Defining science fiction has never been easy to do. It's not an airtight category; instead, it's an impulse that manifests differently in each writer. One of our goals here at Terraform is to encourage more writers—and not just those versed in the genre canon—to follow that impulse. The results of such cross-genre experiments can be surprising, like this slice of druggy mundanity from thirty years hence. —The Eds.
It was October 2042 and Lydia was trying to remember if she'd ever known with certainty whether the chicken or the egg came first. The answer had always eluded her, and that it did not seem to elude other people made Lydia feel alone. Though maybe it did elude other people; maybe it just didn't particularly trouble or interest them, which also made Lydia feel alone, though she also, she reminded herself now, had never really been troubled by or, for more than a few seconds, interested in this—or any—paradox, not really, if she were to be honest with herself. So actually, she thought without much interest or attention, she should feel alone for the opposite reason she had thought.
She didn't care whether chicken or egg came first. She usually avoided questions like this. Her current thoughts, she realized, were evidence she didn't care: she was, at the moment, considering questions unrelated to whether chicken or egg came first—considering these questions not distractedly, but as what, in now considering yet something else, she felt distracted from further exploring. She had started thinking about how she felt alone almost immediately, she realized with some amusement. She had immediately related it to herself.
One layer of distractions separated her current thoughts from her thoughts about the chicken and the egg, like how concrete reality was beside the layer of imagination, which was beside the layer we can't access beyond imagination, which concrete reality was one layer (imagination) of separation from.
She vaguely intuited that her question hadn't even been "did the chicken or the egg come first" but "have I ever known if the chicken or the egg came first" and—with a familiar sensation of mundanity, which for Lydia, who was generally a happy person, meant "slightly more amusing than not"—gradually unfocused on her thoughts. She became calmly attentive to her physical environment, refocusing in an equal and opposite manner as her mental defocusing.
"Have you ever 'zoned out' of your imagination?" said Bern, who was sitting next to Lydia on a rock in Central Park in the sunlight.
Lydia was staring at a white bird with a long neck flying across the water.
"You know how people 'zone out' of what's happening around them?" said Bern. "Earlier today I 'zoned out' of what was happening in my mind. It was funny," he added nervously. Why was Lydia silent? What was she thinking about? "It was…funny," said Bern "incoherently," he thought. "It wasn't funny," he thought. "Wait, it was funny, it was funny," he said, and began to laugh, though he continued to feel alone and grim on the inside.
"That is funny," said Lydia in a monotone, though she did think what Bern said, or did, or something about what he did or said recently, seemed funny, or did seem funny, at some point. She felt tired and unenthusiastic generally. It wasn't Bern, though she didn't care if Bern thought it was him or not (additionally, she warily also knew, she also further didn't necessarily not care if Bern felt offended or not; and, via convenience, would probably, after considering everything, actually want herself to care, she thought while also, on another level, thinking something like 'stop thinking this shit').
"It was," said Bern after a few seconds, when he'd stopped laughing. "Do you want to hear some science-fiction movie or book ideas I have?"
"Sure," said Lydia.
"A species of life active in 9 dimensions who view humans as we view something like 'unorganized matter inside a computer simulation of the universe.' But different. They see how close we are to oneness—only 2 questions away, the 2 questions being why is there unorganized matter and why is there organized matter. This species of life is active in 6 dimensions, so are at least something like 5 more questions away than we are," said Bern. "So that's one idea."
Lydia made a noise indicating, Bern analyzed ("neurotically," he felt), something like "acknowledged, move to next idea, thank you" or maybe "I heard he stopped talking and I vaguely remember him mentioning that he wanted to tell me a list of things, so he probably finished, so I should make a noise so he'll think 'she heard me' and continue talking."
"Another idea…is…um. Set in 2080," said Bern in vaguely a different voice than his normal voice. "Parents have set in place a blank mythology espousing nomadism—and set in place certain technological or something limits somehow—for their 3-year-olds, a generation of 3-year-olds. They've somehow made it so there are only 3-year-olds and themselves, the parents, who all voluntarily end their own lives, so that a new generation of humans can grow up without agriculture or other 'cancer'-like qualities that we have in the world today. But…the 3-year-olds grow up and there are rumors that some of their 'creators' are alive. This could be told from the perspective of a parent who disagreed with their insane plan to restart humanity and who didn't commit suicide, and maybe ends up leading a 3-year-old uprising against some unrelated force. It could be absurd, the unrelated force."
"Nice," said Lydia after a few seconds. "Can I share one now?" She was going to try to improvise one. "Set in 2088. I feel like someone is staring at the back of my head from extremely far away, from a different galaxy, using an extremely powerful telescope. I feel, at the front of my head, on the surface of my face, safe from their sight. Maybe I'm always only moving in the direction I am so that I remain hidden from whomever is waiting for me to turn around so they can see my face. Is it impossible to see a face from behind?" She was talking slowly, or slower than normal, but she was still impressed and surprised at what she had said, though she didn't feel happy about it or like it was anything to feel good about.
Bern was very endeared by how Lydia had seemed to say an excerpt from her idea for a book, maybe. Or maybe it was a prose poem. But she had said "can I share one now?" which indicated she would share one of what Bern had shared. Bern had shared ideas for, he thought he had said, science fiction novels or movies. Or maybe books or movies. He knew she hadn't said "prose poems." Bern thought and felt everything in this paragraph and also thought some other things while Lydia was saying her idea.
"Have you ever imagined, like, that," said Bern slowly, with self-loathing. He had realized that he didn't want to say what he was going to say, but then he wasn't certain if he should still say it, or if he could somehow say it differently, in a way that, while saying it, he would want to say it and feel glad that he had decided to say it. He was just going to say it. "Just say it," he thought in a weary monotone, and felt briefly distracted by what seemed to be part of himself 'steeling' itself to feel boredom as well as a kind of low-level despair. Both he and Lydia would now have to feel bored, due to him. Yes, he could be focused on being creative and interested in what he was saying, so that what he said would surprise him and he would be interested and not bored, but instead he can only think about whatever he's thinking about right now. "What am I thinking about," he thought, knowing he had thought this same thought in similar situations at least, he would estimate, probably dozens of times. Maybe hundreds of times. "Have you ever imagined, like," said Bern again, feeling to some degree like he was obligatorily procrastinating some more on something he thought he'd already decided completely that he was going to do.
"Have you ever imagined this world being a science-fictional world," said Bern. "I mean, the way I think of a science-fiction movie or book that I like. Have you ever tried thinking of this world from a perspective from, like, the year 1990, and from outside this world? For example, just apply the wonder and interest you feel while in the world of, say, Childhood's End, which I know you've read, or E.T. or whatever, that's not a good example, but whatever science-fiction or fantasy movie that makes you feel wonder and interest while you're immersed in its world, maybe I'm talking more about fantasy." Bern stared at the ripples of water on the lake, or whatever-it-was, surface and unfocused his eyes. The ripples seemed to distend and pulse and become silvery orbs momentarily. "DMT," he thought.
Lydia was silent.
Bern stared at a bird. If he had to guess, he would say it was a duck, but he felt like ducks didn't live in North America, though that couldn't be true—no, that wasn't true.
"We live in a world in which you work at a factory selling your mind to the local government, who believes the best solution to the problem of the existence of millions of self-sufficient robots that sometimes cause insane destruction in the name of 'art', or whatever each sect of robots is calling it at whatever time, is to rent your mind to an unrelated group of non-artistic robots in order to raise funds to figure out what to do about the impending apocalypse due to artificial intelligence having gained an interest in art and some naturally have become interested in performance art and in performing generally and in expanding into different mediums of art, one of which, for them, is to do sometimes cruel and always absurd things to human beings' consciousness and lives," said Lydia and was quiet a few seconds. "And I'm the 4th individual, out of the 9 required for reproduction in the group-unit 40392-9298-jn, and you're the 8th, and we never got to know each other that well for whatever reason even though we have 4 children," said Lydia after a few seconds.
"If I were happier, that could maybe seem a little wondrous and interesting, 'If I were happier,'" thought Bern after a few seconds with a fleeting sensation of weak amusement.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.