David Foster Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster is worth reading for nothing else than the following two paragraphs:
The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible—[Dostoevsky]’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.
Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.”
I miss him when I read him now. But being serious in the age of irony needs moral issues that are worthy of engagement rather than distancing; take Romeo and Juliet—the family rivalries are actually antiquated and quaint. The strangled universality is that love might triumph but people are crappy. Antiquarian moral conundrums may be translatable to our era but there is no guarantee that it will be so. Whale hunting is just dumb and cruel—not a great human drama. And that leaves open the possibility of the conversion of the aesthetic distancing to re-converge with everyday life. Too bad we lost a champion of the cause.
The spirals again. Zach was back in a deprogramming room trying to recall the previous twenty four hours, the week, and the year. A thin rubber belt spun the red spiral in the glow of lights emanating from behind him. The walls were white and with the regulation textures of modern drywall, unlike the SCIDE installation in the reactor. There were other signs of middle-class Americana, too, like the shadow of a lamp Zach thought he had seen at Ikea. The spiral was the least interesting thing in the room and he tried to move, but was stopped by firm strapping on his arms, legs, and his forehead.
Not this again, he said loudly. The spirals don’t do anything.
Quiet, except for the faint hum of the motor powering the rotating infolded circles.
Is anyone here? he asked loudly, then yelled a haphazard help that emerged truncated because of his inability to stretch his neck as he raised his voice.
Aphrodite spoke from behind in the dark. Hey, hey, cool it, calm down, Zach. The spiral stopped and she walked into the light and pulled the Velcro holding his arms and head and legs loose with quick sawing noises. He rubbed his arms and asked her How long? How long have I been here?
Just a few hours, she responded. Let’s go meet everyone. Glad you’re back.
She led him into a common area that was more modern than the decrepit nuclear facility. The people were more polished, too, and older, ranging from the early teens to the twenties. Many were dressed in combat fatigues, but with distinctive SCIDE patches on their arms.
Is this place new? Zach asked after Aphrodite.
New? No, not really, it’s the next step in the war.
The war against The Signal?
Yeah, The Signal and the evil behind it. We are engaged in war on all fronts.
What happened to the reactor facility? Zach ventured, and Aphrodite stopped and turned towards him, her eyes narrowing briefly and then flaring above her nostrils.
It served its purpose and then we let it go. We are all here now, she said cryptically.
There were no small children in the hall, no technojunk hanging from tents. Everyone was officious with assault rifles pulled apart and being cleaned on chamois-draped tables, with handheld radio sets radiating strange spiral antennas, with whiteboards dense with mathematical signals, maps, and complex diagrams. Zach tried to align the faces he saw to the people from the reactor facility and thought he could see traces of identities, grown older and leaner, but there was no way to be certain. It had only been a matter of weeks, too, casting doubt on any recognition of the people around him.
They entered a large hall filled with tables with walls of LCD displays. People in uniforms hurried about. There was an intensity to the chatter. A huge projected map lit the far wall and, on a raised dais in the center, LAment stood in a leather duster, his hair tied into a neat knot at the back of his head. He was slowly rotating, watching the efficient chaos swarming around him. They had evolved, but far too quickly for evolution or human effort, Zach thought. It was impossible or, retreating from the term, improbable, yet they weakly confirmed the consistency of his background and the palace of memory. Zach walked forward towards the platform and LAment noticed him and acknowledged his approach with a silent nod before asking a young woman nearby how far the tank columns were outside Los Angeles. Zach instantly correlated what LAment said with the bundles of red and blue icons on the projected map. There were clusters along the I-10 corridor, dipping down towards The Inland Empire.
Are they attacking LA? Zach asked towards LAment.
He was older than Zach remembered him, but he responded after a brief pause over a computer monitor: not yet, he said. They are massing in support of the rescue efforts. Rioting has begun, and looting, so the National Guard is being deployed, but they seem to have rather remarkable orders to kill coastal residents. They are after the liberals, as far as we can tell, with that group fairly loosely defined as anyone in the coastal cities. The quake is a pretext to weed out their numbers, to cull the masses, if you will. The Signal is at the heart of it. LAment shook his head at the screens before him.
How is The Signal responsible, Zach asked, truly perplexed.
LAment clicked his tongue, continuing: Its presence and manifestations on TV and on the internet increased in recent days, and more and more people are beginning to sound off about the evil ways of the coastal cities. The quake was retribution, God’s judgment. We can’t do anything more than monitor the situation at this point.
Zach told LAment in a low voice that he had discovered something about The Signal, masked by the pulse of activities around him, but he felt Aphrodite edge up almost to touching him from behind as LAment descended the platform and stood before him.
What is it?
Ferret Communications created a shell company in Simi Valley that used work from a USC professor to create The Signal, Zach quickly sputtered. His mind was racing at this point, wondering if there was anything to game, any leverage built into the situation, but the effort and coordination around him seemed too real to demand anything more than participation. It’s easy to join in against a mysterious and unjust opponent, Zach thought, briefly trying to raise his level of cynicism, but then retreated to the comforting thought that they were at war and war demanded concerted effort and obedience. Obedience. The very thought made Zach feel like a pet, yet he couldn’t oppose the burning fires before him.
LAment frowned and scowled, first at Zach and then at Aphrodite. I thought so, he muttered, and turned back towards the consoles. We have to attack on all possible fronts, LAment yelled down to Zach, we have to throw a boot in the guts of the machine. He suddenly jumped at Zach again.
This is it, my man. This is where justice is woven out of thin air. This ain’t no party. They have taken over the minds of America. They want to kill us, now. They began with surgical actions driven with The Signal. Your school shooting. The murders in Germany. The quake. EuropaShip. It is all being coordinated by Ferret and their overseers. When you hold the keys to the media and the internet, when you control minds, you also control the entire body politic. They are engaging in class warfare, summoning up the resentments of the land-owning producers of the old days: ranchers, mineral wealth, oil—all against the producers of the new world, media, graphics, CGI, you name it. Storytellers, liberals, gays, the creative class, all are being picked off one by one. We have to stop it, Zach. We have to take the war to them directly, before the tanks roll over the remnants of what once was.
Zach was processing LAment’s soliloquy with an unusual commitment to what he was saying. A sense of dissonance rolled over him briefly. The notion of a right wing conspiracy was discussed in some circles, and had been a mouse to Shakey’s cat for years, but converting that conspiracy into real actions driven by malevolence was almost unbelievable. Yet many narratives had clogged Zach’s sense of reality over the past several months and this one possessed the highest level of consistency with the events that Zach remembered with the greatest clarity. That dissonance dissipated slightly as he realized that that was more-or-less the best that he could do. He tried to mesh the signals together. He tried to make them accord one another. He watched for disconfirmations. And, despite all his efforts, he was floating in a confluence of inconsistencies. Only the fever-pitch of necessity driven by civil war pulled him up, lifted him, he thought. LAment wanted action and he wanted to join in the ideological conflagration. He was a young rebel on the eve of insurrection. He was a pioneer before the wilderness.
What can I do to help? Zach asked, quietly at first, but then again with greater volume.
LAment smiled and shook his head. Great, this is important. It’s a first step, LAment said, and Zach felt Aphrodite’s willowy arms fold around his neck. She kissed him lightly on the shoulder and he felt he had risen above the cannibalistic past and was confronted only with choices, with heroism, and so he began planning with them along the wall of the displays. He wasn’t offered gear because he had to remain an outsider to the SCIDE establishment. He had to find a single target and he had to eliminate the threat. He was solidly with them as the map flickered and zoomed on the grand display. There were confluences of actions that held in juxtaposition. If this threat was not eliminated, if he remained, if the dominos were not set in motion, then there would be a cascade of failures and the war would be lost. There were tanks on I-10. There were gunships prowling Valencia. Drone craft tilted their all-seeing eyes from above. SCIDE would be attacked soon enough and they had to minimize communications. Zach would be on his own in the field, one man against the might of an evil imperium that had harnessed the greatest weapon ever imaginable—the power to twist human minds.
The maps zoomed down on a crest line in green that tracked along a snaking highway to the east and another off to the west, and Zach recognized his waypoints just enough to discern that it was the mountain cabin where he had found the servers weeks before. The realization shook him out of his obsequious nodding and he knew that elimination meant killing and death. He had been there in the building before. He had been standing before the steadfast dark eye of the observational drones that were haunting all of America. He could see the red and blue icons crowding the maps like hallucinatory ants. But he doubted that he could do what they wanted him to do. LAment kept speaking at him as Zach slowed and stared back until LAment slowed his pace and asked if he was OK.
I’ve been there before, Zach said. I walked in the back door and there were servers in the basement. The Signal is there, he mumbled.
LAment slapped his hands together and reached upward. Haleluyah! he yelled and Aphrodite was smiling fangs of white teeth across the monitor. That’s great! Another confirmation that our intel is correct. Destroy the equipment, Zach. End the game. Kill the man and it ends there.
Zach tried to grin with LAment but was doubting his own resolve. The quiet of the hillside that day combined with the ordinariness of the place were shades to the precision and determination of LAment and SCIDE. Aphrodite pulled a small backpack out from beneath the table and opened it, revealing a black and chrome handgun and a survival knife nestled beside a satellite phone with a dangling USB port projecting out of the bottom of the mouthpiece. Zach looked it over and Aphrodite demonstrated cocking, loading, and releasing the safety on the handgun. Zach had never touched a gun before but was too cool to admit as much and he grabbed the pistol with confidence and inspected the switches and levers before releasing the magazine and reloading it in short, fluid motions. Aphrodite laughed. You’re a natural, she said.
In minutes Zach was led up and out of the facility into the warm desert night. A steroidal VW bug with racks of lights and noisy, spattering exhaust tubes came to life as he approached and he strapped in, holding his backpack in his lap as the bug bounded and shimmied along gravel and dirt roads for a half hour until they approached an outer parking lot of a desert golf course. Fans of sprinklers clicked in a desynchronized chorus across the grasses as the VW shut down and rolled to a stop. The driver, from under his full-face helmet, muttered good luck to Zach and he stepped out. A faint odor of humid grass surrounded him. A compact car was parked nearby and Zach circled it uncertainly for a few moments and then approached it. In the dim light he could see keys hanging from the ignition.
He got in and dropped the backpack into the foot well of the passenger seat after pulling out the phone. Flipping up the cover revealed a smart phone beneath the fat antenna and Zach began playing with the menus. He had a calculator, an image viewer that was empty, a video viewer, and a GPS-enabled mapping system that put him past Palm Desert. He entered the coordinates of San Chardin and approximated his travel time at three hours after he varied his route to avoid the LA basin and the massing tanks. He found a browser and tried to load AetherNews but the signal was replaced with an emergency broadcast service web page that declared communications were unavailable until further notice. Zach started the car. He hadn’t driven in a while but after a few jerky rolls through the small parking lot, he was heading out through quiet neighborhoods with xeriscaped dirt and rock opposing the greenery of the course. He followed the directions from the phone as it instructed him in an emotionless female voice with an Australian accent.
There was no air conditioning in the little Toyota and Zach was glad it was night. There was still residual heat from the day in the vinyl of the seats. As he followed minor highways north he saw military vehicles heading south. They had to be moving to support the attack, he thought. Within hours he had circled up through Tehachapi, then down into the lower Central Valley, and was working his way towards the coast. He emerged north of San Chardin and began moving through the crumbling switchbacks towards the town on PCH1. It was late night and cold along the coast, forcing him to roll up his windows. The small car chugged past his school and he slowed down, suddenly diving into the turn lane that took him inland and up until he was crawling along in front of his house. The windows were mostly dark, then a sparkle of television glow splashed up against the ceiling. He pulled the Toyota into a parallel park in front of a neighbor’s house and opened the door. The phone said it was one thirty AM. The air was salty and cold. He could see the lines of breakers in the darkness below and to the west. Zach wanted to check in. He wanted to ease into his room and sleep through the night. He figured his mom was crazed at him being missing for so many days. She probably thought he had been caught in the quake and was injured somewhere, but there was no one to take her call in Los Angeles, and so she just waited and waited, and the fear subsided as the hours passed. Zach walked slowly towards the house, the satellite phone in his hand, and stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. He looked up and saw a jet arcing along the coast, its rumble lost in space and trapped inside the hiss and moan of PCH down below.
Zach stood still for a few long minutes until the phone buzzed in his hand. He almost dropped it but raised it up and saw a text message below the chubby antenna. What’s your status? it read. He wandered back to the old Toyota as he responded, In San Chardin. Moving down the coast. He fired up the car and started back down the hills until he was back in the queue of intermittent headlights heading north and south. He leaned over, carefully, and pulled the handgun from the bag. There was an industrial quality to it; burled steel along the grip and cold metal for the barrel. It was unlike the technology he was used to in its inertness. The secret was in the trigger. There was no need to boot it up. There were no signals that had be found and connected to and correlated. Zach rolled down the window as the sulfurous streetlights absconded in the darkness of the road south and switched the gun to his left hand. His thumb ran along the side until he found the safety, lightly coated with perspiration from the damp air. Zach rotated the car through a dark switchback and rolled out towards the distant horizon as the vehicle chugged up towards a hairpin on a crest. There was the infinite again. He pulled the wheel to the left and began the turn downwards. There was no one ahead. He could see for miles. He squeezed the trigger and the gun quickly discharged, the crack and brief smell of powder disappearing with the cold wind. Zach slowed the car a bit and took another shot, listening to the snap and feeling the rhythm of the gun in his hand. It jumped, he realized. It didn’t recoil.
As he pulled the gun back through the window, he could see the crest of the coastal mountains as a faint crimson luminescence was beginning to rise. The color grew and expanded in sharp lines into the darkness above until an alien glow covered everything outside the beams of the tiny car’s headlights. Zach slowed and pulled into a beach access point, rolling down his window. It was three in the morning and he felt like a Martian as he emerged from the car. EuropaShip had emerged over the western coastal range and was pulsing purple into red above him, filamentary yellow threads sliding westward like the contrails of a Japan-bound jet. The tans of the dirt rises and cliffs were tainted red and purple. He could see seabirds circling rocky inlets below him, finding enough light to come out in the deepest hours of the morning. Looking directly into the phenomena was hard; blooms of color faded towards empty black and then into new twined arrows of light. Zach leaned against the sharply sloped hood. He could see a lone pair of headlights far to the south of him, carving through the switchbacks, but the colorful maze above him kept drawing his attention back.
He dropped back into the driver’s seat and started south again, arriving along a tree-lined stretch of road that he recognized as where he had emerged from the hillside weeks before. Up above was the cabin. Up above was the basement and the stack of servers. Zach slowed and watched for side roads. He passed several but was unable to identify them based on his memories and because he had been hiding in a car and scrabbling down slopes of dirt and brush. He pulled into a driveway and killed his headlights. He fished out the sat phone and pulled up the mapping system, zeroing in on his destination. He had overshot by a quarter-mile. Zooming in with spreading fingertips revealed the road number and a short curve on approach.
It was too late and too early to drive up to the house, Zach decided. The man who lived there had rifles. He must know people were after him. He would be prepared. Zach pulled into a siding long the main road and got out. He was about a quarter mile down the hill from the cabin, he estimated. There was a wash of dim azure filtering through the trees and brush, so he decided to try to walk up to the house the way he had come down. The estimates looked reasonable from his recollections, though he realized that there was no way to be sure. He began walking in and making his way upwards. The slope of the hill grew more difficult but then let up a bit as Zach navigated the violet glow. EuropaShip was easing its way west, shifting across the indecisive coastal canopy. Zach stopped periodically and checked the satellite phone’s mapping system, adjusting his arc subtly as he ground his feet into the dry hillside in his climb.
By four he was there and eased himself around the dim compound. There was a light on somewhere inside that faintly glowed through the front windows. Zach found a tree that offered a view from above and rested. He was tired, but there was adrenaline alive in his bloodstream. A text came through the sat phone asking what his status was. He responded that he was at his destination and monitoring the situation. He fingered the cool of the gun in the backpack. The back door had been open before. He could probably sneak in now. The man would be in bed, a shadowy bump in the darkness. It would be easy, he thought, but his mind raced with the chasm of possible alternatives: detected on entry, his target rising just as he comes in, the ratchet of a shotgun pump. Cowardly planning. Zach consoled himself that there is nothing more sensible than sense itself. He sat and waited. Birds began to stir in the trees and the fading of EuropaShip to the west was paralleled by the growing eastern dawn.
As dawn grew into light, Zach moved behind the tree, hiding his body behind the needle-covered hill it grew out of, and laid down on his stomach to watch the house. He could see the kitchen window and door from his vantage point. The hood of the sedan was half visible from his position, so he felt confident that he could monitor comings and goings. The exhaustion had become a mild, hazy buzz as dawn broke, and Zach was uncertain of his judgment. There was always a moment in hacking deep into a new day when he would notice a mistake or spill his coffee or forget what he was doing. That could happen here and now, he realized, and when handling a gun it could be more than fatal. He decided he was exposed and needed to leave. He turned and edged down the hillside, out of any lines of sight of the house, and began working his way back down the hills to the car. He climbed in and drove back down the gravel access road until he was almost to PCH1, driving slowly as he descended and looking for places he could hide the car.
After more than an hour he heard the crunch of gravel and the moan of springs moving down the road above him. He was on the move, Zach thought, though he was unsure who exactly he was. As the dirty sedan edged by and paused on the threshold of PCH1, Zach started the decaying Toyota and waited until the car accelerated outward, north along the coast. He was quickly behind the car, leaving his lights off as he drifted along, tracking the taillights of the car ahead of him. There was a distinctive pattern to the shadows within the car’s taillights and Zach made an effort to memorize their similarities and differences as the car passed one other and was passed by another in the gray morning light.
The first rays of direct sunlight were tagging coastal rock formations as they approached San Chardin from the south. Zach’s target zigged and zagged on a frontage road until it eased into the parking lot of a diner. Zach followed in and found himself driving in directly behind the car before turning back into the rows of vehicles and finding a space. By the time he had come to a stop, the lights of the sedan were off. He visually searched for movement and could only make-out a shadow at the cash register through the diner door as a short, fat woman grabbed a menu and led the shadow deep into the building. He was gone, Zach realized, lost in the mean faces of early morning workingman breakfasts. He could wait until his target emerged from the restaurant but Zach felt an urgent pressure mounting. He was overtired and buzzing. He needed coffee and to finish the job so he could sleep. He wanted to drive back home afterwards, ditching the crappy Toyota over the bluff, throwing the satellite phone into the surf after texting that it was all over. He wanted back into the cocoon of youth.
A black crow landed on the peak of the entranceway to the restaurant and Zach grabbed his backpack and walked to the door. He quickly formulated a ruse, then reformulated it after realizing that if his target were near the door it would all be over. He was feeling nauseas as he approached the hostess at her station, the odors of coffee and fried foods warmly intercepting him as he breached the dual doors. He tried his ruse. He was looking for a man who just came in. He was supposed to meet him. Oh, the hostess pointed down a row of booths to the end where a lone man sat. His back was a brown coat topped by a baseball cap. She grabbed another menu and began leading the way, but Zach said, Sorry, that’s not him. Can I sit at the counter? Sure, she deviated and Zach asked to sit at the far end, around the bend, so he could see the man. He ordered coffee and looked over the menu of eggs, hams, omelets, and pancakes while quickly emptying the cup of the ugly diner brew.
Zach felt slightly better. The edge of hazy agitation lifted slightly as he looked over the top of the menu at the man in the booth. From his angle and distance, he looked unimpressive. There was a blue-checkered collar emerging from the top of the jacket which looked to be canvas or suede. The hat had a logo on it. He was a bit heavy, Zach thought, but not obese, though the jacket made it hard to determine. The man suddenly looked over towards Zach and Zach averted his eyes down to the menu again. Why was he on this mission and what could come of it? The physicality of the man and the ordinariness of the place robbed the act of stalking and killing him of the enervating narrative that had pulled Zach initially towards a robust belief in the rightness—even perfection—of what he was trying to achieve.
Zach set the menu down and pulled open his backpack. There was the gun and the phone. The phone had drifted onto the cellular network according to the tiny blue LED near the tip of the fat antenna. Zach pulled it out as the waitress approached him across the counter. She eyed the oversized telephone with its jutting antenna as a relic of some ancient era as she asked him what he wanted to eat. He went with pancakes and she left again. Zach checked his messages but they were empty. His call record seemed missing as well. He ate in silence, trying to avoid looking at his target too much while punishing himself with more and more of the kettle coffee until he could hear a faint whistle behind the noises all around him. As he finished the pancakes, he felt a need to pee coming on and decided he better take the opportunity as soon as possible. He made his way to the long, shining bathroom and upon returning, he sat back into his seat and realized that the man was gone. A burning sensation flushed through Zach as he looked around at the crowd, then out through the windows of the diner. Nothing.
He stood and walked to the windows. The parking lot was stationary. He could see the dark crawl of PCH down below. Zach was flushing from the loss of his prey and of the opportunity, and was confused at what he should do next. He stood briefly and stilly, an apparition before the large plate windows glowing with the morning light and the faint tint of EuropaShip, then returned to the counter and finished his pancakes. His tab was manageable and he left the diner in another ten minutes, finding the old Toyota where he had left it. A crow flashed away from the roofline as he approached, squawking about the interruption to its duties as it flew off.
Zach settled into the car and heard the phone chirp from within the bag, announcing a new text message. The buzzing of the coffee and exhaustion were overtaking sensibility, Zach realized, and he lowered the seatback and closed his eyes, shutting out the lines of purple and rose lacing across the windshield from the sky above.
It is purely by chance that I discovered a remarkable note, penciled in a deliberate cursive, on page one hundred something of a secondhand copy of Borges’ Labyrinths. The Huns were clashing about and trampling books, but one survived—that sort of chance or magical thing—and an arrow crawled up from the text and declared “all great civilizations are built on marshes,” seemingly in praise for the despoiled monastery and its now collapsed civilization, or perhaps referring to the banks of the Danube or the arc of historiography that passed from Athens to Rome later in the page.
Regardless of the minutiae of the referents, the statement remained in my head for days as I shuffled about through my ordinary occupation and preoccupations with information theory, intelligent machines, and some spectral analysis of the statistical distribution of gut bacteria/eukaryotes. Google was fragmentary in its responses to the phrase as a query and I quit before the end of the first page, anyway, distracted by other thoughts about why marshes would be so attractive for building a civilization. The fishing should be good, admittedly, as well as the availability of reeds for various structures, but the shifting nature of land and the threat of mosquito infestation struck me as negatives. And wouldn’t clean, fresh water be better served by a mountain stream? All great cultures should be at the base of a non-volcanic snowpacked mountain.
I returned to Borges later in the week and found myself fanning through the pages like a schoolboy watching a stickfigure animation until, seventy-five pages further, below the tail of an essay on Cervantes and the inversion of authors and characters and readers, there was another brief flash off a curlicue of lead embedded in the page. I hoped for an existence proof for the previous annotation, but instead it was merely the phrase “literature of Exhaustion,” the E looking like an enlarged epsilon prefacing the remainder of the third word, as if to call it to special attention and emphasize the aspiration through the second syllable, exhaust itself onomatopoeic of loss and finalization.
So here was the connection that pulled Borges and some last reader of this copy together, this framing of the future of literature in some upstate New York professorial office, the pepperspray of revolt wafting in over the trucked-in tumulus of infill as intermedia and intertextuality began to break through the sensibility of realism. Exhausting themes, exhausting theses, exhausting all convention, even exhaustingly lifting one leg before another through those sucking marshes as the lilypads sink and re-emerge upon passing.
There was only one remaining pencil stroke I could find, I’m sorry to say, several dozen pages later, imperfectly underlining the final sentence “I do not know which of us has written this page,” but with two lines under “this,” again drawing attention to a part of the whole and emphasizing only the single page which, strangely, was only a quarter of the essay in translation that was splayed across two facing pages in my book.
Unpublished novel chapter about vampires taking over Hollywood, from the perspective of Vin Diesel. Vin arrives in London to work on a new film about vampires but is attacked by a strange creature while jogging in Hyde Park.
The doctor is a woman, brown, Indian or Pakistani, and, as usual when I first arrive in Britain, I am surprised that the accent can accompany any serious discussion at all. Yes, I had a tetanus shot three years ago. Actually, yes, I had the typhus series, too. No, it was definitely not a dog but admittedly, yes, I am not sure exactly what it was. I’m grinning at her as she projects standardized health system concern through the lilts and dips of pure Londoner. She keeps glancing at my grin, either not recognizing me or just concerned that I am drunk or high. It’s just the accent, I think about blurting out; I can’t take it seriously, sorry, an American oddity exaggerated by the pain in my knee and the early morning hours without much sleep. But I clam up and answer her questions only getting a bit peeved at the third round of, “Had you been drinking”
“No, I was jogging. I was jetlagged. I was jogging. Really.”
There were no stitches, just a bandage and a shot of broad-spectrum antibiotics. As I finished up and signed off, I thought about sneaking a peak at the chart to see if she had annotated “likely alcoholic” or something on the page, but it was almost 9 AM British Summer Time and I needed a nap before my meeting in the afternoon, so I scribbled where I needed to scribble and grabbed a cab back to the hotel, hobbling in past the front desk with my tattered sweats sweeping the marble of the lobby.
Monica was mercifully still asleep and the sheet had drifted down revealing her lithe, young body. I thought about waking her, but I needed sleep more than processing and just stripped and slid in beside her after calling the front desk for a wake-up call from the bathroom phone. Did they know when I called from the bathroom phone?
It didn’t work, of course, and I hit the mini-bar for a tiny little Johnny Walker Red that I chugged down and went back to the bed until the creeping warmth came over me and the fear and pain in my gut subsided.
“OK, OK, we have Vlad Tepes and he resents his father for having ransomed him to the court of the Ottomans as a child”
“Right, OK, so he is a footstool to the empire.”
“Nice, huck huck, but it is the resentment that is growing towards the Empire—towards Islam. Is that what this is? Is it a religious war allegory paralleling modern times?”
“Great, an allegory where the Christians go medieval on the Muslims for being forced to pay taxes?”
“It’s all about resentment. Resentment of the father. Resentment of fate.”
“Coppola made it about love.”
“It’s not about romantic love.”
“Why can’t it be?”
“It can’t be because this is a serious film that only takes mild liberties with the history.”
“How mild? Can’t a love interest be mild? The second wife threw herself into the river rather than becoming enslaved to the Turks.”
“But it was the brother, Radu, who was a scion of the Ottoman court who led the assault. It was about power. But maybe it was about family and about sibling rivalry. The return of the brother, the struggle against the prodigal son?”
“Vlad married again. The loss of wife number two was no big whoop. It wasn’t about love, so power may be the motivation.”
“Machiavellian-grade power. Courts opposed to one another in a game of chess.”
“Many wives. Tutors-esque sex games combined with power. Vin could fuck a bunch of class A starlets on velvet altars. Could we get Megan Fox? I bet Lindsay Lohan is available.”
“It’s good to be the Dragon of Wallachia.”
“Good, indeed. Could we tie this to the British Royal Family? They are related.”
“God, that would be sumptuous. Reflections of Pippa as she imagines the ancient royals fucking.”
“Pippa’s a commoner, mate.”
“The power struggle is about the brothers. It’s about loyalty to one another, to family, and to country.”
“But dad, the original Dracul, did the ransoming in support of his own rise to power. He was scared, he was cowardly enough that a couple of kids as ransom didn’t matter. He could get another wife and more kids.”
“So could Vlad. So did Radu. These people were fucking monsters.”
“It’s a cold-hearted tale of how monstrous these people were. It’s no wonder they were thought of as monsters later on. Like father, like Son One and Son Two. Son One just gets a little more medieval in his revenge antics. Son One just gets more bloody.”
“There is a subplot built in there, though. There must be. The motivation can’t be that every one of them is horrible by, what? By nurture or by nature? By the struggle for power? By the failure of love? There has to be something that makes us like Vin, Vlad, and makes us respect the decisions that he makes.”
“Maybe not. Maybe I’m not likeable. Maybe that is the subplot.”
“Maybe we can’t get funding for the project, too, Vin.”
“Historical continuity. These people are just part of the flow of history. They aren’t horrible in the context of the civilization they are a part of. The audience can excuse them their sins because they are blown on the winds of fortune.”
“That takes clever direction and a clever screenplay. I want to turn Vlad into an antihero of a sort. He is forced to do what he does because there are no better outcomes. He is conflicted with his brutality, but can’t think of any other way forward.”
“What if he is being manipulated by underlings, by viceroys and priests, all of whom have their own agendas.”
“That might work. He puts the enemies heads on pikes because his court whispers in his ear that thousands of Turks are possessed by demons, or he is seeking revenge on his brother.”
“That might be it. Back to the sibling rivalry, but the killings are trying to kill Radu, and he sits on his thrown in pure pathos.”
“Not at all consistent with the history. Vlad III was installed by the Ottomans, but then was exiled and returned to retake the throne of Wallachia at the point of a very personal sword. He later was held captive for a decade until getting back Wallachia, only to be assassinated.”
“Why not then that Vlad was actually innocent of most atrocities and they were fabricated by that guy who had him imprisoned?”
“Right. It was all hype and we just have a period piece with a complex crusade ongoing. Corvinus didn’t want the Papacy to condemn him for not fighting the Muslim hordes, so he scapegoated Vlad. We would get points with the Romanians for this.”
“And condemnation from Turkey? Maybe?”
“All of Islam, except that Turkey is an anomaly because they weren’t Arab, so they are historical pariahs like Persia or Bactria. Arabs are hypersensitive because Arabic is the language of Allah. Turkish, not so much.”
“I still like love as a motivation. Let’s abandon the pretense of historicity and just charge forward with a brutal rom-com. Vlad’s girlfriend was stolen by his brother for Bey or something, to add to his harem and humiliate the ruler of Wallachia. It was petty for the Ottomans, but personal for Tepes.”
“There is the Hungarian epic, too. Corvinus was the son of John Hunyadi. Neither was royal blood, but were elected by parliamentary action. He’s a Hungarian hero, too, so the story could be that Corvinus was trying to temper the primitive urges of violence and parlay peace between East and West. Vlad was a loose cannon who kept impaling everyone, which was good for the Hungarians in realpolitik, but was bad for the empire. Corvinus becomes the wise uncle who is struggling to hold together nascent democracy.”
“Democratic winds opposed by the zephyr of medieval brutality and invasion.”
“Vin as Vlad becomes secondary if we go that route, and our bankability becomes secondary.”
“Do what you need to as far as my role is concerned. I’ll just go, no-go at the contractually agreed to points, guys.”
Fucking writers and producers. And these guys are early development people. They generally don’t last past the first trimester. Insert the seed and move on. Collect a check as you go. There are a few exceptions, but the majority are just looking for easy scores until they find a big project that will translate into consistent, high-value upside. I’m there already, so while I sympathize with the struggle, I have to watch for bloodsuckers, too.
Damn, my knee feels like a fork’s been jabbed into it. Monica gave me a backrub after the meeting, which helped, and the prescription Vicodin from the chemist at hospital (yeah, when in Rome, think with an accent at least) is starting to creep in, warm things up, cancel out the sting. The jab is dropping off behind warm, fuzzy cloaks as the sun retreats behind a cloud bank and gray fades to the sulfur-lit night of greater London. I guess I can’t disagree with hobbling down to the hotel bar with Monica. She’s holding me up against the ache of gravity like I’m a late night drunk staggering home from the football match. She’s doing it with style, too, in a black mini-dress and matching black leather stilettos. She’s worth it there for a moment as she settles me into a booth with a view of the TV and orders a beer and champagne.
“The meeting went well, yes?”
“I want to fly to Romania tomorrow.”
“Why? Romania is a backwards place. Let’s go to Barcelona and party all night.”
“Baby, baby, you are a beautiful creature tonight. Romania is where I need to go. I think you fly into Bucharest. We can get a car there and drive up to Transylvania. I need to meet someone there.”
“Meet someone in Transylvania? That is very strange, Vin.”
“Sounds creepy, don’t it? It’s for the movie, ya know? There is a historian there in some place, Sig-his-sour or Sig-his-soar-a, that Jan said I need to talk to. This guy has a theory about the Hungarians creating the myth of Vlad the Impaler.”
“Dracula, Dracula, it is dead, I think. There are too many books, too many movies, little girls and sparkly men, wolves fighting them, diseases, all such things. It is boring like zombies.”
“Zombies are very cool right now. There is still gas in that tank, baby.”
“Maybe you should make a movie about Frankenstein. Frankenstein has not been done.”
“Many times, but you are right that Frankenstein hasn’t been done recently. It seems to have lost its allure. The guy’s kinda creepy, ya know, with bolts and stitches and brain damage. I don’t think it has audience appeal.”
“That is why it needs to be done again, Vin. It needs to be made sexy. You could make it sexy like they make the vampires sexy.”
“Vampires are easy to make sexy, baby. You just dress them up and have them act cool. Frankensteins have damaged brains and have to be primitive. Maybe if the monster was a genetic creation, though, who was extra perfect. Genetics people talk about Frankenstein crops and stuff. I’m thinking cloning.”
“Better than vampires, I think. You get Jan to work on that and we can go back to L.A., OK?”
“No, I think we need to ride the wave, here. Vampires are still hot. Hot like you, Moni-baby. Yeah, we’ll just drop into Romania for a few days. It will be an adventure. You’ll love it.”
“I hate Romania.”
“You been there?”
“Three times, but it is always the same. Sad. Mal. Hotel service sucks.”
“It’s OK, Monica. I’ll get Jan to find us the best place to stay, OK? You can order room service while I go meet this cat. I want to learn more about the Hungarian connection. Jan said there was something more to it that connects to the modern world. Making these old brutal fuckers more accessible is what we need to do or we won’t have a picture at all.”
“OK, Vin. If that’s what you want to do.”
“Yeah, that’s what I wanna do. You along for the ride, baby?”
“Jan said that we may need to get back to L.A. pretty soon, anyway. Gil Mempson is a producer on Vlad and it looks like he is still on the fence about funding. I may need to put in some face time.”
“Did I meet him at the Spielberg party?”
“Yeah, I think so. Funny he showed up there. He was drunk, right.”
“He was drunk. He was sexy, too.”
“Old and drunk and sexy, too. You’re fucked up, Monica.”
“I know. It’s good to be me. Romania, yes?”
“Yeah, but just for a few days, OK?”
A spiral is an ancient symbol—a snake, an eye, a womb—and a hypnotic focus for mesmerizing the compliant into a hypnagogic state. A spiral is a flow into a singularity. A spiral is a whirlwind. The spiral before Zach’s eyes was generated by a light projector, he knew, and by a filter that was spinning before the projector. He focused and heard only a faint dripping. The fuzziness was falling away from him like he was shedding a cocoon, though, and he soon felt bindings of his arms behind him, metallic and cold, mirroring the cold of the room around him. The spiral was spinning gently, like a pinwheel in a breeze, and Zach found it comforting. It was a flow into a black hole, the negation of everything material, yet the lines of flow never altered or diminished, but extended into forever. A cold universe, empty of the luminous, yet beautiful in its existence, is still cold, he reasoned as he felt the chill rise out of the chair, into his damp back, and his arms. The spiral kept spinning with clockwork regularity.
He finally heard steel slide against steel and a light bloomed to his left, incandescently warm and yellow. A human shadow marched in and stood quietly before him. He didn’t speak at first, waiting to try to see who it was, though suspecting a female form from the subtle hints of hip and slender arm as the shadow moved around him. She slid into the light of the spiral and he recognized Aphrodite from the beach, her hair tamed slightly by a band compressing the afro into three cottontail puffs, above, left and right. She finally spoke, low and even, declaring him cleansed and purified. Purified of what, Zach wasn’t sure, but he said great, then let me go, and she moved around behind him and he was suddenly rubbing the cold out of his wrists and hands. There was moisture everywhere, and he asked Aphrodite where he was and what had happened. But she just told him to follow her and walked back towards the yellow doorway. He looked back at the rotating spiral as he left, seeing the heavy wood chair—like an electric chair—that he had been fixed to, and the icy white light of a video projector that was shining the spiral on the wall. He longed for the spiral briefly. It was perfect and infinite.
They walked in a column through tight corridors of rusting steel with disintegrating fitments, like in a ship, but there was no sense of roll or hum to the place, so Zach doubted they were at sea. Flickering low-power lights and occasional oily torches lit the path through shadowy mazes of barrels and becalmed machinery until they opened into a large room lined with tents and shambling people dressed in the hippie extravagances of colored rags like Aphrodite herself. She stood still along the rusting rail, the dance of torchlight from tall poles enhancing the angles of her face and lips. Where are we, Zach asked, and she laughed and simply said that they were in SCIDE, though Zach heard it as inside and asked inside what? No, she replied, we are in S-C-I-D-E, the Society for Creative Infiltration and Destructive Energies. SCIDE, she reiterated. This is where we operate from. Operate what, he asked. She smirked at him. Zach, Zach, we have freed your mind now. Think back to who you were and what you were doing. That world is a prison, she said, and your mind was a prisoner of The Signal. Don’t you remember?
He remembered The Signal, sure, but was doubting his sanity now even more than when he saw the bird earlier in the day. It was a dream, he thought, an elaborate dream that allowed him the shaky self-awareness that he was feeling, like a hypnagogic state of sorts. He followed Aphrodite as she dropped towards the floor of the massive steel room on a metal staircase. He was mesmerized by the rag couture of the youth that surrounded him as they made their way across the floor, between groups who hushed one another and paused as Aphrodite and he passed. They seemed to be looking at him more than at her. They made their way to another portal and slipped through. There was a burning fire in the center of the room and Zach recognized Zane in the gold shadows, dancing to an unheard music, among many faces. The low murmur of the room stopped as they entered and Zach immediately sensed the center of gravity was around a teenage boy seated by the fire, his face painted with logic symbols and his thin chest bare to the cool air.
He’s here, Aphrodite waved her arm at the room as she announced their arrival. Zach just stood looking around him. They were a motley lot, dressed in rags and decorated like the boy with logic symbols and tribal face paint. Some had circuit boards sewn into their clothing like beads. The teenage boy waited for the murmur to subside and announced himself as Lord Ambrosia—yes LAment—he said, and Zach immediately knew who he was from his online identity. LAment, Zach responded. I enjoyed your work on the LA County Sheriff’s records. LAment laughed that it was nothing much special, but that he had invented a variant multisource attack based on dictionary methods that rotated slowly through IPs to prevent filtering. He seemed pleased by Zach’s comment and invited him to sit down. Zach did and waited briefly and then blurted out that this entire place seems highly dubious. What were they all doing there and why was he brought there?
LAment seemed disbelieving. This is SCIDE he said, waving his hands at the crowd around him that erupted in light laughter. This is our hacker heaven, he said. We are here fighting the war against the signals, Zach. You must know that. You were our operative. We saved you. Zach was in disbelief at this line of reasoning and confident that he had not been controlled in any way in his investigations. His mind was playing media-seeded memories about the improbability of what he was seeing around him, flashing to The Matrix and Hackers, then to post-apocalyptic Mad Max child tribes. It was ridiculous, he thought, yet they seemed tangible and LAment was as real as any hacker out there for Zach.
How did you save me? Zach asked. They were closing in, ZMan, LAment said, invoking one of Zach’s online identities. You don’t think they would just sit around and let you peer through the looking glass, do you?
The cabin? The servers and The Signal? Zach was grasping to understand before their collective grinning. He didn’t like being on the dark side of the information gap and he felt submerged in the mud of fragmentary knowledge and manipulation.
Sure, the cabin. The sent an emissary for you, too. He was closing in on you.
The bird? Zach asked.
A bird? LAment queried back at him. Hmmm, it might have been a bird. We don’t know what form it would take because The Signal is randomized so much by the encryption that the most we can usually glean is that there is something happening and, by correlating the IP addresses, we can also generally discern the target of the attack. They were zeroing in on you, ZMan, getting ready to erase you. You were too close and even touched the honey pot at one point. They don’t like that.
Who are they, LAment? Who made The Signal and why?
That’s a direct question and it deserves a direct answer, Zach. But, alas, in the zigs and zags of the cybercommunity, I can’t find an answer for you. As far as we can tell, The Signal circulates around and nests in different servers. It is an elaborate system that requires fairly significant distributed computing horsepower, but we can’t find any evidence that the owners of the machines have a clue what it is or why it is running on their systems. We’re not even sure what it is for but we do know that it can change people, twist their minds, by exploiting some kind of visual processing backdoor in the brain. The shooter at San Chardin High we think was one of The Signal’s victims. There have been others, too, and we see traceries and code fragments in advertising banners and coded into mainstream music. That’s why we are here.
Here? Where is here? And how many are you?
LAment laughed again and sparked a stubby cigarette with a fat, gold Zippo. About two hundred worldwide, with about seventy five here. This is the Palermo Canyon Nuclear Reactor on the Central Coast, or what’s left of it. We stay here, away from any signal, waiting for the end to come, man. I’m serious, too. There are no computers here. No cell phones. Just the rusted relics of our nuclear past.
How do you hack, then? Zach asked.
Missions into the towns, the cities, down the coast. We gather supplies and stop in coffee shops. We keep our equipment in lockers and sheds along the way, then replace it back there when we return. And everyone who touches the machines gets deprogrammed every time. No exceptions. There is too much at risk.
How did you learn to deprogram if you don’t know what the signal is?
Good question, but beyond your pay grade right now. Now that you are free and clear, you need to relax here for a while and then we need your skill set for some missions, you dig?
Zach was quiet. He had acquiesced to his fate, though the people and situation were sending waves of paranoia through him. He waited and watched as conversations devolved away from him, noting the banality of what they were doing and discussing. Individuals stood and left for the toilet, then returned or not. Kids were smoking and getting high, and wrestling and slap fighting. It was a perfectly normal rhythm superimposed on an abnormal syncopation. Soon he needed to piss and got directions from a boy around twelve. The bathroom was old tile gone to rot, and the toilets were covered in crap and piss spray like they had never been cleaned. There was water in some of the bowls and half the urinals looked functional. He tried one and was able to flush it, wondering how they had kept the water on over all these years.
As he emerged from the dark toilet he looked through a thin glass window and saw sandy beach hills topped with clinging ropey vines and grass tufts. It was night out there and the sky was blank from a high marine layer. Sharp horizontal lines of white like slashes emerged from the dark behind the hills, announcing a moderate surf, though not enough for any killer waves. Zach decided to wander a bit since he was not under guard it seemed, and slipped up a metal staircase and through dusty halls flickering with occasional fluorescent tubes. Broken furniture and rusted steel machinery lined the hallways like the decrepit ghosts of the Cold War. Radiation symbols faded by time and the lick of moisture crowded the walls. Zach eventually got to a door that he could push open and was out on the roof of the building, wandering on gravel among quiet air conditioner units and broken aerials. There were weak spots where the roof had partially collapsed and he circled around those areas with a wide allowance and slow, careful steps to gauge the solidity underfoot. He could see another building nearby covered in graffiti and the half-collapsed cooling tower like the corseted waist of a Victorian dancer to the south. He thought about running, fleeing back to San Chardin, via PCH 1 and 101 or whatever ribbon highway snaked around through the hills, but the specter of the bird kept reappearing to him as he thought about back home, as if emerging from the multispectral hue of The Signal. And something more, too: there was the shooting and the mystery about the The Spinner’s intentions. It was all back there, down the coast, hidden behind a veil of normalcy that seemed insane here among the post-apocalyptic children of tomorrow. They were caricatures drawn from a comic book but they felt more real and focused than the sleepy world of home to Zach.
He stood at the edge of the roof and watched a small group of shadows emerge from somewhere below him and wander up over the dune hills, then found the door and the stairs and made his way back down to the living areas. The kids were a sight in their motley rags and dead technological couture. There were rabbits in cages and tiny propane stoves with cans bubbling atop them. A few turned to glare at him as he approached and he stopped suddenly and asked, quietly and non-confrontationally, why they were looking at him, suppressing an urge to shake them as if a shaking would loosen this fantastical utopian vision of youth in revolt and return all of them back to their families. They responded calmly that he was well known in the cyberworld and that they couldn’t believe that he had been taken by The Signal. They wanted to understand if there was a moral failure intrinsic to hackers that led them over the edge and if every one of them would succumb too. They wanted to know what to avoid. Zach granted that he didn’t even realize that he was under the control of anything. He didn’t feel any different even now, but suggested that they look at their screens indirectly a bit. Maybe that would help. He felt stupid saying that but they shook their heads slowly like they were in agreement, though with the eyes of lost confusion, then went back to their quiet conversations. Zach looked at what was between the two boys, around age twelve, and saw that it was a sheet of yellowed paper scribbled with a scripting language for text processing. They were plotting and writing code, but in a way that mimicked a priestly enterprise, removed and cold, rather than the active engagement that hacking was traditionally about.
Zach found Aphrodite drinking rum with Zane beside a smoldering fire an hour later. They invited him to party with them, but he demurred and asked where he could sleep. She laughed and became a caricature of a concerned mother briefly, wrapping her arms around him and rubbing his head, though with a constant edge of sexual dominance and aggression that made Zach uncomfortable, then led him down a hall by his hand and suggested a random doorway that, when opened, revealed a room full of rusting equipment. Oops, she giggled, and finally deposited him in a small cell-like bedroom with a dusty cot in one corner. There was a candle on a low table and a box of matches. Zach lit the candle for a few minutes and examined the room. Dirt piled in the corners, driven in by a past wind he guessed. The walls were steel plates with heavy rivets. The door was a lockable portal, though the locking mechanism could only mildly engage due to the gentle shrug of metal fatigue over the decades of abandonment. It seemed unlikely to Zach that a place like this could exist, undetected. There should be security. There should be a caretaker who monitors the facility. The candle was half gone and he worried about leaving it burning in case he needed to rise or pee later on, so he blew it out, sending a few pinpoints of hot wax against his hand with his quick blow.
He slept that night and dreamed of that snowy field again, a tattered flag over a cabin, but there was a dead bird on the porch as he approached, and he bent over to look at its still form but saw only the inert black of the sea in its feathers.
A sense of purpose is a hard-fought and hard-learned achievement for anyone, but for a twin it is always overshadowed by a sense of duality. Shared reference points—languid and lazy summers, tiny tragedies—dodge and weave together and remembrances are broken into equal parts of self and mirror self. Was it his observation or mine? Who made the comment and why? Since the twin is an ever-present reflection, the narratives of shared discovery from the earliest days mask differences.
Mom calls to us as we look for satellites between Jupiter and Mars, “Harold! Mike! Time to come in now!” The damp summer grass is at our back. Just audible, beneath the chant of crickets, is the murmur of cottonwoods at the edge of our yard as a breeze crawls up the canyon.
“I got one. North to South,” my brother says and swipes at the stars with his hand.
He points again and I ease my head over to his shoulder to try to line up with his fingertip.
Finally it resolves for me as I defocus and refocus my eyes: a pinprick of light in the indigo sliding between the silvery weave of stars.
“Spy satellite. Polar orbit,” I say. I try to imagine the view from the satellite, as if I was a hitchhiker holding on to the solar panels and looking down at the dark Earth below. Dish antennas rotate and twitch, seeking out radio signals far below the faint splashes of city lights. Space is cold and quiet, even the wind tamped out, until…
Mom is calling again.
It is the summer of 2002 and Harry and I are both 10 years old. We live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and our lives and our purposes are unremarkably simple. Time creeps along through vast days in a vast landscape and I feel like though I have many foggy memories I am only just beginning to have thoughts that are not simple reactions to people and events around me. And with those thoughts is a nascent longing to understand what and who I am—to uncover a sense of purpose.
For me, the 4th grade has been traumatic and I am leery of the coming new school year. Sarah Collins was the problem. A lithe gymnast, Sarah was also a Christian and wanted others to know it, too. I was, well, not sure what I was. Mom and Dad had never really discussed religion with us as something Americans actually did. Mom was an anthropologist and Dad a physicist, so we discussed everything as thoughtfully as was humanly possible, with Dad sometimes draining all mystery out with a short proclamation: “Well, there’s absolutely no evidence of that.” Religion was talked about as something other people did, with the same intellectual detachment with which Dad described the duality of subatomic particles, at once both like the rolling waves of the ocean and like peas on a dinner plate.
And so I was blindsided when Sarah and her friend Naomi cornered me and asked what church I went to. No church, I admitted, and their faces grew worried.
“You are going…down there,” Naomi whispered, stabbing her finger dramatically at the ground.
“Where?” I asked, wondering if she was referring to some system of mines or the sewers.
“You know, the fire place,” she continued, still pointing towards the blacktop of the school basketball court.
Despite an initial concern that perhaps she meant the magma-filled core of the Earth itself, I quickly realized that Naomi was concerned about Hell.
“Do you mean Hell?” I asked.
Her eyes enlarged, framing her dark irises in a sea of white. “Yes. If you don’t go to church you will go to that place.”
Sarah’s eyes paralleled her friend’s dramatic oscillations, emphasizing each shocked expression with a faint gasp.
“When?” I asked.
“When you die,” she responded.
My mind raced at these strange ideas. I knew about many things, about how babies come about, about how atoms split and energy was released, about how gravity pulled things together, and about how animals changed over time, but the idea that when I die I might end up in a burning place struck me as remarkably weird. Following Naomi’s finger deep into the Earth led through the crust and into the mantle. Heat increased, it’s true, but the relationship to churches seemed incomprehensible. Did churches have geothermal heating? I had heard of such things and was impressed that they had figured that out, but wasn’t sure why it should concern me after death. I assumed my family would take my body and bury or cremate it.
“I don’t think so,” I responded. “My family will bury me after I die.”
Naomi and Sarah were perplexed. There was a simple symmetry to life and death in their minds, and here was a boy who didn’t seem to understand that human life continued beyond the cessation of body functions.
“No, your soul will burn.”
“Soul,” I repeated back to them. I had heard the term on TV, both as an abstract notion of human life and as a type of music from long ago. The soul seemed to be something like our personality or self awareness, but the way Naomi was using the term it seemed to survive death and get burned if it missed going to church.
The bell rang and we moved towards the classroom. My mind raced, though. How was it that this soul survived physical death and why would church prevent the soul from being burned? After all, wouldn’t a body be required in order to be affected by fire—to be burned? How could a personality be burned?
Harry, later, was equally perplexed, but also seemed intrigued by my interaction with Sarah and Naomi. “Was that before lunch?” he asked.
“Yeah. I was playing wall ball with Scott,” I replied. Harry’s expression gave him away. “You like her?”
“I guess. I dunno. I suppose, sure,” he responded, his eyes crawling the wall, fixing on a Star Trek poster.
“Sarah’s nice, I guess,” I replied, “but this whole soul burning thing really upset me. Why would she and Naomi say such weird things about souls and Hell and all that?”
“I dunno. I guess their families are religious and that’s what they believe.”
“Well, it just seems mean. I didn’t mess with them. Why would they do that?” I responded.
“I’m not sure. It seems strange, though. It’s kinda like the descriptions of Io or Titan with their strange atmospheres, or like the horror films. You know, demons jamming sharpened crosses into people.” Harry jabbed his finger into my belly, setting off a tickling and wrestling fight that only ended when Mom yelled to us to keep the noise down from upstairs.
Mom did research and wrote for archaeological magazines about topics as far ranging as Anasazi myths and Celtic moon rituals, and she needed quiet in the afternoons.
I whispered, “Well, I don’t know why they needed to be so mean.”
My brother smirked and responded, “I’ll ask them.”
“Don’t!” I blurted, but knew that it was no use. Harry would pursue the issue if for no other reason than to embarrass me.
I feigned indifference, hoping to dissipate his desire to test the waters of my indignation and nascent interest in the girls—Sarah especially—but he was a twin and my charade was almost transparent from the moment I spoke. There was no chance of deflecting him, now. I just had to ride the wave.
The cavern of Zach’s room, his private space, is rarely invaded by his mother. He feels confidently, quietly isolated there, protected and enwombed as he reaches out through the broadband into the virtual caves of the web, into blogs, AetherFaces, AetherFaces, IRC chat rooms, web sites, and secure shells into compromised foreign computer systems. Visually, there is warmth to the space because of the dun shade over the compact fluorescents and the wall hangings in bands of color. Under pressure from a compact, oscillating fan, stellated icosahedrons in pocked metal and wood drift like interlopers to the solar system of the collections of plastic superheroes and creatures from horror movies perched along every available surface.
There was an era not long ago when a teen inordinately quiet, obsessively detailing balsa wood planes or role playing miniatures, would have been worried over by a parent from a generation before, whose parents were themselves worried that their own children were listening to radical hippie music, but Zach’s mom was too distracted by the pressures of her job as a marketing VP to be able to divert her energies to worrying over Zach. Zach was used to it. It rarely bothered him. He had his cave, school, self-determination and a private life. Her comings and goings were barely noticeable for weeks on end, though she often sent him tight, loving text messages reminding him of deadlines and updating AetherFaces with ecstatic praise and notes about her own complicated life. He was at the top of her to-do list, but just one more project in a cataract of them. Even his very existence was a project of sorts. Zach’s father was a sperm bank and he had been conceived out of a scheduling lull and nagging insecurity on his mother’s part that her biological clock was moving out of range of thoroughly healthy outcomes. He had known many nannies in his early years, and many sitters later on, loving each one with increasingly romantic desire, but Mom always made herself present enough that he had never really felt abandoned or maltreated.
If that is enough to consign him to an interest in cyberpunkery, in hacking, in hunting down bragging rights among the cognoscenti of the internet multiverse, then it had to be through his mom’s acceptance of his regular retreat to his bedroom, his finding solace in the reaching out through wires while ensconced in the protectorate of his statuary and quiet cavern, that he became who he was, an inveterate introvert, thoughtful but with a wanderlust that could be managed through the online worlds that he simultaneously inhabited. She was happy enough that he didn’t seem to care for dope, for booze, and always came across to teachers as bright and challenging, resulting in mostly exceptional grades, though occasionally tinged with Bs due to nervous boredom and distraction. And so he was allowed the freedom of his cavern and trusted, and so he nurtured the trust with just the right application of effort and signaling to maintain the reservoir of good will and autonomy.
Zach has the worm by the tail in his cavernous lair. The digital signature is complex, variegated, pulsing with regularity in a hexdump visualization of the code. The header is an injector, overwhelming buffers in scripting languages, overlaying the rendering code of the web page with its reticulated coil, and the body is a pattern language for generating images, dense with mathematical cycles beyond his ken. That’s how far he’s gotten with it in five hours. He hasn’t executed it again in toto, though, because he isn’t altogether certain what happened back at the coffee shop. Shakey had interrupted the mesmerizing images, but did the interruption snap him out of a trance or had he just been fascinated by what he was observing? He wasn’t sure. It scared Zach to not understand that, most of all, and he had never been scared of technology before. He veered, then tacked, leaving the analysis for a time and began a search for the pattern in the wild, finding records strewn through servers that showed elements of the header, but only seeing the most exotic part of the signal in surfaced logs for AetherFaces.
He logged into a hacker chat room and searched recent records. It hadn’t been noticed, he concluded, after a half hour of inventing search terms to try to isolate any random curious queries. It was tempting to set it out there like a prize, asking the diaspora of renegades around the world to unravel the puzzle the code presented, but Zach would get more cred if he already knew the answer and could tempt the crews with hints about Soviet nuclear core management controllers or Finnish social networking analytic tools. If he couldn’t crack it, then he would need to engage a master, quietly, until light began to shine from within and the explanation emerged. He texted Shakey, telling him to keep it quiet. It was The Signal, now, and Shakey agreed but demanded bragging rights, then switched to comments on hacks of political websites. Zach was continually amazed at the scattershot of interests that percolated through Shakey, but he knew Shakey would follow-through on his request or, at worst, would fail to do so only because he forgot. He could trust in him that much.
He was back into the cavern of the code, locking out the buzzing, bubbling nags of tweets and texts and updates, when he got a hit on a search. It was in AetherFaces and he triangulated on the source, flushing browser caching and anonymizing through a server out of Taiwan. No breadcrumbs, no tiny motes, no trail. A man, just an ordinary dumbfuck trying to look toughguy in his pic, out of Bethesda, Maryland. Drives a truck, works as a pipe fitter. Just an ordinary dumbfuck. The header was tucked away in a comment, ready to pounce when the full message was opened, posted by Anonymous today at 9 PM. It was the last comment on the wall. Zach followed out to Dumbfuck’s friends and their comments all stopped around the same time. He bookmarked everyone and gave up for the evening, dropping into sleep at 4 AM.
There they are again, the shapes limned in the cavern of white, the luminous orbs submerged beside contrasts of shadow, fluxing in and out of focus. Why is it so difficult, so painfully difficult for the mind and eyes, to drag the shapes out of the mist and materialize them for inspection? And why the irritating fatigue, the orbital pressure pushing back behind the eyes themselves, into the cortex, demanding some sort of relief, like the odd logic problems of trying to invert syllogisms according to some scholastic thaumaturgy. How the powerful images work on the head may be mysterious, but here in the confusion of dreams, they are relevantly close for Zach. He reaches for one, his arm erupting with Kirlian auras, and he flexes his hand against something almost solid, like the uncertain brush against a girl in a crowd that sets off alarms over the potential motives of her against the bending, rushing torrent of people, and then it is gone again and he reaches out again against nothing. And nothing again and again. The mist collapses a bit and there is a park, bushes and wind-molded cypresses finally materializing out of the retracting moisture, but the creatures are gone, now, and Zach walks forward towards the back of a woman in a red dress, vivid against the black churning ocean in the distant background. He can see the pale of her arms and neck as she turns her head to the side. Beli, Belinda, mature yet in oddly period dress, a delicate frill of hand woven lace around her neck and sleeve. Her eyes are closed as Zach wakes into the barbarous howl of his alarm clock.
7 AM again, and school will not wait. He texts his progress to Shakey as he grabs a Diet Coke and slab of cheese. Mom is gone already. She left a note on AetherFaces. She loves him and will be back from New York in a few days. Eat something, stay safe, and good luck on his English project.
The central theme in Signals and Noise is that of the inverse problem and its consequences: given an ocean of data, how does one uncover the true signals hidden in the noise? Is there even such a thing? There’s an obsessive balance between apophenia and modeling somewhere built into our skulls.
The cover art for Signals and Noise reflects those tendencies. There is a QR Code that encodes a passage from the book, and then there is a distortion of the content of the QR Code. The distortion, in turn, creates a compelling image. Is it a fly creeping to the left or a lion’s head tilted to the right?
A free hard-cover copy of Signals and Noise to anyone who decodes the QR Code. Post a copy of the text to claim your reward.
Through that winter, as I recall, Harry became even more involved with the church. I kept my mouth shut about his choices. Mom, sensing that I might be feeling left out, pushed me to get involved in a mentoring program for gifted students after I opened up with my theories about evolutionary simulation and meaning.
My first meeting with my assigned mentor went pretty well, though he intimidated me by not responding immediately to most of what I described. Dr. Korporlik was Serbo-Croatian by ethnicity and had worked for years as a computer scientist and mathematician at the nearby Department of Energy laboratory, Los Alamos, after coming to the US via German laboratories. He was now at a local think tank—the Rio Grande Group—that specialized in studying complex systems. I knew next to nothing about RGG when my school counselor set up my appointment to meet Korporlik. On a crisp November night, Mom drove me to their office building near the downtown plaza. She planned on doing some grocery shopping and left me with instructions to call her if I finished before the allocated hour was up.
Korporlik introduced himself and said he worked on problems in computer science mostly, but that those problems had parallels in biology, and asked what I thought about school.
“It’s OK,” I said.
“Good grades, I think?” he responded.
“Yeah, I get pretty much all As unless I get too bored and then I sometimes get lazy,” I said.
“Yes, it is a common problem. The schools here could be more challenging, yes?” He said rapidly. His accent was fairly thick with chirpy Germanic overtones.
“I guess so. I don’t mind it being easy, I guess. Less homework means more time for other things,” I responded.
“Alright,” he said, “I will give you some other things to think about.” He handed me a book from his bookshelf and waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Come back next week and we will discuss it.”
The book had a soft cover with some diagrams and seemed cheap. “Ilya Prigogine,” I mouthed and he nodded and turned towards the whiteboard behind him.
I left and walked a block towards the plaza glancing at the introduction. Korporlik had not impressed me. He was too distracted and uninterested in talking about ideas. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had been uninteresting in my comments or whether he was just so inwardly focused that everyone only commanded a few moments of his attention. I would read the book but somehow doubted that discussions with him about it would result in new insights insofar as he stayed a dour Eastern European enigma.
The back of the book and the preface were already grabbing my attention, though. Self-organizing chemical systems that could become more complex over time, seemingly defying the idea that entropy breaks things down in an inevitable process. Why had he given me a book about chemistry when he was a computer scientist? Yet the parallels with my conceptual problems with evolution seemed obvious. If chemical systems could self-organize and become more complex, they were moving towards the kinds of replication that was essential for variation and selection—the key components of evolution.
Mom was clearly irritated when she finally located me after rounds of text messaging. The evening was turning frosty as she pulled through the plaza, the warm glow of candelarias already shining from the rooftops of galleries and restaurants. The other kids had dispersed early because of the chill, leaving me perched alone on a bench seatback, the cold of the formed cement beginning to penetrate my light jacket as I projected misty funnels of breath against the sharp moonlight.
At home, I found Harry reading in the den and was surprised to see it was a copy of a Bible that Dad had gotten from my uncle and left untouched on a bookshelf. He had been an advocate, like Mom, of the idea that no books should be excluded from our consideration, yet seeing Harry pouring over it was a violation of the principle because I wasn’t convinced he had the proper detachment to understand the book in context at this point.
“You’re reading the Bible?” I asked with a tone of amused derision.
“Sure,” he responded, “Sarah thinks I need to read it.”
“Uh-huh, Sarah. So you don’t want to read it?”
“Naw, that’s the wrong impression. You’re too cynical. She mentioned it and I am reading it. Have you read it?” he asked.
“Well, some of the Old Testament and chunks of the New,” I responded, confident that there was nothing new he could spring on me.
“Right, chunks,” he smiled at me, though it was an accurate description of my interaction with the book. I had read Genesis closely, but got lost in all the “who begat whom” language, ultimately skipping through to Exodus.
“Really, I did chunks. I was at the Rio Grande Group HQ down by the plaza tonight. I had a really interesting meeting with my contact, there,” I exaggerated. “We discussed how entropy can actually create complex systems.”
“Entropy? Isn’t that randomness?” He asked.
“Not exactly, but it is the reduction in order that is in the universe as a whole. Things fall apart,” I said, suspecting he would not get the reference. We had been growing apart over the past several years, but things had really accelerated in the last year or so, and I was beginning to feel like I was capable of manipulating him at a certain level.
“So how can a reduction in order create anything?” he asked.
“The key is that entropy only increases for closed systems without energy inputs. The universe as a whole is an example, but for the Earth it doesn’t apply. The sun is constantly supplying energy.”
“I don’t buy it. Watches don’t self-assemble, regardless of the energy. You are trying to justify evolution and it just seems ridiculous to me,” he proclaimed.
“Ridiculous?” I was on my heels. I was impressed with Prigogine as a technical solution to the problem of entropy and the possibility of life. The idea that it was a contentious issue had caught me by surprise, and the idea that it related to his newfound interest in religion was equally unexpected.
“Look, why do you want to fight me all the time?” he suddenly yelled. I was guilty of concern and even cynicism about his recent religious affiliations, but tracing a direct path between reporting the evening’s events and his religious interests was off base.
“What’s your problem?” I yelled back. Realization suddenly struck me and I tried to cool down a bit. Harry was standing. His shoulders were tensed and his face twisted up in rage. “This is just stuff I’m studying, man. Your religion stuff is your business.”
“No way. You’re always talking it down. You’re jealous because of my friends and the fun we are having.”
I tried to be as composed as I could, “No, not really, Harry. I don’t care about fantastical nonsense.” My composure brought with it a desire to challenge him and I knew that the more composed I was the angrier he might become. Did his volatility parallel his emotional commitment to religion itself? There was no reason why he should react with such intensity unless he felt challenged or that his faith was being shaken. I had no faith, however, just ideas that were at work explaining the world. If there were sound reasons to doubt them, I could release them and move on to other options. But that wasn’t the way religion worked. Either you were committed to unreason or you were unreasonably defending it.
His face contorted and his lips rolled back, “Sarah is right. You are being influenced by the Devil,” he yelled at me.
I was caught off-guard by that and my forced composure slipped as my mind raced. “Are you serious?” I asked as the smug expression eased into confusion.
“Yeah, you are the Master of Lies, needling me about evolution and entropy and things like that. You need to read the Bible and drop that pseudo-intellectual crap. Join the human race.”
It made no sense whatsoever. He made no sense, but his rage was evident as he pushed me suddenly and forcefully in the chest. The room jerked and receded as I flew back over the end table, knocking the lamp to the floor beneath me as I slammed into the armoire and dropped to the tile floor. Pain emanated from the back of my head. I heard Mom’s voice.
“What? Harry, what did you do?” she yelled.
“He’s pushing me Mom. He thinks he’s so smart but he’s just trying to trick us all,” he yelled back.
Then I was in Mom’s arms and she looked me over. There was blood running down from the back of my head. It was warm and sticky.
“I didn’t do anything, ” I quietly told her as she asked me if I was hurt anywhere else. Harry was gone. I heard the kitchen door slam and Mom brought an ice pack. She asked me to tell her what happened and I did the best I could.
“You pushed him some, though, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Not enough for his reaction. I called religion ‘fantastical nonsense’, I think, but that’s about it,” I told her.
“You need to find a way to get along, you know? He’s really interested in, well, what he’s interested in, and you have your interests. You just need to coexist in peace, find some harmony between you or at least keep your distance,” she said.
I could feel a headache emerging and beginning to wrap its way around my skull. “I was really just telling him about my stuff with RGG, Mom, and he got really defensive.” I could tell that she didn’t fully believe me from her expression, but she was compelled to help me nonetheless.
Many years later I would recall this conflict as the first of many. The pair bond of twins had entwined everything until recently. What bothered him bothered me. What concerned him equally concerned me. Then it changed and we diverged as if we were not brothers at all, but complete strangers. Or so it seemed in retrospect, though a rational analysis would have traced the separation back over the last several years. Yet it hurt and I wanted to run to Harry and try to reconcile, to fix the divisions between us and make things the way they once were. And, still, I was angry with him over his irrationality—his fantastical nonsense—and that he was unable to control his emotions and look clearly and calmly at the issues we were trying to discuss.
“I feel like he doesn’t think anymore,” I told Mom, “he just reacts.”
“That’s standard teenage stuff, you know?” she smiled at me as she held the icepack against my head. “You do realize that you are the exception in that regard?”
I was nonplussed. “Thinking is the exception?” I asked.
“Somewhat. Most people and certainly most teenagers don’t think very clearly. It’s enough for them to sort out why they feel the way they do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Feeling is very human.”
“Thinking is what we should do about facts and ideas. Feeling is for feelings,” I responded, but suddenly felt a certain longing. Mom was distinguishing emotion and logic in a way that celebrated emotion itself as valuable. It was a concept that worried me. If we felt about economics or business, if we felt about science, or if we felt about something as mundane as public safety, our lives would be diminished. Theories would not be envisioned, policies would not be enacted and crosswalks would not be created. It was not that I didn’t feel things—indeed, I felt I was far too often driven by feelings—but I wanted to govern those feelings enough that I could actively distinguish between situations where feeling was appropriate and where reason should hold the upper hand. Yet, how was it possible to make that distinction? If every thought, feeling and idea becomes subject to reason and consideration, doesn’t that eradicate the spontaneity and impulsive character of emotional response itself?
Mom looked at me with seriousness. “We need both. They have to balance in some way. Look at art or music. They channel emotion through mechanisms of expression that can be rationally characterized in a way, but the final product is still uniquely…” She winced, searching for the right phrase, “…determined by the emotional drive to produce that art.”
I circled back to the logic of natural history. If the formation of the brain was ultimately dictated by the evolutionary circumstances in which it was formed, what determined the creation of novelty like art and poetry? I couldn’t connect Mom’s balancing act of emotion and reason to Harry’s religious interests—at least not the way she had characterized it. If emotion was a wildfire that randomized everything, it hardly seemed connected to the orderly and non-evolved world that Harry envisioned where God determined everything.
A better model might have been that Satan introduced randomness into the mind of the artist or musician to better allow them to transcend existing modes of expression with the ultimate consequence being new artworks. This played into the notion that good and evil had to be intertwined for the world to work, though, something that Christians were opposed to, yet something that fit well with any attempt at explaining the horrible events that befall people all on God’s watch, much less the existence of Shakespearean sonnets or the brilliant excesses of Abstract Expressionism.
Harry wanted to belong and wanted to not have to think about why he was belonging. It was enough to belong and be among accepting friends who were not troubled by these complexities, I thought. But I was already onto something new, I realized. Evolutionary forces made us complex creatures who were superior in a way to other creatures by dint of our tools and language. We could even transmit ideas through generations using books and recorded information. We seek knowledge and thrive on ideas. But that creativity must be hard to evolve. Much harder than something like better night vision that has immediate consequences to survival. Instead, creativity often results in failure and requires some kind of randomization, a breaking down and rethinking of how things work and how the universe is conceived.
“Sometimes, I guess,” I responded, relieving the sharp sting of the ice pack by raising it a bit and repositioning. “But I can’t conceive of how emotion actually drives people to produce art.” I thought of the galleries and the Indian pottery downtown. “The potters do it because it is functional and decorate the pots based on traditional patterns. Painters aren’t really driven to paint or their heads might explode, are they?”
She smiled, gently. “True. It’s a more subtle emotional commitment, I guess, not like love or hate or sorrow or any of the terms we use for emotion. The same is true I think about Harry’s interest in religion. Pious people operate on a kind of internal joy that justifies their choices concerning how to think or not think about some subjects,” she emphasized the “not” with a conspiratorial lowering of her voice.
“They avoid thinking about them,” I said flatly.
“Sure, but they also sometimes see them as threats when they do come up. Avoiding conflict in order to remain happy works for physical threats, why not for threats to your mental model?” She paused. Her eyes traced along the bookshelf over the English tea chest with the silver filigree inlays and settled on a Mudhead Kachina. “That’s why Harry is so passionate about what you say. You can think of it as him caring about your opinion of him, in a way. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be so passionate.”
My head healed the way kid’s heads do, but I avoided Harry for the rest of the week. The nights were getting colder now. The evening air smelled of piñon fires. I returned to RGG for my meeting the next week. Koporlik was warmer, it seemed, perhaps because I had made the effort to return and brought the book with me.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Very interesting. I didn’t fully understand the chemistry and physics in it, though,” I responded.
“No, of course not. What are your takeaways?”
“Systems can self-organize at several different levels as a consequence of entropy, which is essentially the experience of time due to change in physical systems.”
“Very good. I am actually not a chemist, as you know, but my work also involves self-organizing systems. Here at RGG we are studying very simple rules systems that can self-organize in different ways. Let me show you.” He walked to the whiteboard and drew a line of squares near the top. “Imagine that we are playing a game with these squares. The rules are very simple. Call this the initial configuration.” He blackened the most central of the squares. “Now, let’s say that if a square is black, it will remain black in the next step. Also, if it is black, its neighbor will turn black in the next step.” He drew another row of squares and blackened the central three squares. “Now, what does the next step look like?”
It seemed so simple that I was concerned there was a catch and froze for a moment. I didn’t want to make a mistake so I double-checked my own thinking. “Five black in the center?” I finally said.
“Precisely. This is a cellular automaton. Cellular because it operates on squares or cells and automaton because it is an automatic device.”
Did he really study such trivial games, I wondered? He seemed serious and I couldn’t imagine what kind of joke he might be trying to play on me if it was a joke.
“Come around here,” he invited me to his desk dominated by a flat-screen monitor. An application was running that showed complex and detailed patterns flowing from the top of the interface to the bottom. “This is a cellular automaton with just slightly different rules,” he waved his hand in front of the pyramidal shape riven by elaborate chains of smaller triangles. A few mouse strokes later and a new pattern began to form, starting from a single dark pixel at the top of the screen, elongating downwards, line by line, forming into detailed silver embroidery wrapping into itself. “And this one,” he smiled.
“They’re very pretty,” I said, “They’re producing complexity out of very simple rules, like Prigogine’s chemical systems?”
“Right. That’s right. And there is even work dating back to the 50s and 60s that shows that cellular automata—CAs for short—can be designed that are capable of reproduction.” He was grinning now as he watched my reaction.
“Yes, they can assemble a copy of themselves, though such a CA operates in two dimensions rather than just one dimension in terms of the interaction rules.” He switched the view on the application and showed elaborate patterns forming and dissipating, racing along in different directions. “Here, this is called a shuttle,” he said pointing at a small triangle zipping through empty space.
Waiting for my ride that evening I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of what Korporlik had shown me: abstract mathematical machines that could reproduce themselves; self-sustaining gardens of pixels that were filled with modulating, pulsing forms all powered by a rules system of enormous simplicity. The problem of how complexity could emerge and begin to evolve had suddenly become tantalizingly solvable. I tried to imagine what self-reproducing versions looked like. Korporlik had said two hundred thousand cells were involved in some versions. How could such a thing have been conceived? It was inevitable, I realized, that given an infinite or even large-enough collection of random patterns self-reproducing automata would emerge. Then, with variation and selection, anything was possible.
The need for a computer to execute the automata concerned me, though, because it again introduced a higher power of sorts that enforced the rules system and changed the cell states. It was a simulation, I knew, and only a simulation. The rules system certainly had no sense of godlike powers in the way we talk about such ideas, but within the context of the CA engine there was a sense of control being exercised by the computational machine. I supposed that merely the structure of rules themselves as part of the operational environment did not really rise to the level of control in a strong sense. After all, in the wider universe, physical law imposed limits on self-organization but only, as Prigogine had suggested, in that it created an entropic environment where that organization was possible. Physical law was executing the program of physical action that allowed the emergence of life, but was not the controller of it in a way paralleling the notion of God.
I was satisfied with that solution—at least temporarily—and remained excited for weeks. As the discussions with Korporlik unfolded, I felt a greater purpose than I ever had through an increasing understanding of the most complex questions I could imagine. I still found myself mildly jealous of Harry and his happy world of teen interactions, but that jealousy was tempered by a buoyant calm that was resistant to everyday events. Reading and daydreaming became my main focus. I imagined chemical circuits pulsing like the arabesque needlework of the running automata, splitting and reproducing in cyclical elaborations of fractal triangles. I imagined shuttles running like primordial chemical messengers within the confines of the protective membranes of shimmering cells created by tiny chemical loops. Then, eventually, there was self-awareness, though it was too far removed from reproduction and self-organization for me to find a visual connection between them.