Let's Shape Reality
Editor's note: We're young enough at Horatio that we feel free to try lots of things in service of our hope of kicking off great conversations about the deepest things. One thing we tried last week was a short story (if a long-ish short story) by Jeffrey A. Carver, Nebula Award finalist for Eternity's End, novelization writer of Battlestar Galactica, and longtime teacher of writing. What drew us to this story of Jeff's was its look at how we shape reality; what does it mean to be a creator of what we see around us every day? Sci-fi can make this dramatic, can make this crucial to the fate of the world. But it seems to us that, day in and day out, it in fact is crucial to the fate of each of our worlds, as if we have a role in shaping whatever we see. This is Part 2 of 5. You can read Part 1 here.
Reality School: In the Entropy Zone
I walk, alone and lonely, through the pellucid green light of the jungle. After a time, I step through a hedge... and my surroundings change utterly, to a world of astonishing precipices and ravines, illumined by lightning flashes. Another reality, joined to mine like a soap bubble? Or is this my world, after entropy has ravaged it like a marauding beast?
With a shiver, I back away from a terrifying precipice. "Where have you all gone?" I whisper to my missing friends. "What am I supposed to do here, all alone?" Even as I ask, I know the answer: Find the reality-thread that belongs to us, and bring it back to our world.
There is no one here—just a few winged creatures, soaring off the cliffs, pterodactyllike. Still, I feel—I cannot say how—that Lisa is out there, not in this place of cliffs and ravines, maybe, but somewhere, across some gulf that I cannot even see. I cry out to her in a tiny voice, barely a whisper.
I struggle to think. It is not just the world gone mad; it is me, too. I am no longer the person I was, not a six-year-old girl, or even a twelve-year-old. I look down at my lanky, bony body and flex my leathery wings. What have I turned into?
I peer down into a ravine. Lights twinkle in the darkness below. Cities? I feel a surge of hope. Perhaps down there are people, some connection...
I launch myself from the cliff.
We grew up fast in the reality school, and not just fast, but differently from our sisters and brothers on the outside. I guess our parents knew that could happen, and thought it worth the risk. What we had to do was so dreadfully important, and it could only be done by people who started very, very young. People with plastic minds, who could learn to visualize (discern, they called it) different levels of reality without blocking out what they saw with denial. People with blazing imaginations, without the layers of preconceptions that adults have, who could be trained to pick out entropic changes at a distance, and visualize appropriate responses.
That's adult-talk. Sorry; what they needed was young people with unbridled hope. People like us.
We learned about this gradually, over time, absorbing our mission not so much through our heads as through our pores. When we graduated, it would be up to us to "maintain the order." Even now that sounds ponderous to me—almost pretentious. A few years ago, it would have been preposterous. But of course that was before the entropic rift opened, before the Earth became a place where reality "fluttered" from day to day, and moment to moment.
The first time we got to see real shapers at work was, undoubtedly, the turning point when I really began to feel in my bones what we were doing. The teachers led us single-file into a shielded observation room that overlooked the actual Reality Shaping Center. This was where the best of us would work, after graduation. It was the only such center in America, one of three in the world. We were electrified with excitement, and whispered and hissed to each other while our teachers frowned over the group. I sat between Lisa and Roberta Kisnet, and we held each other's hands tightly, trying to keep from bursting with anticipation.
The shapers were four or five years older than us, which seemed a lifetime. They wore silver helmets which, surprisingly, were smaller and simpler-looking than our training helmets. A few of them walked around, but mostly they stayed seated, their gloved hands waving in the air as they gestured and probed at whatever realities they were viewing in their closed universes.
They were not actually journeying in other realities, we were told—but viewing them through tiny windows opened in the continuum by the shaping amplifiers. They were watching for reality-threads that threatened to intrude upon our own... like radar watching for enemy airplanes.
We saw the other realities on monitors, along with the adult supervisors. About half the center was filled with consoles, where the supervisors coordinated everything that was happening here with the centers at CERN and Kyoto—a lot of frowning adults with headsets studying computer consoles. But the other side, where the shapers were working... wow.
We saw a dramatic episode almost right away. On one of the shapers' monitors, a strange scene came into focus: a mountain range melting under a big red sun. I stared open mouthed, as a teacher explained. It was our sun, diseased and swollen, devouring our Earth—in another reality. I sat frozen, not sure whether to be fascinated or terrified. We heard the voices of the supervisors calling additional shapers into the circuit, and explaining exactly what was wrong. " ...We've got to calm that sun down, give us a nice cool breeze...that's it...and hold the mountains together with your hands...." And we saw the shapers stirring in their seats, turning to one another and working together with murmurs of agreement. We saw the mountains being held in place by ghostly, virtual hands—and we saw icy breaths cooling the sun.
I scarcely understood what I was seeing; but the image-crafting of three or four shapers, working in harmony, was pushing away that dangerous reality-thread. There was something almost mystical, and very personal, about the shapers' joined struggle against the forces of entropy. The scientific staff didn't explain it that way; they talked of synergistic field-configurations and Lang-Lawrence contractions. But as far as the shapers were concerned, there was an enemy out there. And by creating their images in concert, they were able to defeat the enemy, or at least to push it back out of range.
Were they actually cooling that bloated sun in the other reality, changing what existed in another thread, or were they just weaving a spell to prevent the thread from intruding on our own? In a practical sense, it didn't matter. What mattered was that they were closing off the danger from our own world, keeping the enemy at bay however they could. It was like virtual reality—except that any one of those threads could have come swirling up out of the netherrealms of chaos to overwhelm our world, if the shapers had not been there with their fingers in the dike, manning the ramparts, battening down the hatches of reality.
I didn't know then that the really dramatic perils were the easiest to detect at a distance, and the easiest to defend against. Most of the dangers were more insidious—shifts in climate, or in ecological balances, or even changes in human history. The shapers often sensed a change—and then had to wait, like bloodhounds on leashes, while the supervisors conferred about what courses of action to follow, or even about which reality-thread was the right one. There, we learned, lay the subtlest perils to our world.
We beginning students were far more interested in the vivid dangers. To our satisfaction, before we left the center that day, we saw spidery aliens marching through the streets of St. Louis, enclosing buildings in strange cocoons. As one, we felt a great, gasping pulse of fear before the aliens faded in a shimmer of heat—as a group of shapers focused their thoughts together and wove a web of protection that banished the aliens from our reality.
When our observation session was over, I could hardly move. I was trembling in my seat, and my fingers were white from clenching Lisa's hand so hard. I looked at Lisa and she looked wide-eyed back at me.
I had never in my life been so scared. Or so excited.
I soar, spiraling down into the darkness of the ravine, praying that the twinkling jewels below me are civilization. I am breathless with fear. What have I turned into, that I soar on leathery wings? Am I not still human?
"Yes, I am!" I cry, and with that, my wings are gone, and I am falling. The sparkling points below me are not cities but... stars. My heart pounds. I want to scream, but my breath will not leave my chest.
Is anyone else alive in the great void of stars wheeling around me? "Lisa?" I whisper. "Roberta? Danny? Ashok?" For a heartstopping moment I see their faces in the stars, luminous faces. I imagine that they are calling out to me. But I am helpless to answer. There is a power blocking me, a darkness called Chaos. I imagine the entire population of the Earth, all of humanity, floating out there, calling to me.
I am supposed to save them.
Weightless, I fall...
We continued to spend a lot of time with the counselors, doing group exercises and letting off steam and trying to understand the meaning to us of what we were training for. But I don't think, really, that there was any way they could truly prepare us for a job that was, essentially, to hold the world in our hands.
Eventually the gravity of our teachers' words began to reverberate like bass drum beats—not so much in the classrooms as in our minds:
"...the sorting of entropic realities demands the talents of children your age..."
"...must do what older people, even experts, can't..."
"...when adults try to focus through these windows, it turns to mud... adults resist... we're never sure, the layers of ambiguity are too great..."
"...as you learn to feel the difference between realities... must learn wisdom, yet through a lens of innocence..."
"...might last until you're thirteen... only one has worked past fourteen, by the calendar...."
By the calendar. We were already aware that we were growing older at an accelerated rate, our intellects and emotions veering ahead in an alarming, zigzag fashion. It all had to do with entropy.
I never really understood entropy, not the way the scientists talked about it. We learned about disorder, of course, and something called "the laws of thermodynamics," which were undergoing some late revision. It might have been the work of theorists that had brought us to this plight in the first place. Not that they'd meant to; they were just fooling around with fusion implosions and micro-singularities, and trying to learn how to control entropic folds in space-time... not on a world-wide scale, but on a quantum level, a subatomic level. What harm could there possibly be in that? But somehow there was harm in it; somehow they caused, or at least allowed entry to, the rift that put us where we are now.
Many of them denied that. It was entropic drift, they theorized—a natural phenomenon, swirling just below the apparent calm of our spacetime continuum. It may have been chance that it intruded into our world when it did; and without the developments that made the shaping amplifiers possible, we would have been defenseless against it. But whether it was a natural phenomenon or an artificial one was irrelevant now. Either way, it threatened to destroy our world as we knew it. Not that it meant to; it wasn't living; it didn't know us, didn't care about us one way or another. It just followed the laws of physics. But the laws of physics changed, from one reality thread to the next.
What the shapers had to know was how to sort through the many possible realities that floated like tangled seaweed in the ocean of entropy, and how to follow the one strand that belonged to our timeline and our lives. Not just our lives personally, but the life of the world. The job of the shapers was to preserve reality, guided by the supervision staff, according to guidelines agreed upon by the joint policy committees...
"...what you will be doing is a privilege, and a responsibility. You will be honored for doing what no one else on Earth can do..."
Not everyone honored what we were doing, not at all. Many people were only vaguely aware of the reality schools at all, and didn't much care about us one way or another—except maybe to object to the government funding that kept us going. They thought—I don't know, that we were doing nothing real at all—casting illusions in the air, mirages, New Age miracles, who knew what for, maybe just for our own entertainment.
How could they believe that, when we all knew—despite the best efforts of the shaping centers—that changes were inevitably creeping into our continuum?
Were people just stupid? At first I thought so. Later, I understood better. It's called variable persistence of memory. Simply put: different people remember the past differently... for a while. Every time our reality-thread changes, there is a collective adjustment of memory. But not all at once, or at the same time. An extreme example: If I wake up one morning, remembering that Unimerica has fifty-seven states, and the capital is in Toronto, and you remember that it's only forty-seven states, and the capital is in Washington—and the history books at the library disagree with each other—that's variable persistence of memory. A few weeks later, we'll all remember the same thing. But which way will it be? And which was the original? The staffs at the shaping centers are supposed to know, but their memories change, too. So whom do we believe?
What a lot of people believed was: nothing has changed.
My example may have been a poor one. Nothing that dramatic had happened, that we knew of. A more realistic example might have been something like this: a subtle shift in global climate, or in population patterns of the tsetse fly. Then you have the supervisory staffs arguing over what was, or what should be.
And it's those questions that set off the people who opposed us. They were in the minority, we were told—but they were everywhere. We were opposed by elements of the religious right, the humanist left, the Islamic center, the Russian capitalist resurgency, the South African whoknowswhats, and a whole lot more that I've mercifully forgotten. Some of them opposed us because they didn't have shaping centers of their own, and they felt disadvantaged; others opposed us because we were "treading where mankind wasn't meant to tread."
We were just kids. We were too young to understand—thank God, or Allah, or our lucky stars, take your pick—that there were groups that would have liked nothing better than to close us down, or even kill us if necessary. The extremists were a small minority, and we were well insulated from them.
The plain truth was, most people didn't understand what it was that we did—or why. Some thought that we deliberately changed reality, a bunch of meddlers altering the natural order of things according to our own whims. Early on, before the U.N. committee was formed and guidelines established, there might have been those who tried that; but those people were stopped after they tried to eradicate the mosquito, and changed a hundred ecologies by accident. No, we at the reality school were closely supervised; and the coordination with the Euro and Japanese groups was intense, with several major universities involved. There were the occasional policy disagreements, but those were minor. Or so we were told.
At the time, they didn't say too much to us about the rumors of other nations hurrying to build their own shaping centers, outside the control of the U.N. committee. Or about the bombing in Baghdad of what was supposed to have been a munitions plant, but nobody really believed it...
The hardest opponents for us to hear about were the ones like Reverend Patwell and his church, right in the next county, who claimed, not that we were favoring American interests over others, but that we were defying God's will by imposing our order onto His.
That was nonsense, of course. As far as I was concerned, we were helping God hold His world together. Okay, maybe humans had caused this mess in the first place. But without us—or people like us—who knew what might have become of our world, our reality?
I can talk about it with a certain clarity now, because I've seen what happened when it went wrong. I've seen what happened when the school, the neighborhood, the whole fix on the reality that was our world began to dissolve.
Part 3 to follow shortly.
Copyright © 1995 Jeffrey A. Carver
First appeared in Science Fiction Age, March 1995.
Also appears in the story collection Reality and Other Fictions, by Jeffrey A. Carver (www.starrigger.net/ebooks.htm)