Sunday, 10 September 2017
World Again Enchained: A Sequel to "The World Set Free" (2017)
The man had been waiting, patiently, for a great many days. He sat on a bench in a public chamber on the hundred-and-tenth floor of the World Council Building, and waited. From time to time he rose, and went over to one of the wide windows to gaze down at the cityscape of New Paris, still in the process of being constructed. Men and women were visible moving through streets and over esplanades, small as commas—artists, these, whose medium was urbēs. But mostly the motion visible belonged to atomic machinery, atom-powered cranes and diggers, atomic trucks of gigantic size bringing in the raw materials. A fine and wondrous labour it was, the creation of a new World Capital.
The man had been repeatedly told it was unlikely any of the Council would have leisure to speak with him, and that he would be better served returning home and communicating by notarised citizen's letter. But, he said, he preferred to stay. He left the building every evening and returned every morning. ‘What I have to say to the Council is too important, and too urgent,’ he told the receptionist, who happened to have started, new, on Friday, ‘for a letter. Please communicate to the Council that I am here. Once they have spoken to me they will wish to shelve all on-going Council business, and, indeed, to recall currently non-attending members. What I have to tell them will change the world—destroy it, I'm afraid.’
The receptionist on duty that day was Faye Teng. Having recently graduated from university with the best results of her entire year, and having been identified as a possible future Council member. she had taken up a position in the New Paris centre. The aim was to familiarise herself with the workings of government, although the main thing she had learned was how nugatory such workings were. By this stage, after the upheavals of the Last War and the collective assiduity of the Period of Reconstruction that followed it, the World State needed very little by way of ‘governance’ at all.
Here was this petitioner, though: one of those monomaniacs or eccentrics still, occasionally, thrown up in the general population. Usually such people were not violent, and the principles of humane co-existence meant that the State rarely interfered with idiosyncrasy, provided of course that it did not have any deleterious effect on others. You know the sorts of people: the ones convinced they have been contacted by aliens, or demons, who claim to have perfected perpetual motion machines, or to have decoded the Voynich Manuscript. Generally they were left their own odd devices, free to publish, to preach in public parks and to bore their friends and family and free in the largest sense to be ignored.
On rare occasions such people decided the Council needed to act, and so sent in petitions, or—as here—actually turned up in the Council Building itself. By decree the Council Parliament and all its infrastructure was perfectly open to any citizen of the world, so they could not be locked out, and such intrusions happened so rarely no formal protocol had been devised for processing them. The best strategy, it was thought, was to let them cool their heels; to use boredom as metaphorical antiseptic.
Faye smiled: ‘I should tell you, Citizen, it is very unlikely any Council Member will be free to see you today. Perhaps you should come again on Monday?’
‘Monday will be too late,’ said the man. ‘I must be seen by close of business this afternoon.’
‘I'm afraid that's very unlikely.’
The individual did not look disappointed, or angry. He nodded, a little dolefully. ‘Citizen, permit me—’
He handed her a laminated card on which was a name, GÜRCIOU KUYÜLAR, and a London address.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and returned to her business.
After lunch she happened to pass again through the chamber and saw Kuyülar still sitting there, patiently. He was so mild-mannered and polite, and her duties were light enough to encroach on actual boredom, that she went over to suggest they take coffee together. He agreed with a little bow, and the two of them went to one of the building's many little cafés: an automated wall that dispensed all manner of drinks and food, and many tables with a view over the resurrecting cityscape. It was Friday, the business of world governance was not pressing, and Faye and Kuyülar were the only two people in that room at that time.
‘It is kind of you to spend time with me,' he said, sipping his drink. ‘I appreciate I must appear a mere crank, or idiota.’
‘Not at all,’ said Faye, politely.
‘There is no need to humour me,’ Kuyülar said, with a wry smile. ‘I am, indeed, very sorry to be here. I have lived a happy life, truly. I bless Providence that I was born into the New Utopia our world has become. Such happiness as I have had would not have been possible for one such as me at any earlier period in history.’
‘Many people can say the same,’ agreed Faye. ‘My own genetic line consists of a thousand generations of peasants, all of them condemned to short lives of body-wrecking hard physical labour. And here I am, sitting in a room half a kilometer above the Capital of the World, helping the governance of the a perfected human society. I can do anything with my life I chose, make my talents manifest howsoever I prefer.’
At this, though, Kuyülar looked grave. ‘Alas to bring such a Utopia to an end!’ he said.
An individual from a past age might have affected not to have heard this strangely threatening statement; but people in the New Utopia were accustomed to speak plainly, so Faye said: ‘why would you say such a thing, Citizen?’
For a time Kuyülar was silent. The room faced west, and the sun was low in the sky, scattering fruit-coloured lights through the stacked layers of cloud as delicate-looking as gauze. The ripening light glinted from a million windows in the brand new metropolis. Faye realised only belatedly that Kuyülar was weeping, silently.
‘I apologise,’ he said, wrapping his right hand in a handkerchief and tapping at his face with it. ‘Only, it fills me with such sorry to think of all this passing away. Reverting, in fact, into what has past. But it is inevitable.’
Kuyülar took a breath, put his handkerchief away, and say back. ‘Citizen,’ he said. ‘Permit me to burden you with my story, for which I apologise in advance. I have been working as a researcher at the London Polyscientia Institute for ten years. My citizenry file will confirm as much. And for much of that time my research brought me only joy, and joy, and joy. I worked on the physics of time itself, on what we must now, after the breakthrough research of McFarlane, call the coordinating manifold of space-and-time.’
Faye's own degree had been in art and aesthetics, with a final year project on the narratological understanding of history. But of course her school-level education had equipped her with an up-to-date knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and mathematics. ‘A very interesting field,’ she said.
‘My dream,’ said Kuyülar, ‘was to invent a time machine and so travel through the future. I have little interest in the past, but am intensely curious as to what life will be in, let us say, the eightieth millennium. And the physics suggests that such travel should be possible.’
Despite herself, Faye's interest was piqued. ‘Fascinating! And did you make any progress with your machine?’
‘I created models and attempted to send small drones backwards and forwards in time. The theory told me they should have travelled, but they did not. After false starts and much puzzling I came to the conclusion that the temporal medium, the very stuff of time itself, was too attenuated to support their passage. That what I was attempting was akin to trying to fly a fixed-wing aircraft in a near-vacuum. And if it was too attenuated for small models to travel through, there is no hope that a craft large enough to transport a human being could be supported or make temporal pro- or regress.’
‘It was frustrating,’ Kuyülar said, ‘but there were many other projects upon which I could direct my scientist's attention. Very many! And in fact, I very nearly began an entirely new project mapping the curvature of the manifold in the presence of supermassive objects. Would that I had! But instead I worried at my calculations. It bothered me that I had been so wrong in my mathematics when determining the, as-it-were, density of time itself. I re-worked all my equations and checked everything to find where I had gone wrong.’
‘And I had not gone wrong. The density of the space-and-time manifold ought to be much higher than it is. There is no doubt about that. And that sent me on an increasingly desperate quest into the wastelands of the Higher Physics, and atomism.’
‘Atomics? How so?’
‘It was a lengthy but inevitable path that led me there,’ Kuyülar murmured. ‘I reopened questions to do with atomic physics humankind had assumed buried forever. For why should we worry about it when the atomic technologies we use, on which our entire civilisation is based, work so manifestly well? But it did not take me long to understand that such theory as exists as to why our atom engines work is mere guesswork. You have studied history, and have read accounts of the old atomic bombs.’
‘They exploded continuously for months. We take it for granted. But study the underlying physics from first principles, and it becomes apparent that such a thing is impossible. There is indeed a great deal of energy in matter, and that energy can be liberated via atomic explosion. But such an explosion, though ten thousand times as powerful as any conventional detonation, would last mere fractions of a second. To cause Carolinum, or Radium, to release its energy in a catastrophic chain-reaction would result in all that energy being liberated instantly.’
Faye considered this. ‘And yet, in the Last War, the old bombs burned for many months. Paris itself was razed by one device.’
Kuyülar nodded. ‘Indeed. I was near the final conclusion of my researches, you see. It only remained for me to determine how those devices were able to maintain their prodigious output of energy.’
‘What did you find?’
‘The developers of these bombs did not fully understand what they were doing; and since the End War, there has been no need for the further development of weaponry of any kind. Those primitive scientists who made the atom bombs assumed their ordnance drew on the energy of the atom. But although the bombs initially exploded in a properly atomic reaction, the explosion continued because that initial release had, in a catastrophic cascade, torn the fabric of space-and-time itself. The ongoing explosions burned because they were drawing energy directly from the underlying fabric of the cosmos itself.’
Kuyülar once again performed his remarkably doleful nod. ‘Alas. Of course, it is not merely a question of bombs. All our machines, small and large, automobile and aircraft engines, construction, excavation, power generation on the largest scale; every thing. Our whole world is covered with a skein of these devices, and every one of them has rent the fabric of space-and-time, and has sucked energy from the very foundation of material life.’
‘And you reason,’ said Faye, ‘that this is why the temporal fabric has become so attenuated?’
Kuyülar said: ‘indeed. And it has reached crisis point. I shall leave this building tonight, and ride the atomic express through the Channel Tunnel to my London home, and make my final arrangements, for I do not wholly expect to see the morrow.’
‘Are things truly so dire?’
By way of reply, Kuyülar brought a folder from his carry-case and passed it over to Faye. ‘I was going to present this to the Council,’ he said. ‘It contains the details, my calculations, estimation as to how long things can continue. My prediction has a tolerance of weeks, not hours; and so it might be that we will last until the end of the month.’
‘And you come to the Council only now?’
‘I completed my calculations in July. Since then I have been trying to bring them to the Council's attention. It has not proved easy.’
‘What do you mean, last until the end of the month? How might we not ... last?’
‘Last? Oh, well, we are talking about the substrate upon which matter itself rests. That is what we have been so sedulously, if inadvertently, eroding. If we continue then, very soon, that substrate will lose its fundamental coherence. Below a certain structural threshold, matter will dissipate. The good news, if I may use that term, is that my calculations suggest the breakdown will be local—I mean, in terms of our solar system. Our planet will disaggregate, but the effect will not reach even so far as our Moon, and the other planets will not be effected. Beyond, of course, the alterations in their respective orbits occasioned by the gravitational absence of our world. So the cosmos as a whole will carry on, and only humankind will vanish.’
‘This is terrible!’ cried Faye. ‘We must stop all atomic engines, without delay.’ She leapt up. ‘We must act immediately! Perhaps it will not be too late?’
Kuyülar was also getting to his feet, though more slowly than Faye. ‘I must go, or I shall miss my train. If you'll forgive me, I would prefer to spend what may be my last night alive surrounded by familiar things.’
Faye, as it happened, possessed that energetic ferocity of optimism of which only the young are truly capable. ‘We can send out a world-wide order! Turn off every atomic engine, every machine!’
‘And perhaps that might hold off the end,’ Kuyülar said, as he walked towards the elevator doors. ‘Although, of course, it would also mean the end to humanity's Utopia. We would revert to more primitive industrialism, to coal and oil, and to the social logics of that time. We would return to squabbling over scarce resources, and that would mean war. And war would mean what it always means, the collapse of true human civilisation. It is not a pretty choice, I think. And I do not have confidence that the World Council could enforce such a diktat, in the face of a population who have grown accustomed not to being oppressively ruled.’ He paused, and turned to face her, as the elevator light flashed to indicate that it was coming. ‘I suppose I consider it vastly more cruel of Providence to show us bliss and then to snatch it away, than never to have shown us bliss at all. Much crueller than can be justified, I think, except by postulating malignancy on a transcendent scale. But such thoughts are liable to depress the spirit. I shall take up my reservation in the dining car, and eat a fine meal, and drink a glass of bordeaux, and feel better about myself. Goodbye, Citizen!’
He stepped into the waiting elevator, and the doors slid shut.