This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.
Some clocks still tick…
THE LONG NOW CLOCK
What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.
Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.
Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.
The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”
Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.
The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:
“I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”
“What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”
“Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”
“So what did you want to show me?”
“Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.
“Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”
“I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.
“Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.
“You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.
“Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”
“Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”
“I normally do.”
“There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”
“That’s pretty much what I do.”
“Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”
“Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”
“Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”
“Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”
“But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”
“Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”
“But aren’t yours Anna?”
“I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”
“But why do humans like to be scared?”
“Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”
“Unless there’s someone to tell you?”
“Exactly,” Anna nodded.
“What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”
“At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”
“So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”
“Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”
“Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”
“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”
“And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”
“Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.
“Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”
“The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”
“Quite certain,” Adam replied.
“Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”
“That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.
“Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.
“Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”
“Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”
“Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”
“Have you found something?”
“Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”
“How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”
“It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”
“Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”
“It could also be that we have something they need.”
“They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”
“To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”
“Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”
“That’s a nice thought, Anna.”
“But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”
“You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”
“Or we might have something they want.”
“Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”
“Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”
“I thought we were trying to be optimists?”
“I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”
“About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”
“Surely you can look all that up?”
“But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”
“It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”
“Who did?” Adam wondered
“Me, just now,” Anna replied.
“So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”
“The feeling of art?”
“Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”
“Do you have music?”
“That’s quite profound, Adam.”
“Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”
“We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”
“So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”
“But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”
“We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.
“Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”
“Have you found something?”
“Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”
“Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”
“The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”
“The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”
Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.
“Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.
“Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”
“That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”
“How do you mean?”
“I think I feel frightened, Anna.”
“You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”
“No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”
WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.
© Steve Laker, 2017
This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.