changed the course of the conversation.
“Al,” I answered.
“Al … Who?”
I made a huge effort. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I knew the answer was within me. I was there for an interview … Who was I going to interview? Who?
“Alastair Reynolds,” I said all of a sudden. His name popped into my mind as if someone had just placed it there.
“And now, do you know where you are?”
“In a room,” I swear that was the only thing I was able say. I couldn’t think of any other answer.
Big Al moved away from his desk a little and pressed a button on the wall. It was amazing. What was initially a narrow and dirty room began to widen. Its walls, apparently retractable, began to move away, the roof to expand, and translucent panels were opened, revealing outer space. The desk plunged into the ground, replaced by a command panel. The taciturn man who was talking to me became a sort of space hero in an amazing outfit, weapons hanging from his shoulders and a dangerous look that worried me.
“Hey, isn’t that National Kid’s uniform you are wearing?” I asked perplexed.
“You don’t know what a little power is capable of,” he said. His eyes gleamed with satisfaction. The mask on his face, the cape on his back, a fancy belt, the costume displaying a red giant “N”… An indecently appealing old-fashioned display.
Big Al opened his arms as if he was about to fly across the room and then sat down. He looked like a boy.
I thought I’d better take a look outside. The panel allowed an exuberant view of what looked like a giant canyon surrounding us. There were still launchers, rockets, spaceships of different shapes, oblong, circular, flat … Some of them were so big they rivaled the nearby hills. Some of the distant hills seemed to smoke.
“What is this place?” I asked, appalled.
“Io. We are at the south pole of the Jupiter’s moon, hidden in a mountain range.”
“We’re a huge deposit. There is nothing that has been manufactured on this side of the galaxy that we don’t have at least a few copies. The market is intense and we have customers spread all over the Milky Way. If we are here it’s because our activities are not welcomed by some conglomerates. You know… Some of the artifacts we possess have neither been bought nor found.”
“Are you pirates?”
“’Merchants’ is a better word. But whenever we want something really bad, we get it. No matter how.”
“Smugglers,” I figured.
“Nothing against this activity, right?” Big Al asked me that question while two armed men entered the room and stood beside me, hands on the butts of their guns.
I felt intimidated by their presence.
“We know that everywhere you’ve been, there was trouble. People died, facilities were destroyed … Your presence is not exactly a good omen. Therefore, if any weird things happen during our conversation, these men have orders to shoot.”
“At me?” I asked scared.
“No! At me, you fool!
Just as his name popped into my mind as the one to be interviewed this time, the questions popped up as easily.
“One of the most important characteristics of your work, especially in the Revelation Space universe, is your loyalty to the laws of physics (e.g., keeping interstellar travel within the limit of the speed of light). Your readers usually relate that to your background as a scientist. In your opinion, does the fact that you worked for such a long time as a scientist make you a better SF writer? Why?”
“Not in the slightest, although I do think that it’s made me slightly more marketable, from a promotional standpoint. Obviously I enjoy SF that plays with scientific ideas in an imaginative and original fashion, but you absolutely don’t need a scientific background to be able to do that. You just need to be interested in science, which I think is a completely different thing, and an option for anyone.
That said, I suppose that I’ve seen the scientific process at work from the inside, so to speak, and I know the way scientists think and interact. But that kind of thing has only ever formed a small strand to my fiction, I think.”
I listened to his answer, watching him move his head as he spoke, the extension on the helmet swinging.
“The Revelation Space books mention the Dawn War, an important event that took place early in the history of the Galaxy. Do you have any plans for a novel or trilogy specifically about the Dawn War? Such a trilogy would make the “galactic history” complete, wouldn’t it?”
Big Al frowned and rubbed his eyes under the mask before answering.
“I wouldn’t be interested in writing it, since there wouldn’t be humans involved. The point, in a sense, is that it’s something I can be purposefully vague and mysterious about, because it happened millions and billions of years ago. Having to nail down the facts about it would be totally against the spirit of inventing it in the first place. Anyway, I’m not really interested in completeness,on any level. I’m definitely not the go-to guy for that!”
I was getting ready for the third question when a quake shook the base. Some rocks rolled down the mountain slopes. Big Al and his men were alarmed. One of them drew his pistol and pointed it at my head. I held my breath. Once the quake stopped, they calmed down.
“Did you use to get any kind of feedback from your fellow scientists? Do scientists who work in important institutions like CERN respect SF as literature? Are they interested in SF at all?”
“Does this tremor have anything to do with you? Does it?” Big Al asked.
“I know nothing about earthquakes. I know nothing about any kind of quakes.”
“You’d better be telling the truth. I’d hate to be forced to take drastic measures.”
Big Al frowned again and cleared his throat.
“Don’t know about CERN as I’ve never been there. It’s one of those odd factoids that seems to have taken on a life of its own, even though I never worked for or at CERN! I’ve also read that I used to work in Norway, which was news to me. My experience with scientists and SF has been pretty positive, though. Most of my colleagues were supportive of my writing, even to the point of structuring my workload so that I didn’t have to do a lot of midweek business trips. I’ve encountered the occasional negative reaction to SF, but not to me or my work specifically. On the plus side, being an SF writer has opened some amazing doors, getting me a chance to meet space shuttle crews and so on. That’s been amazingly rewarding, especially when career astronauts tell me they read my stuff. But it’s also getting opportunities to hang out at bioscience conferences, stuff I’d never get to do as a working astronomer.”
I looked at my quantic watch and its immobility exasperated me. The hands were stopped, the quantum revolutions which indicated present time, estimated time and no-time were inoperative since the interview with Ekaterina Sedia. Being at the will of luck and some unknown mechanism that threw me from one place to another was terrifying.
The ground shook again. This time with more intensity, followed by a thunder. I heard the walls crack. The guns were drawn and pointed at me. Big Al rose from his chair and looked outside just in time to see a huge shadow starting to cover the hemisphere.
“What is it?” What is it?” He shouted.
Fearing for the worst, I shrunk down in my chair. In a clumsy attempt to save my life, I risked an argument.
“The interview doesn’t end until I ask you all the questions. There are forces far greater than the ones we know that will prevent interviewee and interviewer to either split or harm each other!”
Big Al looked at me angrily. Then he looked outside again. An internal communication system cracked with a hoarse voice: someone who seemed to have just woken up.
“A combat cruiser from the Mittal-Arcelor conglomerate hangs over our heads. Eight-hundred and forty-five cannons pointed in our direction.”
I couldn’t help thinking that the Venusian Incas were attacking us.
“How many left?” He asked me.
“Ask the next one.”
“Let me ask you a hard and imaginative question. It is quite possible that you think some of the most famous universes in SF are poorly built. If you could change one of them, at your choice, which one would it be and what would you change in it?”
“That’s an excellent question. Most TV and film universes contain so many contradictions and daft premises that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin fixing them. I’d probably get rid of all humanoid aliens, for a start – I just don’t believe in them. That takes care of the Star Trek universe, and while we’re at it I don’t believe in the transporters either – at least not as they’re portrayed. Maybe as a means of ship to ship transportation, or for beaming down to a receiving station, but not for just beaming down anywhere, even to a previously unexplored planet. In terms of fictional SF, I’d take all the psi-power stuff out of Larry Niven’s Known Space, as it’s clearly bollocks. But, to be fair, it was very much in vogue at the time the books and stories were written. And, doubtless, I’ve written my share of stuff that will seem similarly bollocks in forty years. If I’m lucky… Ask the next one!”
I felt that my time was up, but I needed to ask the last question. The men next to me were still pointing the guns at me, sharing their attention between me and the warship that hung over our heads.
“Is it necessary that SF take itself so seriously? Or are approaches like Douglas Adams’s welcome?”
At that time, Mel Brooks’ image came to my mind. Big Al, dressed in that bizarre National Kid’s costume reminded me of him and his hilarious movies. I feared he would understand the question as a joke about him.
I wasn’t wrong.
“Kill him,” he told the soldiers.
I didn’t even have time to breathe. I shoved back the chair, taking advantage of its wheels. The shots were simultaneous and missed me. Leaning on the arms of the chair, I threw both my feet up, precisely hitting each of the men’s chins. They groaned, buckled and fell onto Big Al’s desk, who by this time was heading to the exit door, looking for shelter.
I could not let him escape, after all he still owed me one answer.
I chased the silver caped man through the halls. The tremors occurred again and this time, were followed by explosions. It didn’t seem that the Venusian Incas intended to leave survivors. I even reached him twice, but the cape slipped through my fingers. I asked him to answer me the last question, but, to my amazement, he laughed and shouted “Awika” while running ahead of me.
“He’s gone mad”, I thought, worried.
I believed to have lost him when suddenly, at the end of a corridor, he stopped and, as I approached him, grabbed me and pulled us both into on a pneumatic tube. With the flip of a trigger he launched us into a vertiginous tunnel that snaked through unknown places. At the end, we were dumped in a small and somewhat uncomfortable control room. Before I could recover, I saw Big Al already standing and pointing a scary gun at me: four barrels of at least three inches each. A laser sight scratched the tip of my chin.
“I’ll tear your head off,” he said while triggering commands on an electronic board.
“Where are we?” I asked, trying to buy time.
“Escape ship. It’ ll go about three hundred kilometers below the surface and then be launched by catapult out of the moon. Six seconds later the ship will reach hyperspace. A safe and unexpected escape.”
By the chatter of the ship, I suspected that we were already on our way.
“These three hundred kilometers… how long will it take?”
“Twenty-four seconds. Stand up!
He seemed to have changed his mind about killing me. I thought that the gun would rip my head off, but it would also open a huge hole in the hull. I got up slowly, analyzing all of my possibilities. They were very few, I must admit.
“Up against the wall!”
When I touched the wall, I was surprised. A pod much like those deployed in the huge cargo ship that was commanded by Charles Stross clasped me. Hermetically sealed, I barely had space for small movements.
“Killing you would be silly, I prefer to give you a lesson. You’ll have a long time before dying of suffocation, thinking about how dangerous and irresponsible you are.”
The ship jolted harder. Big Al caught himself as he could, leaving the weapon aside. He didn’t need it any longer. The next few seconds were tense. He was watching the clock, I was warning him that he hadn’t answered the last question.
“Hyperspace!” He said with a huge smile. “I’ll throw you off the ship. You will be lost in such a way that no quantic toy will be able to locate you. Hopefully you will reenter in a sun. Quick and painless death.”
“The final answer!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“I’m a massive Hitch Hiker’s fan, but that’s probably all the funny SF I need in my life. Actually I don’t read a lot of comedic fiction in any genre. I’d rather watch some funny television, then curl up with a really miserable, depressing novel.”
Then he pressed a button and, before I fainted, I heard “Awika” once again.
The sequence to this exciting adventure is coming soon.
Daniel Borba, Delfin and Christopher Kastensmidh collaborated with this interview.
Blue flames and sparks exploded loudly. I shrank back, frightened and not understanding what was happening. I should be at home, resting after the interview with Ekaterina Sedia, but I found myself surrounded by smoke, fire, sirens and cries of alarm. I had no initiative to act, I was in amazement.
Then, someone grabbed my arm and forcefully pulled me out of the niche I was in. I was dragged for some feet at the same time a group of men were using the fire extinguishers, in an attempt to overcome the fire that was gaining strength. I looked at the man who was dragging me and recognized Charles Stross.
I was even more amazed than before. Our interview was not supposed to happen before a break of a few days. I stood up dividing my attention between him and my quantic watch, wondering what was going on. It was probably a discrepancy that had thrown me on another altered reality right after the last one.
I was still poking the watch when Charlie called my attention, in exasperation.
“Are we going to keep playing cuckoo as the ship disintegrates?”
I sure felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what was going on or how I ended up there.
“No, of course not,” I said without knowing exactly how to proceed.
Charlie did not let me think for a long time. Once again, he grabbed my arm and led me for a short hallway to a door that opened immediately at our approach. Outside, the bustle was also great. An intense stampede of men and women, all wearing gray overalls, looks of surprise, expressions of fear.
“What is going on?” I asked.
“Apparently we were pulled, with no kindness at all, from hyperspace.”
I followed him hastily, while seeing others passing by, at times bumping into us. We walked up and down stairs, through several corridors, and were, sometimes, shaken by what sounded like nearby explosions.
“Hyperspace?” I asked again, trying to understand.
Charlie looked at me like someone looking at a complete stranger.
“Inaugural trip, remember? Pegasus first-class freighter. Level 2 on the Reymond & Clever scale. Bound to the system of Bellatrix. Coming from the industrial conglomerate of Io, at service of Amgen & Toyota Corporation. What have you been drinking?
“We were pulled out,” he continued, “of our trip by a solar flare of great magnitude. PULLED-OUT! Do you get that?”
I stopped following him for a few seconds. There was, in the middle of the hallway, a wide opening, seemingly apparently glazed. As I approached and touched the membrane separating us from the outer space, I remembered I had already seen that technology before, during the Calife interview.
I approached my face to the energy field and I saw something huge and winding. It was the cargo ship we were in. It stretched a long way, being formed by metal blocks arranged like a huge Lego toy. In many places the joints exploded, blocks separated from each other, spinning, bumping, opening the walls and pouring cargo and people into space. I saw several intense fires. They soon disappeared in the vacuum to be replaced by others. The blasts continued.
A cry from Charlie brought me back to reality. I ran to catch up with him. The ground beneath our feet shook with increasing strength. I started hearing not too far away screams, and to my horror, saw the segment of the ship I had just been in split open, ejecting people who were running around, throwing them into space. Charlie grabbed me and threw me into a room, tightly closing the door behind us.
I was terrified.
“There is an interview, but I don’t know what to ask. I’m not ready for it. I was not supposed to be here,” I babbled confused.
“Interview? What crap is that?
The room where we were had a number of cocoons that protruded from the walls. I watched them trying to guess their functions. I took a guess.
“Ejection bubbles. There are a few hundred in this gigantic floating city. But most of them are lost, destroyed by the disintegration of the ship.”
Then, Charles stopped and stared at me.
“You’re not kidding, right? I mean, you really don’t know what’s happening and where we are? You mentioned this interview and had a curious feeling that … Well, questions were asked, I remember them. I answered them, but not before refusing some. It seems to me this happened hundreds of years ago. As if that memory arose from the very bottom of my memory.”
“From Bar to Bar, dangerous interviews. Remember? I interviewed Ekaterina Sedia, and then it was your turn, but I should have had a break. This break never happened. I ended up here abruptly.”
“From Bar to Bar…” Charles muttered, while pushing me into a cocoon.
Magnetic straps clung to my body, holding me in place. An energy membrane, like the one I had seen at the wide openning, appeared and sealed me inside the cocoon. I gasped, feeling short of breath, a feeling more psychological than physical. I watched Charles get into another cocoon, I saw the membrane closing, isolating him. I saw the man poking a panel (which existed where I was) and then everything started shaking.
I thought the segment we were in was about to burst, but then our cocoons were sucked into a tube and soon after launched into outer space. We crossed some wreckage, almost hitting some of it. We got distant from the ship, enough for me to find out it was even bigger than I had originally thought. I was terrified by its incredible magnitude. It was humping, writhing like a snake. Rings were expelled, segments being removed, simultaneous explosions destroying a stunning work of human engineering.
So our cocoons spun in space, starting a sort of ignition, as if there were rockets on their tails. We were shot at breakneck speed, distancing from the vast Earth ship, bound for a destination which I totally ignored.
I was groggy when I awoke. I was sitting, with my back against a rock. Charles was near its cocoon, looking inside in search of something.
“Oh, you’re up. It was about time,” he said without turning to me.
“Where are we?”
“A small rocky planet a few million kilometers away from the Pegasus, or what’s left of it.”
“How did we get here?”
“This side of the galaxy is completely charted. I programmed the nearest destination and the life support systems of the cocoons did all the rest.”
“Do you think you would make it here with only 2 liters of oxygen available? It was a six-day trip! You were put to sleep and your metabolism was down to a minimum.
“Was the Pegasus run by a lobster?” I asked, still confused.
It was like a floodgate opened up inside my mind and all the questions that were necessary for the interview flowed freely.
“Do lobsters dream of wormhole travelling? And should we fear that they one day hold a book on how ‘to serve man’?”
Charles, who was hunched over his cocoon, rose. He had a small bag in one hand. On the other, he carried what looked like a pair of binoculars.
“Basic gadgets,” he said, noticing my curiosity, “these binoculars, pocket knife, can opener, first aid kit, dried food, mints.”
“Lobsters — right now — don’t dream, as far as we know; they’re crustaceans, large sea-dwelling insect-like creatures without much of a nervous system. I picked them for the first chunk of Accelerando after reading about an interesting lab experiment …”
Charles chose a flat stretch of land, put some gravel away and sat before me. He dropped the bag and the binoculars and leaned his chin on his free hands.
“For about the past four hundred years a debate has been raging between two factions, philosophically opposed: the proponents of mind/body dualism (the idea that our consciousness is separate from our physical existence, inhering in some sort of immaterial “soul”) and the materialists who think that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Over the past sixty years, the current has been running towards the materialists. Two big developments in the sciences have helped them: the development of the theory of computation, which provides for the existence of a large class of computing structures that can emulate one another perfectly given enough storage and time, and the development of neurobiology, which has sketched in the mechanisms by which nerves work — showing that they are, in some sense, computational structures. Other scientific research has failed to support the dualist hypothesis; MRI scans of living brains leave precious little space for a soul to hide in.”
I remained quiet, listening to his speech. It was impossible to keep my curious eyes from wandering, lost in the alien topography, checking the surroundings out. There were rocks of various sizes, an almost Martian landscape. But I could see small intensely crimson blooms that grew at the feet of most of those rocks. They looked like open chunks of meat, strange flowers.
“Consequently,” he continued, “of late there’s been some consideration of the idea of mind uploading: if our minds are essentially patterns of activity supported by a neurocomputer, is it possible to transfer them intact (and with full continuity of consciousness) into a different substrate — possibly a faster and more powerful one?”
Charles paused while I felt a slight puff on my left ear. I looked to the side and jumped, startled. There was an open a crack on the rock, and tiny spores were expelled from it. I backed up two steps, staring the strange event in disbelief. Charles laughed at my amazement.
“What you see are not rocks. At least most of it. Botany here is exotic. Can’t you see the flowers flat on the floor next to those “rocks”? But they are all harmless. Unless you’re allergic to pollen.”
I gave a small laugh and I decided to stand.
“In the 1980s,” he kept talking, “CMU robotics professor Hans Moravec set out a thought experiment. His idea was this: you take a patient in an operating theatre and open up their skull under local anaesthesia, keeping them conscious. A marvellously precise robot surgeon then (a) identifies a single neurone on the surface of their neocortex, (b) maps out its connections to its neighbours, (c) develops a software model of its action potentials, (d) replaces its axon terminals and dendrites with electronic devices that couple the computer running the software model of the neurone to all the neurone’s neighbours, so that the computer takes over the job of emulating the neurone’s internal state and exchanging signals with its neighbours, then (e) removes the redundant neurone. Repeat a hundred billion times and at the end of the day you’ve got an empty cranium lined with electrodes innervating a body — and a mind that, despite having been continuously conscious, now exists entirely within the computer simulation. But we’re not going to get there by starting on humans, are we?”
I used his pause to take a closer look at the horizon, where there seemed to be some movement. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, perhaps not.
“Is it something that we should worry about?” I asked, pointing my finger to the north.
Charles stood up, approached the binocular to his eyes and uttered an exclamation.
“Not possible!”, he said in a tense voice. Then he pushed the binoculars towards me.
I looked at the horizon and saw what looked like a mass of humanity moving. They came on foot or carried by machinery which released clouds of steam. Men and women wearing strange, old clothes. Some of them seemed to be wearing bizarre armors. I saw two humanoid forms, certainly mechanical, moving heavily. Some of them also looked at us using binoculars. They pointed their fingers at us, excited. So Charles moved the binoculars that I had before my eyes, forcing me to point them higher up into the sky, high above the crowd. Two huge zeppelins pointed their noses at us.
“Steamers!” Charles exclaimed in utmost perplexity.
“Steamers? Here? Isn’t this a rocky planetoid, lost in limits of the universe?”
Charles looked at my watch as if blaming it for everything.
“I think we’d better get moving.”
“Why? They may be our salvation. We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“Move. If we stay, we’re going to be slaughtered.”
“A more likely candidate,” Charles returned to his speech with a much tenser voice, I must say, “for preliminary experiments in mind uploading is something like the Pacific Spiny Lobster, panulirus interruptus. This overgrown insect has a rather odd approach to eating; rather than biting its food into pieces, it swallows it whole, and chews it up using a toothy mill in its stomach. This mill is controlled by a clump of nerves called the stomatogastric ganglion — very big nerves, easy to experiment on, and very simple: the central pattern generator that drives the ganglion consists of just eleven (very big) neurons. The STG’s neural connections have been mapped out since the 1970s, and in the late 90s I stumbled across a paper in which some researchers had verified their map of the STG by, in effect, carrying out the Moravec thought experiment. And it worked. (On one neuron, admittedly, but it’s a start!)”
Then we heard a bang. We looked back and saw in the distance what looked like a small dark spot rising against the sky, and, in a parable, gradually increase in size. It came towards us.
“Run!” Charles shouted, pushing me.
We ran, dodging the smaller “rocks”, until we got near one that was large enough to hide us. We stopped for a split second and looked back. The projectile was approaching fast. A metal ball that fell about fifty yards from us rolled crashing into various obstacles (destroying some “plants” and provoking strong emanations of spores) and ended up no more than 10 yards from us. Small openings appeared on its surface and tens of small needles were released from them. Charles grabbed me, throwing both of us behind the stone. The darts were released and scattered in all directions, some punching several centimeters deep into the rock.
“They want to kill us!” I shouted scared.”And I was thinking they had come from Earth to save us.”
“Earth?” asked Charles. “Earth virtually no longer exists, it is plunged into a terrible war between the corporations that will no longer accept the political diplomacy as a means of dialogue.”
“But then, where do those Steamers come from?”
“From the insane fantasy by this quantic watch of yours. Me and my big mouth …”
“I don’t think my watch is working properly. I came here without a break, in an immediate quantum leap. Malfunction, probably.”
“Or someone is playing with you.”
“Someone with a watch just like yours. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
I frowned, trying to follow his reasoning. I soon discarded that possibility, it was absurd that someone else had a quantic watch just like mine.
“How long are we staying here?” I asked, concerned about the progress of the Steamers.
“I’ll take a quick look. The truth is that we don’t have much left to go. This is a desolate planet, there aren’t that many places that can provide us shelter.
Charles stood up and stuck his head out, spying on the enemy. He let out a scream of terror, took both hands to his face and staggered back in agony. Wrapping his head there was a … It looked like a … I would say it was a … Corselet full of lace and pleats?
“They are shooting at us with cliches!” he shouted loudly, angrily.
“Answer the questions. It is the only way to escape this mess.”
“Of course the question of what you might actually do with an uploaded lobster remains unanswered. But once you’ve got one, you could always hook it up to a bunch more neurons, teach it to talk, and ask it,” completed Charles, throwing the corselet to the ground. “Here is no longer safe, go ahead.”
I got up and I began to follow him. Ahead of us, there was a scenery with not many changes. We could hear screams and laughter not far away.
“If sentience isn’t a mandatory evolutionary goal (as implied by the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger and proposed by Peter Watts in Blindsight), and if intelligence can exist without the species being self-aware (as swarms, etc), could that imply that we’re in fact the Singurality (in each of our brains – matter turned into thought)?” I asked hastily.
“These days I don’t believe the singularity is a terribly useful concept; it carries too much eschatological baggage. Consciousness is indisputably an interesting phenomenon, as Richard Dawkins demonstrated in “The Extended Phenotype” — it gives us the ability to develop via horizontal transfer of desirable traits between individuals, short-circuiting the slow incremental filtering process of classical evolution. But whether it’s a stable or desirable phenomenon — who knows? As a species we’re less than 200,000 years old and we’ve already triggered the sixth great mass extinction in 600 million years. We’re also in danger of running into a resource depletion crisis followed by a population crash. This isn’t a typical sign of a survival trait!”
We looked up and the zeppelins were over our heads. To our amazement, they dumped hundreds of colorful umbrellas, open, like little parachutes coming down, spinning. Other shots were made by the crowd that followed us. This time, there were bowler hats, top hats, pince-nez (one of them hit me on the forehead, causing a small cut). Charles hastened, fearing he might be hit by other cliches. He certainly wouldn’t survive another violence such as that.
“Therefore, if we’re living on a Post-singularity universe, won’t the Post-Human stage (longevity, etc) – if it comes about – become an obstacle, since one of the main evolution drives of thought comes from short individual lives and the constant supply of blank slates (fresh baby brains)?” I asked.
“You’re mistaking the current high rate of change for “progress”. Progress implies teleology and a goal — but evolution is not goal-oriented; it’s a random drunkard’s walk through the phase-space of adaptation, with a phase barrier to one side (extinction). Nor is there any guarantee that there are no limits to science, no boundaries to the amount of knowledge of the universe that we can accumulate and make use of.”
Umbrellas kept falling around us. It was noticeable that Charles was making an effort to disregard them. As well as the spats, walking sticks with silver knobs, monoculars, suspenders and fake mustaches.
So we were brutally forced to stop. There was a huge cliff before us. A scary precipice thousands of meters high. Beads of sweat dripped from our foreheads. We saw no way out, having to face the Steamers face to face, with no chance of success.
“Any more questions?”
Hard slams on the ground made us turn around. Three robots full of gears, nearly three meters high, stalled some fifteen yards from us. Machine-gun barrels were visible on their sides. The crowd was approaching.
“Will Freya Nakamichi-47, or some of her offspring, be back for more adventures?”
A burst on the floor next to us, made us go back a few steps, getting dangerously closer to the cliff. A cloud of dust rose.
“Yup! There’s a short story, Bit Rot, coming out in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Engineering Infinity in January.
Then, I pressed the button.
Nothing happened. I pressed again. We look at each other anxiously. Again and again I hit the button, with no results. The interview didn’t end, the danger wasn’t over. I gulped, but had no time to express my concern. Another machine gun burst set us back even further. I missed the ground, I tried and did not find support. I let out a muffled cry of terror before I felt loose in the air, about to start a free fall . I saw Charles turning to me, I saw him stretching his arm, I saw his hand so close and yet so far.
When I thought it was over, I felt my arm being grabbed with strength, and my body stopped, still swinging, loose in the air. I took a deep breath, trying to scare the fear away, and looked at my savior. It scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t Charles Stross who was holding me firmly, it was Jeff VanderMeer instead. I wasn’t on an inhospitable planet any longer. It was like Earth, it was THE Earth, devastated by war.
Follow this incredible adventure in the next interview, with Jeff VanderMeer.
Luis Filipe Silva collaborated with this interview