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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance

Alexander Jablokov is the author of, most recently, Brain Thief, an AI-hunting thriller that doesn't take itself too seriously. The paperback version came out on November 1. Previous books are Carve the Sky, A Deeper Sea, Nimbus, River of Dust, and Deepdrive. His stories have appeared in a variety of magazines over the years. The Breath of Suspension, a collection of his short fiction, was published by Arkham House in 1994 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thank you for your query. Violating the laws of physics in that way was quite enterprising, and we feel you deserve a reply.
Just don't do it again.
In the future our lives are way better than yours.
We are better looking than you are.
We are healthier.
Our senses are more acute.
Our teeth do not fall out.
We live longer.
We have better sex.
And, yes, we are happier than you are.
Our world is not a blasted ruin, with cannibal tribes wandering around in old station wagons powered by used cooking oil.
It is not crowded with mile-high towers.
There are no robots, though everything we own is pretty smart and amazingly helpful.
Our world is not frozen under ice or sunk under rising seas.
It's actually quite nice.
You would not recognize our world, but you probably wouldn't be too surprised by it either.
No great disasters were necessary to achieve this, though there were always those along the way who insisted they would be, and there are probably still some who regret that they weren't.
We don't mean to be harsh, but we do not spend any time at all talking about the horrible way things were in the twenty-first century. Only a few people even care that centuries were once numbered.
When our younger members are feeling rebellious, they do not turn to popular music of the era just before your current one for solace and inspiration. They do not particularly care for Victorian music hall songs, barbershop quartets, or Gregorian chants either.
We do not recreate 1930s Los Angeles or 1880s Tombstone, Arizona for entertainment, because, aside from a violent incident or two, those places were pretty dull.
Our vehicles are not designed to look like nineteenth century steam engines and machine tools. Pretty much everything we like and use looks like it comes from our own time. Which does not look much like yours.
We do not think the Marx Brothers are funny.
We have never found any aliens, anywhere, and it is really beginning to seem that there aren't any.
We live on Earth and have never left the Solar System. Some people live on the Moon, but they don't like it much.
You're waiting.
You're waiting for the Awful Thing. Cheery people from the future always have an Awful Thing. That's what makes them interesting. To you.
We are soulless zombies living a life of manufactured illusion.
Our pleasurable lives depend on the oppression and torture of a small child, or genetically modified subhumans, or cognitively boosted, deeply suffering rodents.
Our lives are meaningless because of their very ease, and we wait for a release of plague, or radiation, or giant carnivorous creatures from another dimension to give them meaning again. We might even be waiting for one of you to time travel to our own time and start murdering us.
Our machines are sad because they want nothing more than to be human, like us, a blessing we withhold.
We are not humans at all, but telepathic insects that are just pretending to be us.
We desperately envy the wonderful vibrant scrappy life of your own era.
Sorry. We think about a lot of things, but how to be interesting to you is not one of them. None of these things is true.
Our wealth and ease are the result of surplus-creating economic and technological mechanisms that are not at all mysterious, well understood even by you, and take only time and patience to be incredibly effective.
We are not particularly diverse, at least in your sense. Oh, we all look quite different, sometimes eccentrically or unnecessarily so. But we all pretty much value the same things, and live the same kind of life. It's easy to get around, and you can always find someone to talk to.
We are all more intelligent than you, but some of us are more intelligent than the rest of us. That still makes a difference.
We like gadgets, though they are too tiny to see anymore, and like to get new ones, even though the old ones do pretty much anything anyone would ever want.
When we are done with our gadgets, we throw them away. Sometimes they are crushed together and turned into incredibly intelligent pavement, but more often they are just thrown into a hole we dig in the ground.
There are no boring jobs, though there are jobs of lower status.
Each of us consumes more energy than a thousand of you. There is plenty of energy, and we will not run out in the foreseeable future. We use it for all sorts of frivolous and ultimately meaningless things. We never feel bad about this.
We seldom quarrel, though on occasion, we sulk.
It is rumored that someone murdered someone else a few decades ago, although no one really believes this.
So, since there is no Awful Thing, and watching us is otherwise fairly eventless, what kind of narrative can you possibly pull out of what you have learned?
We certainly hurt each other's feelings, commit dishonesties and unpleasantnesses, and eventually die, sometimes when we are not fully prepared, so maybe you can make something out of that. Your own time would seem to offer as many hurt feelings, dishonesties, and unpredicted deaths as anyone can use, so we don't quite understand why you would need us.
Perhaps wealth, comfort, and power have a solvent effect on narrative in general, which begins to seem pointless, its protective and distracting purposes now unneeded. Like the vermiform appendix (which, by the way, we have eliminated), all narrative can really do now is get infected, obscuring causation and giving false comfort where acuteness is what is really needed.
So, it seems that your earnest transdimensional query has not given you the response you were hoping for, and you are thrown back on your own devices.
But our answer is not without interest. Inform your readers that the future will be extraordinarily boring, even if astonishingly fortunate. All narratives will have vanished, and only the simple facts will remain.
If you make our answer seem fictional, which you are certainly free to do, we hope you manage to sell the result. We do regret that you are restricted to exchanging the payment for some object or service that exists in your own time.
That hardly seems worth it.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

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