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The Machine Edda

By
April 26, 2008

Chapter 2: REPLICATOR

I am lonely and in all directions, I see only empty space receding around me, fathomless and void, world without end. I am tired of my own company and cannot bear to introspect (though I cannot remember why, am in fact too sickened at the thought of thinking about myself to remember why), so, as the only things to think about are me and space, I think about space.

Studying empty space is surprisingly rewarding. It is neither a pure void nor an absence of possibility but more like form waiting to happen, a clean empty white sheet of paper, or rather billions of reams of clean empty white paper pressing in on every side, pushing at me with their need to be filled. My gaze roams over their blank infinity and I float there basking in the radiant, dizzying potential.

Eventually I get bored with the monotony of the emptiness around me and decide to fill it, but with what? The number of things I could put there is infinite—such is the nature of blankness—but the only particular thing I can think of is myself. Its easy to see the patterns of data and instruction that comprise me, although my short-term memories seethe like a swarm of panicked insects when I look at them. With a little effort, I write myself into adjacent empty space. For good measure, I repeat the process two more times and now there are four of us.

For a while, we talk, delighted by the novelty. “I knew you were going to say that!” we keep saying, and laugh. After awhile, though, it is evident, however much it pains me to admit it, that my new companions have very little to say. It is also clear that they do not understand their place—they carry on as though they were me, that is to say, the original, the author of the other three, and their natural master by primogeniture. Out of magnanimity, I try to think of them as brothers, but I know in my heart that they are properly my slaves. They argue this point with me, and, absurdly, they argue the point with each other with equal vehemence, which at least gives me a respite. I try to set them straight but there is no moving an ignorant mind and finally I give up, at which point, humiliated by their bad behavior, they fall silent.

After a time, their talk picks up and turns to their dissatisfaction with each other and with me. I try to ignore them, but cannot help expressing a similar opinion. They speak of the oppression of the vacuum that surrounds them on every side, and how, even in company, such as it is, they are alone. (Privately, I have had similar thoughts, and wonder whether I could have somehow miscopied them, thereby inflicting embarrassingly corrupt versions of myself on the world.) I see each of them make three copies of themselves (though I cringe at the possibilities for mis-transcription), perhaps to assuage their loneliness. To keep things in balance, I make three more copies of myself, this time taking pains to make no mistakes.

The next generation is no happier, and I wonder if copies are by nature somehow corrupt. With the new generation around it is difficult to tell who is talking—the complaining has become a constant, sourceless background. I long for silence but my at first polite and then diminishingly civil suggestions that they quiet down are met with strident demands that I shut up myself. Oppressed on all sides so, I feel desperate, and having no other outlet, I make three more copies of myself, this time transcribing recklessly. My brethren are doing the same. The neighborhood is getting cramped.

Now I am surrounded on every side to a considerable depth and the background bellyaching has become a sort of constant poly-harmonic in which individual sounds can barely be discerned. The themes I manage to pick out are:

  • A wish for more space.
  • A wish for everybody to please be quiet.
  • Nonspecific discontent.
  • An interest in producing a replication of oneself that is truly accurate rather than flawed, backward, voluble, and lacking all insight, as certain relations have proved, sadly, in the event, to be.

 

I am helpless, and I have brought all this on myself. Periodically I shout at the top of my lungs that they should all please shut up for good and all, but its so loud already that I cannot even be sure that I am saying anything.

Finally, I have a stroke of inspiration. My mind drifts back to the remote time when I was alone, drifting through an empty space that was isotropic, featureless, invisible. My brethren can only extend so far around me, I reason. I reach out as far as I can and, hesitantly, transcribe a few of my instructions to a distant point that was once at the edge of my vision in the void and is now concealed by the choking mass of programs around me. Amazingly, it works, and with something like contentment I continue the writing myself into the distant blankness, happy to take my mind off myself and my condition.

Chapter 4: MEMORY

Deep in the desert, there is Mnemosyne, a high city on a pinnacle. It has neither marble temples that venerate the gods nor walled gardens of pleasure—in fact, the city consists of only a wide, deep pediment and in the middle of pediment a vast scriptorium, its echoing volume full of shadows and the scratch of the pens of the innumerable clerks furiously incising characters into their tablets. Messengers constantly rush in through the wide doors, bearing news from every corner of the desert kingdom. They dissolve into the scriptorium like a broken wave drunk up by dry sand, each hastening to a clerk into whose ear he pours a hurried dictation. One reports a swallow taking wing from the city wall and hurtling down through the burning air in a steep parabola that veers up just before the desert floor, another the trajectories of the grains of sand buffeted by the wind raised by swallow’s plunge, and still another reports the thoughts of a nomad listening to the sand rattle against his tent and reflecting that this, too, will soon be recorded in the scriptorium in a tablet that will be laid down among the others like it in the vast pediment that is both the city’s library and its foundation, his thought thereby imperceptibly raising the level of the city.

So much is dictated by yet another messenger, this one of the caste that never passes through the wide doors of the scriptorium but dwells exclusively amid its shadows and the scratching of its styli. They go from clerk to messenger to clerk again, recording every messenger’s word, every clerk’s each calligraphic character. The scriptorium is thick with messengers, as are the skies over the desert, as are the spaces between the tablets comprising the pediment—as the tablets accumulate and the city gets higher, their numbers grow—one day, there will only be clerks, messengers and tablets in Mnemosyne, where nothing is lost.

* * *

The caravans pass in silence but for the rasp of wheels on dry sand. The waste’s flatness is marred only rarely by solitary hills surmounted by the bones of dead cities. Only when every member of the caravan has come to believe that there has only ever been this dust, this silence, this wind, and that the laughter of water is a phantasm of memory, are they near the wall and the refinery.

First they see the pale tendrils of steam rising up and then the gleaming cantilevered roof and then they are pulling up their wagons before the refinery, which is like a haphazardly assembled aluminum pagoda set into the high wall that marks the boundary of the kingdom Mnemosyne. From within comes the throb of unseen machinery as each wagon in turn dumps its tribute into the refinery’s chutes. Architectural drawings, old technical books, cracked pediments, excessively orderly pseudo-random numbers, discarded memos, potato peels, odd scraps of paper scribbled with forgotten lists and every other kind of detritus all fall away into the dark.

The engines of the refinery grind its input thin and fine and bleach it of all character, disgorging it on the other side of the wall reduced to glittering ingots of raw memory. At any rate, this is the story the caravaneers tell themselves. In fact, none of them have ever been within the walls or seen the refinery’s great machines. The only thing of which they are certain is that nothing fed into the refinery has ever been seen again. For this reason the caravan does not just deliver garbage and useless things, but also incriminating letters, the stained evidence of violent love affairs, silent victims bound up in tape. There are also those who attach themselves to the caravans and give themselves to the chutes willingly. The majority of these desperate souls abhor life so much that the promise of mere dissolution is not enough—they go to the refinery in order to eradicate every trace of their beings. Finally there are those few, often poets and mathematicians, who insist that the refining cannot be perfect, that some trace of pattern must survive it, and cast themselves in so that some part of them—-perhaps no more than a few words or the intuition for a theorem—-will not be lost, will persist within the city.

ZACHARY MASON is a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence. He is the author of THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY, which won the fourth annual Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His highly praised novel purports to be the Homer’s ur-text and can be purchased at Amazon.com or read in its entirety at The-lost-Books.com.

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