Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



by Gr*g *g*n

[From the fanzine Nova Express, Vol. 5/2, Fall/Winter 1999]

...385730247589As our monorail car south out of Sea Point traversed the luminous City Permutation Screen, Sylvia asked in distress, "Aren't we entering the quarantine?"

"Of course. That's axiomatic." I sighed, simultaneously invoking You Hopeless Dimwit to give the proper topspin of tired contempt. "Leave Cape Town, enter the quarantine zone. But these will protect us."

I tapped my nose, where the jewel-like Nasali Device nested comfortably in my sinomastoidal cavity. Using microfine palladium-alloy wires that snaked up my trigeminal nerve and pervaded my cortex, the Device silently scrutinized my every thought, looking for evidence of Invasive Mental Unrest Syndrome. If some Ignorance Cult's viral IMUS meme found its way into my sinuses and drove across the blood-brain barrier to permute my cortical neurons, the Device would trigger my hypothalamus to release tailored hormones that, by a simple twenty-seven step enzymatic cascade, would force my pineal gland -- or one of those glands; I was actually a bit foggy on the details -- to release targeted killer T-cells and stop IMUS in its tracks. I'd only lose some trivial medullar function.

That suited me, because the unreasoning biological mandates of my limbic system had already saddled me with a lover, Sylvia. I felt warm affection for her, insipid dolt though she was. Of course that tenderness was merely a vapid biochemical impulse ingrained by eons of evolution, and I frankly resented that.

An explosion behind us. Sylvia turned to the cabin window and cried out. "Another bombing! It looks like our neighborhood. Yes, I can see-- Oh, Paul, they've destroyed our beautiful house!"

I invoked my comm program and called our insurance broker in Kyoto. Her software said she was busy, so I left a message. "Yakitori is good," I told Sylvia. "She'll take care of new lodgings for us before we get back."

Sylvia seemed distraught. "But -- everything we own, all our furniture and paintings and, and my family scrapbooks--"

I ratcheted Dimwit up a few notches to Incredulous Disdain. It altered my vocal inflection serviceably as I answered, "You sound like an Ignorance Cultist. If you enjoy tying your identity to ephemeral trinkets, go ahead, but don't insist that I indulge the same ridiculous immaturity. No offense."

To my relief, she looked suitably hurt and ashamed.

Dozens of Ignorance Cults were spreading across the world like fungus on a dying tree; recently, many had banded together as Ignorance Makes Us Strong, Inc. Aside from the usual tiresome mystic and humanitarian movements, IMUS Inc. embraced cults that promoted filial affection (Mother Love!), loyalty (Fidelitas Maximus!), self-esteem (Up With Humans!), and other senseless biological holdovers. Now an IMUS group had seemingly reached Sylvia: the Keepsakers, pathetic dullards who promoted mawkish attachment to childhood dolls, college diplomas, love letters, travel souvenirs, cremains, pets, offspring, and other shackles on free thought.

True, I envied the Cultists' bovine contentment. Once, I had a moment of asinine weakness after I happened to see a school bus hit a Cutey Clone truck. Eighteen schoolkids died bloodily at my feet, while infant skulls shattered like maracas thrown under a bulldozer, so that genetically engineered fetal brain tissue splattered me like gobs of pink pudding. I felt -- how moronic! -- I felt briefly shaken. Of course, I understood perfectly that shock was merely my unthinking limbic system doing its ancient, ungovernable work. Yet in that sorry moment I asked a Cultist, with genuine hope, "Can you teach me how you willfully illiterate stoopbrowed throwback nimrods convince yourselves, against all reason, of your cozily mindless anthropocentric fantasies?" But the Cultist declined to engage in dialogue, which is Ignorance Cult intolerance for you every time. Fortunately reason returned with my dry-cleaning.

Our train glided south past Table Mountain, the Apostles, and windy Hout Bay, where Keepsaker IMUS had struck hard. The meme-ridden fishing community had become so obsessed with holiday greeting cards and small cuddly animals that the economy had collapsed. Looking away from the ruined docks, Sylvia said with forced brightness, "I've been reading some old science fiction lately."

Dimwit assigned a tentative Mild Sneer to my response, presumably because "old" connoted "nostalgia," a Cult mainstay. But giving Sylvia the benefit of the doubt, I overrode. "Yes?"

"An Australian writer -- I forget his name. Big speculations about cosmology and the nature of intelligence. Exciting stuff, but with such strange underlying assumptions. Any kind of human contact in these stories just leads to trouble. All that's worthwhile is physics and math. It's like -- fiction for robots."

So much for benefit of the doubt. Snorting, I went ahead with Dimwit's recommended overtone. "I don't see that as a problem. If people had devoted half the energy to mathematics that they've spent over the years on family quarrels, illicit love affairs, troubled children, and Christmas holidays, we'd have proved Fermat's Last Theorem a century earlier."

That reminded me to look in on my forebrain, where I had assigned a few petabytes of memory to my latest stab at Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis. The great unsolved problem of set theory, it had stymied transfinite mathematicians for two centuries. But I'd had recent insights that, I now saw, were finally converging on proof. My adrenal gland surged and I felt joyous excitement, the fossil product of my archaic, obdurate lizard brain.

Sylvia was still prattling. "A lot of his characters are software, or consciousness self-assembled out of chaos, or sixteen-dimensional creatures in mathematical Fourier space. For him, biological existence has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, the less biological you are in these stories, the better."

I couldn't see her point. "So? What's the problem?"

"I've been thinking...." She trailed off. This was such a blatant straight line that even Dimwit saw it, but I preferred to encourage Sylvia to think, so I said nothing.


...44730548reached the Cape nature reserve before I knew it; I must have dozed. Amid grassy fynbos fields we saw giraffe and a distant herd of wildebeest. For six centuries after Europeans colonized South Africa, the Cape of Good Hope had seen no animals larger than a domestic horse. But the International Mammal Uplift Society was bringing genetically altered herbivores back to Africa, with staggering success.

IMUS, a radical environmentalist group, had released tailored retroviruses into Africa's national parks. The viruses targeted endangered species, engineering their endocrine systems to secrete valuable chemicals: endorphin exciters, catalytic antibodies, perfumes, sunscreen, fashionable flavorants for sushi. Corporate agribusiness began breeding the animals and, with government subsidies, used national reserves like Cape Point as grazing land. Poachers, shifting tactics, now stalked their prey with milking stools.

"Hello? Paul? They're called transcendental numbers, right?"

I blinked at Sylvia. "Did you say something?"

She stared like I had an arm growing from my forehead. (Was she running Dimwit too?) "I asked what mathematicians call those decimal numbers that go on to infinity, like pi and e."

Did I remember her question? "Oh. Yes. Transcendentals."

"And the infinity of digits in one transcendental number could encode almost anything?"

For fear of a withering Dimwit reply, I hesitated to ask, "Encode?" Of course my apprehension was only chemical screeching from evolution's albatross. Still, I seized a distraction: "Here's the station."

Ahead lay the rail terminus at hilly Cape Point, just below the lighthouse. On the craggy hill silver trees waved their branches in a gentle wind, while the surf crashed far below in Koch-snowflake curls. A vestigial evolutionary impulse forced me to consider the area "beautiful."

At the station we rented an ancient fuel cell-powered tri-wheel cart, then drove back north over still older asphalt roads. We were looking for an unowned, free-roaming population of black rhinoceros that IMUS had recently infected. The IMUS rhino-virus induced the animals to make a new, unlicensed miracle antihistamine, immodial undecanoic salicylate, which we wanted due to occasional messy side effects from our Nasali implants.

I'd had time to consider Sylvia's question and deduce her point. "To answer your earlier question, yes," I said. "Every software program boils down to ones and zeroes, and you can encode any sound, picture, or idea the same way, using any arbitrary scheme -- and you can then also encode the scheme itself."

"Godel numbering." She nodded. "Of course."

"And in the infinity of a transcendental number, you could find stretches of arbitrary length that represent a code for one or another numbering scheme, followed by programs, sounds, pictures, and ideas that follow the scheme. Why did you ask?"

"Those stories...." Sylvia seemed pensive. "If you have an intelligent software program, that means consciousness ultimately resolves to numbers. So mathematically they could be transformed into a number."

"So what? A number can't be conscious."

"Why not?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" I didn't need Dimwit to sound scornful. "Consciousness implies movement in time, a change of state. A response to one's environment, even a virtual environment."

"The number could encode those responses as memories. Like a snapshot of a brain-state at a single instant."

"But that's not conscious. And it would be one hell of a long string of digits to find randomly in a transcendental number. Look there!"

Across a flat stretch of heath I'd spotted a rhino. We told the cart to stop, activated its anti-theft devices, and set out on foot. Sylvia wore her wrist-mounted scent keyboard, which could release pheromones to attract, sedate, and repel a rhinoceros. Neither Sylvia nor I had experience milking rhinos, but before the trip I had downloaded a rhino-milking program from the International Milking Utility Service.

"I didn't say `random,'" Sylvia said. "Imagine a researcher seeking a transcendental number with some desired pattern. He might start it with the digits of the consciousness software, then coded data for the world, and appropriate coded rules for behavior -- say, these science fiction stories."

"Oh, right." I ratcheted Dimwit up a notch. "Do you have any idea how long that number would be?"

"One of these stories says everything important about a person can be encoded in an exabyte. You could probably describe a narrow intelligence and its small world in the number's first ten septillion digits. Then, given a powerful computer, this researcher could let the number's program run, calculating its later digits and remapping its own earlier sequences. There's your change of state: The number would continually modify itself toward a desired goal."

You Hopeless Dimwit's sarcasm harmonics weren't fazing Sylvia. I'd have to upgrade to the new version, You Insufferably Retarded Glob of Grit. "What goal? What is the point of this mad speculative flight?"

Sylvia had a peculiar expression. "The characters in these stories never have parents. Anyway, they never think about parents. I can't remember mine. Can you?"

Parents? I didn't quite -- hmmm --

I examined my memory. With a certain relief I saw that I'd deleted facts about my parents, which anyone but a Keepsaker would call extraneous, and remapped that memory for something far more important: my proof of Cantor's hypothesis. It was close, very close! I set a trigger to ping me when the proof was complete.

"Watch out." Sylvia pointed south across the plain. Someone in a white sackcloth robe was running to intercept us before we reached the rhino. This person looked too excited to be a scientist; the Cape drew many Ignorance Cultists, who liked to "get back to nature." I hung back, aware that non-scientists are superstitious and prone to violent animal rage.

Sure enough, the non-scientist rushed at us, waving the Ignorance Cultist's weapon of choice, an electrified pitchfork.

I observed the non-scientist. It was a strapping Caucasian male, its blue eyes glazed with religious fanaticism. It halted near us, raised its pitchfork, and spoke in a voice hoarsened by frenzied chanting:

"Do you follow the one true archetypal, Judeo-Christo-Islamic-Buddhist-Hindu-Ba'hai God-given, Gaia-Mother-Goddess-approved, spiritually numinous, soulfully wise, anti-scientism, pro-psychic, anti-progress, pro-human Jungian manifest-destiny doctrine of homeopathy, natural childbirth, quantum Taoism, Campbellian hero myths, and ritual burning of heretics in flames scented with sandalwood incense, the holy doctrine mystically delivered to the clairvoyant priests of our blessed Ignorance Cults from out of the hollow Earth during the Harmonic Convergence by a crystal-powered Atlantean UFO piloted by Bigfoot?"

Prudence dictated a polite response. But to be polite to imbeciles would betray everything I believed in. Shaking off Sylvia's restraining hand, I strode forward. I turned Dimwit up to the highest setting, Annihilation of All Prospects for Future Discourse. I had used this level of contempt only once before, and blood had trickled out my ears.

Staring the non-scientist right in its piggish, illusion-addled eyes, I answered:

"If I discard my every inclination to trust only evidence that is clear, objective, replicable, falsifiable, and internally consistent, it is barely possible I could believe, however briefly, that the wacky trumped-up half-assed patchwork of wishes, delusions, antiquated mystical claptrap, self-gratifying power trips, and drug-induced right-brain hallucinations you call a `cosmology' has some claim, however remote and tenuous, to the faintest glimmer of hope that it could withstand two minutes' scrutiny by a junior-high school physics student who has been deprived of food and sleep for three days and also has a terrible hangover. But if, dispensing wholly with lucidity, I did adopt that patently screwball hope, I would cry bitter tears, for I could only conclude that the universe runs, not by logic and law, but solely by the random impulses of vain, brutal, demented deities, the ravings of their lunatic prophets reported at fifth hand by hagiographic medieval scribes, the stupefying authoritarian orthodoxies of sclerotic religious bureaucracies, and the whims of clean-cut, pulpit-thumping, sociopathic demagogue bigots, and, furthermore, that said universe could never be comprehensible to me, but only to illiterate dull-witted monkeymass yahoos like yourself, no offense."

The Cultist, its brain burdened by faith and obedience to authority, considered this slowly. Then, with a roar, it raised its pitchfork and rushed me. I braced for the impaling stroke, when suddenly a gray mass rushed from the grass and hit the Cultist squarely. The non-scientist flew back like a limp plastic sack in a high wind, then hit the grass and lay still. The rhino stared dully at me for an instant, then fell over and began snoring.

Sylvia stopped playing her pheromone keyboard. She turned to me and said, "...84209077312165..."

Despite my best efforts at control, I was shaking foolishly from an obsolete biochemical fight-flight reaction. "What?"

"I said, if there were short strings of random digits that didn't fit the orderly progression of the number, its program could ignore those glitches, weave consciousness to hide them. And that just confirmed my idea, I think."

"What does?"

"Look at your internal chronometer. There must have been a noisy patch of numbers just then, because there was no passage of time while I was making my previous remark. Time didn't exist while I was speaking, so I must never have said it."

I checked; she was right. Inexplicably, a sense of crisis built in me. "But -- don't you remember saying it?"

Sylvia looked petulant. "I don't have any memory at all. I seem to exist solely as an instrument for you to realize your true nature. What a sucky fate. I knew there was some reason my personality seemed so flat."

With that, she dissolved.

The rhino and the non-scientist dissolved.

Now I stand alone, watching the Cape of Good Hope, the sky, the ocean, all dissolve into gray nothingness.

I understand at last. Nothing in this world exists, save what my program dictates. Someone is calculating me; I don't know why.

Yet I exult: I am no longer a thrall to that unruly phantom, my limbic system! A joyous cry rises to my evaporating lips:

"I am not a man! I am a free number!"

My fading forebrain goes PING! I look at my complete proof of Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis.

And it is good000000000000000000000000000....


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Copyright (C) 1999 Allen Varney.