Rudric Bing’s Glyph vibrated as he floated between Jupiter’s moons in his Gorasphere. The message flashed through his synapses:
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Meeting!
Please engage your Glyph, Storagon or body to attend.
Location: The Apollo Lounge, Broadway, New York.
Date: November 25, 2371.
With a thought, Rudric engaged his Glyph. The starry vacuum faded, and he found himself in a convention hall full of ‘people’. Most were Glyph projections, like himself – living members far from the Big Apple or even the Earth. A few were Storagons, projections of people long since dead.
One of these approached the newcomer with silent footsteps.
“Isaac – so good to see you.”
Isaac Asimov grinned his crooked grin and adjusted his spectral spectacles.
“And I you. This is quite a turnout. Nothing like an emergency to bring the troops running.”
Rudric Bing smiled.
“So I see,” he said. Every living member was present, in Glyph or physical form. Gerg Tarm waved in their direction. Rudric waved back. Gerg had won the Nebula five years running, an unprecedented feat.
Glad to see so many old friends, Rudric mingled. Hard to believe his body drifted between Ganymede and Callisto in deep space.
A summons pulsed and, eager to begin, the Sci Fi Writers of America took their seats.
Isaac’s digital spectre occupied the lectern. Rudric marvelled at how someone so long dead could be reconstructed with such ease. But there he was. Such wonders were typical of the Twenty-Fourth Century.
“We are suffering,” said Isaac, “from writer’s block. A massive dose of it. But the fault isn’t ours. It’s the age we live in.”
Rudric Bing sighed with agreement. However hard he wracked his brain to come up with original sci fi ideas, all had been realized.
“How many of us,” continued Isaac, “have written a science fiction story we thought was centuries ahead of modern science, only to find it wasn’t? Hands up?”
Most hands in the hall – dead, Glyph and living – went up. Isaac studied the hands and nodded.
“As I thought. Back in my day, we seldom had that problem. While the core concepts of modern science were in place, their application was still woefully primitive. For us sci fi writers, life was easy. Most things we could imagine were ‘fiction’, and would remain so for a very long time. Robots, for instance.”
Nostalgic chuckles filled the hall.
Yes, robots. And teleportation. Not to mention interstellar flight and virtual worlds. Time travel, too. Back in those days the raw materials of science fiction were still fiction. Now, anything that could be conceived had been realized, or could be.
“Yes,” said Isaac, “we have run out of future. Or rather, the future has dispensed with our services. Imagination offers nothing that science cannot create. Science has rendered science fiction redundant.”
A Storagon’s hand went up.
“Yes, Mr Niven?”
“With respect sir, imagination will always transcend science. Science is only where imagination leads. For example, I’ve just finished a novel about a novel about a fellow who models adjacent time streams on a computer, from the Cambrian period to – ”
“Already done,” said Isaac. “A man at the Martian Institute of Extra-terrestrial Biology ran similar models years ago. Someone else bio-formed the resultant organisms last month. She’s studying them as we speak.”
All the colour drained from Larry Niven’s long dead features. Another hand went up – a living one, this time.
“Mr Asimov,” said Gerg Tarm, “your analysis is flawless, as always. Yes, the state of science determines the state of science fiction. Because scientific knowledge was so limited in, say, the Nineteenth Century, any new idea that a writer cooked up was breaking new ground.”
“I take your point,” said Isaac, adjusting his spectacles. “That century was a particularly fecund era for science fiction.”
“Sure” said Tarm, warming to the topic. “Mark Twain described the Internet in 1898, almost a century before science created it. He wrote a novel called From the London Times of 1904 describing a world wide web called ‘the Telectroscope’. Or consider the credit card – invented by Edward Bellamy in his 1888 novel Looting Backwards. And then of course we have Jules Verne describing the aqualung in 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea: an ‘Iron reservoir of air’ attached to a diver’s back.”
Most of the audience, living and dead, whistled between their teeth. The conversation was going somewhere, at last. Gerg smiled, pleased by his positive reception.
“In the Twentieth Century,” he said, “when science transformed all areas of life, the predictive power of science fiction began to wane. Sure, Ray Bradbury got earphones in Fahrenheit 451. And then we had mobile phones in the first Star Trek series. And tanning beds in The Jetsons. Still, no one can doubt that Sci Fi began losing ground in that century. That’s why it began to study the human mind and delve into religion and politics. In short, to become like real literature.”
The dreaded ‘L’ word! Most of the audience blanched.
“Sure,” said Roger Zelazny, standing with a crooked smile. “It seemed so right, writing about politics and religion back then. Books like Lord of Light weren’t trying to pre-empt scientific discoveries – for one thing, most sci fi writers no longer understood science. Not at any serious level, I mean. Scientists were beginning to speak a foreign language, even to educated laypeople.”
“Yes,” said Isaac. “That’s when these problems started. When scientific discourse began to surpass mainstream understanding, around the mid-Twentieth Century. That’s also when fantasy became the dominant form of speculative literature. No coincidence, I feel.”
Frank Herbert’s Storagon bristled.
“What’s wrong with fantasy?” he asked, his tone pugnacious. “More to the point – what’s wrong with science fiction that addresses social and political issues? Why should it be restricted to technological and scientific speculation? Isn’t that the wonder of our genre – the boundless freedom it confers?”
Murmurs of approval filled the hall. The loudest voices belonged to the New Wave writers of the early 1960s: Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Philip K. Dick. Writers thin on science but popular with literary critics.
Rudric Bing flickered. Yes, flickered.
“You’re flickering,” said E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Storagon, with a frown of concern.
“I guess I am.”
With a thought, Rudric found himself back in his body, back in his Gorasphere, out in deep space. He sniffed the processed air and caught the choking, acrid smell of burning circuitry. His heart skipped a beat. Something was terribly wrong.
“Report, Lucinda. Report to me now.”
The screen before him crackled and flickered, as if seeking a memory. Then it went dark as the void between worlds.
“Godohgodohgod,” said Rudric Bing, sweat misting his brow. A tight spot, indeed. No onboard computer meant no coordinates, no communication, not even purposeful movement. He was up the proverbial creek.
Rudric unstrapped himself and peered out through curved plexiglass. He gulped. A litter of white plastic slivers and lifeless circuits floated in the void. Something must have hit the Gorasphere, perhaps a small meteorite or chunk of space debris.
“Godohgodohgod,” he said again.
Could things get any worse?
He sat back in his control chair, trying to think. Jupiter’s vast, mottled orb loomed beyond the plexiglass shell. Lord of planets and king of gods, its pale visage had acquired a terrible aspect. That was when Rudric noticed the crack. His heart began to trot, then sprint. A crack in the plexiglass! A hairline fissure but still potentially lethal, if it got any worse.
He took a deep, long breath. Even if his body perished, his personality would live on as a Storagon, like everyone else who died in 2371. But so what? While a Glyph projection contained the owner’s real identity, a Storagon merely replicated it. So death was still death, even in the Twenty-Fourth Century. Besides, Rudric loved his body. He had spent considerable sums on cybernetic implants and epigenetic upgrades for it. Above all, he did not want a horrible, drawn-out passing in this desolate void. For if a blowout did not get him, starvation or asphyxiation surely would.
Rudric shuddered, icy fingers stirring through his guts. If only he had a super-smart person to advise him, to think him out of this fix…
Of course, the writers! Rudric Bing was not alone. He had some of history’s most brilliant minds at his disposal. He need not sit here waiting for his body to die, like a rat in a trap. With but a thought, he could project himself back to the meeting in New York, on distant Earth. The greatest science fiction authors of all time could save him, if anyone could!
Rudric swallowed and clenched his fists tight. He closed his eyes and fired forth his digitized ego. The Apollo Lounge dawned around him.
“You’re back,” said Doc Smith, with a quick smile. “All fixed?”
“What d’you mean?”
Rudric stammered out the sorry tale. Doc listened with kind patience, nodding every now and then. Meanwhile the meeting continued. Carl Sagan’s Storagon, urbane and scholarly, held the floor.
“We are gathered here,” he said, “because science has pre-empted all our ideas and visions. Anything we can conceive either exists or can be realized. Indeed, it could be questioned whether science fiction even exists any more.
“Look at these guys from the 1930s,” he said, waving a virtual anthology of Golden Age novellas. “Reality never challenged anything they wrote. Why not? Because no one knew anything back then. As our learned friends have explained, it was easy to make an impact.”
Sagan’s words met reluctant applause.
“There is now nothing science cannot create, cannot achieve,” he said. “Our visionary role is ended. We need a new role – ”
“And what would that role be?” asked Isaac.
“Excuse me,” said Doc, raising his venerable hand. “There’s a boy dying here.”
“Dying? Please explain.”
“It’s best he does that himself. I don’t pretend to understand the working of Goraspears.”
“Goraspheres,” said Rudric, against his better judgement.
“Is this the young man of which you speak?”
Doc nodded and sat down. Rudric rose to his Glyph–feet, uncomfortable with all this attention. Isaac sketched a square in the air with his finger. A diagram of the trans-planetary Gorasphere with all its technical specifications appeared within.
“Yes?” he asked. “What is the problem?”
“Well my Gorasphere’s taken a bad hit out in deep space with my body aboard. The onboard computer’s down, the plexiglass shell’s got a crack and if you guys can’t cook something up, I’m doomed.”
A ripple ran through the auditorium.
“Can’t you just teleport out?”
“Not without a functioning onboard computer, no.”
“Can’t the nearest safety station teleport you out?”
“Not without an onboard computer to project my precise coordinates.”
Silence fell. Wearing his wryest smile, Roger Zelazny stood up.
“I’m no scientist,” he said, “but surely we need a more imaginative approach? If there were a simplistic technical solution, this young man would not be in his present predicament.”
“Agreed,” said Frank Herbert, with an expansive gesture. “And a room full of sci fi’s best men and women should be able to provide it. We need a solution beautiful in its simplicity but dynamic in its outcome… a solution that demonstrates the boundless power of human imagination. I recall, Isaac, an idea you developed in Destination Brain. Since sub-atomic particles flit about all over the universe, would shrinking this Gorasphere to sub-atomic size solve the problem?”
“It could be done, if we had the Gorapshere’s spatial coordinates. Unfortunately, we don’t. Besides, it might reappear anywhere. I’m not sure Mr Bing wants to end up in a Black Hole, Red Giant or worse.”
. “I still think Roger’s on the right track,” said Herbert. “We need a novel approach. A solution that negates the problems of distance and location.”
Let’s go quantum,” said Isaac, with an air of finality. “That should neutralize both issues.”
A murmur of approval rippled through the Apollo Lounge. Directed by shimmering Glyphs and Storagons, the meeting’s few physical attendees set to work.
The booking office contained a Conceptual Printer, like all Twenty-Fourth Century offices. In no time, their equipment was ready. Willing hands began assembling the various components on the podium. Despite this committed effort, Robert Heinlein approached Isaac with a frown.
“What did you conceptualize?” he asked.
“A version of Schrodinger’s experiment. These Storagons and Glyphs are the locus of our volitional cognition, right?”
Heinlein’s frown deepened.
“They are for us who have… passed on.”
“The same is true for living persons. When they project their Glyph, their cognitive locus departs their physical bodies. Back in his Gorasphere, Mr Bing is a docile slab of meat.”
“What’s this got to do with saving him?”
Isaac shot his colleague a triumphant glance.
“Everything. We’re going to ‘kill’ his Glyph many times over, each ‘death’ triggered by a quantum event. Since Glyphs are invulnerable yet contain an individual’s cognitive locus, one of two things should happen. If Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of the paradox is true, Mr Bing’s Glyph will be pushed into a branch of reality where he is invulnerable. If it isn’t, his Glyph will still accrue a vast store of ‘improbable good fortune’. Either outcome should make him temporarily invulnerable on return to his physical body. And either way, he ought to survive.”
“I thought you were a scientist,” drawled Heinlein, shaking his head.
“Any better ideas?” asked Frank Herbert, assembling a laser.
“Not right now.”
“Then help us out. We need an engineer.”
In less than two minutes, Asimov’s apparatus stood gleaming on the podium. A spatter of polite applause echoed through the auditorium. Isaac raised his hand for silence.
“Mr Bing,” he called, “would you mind stepping up here?”
Rudric swallowed. What choice did he have?
“Just stand there,” said Isaac. “That’s right, in front of the laser.”
Rudric took up his position.
“Now,” said Asimov, abeam with optimism, “when we start firing our obliteration ray, you should become temporarily impervious to misfortune.”
“What a load of horse-puckey,” muttered Heinlein.
Asimov shook his head.
“His Glyph permits the paradox. Because it contains his consciousness, yet cannot be destroyed, successive attempts at its destruction will shift his ego’s probability of death to zero. When his Glyph returns to his physical body, a split-second of this ‘residual immortality’ should intervene to spare him from disaster.”
“That’s a lot of ifs,” said Heinlein, stroking his moustache. This was not the venerable Heinlein who wore a bath-robe and shaved his head. His Storagon showed the author’s younger self, slim and libertarian.
“Science is full of ifs, buts and maybes.”
“Maybe it is.”
Sheer panic compelled Rudric to interject.
“Gentlemen,” he quavered. “Please – I’m dying here!”
“Sorry, said Isaac, fiddling the controls of his Quantum Luck Machine. The ray’s nozzle turned poker-red and started to emit an ominous drone.
Click. The first quantum event had no effect.
Vroom – a sheet of energy bathed Rudric’s Glyph in blinding light. Death number one.
The Event Counter began to accelerate. The ‘deaths’ started clocking up. Ten. Fifty. A hundred. When Rudric’s ego had died a thousand times, Asimov fiddled with the console and said: “He must be completely safe, now, at least for a short time. Goodbye, Mr Bing – goodbye and good luck!”
“He’ll have plenty of that,” said Zelazny, who knew something about everything.
Bing found himself back in his ailing Gorasphere. Beyond the curved plexiglass winked a billion stars. Between them lurked freezing vacuum. Still, his ego had just died a thousand times and surely, surely he must have a little luck to play with.
But how could luck intervene in this desolate void, light years from anywhere? That crack could break at any moment, sucking him out into space. And without an onboard computer to supply his needs, he would soon starve or asphyxiate anyway.
“I’ve had it,” he said aloud.
Then something improbable occurred. At a stroke, it restored Rudric’s faith in the human imagination. A passing sliver of meteorite collided with one of the circuits drifting around the Gorasphere. A beam of blue light shot from the thing, fusing the crack like a welder’s beam. Bing gasped with shock as well as wonder. His precarious bio-space remained intact, at least for the moment.
A second plug of meteorite hit the same piece of debris in stark, awesome silence. Rudric chewed his bottom lip. Would his luck hold? To his amazement, another beam split the void. This raked the Gorasphere’s exposed circuits, re-seating components and re-forming snapped connections. With a drone, his onboard computer console flashed back into life.
Hello, Mr Bing, she purred. Shall I Activate Emergency Safety Procedures?
“Yes, Lucinda. Do it now!”
The curved plexiglass frosted.
“Of course, Mr Bing. Suspended Animation initiated.”
Just as he drifted off into Safe Sleep, Bing felt the Gorasphere’s retro-thrusters blast him towards the nearest Safety Station. Even at near light-speed, the seal on the crack held. Rudric sighed. With luck he would awaken between warm sheets to a steaming cup of synthi-caff served by an attentive robo-nurse. With luck… he smiled. Then like a warm, comforting blanket, sleep enfolded him.
Five years later, Rudric attended the SFWA reception in New York. As before, Isaac Asimov greeted him at the door.
“Mr Bing! How have you been?”
“I’m alive, as you can see. Took me four years to reach the Safety Station, six months nano-reconstruction in their Med Facility but less than a nanosecond to teleport here.”
“Wonderful, wonderful. There have been some changes to the event, though.”
“Changes? What kind of changes?”
“You’ll have to wait and see.”
With hammering heart, Rudric entered the conference hall. His eyes widened at the sight of dozens of oval tables occupying the space normally reserved for an audience. The people around these tables were even more astonishing. Not just the familiar authors, but individuals with earnest faces and smart clothes. Definitely not sci fi writers, if Rudric was any judge.
Isaac joined him.
“What is all this?” asked Rudric. “Who are these people?”
“Scientists,” said the Storagon, adjusting his spectacles. “Scientists, engineers and government officials. They have come to learn how new technologies might be applied in novel and creative ways.”
Rudric gazed up at the banner behind the stage. Instead of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’, it read, in big red letters:
2386: First Praxiphorical Congress of the US Creative Consortium
“Praxiphorical congress?” he asked. “What does that mean?”
“The systemized application of metaphor to practical ends,” said Isaac proudly. “Our 2385 meeting was our last as the SFWA. We finally realized that Sci fi – fiction based on scientific and technological projection – was finished. Killed, ironically enough, by scientific progress. We needed new purpose, a new direction.
“You gave us that when your Gorasphere broke. That timely episode shifted our creative focus away from literary fiction. And here we are.”
The Apollo Lounge buzzed with activity. Roger Zelazny’s shimmering Storagon approached, wearing his trademark grin.
“Don’t look so worried,” he said. “Man created logic and because of that, was superior to it. Creativeness is the Fire of the Gods, a priceless commodity. Though science might map all things, its application can only advance through the Promethean gift of Imagination.”
Rudric pinched himself, so glad of his own flesh.
I have published some essays in Vector magazine, the British Science Fiction Association journal. I have also had some work published in Analog, the ‘bible’ of American speculative fiction. In addition, I have also published several academic papers exploring the corporate modeling potentials of science fiction. These appeared in such prestigious management journals as Emergence and the International Journal of Advertising.