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Far Thoughts and Pale Gods
By Greg Bear
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Greg Bear
All rights reserved.
In 1989, Deborah Beale at Random Century/Legend, my United Kingdom publisher, commissioned a novella for a series of illustrated short science fiction books. I had to pull together a plot and propose it to Deborah, and then write it, all within a few short months. The novella turned out longer than I had expected, and has been in print in England, the United States, and various other countries.
My good friend Gregory Benford had described to me the operations of Alcor, a foundation set up to harvest the bodies of recently deceased members and slip them, very carefully, into liquid nitrogen bottles for preservation, hopeful of resurrection and repair at a later date, in a more medically advanced society. A cheaper option is to simply have your head frozen.
Other friends and acquaintances became involved, or joined the society. I never did. Timothy Leary apparently showed interest, but when time came to make a final decision, Leary decided on cremation, instead.
Benford, writing as Sterling Blake, wrote an excellent novel based on Alcor's legal and scientific experiences: Chiller. For a more sanguine take on the process, though not without some grim prognostications, I highly recommend this book. There are, of course, quite a few speculative nonfiction discussions of cryo-preservation, and there is Alcor on the Web, as well.
At the time, I wasn't convinced it was feasible for humans, and I still have severe doubts, and not just about the technology. These doubts are expressed in Heads.
A later and much more paranoid critique of the quest for biological immortality can be found in my novel Vitals, published in 2002.
Heads is distinguished by a linked pair of technological forecasts. Quantum logic computers (thinkers, actually) appear here for the first time in science fiction. The phrase "quantum logic" with reference to computation may also be my invention: any challengers?
Quantum computing is now standard fare in research, industry, and science magazines, and will probably, when made completely practical, transform the computer industry. Searching on the web for quantum logic computers produces too many hits to track!
I did not invent the idea, however; that credit goes to Paul Benioff and Richard Feynman and to David Deutsch.
"Its from Bits" is a phrase coined by J. A. Wheeler to broadly describe information-based theories of physics. It's that approach to physics (inspired in my case by reading Frederick Kantor's Information Mechanics in the early seventies) that led me to describe what happens at or near absolute zero in Heads. This presaged to some extent the results of physics experiments that proved the reality of a Bose-Einstein condensate, a new state of matter in which supercooled atoms join together in a single quantum state.
"Its from Bits" was later used in my novels Anvil of Stars and Moving Mars . I'm not done with this approach, and am still working over the possibility of deriving various forces, particularly gravitation, from the data refresh rate of interacting masses.
Heads begins with that most subtle and difficult branch of the physical sciences, thermodynamics ...
Order and cold, heat and politics. The imposition of wrong order: anger, death, suicide, and destruction. I lost loved ones, lost my illusions, and went through mental and physical hell, but what still haunts my dreams, thirty years after, are the great silvery refrigerators four stories tall hanging motionless in the dark void of the Ice Pit; the force disorder pumps with their constant sucking silence; the dissolving ghost of my sister, Rho; and William Pierce's expression when he faced his lifetime goal, in the Quiet ...
I believe that Rho and William are dead, but I will never be sure. I am even less sure about the four hundred and ten heads.
Fifty meters beneath the cinereous regolith of Ocean Procellarum, in the geographic center of the extensive and largely empty Sandoval territories, the Ice Pit was a volcanic burp in the Moon's ancient past, a natural bubble almost ninety meters wide that had once been filled with the aqueous seep of a nearby ice fall.
The Ice Pit had been a lucrative water mine, one of the biggest pure water deposits on the Moon, but it had long since tapped out. Loath to put family members out of work, my family, the binding multiple of Sandoval, had kept it as a money-losing farm station. It supported three dozen occupants in a space that had once housed three hundred. It was sorely neglected, poorly managed, and worst of all for a lunar establishment, its alleys and warrens were dirty. The void itself was empty and unused, its water-conserving atmosphere of nitrogen long since leaked away and its bottom littered with rubble from quakes.
In this unlikely place, my brother-in-law, William Pierce, had proposed seeking absolute zero, the universal ultimate in order, peace, and quiet. In asking for the use of the Ice Pit, William had claimed he would be turning a sow's ear into a scientific silk purse. In return, Sandoval BM would boast a major scientific project, elevating its status within the Triple, and therefore its financial standing. The Ice Pit Station would have a real purpose beyond providing living space for several dozen idled ice miners masquerading as farmers. And William would have something uniquely his own, something truly challenging.
Rho, my sister, supported her husband by using all her considerable energy and charm — and her standing with my grandfather, in whose eyes she could do no wrong.
Despite grandfather's approval, the idea was subjected to rigorous examination by the Sandoval syndics — the financiers and entrepreneurs, as well as the scientists and engineers, many of whom had worked with William and knew his extraordinary gifts. Rho skillfully navigated his proposal through the maze of scrutiny and criticism.
By a five-four decision of the syndics, with much protest from the financiers and grudging acceptance from the scientists, William's project was approved.
Thomas Sandoval-Rice, the BM's director and chief syndic, gave his own approval reluctantly, but give it he did. He must have seen some use for a high-risk, high-profile research project; times were hard, and prestige could be crucial even for a top-five family.
Thomas decided to use the project as a training ground for promising young family members. Rho spoke up on my behalf, without my knowledge, and I found myself assigned to a position far above what my age and experience deserved: the new station's chief financial manager and requisitions officer.
I was compelled by family loyalties — and the pleas of my sister — to cut loose from formal schooling at the Tranquil and move to the Ice Pit Station. At first I was less than enthusiastic. I felt my calling to be liberal arts rather than finance and management; I had, in family eyes, frittered away my education studying history, philosophy, and the Terrestrial classics. But I had a fair aptitude for the technical sciences — less aptitude for the theoretical — and had taken a minor in family finances. I felt I could handle the task, if only to show my elders what a liberal mentality could accomplish.
Ostensibly I was in charge of William and his project, answerable to the syndics and financial directors alone; but of course, William quickly established his own pecking order. I was twenty years old at the time; William, thirty-two.
Inside the void, foamed rock was sprayed to insulate and seal in a breathable atmosphere. I oversaw the general cleanup, refitting of existing warrens and alleys, and investment in a relatively Spartan laboratory.
Large refrigerators stored at the station since the end of ice mining had been moved into the void, providing far more cooling capacity than William actually needed for his work.
Vibration is heat. The generators that powered the Ice Pit laboratory lay on the surface, their noise and vibration isolated from the refrigerators and William's equipment and laboratory. What vibration remained was damped by suspension in an intricate network of steel springs and field levitation absorbers.
The Ice Pit's heat radiators also lay near the surface, sunk six meters deep in the shadow of open trenches, never seeing the sun, faces turned toward the all-absorbing blackness of space.
Three years had passed since the conversion. Again and again, William had failed to meet his goal. His demands for equipment had become more extravagant, more expensive, and more often than not, rejected. He had become reclusive, subject to even wider mood swings.
I met William at the beginning of the alley that led to the Ice Pit, in the main lift hollow. We usually saw each other only in passing as he whistled through the cold rock alleys between home and the laboratory. He carried a box of thinker files and two coils of copper tubing and looked comparatively happy.
William was a swarthy stick of a man, two meters tall, black eyes deep-set, long narrow chin, lips thin, brows and hair dark as space, with a deep shadow on his jaw. He was seldom calm or quiet, except when working; he could be rude and abrasive. Set loose in a meeting, or conversing on the lunar com net, he sometimes seemed contentious to the point of self-destruction, yet still the people closest to him loved and respected him. Some of the Sandoval engineers considered William a genius with tools and machines, and on those rare occasions when I was privileged to see his musician's hands prodding and persuading, seducing all instrumentality, designing as if by willing consensus of all the material parts, I could only agree; but I loved him much less than I respected him.
In her own idiosyncratic way, Rho was crazy about him; but then, she was just as driven as William. It was a miracle their vectors added.
William and I matched step. "Rho's back from Earth. She's flying in from Port Yin," I said.
"Got her message," he said, bouncing to touch the rock roof three meters overhead. His glove brought down a few lazy drifts of foamed rock. "Got to get the arbeiters to spray that." His distracted tone betrayed no real intent to follow through. "I've finally straightened out the QL, Micko. The interpreter's making sense. My problems are solved."
"You always say that before some new effect cuts you down." We had come to the large, circular, white ceramic door that marked the entrance to the Ice Pit and stopped at the white line that William had crudely painted there, three years ago. The line could be crossed only on his invitation.
The hatch opened. Warm air poured into the corridor; the Ice Pit was always warmer than ambient, being filled with so much equipment. Still, the warm air smelled cold; a contradiction I had never been able to resolve.
"I've licked the final source of external radiation," William said. "Some terrestrial metal doped with twentieth century fallout." He zipped his hand away. "Replaced it with lunar steel. And the QL is really tied in. I'm getting straight answers out of it — as straight as quantum logic can give. Leave me my illusions."
"Sorry," I said. He shrugged magnanimously. "I'd like to see it in action."
He screwed up his face in irritation, then slumped. "I'm sorry, Mickey. I've been a real wart. You fought for it, you got it for me, you deserve to see it. Come on."
I followed William over the line and across the forty-meter-long, two-meter-wide wire and girder bridge into the Ice Pit. He walked ahead of me, between the force disorder pumps. I stopped to look at the bronze torii mounted on each side of the bridge. They reminded me of massive abstract sculptures, but they were among the most sensitive and difficult of William's tools, always active, even when not connected to William's samples. Passing between them, I felt a twitch in my interior, as if my body were a large ear listening to something it could barely hear: an elusive, sucking silence.
William looked back at me and grinned sympathetically. "Spooky feeling, hm?"
"I hate it," I said.
"So do I, but it's sweet music, Micko. Sweet music indeed."
Beyond the pumps, connected to the bridge by a short, narrow walkway and enclosed in a steel Faraday cage, hung the Cavity. Inside the Cavity, embedded in a meter-wide sphere of perfect, orbit-fused quartz, hidden by a flawless mirror coating of niobium, rested eight thumb-sized ceramic cells, each containing approximately a thousand atoms of copper. Each cell was surrounded by its own superconducting electromagnet. These were the mesoscopic samples, large enough to experience the macroscopic qualities of temperature, small enough to lie within the microscopic realm of quantum forces. They were never allowed to reach a temperature greater than one millionth of a degree Kelvin.
The T-shaped laboratory lay at the end of the bridge: a hundred square meters of enclosed work space made of thin shaped steel framing covered by black plastic wall. Suspended by vibration-damping cords and springs and field levitation from the high dome of the Ice Pit, three of the four cylindrical refrigerators surrounded the laboratory like the pillars of a tropical temple, overgrown by a jungle of pipes and cables. Waste heat was conveyed through the rubble net at the top of the void and through the foamed rock roof beyond by flexible tubes; the buried radiators on the surface then shed that heat into space.
The fourth and final and largest refrigerator lay directly above the Cavity, sealed to the upper surface of the quartz sphere. From a distance, the refrigerator and the Cavity might have resembled a squat, old-fashioned mercury thermometer, with the Cavity serving as bulb.
Almost from the beginning of the project, William had maintained to the syndics — through Rho and myself; we never let him appear in person — that his equipment could not be perfectly tuned by even the most skilled human operators, or by the most complicated of computer controllers. All of his failures, he said in his blackest moods, were due to this problem: the inability of macroscopic controllers to ever be in sync with the quantum qualities of the samples.
What he — what the project — needed was a Quantum Logic thinker. Yet these were manufactured only on Earth and were not being exported. Because so few existed, the black market of the Triple had none to offer, and even could we find one for sale, the costs of purchase, avoiding Earth authorities, and shipping to the Moon would be enormous. Rho and I could not convince the syndics to even contemplate making the effort.
William had seemed to blame me personally.
Our break came with news of an older-model QL thinker being offered for sale by an Asian industrial consortium. William determined that this thinker would suit our needs — but it was suspiciously cheap, and almost certainly obsolete. That didn't bother William.
The syndics approved this request, to everybody's surprise, I think. It might have been Thomas's final gift and test for William — any more expensive requisitions without at least the prospect of a success and the Ice Pit would be closed.
Rho traveled to Earth to strike a deal with the Asian consortium. The thinker was packaged, shipped, and arrived six weeks later. I had not heard from her between the time of the purchase and her message from Port Yin that she had returned to the Moon. She had spent four weeks extra on Earth, and I was more than a little curious to find out what she had been doing there.
The laboratory had four rooms, two in the neck of the T, one extending on each side to make the wings. William led me through the laboratory door — actually a flexible curtain — into the first room, which was filled with a small metal table and chair, a disassembled nano-works arbeiter, and cabinets of cubes and disks. In the second room, the QL thinker occupied a central platform about half a meter on a side. On the wall to the left of the table were a manual control board — seldom used now — and two windows overlooking the Cavity.
The QL room was quiet and cool, like what I imagine a monk's cell off a cloister would be like. (We have monks, but we don't have cloisters on the Moon.) The QL itself covered perhaps a third of the platform's surface. Beneath the platform lay the QL's separate power supplies; by Triple common law, all thinkers were equipped with supplies capable of lasting a full year without outside replenishment.
William leaned over and patted the QL proudly. "It's running almost everything now," he said. "If we succeed, the QL will take a large share of the credit."
I hunkered to the QL's level to peer at its white cylindrical container. "Who'll get the Nobel, you or it?" I asked.
William shook his head. "Probably doesn't matter. Nobody off Earth has ever gotten a Nobel, anyway," he said. I felt the most affection for my brother-in-law when he reacted positively to my acidulous humor. "But surely I get some credit for pointing the QL in the right direction!"
Excerpted from Far Thoughts and Pale Gods by Greg Bear. Copyright © 2016 Greg Bear. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- The Wind from a Burning Woman
- Plague of Conscience
- About the Author