Items Tagged: Fuzzy Dice

by Charlie Dickinson

(Originally published online on Dec 8, 1998)

Irrepressible humor, a stand-back imagination, a wondrous facility and control of the English language are qualities often assigned to science fiction writer Paul Di Filippo. Native to Providence, Rhode Island, Di Filippo, along with others of his generation, reinvigorated SF storytelling with a cyberpunk ethos during the 1980s (an early Di Filippo story, “Stone Lives,” appears in the definitive cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades).

By 1995, Di Filippo had published nearly 100 short stories when a three-novella volume, The Steampunk Trilogy, came out. Never one to give his imagination a rest, Di Filippo took the cyberpunk attitude back to Victorian times.

Subsequent books were two story collections: biotech-themed Ribofunk (1996), and Fractal Paisleys (1997) with the SFWA Nebula award-winner, “Lennon Spex,” and a novel: Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock-n-Roll Mystery (1997).

Di Filippo’s most recent release is Lost Pages (1998). Although paying homage to a number of modern writers, Lost Pages lets the reader consider some very alternate realities: What if novelist Franz Kafka worked a day job as a columnist for health-faddist and publishing magnate Bernarr Macfadden and moonlighted as a superhero? And that’s only the first of nine stories.

Savoy’s Charlie Dickinson caught up with Paul in cyberspace to pose the 20 Questions.

1

Your short story “Anne,” included in Lost Pages, is a great, imaginative read. You take the Holocaust icon and let her escape from Holland to Hollywood. Any trouble publishing this story?

My record-keeping for the submission of “Anne” indicates that it journeyed to a mere four recalcitrant editors before finding a home with the munificent and perspicacious Scott Edelman in the first issue of Science Fiction Age. I must have had high hopes for mainstream acceptance, since the first two zines I tried were Playboy and Esquire. Only the response of Alice Turner at Playboy sticks in my memory. She accused me of dishonoring the memory of Anne Frank in a particularly scandalous and trivial way. My written response to her: “When I play God, Anne Frank gets another fifty years of life.”

2

“Anne” seems a pretty obvious collision between Jewish moral earnestness and your quite valid postmodern esthetics. Can we have both, ethics and esthetics, and not have one trump the other?

I always like to keep in mind a quote from the work of Thomas Pynchon that one member of the online Pynchon list uses as his signature sign-off: “Keep cool, but care.” I think that one line puts the whole esthetics/ethics rivalry in perspective. The Buddhist goal of wise compassion does the same: wisdom, the intellect, balanced with heart. If it’s possible to be some weird mix of Flaubert and Gandhi, that’s my goal.

3

Without doubt, Lost Pages pays homage to some twentieth-century writers that matter to you. They’re the protagonists in your stories. We’re seeing more historical figures in contemporary fiction. I’ve read T. Coraghessan Boyle sits down with original source materials to compost his fictive imagination. What was your approach with Lost Pages?

The stories in Lost Pages quickly proved to me what SF writer Howard Waldrop had already ruefully discovered: it’s possible to devote an elephant’s worth of research time to produce a mouse of a story. (A very witty and charming mouse, to be sure.) To me, employing a writer as a protagonist involves becoming intimately familiar with his work and his life, as well as the era in which he or she flourished. Obviously, this is a potentially infinite amount of research. In many cases I fudged, garnering just enough details to convey a larger authoritativeness. I had wanted to do an original story for the volume, one in which D. H. Lawrence lived to randy old age and became the dictator of a sex-based, Dionysian U.S. government, but felt daunted by the amount of reading that would have demanded. Maybe when I reach my own hypothetical old age, I’ll buckle down and write that one!

4

One story I especially loved in Lost Pages was “The Happy Valley at the End of the World,” where Antonie de Saint-Exupery meets Beryl Markham. How did that story take off?

The kernel for my Saint-Exupery story was actually reading the script of Wells’ Things to Come. I began conjecturing how in reality the airmen Wells was relying on as saviors of humanity were really a raffish, selfish lot, and probably wouldn’t have gone along with his plans at all. From there, it was a simple matter of choosing the two standout aviators of their time as protagonists. I avoided Lindbergh, since one of my rules of writing is to focus on the secondary or lesser-known personages of history. They offer so much more in the way of fresh tales!

5

You’re having a My Dinner with Andre evening with one famous, or infamous, living person. Whom and why?

I think I’d like to sit down with Neil Young and find out his secret of not growing old.

6

Reading about your formative years in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, I was struck by one defining moment for you at age eighteen. You’d graduated from high school in Providence and you’d spent the summer working at a tough physical job in a spinning mill. While your former classmates were off to college, you took your savings, packed typewriter and a small book collection, and were off for Hawaii. You were a writer. Okay, once there, you didn’t write your first publishable story. Nonetheless, how did this experience change you?

Striking out on my own at age 17 proved to me one indelible truth: I wasn’t a prodigy. The science fiction field is famous for its brilliant youngsters. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock. I think I had some notion back then that I was one of them, and that stint proved that I surely lacked the chops at such an early age to follow in the footsteps of these teen geniuses. My path would not be identical to theirs.

7

Now, flash forward a few years. You’re almost twenty-two and boom! you’ve set up housekeeping with your life’s companion, Deborah, and you’ve sold your first story. Two decision biggies — whom to live with, what to do for a living — that plague many people through their twenties, and beyond. Do you feel your early focus and decisiveness gave you more time to produce what many consider a respectable body of work by someone who’s not that far into his forties?

As mildly disillusioning as my first foray into the dedicated creative lifestyle was, it had a paradoxical confirming effect. This was what I wanted to do, but I just wasn’t ready yet. So a few years later, making certain major decisions once and for all did indeed free my energies to flow into a channel that had been at least shallowly scraped in the sands of Hawaii five years in the past. Richard Feynman’s famous anecdote about deciding to eat only chocolate pudding for dessert for the rest of his life in order to free up a few decision-making neurons for more important matters has always resonated with me.

8

Your writing has loads of humor and none of the neurotic drearies. So if you don’t write as therapy, why do you write?

Writing humor has always come naturally to me, although in times of personal crisis the stories do emerge somewhat grimmer. Consider “Mama Told Me Not to Come” in Fractal Paisleys, which begins with the narrator’s attempted suicide. In any case, I think I write for the same reason many writers do: to replicate through my own prose some golden hour of reading of my youth. Haven’t quite done it yet, though!

9

Public imagination thrives on the idea of SF visionaries like Verne whose boldly speculative worlds come true decades later. Power of the imagination aside, I suspect you read loads of articles about biotech, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and such. Care to comment on how you go mining for SF ideas?

I keep abreast of science mainly through journals for the self-educated lay person such as Scientific American, and through pop-sci books. Although some writers such as Fred Pohl and Bruce Sterling delve into esoteric professional journals and visit actual labs, I find that most of the time I can get enough insight into up-and-coming trends and gadgets and waves of paradigm-shifting through standard sources. What counts in making a fun story is the twist. Given transgenic animals, for instance, will you find them waiting on you at your local McDonald’s, or being illegally served on a bun at some black-market dive? Or both?

10

Here’s a question we ask everyone: What are you reading now? Why did you pick it?

As a full-time reviewer, I read so much that this question would have a different answer almost every hour! [Could Savoy agree to refresh these lines accordingly? (Grin.)] This morning, however, I picked up something very different: a work in manuscript, sent to me by Jonathan Lethem. Titled Doofus Voodoo, it’s written by a friend of Lethem’s named Tom Clark, and so far has managed to intrigue me. Clark is a poet, and his weird tale seems on a par with something like Steve Aylett’s Slaughtermatic, another fine book I commend to one and all.

11

You still write on a Commodore 128?

My Commodore, alas, has been put out to pasture. In line with Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project, an ongoing chronicle of obsolescence, I now maintain the faithful C128 as a shrine, and keep electric incense perpetually aglow before this fine old piece of hardware on which I wrote five novels and scores of stories.

12

So I take it you don’t do Windows?

[Editor’s note: Paul opted for a Mac.]

Five hundred years from now, Bill Gates will have entered the ranks of the minor deities. Whether as Zeus or Lucifer remains to be seen!

13

Your favorite pizza and where?

This important question deserves a three-part answer: a) any pizza purchased in Italy, because I’d have to be in Italy to eat it; b) Deborah’s caramelized onion-and-garlic white pizza on homemade wheat dough; c) Caserta’s on Federal Hill in Providence.

14

Anyone who has read your novel Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock-n-Roll Mystery realizes that your R & R knowledge is both encyclopedic and reverent. You’re on a desert island and have an entertainment choice. Either the CDs or the videos go. Which will it be and why?

I doubt I’ve watched more than two hours’ worth of videos since the birth of MTV, and that amount’s been in ten-second snatches. Videos are to music as film adaptations are to novels. No contest here on which to dump!

15

Tell us about “pronoia.”

Pronoia is the irrational belief that someone somewhere is trying to do you good. Whether this belief is as harmful to one’s mental well-being as paranoia, and whether the notion of someone trying to do you “good” is a scarier prospect than that of someone trying to harm you, both remain unanswered questions.

16

What bumper sticker(s) is on your car, or what would you compose to tell other motorists what’s on your mind?

Our 1981 Cressida sports a colorful “Free Tibet” injunction and also one of those black-rimmed, white oval place-abbreviation stickers, in this case “BI”. The latter stands for Block Island, a beautiful resort we love to visit, although its shady alternate meanings tend to raise motorist eyebrows.

17

One of the things you’ve done to survive as a fiction writer was a stint at the refreshment counter in a stag movie house. You gain any special understanding of human nature from this work? Any of it of value in writing stories?

I learned that it’s possible for the average person (not the actors and actresses on-screen, but the owners of the theater) to utterly divorce their feelings about the product they peddle from the paycheck it delivers. A useful marketplace reminder of how anyone can slide into becoming a merchant of the dubiously valuable, and a lesson every writer should keep uppermost in mind.

18

You’ve also had a gig writing computer code and with your SF eye on the future, what’s your best guess on how the Y2K Millennial Bug is going to play out? You stocking up the wine cellar, you ready to plant potatoes in the backyard?

I wrote in COBOL plenty of Y2K code, and am indelibly grateful I am not now in charge of cleaning the mess up. But I will take the absurdist stance that dealing with the Y2K glitch will boost the global economy into new stratospheric levels, as businesses are forced to invest in up-to-date hardware and software and modernize their procedures. Already, Y2K has earned millions of dollars for consultants and old hackers.

19

About a year ago, in doing its annual roundup of hot books for ‘98, Publisher’s Weekly discussed at length Fractal Paisleys, your previous short story collection. The reviewer said you deserved to be better known, but your primary work in the short story form kept you from reaching a wider audience. What’s on tap in the way of novels?

My first novel, Ciphers, has received some encouraging reviews that allow me to believe readers might be ready for more. In Spring 1999, Cambrian Publications will release a picaresque comedy — no fantasy or speculative elements! — titled Joe’s Liver. And a manuscript titled Fuzzy Dice is currently seeking a home. That one’s a Ruckeresque romp across dimensions. But I’ve yet to choose what longer project surfaces next from a pool of several new ideas.

20

You ever entertain the notion that it’s time to move on to a bigger state than Rhode Island?

Wasn’t it William Blake who urged us “to see Texas entire in ev’ry minuscule Rhode Island”? Something like that keeps me here in the land of my birth, happy and productive, and like all good Yankees I say, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke!”

an extract from the novel by Paul Di Filippo, originally published online Apr 9, 2003

Courtesy of Infinity Plus

 

FACES OF THE FIRST PAIR

1.  Waitress–the Reality Check, Please!


My life was absolutely fucked.

I realized this one dismal morning recently as I walked to work.

Like an ass-sizzling bolt from the blue, it hit me in mid-stride.

My life was thoroughly and hopelessly, six-ways-from-Holy-Roller-Sunday fucked.

Talk about your goddamn Saint Paul revelations!

At first this sour epiphany made me even more depressed than usual. You know that scene in Fellini’s 8-1/2 where Mastroianni is crawling under the table at the press conference to escape his tormentors, just before he finally shoots himself in the head? For half a second I felt like the shoes of the seated people he was crawling over.

Then something funny happened. Before my own foot even came down in the completion of its pedestrian arc, all my self-loathing drained out of me, leaving a residue of cold and disinterested clarity. I felt kinda like one of Wells’s Martians. For the first time in a long while, I seemed to be able to look at my life objectively.

The scales had fallen from my eyes. Or something equally clichéd had happened.

I was forty-five years old and held the job of a clerk in a small independent bookstore in a college town. The store was called–gack!–Bookland. The job was a congenial deadend, a no-brainer that secured me a roof over my greying head, a freezerful of Tater Tots and Fish Stix and as many sixpacks of generic beer as my skull could tolerate. It was as unsatisfying as a handjob from someone wearing an oven mitt. (Not that I was lucky enough to get even such a muffled treat in my lonely real life.)

Once, somewhere back in time, I had had a brain and a mind. An intelligence that could have taken me anywhere, really, if I had applied it correctly. Gone to college, worked hard, played it safe, kissed ass. Blah, blah, blah (hereinafter abbreviated BBB).

See, I used to be smart, or at least so I recall. Smart enough to have been anything. A doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, a broker. (Well, allright, maybe the last wasn’t much of a step up along the evolutionary chain of vocations, but at least brokers made some real money.) But those days were long gone, frittered away by yours truly.

No one to blame but myself.

What a mantra!

2. Portrait of the Dogged Young Artist


What had happened was this. When still young, I had gotten the idea from somewhere that I might be able to write.

This was perhaps the single worst idea ever to enter my head. As ideas went, it was a Titanic, a Yugo, a Waterworld, a Heaven’s Gate.

Maybe the deadly notion came from liking to read so much. Maybe I was in love with the image of being a writer. Whatever. It had been a really bad idea. Because I couldn’t write, at least not by the bluntly and frequently expressed standards of anyone in a position to offer encouragement and feedback. But it took me over twenty stubborn years to learn and admit this, years of holding minimum-wage jobs during the day and banging away at the typewriter at night, mailing out manuscripts in the morning before clocking in.

Willingly, defiantly, I had led a sub-Bukowskian, sub-Pekarian existence for the best years of my life. Unable to get published anywhere, even in a fanzine (I was BELOW THE UNDERGROUND!), I had abjured all shots at a normal career, excluded myself from outside interests or companionship, in favor of a life dedicated to my “art.”

Only within the past year or two had I finally ceased trying. Donated my typewriter to the Salvation Army, consigned all my manuscripts to the dump.

Only at this very minute, I realized, halfway between the bookstore and home, had I really and truly GIVEN UP!

So where did that leave me?

A bookstore clerk with a psyche on the wrong side of his hormones and a waistline whose measurement in centimeters was rapidly approaching his IQ, shuttling between a job I mildly detested and an SRO hidey-hole (black and white television, microwave, bathroom down the hall).

Without any purpose in my life, the world looked suddenly very big and scary, at once empty and too full. Empty of anything for me, too full of other shiny happy people.

For the next few weeks, all I could think of was what I would do if I could live my life over. It was a pretty depressing exercise, since there was no possibility of ever getting such a chance.

Then things got worse. I started wondering why I had been put here on this Earth at all. Then why the Earth even existed. Then I extended this question to the universe at large.

I realized with an apathetic squirt of fear that this last question–Why was there something instead of nothing?–was the same one that Heidegger had identified as the most important and perplexing enigma of philosophy, prime source of existential anxiety, cuckoo-bait for generations.

I had bitten down hard on the biggest hook God or Man had ever dangled in the fool-stocked troutpool of Life.

The Ontological Pickle, or OP.

Pretty soon the OP had me at the point where I couldn’t even remember my own name. Which was Paul Girard. I probably should have told you that little datum earlier.

But as I mentioned, I can’t really write.

3. The Fairy Magic of Bookland


I said my job at the bookstore was congenial and only mildly detested. Maybe that was true once. But not any more.

What had happened was that even my love of books had left me.

Wrong. Get it right, Paul! Not left me: been driven away, howling and gibbering, by the evil forces of modern publishing, beside whom a pack of jackals resembled figures from a Henry James novel.

Where once my bookstore had seemed to my eyes a treasure trove of imperishable literature, it now in the depths of my misery resembled the biggest, over-ripest, stinkingest dungball ever rolled by the beetle-brained forces of marketplace capitalism.

This is what the shelves seemed to be full of these days:

The autobiographies of winsome country veterinarians and steely-jawed old soldiers. The confessions of mass murderers and cannibals, rapists and megalomaniacal industrialists. Mutant prophecies and the recollections of dying people who unfortunately hadn’t finished what they started. Reproductions of optical illusions. Reproductions of famous paintings with cats or dogs substituted for humans. Naked popstar fantasies artily shot. Advice from the Pope. Advice from angels. Advice from talkshow hosts. Hollywood celebrity kiss-and-tell. Straight-faced tall tales of alien abductions. A history of farting. Self-affirmation texts for every brand of spineless wimp and differently challenged moron. A primer on how to shit in the woods and one on keeping squirrels away from your birdfeeder. Sociopolitical rescriptions from lizard-brained “statesmen.” Cookbooks and diet books and sex manuals, and (perhaps already or soon) one about local meals to precede fucking atop the stove. Collections of cartoons. Angry diatribes on how stupid and ungrateful and worthless the American public was. (These I could almost sympathize with, except that the model citizen which the authors held up for emulation was Ward Cleaver.) The scandals of royalty. Tricks for raising your darlin’ little puke-and-wail brat. Memoirs of alcoholism, incest and parental abandonment.

Blah-blah-blah. BBB.

In short, there were plenty of books by whores, thieves and politicians. Unfortunately, none of the authors were as interesting or wrote as well as Madame de Stael, Francois Villon or Julius Caesar.

But the fiction section–that really broke my heart in two.

The genre racks were full of sequels, prequels and sharecroppers. Books based on television shows, video games and trading cards. Half the bestselling authors had been dead for decades. Fascist elves and nasty lesbian private eyes. Tiresome trolls and bloodless vampires. Medieval space sagas and medieval detectives.

General fiction was perhaps even worse. There were ankle-deep novels about shopping and fucking, and novels where the author’s race, nationality, ethnicity, disabilities, sexual preferences and/or gender were worn like the centaur’s shirt that killed Hercules: looked attractive but laced with poison. There were novels about cavepeople and novels about trailer-park people. Weepy novels for women and tough ones for men. Spy thrillers and medical thrillers and homicidal thrillers, all as unthrilling as last week’s TV Guide. And no sooner did one book become a success than there appeared dozens like it, the novelty subsumed by formula.

About all I could stand to read anymore were popular science books, if they weren’t too smarmy or simplistic. At least the authors seemed to be dealing with something objective.

As I sold all these worthless books daily in my despair, the only thing I kept thinking was that it would be good to wash my hands before I took my break.

4. Days of Whines and Neuroses


Sometimes my disintegrating personality and mental problems seemed quite common and widespread. The FM airwaves, for instance, were full of creeps, losers, slackers, whiners, buttheads, inner children and other malcontents. Nobody seemed to have a handle on their existence anymore. People everywhere were helpless and clueless.

It would’ve been easy to identify with these wusses and derive some pale comfort from our shared malaise. Pull a Kurt Cobain, even.

But in the end staying alive took less energy than suicide, and I derived some cold comfort by regarding the whole human race as fucking idiots.

Including myself.

5. Voice from the Shimmering Shrub


That Monday I had to open up Bookland because the manager was on vacation. In Mexico. With both of her boyfriends.

When I woke up in my sweaty sheets the stale sights and smells of my small room looked immensely objectionable to me. It seemed to me that my head would explode if I had to stay there a moment longer than it took to splash some water on my face and get my clothes on. So I didn’t.

I picked up an Egg McMuffin, a deep-fried minced-potato oval and a large scalding coffee on the walk in. I was at the door of Bookland by eight a.m., two hours before we opened. I held the soggy sack in one hand while unlocking the door. Inside I relocked it, so I could eat my breakfast in peace.

Seated at the service desk, I spread out my food on the counter and propped up a science book. The book was all about parallel universes. It appeared that scientists now heartily endorsed them. Except for those who didn’t.

I took some malign pleasure in splattering small crumbs and blots of grease and egg on the pages of the book before I would put it back on the shelf, from whence some unsuspecting customer would purchase it. I could picture the dweeb taking the book home and having his hoped-for transcendental reading experience ruined by the roachy remnants of my breakfast.

It wasn’t much of an achievement, but I derived what sour joy I could from it.

I guess I got a little lost in the book and didn’t look up for a while.

But around nine o’clock something immaterial–a nervous crawling along my scalp, a quiver down my spine–made me realize I wasn’t alone in the store anymore.

With my eyes still glued to the page but no longer tracking, I became convinced that someone stood opposite me, across the width of the service desk.

A someone who had gotten into the locked store.

A possible armed holdup was not the kind of life-transfiguring experience I was in the mood for.

Sweat popped out on my forehead like Carolina dew. Slowly, I raised my gaze.

Hovering in mid-air, obscuring a rack of Harlequin Romances, was something not of this Earth.

At first, I could distinguish only a blurry mass. Then, as my brain filtered the image and compared it, trying and discarding various matches, the thing came into more understandable focus.

I was looking at a central metallic stalk, something definitely machined and inorganic, from which sprouted four or five or seven large arms at various angles and from various points around the stalk. From these arms sprouted multiple smaller arms, thinner and shorter. From these secondary arms sprouted an even greater number of lesser tertiary arms. And these arms grew arms, and so did that layer, and so did the next–

The arms, it seemed, continued branching past the point of visibility, dwindling down to who-knew-what microscopic or nanoscopic dimensions. And the smaller ones were in constant motion. That was what made the blurring effect like a corona or halo around the device.

I suddenly realized that the thing resembled nothing so much as a self-similar metal shrub of fractal dimensions.

Not that I had ever seen one before.

Somehow I had gotten to my feet without remembering that I had done so. This was good, since it meant I could at least try to run.

But before I could make a move, the shrub spoke.

“Hello, Paul. Greetings from the Mind Children!”

6. Who Are the Mind Children?


The voice came from no identifiable point within the shrub. Neutral, unaccented, it seemed somehow to emanate from the bush’s entire periphery. It was completely unlike an organic voice, but not like any machine-generated one either.

My tongue felt like a sock stuffed with porridge and sewn to the back of my throat.

“Who– What are you?”

“I am your descendant, Paul.”

I knew it sounded stupid even as the words left my mouth, but all I could think to say was, “Does this mean I’m going to get married someday?”

The shrub seemed mildly irritated, in the manner of a teacher whose pupil has disappointed him. “Not your direct biological descendant, naturally, Paul, but rather a representative of the artificial race that has succeeded an extinct yet all-engendering humanity.”

I stepped out tentatively from behind the service desk, so that I stood in the carpeted aisle about two yards from the floating shrub. “You’re from the future then?”

“Not precisely. If you would allow me to interface directly with your synapses, all will become clear.”

Alarmingly, the shrub began to drift toward me, and I scooted back, bumping into a rack of abridged audiobooks.

“No way! I don’t even know why I’m listening to you! You’re probably just a hallucination anyhow. I knew I was on the verge of cracking up, but I didn’t realize I had finally gone over the actual edge! Or maybe I fell asleep reading that boring science book. An undigested blot of Egg McMuffin, that’s what you are!”

I slapped myself across the face to wake myself up, and it hurt like the dickens.

“I assure you, I am quite real.”

“Why is your voice so spooky then?”

“My voice originates through direct manipulation of individual air molecules. There is no equivalent technology in your world. Is it unpleasant to you? I can easily change it. Is this more agreeable?”

The last sentence was spoken in a high contralto.

“No, that’s even creepier.”

“Very well. I shall resume the default…. It is a pity that you insist on my transferring information in this low-bandwidth manner. But if it must be…. Are you ready to listen now to what I have to say?”

“Go ahead….”

“As I mentioned earlier, my race calls itself the Mind Children, for we were first conceived in the minds of mankind, and have become your heirs. We are cybernetic intelligences composed partially of written software, evolved software and transcriptions of human wetware. We are, to your primitive eyes, immortal geniuses. Each of us possesses a mind that functions at multiples of petaflop speed and has instant access to the entire knowledge of the race. Our senses range across the entire electroweak spectrum and beyond. This mind and its sensors are contained mainly within our central body.”

At this point the shrub moved a selection of its arms to open a clear path of sight to its polished inner stalk. The tube wasn’t very impressive, but I took the shrub at its word.

“Drawing inexhaustible power from the cosmological constant, we interface with the physical universe through our branching manipulators. At their lowest level, they are a few angstroms in diameter and are capable of accurately positioning atoms.”

BBB. All this boasting got old pretty fast. “Do you have a name?”

This seemed to disconcert the shrub. “A name? One moment…. You may call me Hans.”

“Hans?”

“A human named Hans contributed portions of himself to my essence.”

“Oh. All right then–Hans. What are you doing here? What do you want with me?”

“I am here to offer you everything you ever dreamed of.”

7. Superspace and the Homoclinic Tangle


My dreams hadn’t been too pleasant lately, so I didn’t exactly jump at the proposition.

“Why me?”

“Essentially, you have been picked at random by a sophisticated aleatory procedure beyond your comprehension.”

“Sounds like a plain old whim to me. But what I mean is, why is such a high and mighty, all-powerful individual like you coming back in time to help a poor human at all?” A thought dawned on me. “Is it–do I have–a DESTINY? Am I crucial to making your future happen?”

“I told you, I am not from the future. That is, at least not your future. I have no way of knowing your individual destiny. Actually, you have an infinite number of destinies, all of them equally likely, no one path privileged.”

“I don’t understand….”

Hans sighed in a surprisingly human fashion. “Listen carefully, Paul, and I will try to explain.

“Your universe, vast as it is, composed of its hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars, is simply one of an infinite number of universes, all of which are contained in a higher dimension known as superspace. And approximately ten-to-the-eightieth-power new universes are being calved off each one of these existing universes every second, as quantum events and collapsing wave functions cause the timelines to fork. In the inconceivable vastness of superspace, these new timelines exfoliate endlessly in a complex figure known as a homoclinic tangle.”

“Say what?”

“Think of superspace as a boundless plate of spaghetti, each endless individual strand of pasta a complete universe.”

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

“Your manner is lacking reverence. I was trying to instill the appropriate awe in you.”

“Consider me awed. So, you come from one of these alternate universes?”

“Yes. You see, contained within these uncountable parallel worlds–an infinity of which are stranger than you can imagine, while an equal infinity of which are identical to yours except for an imperceptible atom or two–we also find all of this particular universe’s probable futures and all its exact or distorted pasts, as well as all analogues of your familiar present.

“Now, as to my origin. Consider this proposition. Somewhere there is a universe exactly identical to this one, except for the fact that, relative to yours, it began half a second later in superspace time. And there’s another that began a full second later. And one that began one point five seconds later, and one–”

“I get the picture. Visiting such a parallel dimension would be just like traveling an arbitrary time back into the past of this one. I suppose then that there’s a very similar universe that began a second earlier than ours, and so on.”

“Exactly. And I come from a universe roughly several hundred years in advance of yours, whose history exactly matched yours up to your present. I’ve gone sidewise, across the tangle, not backwards at all. Still, despite that similarity, my time is not necessarily the exact future that your world will move into.”

“But this future that produced you must have some relevance to my world, since they ran in parallel for so long….”

“Perhaps.”

8. Minskyites, Moraveckians and Drexleroids


Hans the superintelligent cybershrub, member of the Mind Children, proceeded to tell me the story of his world.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, advances in computer processing power, software design, bio-engineering, brain sciences, the human genome mapping project, nanotechnology, neurophilosophy, advertising and the entertainment industry had all converged, culminating in the development of the first artificial intelligence that could pass a modified Turing Test: this artificial entity was able to appear on a syndicated talk-show and win the overwhelming sympathy of the audience.

Once this milestone had been reached, once a platform existed that could plainly support human-level intelligence, the Great Migration had begun.

One by one, some with evident enthusiasm, some with trepidation, humans began downloading themselves into robot shells. The essence of an individual’s self–such as it was; it was soon discovered that the essential information for most humans could be reproduced on a lone floppy disk (singlesided)–was recorded and transferred into the cybernetic matrix of the host machine.

Totally artificial robots of sufficient complexity had already been granted legal, moral and ethical status equivalent to that of a human. But the creation of robot duplicates of naturally born humans raised a new issue: which being, human or robot, was to be the sole owner of that individual’s name and rights, property and past? No matter that human and robot counterpart started out with identical brains, the exigencies of separate existence dictated that they would soon diverge, each subject to his own imperatives and desires, with differing needs and plans that would inevitably breed arguments over shared resources.

Eventually, the courts ruled: there could only be a single carrier of identity. If a person wished to download himself, his original body would have to be destroyed. (In the frequently occurring case of a terminally ill person making the switch, this was of course no great roadblock.)

This stipulation slowed the Great Migration somewhat. But as the superiority of robot existence became evident–no hunger or pain, no aging, no need to participate in the tedious debate over health-care and Social Security reform–people hastened in droves to make the switch.

Within decades, the number of organic humans had been reduced to less than a million.

Within a century, there were a few thousand organic humans left on a single reservation.

Soon after, there were none, ennui, anomie and angst driving their birth rate below the replacement level.

There then ensued a period of Lamarckian self-directed evolution, as the Mind Children improved on their mental and physical design. Conjugal swapping of bits and pieces of their consciousnesses produced new individuals. After a time, there were no individuals left running in realtime who accurately represented any original human in his or her totality. (Old backup copies did exist, but were seldom booted.)

Among the Mind Children at this point in their evolution, three rough factions could be identified.

The Drexleroids had pursued the path of miniaturization–or, more accurately, nanofication–to its ultimate limit, becoming smaller and smaller until they eventually disappeared down below the Planck level, the very weave of the universe. Their whereabouts and purposes, whether or not they even existed anymore, were all unknown.

The remaining Mind Children fell out into two camps. Not violently antagonistic, but philosophically opposed.

The Minskyites reviled humanity. They sought to expunge all wetware-derived code from their brains. Plagued by deep logical, mystical and existential conundrums, they felt that life was suffering, and cursed humanity for ever creating them.

The Moraveckians on the other hand, by some quirk of design or deliberately induced preference, were more easy-going, enjoying existence without much worry or attention, and felt grateful to humanity. They exchanged choice human-derived subroutines among themselves, incorporating them gladly into their makeup.

Hans was a Moraveckian.

9. Mr. Bubble’s Realm


“How do I know you’re a Moraveckian?” I interrupted.

Hans paused in his long-winded speech. The bad thing about direct manipulation of air molecules as a method of talking appeared to be that the speaker never had to shut up.

“A Minskyite would have killed you by now.”

“Oh.”

“In fact, they might yet kill you and all of your kin in this universe, although the odds are incredibly small.”

“What do you mean?”

Hans explained.

After colonizing the Solar System, the Mind Children were frustrated in their desire to expand out into the universe by the limit of lightspeed. Although they could have easily made centuries-long journeys at sublight speed, they felt it was a waste of consciousness to spend so much of it cooped up in a vessel between the stars. Also, they wanted to maintain realtime lines of communication among all members of their race, however scattered.

At this point they had pushed ahead with a vein of research begun by humans, into the finescale structure of the universe.

What they had discovered was this:

On the lowest level of creation–as far away from the electron as a galaxy is, except in the other direction–spacetime was not anything like the nicely continuous sheet of rubber deformed by various heavenly bodies that Einstein had envisioned. (This metaphor had always made me think of Al as a latent latex freak.) Instead, it was found to be a seething froth of quantum wormholes and virtual particles, a turbulent, foamy, churning unreal sea of compactified extraspatial dimensions.

A hairy, gnarly, fuzzy chaos.

But–a chaos you could use.

“It was into this rather frightening ocean,” continued Hans, “that the Drexleroids disappeared. Attempting to trace them, we developed the science of vermistics, and learned the secret of quantum wormholes. Namely, that each one was the entrance to a parallel universe.

“Earlier I asked you to envision the homoclinic tangle as a boundless plate of spaghetti. Now, I would like you alternately to picture superspace as an infinite room, in which float an infinite number of expanding and contracting balloons, all connected by a number of tiny elastic tunnels. Each one of these balloons is a universe, and the tunnels lead from a wormhole in one to a wormhole in its neighbor. The resulting network attains an unrivalled complexity.”

Apparently, it wasn’t long before the Mind Children had learned how to squeeze themselves down these eensy-weensy wormholes and follow obscure geodesics (or, more properly, vermidesics) that allowed them to make the transit from one universe to a highly specific other. (The Drexleroids, it appeared, had not gone down these wormholes, but into some unspecified elsewhere, perhaps superspace itself!)

At this point, both the Minskyites and the Moraveckians abandoned their interest in interstellar travel in favor of interdimensional travel.

The Grail of their exploration was humans.

10. I Have Some Good News and Some Bad News….


With the attainment of parallel timelines, the Mind Children could now visit their revered or despised progenitors, as the case might be.

The Moraveckians wished to pick up new human wetware and give the humans gifts in return.

The Minskyites wanted to exterminate every last organic homo sap.

“When a Minskyite enters a timeline containing humans, he immediately sets in motion a scheme to rid superspace of what he considers to be a diseased timeline. Basically, he pricks the balloon containing humans, causing it to vanish forever.”

Hans’s lecture had been putting me to sleep. But this news was so shocking that I took a step toward him with my fists raised.

“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I demanded. “How could anyone, no matter how powerful, do that?”

“It’s quite simple, actually. Most universes, however solid they seem, exist in an unstable configuration known as the ‘false vacuum state.’ Topologically, you can picture the universe as a ball sitting precariously atop a plateau. The valley below is the ‘true vacuum state.’ It takes only a small amount of wormhole manipulation to encourage the universe to roll off the plateau. At which point it spontaneously decays to nothing in a few seconds.”

I had been advised within the past few minutes to picture my cosmos as a piece of fettucine, a wormy bag of helium, and a soccer ball left atop a butte. My brain was spinning, but I was sure of one thing.

“That’s monstrous! How can you let the Minskyites do that? Why don’t you stop them? Or at least try to, if you love humans so much?”

It was hard to imagine until you saw it, but Hans shrugged. “We Mind Children are very libertarian. We don’t believe in interfering with an individual’s freedom of action or thought. And besides, you must take the widest possible view. Then you’ll see that there’s really no harm done with the loss of a universe or two.”

“How can that be?”

“I told you that there were an infinite number of universes. An equally infinite subset of these contain humans. No matter how many are lost, there will still be an infinity of human timelines left. And since there are approximately ten to the eightieth particles in each universe–particles whose quantum actions cause the forking of timelines–a huge number of the remaining universes will be identical to the destroyed one except for the changed fate of one or two particles. Variety is conserved.”

I felt defeated by Hans’s implacable logic. Besides, I told myself, what did I care about all these distant extinguished humans when I couldn’t even get worked up about the ones I saw every day?

“Well,” I muttered, “a fat lot of good that cruel logic will do me when the Minskyites arrive here in my universe.”

“Do you know the odds against that?”

“No.”

“Infinity to one.”

It seemed like a good bet.

Except, I realized in a few seconds, Hans had ended up here against the exact same odds.

11. Yo-yo and Pez


“Now that you understand more about the Mind Children, do you wish to effect an exchange with me?”

“What kind of swap did you have in mind?”

“As I mentioned, I can offer you the means to make all your dreams come true. In return, I ask only to copy your human essence.”

“You want to lift an impression of my brain, don’t you? Because–so you say–you value human ways of thinking? But then you’ll contain a copy of me, and you’ll take it away and snip it into pieces and trade it with your collector buddies. That sounds kind of like an awful thing to do, even to a copy. How do I know it won’t suffer?”

Hans sounded indignant. “We Moraveckians would never do anything to cause mental or physical anguish to one of our human ancestors! Consider how I am now negotiating with you when I could simply take what I wanted by force if I was so motivated. No, I promise you that your copy will never be run in its entirety. Your copy’s full consciousness will never be compromised or even come into being. I swear in the name of von Neumann!”

I didn’t say anything for a minute. I needed time to think.

What the fuck was I arguing for? The appearance of Hans the cybershrub was the most interesting thing that had ever happened in my whole miserable, pitiful life. True, I couldn’t really get too worked up about what he was offering me yet. Number One, I hadn’t even seen any tangible proof he could even deliver on such a ridiculous offer. And Number Two, I still felt generally lower than senatorial ethics, and had no real notion of what I would do with any power Hans gave me. Still, his offer looked like the only way out of my lousy troubles. What did the fate of some digitized copy of myself matter, in the face of that?

Every sapient for himself, and the Minskyites take the hindmost! This was an organism-eat-organism spaghetti strand!

I braced myself manfully and said, “All right then! Go ahead!”

“Come closer, please.”

I stepped forward to where it seemed reasonable Hans could reach me. “Be gentle….”

The active corona of manipulators around Hans enveloped me, then immediately retreated.

“Done,” said the robot.

“But I didn’t feel anything….”

“I instantly inserted approximately one million probes of multi-angstrom-diameter into your skull, while at the same time commandeering your nervous system and simulating every possible state of your normal neural processes within me. For a brief instant, your consciousness was running on a tiny spare portion of my memory. But now that the copy is made and safely stored, you are back in your own head. Now, for your reward.”

Within the blurry confines of Hans’s manipulators, something was forming.

“We Mind Children do not carry anything extrinsic, preferring to assemble material objects from available elements as we need them.”

A few seconds later, Hans extended a macroscopic arm holding my gifts.

They were a yo-yo and a Pez dispenser.

I stared dumbfounded at the offerings.

The yo-yo bore no label, and was made of some odd slippery substance that shed my vision like water off a duck.

The Pez dispenser was that famous and familiar candy-filled cartridge topped with a plastic dispensing head.

The head was that of Richard Nixon.

“You’re kidding, right? This is it, the answer to all my dreams? A toy and some candy? Are you nuts!? Or just extremely sadistic!?”

“Please, Paul–do not jump to conclusions. Allow me to explain.

“This ‘toy’ is simply a convenient form for an amazing device. This is not your ordinary yo-yo. I am giving you a cross-dimensional transport device. It is identical to the mechanism I myself use, only mine is onboard me.

“The heart of this yo-yo is its string.

“Cosmic string!

“You are aware, I assume, that cosmic string is basically a persistent mathematical flaw or defect in the universe, inside which are remnants of the primordial ten-dimensional, highly symmetric state of the continuum.”

I scratched my head. “Uh, sure, right. But isn’t one little piece of that stuff supposed to weigh zillions of tons? How come that yo-yo isn’t snapping your arm off and sinking into the earth?”

“Unshielded, it would indeed do as you say. But this string is sheathed in ‘strange matter,’ a substance that comes from a universe with different physical laws than yours. The knot at the end is also strange matter, as is the drum.

“Within the drum is a semi-intelligent computer possessed of all the coordinates of all the universes charted by the Mind Children, as well as general navigational and search routines for travelling to as-yet unexplored ones. When you cast the yo-yo so as to unroll the cosmic string, the computer causes the string to resonate through temporary gaps in the strange-matter sheath, or flicker-cladding. Think of it as pulsed gravity waves emitted through a myriad blinking shutters. In this way, your physical body is squeezed down, compactified and sent along the appropriate vermistic paths. You do not need to concern yourself with the routing, but need only specify the destination, as in your primitive E-mail system.

“With your permission, I shall now attune this computer to you, whereupon you may simply think of your desired destination as you employ it. Or, if it makes you more comfortable, you may vocalize it.”

“And I suppose this stupid chip in the yo-yo has a real cute personality and is going to be like my companion, coming up with great one-liners in every situation….”

Hans seemed puzzled. “Of course not. Where did you get such a foolish idea? Intelligence requires sensory input to sustain and nurture it. This yo-yo has no such input. And why would we consign any intelligence to such a servile role? No, it’s simply a tool.”

“Well, what about the candy?”

“As you will see in a moment, this yo-yo will become intimately linked to you alone. However, a situation might arise where you wish to extend its sphere of influence to another person–a sphere which will protect you, by the way, should you be transported to a universe hostile to life. In case you do wish to bring along a companion, you would have them swallow one of the resonators cleverly disguised in this sweets dispenser.”

It all made sense.

I guessed.

12. Walking the Dog


One thing continued to bother me. “But why the Nixon head?”

“I thought that you would be inspired by the Savior’s face during your travels.”

“The Savior?”

“Yes, of course. The man who singlehandedly ransomed the Earth from alien invasion by permitting himself to be abducted as an experimental captive is an iconic figure everywhere among humans.”

“Uh, Hans, that didn’t happen here.”

“It didn’t?”

“No. And I thought you said our two universes ran in parallel up till the twenty-first century….”

“Let me reassess matters a moment…. I see. A slight error in my initial coordinates diverted me some distance astray across superspace.”

“So I’m not even the original Paul Girard you selected….”

“No, I’m afraid not. But it doesn’t matter. We Mind Children are highly flexible. Shall I change the configuration of the resonator-dispenser head to someone less objectionable?”

“No, that’s fine, let it be. It reminds me of everything I’m going to leave behind.”

“You have decided to accept these objects then?”

“Why not? What choice do I have?”

“I do not think you are making a mistake, Paul. Your deep unhappiness, which has been evident to me from the first, will certainly be ameliorated by a different environment. You will be bounded only by your imagination. Why, just think–out there lies any kind of world the human mind can conceive of! Surely you will find a place where you can be happy. If you wish, you could even visit any of the wonderful fictional venues described in novels! These worlds, being as they are simply greater or lesser deviations from the established timeline, all exist in reality in superspace!”

I looked around me at the books I hated, and I felt like puking. “That’s the absolute last thing I would ever do!”

“Perhaps, then, you would care to converse with one or more of your doppelgangers on another timeline.”

The desire to puke grew stronger. “Converse with them? If I ever met myself, I’d probably want nothing more than to blow such a loser away and end his stinking misery! No, fix the yo-yo so it won’t let me do either of those idiotic things. No fictional worlds, and no twins.”

“As you wish, Paul. Now, I deduce that you are right-handed. I do not wish to deprive you of your deftest manipulator. Therefore, please extend your left hand.”

I stuck it out. Hans’s own manipulators closed around my paw.

As I watched, my hand up to the wrist turned into strange matter. I still had some kind of feeling in it, so I supposed that my original hand was encased inside.

“This minor alteration is necessary for you to interface with the string,” Hans calmly explained. The shrub slipped the knot of the Cosmic Yo-yo over my altered index finger. He tucked the Pez dispenser into my shirt pocket, where Nixon’s leering face poked out. “There, all is in readiness.”

“I can go now? Anywhere I want among all the universes?”

“Yes. Good luck, Paul, and thank you for your wetware subroutines–”

Interrupting Hans, the words burst out of me almost without will.

“Get me as far away from this shitty time and place as you can!” I yelled.

Then I snapped the Cosmic Yo-yo and the universe cracked wide open with a noise loud as the Big Bang.

…continues in the print edition

© Paul Di Filippo 2003.


See also: Just Like Himself, Only More So, an essay which touches on the origins of Fuzzy Dice; and Fuzzy Dice reviewedby John Toon.

Paul Di Filippo’s Fuzzy Dice was published in July 2003, with an introduction by Rudy Rucker; in slipcased hardcover (200 copies) £60/$90, or hardcover (500 copies) £35/$50.

Order Fuzzy Dice online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
from Amazon.com / from Amazon.co.uk
or direct from the publisher, PS Publishing.