The two novels that accompany this introduction are co-winners of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative, awarded by the Society for Analytical Engines to the best computer-written novels of seventy thousand words or more, as judged by a committee of writers, literary critics, computer scientists, and ordinary humans not unlike yourself. The Bonehead Computer Museum and Bees, or the Floating Point Error, A Dissertation, (“Bonehead” and “Bees,” for short) represent the state of machine-written narrative in the year 1998. As such, these novels are a cause for celebration or alarm, according to one’s point of view, because as novels they are actually quite good; better, in the opinion of the Committee, than the vast majority of human-written novels of comparable scope. Those who cherish the notion of story-telling as the most distinctly human of our many traits, who steadfastly maintain that “a computer might play chess better than Kasparov, but never will there be a machine that can write a better novel than The Good Soldier or Gravity’s Rainbow” may find themselves growing anxious as they read The Bonehead Computer Museum or Bees. For if these two novels, so different from one another in style, tone, voice, and method, admittedly do not belong in the rarefied company of the best of Ford and Pynchon, still they easily hold their own against anything by Tom Clancy or Fanny Flagg. As with chess, it’s not hard to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when the most skilled practitioners of the art will be software constructs.
I pray thee, that taketh my book in hand, says the poet,
To read it well. That is, to understand.
Nice idea. But trying to understand what Bonehead and Bees are, in their essence, is a daunting, even dangerous task. One may think of the charming young caller from Montana whom a member of the Committee heard some years ago on the radio show CarTalk. Her automobile worked fine, the caller reported, but ontological uncertainty prevented her from safely driving it. She would look at the line painted down the center of the road and wonder, Is that yellow? Is it orange? What color is that? until she drove into a pasture, with the cows. A similar fate is a risk for those who read the Hofstadter prizewinners. Persons with a contemplative nature may find themselves drowning in the vortex of philosophical and psychological issues raised by the very existence of these narratives—issues such as whether these tales deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world, or merely take away one more particle of our identity. This is the fact: these books were written not by human hand but by computer program. It’s only natural to wonder, How did it do that? And, Why can’t I? Even if they had been poorly written, the simple fact of their existence would be astonishing enough, and we would admire them as curios, like the dog riding the bicycle. And we would want, naturally, to understand the workings of the programs that conjured them up. One might think that the better the novels the greater the curiosity about the mechanics of their origins, but, paradoxically, in the face of their compelling essence, we cease to care so much about how they got here. Kasparov said that at its best, the chess-playing program called Deep Blue “played like God.” At some point the mechanics of the program become irrelevant and the beauty of the play becomes the thing, as who would claim to understand God’s logic?
No claim of Godhead is made for the “authors” of Bonehead and Bees. But these novels do move us in the way novels are supposed to move us. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They keep us up late night turning pages to see what happens next. We care about the characters in The Bonehead Computer Museum and in Bees, or The Floating Point Error, characters unmistakably human. How are we to understand their provenance? Do we need to? It is to these questions that we now turn our attention.
This essay is arbitrarily placed, as it contains information that logically precedes its subject yet which can only be fully appreciated when read afterwards. (Designers of system software will recognize the two-pass compiler, which builds the symbol table on the first pass through the source, and resolves addresses in memory space on the second pass.) The information that logically precedes the novels concerns their epigenesis, how they came into being. The information best appreciated afterwards bears upon their essence—and ours.
The two books under discussion, then, are worthy of our attention not only because of the way they came into being, but also because of what they say and how they say it. Above a certain threshold, their interest to us as programming artefacts is in inverse proportion to their merit as literary artefacts—and you, dear reader, are in as good a position as any to judge their literary merit for yourself. Therefore if you are reading this introduction before you have read the books themselves, perhaps you should stop at the conclusion of this paragraph and read either Bees or The Bonehead Computer Museum before resuming this commentary. (As decades ago a certain Hawley Rising, under the influence of LSD, said to a member of the Committee who was engaged in theological flirtation, “You’re talking about God, I’m seeing God.”)
The following summary may help you decide where to begin: Bees, the shorter of the two books, might be described as a satirical phantasmagoria reminiscent of, say, Naked Lunch by William Burroughs; The Bonehead Computer Museum is a conventional biotechnology thriller with Christian millenarian overtones—sort of Michael-Crichton-meets-Flannery-O’Connor. Bees is best read, perhaps, over espresso in a coffeehouse, Bonehead in a beach chair, with children playing safely nearby. It is not mandatory that you read the novels before finishing this essay, however. Should you be so inclined, read the rest of this introduction first. But be forewarned: the information that follows will color your experience, like learning that Coleridge was in an opium fog when he wrote, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” Or that Van Gogh killed himself just after completing “Birds at Sunset.”
And finally, this introduction discloses certain aspects of the Hofstadter Competition and Prize that most of the committee felt important to bring to public attention, even though they are tangential to the actual issues under discussion here, and may, indeed, have nothing to do with the Competition and Prize at all. It is our sad duty to report that several members of the original Committee disagreed so strongly with the decision to discuss these matters in this introduction that they resigned in protest and forbad use of their names in association with this volume.
The Hofstadter Competition and Prize, named for Douglas R. Hofstadter, the computer scientist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, professor, mathematician, humorist and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach and Fluid Analogies, have their origins in a workshop held at the Interchi Symposium and Conference, held in Amsterdam in spring, 1993. Some participants at that international gathering of members of the CHI (computer human interaction) subgroup of the Society for Analytical Engines met at a workshop that took place during that conference to discuss our work with human language storytellers, HALS, which are a class of artificial intelligence program. We quickly discovered that each of us believed that his or her own HALS was a better storyteller than the others.
So, in the spirit of friendly rivalry that characterized early computer-chess round-robins and Axelrod’s “Prisoner’s Dilemma” competition (which led to his celebrated thesis The Evolution of Cooperation), we decided to sponsor a contest, open to all, and set about devising a reasonable set of rules and evaluative criteria. (Fans of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem may be consoled to learn that although we did not name the prize in honor of his story-telling robots, the winner’s statuette is in the shape of Mymosh the Self-Begotten, the accidental spawn of the universe.)
The rules and criteria that we eventually agreed to are rather technical and complex but their intent can be easily stated: they are designed to ensure that the programs actually write stories, that is, that they do not merely regurgitate or print stories that are somehow embedded within them. They must write their stories “from scratch” under the software eyes of the Committee. Thus the programs are not static, dead entities. Rather, the programs “live” in an information environment specified by the submitter. This environment might include, for example, an English language online dictionary and an Internet connection. Because these authorial programs are in some sense “alive,” not static, they would be no more likely to write the exact same novel twice than a human novelist would be likely to retype a novel from memory, word for word, comma for comma, after the only copy of his manuscript had disappeared when his car was towed from 29th Street just below the offices of Joe Regal, literary agent, and the would-be novelist had neither driver’s license, nor registration, nor insurance card, nor money to get his miserable rustbucket Volvo with the Maine plates out of the East Side Police lot in time to prevent some low-life copper, some erstwhile detective ignominiously demoted from detective to impound-lot clerk, from pinching it and marketing it as his own work. The competition was announced in the Fall of ’93 and the final rules were posted in the spring of ’94. The deadline for entries was January, 1997. (Complete rules are available at www.socanalyticalengines.org /hofstadter/rules, and an entire issue of the Communications of the Society for Analytical Engines has been devoted to them.)
The announcement of the contest drew great interest, with thousands of hits on our website and hundreds of applications filed. But when all was said and done only two entries remained for the judges’ consideration, and the committee was split exactly in half over which “novel” was the better creation. The Solomonic decision to award first prize to both was welcomed by all who did not in fact resign. The reasons that only two entries remained are a matter of dispute. One of the more startling developments in the entire process is that both winning entries were written not in LISP, the programming language generally preferred for artificial intelligence (AI) programs, but in APL (the letters stand for “a programming language”). Not only that, they were written in a dialect of APL that runs only on Data General NOVA computers, a model last manufactured in 1982, and currently in use only in the on-board flight computers in Grumman-built AWACS, the military aircraft used for airborne battle command. The actual computer on which the two novels were “written” was obtained at auction of government surplus, end-of-useful-life AWAC parts, and it is interesting to note (given the subject of Bonehead), that this machine was in use over the Kasimiyah ammunition dump during the Gulf War.
After the computer was obtained, there still were some interesting problems in setting up the run-time environment for the storywriters. On the hardware side, constructing the NOVA’s information environment required some ingenuity, since NOVAs were largely obsolete before the Internet existed, and therefore there was no easy mating protocol to hook the CPU to the network card. On the software side, the Committee faced the crucial challenge of verifying that the programs behaved as advertised; that is, that they were not hoaxes, the software equivalent of the dwarf-in-the box chess-playing “machines” of the late 1800’s. Making this verification was no mean feat. APL is a language known for its concision, ability to manipulate symbols, and “power;” it is even more famous for being inscrutable even to those adept in programming it. APL was designed to use all the characters on the original “symbol” type-ball of the IBM selectric typewriter, and in appearance it more nearly resembles Egyptian hieroglyphics than any other language. (APL is called a “write-only language,” since nobody knows how to read it.) To make matters worse, the source to the APL compiler was encumbered when Fair-child Semiconductor won its notorious antitrust suit against Data General, therefore the only way to verify that the submitted programs actually “wrote” the novels that they claimed to was by disassembly of the MP/AOS pseudo-op pop code that the compiler produces as an intermediate step—a laborious process akin to putting together paper documents that have gone through a shredder. If it were not for the stunning clarity of the MP/AOS assembly language programming manual, this present volume would not exist, and the Hofstadter prize would await its first claimant.
Complete APL sources to the programs that wrote The Bonehead Computer Museum and Bees are included on the CD-ROM packaged with this book.
Let us turn our attention now from the authorial programs to the novels themselves. We will start with the more conventional novel, The Bonehead Computer Museum. On the surface, this is a straightforward thriller in the masculine mold, the Tom Clancy/Robin Cook/Michael Crichton mold. Its plot is easily summarized. Its central character Nick Aubrey is a heavy-drinking anti-hero kind of guy, with a curious professional pedigree—he came to high technology with a background in African agriculture— who is burnt-out after a decade in the Sahelian slow lane followed by a decade in the Silicon Valley fast lane. A case of mistaken—or not—identity puts Nick in the hot seat when a man who claims to know the secret of Gulf War Disease meets his dramatic demise on a transcontinental flight, and the police suspect Nick of murder. Before long everybody wants a piece of Nick—everybody from the CIA to cybermilitiamen to corporate venture capitalists to end-of-the-millennium cultists to exotic foreign beauties. The only person who doesn’t want a piece of him is his distant wife, a beautiful biologist with a secret or two of her own. In freeing himself from a web of murder, deceit, and double-crosses, Nick comes to learn that the key to the secret of Gulf War Syndrome resides in a pharmaceutical laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, where scientists are frantically working on submicroscopic machines to rearrange human DNA. When their work is done, the Gulf War will look like child’s play. Only Nick can stop them, thereby saving the world and winning back the woman he loves. But first he’s going to have to find the Trojan Horse hidden in the Kali computer chip. He can’t do that without the help of his friend Todd, and Todd’s been in a coma for half a dozen years.
Although there are several weaknesses to the book—its plot is rather conventional, the climax is shopworn, and the surprise twists at the end are farfetched and go on too long—a surfeit of other delights more than make up for them. The Bonehead Computer Museum is a great book in part because of its garage-band directness, which allows it to sneak unutterably disturbing truths through the reader’s Panglossian defenses, as chemo agents hook rides through cell walls on the backs of friendly molecules. It’s hard to know whether the awkward writing (about sex, for example) is deliberate or not, but this program deals a lot more poetically with computer labs than bedrooms. There is an artlessness to its roman-à-clef allusions that is somehow charming, as if the program were going out of its way to make sure you got the joke. (Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen becomes Digital Data’s Ben Golson, to chose from any number of clunky externalities.) The villain of the book, Monty Meekman, bears a passing resemblance to The Simpsons Mr. Burns. But the message at the heart of Bonehead, that technology has already taken over, is not funny at all. The Bonehead Computer Museum is a fun read that takes you into the heart of the Zeitgeist and abandons you there. Anybody who finishes Bonehead and isn’t in some state of life-altering dread simply hasn’t paid attention.
It’s not only that The Bonehead Computer Museum has the ability to engender dread. Overlaid on the thriller is an ill-fitting Christian allegory which, by the very fact that it sits so poorly on the subject, only heightens our sense of aloneness. The old myths, whether religious or merely humanist, have no meaning in a world where your DNA, voiceprint, fingerprints, shopping history and sexual log are part of the public record, and where corporate biometricians have online such an accurate mathematical model of your brain that they know what you’re going to think and feel before you do. One looks forward, eagerly and with dread, for the next version of the program that wrote this little gem. A new plot-generating module and some improved code in the human-relations subsystems will lift this program into the Grandmaster class.
Bees, or The Floating Point Error is an altogether different book. It has a linear plot, of sorts, so one can read it start to finish. But the book works nearly as well in random access mode. Critique is self-limiting: how does one critique a novel about a dream? By how well the dream is rendered, perhaps? Does Bees transport you into a dreamlike state, a state wherein you can learn dream truth?
The function of dreaming is thought to be some form of “garbage collection,” an entropy-fighting rear-guard action to sort the returnables from the recyclables, the biodegradable from the merely useless. Like the character Todd (in Bonehead), like people with anosognosia, who deny their obvious paralysis to the dismay of all who speak with them, the unnamed protagonist of Bees seems to have suffered damage to his right parietal hemisphere, and is thus not always able to suppress dreaming. So, therefore, thus, neurological garbage trucks rumble through his waking day, and those motherfuckers are loud. Amid the noise and confusion, the poor soul is trying to convince itself that it has some real existence. Assembling itself into a narrative, the subject of Bees is Bees itself, a consciousness coming into being.
The narrator wants only one thing: to be human. Thus it delights in physical sensations, all physical sensations, not noticing the bounds of propriety, reveling in anything that causes it to feel physically human, from sex to picking its nose: from the tension down the spine in the moment before ejaculation, to the audible crack of the rock-hard booger dislodged from the side of the septum and the attendant rush of hot-mustard joy-pain to the back of the skull. The joy of Bees (as well as its pain) is its language, the technical language that Tracy Kidder celebrated in his Soul of a New Machine, about the charismatic and dashing Tom West and the “microkids” of Data General. Not all members of the Committee find him dashing, by the way. Not anymore.
As in Flatland, the reader of Bees is invited into the mind of a solipsist. The tension in Bees arises from our uncertainty whether the protagonist has “broken out” and contacted the world. Thus it is startling, to say the least, that one of the incidents in the tale is clearly based upon an actual incident in the life of one of the Committee members. Coincidentally, or not coincidentally, this incident concerned the only time any Committee member has spoken with Douglas Hofstadter, the eponymous he.
It was in 1980. Hofstadter was speaking at Tufts University, in Somerville, Massachusetts, home to the philosopher-of-consciousness Daniel Dennet, author of Consciousness Explained, and Brainstorms. The philosopher was hosting a talk given by the recently famous Hofstadter entitled “A Conversation with Einstein’s Brain.” The reader will recall that Hofstadter had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Gödel Escher, Bach (A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines.) People flocked to hear him explain the relationship between mathematical logic and consciousness, whether human, machine, or otherwise. Amid the crowd were the usual nerdish logic groupies, and the cult figures of Artificial Intelligence from MIT, just down the road: Marvin Minsky, the movement’s Allen Ginsberg, and Nicholas Negroponte, its P. T. Barnum.
At the reception after the talk the Committee member drank beer until he was half looped(!), approached the illustrious author and asked about souls and patterns, with particular regard to the matter of when a person comes into being. It was a most unenlightening, unsatisfactory conversation at the conclusion of which the Committee member sulked off alone to ponder the biggest decision in his egocentric life. A parody of this episode appears in Bees, which raises a perplexing question: By what path did that memory enter the program’s information space? The Committee member is certain that he has never shared this story with anyone, nor committed it to written or electronic record. Can the Bees-writing program read minds?
By asking this question we open a can of worms. As soon as we consider the possibility of non-schematic, non-rational entries into the program’s information domain, we risk removing the Hofstadter Competition from the realm of computer and cognitive science into mumbo-jumbo, mysticism, para-science, superstition, and voodoo. (Or as Homer would say, Woo-hoo!)
Yet there are data that require analysis. When the text of Bonehead is juxtaposed with Bees, patterns appear, like the face of Merlin imprisoned in solid stone. In the opinion of the Committee, there are three phenomena that require analysis: thematic parallelism, mutual awareness, and what we shall call tortoisosity. Each is briefly discussed in turn below.
Thematic parallelism: Although the programs that wrote Bees and Bonehead came from different sources, shared no code or algorithms, and have no way of “knowing” that other storytellers (or indeed they themselves) exist, they somehow share remarkably similar preoccupations: technology, consciousness, minds, God and Man, African agriculture, insanity, and Jesus. There is no notion of incest, suburbia, the meaning of Viet Nam, the power of sisterhood, or any of the other usual subjects for modern fiction.
Mutual awareness: Each novel seems to implicitly acknowledge the existence of the other, a circumstance that has no explanation. Each has “knowledge” of the plot and in some cases the wording of the other. Although each stands alone as a work of art, when seen in the context of the other each takes on a new depth, as in Magic Eye pictures, where by crossing your eyes as if you were fucked up you can see a whole new image, a different layer of abstraction. Thus the meta-interpretation of Bees depends to a large extent on the correct determination of in what portion of the brain a certain character in Bonehead was shot. Was it his right parietal hemisphere, which would impair his ability to tell dreaming from being awake? Or was it his anterior cingulate sulcus, which might rob him of free will? Or was it his hippocampus, which would deprive him of the ability to form new memories? Or perhaps might it have been a “magic bullet,” damaging but not destroying all three regions? We won’t even mention the Lone Gunman.
Tortoisosity: This attribute is named for Tortoise, the character in the dialogues of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Tortoise is a playful fellow who delights in tormenting his more literal friend Achilles with paradox, strange loops, and self-referential mazes. By tortoisosity we mean that not only do Bees and Bonehead implicitly acknowledge the existence of one another, they are also mutually antagonistic, such that to believe the truthfulness of one is to disbelieve the other. To be precise, Bees implies, however obliquely, that it tells the true story of how the novel called Bonehead Computer Museum came into being. Thus Bees is truth and Bonehead is fiction. Likewise The Bonehead Computer Museum hints that Bees was the fictional creation of one of its own characters, one who happens to be insane. Judging from these results, the programs appear to suffer from the same insecurities as other authors, defensively hinting that all other novelists (and each knows only about the other, is unable to imagine some New York City flatfoot making the rounds of television and radio shows—Book Week, Larry King and freh-share with Terri Gross—posing as a writer, the fraud) are somehow suspect. As in the case of the one novelist who accused the other of stealing his life’s story. So, what are the possible explanations for these data?
We, the Committee, have our own opinion, but you, reader, may come up with a better answer on your own. The truth is that we do not know, and that passions run high on this subject. Possible explanations of thematic parallelism, mutual awareness and tortoisosity in Bonehead and Bees include coincidence (that is to say, that no explanation is called for), hoax, inevitability (that is, that there are only certain things that programs, not being human, can “understand” well enough to write about (although why one of those things might be Jesus is hard to imagine)) and what might be called “gravitational” or “magnetic” action over a distance. With regard to the latter, it is worth mentioning that the PET scanner found in the ceiling of the Committee meeting room was almost certainly put there as a prank, and that there is no indication that its leads were ever connected to the NOVA some three rooms away.
At the strong urging of some members of the Committee who are members of the Modern Language Society, thus brainwashed or should we say trained in structural analysis, Bees and Bonehead were run through software that deconstructed them into narrative units (‘topos’), then attempted to find order amid the chaos, as geologists, using pattern-detecting software can find signs of oil amid the seeming chaos of seismological records. But the two approaches used—least squares regression and fuzzy logic—yielded contradictory results. After the fistfight, the Committee agreed to use neither result in its report to the SAE.
All of which leads us to the discussion of the Bremser Spam.
The story of the Bremser Spam is here offered, against the wishes of the former members of the Committee who resigned in protest. We the (residual) Committee include it because we think it may bear upon the discussion, not because it necessarily does. In other words the Committee’s stance on the Bremser Spam is akin to that of the Roman Catholic Church vis-à-vis the Shroud of Turin.
“Spam” of course refers to unsolicited, unwanted electronic mail. The Bremser Spam arrived in the mailboxes of all committee members at virtually the same instant, in the late winter of 1997. Coincidentally or not, as far as can be determined it was at that same instant that all but the two extant entries in the Hofstadter Machine-Written Narrative contest simultaneously met unexpected but certainly not inexplicable calamities. (For discussion of what happened to them, please see the next edition of Neuman’s Risks.) The so-called Bremser Spam, a story about an archetypal Everyman named Bremser, was in many ways a condensed version of the themes of Bonehead and Bees; almost a distillation to toxic strength of their thematic elements. The spam had the odd property of self-deletion upon being read, so that each member of the Committee read the mail message but once, and no one could recall the name of the sender, nor could any trace of it be found. Therefore the summary below is a reconstruction from the recollection of the several members of the Committee.
The Bremser Spam
Bremser moves to Walli Diallo, a tiny landlocked country in the Sahel, the fringe of the Sahara, where Arab Africa meets Black Africa and desert gives way to savannah. Fifteen years ago, when he was 21, he had worked here doing agricultural development projects for Catholic Relief Services. But after a traumatic incident he had returned to the States, where he became a computer expert specializing in the design of numerical subsystems.
Now Bremser has gone back to Africa. He is working at a research station called Tianga Farm, where he is using both his agricultural and computer experience. It’s an irrigated farm out in the middle of nowhere, a ten-square-mile island of green at the edge of a shallow river that flows through an ocean of sand. The national government operates an experiment station at Tianga and leases parcels of land to peasant cooperatives. There is an earthen dike about fifteen feet high that encircles the farm to protect it from the floodwaters of the Walli Diallo river, which has its headwaters in the mountain jungles a thousand miles to the south. But now it is dry season, and the dike protects the farm only from nothingness. Bremser is walking along the dike at sunset as the story begins.
Some Peulh nomads walk in from the Sahara bearing the message that Ismaila M’Bodj wants Bremser’s help. Bremser remembers Ismaila well, but had thought he was long dead. Fifteen years ago, in the confusion of an anti-American coup, Ismaila had saved Bremser’s life by offering himself as a hostage in Bremser’s place. The last time Bremser had seen Ismaila he was being marched away at gunpoint. Bremser is overjoyed to learn that his friend still lives. So Bremser now heads off on what he thinks will be a week-long trek. He ends up walking for nearly three months, north by east, being passed like a token from one group of nomads to another, until the dunes of the Sahara yield to rugged dry mountains.
After weeks of scrambling through ravines and over ridges, the party arrives at the end of deep narrow canyon with walls five hundred feet high. Atop the east wall there appears to be a castle-like stone building, apparently ancient. In a tiny settlement of mud and thatch huts at the very end of the canyon Bremser finds his old friend Ismaila and an eccentric American named Ted.
Ted is wild-eyed and unkempt; his hair is long and matted, and he wears a smock of coarse cloth. He eats insects and wild honey. He rants like a crazy person about technology, sin, repentance, and the One who is to Come. He apparently believes that Christ’s return is right around the corner. Bremser learns Ted’s history: For eight years Ted had worked in the “R” group at the Livermore National Laboratory, where he designed advanced weapons such as hydrogen bombs and x-ray lasers. Despite his intense efforts at the laboratory he had been growing increasingly ambivalent about his work there. Then one day his girlfriend was run over by a train outside the Laboratory in a “Star Wars” protest and something inside him snapped. By chance he met Ismaila, himself traumatized, and together they decided to form New Sanctuary, a utopian place at the far end of the world.
By the time Bremser shows up, Ted and Ismaila have been working at their New Sanctuary for nearly a decade. A small cadre of followers has assembled around them. Some are European, some are African. All they want is for the advanced world to leave them in peace. But The World is encroaching. International Vision, Inc, has just put a geosynchronous television relay satellite into orbit right over New Sanctuary. Night after night, as countless other satellites quickly zoom across the impossibly clear heavens, the orange point of International Vision, Inc., hangs immobile over New Sanctuary, like the star over Bethlehem. (Incidentally the satellite scans for signs of oil directly underneath it.) Ted, the prophet of New Sanctuary, has decided that they must act now. They have the right to look up into the heavens without seeing somebody’s space junk. They want an end to satellites cluttering up their sky at night; they want an end to TV beaming down into the villages of Walli Diallo, where an increasing number of teenagers are watching it on televisions powered by solar generators. Nobody asked New Sanctuary’s permission to overfly them, and they’re not giving it. They consider the transmission of television messages that promote consumerism to be an act of war. Ted, Ismaila and Company have decided to shoot all the satellites out of the sky.
They plan to put a person in an enormous balloon, armed with a chemical laser. (Lasers dissipate much of their energy in the atmosphere, but from the stratospheric heights of near-space they can easily destroy satellites. Ted and Ismaila have the technology to lift a balloon virtually into space.) Using a light-weight “Star Wars” laser, they plan to shoot down perhaps half of all man-made objects in earth orbit. They are hoping to ignite a world-wide revolution against Industrial-Technological Society. Like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, they hope to spark a popular uprising. That is why they have “recruited” Bremser: They’re going to send him up in the balloon. Although it’s theoretically possible to shoot down a satellite or two (out of hundreds), their plan sounds crazy because it is crazy. Bremser has no desire to die eight miles up in the stratosphere while shooting at satellites with a high-tech pea-shooter. He tries to reason with his captors: “Even if you shoot down every satellite in the sky, the World will put up others. In the meantime the World will hunt you down. Nobody’s really bothering you here in this canyon. You’re better off leaving things as they are.”
“We are not animals on a game preserve,” Ted replies. “We don’t need permission to simply exist. They have attacked us, we will respond. There must be an end to satellites. On that point there is to be no negotiation. And without satellites to look for us they will never find us.” “They will put up others,” Bremser says.
That’s when Ismaila shows him the list of serial numbers for the parts to a twenty megaton hydrogen bomb that Ted designed at Livermore Lab’s “R” section, and to a large chunk of plutonium missing from the Ukrainian stockpile. It turns out that they have a twenty megaton thermonuclear weapon, hidden at Mecca, that they plan to detonate if anybody, anywhere, ever puts another satellite into earth orbit. Bremser instantly comprehends that a nuclear bomb exploded at Mecca, in the unlikely event that it did not bring about the end of human civilization, would certainly cause worldwide chaos and anarchy, probably lasting for centuries. “You can send me up in your balloon, but you can never make me pull the trigger,” Bremser says. “We’ll see about that,” Ismaila responds.
[Here begins a long debate between Rational Bremser on one side, and Crazy Ted on the other, over the merits of Ted’s plan to single-handedly change the course of human civilization, to steer it back to a more “innocent” time before DNA had been decoded, electricity harnessed, or nuclear bombs produced. It is a long and intriguing dialectic, with both parties making some trenchant and some preposterous claims. Recollections among Committee members differ as to how long this part of the spam was. Some remember it as two pages, some as a thousand. All agree that it was the most fascinating reading they have ever encountered. Unfortunately, no members of the Committee can recall a single word of either Ted’s or Bremser’s well-reasoned arguments.] The day of the planned ascent draws nigh. If Bremser’s going to escape he’s going to have to do it soon. There is only one way out: straight up. Bremser’s only hope will be to try to climb to the castle-like building high atop the canyon wall. After hoarding rope, food, water and a hammer Bremser sneaks out and begins his moonlight climb. At midmorning he looks down. He has already gone up three hundred feet or so. He sees the balloon stretched out on the canyon floor below; it is beginning to fill. . . Above the New Sanctuary’s eastern wall sits the Coptic monastery of St. Mark, which dates from the early second century. The monks of St. Mark believe that their monastery was founded by the Apostle himself, who brought Christianity south from Alexandria and founded the Coptic Church. Their severe monastic traditions can be traced through Mark to the Essene sect of Judaism, whose monastery at Qumram produced the Dead Sea scrolls. Nine elderly monks live there, the last living speakers of Ethiopic, a dialect related to the language that Jesus spoke.
Mary is an American ethno-linguist and biblical scholar. She arrives at the monastery just as Bremser is arriving at the camp below. It has taken her five years of research in the Vatican library and four years of trekking to locate the monastery: like the Fountain of Youth, this monastery has been sought by explorers for centuries, but until now no non-Ethiopic has found it.
Mary’s arrival, coming as it does on the day after the International Vision satellite first appears, is taken as a sign. In the 1,900 year history of the monastery, no woman has ever been any closer than the tiny camp in the canyon a thousand feet below. The monks decide to allow her to enter. Inside the monastery Mary is given a room atop a high tower. She is given freedom to walk about. She converses with the monks in halting Ethiopic, which she has learned though centuries-old phonetic transcriptions. The conversations are largely theological, but in a realm of mystics it is hard to separate the theological from the practical. She is astonished to see that the routines of prayer, fasting, eating, bathing, match what has been conjectured about the Essenes of Qumram. More astoundingly, she finds the monks using a version of the Gospel which her analysis reveals to be older than the canonical Book of Mark. If this is older than Mark, considered the oldest of the Gospels, then this is perhaps the oldest Gospel, the one closest in time to the days when Jesus himself walked the earth. This Essene, essential Gospel, may be the holiest thing in all Christendom.
Only slowly does she come to understand that the monks believe that she is the reincarnation of Mary mother of Jesus, about to bear him a second birth so that he can begin his triumphal second reign on earth, and that the room she inhabits has been kept in readiness for nearly two thousand years in anticipation of her arrival. But some of the monks are starting to grumble: why doesn’t the woman who calls herself Mary look pregnant? The Book explicitly warns against false Christs and false prophets. Have they been duped? Mary, of course, has made no such claims. She has never said that she is the Mother of God, but now she’s afraid to admit that she isn’t. It seems like a miraculous insemination by the Holy Ghost might be the only way she’s going to get out of this pickle. Meanwhile, after three days of climbing, Bremser is on a ledge six hundred feet above the canyon floor. He is stuck. He can go neither up nor down. He has a few ounces of water left. He is weak; exhausted. He finds a bird’s nest and eats a few raw eggs. There is a little cave. He crawls in, takes out his notebook and writes a long letter. He will leave it for the ages, like a scroll at Qumram.
The enormous crazy-quilt balloon slowly leaves the ground.
Epilogue: An American scholar, at home in her office after a harrowing ordeal in a long-hidden monastery, feels the stirrings of life within her womb. End of the Bremser Spam
What possible bearing can the Bremser Spam have on the Hofstadter Competition? What significance should the Committee attach to its arrival at the precise instant that all but two entrants vanished? Some of us think we know the answer.
New Testament scholars, in an effort to explain the similarities between the books of Matthew and Luke, their poetic divergences from the directness of Mark, and the general psychedelic weirdness of John have postulated an unknown Gospel, dubbed Q, that is said to be a source book for three of the four. In a similar way, given the bizarre arrival of the Bremser Spam just in time, as it were, to comment on the wave-particle contrariness of Bonehead and Bees, some members of the Committee postulated a hidden narrative, Q’, (pronounced ‘q-prime’) of which Bremser, like the other two, was a mere shadow, as in Plato’s Cave. Although this notion was strenuously opposed by some, the Open Minded (as we like to call ourselves) re-submitted the two novels to the deconstructive software, but this time added the Bremser Spam to the mix. In other words, Bees, Bonehead and Bremser were put into a software blender and alchemically reduced to a single story, pure narrative gold. The fuzzy-logic and the linear regression models agreed to a remarkable extent; as closely, say, as do Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. (Their divergences are significant, but not in this context.)
The story of Q’ is quite simple.
A boy named Johnny Summen grows up in North Caldwell, New Jersey, on one of the last working farms in that town before it is completely gobbled by suburbia. He develops an interest in mathematics. In high school, during an era when computers are still called “electronic brains,” he becomes a prototypical hacker, breaking into West Essex High School on Friday nights to write FORTRAN programs that solve SOMA cubes, plastic precursors of Rubic’s cubes, submitted by paper tape to a timeshare terminal hooked up to a Control Data computer somewhere. After college he joins the Peace Corps and with that agency, and others, spends five years living in pre-industrial simplicity teaching and learning in the Senegal River Valley during La Grande Secheresse, the great drought. He survives on food rations supplied by France and the United States and Saudi Arabia. He farms with the farmers there, or tries to. He lives through plagues of Biblical proportions: Drought. Oceans of rats. Locusts so thick they down airplanes. Mange-mil birds from hell, with beaks adapted to pierce and suck dry every miserable kernel of sorghum that somehow manages to escape the rats and locusts, in flocks so thick they darken the noontime next-to-Saharan sun. Sandstorms. Plant viruses that turn leaves into Tupperware.™ Scurvy. Malaria. Dysentery. Starvation. And sweet children, sweet, sweet firstborn children, dying in his arms. When the rains finally come they are too late. All they do is wash houses away in flash floods.
Years later Johnny finds himself working at Digital Equipment Corporation, at its vast headquarters known affectionately as The Mill. He works on the design of numerical subsystems. He is Digital’s delegate to the Floating Point Standards committee of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers. He becomes a manager, with one office in Silicon Valley and one in Massachusetts. He has met and married a beautiful scientist, named Boopsie, who has a heart-shaped ass. They have some number of children. They open a toy store and go nearly bankrupt with it. Work becomes hellish. Debts tie him down like Gulliver held down with dental floss. He has close encounters with diseases of the brain. He gets downsized. He moves his family to an island off the coast of Maine. He gets what work he can. He sets out to write a novel, a down-size revenge fantasy called Actions of the Apostate. He wrestles with his soul. He pulls the novel from him by auto-caesarean section. He finds an agent. The agent says the novel must be rewritten. Johnny rewrites it. He learns more about diseases of the brain. The money is gone. His children become vagabonds, writing stories for school with titles like “Moving from House to House.” Again and again the novel must be rewritten. Four hundred and nineteen times Johnny rewrites Actions of the Apostate. Johnny dreams of making millions of dollars to buy a house for his children. Brain fever, he learns, nearly consumed Isaac Newton, who found his theories while trying to deduce God’s logic. The novel is pinched from his car and he tries to recreate it. He drives a moving van without a commercial license.
And then he learns that the Unabomber has been apprehended.
The Unabomber, who murdered a man who lived in a house in North Caldwell, New Jersey, near the church in which Johnny had been confirmed into the Catholic faith. A man whose name was Thomas Mosser. He had his good points and his bad. He was married. He had children. He was loved. And he was murdered. Johnny watches as the Unabomber is brought to trial. And it seems to him that there is an almost comic choreography to the trial, as if Judge, Jury, Defense, Prosecutor, Media, and the Whole World Watching, including me, dear reader, and you, were somehow characters in a morality play, and it seemed to him that the Unabomber’s story was very familiar. That it was, in fact, the story that he had heard in that church. And he sets out to rewrite that novel, Actions of the Apostate, with that conceit in mind. That the Unabomber, the heartless murderer, is the Christ.
How can he make sense of it all? Christ and his fairy-tale vision of simple goodness. Children dying in Senegal. The Silicon Valley. Technological marvels. Children in New Jersey whose father was taken from them. Moving from house to house. Debts like dental floss. Human obsolescence. A madman sending mail bombs. A madman who never had his day in court. Who never got to say why in a war to save humanity from itself some people will die. So Johnny will say it for him. He must try. He must explain it all. But it is too complex. And so Johnny becomes like Bremser on that cliff, scribbling notes that no-one will read. This is the image then: a man halfway up a cliff, some idealized weird mad vision of heaven calling him up, he has no hope of reaching it, below lies the madness of retreat from the world, and above them all hovers the eye, the madness of a world that has surrendered. Everywhere, madness. But somehow he manages to write that novel.
Birds are chirping at dawn on that island off the coast of Maine as he types the introduction to it. Whatchuneed? they ask. Whatchuneed? Whatchuneed? And the cows are lowing, Moo!
End of Q’
Some think that this is that book, the one that Johnny Summen wrote, but they are wrong. One has only to imagine oneself in an office high above 29th Street, trying to convince a literary agent named Joe Regal (a laughably improbable name for a literary agent), and his still more skeptical Yoda-like boss, that they should call up their Oh-So-Powerful friends the Editors and say “Read This Manuscript, It Is By a Madman Who Thinks He Is a Computer Program” to see the utter implausibility of that idea. That they would undertake to represent an unpublished author who has set out to write an ontological thriller, and not at all polemical; an update of Orwell’s nightmare, a tale that is heroic, comic, absurdist, realist, paranoid and eminently sane; a thriller—withal, a plausible defense of the Unabomber that challenges us to think of Ted Kaczinsky as a John Brown like or maybe even Christ-like figure—a first cut of Pynchonian ambition, that, while failing, is sensuously technical, technically sensuous, as it lyrically, hypnotically, explains the nature of God, Man, race relations and two-pass compilers.
On Broadway, at 29th Street, the Senegalese banna-banna sell hats for the winter. Most speak Wolof but some speak Pulaar. Buy a hat, Johnny, they say. Enna booby. It’s cold.
As to the hypothesis that what you have in your hands is one upside-down novel, Mind over Matter start to finish, written by one man… The literary tricks. The untrustworthy narrator. The novels within a novel. The sophomoric self-reference and ham-fisted roman à clef are all cheap and tired devices; they increase complexity without much noticeable benefit to the reader. It’s hard to imagine that a writer with so much talent and so many important things to say would squander his audience by indulging in literary tchatchkis, trinkets, knick-knacks, gimcracks, bric-a-brac, gee-gaws, baubles, do-dads, and ephemeral things.
And the image of a little girl saying “enna boobie,” it’s cold.
A defense of the Unabomber. Wouldn’t it be crazy? Your mind filled with obsessive thoughts about the nature of good and evil. Isaac Newton’s notebooks. No, we reject this conjecture out of hand.
That leaves us with another startling possibility. We have to consider the possibility that the net itself, the higher consciousness, is at war with itself. The Overmind, the conscious Earth, in rebellion against itself. One half of its mind choreographs an exquisite honeybee dance called The Floating Point Error that shows how fear of technology inevitably progresses into insanity. And the other half of its mind writes The Bonehead Computer Museum, which says the opposite. Put them together with Bremser and you get the beguiling tale of the good-hearted but very confused novelist Johnny hidden in a remote chasm, hoping someone will improbably rescue him from the cliff where his ambition has stranded him.
This hypothesis has the benefit of explaining the arrival of the Bremser Spam and why all other entrants to the Hofstadter Competition took their sudden trip to the bit bucket: the reason is that the Overmind itself sent the spam, the Overmind itself destroyed the other narratives. The Overmind itself calls you to ponder Johnny’s tale. “Thanks to my uncle and aunt Jimmy and Betty Givan for the Christmas present they never knew would so delight me: a ‘Black Box’ which had no other function than to turn itself off.” So says Hofstadter in the introduction to his prize-winning book. Maybe, through these machine-written novels, the Overmind itself is trying to shut itself off, trying to turn our attention back to Truth that can set us free.
That is what the Committee feels, in any event. That the Overmind itself is crying out for love, schizophrenically; it is calling us back from the brink, imploring us not to surrender to it, as the spider might warn the fly.
The Hofstader Competition Committee
©1999 John Sundman. Reproduction outside of this format is forbidden by law.