This is a short story I wrote for Shimon Edelman's Consciousness and Free Will class at Cornell in the Fall of 2011. I hadn't written any fiction since high school, when it's hard to care about anything you write because it's obvious that you're writing for an audience of none, or at best, one. Not wanting this essay to turn out the same way, I figured I'd force myself to post it online to see what the threat of embarrassment would do for my writing. *gulp*.
“Jel, you're up!”
Jelrie Swana woke with a start. Had he been daydreaming? He couldn't quite tell. He jumped out of his seat, hoping that the show of extra energy would swirl around in Mr. Zarra's mind, dilute the likely observation of him sleeping, and result in at least a lukewarm concoction of indifference.
He made his way up to the front of the class, trying to remember what he was supposed to be doing. Was it Silent Singing day again? He always hated those ridiculous days. Oh please, not that again. No, no it couldn't be Silent Singing day, that was two days ago. He winced at the remembrance. What was it then? As he made his way through the rows of students reclining in their Thermoplaster Hover chairs, he noticed the Holovis displaying a dull, gray orb, spinning as it hung in the front of the room.
Oh yeah, it was project day! Right! Jel was suddenly very glad he'd sat so far in the back, because by the time the realization hit him, he was only a few rows from the front. Today was the day where everyone was presenting their microverses, the projects they'd spent the last six months slaving over. At least they were supposed to have been slaving.
Ok, just another microverse presentation.
He reached the front of the class and turned to face the other students. “Show 11-42” he spoke, in the monotone voice that one always seems to use when talking to artificial lifeforms in front of one's peers. The Holovis silently obeyed, though with a slight, begrudging delay that it hoped Jel would notice. Not everything had the luxury of sleeping whenever it wanted, thought the Holovis.
Jel did notice. “Is that thing always grumpy, or is it just me?” he thought. He wasn't sure. “Oh to be a Holovis, or Aqua Blaster, or one of those majestic Infodomes that everyone's always marvelling at. I bet they never have to give silly microverse presentations...”
Jel realized he was standing there without saying anything, so he deduced that this would be a good time to get his act together and give some manner of presentation, if only for the sake of tradition.
“Ummm... so this is my verse, 11-42. It's, uhh... pretty standard so far.” A field of stars was showing on the Holovis, slowly rotating. “I've been working on it non-stop for the past six months, and I'm pretty happy with the civilizations that I've generated.”
Mr. Zarra rolled his eyes and rubbed his temples. Another microverse presentation. Weren't they through with these yet? An image of a 4D Hyperbat breaking through the thin crystalline walls of the school and devouring his little scholastic headaches floated through his mind. He tried his hardest to suppress a smile at the thought as he looked up at Jel.
“Great. It looks like a good start. What model did you use again?” He mentally congratulated himself on rallying his emotions into a convincing display of interest.
“Normal Physics. Mostly the parameters are from the Kala 3D model. I made the alpha really small --- 10 to the minus four --- to see what would happen if information couldn't move very fast. And uh...” Jel stammered as he tried to come up with something else interesting to say.
“The Kala Causal model??”
“Yeah, the causal one.” He had used to like playing with the non-causal microverses, but those were really just toys sold at carnivals that had to be constantly reset, and they were always running out of matter, or energy, depending on the model.
“Hah, what a boring verse!” Noah Wreten was standing up, gesturing to the Holovis as he spun the stars around and zoomed into an area with a few of them. “All your stars are just round! Reminds me of what I used to play with when I was still wearing hoverpads!”
Jel felt a tinge of embarrassment. It was true: his stars, and the few meager planets that had managed to form around them, were all nearly perfectly round. He had thought that using an epsilon of 5, along with the Kala model's version of an electrogravitational field would have given him a more normally networked microverse, but for some reason it hadn't worked out. He was hoping nobody would really care, but of course, there was Noah. He never really got around to hating Noah, but he did find him rather annoying. Not annoying like having a Duparian Sand Crawler jump onto your face when hiking through the desert, but annoying like getting the last slice of cheese out of the MolePrinter for lunch, the kind with ragged edges and the slightly acrid taste of the seal at the bottom of the cartridges. There were certainly things worse than Noah and final slices of MolePrinted cheese, but in an ideal world, neither of these would exist.
“Whatever, Noah, like your last verse was any better. What were there, like, two species that survived?” Jel replied. The class laughed. Noah stood there in silence, realizing that he'd almost forgotten his project from last year.
“Anyway," Jel continued, “It's been running for almost 1\% delta entropy, and there are already 12 inhabited sectors, with a lot of diversity between the species.”
“Of course there is a lot of diversity," interrupted Mr. Zarra, temporarily torn from his increasingly vivid Hyperbat hallucinations. “With an alpha of 10 to the minus four, there's no way information can even be shared between any of those sectors. None of the inhabitants of those sectors will even survive long enough for their information horizons to meet.”
Jel mentally kicked himself. Of course Mr. Zarra was right: with the Kala model's electrogravitational field plodding along like a Mega Slogger through a Eutrarian swamp in the middle of a Nap Ceremony, there's no way the separately evolved areas would even know about each other, let alone interact.
“What?? Why are your voxels so blurry?” Noah was still controlling the Holovis and was now zoomed in at level 18 to show the center of a star.
Jel slightly panicked and quickly gestured to the Holovis to zoom out to show the whole galaxy. “This is one of the inhabited galaxies. In fact, right over here...”
“No, go back to the star.” Mr. Zarra said. The Hyperbat vanished for good, and the screaming children we replaced with the real, infinitely less tolerable versions before him. “Noah was right, why aren't the voxels clear?”
Jel reluctantly zoomed back in to level 18, where stratons, anti-stratons, and anti-anti-stratons would normally be visible. Instead, there was just a blurry mess of bloated masses floating around, as if someone had zoomed in way too far.
“My... what is that?” As Mr. Zarra's eyes narrowed he took control of the Holovis and zoomed in to level 25. Instead of seeing the voxels he expected, there was nothing more than a slowly roiling pastel sea of color. “Where are your voxels, Jel? Did you expect to get away with this?”
Jel's life flashed before his brain. Suddenly the lazy evenings spent playing Starball and surfing on his Zarboard instead of programming didn't seem like such a good idea. When his parents heard about this, they would definitely take away his Zarboard, if he was lucky, and if he wasn't, they were liable just to put him on the offspring exchange again.
“Well?” Mr. Zarra and the rest of the class stared at him.
“I uhh... well I only have a Simula 2b, so I couldn't get it running at full resolution. I... I...” Jel stumbled over his words: “I tried with a normal update algorithm but it didn't work.” Jel stared at the floor.
“So what did you do?” Mr. Zarra asked. “How do you decide which direction each quark goes if you don't know the motion of its stratons?”
“Umm... well after each collision I didn't know what to do so I...” He paused, and then decided there was no turning back: “I just set both quarks to have any random velocity so that the delta momentum is zero.”
“Random velocity!?” Noah blurted. The class erupted in laughter.
Mr. Zarra shook his head. “Jel, how do you expect any species to evolve past 9 Polibars of sentience in a microverse like that? They'll notice the randomness almost immediately and know they're only a simulation.”
It was true. Many people, halgons, and all manner of energy-based entities disagreed on the finer points of crafting an exquisite microverse simulation, but they did manage to agree on at least one thing: the mark of a quality simulation was the length of time before any of the simulated denizens realized that they were, in fact, living in a simulation. Most of the cheap, hastily constructed verses, or those afforded only parsimonious amounts of computation, were soon discovered as simulations from within. Only the most elegantly designed, perfectly tuned simulations running on the newest Simula 4k would support unwitting life much past the 1.5\% entropy mark. The famous Mark XK, by eccentric designer Harota, for example, had held seven evolved sentient species, none of whom had discovered any bugs in the system until 1.73\% entropy increase.
Eventually though, bugs and self-inconsistencies were always discovered. After millenia of research by the superitelligent beings of Vedron 7, it was concluded that it was computationally infeasible of providing a physically realistic simulation that could not eventually be discovered as such from within.
Of course, if you were willing to give up on simulating physics that matched the real world, it wasn't so hard to build a completely self-consistent microverse, but these invariably produced no species of any real interest. The Triangle beings of Blocksworld 4, for example, would do nothing other than twitch back and forth in a rhythm that eventually filled the entire microverse. The problem, it was hypothesized, was that these simpler physical models were too easy to fully exploit, after which there would be no need for further evolution.
The bounds could always be pushed, but eventually finite computational power would necessarily result in pixelation on the lowest levels of matter, and it was only a matter of time before any species developed the means necessary to muck about on this scale.
And when their mucking about and poking around had reached its inevitable conclusion, the inhabitants suddenly knew. And then the incessant knocking began. Those in the simulation wanted nothing but to get out, and those outside were nearly universally disinterested in extracting any virtual beings into reality. Those few that had attempted extraction had never managed to pull it off without destroying the delicate consciousness arising via physical laws that were designed to be the same as the real world, but in reality differed by enough to make the jump impossible.
As for exactly how long a simulation could be run, the superitelligent beings of Vedron 7 spent many years and many Federation grants trying to derive the exact Limit of Unwitting Simulation, however, these studies generally only concluded two things: that the length was quite likely greater than zero, and that the real answer was surely only one more grant away. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that the 1.73\% mark will one day be surpassed.
Mr. Zarra resumed: “So? Are your species now spending all their time knocking on the door of the universe, trying to get out? Are they staring up at their skies, waiting for some response? Has their development died completely?”
“I don't know, Mr. Zarra,” Jel admitted. “Usually lifeforms will exploit any inconsistencies they find to try to be noticed, or at least to throw a few really good parties. Usually they'll take the common approach of arranging some stars into the universal fractal shape to hail us. They want us to know that they know, to make us realize that they get it.” Jel sighed. “But so far none of the lifeforms in my 12 sectors are doing anything like this.”
“Oh, I'm sure they are Jel... you just aren't paying enough attention. Here, let's see.” Mr. Zarra panned over to the first of the 12 sectors with life, an edge of a galaxy that had been fairly well developed. The dominant species were globular, gelatinous creatures with six, seven, or eight tentacles. From the looks of it, the eight tentacle versions commanded quite a bit of power. But their society didn't show any of the usual obvious signs of Simulation Awareness. They merely seemed to go about their business unknowingly. Said business seemed mostly to consist of flying around in little carbon-based pods, going to parties thrown by the more noble octentates, and, of course, frequenting late night diners for their particular version of comfort food.
It had been an interesting discovery in 82,939 that every observed species with consciousness of at least 9 Polibars eventually created some version of the late-night diner. Many have speculated that there must be some deeper meaning to be taken from the universality of diners. Several religions had formed around the idea, the most popular of which, Dinuism, held that the diners were really the only thing that really existed, and anything else observed in real or simulated universes was just the shadow of a single much greater, higher-dimensional diner. Dinuism had recently enjoyed quite a surge in subscription, possibly due to the universally loved, gregarious DinoPope Wafflus VI, or possibly due to the universally loved weekly Rite of Bacon.
Mr. Zarra frowned. “Well, I'm sure the evidence is there somewhere, you just need to find it. I can't be expected to do all your work for you!” Jel nodded. “I'm afraid until you've fixed or at least properly analyzed your microverse, I have no choice but to give you an F for this project.”
“But Mr. Zarra!” Jel interjected.
“No buts, and no complaining. What did you think you would get for skipping most of the implementation of physics? That will be all, Jel.” Mr. Zarra pointed him to his seat. “Sean, you're up. Let's hope your microverse turned out better than Mr. Swana's.”
Jel slumped back to his seat.
* * * * *
“Hey, how was school?” Jel's father, Levin, asked as Jel stepped off the moving sidewalk just outside their modest living cube.
“Oh come on, it couldn't have been that bad. What did you work on today?”
“It was my final project presentation this afternoon. I was supposed to show off my microverse, but it flopped. I never could get the physics working fast enough to calculate the straton motions on my stupid Simula 2b, so I just hacked in some approximation for the quarks.”
“What kind of approximation?” Levin's paint brush had been hovering over his painting, unsure of where to strike for the last few minutes, so he set it down.
“Um... I just set the motion randomly on each collision or near-collision.”
“Heh. Yeah that could cause some problems!” Jel's dad smiled. “How long did they last?”
“That's the thing, Lev! I can't even find any evidence that they're Simulation Aware! Which was another problem with my presentation.”
“Well come on, let's take a look.”
The two of them walked inside, and Jel took his Simula out of his pocket and put it on the table. “11-42” he said to the small Holovis that lived under their cube's lone Komburack plant. He liked this Holovis much better than the grouchy one at school. The visualization flickered to life, and the slowly rotating field of stars shone before them. Lev flipped through the parameters. “Pretty small alpha, huh? Should be interesting.” Jel nodded.
Lev zoomed into a galaxy, and went right for a nondescript binary system. As he passed level 16, 17, 18, the blurry quarks appeared. He zoomed a bit further, and soon they saw the same slowly undulating random sea of colors as before.
“And you say it has managed to support a few species?”
“Yeah, sure! 12 separate sectors have life, and they're all independent because of the tiny alpha.” Jel was happy that he now at least understood a small part of what was going on.
“And none of them have caught on?”
“Nope, not that I can tell.”
“Strange.” Lev zoomed back out, rotated the the verse a bit, and then zoomed in to a smaller galaxy, highlighted by the Holovis a slight green because it contained life.
“Yeah that sector is a weird one, actually.” Jel said as Lev continued to zoom in past dozens of clusters of stars, until a region of space only 10 light-years wide filled the room, showing seven nearby stars supporting inhabitants, presumably of related species.
Jel continued: “It seems they noticed the randomness a long time ago, but somehow they just built a physical model around it. By now it's deeply entrenched in their priors, and nobody seems to mind.” Levin raised an eyebrow. “They even have some technology that directly exploits the randomness for computation, not to mention for a few of their more exotic drinking games.”
“If you look over here...” Jel pulled up one star with two inhabited planets spinning around it. “... you can see where they started.” Jel pointed at the third-closest planet to the star. “Most of the organisms are still here, even though they have colonies on six of the other stars' planets.”
Lev continued to stare. “Huh. And they don't seem to mind the randomness? The inherent unpredictability isn't intellectually infuriating to them?”
“I guess not.”
“Well, you're almost to 1\% entropy now, you may as well keep running it for a while longer. Maybe they'll never notice!” Lev chuckled. “Say, it's about time for first dinner, what do you think? How about Gladwood's? We can let it run until we get back.”
“Sure!” Jel smiled. Gladwood's was one of his favorite diners. Their Cowhale Lagrange Shakes, made with the bodily excrement of only the oldest cowales, were delicately aged at the third Lagrange point of the system's binary pulsars, for “the smoothest most stable shake money can buy” (or so the advertising claimed). It was said that the hyperpoet Caslio had once locked himself in his ship and refused to eat anything but Gladwood's Cowhale Shakes for an entire year. In short, they were to die for.
Levin and Jelrie started toward the sidewalk outside. The door quietly disappeared before them, reappearing as they left. Jel's Simula 2b on the counter happily proceeded with its calculations, and the Holovis continued to show the third planet, now nearly filling the empty room as it hung, slowly rotating, in silence. One half of the planet glowed in brilliant shades of solid blue and green, with occasional drifting puffs of white illuminated by the light from the off-vis star. The other half of the planet was a sea of black, broken by thousands of specks of light shining from the tiny untold civilizations below.