Connoisseurs of the Eccentric
by Jetse de Vries
Salvador Dalí took his pet ocelot to a New York restaurant, where a woman protested that wild animals were being allowed in. Dalí replied it was only a cat he’d painted in op-art style. The woman looked closer: “Now I can see it’s a cat,” she said. “At first, I thought it was an ocelot.”
Seated near the swimming pool in the artist’s retreat in Port Lligat, a BBC interviewer said that he had “heared that Dalí was unkind to animals. Was that true?”
“Dalí cruel to ze animal?” The artist exclaimed, “Nevair!” After which he picked up his pet ocelot and hurled it into the swimming pool.
I SEE HER arriving in her private vacuum zeppelin, flying over the rewilded mountains of the Nagasaki peninsula, while I’m tending the extreme bonsai wine garden on top of my farmscraper. Expertly manoeuvering through the photovoltaic city forest, the zep berthes at the telescopic docking station. It gives me time to change from my gardening attire into something more formal.
Originally, she found me through my hyperdense pinot noir à la bonsaïe, almost two decades ago. Back then, I proudly showed her my grotto garden, but she quickly decided that she liked my ecological acumen better than my micro bonsai specimen. Today, for the second time only, she comes unnanounced.
I come prepared, but even my Icho’s ‘the power of light and shadow’ complemented with a pair of Peron & Peron’s is no match for the way Afri Kamari makes an off-the-shelf, demure business suit look like haute couture. Above ebony cheekbones: deep brown eyes that see straight through you. Under a head of long, thick, fine curls: a brain that never shifts from top gear. Inside a very conservative skirtsuit: an animated sensuality that puts any anime girl to shame.
Thousands of times I’ve talked with her over vidcon and — recently — EPIT-link: but when I see her in the flesh, I’m both entranced and edgy. I open my special cabinet and start uncorking my Takashima pinot noir — still the most exclusive wine in the world — to celebrate her extremely rare personal visit. She takes her time to smell, taste and enjoy it. Not bad for a beer aficionado, part of me thinks, while another part wishes she would cut to the chase. Neither needs to wait long.
“Superb,” she says, “the Delirium Nocturnum of wine.”
“Which you didn’t find special enough to sell to the aliens.” I remind her.
“It’s phenomenal craftsmanship, second to none, but not quite . . . eccentric enough.”
“Well, you are the true connoisseur,” I try to hide my frustration behind my half-full glass, in vain, “the best of the world.”
“The best of this world.” Her eyes shine like crazy diamonds. “It’s time to expand the market.”
“You don’t need me for the mad part of your schemes. Am I not the orderly yin to your chaotic yang?”
“I do. You can deliver a quintessential part for this project.”
The moment I’ve most feared and longed for in my life. “What is it?”
Her amused smile broadens. “Your soul.”
THE ALIENS ARE still alien. After twenty years, nobody knows how they look like, where they came from or even how many there are. Yet, out of the grey they came.
Of all places, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence ended when it received a clear, unencrypted message from the Moon, about the only place where SETI wasn’t looking. The aliens said they declined to say who they were and where they came from, as that was ‘irrelevant’. They said they came in peace, looking for trade. They declared the Moon off-limits, while the rest of our solar system was open ‘to explore as you see fit’.
The trade items they were looking for were something else: they weren’t interested in our science & technology, art & history or culture & biology in general. They didn’t want to tell us if our most cherished theories were correct, because they didn’t want ‘to contaminate your unique approach with alien influences.’
No: they were looking for the ‘most spectacular failures’, the ‘most imaginative yet unsuccessful extrapolations’ in any area of interest. The weirder, the more wonderful. It couldn’t be wacky enough.
Some were against this, stating we should ‘keep our Mad Hatter in our Wonderland’, while others couldn’t wait to take the aliens up on their trade offer. The barter: advanced technologies unknown to current Earth science.
That bait — if it was bait — worked: at the first monthly ‘weird-to-wisdom’ exchange thousands upon thousands of examples of ‘eccentricity’ were offered. The aliens, though, only took a very limited number of them. Each Earth trader was given a unique, quantum-encrypted link where either an acceptance or rejection of their offer was given. As the utmost majority of them were getting rejections, a loud outcry of ‘we’re being suckered’ ran around the world.
Until the new technologies of the accepted trades were introduced . . .
William Archibald Spooner had a habit of muddling up words, switching consonants, vowels or morphemes. Apocryphal or not, the following ‘spoonerisms’ are attributed to him:
“The Lord is a shoving leopard.”
“Let us raise our glasses to the queer old Dean.”
“Go and shake a tower.”
“A well-boiled icicle.”
THE GUEST CABIN of her private zep is remarkably Spartan, although the futon in it is first class. As the world goes by I try to figure out what the hell she is planning. Landscapes pass under us: the spectacular — and now far less polluting — Shanghai conglomeration, the majestic Karst Mountains, the lush Nam Ha jungle.
Asking it outright will only make her laugh. Maybe if I take a surprise turn during our talks. She is mostly doing business through the day and heavy workouts in the evenings. She’s always a little hurried at breakfast and lunch, but relaxes considerably during dinner. That’s when I have the most illuminating talks with her.
“Why do they take the trouble of doing trade, anyway? Had I been in their place, I’d just copy every Google cache and sort out the interesting things later.” I wonder.
“Nobody knows: we can only guess: they don’t have the capacity — at least not here — to sort through all the clutter, so they let us do that job. They can’t physically get to our internet caches: the information technologies are too divergent. They really don’t want to contaminate our ‘unique’ thinking with cold alien logic, Mr. Spock. And maybe—”
“Maybe?” I lift my left brow.
“I do speculate, just not in public. But maybe the whole trade procedure is the point: not our eccentric (yet possibly worthless) goods, not their beads-and-mirror barter, but to let this function as a catalyst: we stop deteriorating the biosphere and develop ourselves sustainably.”
“Why would that be to their advantage?” Gaia (and I) know it has been to our advantage.
“When the next mission arrives, we finally may have something worthwhile for them.”
Food for thought: a mental midnight snack as she retreats to her cabin.
At night we have apparently crossed the Bay of Bengal — lots of light turbulence — and the southern point of India. Now we’re flying across the Indian Ocean, heading for Somalia. I do some business, but my heart isn’t in it. I keep wondering why she’s taking me on this wild ride, but can’t figure out how to ask her. Also, I can’t help but watch our recovering world since I was instrumental in important parts of its recuperation. I decide to write down my thoughts about what happened after the aliens came: a concentrated narrative about two decades of great change. A bit like my extremely limited pinot noir: ‘twenty years of pruning, twenty months of maturing (in bonsai casks), for twenty minutes of intense delight’.
Dinner is an exquisite trip-around-the-world: vegetable sushi nori, basque chicken yassa, Belgian mini bonbons. Yet I take the conversation to off-world matters: “Another paradox: why is the Moon off-limits, and the rest of the solar system not?”
“Bait-and-switch? Still, then you’d expect they’d give us a little help in getting out there.”
“Well, I can sympathise with being left in the dark.”
“Patience, my dear friend: I will reveal all. Don’t spoil the surprise.”
“OK. But the aliens did give us blueprints that eventually led to space industry technologies: the material of this vacuum zeppelin’s skin that you used for the space elevator’s ribbon, for example.”
“Takashima-san, the aliens didn’t give us the semi-chaotically doped carbon nanotube technology: we developed it ourselves in Libreville.”
“But you announced it as ‘another breakthrough from the aliens’.”
“A white lie: in the last ten years, the aliens have been doing less and less trade, which suited me fine, as I was getting tired coming up with ever crazier eccentricity schemes.” She rolls her eyes: a rare sign of fatigue.
“Less trade? How would you know? They never tell which deals are accepted or not.”
“I have my contacts, and as far as we can determine, the number of deals has been in decline from the very beginning: it roughly follows a half-life curve.”
“Like that of nuclear decay?”
“Meaning they have nothing more to trade?”
“Or nothing more that they wish to trade. Or they have milked us for what we’re worth, and are about to move on. Or . . . ”
I take a sip from the superb jasmine leaf tea to fill the sudden silence.
“Or they have bandwidth limitations.”
WHEN THE ALIENS opened for business, Afri Kamari didn’t just jump the shark: she kicked her heels and spurred it on with all her might. While most traders followed established rules, she — controversially — assumed that the old rules didn’t apply, and if any new rules existed, she’d find out by pushing them. Hard.
There was the lawsuit with Oxford University about her ‘stealing the character of William Archibald Spooner and misrepresenting historical facts’. Where Oxford University offered up the ‘true’ historical character, Afri took spoonerism a couple of steps further, inventing an isolated, rather incestuous, hyper-linguistic tribe that gets ‘infected’ by a mix of spoonerism, malapropism, phonetic shifts & reversals and neologisms. That tribe of fictionados spoke a language that evolved so fast that nobody could meaningfully communicate with them, even in the internet age.
Afri won the bid and the lawsuit: the aliens preferred her version, and they accepted bids from every person and entity that could aim a radio antenna at the Moon. Afri had set up her bidding company (plus radio antenna) on São Tomé and Princípe: an isolated jurisdiction. Probably not coincidentally close to Gabon, the country of her forebears, where she soon set up the Free International University of Libreville and the Mid-African Technology Centre in Port-Gentil: the former soon began to decipher, understand and work out the implications (or reverse-engineer the science) of the alien blueprints she acquired; the latter began to produce actual technologies from them.
It turned both cities into boomtowns, and led to the quick construction of new infrastructure: the 10 kilometre Libreville — Denis double-bridge and the 40 kilometre Port-Gentil — Gongoué double-bridge connecting both cities through the new combined coastal highway/TGV line. An infrastructure that came in very handy when Afritechnologies, Inc. starting building the base station of the space elevator just south of Kobékobe — a village that has grown out to encompass the skyhook’s base.
Erik Satie’s one-room apartment was a crowded affair: apart from four pianos — two on top of each other (with pedals interconnected) — it also contained his collection of over a hundred umbrellas and his twelve grey velvet suits, of which he wore one until it wore out before using the next.
“Before writing a work I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself,” he said, and when critics told him he wrote music with no form he immediately composed ‘Trois Morceaus en Forme de Poire’ (‘three pear-shaped pieces’). Instead of musician, he initially called himself a ‘gymnopedist’, later a ‘phonometrician’. He only ate food that was white.
THE NEXT MORNING, I awake to the sight of the Congo jungle. Through breakfast it becomes clear that we are heading to that long, sharply reflecting ribbon in the sky. I don’t like this, not one bit.
“Afri, you’re not going to take me off-planet. I’m a man of the earth.” I say, filling my voice with a steely resolution.
She barely notices: “Takashima-san, off-planet is only the first step. A tedious one, though.”
Slowly noticing my dismayed silence, she adds: “Don’t worry, you’ll like it, eventually. And it’s safer than crossing the street in Nagasaki.”
“I have a business to run.”
“So do I: we’ll share the EPIT-link, which I’ve more than doubled for the occasion.”
“I have to take care of my micro-bonsai.”
“Which one of your assistants surely is doing already. Listen: I don’t intend to keep you away forever. If all goes well you should be back in a couple of weeks.”
“In one piece?”
“Quite probably in more than one piece.”
IN THE AFTERNOON, we disembark at Kobékobe and immediately board the waiting space elevator car. Up we go, slowly, majestically. It’s four days to the orbital rendezvous station, four more days to meditate, to contemplate the living koan that is Afri Kamari.
How can we recognise the alien in the other when we can’t see the alien in ourself? I think. Modern Zen master Koho Watanabe would surely laugh.
As expected, life in the space elevator is minimalistic: each kilogram counts. Which is probably why Afri’s zep cabins are kept so spare: no big lifestyle switchover.
I don’t work much: I keep trying to figure out what her ‘surprise’ is, the view is too enticing, and meditating in lesser gravity rather addictive. It compensates for the artificial taste of space food, which has all the essential ingredients to survive, but very little to enjoy. The Tao of Oversight: the more I see of the planet that I helped return to maximum biodiversity, the more basic and bland my nourishment becomes. The world rewilds as the acolyte ascends into asceticism.
While I am unexpectedly enjoying the trip up the beanstalk, I don’t look forward to the encapsulated trip to Phobos. At least, that’s what I suppose we are going to: Afri still hasn’t told me. I repeatedly tried to ask, but she twirls around it like a tantalising tango dancer in the heat of the moment.
She is highly preoccupied during the vertical journey. “Connectivity and bandwidth are superb now: do as much as possible before we leave orbit since our connection will be limited in space.”
So I should work, but am strangely unmotivated. My assistants seem to do a fine job keeping things running smoothly. Is this how a holiday feels? A relaxed feeling while you contemplate the meaning of life? As a Zen follower I am such a failure . . .
While I rest, she drives herself to exhaustion. Our exchanges — I don’t have the heart to confront her when she looks so fatigued — are short and formal: “Time enough to talk out there,” she says.
The Earth dwindles and the sky darkens as we gradually rise during a full moon. Strange thoughts cross my mind: I am a man of the earth. Yet—
—in orbit I yearn—
—but the point of departure—
—is not to return—
And Afri floats in front of me.
“Enjoying yourself? I told you so.”
“This must be the proverbial calm before the storm.”
“Not by a long shot: more like a tiny tempest in a sea of tea.”
THE WORLD CHANGED — as it does — but in a direction few suspected. Big countries, Universities and megacorporations got only a very small slice of the alien pie. Most trade opportunities were taken up by small entrepreneurs, creative communities and imaginative people around the globe. Enclaves in the Amazon basin — unearthing stories of odd Medicine Elders and quixotic Great Spirits — received efficient solar bio-electric cells; Australian Aboriginal communities — recalling Creation Time narratives of bizarre muramura and peculiar mangorangs — received ambient temperature superconductors; Sub-Saharan indigenes — depicting mesmerising Fêtes des Masques and the mystic rhythms of idiosyncratic drummers — received high capacity batteries; East-Asian ethnic groups — evoking absurd rituals and impetuous folk dancers — received broad-ranged, tyfoon-resistant windmills.
Then all these isolated groups started co-operating and sharing knowledge, quickly leading to a worldwide ‘archipelago’ of self-supporting, off-the-grid, self-sustainable energy ‘microplants’.
‘Apart together’ — I was one of the co-ordinators — they continued to trade successfully with the aliens, leading to increased food production, better health and more wealth. As a very benevolent side effect, population growth decreased and biodiversity was on the rise. Many problems remained, but they seemed to become tractable.
Miss Kamari wasn’t sitting idly, either. As the eccentricity bidding intensified — dominoing a world-wide cultural renaissance of the outcast in every form and shape — Afri kept riding the idiosyncratic tide. One of her infamous triumphs was ‘the unearthing of the long lost manuscript of Tina in Thintime, by Carole Edwina Edwina’.
In that fictional piece, Tina falls into Weirdland — a reality remarkedly like ours — through the Hobbit Rail. She meets strange figures like the Entropic Mole, the One-Way-Street Kid and the Heat Death Union. Tina is dismayed that nobody can go paxador, knao, aropia, elinct, usuru, or squoth in time. She feels trapped in a claustrophobic continuum, but eventually escapes via the Singular Technology.
And the world evolved — as it must — paradoxically to a place with increased interconnectedness that didn’t lead to more homogeneity, but instead to more variety where diverse opinions and approaches are encouraged rather than repressed.
As life on Earth became better, humanity began looking, very seriously, at space exploration.
Bobby Fischer was an unprecedented chess prodigy who rose through the ranks like a meteor, despite several unusual demands — partly inspired by his membership of the Worldwide Church of God (which he later denounced) — like refusing to play on the sabbath, replacing round-robin with knockout matches and not playing for cameras.
In 1973, as defending champion, Fischer made several principal demands for the 1975 World Championship Match, asserting that not counting draws would be ‘an accurate test of who is the world’s best player’. As FIDE—the World Chess Federation—eventually did not agree, Fischer decided not to defend his title.
At the 1986 World Championship Garry Kasparov barely beat Anatoli Karpov, claiming he lost a 3-point lead because of one his seconds sold his opening preparations to the Karpov team.
In 1996 Bobby Fischer announced a variant of chess called Fischer Random Chess intended to allow players to contest games based on their understanding of chess rather than their ability to memorise opening variations, which Fischer disdained. “Now chess is completely dead. It is all just memorisation and pre-arrangement. It’s a terrible game now. Very uncreative.”
In May 11, 1997, IBM’s specially designed Deep Blue chess computer beat world champion Garry Kasparov in a six game match. In December 2006, chess program Deep Fritz—running on a normal PC—beat world champion Vladimir Kramnik.
A SEA OF tea, indeed: the spacecraft we’re boarding is called the T-pod. It’s T-shaped: a long body of connected living quarters, test labs and cargo modules with a thick crossbar containing the engine room in the middle with the MPDT booster, then botanical floors, gyms and the swiveling ion thrusters at the ends. The MPDT booster and ion thrusters are good old NASA tech, Afri ensures me, while the power on board comes from a fusion generator.
“A fusion generator?” I wonder. “Hasn’t ITER been struggling with that for decades?”
“This is the prototype of a radically different version.”
“Don’t look so worried: we have solar battery backups.”
“Your company developed fusion, as well?”
“No, we got this from the Amazon-Mekong-Uluru co-operative, in exchange for cargo space for their Mars colony.”
“I thought we only had a base on Phobos?” I’m really getting out of my depth. “I’m sorry, but I’m so behind on space developments.”
“I understand: you have to keep up with so many Earth-side projects already. But yes, officially we only have a base on Phobos. Nevertheless, several co-ops and space start-ups are already staking out properties on Mars, which they first provide with equipment — such as we are transporting now, paying for the trip — and raw materials such as volatiles and rare metals which will be transported from the Asteroid Belt. After that the actual settlers will follow.”
Our initial speed is low, but our acceleration is constant: with the new fusion power source and us being close to Mars opposition the trip to Phobos should only take two weeks. Two weeks of decreasing bandwidth. Two weeks of increasing insight? If only Afri would reveal.
Life in space develops to a different routine. Connection with the world-wide web will dwindle from one hour per day to a mere two minutes per day on Phobos, with the delay increasing to four minutes. Several hours in the centrifugal gym, more hours of meditation and lots of time to catch up on my reading. The strange distraction of the front camera’s view of the Aurora Spaciis — a green ghost invoked by the interaction of our superconducting coil’s magnetic field and the Sun’s high-energy particles — a psychedelic partner to the shield protecting this Faraday Cage vessel’s inhabitants from hard radiation. I suppose Major Tom would have approved of this plasma flowing from a cask.
Dinner becomes a kind of fading fad: seven small meals a day are healthier, on average, than three big ones. So in space one has seven snack sessions, and those snacks don’t even look appetising. And drinks in globes don’t entice this wine aficionado, either. It calls for imagination in space.
So I’ve turned some of these snack sessions into 3-D chess matches with Afri, with the food & drinks as set pieces: if one of your pieces is taken, you can consume it. One could lose on purpose if one is hungry, but that rarely happens. Our snack matches are excellent catch-up sessions, even if I sometimes find out more than I might want to.
“Apart from supporting the upcoming Mars colonisation efforts, what have your people been doing on Phobos?”
“We’ve been shooting at rocks. Extremely hard.”
Silence. A long silence, that eventually begins to worry Kamrani. “Are you upset, Takashima-san?”
I have rarely been so appalled. “In this day and age, you are developing space weapons?”
She bursts out laughing. So hard that the exhalations propel her back, ever so slighty, in this zero-G environment. Her mini-tornadoes wreak havoc with our 3-D chess pieces. Catching herself, and her breath, she says: “This has nothing to do with weapons. This is about launching interstellar probes.”
Albert Einstein picked up discarded cigarette butts from the street after his doctor forbade him to buy tobacco for his pipe. He lectured his 8-year old nephew for two hours about the Newtonian properties of soap bubbles. He only went out sailing on windless days, ‘for the challenge’.
At a young age, Kurt Gödel was called ‘Herr Warum’ (Mr Why) because of his insatiable curiosity. In June 1936, Moritz Schlick, chairman of the Vienna Circle, was assassinated by a pro-nazi student. This triggered a severe nervous crisis in Gödel, making him paranoid with an extreme fear of being poisoned. Gödel almost botched up his U.S. citizenship exam in 1947, when he was explaining that an inconsistency in the U.S. constitution could allow a Nazi-like regime: Phillip Forman — the examinator — understood Gödel’s background, cut him off and moved the hearing to a routine conclusion. His fear of being poisoned was such that he only ate food that his wife, Adele, had tasted for him. When Adele was hospitalised in late 1977, she could not taste his food anymore, and Gödel refused to eat, eventually starving himself to death.
Gödel and Einstein became close personal friends when both were lecturing at Princeton. At one occasion Einstein admitted that ‘his own work no longer meant much’, and that the main reason he stayed at Princeton was ‘to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel’. As a present for Einstein’s 70th Birthday, Gödel presented him with a paradoxical solution of General Relativity’s field equations that allowed time travel.
MOONFALL AT PHOBOS: the touchdown is tender like a mother’s kiss, the disembarkation swift and efficient. It feels good to have some gravity pulling at you, even if only at micro levels. All the people look happy, despite the fact that they must be subsisting on an absolute minimum of luxuries. Maybe imagination in space equals living the dream?
The Mars Moon — or would asteroid be a better approximation? — is slowly hollowed out by its Earth occupants. Walking through its plasma-torched corridors feels like zoning in a hall of glass. The slowly spreading nano-insulation can’t quite keep up with the expansion through the body of the ancient god of fear, making the ambient temperature quite chilly, with every breath appearing as white condensation. It’s full of clouds in my house.
We arrive in a room where the fog is intentional, and a 3-D projection of our nearby stellar environment. At least the green arrow originating from our solar system is pointing to what must be Alpha Centauri. This is preposterous. I say as much to Afri: “Aren’t you getting way ahead of yourself? We’re only slowly getting our affairs in order on Earth, we’ve barely started to explore the solar system, and you already want to cross interstellar distances? It’s madness.”
“I don’t see why eight billion people can’t do three different things at the same time. Actually, we’re doing many more things at the same time. Didn’t we build up the space elevators while recycling up the Pacific Garbage Patch? Didn’t we combine longevity with near zero population growth? Don’t we try to make everybody smart, rich and healthy?”
It’s true. But I have trouble enough multi-tasking by focussing on Gaia’s health alone to be paying much attention to space pioneering. Trust Afri to bring me up to speed, though: she’s bringing in a shiny object barely big enough to be seen by the naked eye.
“Here’s our pièce de résistance: a quantum computer in a buckyball substrate, embedded in a complex carbon nanotube polyhedron.”
“Why the fancy packaging? To avoid decoherence?”
“No, we tackled the decoherence degradation through hyper-aggressive entanglement enforcers. The packaging makes this baby close to indestructible.”
In my mind, slowly, some pieces fall into place. “You aim to shoot this over interstellar gulfs?” My brain has trouble keeping up. “But the acceleration will be immense.”
“Yeah, about a billion G.”
“It will rip the material apart.”
“Not quite: an old-fashioned hand gun with a steel bullet already delivers 6 million G. Our carbon nanotubes laugh at a billion G.”
“How does it stop? I see no braking engine in there.”
“No, only some steering thrusters. It stops by drilling itself into a large body.”
“Like the Moon?”
“Even if it can take the mind-bending G-forces, how can it survive the radiation at close-to-light speeds?”
“A magnetic field and the packaging: we’ve hired CERN to bombard a number of prototypes. They passed the expected equivalent of a twenty light-year accumulation.”
The conclusion becomes inescapable: “Don’t tell me you’re ready to launch the first one.”
She smiles the smile that launched a thousand technologies: “Of course we are. That’s why you’re here: we want you along for the ride . . . ”
Physically? She cannot mean physically: this ageing body cries at 5G, let alone a billion. And the probe is about a millimetre across. What did she say back in Nagasaki? Only your soul? But then she must have developed . . .
She remains silent, and waves for me to follow.
NEXT WE’RE IN another room of scientific marvels, another Pandora’s cave in this underground maze. Comfortable seats and wired helmets between quantum computer stacks. Afri pats my shoulder: “Our whole nervous system needs to be scanned first — the seats have sensors — and then our minds.”
“Our?” Not unexpected, still surprising.
“I postponed my scan so we could do it together.”
“But . . . a complete body-and-brain scan that can be translated to software? We’re decades away from that.”
“It’s alien technology: one of the final gifts. We’ve kept it out of the public eye until we’re sure it works. Now our copies will cross the interstellar gulf.”
“Why me?” I raise my eyes to a heaven I don’t believe in. “I’m about as far from the exploration type as you can get.”
“Exactly,” she says, “we need balance. The insatiably curious explorer to absorb the new and the patient, experienced administrator to decide what info to send back. After all, we do have bandwidth limitations.”
“And if our copies find intelligent life?”
“Then the fun really begins.”