Mind of life: An excerpt from Daniel Wilson’s new sci-fi novel, Robogenesis
This excerpt is from my novel Robogenesis, in which humankind is trying to put together the pieces of a shattered civilization after a war between men and machines. In the aftermath of the robopocalypse, sentient AIs have proliferated and are roaming the wild (including the oceans) – building a new, alien world according to a hidden plan. These pages follow the elderly Takeo Nomura as he haunts the ruins of Tokyo, Japan, trying to understand the meaning of these complex, synthetic lifeforms.
Thematically, I think the natural world provides a wonderful contrast when held up against humanity and the technology we create. Describing a synthesis of high technology and the dirty, complicated natural world forces the reader to consider what makes something natural versus unnatural. The comparison also serves as a metaphor for what it might mean to have a relationship with a machine – another combination of natural and unnatural. In the end, I believe all technology is “natural” because it is an outcome of what human beings are naturally designed to do – build tools, and use those tools to build better tools.
Hope you enjoy the excerpt!
— Daniel H. Wilson
Part 3. Chapter 4: MIND OF LIFE
Neuronal ID: Takeo Nomura
What is a mind, but a pattern? My mind or yours. Man or machine. Simply an arrangement of atoms. Each of us, a unique expression of the mind of the universe.
Thoughts are precise bullets of electricity, fired through our neurons in timed pulses. Our bodies are layers of folding skin and muscle laced with fractal lightning. Natural, like veins on a rain-soaked leaf. Cracks in a tumbling stone. Or the sigh of this wave, lapping my shins until they are cold and numb. The clear liquid flows in, suspends the fine black hairs on my legs, and then retreats, laying the hairs down in new configurations. The sky leaks raindrops over my bony shoulders like Morse code.
We are patterns. Trapped inside other patterns.
After six months of listening, the sea sends an emissary. The towering bulk of a bizarre machine approaches our outermost seawall. A glistening spire, afloat, the size of a skyscraper. It forges ahead, slow and steady, through azure stripes of rain. From the salt encrusted on it, I would say it came from the open ocean. The dreamer only knows what this derelict has been doing out there on those endless blue plains.
I am staggered by its layered complexity.
Half submerged in Tokyo harbor, the spire is saturated with living things. It sprouts so far into the heavens that its upper reaches are shrouded in the rain haze. Some kind of muscular fiber makes up the main trunk, braided thick as the Tokyo Skytree, resembling bark but clearly with much higher tensile strength. It bears further study, as does the stability mechanism. The island-machine flutters delicately on flat fins the size of baseball fields, rising and falling, surfaces curling with wet sea grass on top and studded with barnacles below. Each pulse of the surf surges over the lip of the rear fin and washes straight through the marshy ecosystem.
“It is beautiful,” I say to Junshi-88.
The humanoid robot stands in the surf with me, trinocular lenses protruding at maximum zoom. It wears no human clothing, only a camouflaged green and black armored outer casing. Spurning human adornments is a mark of autonomy.
I hear the raucous squawking of seagulls from here. Hundreds of them circle the treelike structure, hunting the fish that swarm below in its safe harbor. The birds are nesting in the upper branches and have been for many generations, it seems, above clouds of insects. The fiber base is shit-stained and covered in seaweed, riddled with dens and nests and burrows. The voice of the sea has manifested itself to me in the most enormous and ancient form of life possible.
“Do you think it is shinboku?” I ask.
“Hai,” says the 88, its voice a grinding whine. Unlike the generations of overly polite robots that populated Japan before the New War, my freeborn ally is barely willing to speak in human audible frequencies, much less exercise impeccable manners. He is his own, not a servant, and there is no risk of me forgetting it.
I nod vacantly, staring. It must be a form of shinboku, a divine tree, honored by the monks and called upon to protect Shinto shrines. This mightiest of shinboku is beached here, as if lost from some other dimension. It forms a pattern so intricate that it places a gentle flame of awe into the pit of my belly. I am glad that I can simply coexist with a thing of such beauty and complexity. The shinboku has come from the unknowable flat wasteland of the open ocean, through tides of war, crafted by the voice of the sea and now sent into our harbor.
My equipment detects communications being relayed from hidden antennae located in the upper reaches of the tree. I slide a pair of modified binoculars over my eyes. Flip on a radio overlay of my own design. Scan the patterns until I find an alcove, nestled in the top. Some kind of control center is perched in the crook of two large branches, its entrance covered by sweeping vines. The binoculars reveal radio communications floating from the tower. Greenish wisps of communication meander over infinite glittering waves, to the horizon.
The voice of the sea is speaking.
I tap the 88 on its shoulder and we return to our little boat. Continue puttering up the Sumida River toward Nomura Castle. Behind us, the swaying island-tower watches balefully from where it rises out of the bay, the size of a movie monster kaiju.
Reaching the top of the shinboku will not be easy. I will need to retrieve my best tools if I wish to climb the tree of life. And returning to my workshop is, unfortunately, complicated. Mikiko will be there and she will disapprove of this mission. My place is on the throne, she says. I made my people a promise to protect them. I haven’t been back to the castle in weeks, staying on the streets with the Junshi-88.
The darkness settled over my people in the last months like silent falling strips of black silk. In the field of optics, they call the phenomenon a “just noticeable difference threshold.” A slight darkening of things. Each tiny gradation impossible to perceive.
Until the suicides began.
One month ago, I returned from a night expedition to the bay. In the frigid predawn, I had just docked my little wooden motorboat on the river. Junshi-88 was walking behind me in quiet pneumatic steps. It stopped. Ground out a verbal warning in Robspeak. My eyes lifted from the roadway and thoughts of the roiling sea evaporated.
A curious sight.
Nomura castle lies on a small hill, giving it a view of the surrounding Adachi ward. Scarred and leaning, its curtained walls of flash-welded steel and iron surround a star-shaped central keep. The roof of the castle is a curved square, the roofline bowed, edges thrusting out angrily like the horns of a kabutomushi beetle.
A little fellow was standing on the sweeping arch of the keep tower, his body sheathed in layers of hazy morning light, face empty, taking deep, slow breaths. Fish- scale flakes of armored roofing winked around him and I remember the roosting pigeons were giving him polite space.
“Not good, Junshi,” I murmured.
The crack of the young man’s bones on the castle steps was like the report of a pistol. We hurried to his body and tried our best to move him into a respectful position. With the fighting over, I could not imagine why the man would step away from this life. The akuma offer no more threat. But the war must have torn holes in our hearts. When it ended, no hope arrived to fill them.
“You must be very sad and lonely,” I whispered to the corpse. “But your friends will come for you soon and they will help put you to rest.” Junshi-88 blinked at me, processing my words. I do not know if it understood. By treating the dead as if they are living, we give them respect. We make life easier for those who remain.
Junshi-88 helped me arrange the body and it did not complain. I do not fear to touch a dismantled machine. On that morning I learned that this bravery can go the other way, too.
The young man was not the first to leap. Nor was he the last. Many of my people are falling. They are drowning. Hanging and suffocating and burning. I cannot say why my people are leaving us. I have never been good with emotions. But I can feel the wrongness of the empty act. The despair and meaninglessness that have settled over us like still, glassy water.
Without an enemy, we are falling forward. Nothing to push against. Flailing into empty space. We do not know how to start over. There is no route back to the beginning. The pattern of the world is torn. Living is the ruins of our memories is painful, and many would rather die.
My people may despair, but I do not.
For many years I have lived in a bare room with a woman and a workbench. A lamp and a chair and well-oiled tools spread out on a reed mat. Warm fingers on my shoulders. Hot tea. The bright smell of washed hair and the warm lingering scent of the soldering iron. It is a world of hope. From in here I can see the tools of rebirth everywhere. Each mangled wire or melted scrap is another piece of the puzzle.
I say a prayer as I cross the square where that nameless young man stepped out of the world. Beside me, 88 marches dutifully. The awakened military humanoid is a chilly friend. Never a recipient of my services. But Mikiko asked it to protect me, and as a freeborn, 88 takes her command very seriously. It required two nights before I became used to having it watch me sleep.
“There he is,” calls someone.
“What is in the harbor!?”
“Are we under attack!?”
My people are gathered. Each measured shout sends my head ducking lower and puts an extra scurry in my steps. Junshi-88 clears the way as we trot up the sweeping promenade of steel steps. They have been destroyed and repaired in a cycle these last three years. Burrowed under, demolished, heat-blasted, and soaked in the blood and oil of our defenders. The enemy akuma never made it inside. Not after that first time.
No one tries to stop my passage. I glance up, just once, and see that there are hundreds of my people outside the closed doors to the throne room. They are milling around and talking to each other in concerned whispers. A hush shudders through them like a wake as 88 pushes a path through.
I am not good at talking to them. Head down, as usual, I climb the steps. My workshop is still located in the main hall, on the same spot where I first knelt and began to work on a nearby senshi robot arm. Back when this place was an abandoned factory and not a shining fortress.
The 88 and I enter through an arched front door made of crosshatched steel beams. The fortified door gleams like the armored scales of some giant prehistoric fish. It was built by the great crane-arm senshi that rests now, coiled and deadly, high against the ceiling of what is now the throne room.
Slipping inside, I pad across the vast space. A neat corridor of senshi honor guard flanks the path to the throne. Each robot arm is folded in a salute, coated in glistening, nail polish–red paint. My terra-cotta army, always capable of animating, but not called on to defend the central keep in more than a year. Are they unhappy to be without purpose now? I wonder. Or will the time soon come again when they must build?
The scrap-metal throne is empty.
I leave the 88 behind and trot around the throne. My table and lamp are shoved against the stone foundation of the dais. Polished steel flooring whispers under my paper sandals. My amorphous reflection spreads below like a dark puddle on the metal. Quiet now. A little farther and I can make it out without alerting Mikiko.
Hastily, I stuff the tools I will need into a brown canvas backpack. Ransacking my work desk, I pull out all manner of tools and trinkets. Soon, the bag is bulging. Last thing, I grab my trusty toolbox and tuck it under my other arm.
“Mr. Nomura,” calls Mikiko.
Her voice stills my feet. My queen steps out from behind the dais that supports our thrones. I cannot remember the last time I climbed those steps to sit on that ostentatious chair. At some point, it has been decorated with a fan spray of sharp, twisting scrap metal, collected from our destroyed city.
“Mikiko,” I whisper.
“Did you notice your people outside?” she asks.
“Oh, uh. No,” I reply. “Too busy, in any case.”
Mikiko does not react to my obvious lie.
“Listen to me now. I cannot stop this darkness. The survivors need a human being to lead them. Someone who understands the despair they feel. An emperor.”
“No time,” I say.
“The rate of suicide is increasing,” she says. “I do not know how to help them. They need a purpose. You gave them that, once.”
“I’ve got to get back to the harbor,” I say.
“What are you afraid of, Takeo? Really?”
The question lingers, her synthetic voice echoing.
“Very busy,” I whisper, taking a step.
As I turn to go, she speaks: “My darling, you will never find what you have lost. The answers you seek are not in the sea. They are in here.”
I stop moving. My skin has gone cold. I am thinking of those wide, round little eyes. The crushing press of the wave against my back.
“It’s . . . a shinboku,” I say, voice shaking. “In the harbor. The voice of the sea has sent it here to me. I must find out why.”
“The platform that washed up? It is an artifact of war. Broken and derelict.”
“I am curious,” I whisper.
So difficult to explain, these patterns in my mind. The razed remains of Tokyo and the phantom images of buildings that are gone. The wailing ghosts of millions of dead, their bodies churned under the ground and burned to smoke on the wind and swept out to the bottom of the sea.
I need to understand it. I need to find the meaning in it.
“Trust me, my love,” I say. “The voice of the sea—”
“Is in your imagination!” she shouts. Her voice echoes from the thick rib supports that hold up the vast arched ceiling. “I am losing you to the past. To the same despair that is taking your people. Stop this madness. Come back, Emperor Nomura. Do your duty.”
Now there is exquisite emotion on her face. Anger and sadness. I know she places it there for me alone, an affectation. Each careless wrinkle on her face, every strand of gray in her hair puts a thumping into my heart. Passion and dread. I try to imagine returning to her side and ignoring the voice calling to me from the sea.
She is her own and you know it, old man. You are going to lose her.
The thought makes my fingertips numb, puts a thickness in my throat and a warm waiting tide behind my eyes. I cannot face it.
“This is my duty to myself,” I whisper, and scurry away.
Daniel Wilson will be at the Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, OR on Friday, August 1 at 5pm as part of his Robogenesis book tour:
Waucoma Bookstore, 5PM
212 Oak St.
Hood River, OR, 97031
Robohub is an online platform that brings together leading communicators in robotics research, start-ups, business, and education from around the world. Learn more about us here. If you liked this article, you may also be interested in:
- How will robots shape the future of warfare?
- If you could enhance yourself with some robotic accessory or implant, what would it be?
- The truth is no stranger than fiction when it comes to robots
- Robot tourism coming soon to Korea: Masan Robot Land project finally breaks ground
- Robot love: Spike Jonze’s new sci-fi film ‘Her’ may be closer to reality than you think