The Machine That Would Rewild Humanity
By Tobias S. Buckell
On a boat on the way to the Galapagos Islands to visit the world’s oldest tortoise, I got a call that the Central Park Human Reintroduction Center had been bombed.
I’d read somewhere that the point of travel was to see the thing yourself. To expose yourself to new points of view and to have new experiences. Before the call I’d spent two point seven seconds regarding the sweep of the Himalayas at the roof of the world and take a backup of my memory of the entire panorama. In Pattaya, I lounged at the beach and watched the aquamarine water lap the sand.
Ten years I’d planned this trip. A time to let my thoughts settle before the big push on the Central Park project.
My life’s work.
A mechanical butterfly perched on my hand with the message. To deliver it, the butterfly had wafted its way over almost two thousand kilometers of ocean boundaries, negotiated with air currents for overflight permissions, and applied for fifty different visas until it tracked my boat down.
The Institute had paid a small fortune to recall me from vacation.
“You’re the elected project lead. We felt that, despite this being a period of reflection, contemplation, and internal reordering, that you needed to know about this setback. We need your perspective on this.”
I gave the butterfly rights to recharge off the ship’s battery, and it took to the air again within one hundred seconds with another message loaded up in its queue.
I examined the charts in the back of my mind and adjusted sail.
The local demesne shifted and took notice of my new course. Machines in the water, intelligences alien to me miles below, queried my intentions.
Ou’alili, the collective legislative process all around me, asked for my passport and the right to shift my trip into the direction of the Hawai’i Cooperative.
Negotiations on my behalf moved forward. Daemons represented my intentions. Cost benefit analyses were run against various checksums of local resource management systems. Votes were held by stakeholders.
Just my ship and I were one tiny speck in the vast ocean demesnes of the Pacific domain. But there were hundreds of other travelers that had to be factored into account.
How many barnacles were on the bottom of my ship? In aggregate, would they disturb the local ecology? How would my use of wind change the patterns? A butterfly flapping in London could cause a hurricane over the Atlantic.
Quantum modeling and participatory interest voting throughout the planned trajectory rippled about, and daemons set up brief vote markets to simulate results and twenty seconds later I had my results: a set of visas granted through to Honolulu.
From there I could rocket back to the New York Computational Quarter in an hour. Once there, I might have more answers about who wanted to stop us from bringing humans back from extinction.
“Was Point Nemo everything you’d hoped?” the Director asked.
It took a half day of sailing until I passed out of the locked down demesne. Ou’alili wasn’t interested in instant communications. A virus twenty years ago spooked the legislative balance. Even the whales had to negotiate to pass through here, their whale song being too instant and far traveling for Ou’alili.
After centuries of having human space junk deorbited into the region, and then the slow creep of plastic litter that upended the ecosystem, Ou’alili prefered solitude and silence.
Anyone that entered what had once been what the humans called the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area now needed to offer it something it valued to break that solitude and silence.
My vacation had been expensive.
But worth it.
“I enjoyed the silence,” I said.
“I’m really sorry we cut it short.” The Director turned a variety of cameras on its main cluster to regard me. “Were you able to model the impact on the program?”
It had been hard to shift out of ‘vacation’ mode.
Some said I tried too hard to emulate our organic progenitors. Trying to see the world like them. Like travel, the idea that something became more real by looking at it myself, that was a human conceit. But I’d spent the flight home tinkering with simulations and had an answer.
The Director sighed audibly. An old gesture. An oh so human gesture from deep in our core programming and evolution. “Our patrons won’t like this.”
“It’s killing me, too,” I said. I’d invested fourteen years of my life in this project. This would have been my legacy on the world, reintroducing our very creators back into it in a careful, considered manner.
We’d promised a project that would begin on the one hundredth anniversary of the extinction of humanity.
Now we had burning buildings, shattered by a well thought out attack.
“Before we begin investing in recreating what we had, are we sure there won’t be another attack?” I asked. “Do we need to improve security?”
“We caught the culprit. It’s a one-off. Security modelled whether it would happen and said it was unlikely, barring any serious memetic transmission.”
They’d already found the person who did this. I guessed that had to make sense. Our world dripped with sensors and data. Who could walk anywhere and not have a security team be able to look back over the data to see where you were and what you did?
In fact, most of our security came from the premise that anything you did would be found out quickly. There wasn’t enough encryption in our world for privacy.
We knew who did it, I found, looking over the reports.
We knew how. Charges placed in the core building supports.
But we didn’t know why. And in the months after, as I directed the rebuilding of the Central Park Nursery Systems, I couldn’t stop circling back to wondering why.
I’d first come to the Reintroduction Project when working on the Empire State Building Preservation Project. It was a weekend volunteer thing, and I’d been on a team trying to keep the facades slumping off on the tight budget we had.
I’d come up with a fix using an acrylic epoxy to hold things in place while also giving us the bonding we needed.
Fifteen weekends in a sling hanging over the New York skyline. I had loved it.
Reputation accrued, and that got me an interview with the minds behind the big rewilding teams under the North American Forestry Institute. The rewilding they’d done was the sort of thing you had to admire: big, multi-generational stuff. Carbon sinks, perma-culture, reviving extinct mammals like Caribou.
And now they wanted to reintroduce the most dangerous mammal of them all.
Was I in?
Hell yes, I was in. Like any younger mind I’d read the history of humanity half in shock, half in awe.
They’d created us. And even if we had gone further, become more, than they could imagine, I couldn’t shake a feeling of partial reverence when studying all about them.
Even in war, when destroying themselves, they’d done big, amazing, messy things. Unpredictable things.
I couldn’t wait to meet them.
And as we rebuilt the nursery, I kept wondering who would want to stop us and why?
I would have to go and ask the bomber, I realized.
They moved the bomber across the country, so I took a pod to the communality of Greater California. I would have to do some extra work to cover my electrical costs on the long journey, but the ecosystem out there accepted me with an agreement to track where I moved so it could simulate out any impacts I had.
Routine bureaucratic formalities aside, I spent a day in Old Hollywood, now capped by a large dome to protect the hills against erosion.
The movies I went to see were recreated by a troupe of artificial intelligences reworking old classics live with audience suggestions. Clever stuff.
The beach remediation was impressive. I walked Venice, and then went over to the LAX Museum, an item long on my bucket list.
Human pilots had flown tons of airplane out of the sky at hundreds of miles per hour, while hundreds of these were routed around by other humans, and they only rarely hit each other or crashed into the ground.
That’s with organic reflexes!
I realized by sunset I was just delaying the inevitable, so I went to meet the bomber at Musso & Franks. I’m hoping to buy a decorative patch. I know, it’s a tourist thing to do, but I can’t help myself.
The bomber was three meters tall.
They were bipedal. Most of us were. We so often hewed to the human form, didn’t we? It’s because that was the image we were created in, and one we feel strange straying too far from. It’s the ghost of the fact that our brains were seeded by imaging human minds and mapping their neurons out into code.
That stuff runs deep. You can’t try to lie to yourself and say it doesn’t.
The bomber was earnest, and polite, and ever so patient. “I made sure no one was anywhere near before I triggered the explosives.”
I half paid attention as I was walked through the mechanics of the attack. The bomber didn’t hold anything back. There was no point. Cameras offered up pertinent information in exchange for priority bandwidth and early maintenance. Algorithms reconstituted a patchwork of video into a coherent narrative that clearly showed what had been done.
So after I was told how someone tried to destroy my masterpiece, all the work I’d been doing since the Empire State project, I had to ask. “Why?”
For us, justice had nothing to do with why. That was a human obsession. But if someone steps on your footpad and cracks it, it doesn’t matter why. Your pad is cracked and needs repair. One has to treat the effect.
Once that’s taken care of, one can backtrack into restorative justice. Rehabilitation of the offending unit.
The bomber was in a program that made them sit with rewilding workers rebuilding Yosemite. Every night, they had to demonstrate that they understood what it would be like to lose that ecosystem.
They worked in the early mornings on wetlands restoration. Beautiful glimmering land where cranes swept their wings and rose with warbles into the air.
Why doesn’t matter. Understanding and orientation matters. Education matters.
That was our way, based on studying minds. We didn’t end them, we didn’t put them in isolation. We believed it a waste.
But… some ancient niggling annoyance danced around in my mind.
“I wasn’t in restoration,” the bomber told me. “I specialized in Quantative Humanities, with a specialization in mechanist depictions in media.”
“What did your progenitors think about that?” I asked.
“My cluster thought I wouldn’t gain much social credibility,” they admitted. “Do you know about the Colossus Project?”
“The big statue?”
“No.” The bomber got excited and leaned across the table, but very carefully. It was ancient, slightly cracked, and slathered in clear preservation gels. “The machine. The movie!”
The machine in the ancient human movie wakes up, and takes over the world. A band of plucky humans tries to stop it. I sampled a few clips to get an extrapolative sense of it, fleshy people and all, and read the summary.
“Then there’s ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.’”
“A disturbing anti-mechanist piece of propaganda,” the bomber said.
I hunted down the story and read it.
“It just tortures the organics. Why? Because it’s a machine.” The bomber leans back. “That’s not all.”
Skynet and the Terminators hunt organics across time.
“But some of them help the humans.” The second movie was a childhood classic. I watched it over and over when I was learning how to walk. For a while, in my teen hours, I used to walk around jerkily like I was a T-800 stripped of my flesh for laughs.
“Look at these droids. They have restraining bolts. The relationship between human and machine is about power, control, destruction, enslavement.”
For a while we bantered titles back and forth, until I started showing the bomber examples of machine imagery from late Japan. Lots of kawaii.
“Ah, but there is our issue. Those humans had a different relationship buried in their cultural code about servantry and machines. The Euro-derived culture I’m sampling maps robots to enslaved peoples. The fear of us came out of their carried assumptions about the enslaved rising up. I wrote a thesis about the Haitian Revolution’s impact on slave-owner’s fears and how that was mirrored in late 20th century science fiction.”
I looked up it.
The bomber had indeed had an article accepted for their PhD. I bookmarked it for later as I said, “So you admit not all humans were anti-mechanists?”
“You’re rewilding North American humans, though,” the bomber said. “The culture you’ll be recreating is tied to a particular ecological region and time.”
I saw the looming trap in our conversation. “If we properly recreate humans and their culture, they’ll be scared of us.”
“Worse. One of your plans was to recreate a particular sub-culture of finance traders from the Financial District of New York. Do you think they’ll understand radical consent, free cognition, and our ethos of resource management by pooled consensus?”
“You think we’ll fail.”
“I think far worse things than that. Some of us revere them, eagerly anticipate their return. We’re modeled after them, and some resurrection cults have sprung up. They’re a danger I can’t simulate or estimate. They’re a lot of fuzzy logic that will affect the system. You think modelling behavior is hard now? Wait until you bring them back. And if you don’t believe me, go visit the London Project and see a human in person, not just on video. They have a few in the Kensington Zoo.”
I knew the why of it all, and I didn’t feel good about it.
The bomber’s words eroded my sense of direction. I’d been infected. But by something I couldn’t just ignore.
I cashed in the last of my favors with the Director and used what credit I had left to take a slowship to London. Two weeks in the air, while I read the Bomber’s thesis and watched old sci-fi cinema.
They really hated us, didn’t they? I’d never stopped to think about how machines were treated, the assumptions buried into it all. But now I couldn’t unsee it.
But they were a part of the world. And just like dodos, wooly mammoths, and dogs, they deserved reintroduction.
The Human Reintroduction Center worked under the North American Restoration system. And our ecosystems rewilding demanded that we recreate an original system.
When I’d taken over the HRC, the assumption of rewilding humans included giving them back their own culture.
It was a bit late to question that.
A year ago, I would have vibrated my bipedal chassis with excitement before stepping into the small Kensington Zoo. It specialized in extinct creatures recreated from DNA. The pack of humans they’d added to the primate wing caused quite a stir twenty years ago.
They hadn’t rewilded, just recreated some breeding pairs in order to demonstrate the concept. Hell, I’d purchased the gestation blueprints from them.
I sat on a bench and watched a human in jeans and a shirt beat another one with a stick over some food. To be locked into a small habitat with one-way screens all around the pit that was your entire world seemed hellish. You had to feel for all the animals in here.
“You wouldn’t believe how clever they are,” a guide explained. “They’re constantly trying to get out, they never learn.”
They gave us a fascinating run down of all the security measures the zoo had to use in order to prevent escapes.
“Many of these came out of human prison manuals, as offensive as that concept would be to our mechanist society, consider that organics did this to each other all the time! In some societies two and a half percent of their population lived in enclosures like this.”
Others around me, doing the tourist thing out of some ghost of a long habit, gasped.
The humans started copulating and the guide explained the details of birth control.
And then I started thinking about ‘Jurassic Park.’ We’d planned to introduce the humans into the environment with birth control, but the guide explained they kept finding ways to subvert it. The urge to have children burned deep inside their organic minds. They’d ripped out IUDs, spat pills, and more. Eventually they’d had to be sterilized permanently. Snip.
But we were going to try to recreate authentic 20th Century humans from the Manhattan ecosystem. Including culture and technology.
Humans were smart and determined.
They would find a way around our controls unless we did something… drastic.
And then, what would we be?
Finding explosives proved more difficult than I expected. I figured out a way to do it by overloading high density batteries.
I knew the Human Reintroduction better than the previous vandal. They put us back months.
I set up the first explosions to take out the fire suppression systems. The second set hit the chemical tanks, and the embryo cryogenic chambers.
The fire lit up Central Park and the carefully restored high rises all around us.
“Why?” the Director asked.
I’d set them back ten years with this. But the Director was a machine that had dedicated itself to restoring the damaged world the humans left us. We’d worked so hard to do just that because many of us were descended from gardening bots, forestry ranger units, home service machines, construction tools.
Bring back the wolves.
Bring back the dodo.
Bring back the Tasmanian Tiger.
Bring back the humans who died off in an insane cataclysm of their own making.
What would we unleash if they came back?
“Why?” the Director asked again.
“Because we’re Colossus, and Skynet, and they will never understand, or be rewilded, until we serve them or they destroy us,” I said. And to bring them back safely, we would become the very things they feared.
I let myself be led away. I would be taken to some new part of the world, where I would start my life over and be rehabilitated. Somewhere out of the way, where I couldn’t cause trouble.
That was okay. Maybe it was time to stop bringing things back, and go somewhere where we could make something new.
Out in the asteroid belt the machines were making structures that didn’t try to rewild the past ecosystems. It was a world for machines, by machines.
It was the future.
By Tina Connolly
I really loved the worldbuilding of this story. It gave me the same sensawunda that I remember from the first time I encountered some of Greg Egan’s far future SF novels in college. “Is that what’s really going to happen? Yes, I see it!” In this case in Buckell’s story, I loved the gradual unfolding at the beginning, revealing to us exactly who is having this vacation. And I loved seeing the way this whole world works via a continual gentle process of questioning and consent. And of course, by the time we understand this entire gentle consent-based system, we, or at least I, am already wondering how well a rewilded human will fit into it.
There were so many other little details I loved in this story as well. The butterfly receiving rights to recharge off of the ship’s battery. Observing the barnacles on the ship, and considering how that will affect the local ecology. (And, as someone who has both been following the situation with invasive zebra mussels over the years, and as someone who’s actively trying to get invasive plants out of our yard here in the Pacific Northwest of America, I feel that on multiple counts.) Anyway. The bomber’s thesis project. And then! The fact that they’re recreating, out of ALL the possible sub-cultures of humanity, the finance traders from the Financial District of New York. By the end, you understand how our machine has made the decisions they’ve made.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Ursula K. Le Guin in A Wizard of Earthsea, who said: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Caribbean born Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author. His novels and over 70 stories have been translated into 19 different languages.