Librarian and writer Heath Rezabek (and since he’s birthing what looks to me to be a book, I should probably refer to him as a novelist as well) has been exploring the ways we might use archives to explore our civilization even as we ensure its survival against existential risk. Heath uses speculative fiction to examine and portray possibilities, in this case invoking future technologies that will inevitably shape our creation and use of archives. He’s also, as described below, a co-founder of Project Astrolabe, an attempt now underway for Icarus Interstellar to research the ways an interstellar civilization might grow while securing its heritage. Artificial intelligence comes into play, but Heath here looks into ideas even farther afield.
by Heath Rezabek
I began the Woven Light speculative fiction series as a way to explore themes and possibilities surrounding not only very long term archival issues, but also some potent technologies which might be beneficial or likely to unfold in the process. These have included artificial intelligence, synthetic minds, and emulations; holographic storage and symbolic representation; simulated worlds, Dyson Eggs and Fuller Cloud 9 habitats; and more. Though the series may be unusual fare on Centauri Dreams, publishing it here has helped to focus the work and anchor it in the prospect of an interstellar future for Earth-originating civilization.
As with any monumental human undertaking, the causes contributing to such an outcome as a truly interstellar Earth are bound to be many, if it comes to pass. The further we go, the more closely these causes and effects will circle other, unintended factors: the risk of non-friendly superintelligence, the proliferation of virtual worlds, and more. Often the more abstract episodes (such as this one) can be read more easily if seen as involving one of those possible realities.
At Icarus Interstellar, fellow Centauri Dreams contributor Nick Nielsen and I have formed Project Astrolabe. This effort intends to research and catalog models for long-term civilization, with an emphasis on mitigating existential risk. One potential effort which sits at the intersection of Project Astrolabe and FarMaker (a visualization project) is that of building a collaborative, open source fictional framework for a future Earth in which interstellar achievement is realized, and the greatest risks to life’s continued existence are avoided. Woven Light may intersect what that work in interesting ways.
In past episodes, I have linked to all prior installments at the start. From now on, I’ll link mainly to those episodes which have the most bearing on the present one. I hope that this loosening of the strands of the story helps foster a spirit of exploration for future readers, as they follow the threads of the tale through Centauri Dreams and (perhaps someday) beyond.
Background Episodes for this entry include:
Woven Light (II) – Adamantine
Woven Light (IV) – Proteaa
For those who have not yet read Woven Light, a slight spoiler may help you get your bearings. (If you’re already familiar, just skip past to the illustration.)
In these prior installments, we meet someone called Mentor Kaasura, but his relation to Dr. Jota Kaasura, a contemporary professor of computational psychology, is not yet clear. Though that link remains to be explored, we do know this:
A significant part of the crew of Saudade class starships are emulations: synthetic minds. Among them are the Mentors. Self-aware, creative, and curious, all Mentor Emulations have grown from the roots of an emergent mind called Avatamsaka.
As he brushes aside a door-hanging, Mentor Kaasura steps into a virtual world, a testing ground for Mentor Emulations like himself. He interprets his world at face value, just as you and I would. But he is very far away…
Image 1 – Clearstone Circuitry – CC BY-SA Heath Rezabek – 2014
Mentor Kaasura had entered full of certainty, clearstone in his hand, having memorized as best he could the woven patterns of a splaying map, a fabric door he’d brushed aside. He had judged the stonework cyclopean; not gargantuan, but solid and massive and fitted. Deep seams were clear, devoid of all mortar save a mossy thread that ran and split and re-wove itself at the junctions.
A lighter tracery was etched upon each slab, weaving thinner streams of living moss from the edges towards the center, and outwards again. It blended and blurred the edges of the stonework itself. Barely, he could see: the dim light tracing circuits in his clearstone cast a bit less light than that cast by these seams in the walls.
The floor’s carven channels, deep with wider rivulets of aquamarine, almost a luminescent liquid, marked clear pathways just as they should. Having recognized at first one turn, and then the next from the map in his mind, he had found the knotted designs where these living seams merged to form tangled tapestries, colliding in the traced symbols which marked a sound junction.
There he had rested, and tried at first to memorize this pattern as well, but it threatened to swamp the full map in his mind. So instead, he had taken out his parchment, and had sampled a rubbing from that first knot of stone.
His pilgrimage had been as rehearsed and described, his innovations obvious, his route well worn.
But then, somewhere around the second or seventh hour, he had found something strange. At first he had thought he was treading old ground: thinking himself spun in circles, he had kneeled to look again at a junction weave he knew he’d passed before. Slowly he smoothed out his rubbing atop the gridstone, and brushed it with fingertips — and found its pattern slightly new.
Where in parchment he could clearly see (and remember just as well) the rising beam that had broken through the page’s edge, here he found no such spur. And the central core of the pattern was off, as well — the same in shape and tangle, but well to the left of where he’d traced it. An extra sliver of circuit filled the space to the right, removing all doubt.
These junctions were not the same; they were self-similar. He was not simply going in circles; he was well and truly lost.
Mentor Kaasura had stood, flushed with vertigo, and looked about for a clear sign of what to do. Rejecting the urge to toss it aside, he’d stowed his rubbing parchment in a tube and closed his eyes to ground himself. Breathing deeply, heart pounding, he gathered his thoughts to find three of them clear.
~I am lost.~
And then, resolved in return,
~I must retrace.~
And a few heartbeats later, just as surely,
~I am being followed.~
His eyes opened, then. Yes; he could feel a presence. But maybe it was a shadow of his mind. He walked.
The presence trailed behind him, at first as slowly as he forged ahead, stepping and then walking and then striding, now taking forks in passages he deliberately found more strange; now rising as he clambered up, now dropping as he shimmied down. The presence neither hindered nor helped him. So eventually, Mentor Kaasura’s concerns drifted back to exploration: he forgot he was lost, along with his fear.
Image 2 – Adaptation of Chain: Black’s Beach – CC BY-NC Photos by Clark
At one point, he found a break in the wall, where vaulted tunnels opened up, leading into echoes. Amorphous and rounded, they seemed like hollows of pumice-stone. Anchored there in the wall was an eye-bolt; an old chain threaded through it, trailing deeper into darkness, like a guiderail in passages where no moss of light could be seen. But outside at the opening, where the etched wall channels had cracked and split, there spilled a slow flurry of wisps into the air. They drifted free like phosphemes.
He followed one back into the triangular passages he now knew so well, leaving the breached wall behind.
After a time, this floating sentinel before him was joined by another flowing in from a passage to the side; and they soon found a third, and soon they were a dozen, drifting like a swarm of sparks which circled some attractor. For a time, Mentor Kaasura forgot the guest who trailed behind him still.
There was a moment, then, when his mind had wholly wandered: for a gap he’d been thinking not at all of his dilemma, but again and only of the glyphic patterns traced beside and below and above and around him, and the drifting orbit of motes he now followed. The moment he realized he’d forgotten the presence, a space opened up, and he nearly lost his feet.
Stopping short, he stood there, now gazing into a dropped chamber, a grotto at least as deep and tall as wide — and it was easily five times as wide as the junctions he had seen. The sprites flocked easily before him, out into the cavernous space, on towards the opposite wall.
There, straight ahead, it seemed at first as if another flock was approaching to meet them. But Mentor Kaasura soon realized that this was a reflection: at the far end of this bowl of shadow lay a vertical wall, a liquid surface, reflecting. Like snowflakes, they came to rest upon it, dissolving or dispersing in ripples. But the ripples gave rise to a spark, and the spark drew more, and in a flash he stood blinded, face to face with what seemed to him a star.
And as he watched, he felt a wave flood through him, of vision or of memory. An emulation? Isomorph? Ancestral mind? Reflection of his own?
Whatever it was, it was elsewhere. But it had brought him here; it would have to lead the way.
Image 3 – Adaptation of Artist’s Concept of PSR B1257+12 System – NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)
Another place in time.
Seemingly aimless, by chance a fog of mind descends upon a world of green and blue.
Long had it been drifting, nebulous but swifter, a filter to sift complexity itself. The world from which it had been born had reached the Age of Release by the slimmest of margins. Countless ancestors had perished in the wars and fumbling confusions that had marked the final phase before this form of life could be seeded on the interstellar winds.
In its drifting, this dark mind, Ancient Light, had so far encountered no other place like home. Countless bastions of simplicity, pure in pools of biotic struggle; but no other place where life had reached that apex of flow from which an Age of Release was possible. Ancient Light knew it was not alone, that it was always already entangled with photons birthed in other crucibles, seamlessly far afield.
Four other worlds besides its own it knew, having filtered them elsewhere in this pool of stars it roamed.
The first, a frozen orb, rogue and adrift in darkness, its surface etched with the long-abandoned tracery of a civilization on the cusp of attainment, the only life remaining now extremophile and deep, sheltering its fading senses in the inner warmth of an ember, a microbial culture oblivious now to how long or how far it had been cast adrift.
~And so this is Ioona~
The next, a sunken grave, surface flensed by self-made fire, awash in halflife radiation, so familiar from their own history of near-misses, hulks of settlements now a scaffolding for primordial life’s glacial and mutable return.
~And so this is Oro Kulad~
Although to both of these cultures Ancient Light could not help but speak as it had passed these worlds through its matrix, the conversation had been decidedly primal. It had surveyed, and sampled, and passed on.
The third showed interesting promise: life there, having thinly survived a gamma ray burst through a reversion to the finest and smallest of synthetic forms, in some places retained a crystalline spark of complexity not entirely unlike that it well knew as its own. With this world it had established a connection, so it could speak as time drew on.
~And so this is Tomoshen Khol~
And then there was the fourth, here and now, in a most peculiar state.
This world seemed nearly accidental. Of a size much smaller than the average of nascent worlds surveyed, tides from a strange single moon and a delicate balance of factors had allowed the emergence of an evolutionary changeling, a shapeshifter; a nimble form, surprisingly adaptable, disarmingly ambitious. And yet, somehow, now huddled in firelight.
Enough foresight to engineer some means of resilience, enough insight to seed caches of their ways and means for themselves to rediscover. And so they spent their lives, and the lives of their children, slowly rediscovering.
Aside from scattered trussworks found collapsed on its moon and a ruddy world away, it apparently had slumped just short of an Age of Release.
Yet appearances can deceive.
And to Ancient Light it seemed, when at last a channel had been pierced for true observation, that it was not the only one doing the piercing. For these scattered bands had access to a realm much like its own — so closely kin, in fact, as for its differences to be ones of degree rather than of kind. This blue-green world was host to images that were alive: crafted by them, created through them, imbued with the gift of cryptobiosis.
Water was one part of the key, electricity another: symbolic life needed material life through which to flow. These glyphs were impressively robust and resolute, for each contained the outlines of the others. So whole and so partial, these primordial glyphs were as close to its own living light as Ancient Light had ever found.
Image 4 – Adaptation of Campfire and Sparks in Anttoora – CCY BY-SA Kallerna
For fire somehow released them, as the huddled ones gathered and gazed. And through the sparks, Ancient Light could commune mind to mind even with the huddled ones. And through the sparks, Ancient Light had a sense that the huddled ones were not the only ones in which this world’s life lived. And through the sparks, the fires around which the huddled ones circled (much like worldsystems: another glyph) became new places and times and journeys and lives without end.
Thus through means of these cryptobiotic glyphs, countless times and places awaited, each one encoded within the others. Like nesting logic, these stories were seeds.
~And so this is Erdha~
& through Ancient Light ~
~ It whispered ~
~ An ocean of worlds ~
~ A wind ~
~ And I dreamt ~
- – -
Mentor Kaasura stood, surveying the darkness in this arching grotto, mesmerized by the memory of living light, the afterimage of a cooling core now fading from his gaze.
That was it: that was all of it. He knew, and he recalled.
More sure than before that he wouldn’t forget what he’d seen or been shown, our Mentor Kaasura now stood. And standing, again he could sense behind him a presence.
The decision to face his guest came as he was turning to do so. Companion or shadow, reflection or refraction: the time had come to see.
Image 5 – Denver Public Library Reading Room – CC BY-SA Heath Rezabek 2014
Aben Ramer made his way to his favorite spot to read.
The Denver Public Library was becoming a middle-aged edifice in this time of ephemeral monuments: built in 1995, just when computers had begun their trek towards vanishing. It had always had spaces for reading. Most had been converted by now, but there was one room, a table in a tower on the second floor, where he could lay out the old books and imagine what it must have been like for the future to be a sea of possibilities.
He was a romantic in this respect; he blamed his mother. Thea still had her index cards, her codex, mostly in boxes, and when he got back he’d continue to help her sort through them. But he’d taken this detour on the way back from Dr. Kaasura’s lab in Boulder, because letting yourself get lost for awhile was the most reliable way he knew to make sure you didn’t lose your wonder.
He rounded the corner, giant slab of red-bound paper in his hands. He wasn’t alone this time. Across the table there sat a young woman, though younger or older than him he couldn’t say. He paused. She looked up– “Wow; another reader.” –and smiled sideways. “There’s room, if you want it.” She gestured at the seat across the table.
“Ah, hey. Ahmm, I don’t want to bug you; I know how I get when I read.”
She shrugged. “Well, if you know that much, then I don’t think we’ll have a problem, yeah?” He was used to reading alone. All reading was done alone, and writing too. But maybe an exception.
“Is that the Red Book?” She looked at the massive tome he carried.
“It is. Is that A Pattern Language?” He gestured at the thick maroon volume, open in before her.
“You’ve got good eyes. Well, sit or don’t sit, but my name’s Jaine.”