Friday, March 24, 2006

Science Fiction Story: The Other Egg.

I was writing a piece on the tenth anniversary of the
replicator, for a technical-fashion mag. Nothing
fancy, maybe three thousand words, but I’d run dry.

I reped myself off a shot glass, with gin and tonic in
it, and watched the liquid boil up from the glass
bottom. The replicator is supposed to make the
container before the thing contained, but sometimes
there’s a tiny overlap, and that makes energy. Some of
the liquid forms “first” and is knocked away by the
forming matrix of the glass. The “knock” generates
molecular movement: heat. Most people just jig the
settings for extra ice, me I like the fizz of freshly
manufactured molecules.

I don’t however like drinking alone. Not even when
writing. So I punched up one of my friends™. Robert,
the mad science hobbyist. He came out of the closet,
hot foot. Odd how language can change on you. The
closet was the man-sized replicator-pad, and the
hot-foot was the same molecule interaction problem
they keep being about to fix. While he was coalescing
his shoe-heels had interacted slightly with the
pad-floor, and his feet with his socks. It’s a
gravitational effect – the replicator-tech is really
supposed to be used in free-fall, and in a vacuum,
according to its source. We just can’t bear not to
make the fullest use of a good thing. Now that’s the
human condition.

Robert didn’t complain at being summoned into
existance in my room just to drink with me, it was
better than being a potential-mass in a computer
memory. Some people can’t take the idea of
throw-away-friends™, but naturally enough they aren’t
the type I keep in my replicator’s memory. When we’d
had a laugh, he’d go back into the darkness, stored.
I’d asked him once, if he minded. ‘Nah,’ he’d said,
‘That’s why I kill you, so often.’

I’d laughed at that, uneasily. He claimed to have
throttled me, fed my body- piece by piece – into the
replicator intake hopper and replicated me from my
room’s backup-files. Naturally I didn’t remember any
of that, and I’m not completely sure he was joking. I
couldn’t find any sign of blood from the
dismemberment, but I knew if I’d called him on that
he’d just claim to have replicated a new rug. It was
sauce for the goose, I guess. I suppose there are
tests that would confirm or disprove his story (my
body clock would be out, by however long it would have
taken), but the Robert (if any) who’d murdered me had
no legal existance (in law a throw-away-friend™ is
treated exactly, if unimaginatively, like a computer
simulation) and frankly, if I was a backup, there was
a case I hadn’t either and I didn’t want to find
myself ruled in breach of my own copyright in myself.
There have been cases where the next-of-kin has had
better lawyers, than a replicated man. I have some
particularly voracious relations. That’s one of the
reasons I like making my own friends.

So we drank and talked about the replicators. They can
make anything. So naturally the first thing you make
is more replicators, and power-packs for them, and
then luxury goods. They’ve brought untold abundance.
The big ones can make buildings – a big replicator’s
the size of the construction shacks they used to make
Saturn 5 rockets, and the buildings come
prefabricated.

Their raw material is mass, any mass. Lead to gold is
nothing to them. They're shit-to-food machines, rust
to steel, they make good from bad. I jotted that down.
Robert says they invalidate entropy, but I’m pretty
sure there’s a net loss somewhere. Information theory
suggests that more power is used making a whole egg
from a scrambled egg than vice versa, because of the
non-reversibility (normally) of the action. But
replicators make it reversable, if you’ve scanned a
back-up file of the egg first.

We’d played games with replicators once. Robert is
always trying to get a perpetual motion machine to
work. He had a theory you could drop a weight
downwards in a gravity field, and use its momentum to
carry it through a wormhole back to the height it fell
from, and still have enough energy left to turn a
dynamo. Okay, I’ve still not disproved that, although
we got a replicator jiggered to make a wormhole.
Don’t be shocked. A replicator can make any material
thing, and a wormhole though a “hole” in space-time is
held open by very specific, strange matter. It was a
small one, the ends a mile apart. (Don’t ask me where
you’d have gone if you went in the end of the wormhole
that was replicated first before the replicator made
the end that came out second, or I’ll start squinting,
I just know it wasn’t an experiment we tried. There
may have been a time travel effect between end A and
end B, for the duration of construction.)

The perpetual motion rig didn’t work. The mass fell,
went back through the wormhole, came out at A (the
upper end of the wormhole) and just stuck there. It
couldn’t fall either because in potential-energy terms
it was “already” down (in which case a ‘gravimetric
map’ of the end must have had a horrible great bulge
in it), or because the gravitons that should have been
pulling it “down” were less strong that those zipping
up the wormhole the wrong way (it being a shorter
distance between the test mass and the Earth). I’m not
sure which. We were drunk. Robert claimed anti-gravity
was as good as perpetual motion, and that he could get
from one to the other. He hadn’t by morning, when we
pushed the wormhole back into the replicator, and
reclaimed the energy.

Having made a wormhole with a replicator (and he’d
been surprised to find that would work) Robert had
wanted to make a quantum black hole. Replicators make
particle physics a desk top hobbist’s science: you
can make rare particles directly – of course that
leaves it open whether they actually exist in nature
prior to replication: but then that’s a problem with
particle accellerators too, do particle collisions
reveal the interior of matter or just mush it up
weirdly squishing odd nonsense particles into
existance. If you had to work out human biology but
could only do it by looking at what came out of
car-crashes would you have a true picture?

I drew the line well before black holes. He was
arguing that if a replicator could turn a quantum
black-hole into something else, once one existed, then
it would be reversing entropy because the black-hole’s
event horizon was precisely it’s quantity of entropy.
I asked if Hawking evaporation reversed entropy. He
claimed it did and that ‘new-universes would be born
from the wombs of shrinking super-heating black
holes.’

I wouldn’t let him try to make a quantum black hole.
He’d have had to have crammed a mass equivalent to the
sun into a replicator to make a black hole nine
centimetres across, but I wasn’t sure how much he’d
have needed to make one the size of, say, a hydrogen
atom. It didn’t seem a safe experiment. I’m still sure
there’s a net loss somewhere.

I asked, sarcastically, why he didn’t just replicate
antimatter. Same cost as matter to make: lots of
power output. He went a bit grey then. It’s a good
job terrorists don’t think like hobbyists. It’s a good
job abundance has killed most terrorism.

He says I’m a pessimist, and asks me to imagine a
“grand replicator” built at the end of time. When
activated it makes the universe back as it was when
young. Just with older people in it, I say. Where
does the energy come from. He asks where it came from
originally. I admit that one's still a poser.

He does have some problems with them though: he says
replicators don’t just make good from bad, but popular
from unpopular, and commonplace from unique, which is
not so unalloyed a pleasure. Robert talks like that,
but I jot it down anyway. I can put it in demotic
later.

It’s true there are still more velvet-Elvis pictures
than Mona Lisas in circulation. I owned three Mona
Lisas myself once. I’d had a plan to make a
Walholesque tryptic by replicating them with different
colours of silk-screen overlays, but the programming
was very fiddly and I’d settled for putting them in a
row. They’d been a bit overpowering and I’d broken
them up for replicator-fodder after a week. I still
have a Venus De Milo, a traditional sort, without
arms.

It’s also true that having access to every book in
creation won’t stop people preferring to read trash,
or not to read at all. There’s even a condition called
Replicator-freeze in which people spend so long
deciding what to replicate that they never get around
to reading, or watching, or eating, or seeing the book
or film, or meal, or friend™ they’ve hankered for. At
least one chef has starved to death at a replicator
terminal. One thing that is true is that they’ve
reworked the economy, top to bottom and pretty much
destroyed all jobs that don’t involve, well, thinking
of new things to replicate. That and the largest scale
building, and some small scale service industries.

There’s nothing to farm. Farmland is in demand merely
for space. Space, in a hyper-abundant post-replicator
world is the new must-have-item. All the people who
campaigned for helpless farm animals to have better
lives are being rewarded now by the animals going,
like the whales, extinct. Replicated Beef is
guaranteed BSE free, every time.

The poorest people now are the ones who haven’t
learned how to use their replicators with minimalist
precision. Ghettoes buried in CDs and hyperTVs, and
tiny flats filled with shoes. There’s a help group
Replicators Anonymous. People go and sit in rooms with
no replicators and try to live with just what they can
carry in about their persons. They “buy” things off
each other. The meetings usually end in a rush for a
public-replicator-point when the coffee runs out. Its
an odd form of denial, because all the things they
carry into the rooms must have come out of replicators
anyway.

Robert’s got a new one. He asks me about the
geneticists’s definition of a chicken. ‘A chicken, he
says is an egg's way of making another egg’. He was
goading me into remembering something and after
another drink it comes back to me. There was a mathist
called Von Neumann, pre-spaceflight, pre-our meeting
with the Uuul, and their gift of the replicators. He
proposed a machine that could build any other machine
including itself. The idea was important in science
theory it helped man make computer programmes, think
about how to build space probes, it raised questions
about replicating technology long before
‘nanotechnology’, long before the Uuul.

The replicator, is a Von Neumann machine. It makes
itself. First and foremost that’s what it does. I
scribbled some more notes.

What Replicators Do:
- They replace all other forms of making;
- They necessarily spread.

I poo-poo’d that. What if the group of physicists
who’d met the Uuul had been politicians, they’d have
kept the replicator in a basement and used it to run
off unlimited cocaine and fuck-and-forget models. Why
wouldn’t people keep them to themselves. In the
country of the unreplicating, the one-replicator
owning man is king.

Robert pointed out that sometimes something wasn’t
repable. It had to be described or copied first, or
he’d just punch up a perpetual motion machine without
needing to invent one, so that meant real makers still
had things to offer replicator owners, but all the
replicator owners had to offer back were replicators.
Replicator owners needed other replicator owners who
were not yet ‘replicator minded’ who could still have
new ideas. I could see where he was leading. So, the
Uuul were replicator-imperialists, turning any
cultures they came into contact with into other
replicator users.

We thought up ways they could have done that, even if
we hadn’t been so quick to snatch at a wish-machine.
They could have replicated expensive things and give
them away, replicated money and destroy the basis of
exchange. We were very drunk and starting to blame the
Wall Street crash on the Uuul by that time. Who knew
how long they had watched humanity before crashing
their ship so conveniently at that multinational
science symposium. A big obvious thump next to a lot
of public spirited people, who’d approve of the
benefits of science and be willing to broker help for
the pathetically grateful alien casterways.
Drink made us paranoid. Maybe.

Robert wondered if the replicators had a remote
off-switch. They’d make a great economic and military
weapon. Give it away. Wait ten years. Turn Them All
Off. End of enemy civilisation.

I was thinking deeper. I think I said it first. It
wasn’t the Uuul. They were just pawns. Just another
chicken. They might not have originated the replicator
any more than we did. The replicator is a Von Neumann
machine. It’s complex enough to make another machine
just like itself. What acts like that in nature?
Chickens and eggs. Its aim is to fill the universe
with copies of itself.

If the chicken doesn’t commit suicide out pops another
egg. If we don’t commit suicide we fill our culture
with replicators. We’ve lost the capacity to go back
to farming. The farmlands are parcelled up into
housing estates. Even the Amazon: there are forty
million ideal homes and forty million replicators
making carbon dioxide into oxygen, and every sort of
tree can be reproduced at will, if we only had the
space for it.

The populations shot up from abundance, and from
copying. Did I mention Bob’s my name too. Robert is
the copy of me, I keep to brainstorm and drink with. I
don’t really approve of throw-away-friends, but he
isn’t a throw-away-me, because I’m still here and he’s
still in there, and we often we cut cards for it. This
time though Robert went back into the closet without a
murmur. He made me promise to dial him back, as at
yesterdays back-up, and stay off the subject of
replicators next time. I think he was scared. I knew I
was.

Before he went we tried some brain storming: Maybe if
we could get ninety percent of humanity to be stored
as replicator patterns ninety percent of the time,
we’d be able to feed and cloth and keep the other ten
percent without replicators, but we’d still be using
replicators a hundred percent of the time to store the
people waiting their shift. If the replicators were a
trap, ninety percent of us would be hostages to it.

If we knew how to make a time machine we’d be able to
go back and kick the Uuul off planet without accepting
their parting gift. A replicator can make wormholes,
and wormholes can be turned into time machines. But
you can’t ride a wormhole time machine back into the
past before the creation of the wormhole, and the
wormhole is made by, and hence must post date, the
replicator.

By then we were really flaky. How do we know things
come out exactly the same. How do we know Robert comes
out really Robert each time. How do I know I do. The
technology that says things are identical is
replicator technology. We don’t understand replicator
technology. By definition we only replicate it.
Replicators are too complex to build without
replication. At least for us.

I wonder in their complexity, do they perhaps, think?
I doubt it. Viruses don’t. So that’s my article. How
the Uuul gave our culture a virus disease. I’m not
sure you’ll ever see this. All magazines are
replicated. Maybe it will come out different.



(c) Simon BJ 2005

2 comments:

Tardieu said...

I've saved this to a Word file to read later, I hope that's ok. I think I've read and enjoyed this one before.

Anonymous said...

This is marvellous - stop depriving the wider world of your genius, Simon, and get this stuff published!! :))

Mxx