From the author: A little meditation on the idea that our universe may be just a rough draft of the real thing.
By Matthew Hughes
"So what shall we do with the rough draft?" I asked him.
He was contemplating the final version. "Dispose of it," he said. "We won't need it anymore."
"But we put some good material in there."
"Anything that was worth keeping went into the final draft," he said, "which is perfect."
“Still,” I said, "I like some of it."
He made that noise he always makes when he's dismissing something as trivial. And since everything is trivial in comparison to him, it was a noise I'd heard before. "Are you saying you want to keep it?" he said.
"Yes, I think so. Why not?"
"Well, look at it," he said. "It's just slapped together. There's not a straight line or a smooth surface anywhere in it."
"Straight lines and smooth surfaces aren't everything."
"No, but they are perfection," he said. "Which was what we were aiming for. This was never more than a step along the way."
"Sometimes you start out aiming for one place, then you take a turn and end up somewhere else, and you realize that the new place is pretty good, too." I’d learned that from observing the draft.
"’Pretty good’ is not good enough. Because it's not perfect. It's not even close to perfect,” he said. “It's just . . . ‘pretty good.’"
"But pretty good is not bad. It can be okay."
"But 'okay' is not okay when the goal is to achieve absolute, number-one, gleaming perfection." He gave me that look he gets when he's explaining things to the less perceptive, which again is a look I've seen before, since who's more perceptive than he is? "When we were putting the rough draft together,” he said, “did we worry if something didn't balance just so?"
"No, we didn't worry."
"What was our basic measuring tool?"
"I know, I know. The bell curve," I said.
"The bell curve," he echoed. "And what do you get when you go by the bell curve?"
I knew, I knew. “Rough approximations."
"Exactly. Most of what you're working with clumps up in the middle of the distribution curve, so it’s more or less right. But the farther out you get from the middle, in either direction, the wronger it gets, until it’s just not right at all."
"Yes, but that's how you get variety."
"Did I ever say I wanted variety?"
"Well, you had us make all those variations on a theme. All those thousands of species of beetles."
"Yes, but as a precursor to what?"
I had to admit it. "Perfection. One perfect, ideal beetle."
"So was variety what I wanted to end up with?"
"What did I want?"
"So what is variety, at best?"
I didn't want to answer.
"Come along," he said. "What is variety, at best?"
"Only a step on the way to perfection."
"Exactly. Just as, when we were doing the rough draft, we used fractals for all the edges, right?"
"Why didn't we make the edges absolutely straight? Why did we let them be all jagged?"
"Because we were just sketching."
"Yes. Roughing it out. Hence the term, rough draft." He gave me that look that said, What part of obvious are you having trouble with? "So what do we want with the sketches now that we have the finished -- that is, the perfect -- piece?"
"Well," I said, "because some of them are just so . . ." I had to search for the right word, and finally came up with, "charming."
"Charming," he said, in that tone that means, Is that what you think?
"All right, if not charming, then let's say 'appealing.'"
"Appealing, charming," he said, with one of those pauses that he inserts purely for emphasis, "neither of them is the ideal. They're what you say about something that has flaws you're willing to overlook."
"Yes," I said.
"But I'm not willing to overlook flaws. I don't do flaws," he said, and I knew from the way he said it that we were reaching that part of the explanation when he would tell me how it was going to be. "I will tolerate flaws as a stage in the process, but only as long as I have to. And once I reach the end of the process -- that is, perfection, defined as the total absence of flaws -- then I don't want leftovers full of flaws. I want the no-longer-necessary remnants tossed."
He gave me his Am I being clear? look, then said, "Am I being clear?"
"Perfectly," I said. Which got me a different kind of look.
"So toss it," he said and went back to contemplating the final draft.
But I didn't.
Not just yet, I told myself. He didn't say, "Immediately." Which I knew was just kidding myself, because "immediately" was always implied, time being, for him, not even a self-imposed constraint. But, technically, it wasn't disobedience. Not yet.
He was right, of course. He's always right. It's who he is. Take any aspect of the draft, look at it closely enough, and the imperfections jumped out. The gentle softness of a newborn's cheek, looked at closely, really closely, became a startling wilderness of crevasses and jagged ridges. Across the entire creation, no two surfaces ever actually touched; we’d never made any actual surfaces, just places where the atoms went from being thinly spread to become extra thinly spread. When you got right down to the ultimate level, it was hard to say that there was anything there at all: "Just a series of useful hypotheses," was how he had put it. "A lick and a promise." A sketch.
I set up the draft and told myself I was just taking a long, last look. I would readily admit to its flaws; creating the denizens out of the same substances that sustained them -- "We'll just make them out of food," was the way he had put it -- had been a useful shortcut, although it contributed a constant overtone of cruelty to every system. They had to tear their lives from each other’s flesh.
"But the flesh was never theirs to keep," he had said, "nor their essential energy." It was a valid point. His points always were. But even allowing for that kind of deliberate clumsiness, the draft really did have some nice touches. Taken altogether, it was not bad. I was proud of it.
The moment I thought that thought, I had to stop and ask myself, Is that what this is all about? Will tossing it hurt my pride? I searched my feelings -- something I'm pretty good at, though perhaps not perfect -- and, honestly, I could say that wasn't the problem. Whether or not the draft exists, my contribution remains the same. Thus my pride will be unaffected. No, the problem wasn't that I was proud of the draft; the problem was that I had grown fond of it.
I had grown sentimental. The realization unsettled me. He had not made me to be sentimental. Where had the quality come from?
I put aside this new concern. He had given me a job to do, and doing jobs for him was what I was for. I'll just say goodbye to it properly, I told myself. One last walk-through, then give it a pat and let it go. I abstracted myself, as I'd done so many times before, and slipped into it.
I flew with the Faloi, each one a thin, hard wedge of scintillating light, the whole mass of them a wheeling, plunging, soaring swarm, way up in the outer atmosphere of a gas world, where the methane grew so attenuated you could sense the great speckled darkness above. I'd always liked the Faloi. Yes, they were quintessentially vain and uncaring -- I wondered where that quality had come from, then suppressed the thought as unworthy -- but they did so love to fly. And there was a simple, pure beauty in their arcs and wheels, their spirals and sudden, catapulting drops.
I left them flashing through the ochre vapour and went to sit with the Gaam, savouring the contrast. They had sunk a good deal further into the hillside since I'd last been by, their sinewy roots forming an even denser matrix in the soil and subsoil. I had always enjoyed the irony: above ground the great sedentary bodies, their booming voices throwing to each other precisely mannered sutras of epic poetry, each verse building organically on the last, in a millennia-long process of collaborative composition; while, in the darkness below, their ciliae wriggled and writhed in perpetual war, each competing with all the others to wring nourishment from the earth and, occasionally, from a brother's root mass.
I went and watched the Teek swarm onto yet another pristine world, the glittering, metallic bodies spilling from the great globe-ships like spores erupting from a split pod. I watched the proto-cities go up, spires and arches and honeycombed dodecahedrons, assembled in a concerted rush of energy that could have been called frenzy if frenzy could have co-existed with cold-bloodedness. Then the shining roadways springing out to lands still untouched, the glistering torrents of pioneer battalions deploying from the roadheads, spreading, enclosing, building -- the frenetic expansion continuing at an exponential rate until the inevitable limits were reached and the Teeks' other defining instinct was triggered, the ships building and filling and launching yet again, leaving behind a dying world-city, its treasures spent, its trillion cells and chambers choked with the unneeded.
I was contemplating their grim beauty when I heard him calling. The urge to ignore the summons, to claim I was too engrossed in the creation, came and went in less time than it takes to tell it. I responded.
"What were you doing?"
"Just poking around."
It's always seemed peculiar that he asks questions. I have to assume he already knows the answers, so the practice must serve some other purpose. I said, "Sentimentality, I suppose."
It doesn't make sense to say that he gave me a more searching look, but that's what it felt like. "Sentimentality?" he said. "Where did that come from?"
That was pushing it. He likes asking the questions, but I could tell he didn't like getting another question for an answer.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" he said.
"What could there be to tell that you don't already know?"
That really brought on the thunderclouds. "I told you to get rid of that thing. You will do it. Now."
I don't know where the idea came from. It just popped into my mind. "Could I keep a souvenir?"
"A souvenir? What for?"
"I'm not sure. Let's say sentimentality again."
I thought for a moment that my response had actually left him puzzled, but that was impossible.
"If you want a souvenir, pick one," he said. "Then toss the draft."
"I will," I said, "as soon as I've picked one."
He withdrew his attention -- he never actually "went away" -- and I turned back to the draft.
It was hard to choose. In the end, I decided to pick one of the denizens I hadn't had so much to do with. It was one of the fast-living species, nothing like the millennia-spanning Gaam; soft-surfaced, unlike the Teek; earthbound, unlike the Faloi. I chose a typical specimen, abstracted it from the draft, edited it so that it wouldn't wear out and installed it in a supportive environment. For a while, I watched it explore and accustom itself to the new surroundings, then I had to withdraw to do what I'd been told to do.
First, I stopped the draft's internal dynamics by removing its time function. All motion ceased. Every process froze. Next, I considered how to abstract the elemental resources and especially how I would return them to a state of unbeing. Uncreating can be just as difficult as creation, if you don't happen to command unlimited power.
The work held my attention even though I was not happy doing it. When I looked in again on my souvenir, I realized that it had experienced a considerable duration -- time was no longer an appropriate term -- since I had placed it in its new habitat. My editing meant that it ought not to have changed in my absence. So I was surprised to find that it had extinguished. I was even more surprised to discover that it had been the author of its own demise.
Puzzled, I revived it and placed it back in the environment. I wondered if I had overlooked some factor, perhaps placing the creature in a setting that lacked some crucial necessity. I watched it become aware of its existence again. There was no question: it was not happy.
I made contact, using a means it could bear. "Is there something wrong with the place I have made for you?" I said.
"No," it said, "it is perfect."
"Then what is amiss?"
"I am not perfect," it said. "I do not fit this place."
"What do you require?"
It thought for a moment, then said, "Reality."
I edited it again to make it content, but my efforts left it a poor thing, and not at all representative of what I now realized I had treasured about the draft. I restored it to what it had been and put it back among its frozen fellows.
"I cannot destroy the draft," I told him.
"I do not wish to."
He gave me his full attention. That caused me significant discomfort but I exerted myself to remain intact. "It is my will," he said.
"It would grieve me to do it."
"Does it not grieve you to defy me?"
"Yet you oppose my will? And for the sake of a rough draft? Why?"
"Because,” I said, “they struggle,"
"Yes, the denizens. Because they struggle."
"They struggle because they are imperfect."
"I know. They struggle against the imperfections we have visited upon them."
"Not all of them," he said.
"No, but some of them. Enough of them. And those that struggle acquire dignity."
"Dignity. Such a small thing."
"Not to them."
That got a dismissive response. "They are not real, as we are real. Thus their emotions are but ephemera. They are only approximations of the real, shadows of the ideal."
He was right, as ever, yet still I persisted. "Not to themselves." I told him about the souvenir and how it had wanted what it called "reality."
"You are placing too much emphasis on its error of perception," he said.
"But is it an error? Or is it instead a . . . difference?"
"It is an error," he said, "one of their flaws. And now you have acquired it from them."
When he pronounces, it is well to listen. He is not ever wrong. "So I am flawed," I said.
"Will you then toss me?"
He did not hesitate. He never hesitates. But he paused before he said, "No. I will not toss you."
"Call it sentimentality," he said. And his look warned me not ask whence he had acquired that quality.
We said nothing for a while, then I said, "What is your will?"
"It is what it is. It does not change."
Of course. "And if I defy your will?"
He pondered. He actually pondered. "Perhaps it is my will that you defy my will."
"Perhaps?" It was not a word I had ever heard him use.
"We will leave that question in abeyance."
"And the rough draft?" I said.
That question he had decided. "Here," he said, “since you love it so.” He took up the frozen draft again, then opened me up and placed it within me. He rewarmed it and I immediately felt its stirrings penetrate throughout me.
"Now it is truly yours," he said. "And you are its. How does that feel?"
"I cannot tell you," I said. "Not yet." It was not the same as when I had abstracted myself into it. Now it all flowed into me, through me, becoming me. We were integrating, becoming inseparable. Yet it continued to change, and thus I continued to change.
"Where will this lead?" I said.
He left that question, too, in abeyance. "How does it feel to you now?" he said.
"I cannot say it is comfortable," I said. "It is strange not to be, but instead to be . . . becoming. Before I was complete, now I am . . . not. It is worrisome, yet it is also, in a curious way, exciting. There is . . . possibility that was not there before."
"If you ask, I will remove it."
I felt all the churning, the transience, the changing, the struggling. "No. I am glad of it. Let it be. I will work with it."
I turned my attention to it, became immersed, became engrossed. All the denizens' sensations passed through me: pain, suffering, emptiness, but also courage, hope, triumph. I shared their perceptions of time and of distance, of birth and death and all that went between. And then I saw that some of me was passing into them.
After a while -- I did not know how long -- I was able to answer him, "It feels both good and bad, in every conceivable shade between those polarities. But, most of all, it feels real. I feel more real now than I ever did."
I received no acknowledgement. A new thought came to me. "Was I real before this?" I said. "Or did I just think I was real?"
I said, "This is where the sentimentality came from -- from them. At first it disturbed me. Now I am not sure I could exist without it, nor without them, its source.”
He had been right. He always was. I was enamoured of it, of them. “What will happen now?”
"What will become of me?" I wondered.
I heard no reply. I could not be sure he was still listening. Yet I struggled to believe that he was.
This story originally appeared in Postscripts 24/25.