(A story that I wrote some while ago, it's my personal favourite)
After a most satisfying dinner, my friend and I retired to my study. I asked my wife not to disturb the two of us any further that evening.
My friend slumped into an easy chair as soon as we were alone.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked. I did mind. But since I was receiving him as a guest after about five years, I did not wish to deny him such simple pleasures.
"No." I therefore said.
He lit up his cigarette with the complacency one generally feels on Friday evenings. He took a few deep puffs and filled the room with his exhalations.
"I was surprised," he said at length, "when I heard that you had taken to full time writing."
"I had been putting off that decision for quite some time now. But when this publisher gave me such a big offer, I couldn't resist it anymore. Nevertheless, I was as surprised as everybody else. I always thought of myself as one who likes to play it safe."
"I know." He said. Indeed he did. Perhaps nobody knew me better than he did. We had been friends for that long.
"I just hope," he continued, "that you have thought it through before you took the decision. Writing might not turn out to be as smooth a sailing as you might have imagined."
I knew what was coming. There was a time when we used to have such arguments everyday. Each person trying to put down the other one. The arguments were perfectly friendly, almost always.
"Are you suggesting that I might not survive in the field?"
"Yes." He simply said.
"You are perhaps forgetting that I have already sold two books."
He was gazing at the lit end of his cigarette as if searching for some microscopic entity.
"I am aware of that." He said, looking straight into my eyes, "And I have read those books. They were good enough, I must say, but they lacked finesse."
"You do not appear to be very imaginative. Your plots and characters are just variations on established themes."
I tilted my head to one side and frowned at him. Our debates could get serious sometimes. He was a lawyer, had always been a lawyer, and certainly I did not think he was in the least competent to give a literary criticism of my works.
"What do you know about writing?" I asked savagely.
"Oh, plenty! Just selling a couple of stories doesn't make you the god of the genre. You write science fiction, you say, and yet, not even a single alien species in any of your stories is anything I haven't seen, heard or read before. You are so formulaic."
"I have a reason for that. My stories are plot oriented. There is always an idea I wish to convey. Inventing fancy imaginary worlds is not relevant to my plots. It will only serve to obscure that idea. I keep things as simple as possible for my readers."
My friend smiled viciously.
"Accept it, my friend, it is lack of imagination."
"Well then, prove it! Can you give me a full and consistent description of a totally exotic alien species that I have never heard about."
"Now? Within fifteen minutes?"
I stared at him. I knew I had fallen into a trap. But I took up the challenge. I walked up to the window and started thinking. My friend quietly finished his cigarette.
"Okay," I said at last, "listen to this."
I settled down into a chair beside him.
"Imagine a planet about the size of the earth. But unlike earth which has a complex structure comprising of the core, mantle and crust, this planet is mostly crystalline. A gigantic crystal which is circling its yellow dwarf star. The crystal structure is not so simple though. When this planet crystallises out of its planetary accretion disk, it develops a highly complex structure inside it. How is it till now?"
He looked at me with a poker face. But I knew he was intrigued.
"Go on." He said.
"Due to this highly complex structure this planet has become a giant computer."
"A computer? How are you going to power it?"
"It is an optical computer. Powered by its sun. The light enters at one end and goes out at another but stupendously complex calculations can be performed in between. Initially the calculations are meaningless, random excitations of atomic orbitals and random photon emissions. But then the process organises itself into small meaningful programs. Programs that can replicate themselves!"
"You mean like DNA?" he asked. I nodded, "How?"
"How did life originate on earth?" I said. Understandably, he remained silent. "Chance, let us say. The same hand of providence that created our DNA created these tiny little programs. These programs then begin to evolve."
My friend leaned forward in his chair.
"You are forgetting one thing. For evolution you need natural selection. For that you need an environment with some challenges. In this giant computer of yours, each program can run without any danger to its existence."
"Well then let's give them an environment. One part of this giant crystal is running an "environment simulation". Let us make it the core. And other smaller parts are running "creature simulations". Both are connected by a two way link. Internal states of the environment determine those of the creature and vice versa."
"Do you mean a matrix like scenario?"
"Essentially, only that everything is natural and the creatures themselves are programs. What they might be experiencing would have nothing to do with their actual physical form. They could think themselves to be organic creatures totally oblivious to the giant crystal and its optics. Their world could have totally different physical rules that ours. Different equations, different constants.
"So, they evolve and they evolve. Until they reach the stage of conscious beings. And then they begin to alter their environment in big ways. But changes have occurred in their own form too. The big leap has been the development of a "mind simulation" beside the "creature simulation". The mind is linked to the body and the body to the environment. Together they form a consistent world."
"You have hit upon a most fascinating concept." My friend said, "there could be a whole different universe inside this simulation with its own set of rules. These creature could be exploring it just as we do."
"Yes," I said, my excitement was growing, "but then, the resolution of every simulation is finite. Thus the creatures will start encountering limits. Like the speed of light for example. Since signals inside this simulation cannot travel instantaneously, a limit on speed of light comes in. And elementary particles. One cannot do computations with an infinite number of particles or with continuous matter. Thus there have to be some particles which are elementary. It need not be these things of course, but something similar."
"And these creatures will never know! They'll forever be wondering how they originated or why there universal constants exist."
I sat back in my chair. I knew I had won the argument.
"I don't know." I said, "maybe they would. But when they start investigating such limits they might discover their true nature. They'd have to if its got to make a good story!"
"It will make a good story. Okay, you win! You can become a great writer."
At this point my wife interrupted, despite my having asked not to.
"Coffee?" she asked. I looked at my friend.
"Sure." He said.
Somewhere else . . .
Vox looked with satisfaction at his exploration team. They were doing their job perfectly. This planet was the most exotic thing that they had ever encountered. They could not even begin to theorise how such a big mass of crystal had come to exist let alone understand its immensely complex structure. He looked at the screen in front of him that showed the schematic of the optical activity in the central core. The beautiful symmetry of it fascinated him. He longed to know what it was all about.
He could have looked on at the display for ages if he had not noticed a strong spike in one corner of the display.
"What . . ." he began then stopped as he heard some altercation a few meters away from his enclosure. He came out in a hurry.
"What happened?!!" he cried out.
A lot of personnel had gathered towards the northern side of the camp.
"What happened?" Vox shouted out again.
"Nothing much!" someone answered, "Trilex here toppled over some heavy equipment, the power cells have erupted."
"Lousy dumbhead!" Vox muttered to himself, and then louder, "fix it and report to me!"
He went back to his enclosure shaking his head.
The first thing that I had asked my wife when I first met her before marriage was - "Can you make good coffee?"
It turned out she could and I'd be eternally thankful for that. She poured out cups of it for the two of us.
"There is something terrible on the news." she said.
"A bad earthquake has struck the Indian Ocean. The resulting Tsunami has wrecked havoc in many countries."
"That is so unfortunate!" my friend exclaimed. We rushed to the living room to hear more of it on TV.
January 17, 2005
5:34 PM (IST)