Some days it seems like the only thing she can remember about her day is the commute - day in and day out, Tooting to Kennington, change to the Bank branch, change at Bank, Central Line to Chancery Lane and then the reverse, over and over, yesterday and today and tomorrow forever.
Cristina Algarotti, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday (Howells 2018), 292pp
The main character in Algarotti’s new novel is an artificial intelligence, a consciousness spun out of a cat’s-cradle of linked supercomputers (some on earth, some in orbit, one on the moon), called Lah Rïd 7040qb, known as Lala by its developers. The opening chapters are all told from the point of view of Lala: how s/he comes into awareness, his/her friendships with Lance and Kuoh (his/her favourites amongst the programmers and developers). She’s a charmer, is Lala: vastly knowledgeable and sensitive, creative and accomplished. Through her eyes we see the wonder of the world as if for the first time. Algarotti effortlessly sketches in her interplanetary future, its gleaming tech, its marvellous ruins, explosions throwing out lotus-petals of light, crowds pulsing along the superhighways, webbing between Earth and Moon, and humanity’s hopes for reaching the stars.
The book was big and heavy, which meant it would burn well. Ree ran her fingers over the embossed cover before opening it. The leather was a little damp, of course, but not sodden, and the pages inside were crisp and dry. She tore out the first page and threw it onto the fire.
"To parasitise. To live off other forms of life whatever forms they have or will take."
"And what separates the forms, humans and animals, from artificial life?"
“She’s a most unhappy woman. Husband and child both taken from her in a moment; and now, all means of living as well, unless some happy thought of yours—some inspiration of your genius—shows us a way of re-establishing her claims to the policy voided by this cry of suicide.”
But the small, wise head of Violet Strange continued its slow shake of decided refusal.
“I’m sorry,” she protested, “but it’s quite out of my province. I’m too young to meddle with so serious a matter.”
She talked to her pet in pet-voice, smushing its cheeks and speaking close enough that her breath made its nose twitch, the high-pitched ’Ello!, the very rhetorical questions asked in a voice made ogreish by coming from her kiss-shaped mouth, with affirming reflexive declarations, ‘Yes you are!’ and so on. In a handheld mirror she was showing the pet images it couldn’t understand, first among them itself. Then she showed one of the young women who’d once approached the castle. In continuing pet-voice, she acted out an explanation of what the images meant.
The explosions have stopped, and in their absence a raw quiet unfolds. The bunker feels empty and cold, as if the people it harbours are already dead and have been for some time. Outside, what looks like snow is falling. It is not snow. Figures lurch past the cameras, sudden ghosts, there then gone. Inga breathes out. Breathes mist. In the confinement of the underground space, she listens to her thoughts detonating one by one.
This is the calm before the storm.
This time—this storm—will be the end.
There is a chance to fix this, but it means breaking everything they believe in. All that they’ve worked and sacrificed to preserve.
“The heating’s gone.”
That’s Toshi, the eldest of them.
Inga looks about the bunker, observing her depleted crew. Only a handful of history’s incumbents remain. Some have died during their travels through time, or have taken their own lives. Most have been buried never knowing the truth about their nature—perhaps they are the lucky ones. Others are yet to be born. Might never be born, now. Those too, she envies. What is left of the House of Janus is a world-weary collective, traumatised by experience and the implausibility of what has happened to them.
“I shan’t thank you for coming to see me. Your report stated, bragged even, that you’d chosen to use the proper channels rather than - what exactly? I didn’t know any improper channels still existed. No don’t look worried, I’d been meaning anyway to have this chat.
“You’ve questioned our spending over - forget the last quarter - the last four decades. Implied, a question of priorities. You’ve stated, with I detect some polite horror, that the first station cost 10 trillion, or ‘thereabouts’. A lot hangs on that word. The real figure was closer to 100.
Time travel was invented twice. First, by the woman who burst into the lab of Rosa Maravu looking like an older version of her. She gave the young physicist a hand-drawn plan, sobbed, then disappeared. Rosa worked on this plan but also became convinced of something: her own indestructibility, at least till that point in her future when she’d travel back and hand the plan to herself. Quashing her nervous nature, she took to parasailing and was struck by lightning (tow rope sizzling to the boat deck in an exclamation mark). Time travel was invented by her lab partner, Maria Seini; it appeared that the present was an ultimate point, forever unfurling. All that existed: the glacier of the past.
Even in the shade, sweat trickled down the backs and faces of the year-eight students. Ten of them stood nervously, each behind a short tower of hot bricks. “One more,” said the master, and the assistant year-threes hurried to the fire pit with tongs, carefully but quickly removing bricks from the flames and placing another on top of each of the ten smoldering stacks. One of the waiting year-eights, named Ton, muttered quietly, “Ah, what to choose, pain or failure?”