Thursday, 17 February 2011

I Dream in Science Fiction (short story)

I open the envelope and unfold the letter, smoothing out the pages in front of me on the desk. Outside, the early evening mist is sinking low over the hedges. The house is quiet save for the muffled double-whoop of a wood pigeon echoing down the chimney.
The pages are written in crisp black ink, beautiful handwriting, a joy to read, equal margins and proper paragraphs. What was the word for this... calligraphy, no... copperplate. I start to read.

'My Dearest One,'

Immediately I stop, how beautiful, to be someone's dearest one. I glance briefly, ruefully at the envelope and wish I had used a letter opener on it, this is a letter I would keep. A letter to read and reread until the pages were turned into frail cobwebs of ink and dust.

My Dearest One,

Here I am, at the beginning of another century, writing this to you in the hope that you will understand how I came to be out here, so far from you. I don't really know how to write this, how to make this make sense so I will start with my present situation and work back and, perhaps, I'll reach a point where you will understand, where it will all fall into place.

The work here at the base is routine and dull, checking temperature and humidity on the seed-banks. Keeping the food farm productive. An endless dull routine of checks and maintenance protocols. Of course there is timetabled interaction with the others too. There are in all, four of us at any one time, to have less would be to produce an unsustainable chain of continuity so for now, four of us it is.

I am fast approaching that age when the years behind me stretch back longer than the years in front but I am not yet ready to retire to that rambling world of reminiscence and so, with the spare hours left in the day, I have been working on this letter and on ways of sending it to you.

Sitting here, from this vantage point the world stretches out in front of me solid and tangible through the glass and yet still so very far out of reach. We are a long way from returning to the earth. Such a long way to go still, did you all realise just how long? Thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. Were you all expecting some big reset button to be pressed? A sudden annihilation of those last centuries of collective guilt, washed clean by some cathartic cataclysm and then, nature would carry on as normal. Start to reboot the complex, dynamic ecosystems, build food chains, breathe life into the dead oceans, regrow the rainforests, re-carpet the grass plains. Like some magical force that would relight the candle once it had been extinguished. Did you all not once think how slim the chances of that happening were? Where else did you find life in the solar system, in the universe beyond?

There are so many papers in the archives about tipping points, reached and passed, as though the inevitable extinction of life on earth was beyond your control and yet through it all is this idea of redemptive hope, of gaia and the robustness of nature which would always mean, given long enough, life would return. Could you not for a moment, understand how infinitesimally small the chance of that tipping point back into sustainable life would be? But I am not blaming you, or trying to turn this into some moral lecture. The plain truth of it is, despite all the hope and theories, all the predictions and graphs and experiments, the planet remains barren and, to date, there has been no sign of a tipping point back to life.

Of course those last couple of centuries where you all tried very hard to predict the point at which the planetary ecosystems would reach unsustainability have a poignancy that, with hindsight, is almost unbearable because the truth of it is, you had reached the tipping point long ago. Not when you killed the last dodo. Not when there were only 1000 tigers left in the wild. Not when the last whales were culled for food, not when the last rainforests had been cleared and the great lakes were little more than malaria infested swamps. But long before, you tipped the planet over into extinction when you first decided the planet existed for you and not that you existed because of the planet.

As the top creatures in the food-chains started to disappear, none of you were too alarmed. Why would you need tigers, elephants, whales, sharks, lions, bears. Were they not the simply the dinosaurs of their age? They were troublesome, competed for resources with you, were dangerous to kill and often killed you. Those big creatures could be exhibits in parks and zoos instead. Safe behind inches of glass and steel, abstracted into an ideal of life, such as I am now, stuck here in this base. The irony is not lost on me, that all humanity tried to save the last few of these creatures, without really knowing, ultimately, the life of the zoological example would be their own fate.

Alarm bells only started to ring when it was far too late. When the globally warmed superstorms swept the planet. When smaller mammals and reptiles suffered mass die-outs. When crops failed, when some insect species died while others thrived. When disease stopped being epidemic and became endemic to human existence. When you woke up one day and discovered all that was left were humans, insects and disease. Of course, the smart money was on the insects surviving the catastrophic extinction of life on earth. If you look at the human body and realise it is a walking Petri dish of exploitation for every bacteria and virus and then add in a climate that is hostile to that body's defence mechanisms but lets diseases flourish and replicate faster than ever predicted, it was only decades before you reached your own extinction point. And the insects? Well they have to eat something and when there was nothing left, they too were turned to dust in the superstorm chaos that still ravages the planet.

So, here I am, with my three others, going about my daily routine, ensuring that here, in this ark of collected human existence we continue. Of course, over the centuries we have perfected the cloning techniques pioneered by humans and I am the perfect replica of my old self, my younger self and my infant. We still keep to a human timetable of life expectancy and growth experience, there really is no better way to mature the brain, to optimise it's functionality than through time and experience. Of course, over the years, we have extended the lifespan slightly to an average of one hundred and fifty years, any longer and the burden of decrepitude outweighs the knowledge base and functionality of the brain and body. And so we stretch, in an unbroken chain back to when this base was built to store all the knowledge, all the lessons learnt, all the saved flotsam and jetsam of the shipwrecked human world. Stored, preserved and catalogued on computer circuitry and in sealed vaults. Every sequenced piece of DNA, every word of remembered poetry, every example of human enterprise. The plan was, when earth had healed itself, we would return and insert ourselves back into the environment, leapfrog a few millennia of the evolutionary process by resurrecting ourselves at a point where we could learn from our mistakes, start again.

But it has not turned out that way. There has been no tipping point back to paradise and we are abandoned and lost here in this base for all time. So, in this short span of life I have been working on ways to send out a distress flare, back through time, to highlight our plight. A message in a bottle, a clarion call for change. To warn of what lies ahead for humanity and for the planet. For humans to stop, reflect and change before it is too late and to say, here, here is the tipping point! The final point of no return for you and all life on the planet.

I have spent many years working through the records and, with extensive computer modelling, the last point where change might be effective and scientific reasoning optimised enough for comprehension is in the 1700's when the dodo was pushed into terminal decline by human activity. A compelling example of what is to come to help prick your collective human conscience. It will give you a few centuries to mend your ways, just the slimmest chance to reach for survival. To tip the scales back in yours and the planet's favour. The technologies I am using to send this letter back in time are not so far removed from traditional human practises. Astral projections, meditations, these are techniques widespread throughout human history. The hardest part will be to narrow the window of projection back to the right century, to narrow in down the millennia of years that stretch out to this present day. Building the brain function to perform this projection through time was relatively easy in comparison.

And so, my dearest one, this is the hardest part, putting this distress call in a way that is both comprehensible to the human mind while knowing it is also a letter of farewell. Because, if this message works, if humanity can find a way to alter the balance in their favour, then all this, this ark, this last little bubble of humanity preserved out here on the moon will not be necessary and I, my three others and the base will cease to exist. So, I have addressed this note to myself, to the human me whose DNA, stretching back down through the generations of human existence, will end up as the model for the clone all humanity will become. This is it, this is the tipping point...

There is a loud thud and the double glazing shudders as a wood pigeon flounders against the glass, wings frantically beating to stop it's forward momentum. For an instant it is helpless in it's course into the window but at the last moment before the pane must surely smash, it gains lift and banks away into the mist, leaving a perfect, dusty imprint of itself on the window. The noise has jolted me to the core, as though I am falling. I glance back to the letter but now there are only thin cobwebs of black drifting over yellowing pages of paper turning into dust front of my eyes. For a moment or two I cannot work out what the noise I can hear is but then I realise, the alarm clock radio is blaring and I surface to the morning from the depths of sleep.

By the evening the dream has receded deep into my memory, just the vague uncomfortableness of a restless night remains and I turn on the tv after a microwave lasagne and a glass of wine. There is a nature programme on about how there are now only 1000 tigers left in the wild. Somewhere, far off in the recesses of my brain, this figure strikes a chord and I ponder for a moment what this figure could mean. But still, as the programme points out, there are plenty of tigers in the zoos and all kinds of plans for reintroduction, for new tiger ranges, it's not like we're going to kill them all for food or sport. It's not like we are going to treat them the way we did with the dodo, we know far better than that nowadays, don't we?