Thursday, 8 February 2018
Beyond the End of Mind's Tether (2018)
[Note: this short piece is a sequel to H G Wells's last published book, the 30-page Mind at the End of its Tether (1945). The date at the head of this post does not reflect the date of composition, for this story was written on the last day of March 2018, but so as not to rob the index-post that currently stands at the head of the blog of its place I have retrospectively dated it to fit it into the main body of the blog.]
It was dark. It was not a comfortable dark. It contained within it no incipience of dawn. Where was he? Who was he? Was he?
There was an answer to this last question: ‘yes’, said a voice.
The darkness did not abate, but Bertie felt, or intuited, the presence of others. It was, he thought, as when you apply pressure to your closed eyes in the middle of the night, and rub retinal effects of unearthly mauve and dark blue and sparks of glinting black-purple into your vision. ‘Where am I?’ he asked.
‘Where is not the best way of talking about your presence in the present,’ said the voice, or all the voices in near unison, it was hard to tell.
‘Am I dead? I was certainly dying. Far from pleasant, physically speaking. Physically. Am I beyond such material suffering now?’ Some fretful twist of the old Bertie returned to him. ‘But if I'm dead, then what is doing this thinking? My physical brain has ceased function, and is even now deliquescing into a puddle of rotting proteins and fats. And that's what I've been using for my mentation for ...’
‘For the best part of a century,’ agreed the voice. ‘But that's not it. Your residual consciousness is attuned now to such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or the efflorescence of a shower of meteors as they scarf brightness through the night sky. Your mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because it evolved as part and parcel of it. But all that is over now.’
Something shifted in Bertie's perceptions: a sense of horizontally-vertiginous scale, of gliding without motion towards some dim chasm of illumination, antarctic grey, razory blues, some great ravine of catchment. ‘Are you God?’
Bertie wasn't expecting the laughter. It did not last long, and there was no echo in this place, and it did not strike an unkind or mocking tone. ‘You wrote books.’
‘I have written books on many different subjects,’ said Bertie, a little flourish of pride lifting his spirits. ‘Including several fables of the afterlife. But I never imagined anything so ... murky.’
‘Many a murkle,’ said the voice, ‘makes a mickle. Or, wait: should that be the other way around?’
‘I have sinned grievously, I know,’ said Bertie, ‘and perhaps most grievously with my words. So I daresay it would be fitting if my eternal damnation will be an endless conversation that goes nowhere and communicates nothing.’
‘Sick burn!’ said the voice, and Bertie shuddered momently at the thought that this was, perhaps, a diabolic command to ignite at last the furnaces of a fully medieval Hell. Odd how hard it is to banish these childhood superstitions from even the most rational and mature of minds. But the voice was saying something else now: ‘truth hour, Bertie. Time to come clean.’
If he had still possessed lungs, Bertie would have drawn a deep breath. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Our truth, not yours. We know all yours. The thing is .. well let me put it like this. Your very last published book? Mind at the End of its Tether?’
‘You were getting an inkling, there. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded, you said. Extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! People read it, and said to themselves: oh, he's just projecting his own imminent death onto the cosmos as a whole. But you weren't, were you? You were, right at the end of your life, starting to get a sense of how things really stood.’
‘And I was right? Reality—human reality, all of it, for all of us, has ended?’
‘Sure,’ said the voice. ‘Though that all of us is a little misleading, maybe. The truth, Bertie, is that we were running a simulation.’
Bertie pondered this. ‘Please explain further,’ he said.
‘It wasn't real. The environments you inhabited, the houses and hills and sky and sea, the seasons and everything. It was, if you like, written. We coded it, as we like to say. We made it, and put you in it.’
‘And now,’ said Bertie, peering again into the darkness, ‘you have unmade it, and taken me out?’
‘You dying unmade it. It was just you, in there.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Bertie, reflexly. ‘I have been fortunate to meet many brilliant and wonderful people.’
‘You certainly did that!’ agreed the voice. ‘You had sex with quite a few of them’
Bertie would not have blushed at this, even had he a face and blood vessels with which to perform such an action. ‘I make no apology for being true to my passions, and to the passions of others. Indeed, if I ...’
‘There were no others.’
‘You'll pardon me,’ said Bertie, stiffly, ‘if the vividness and force of my personal friendships, teh intensity of my love affairs, means that I cannot concur with ...’
‘Nah, nah, Bertie. No, we tried it. Believe me, we did. We have tried multi-party simulations, parallel-sync and combi-player versions. But what we found was: introduce multiple agents into the simulation and they interact in chaotic ways. Chaotic in the mathematical sense of the—actually I guess you don't know. But there you go. We ran up against Chung Wang's law. You're too proud to admit you don't know what Chung Wang's law is, or who Chung Wang even was, but there's no shame in your ignorance. It wasn't part of your sim. And, and, in a nutshell, you know: the more actual people you have sharing your sim, the more rapidly the hyperbolic chaosm crashes your sim. It's the unpredictability of the real. You can build a sim of the entire world around a single consciousness—a fully realistic and immersive sim, I mean: one whose pixels are planck length—you can do that with a couple thousand yottabytes of processing. Add in a second consciousness to your sim and you need not to double your processing capacity, but cube it. There are reasons why, and their complicated, but that's how it is. I mean if your two consciousnesses never meet in the sim, then the amount of processing you need goes down, but if that's how your coding things then why not just build it for one? Add a third real player, and the processing requirement goes up by x to the nine, and so on. Add a fourth and ... well, you see what I'm saying?’
‘Not entirely,’ said Bertie.
‘No, you got it,’ said the voice. ‘You got it. You grasped it intuitively in your End of Tether book. You knew you were dying, personally, and you've never been a philosophical solipsist, so you didn't want to write that because you were dying the world was coming to its end. But it was true. The world we created, and in which you lived, surrounded by ciphers, was coming to and end. Because there's no point in running the programme once you checked out.’
‘A whole world?’ said Bertie. ‘Just for me? Some manner of playground, erected purely for me? But why?’
‘Well,’ the voice said, ‘it isn't cheap, if that's what you mean. So: yeah. Why is a good question. We only put one kind of person in the programme, generally speaking. Writers. By which I mean: science fiction writers, of course. There are other companies who experiment with other kinds of people, physicists, inventors, prophets and seers, but we have a good record, harvest-wise, so we don't see why we should change our approach. We've tried different sorts of mind, and different life shapes, and different world-history-environment frames, but this one works. Take a science fiction writer. Give him or her an unhappy childhood—happy childhoods followed by unhappy adulthoods don't seem to work as well, for some reason—to build up a kind of psychic momentum in them. Then vary the mix in adulthood: give them some, or most or as in your case all that they ever dreamed they might have. Then we sit back! Simple as that. Takes time, but time is one thing we got, here.’
‘Sure. Return on our investment. You wouldn't expect us to be doing this for the sheer fun of it, would you? I mean, I know you spent much of your life as a, what's the phrase? Socianist. Socialist? Socialist. But out here in the real world its dog eat dog. Or it would be, if there were any dogs left. Omega-point-consciousness eat omega-point-consciousness, let's say.’
‘Let's have a look,’ said the voice. ‘So, we did pretty well out of you, all told. The main one is, let me check the phrasing, time machine. Yes: time machine. That was a real bonus. We could have cashed you out of the sim when you were thirty and we would have been well ahead. But we let the sim run on, to see what else you might come up with. And you did come up with some other stuff, some useful stuff. Especially after we had you live through that big war, that world war thing. Indeed, that was so productive we bodged up a second one, when you were old, for you to live through. But the elasticity of your inventiveness had mostly gone by then, so we ended up with nothing much to show for it. Still time machine, and the other stuff, and this has been a pretty profitable run for us.’
‘I don't understand,’ said Bertie. ‘I only wrote about the idea of a time machine. I'm no inventor, or temporal physicist. I only thought of the idea!’
‘That's the whole game, Bertie my beaut. The whole game. Cool ideas. Cool and original ideas. Not every consciousness is capable of coming up with them, and you do need the whole entablature of a life lived in order for men or women to generate them. In our experience science fiction writers have the best ideas. Fiction writers generally are too wedded to the particular contours of the reality in which they find themselves. Scientists, ditto, for slightly different reasons, and with a different focus. But the overlap, the venn-diagram overlap, between those two groups and now you're talking ...’
‘But what use ...?’ Bertie began to say. ‘What possible use ...?’ Slowly, and very slowly, his environment was coming into some kind of focus. It was not a sensory focus, exactly, but some other mode of apprehension.
‘Use? All the use in the universe! Making the universe a useiverse! We're in trouble, Bertie, and that's the truth. The aperture of reality is closing down, shrinking to its final point, and eventually it will squish us out of existence altogether, like thumbnails pressing together hard on a tick. Do we not like that. We've assembled all the computing power that remains in the cosmos, and all the energy we can generate, and are trying to—skew that shrinkage, just enough, to generate more imbalance, and so more energy and more computing power, and postpone ... look: you're not interested in our problems. But we can say, thank you. Thank you! The idea of a time machine. That's a very cool idea, and nobody had had it before you did.’
‘Nobody in our reality. Which is the real reality. Sorry, Bertie. But it's a very cool idea. We don't know if an actual machine can be constructed, but just the idea of moving spatially through time has opened up new possibilities for us in the manipulation of the shrinking cosmos. So that's good.’
‘And it was in the hope of garnering such ideas that you put my consciousness, my real consciousness, in the world I have just experienced? For eighty years of joy and disappointment, triumph and pain?’
‘Bingo,’ said the voice. ‘And now you're done.’
‘But I'm not,’ said Bertie, a slyness entering into his voice. ‘Am I? You clearly need me for something else. If what you say is true, then my consciousness should end when the simulation, as you style is, ended. The fact that I'm still thinking means that I am still of use to you. And that gives me leverage. Because whatever it is that you need from me, I shall deny it you, unless you meet my demands. My demands! I require a body, for one thing. A young and vigorous body. And an environment that is not this ... murkiness. Sunlight, and good food, and the companionship of clever and attractive people, or at any rate copies of such folk good enough to pass as real.’
‘No can do, Bertie,’ said the voice. ‘Although you are right. There was one last thing we needed from you, after the sim was over. But we've got it now.’
‘Last thing?’ Bertie asked, The dread he had felt when composing Mind at the End of its Tether came back to him now, a vice fixed around his very consciousness. ‘What?’
‘We're gathering the materials for a new sim, or have gathered the materials. This little exchange is part of it. Somewhere a science fiction writer will stumble across it—stumble across this conversation which we have been having. And it will spark something in her mind. At least, we hope it will, because our very existence depends upon it. She'll be in a sim so real she'll mistake it for reality, and will have myriad experiences, good and bad, and what we're interested in are the cool new ideas she concocts that nobody has concocted before. SF writers are the best for that. This little exchange might, we hope, spark one such idea. Maybe. And who knows, that could be the idea that redeems the final destiny of consciousness in the universe as such! We can but hope. But the conversation is over now, Bertie, and that means this can ...’
‘... end’, said Wells, resignedly.