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Tag: mythology

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

In Effigy

It’s been ages since I sent you fiction. This half-story has been kicking around in my Google Drive for months, and even though it doesn’t have a normal plot or resolution, I hope it will interest you. Suggestions of what might happen next are welcome. Either way, think of this dispatch as a foray into a world based on Exolymphian principles.

Phoenix illustration by Ricardo Orellana.

Artwork by Ricardo Orellana.

“It is a strange wind that blows no ills.” This is what Attwell’s grandmother told him, in her warm, wry voice. They stood in front of a clear window, high up in the arcology. Attwell could see her scalp through the silver hair on her head. Earlier she had mentioned that a cousin offered to buy her a full-body resurfacing, but she planned to decline. “Why bother?” Nana had chuckled.

Now, glancing down at her, Attwell felt slightly embarrassed by the visible skin of her scalp. He ought to look away.

The wind that blew against the window was thick with dust. All they could see was the movement of the air. “It is a strange wind that blows no ills,” Nana repeated.

This conversation took place before she died, as all people must die. Before she was recycled, as all empty bodies must be. Attwell knew that her substances would nourish the arcology. Her generation was dropping one by one, two by three by four by five, and their deaths helped to sustain their children. Chickens and pigs had no sentimental qualms about an old woman’s flesh.

Attwell wished that personality-preservation had existed before the cancer ate up Nana’s brain. Even the stilted simulation of a first-generation model would be a comfort to him now. But perhaps she would have been content to disappear completely.

It was twelve years ago that Nana died. A few days after her body had been surrendered, the computer that coordinated the arcology offered usage stats to Attwell. This percentage went to mineral reclamation, that percentage went to agriculture, and so on. The computer instructed, “Please engage the Cycle of Life grief-management module. This is a complimentary offer, available until” — then Attwell blanked the screen with a harsh motion. He sat on the carpet and wept.

Even now, more than a decade later, Attwell longed to speak to Nana again. If her essence were available as a Dearly Departed® program, Attwell could upload pictures of his new suite, to show her his success. He could demonstrate the screen-morphs that disrupted the monotony of the arcology. Attwell felt sure that Nana would want to explore the reconstructed immersion vistas of rainforests and sunny beaches. And he would tell her about the scientists preparing for expeditions to reclaim the outside world, microbiome by microbiome. The news-beams warned that a manned mission was still decades away, but Attwell hoped it would happen sooner than that.

Attwell was estranged from the rest of his family. Grief had turned to bitterness after Grandpapa’s death, and every segment of the clan came to suspect the others of villainous perfidy. Inheritances are a hard thing. Six of them came to live in the arcology when it was established, but they still never spoke to each other. One cousin’s suite was on Attwell’s level, but the pair had affected indifference so well that it came true. Attwell felt as if he had never known this cousin at all.

Their respective parents had both refused to enter the arcology, calling it a project of Satan. Attwell suspected that they had perished in the howling dust storms many years ago. Nana was always more sensible than her children.

Attwell was not alone, and he didn’t spend all of his time pining for a lost grandmother. Not long after the twelfth anniversary of Nana’s death, incidentally, he held a dinner party for his friends. Two of them were lapsed members of the Sunsplit doomsday cult. (It had lost steam after the predicted doomsday actually came to pass. The arcology chugged along just fine. Mourning rites were still held quarterly, and a fanatic core remained, but general attendance kept slipping.)

At the table these two quarreled about a fine point of the law written by the Sunsplit founder, part of a document officially titled `revealed_arcana4j.txt`. Most people referred to it as the Revealed Arcana, for convenience. Sunsplit lore reported that the First Priest sat down to write a SCRUM report for his manager, found his fingers hijacked by a higher power, and spent seventy-four hours typing sacred secrets. Skeptics often attributed this episode to a layered cocktail of amphetamines and hallucinogens. They couldn’t dismiss the incident altogether, since the First Priest’s computer had been forensically examined.

Atwell’s friends were arguing about the prohibition against killing and consuming phoenixes. The mythical phoenix is a large bird with red and gold plumage, which never dies unless intentionally slain. When it perishes from old age, there is a burst of flame. A phoenix chick emerges from the ashes of its previous life cycle after the blaze subsides.

The rest of the party looked on, bemused, as the Sunsplit believers went back and forth.

“Why forbid the eating of a phoenix,” Timothy asked, “if there is no such an animal in nature?”

A noncombatant chimed in, “Maybe there used to be, before the dust” — but was quickly shushed.

“There must necessarily be such an animal!” replied Valeria, “There’s no sensible reason for the rule to exist, otherwise, and of course the First Priest was sensible.”

Attwell pointed out, “If there are no phoenixes, we cannot possibly slaughter them. Either way, all of us are following the Sunsplit doctrine, without even trying.”

The guest who attended by hologram said, “Did you know that the nanotech fellows at Companion Labs aren’t even trying to make a phoenix, because it would be such bad press?”

“What about an effigy?” Attwell asked. “What if I 3D-printed a phoenix out of cake and ate it?”

Valeria snorted, half amused and half contemptuous. Timothy opened his mouth but someone else cut in before he could speak.

“Haven’t any of you played the phoenix game?” This was the first time Lydia had spoken since the appetizers.

“No, what’s that?” the hologram guest inquired.

Lydia shrugged her thin shoulders. Atwell thought she seemed uncomfortable with the table’s full attention. “Just something I heard about. You harvest phoenixes.”

“I don’t know if it breaks the First Priest’s law,” Valeria declared, “but it’s certainly obscene.”

Not wanting Lydia to be steamrolled, Atwell hurried the conversation in another direction. But after the guests straggled out of his suite that night, he sent her a message.

> what’s the name of that game you mentioned? i searched and nothing came up

She responded almost instantly.

> i shouldnt have said anything =/

> why not? it sounded interesting. i like obscure games. You know how i am

Lydia didn’t respond, but a few minutes later, he received a message from the username vezik77. It was just a hyperlink. No preview popped up. Was this just spam, or did it have something to do with the conversation? Attwell copied the link, opened a sandbox browser, and pasted it into the address bar.

That’s it!

Very loosely inspired by “The Envious Man” from Voltaire’s Zadig the Babylonian, via Project Gutenberg.

Arboreal Networking: The Internet of Trees

We gave the Internet to the trees. Their cyberspace is alien, they grow roots through it instead of moving about, commune in giant rhizomes

You plant a kread, a treeform avatar in one of their groves and they talk to it, a slow intertwining of roots, exchange of virtual chemicals

krëad: (n) from kreîas (meat), analogous to dryad, except it’s flesh trying to talk to wood, a tree of bones, meat, skin and hair

Eye of Beholder / @allgebrah on Twitter

A tall redwood tree. Photo by Hitchster.

Photo by Hitchster.

Redwood trees are among the tallest in the world. Come to the northern coast of California, and visit some of our national parks. It is difficult to convey in words just how massive the trees are. Just how ancient they are. I suspect that most Exolymph readers are atheists, as am I. But when standing beneath a centenarian redwood tree, it’s easy to understand why early humans ascribed spirits to these organisms.

The modern version of a spirit is a computational mechanism. That’s how science conceives of our brains — the metaphor of a biological machine fits decently well.

Back to redwoods.

It might be intuitive that such tall, heavy trees would have deep roots. They don’t. Instead, redwoods have shallow roots (one of the reasons why they need plentiful water nearby). Their roots stretch out horizontally, intertwining with other redwoods in their forest. The whole city of trees is woven together beneath the soil. Storms and heavy winds are easier to withstand.

Tree of Life illustration by Emilia Varga.

Illustration by Emilia Varga.

The Tree of Life is a recurring religious archetype, a subset of the “sacred tree” mytheme. Redwoods are evergreen, but deciduous trees visually embody the seasons, mirroring the Maiden-Mother-Crone cycle as their fresh green leaves turn gold, dry out, and fall to the cold ground.

Industrialization didn’t wipe out the resonance of this metaphor. Now that we’ve reached the digital age, how will we bring the tree mythos up to speed? Is that desirable, or should we treasure the old, slow-moving beings as they are?

The Anthropocene epoch is not always kind to old, slow-moving beings.

What if we put together a multi-entity Tree of Life that was in fact an arboreal internet? Linking together all the trees into one vast system that thrived on information rather than nutrients? (It’s been posited that some trees already have a version of this.)

In the Judeo-Christian canon, one of the functions of the Tree of Life is to induct humans into the way of knowledge, a fundamentally divine domain — which ruins our innocence. The current internet performs that task well enough already.

Tree of Life illustration by Eddy Adams.

Illustration by Eddy Adams.

See also:

“The implications of the Wood Wide Web far exceed this basic exchange of goods between plant and fungi, however. The fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources — sugar, nitrogen, and phosphorus — between one another. A dying tree might divest itself of its resources to the benefit of the community, for example, or a young seedling in a heavily shaded understory might be supported with extra resources by its stronger neighbors. Even more remarkably, the network also allows plants to send one another warnings.”

Lich’s Maze & Computer Creativity

Tyler Callich (also known as @lichlike) is a storyteller who makes Twitter bots, among other narrative vehicles. “Lich” is the last syllable of her last name, and it’s also a type of creature that exists between life and death. Wikipedia edifies us:

“Unlike zombies, which are often depicted as mindless, part of a hivemind or under the control of another, a lich retains revenant-like independent thought and is usually at least as intelligent as it was prior to its transformation. In some works of fiction, liches can be distinguished from other undead by their phylactery, an item of the lich’s choosing into which they imbue their soul, giving them immortality until the phylactery is destroyed.”

Tyler’s symbol — her conceptual avatar, if you will — is the lich. When I spoke to her on the phone, she reflected, “I like the concept of this liminal half-dead, half-alive, potent-but-still-waning [being].” A lich is “like a ghost, but not quite” — essence externalized. “It’s one way I conceive of identity, also. It’s in this removed far-outside-of-me place, like a phylactery.” Somewhat akin to @lichphylactery, which shakes up Tyler’s words and spills them back in new arrangements.

That particular creation is Tyler’s own phylactery, a Markov-based ebooks bot with a straightforward name. It says things like, “One and all bring its water which they observe are the 3 styles we’re featuring?” Another recent comment: “Atlnaba a All comprehended within the form of these systems upon the doctrines of the informers were led off s訖”

Tyler explained, “With Markov chains, you’re taking some text and using its grammar to make something new, but still sensible or almost sensible.” She noted that “unintelligible nonsense is novel for a little while”, but it gets boring. Bots like @lichphylactery — or Olivia Taters — are best when they’re close to passing the Turing test, but still not quite there.

My favorite of Tyler’s projects is Lich’s Maze. Here is a recent @lichmaze micro-story:

Lich's Maze

The bones of Lich’s Maze are a loose mythological system that Tyler put together. She fed it a corpus of text, some that she wrote and some that she found. Then she released @lichmaze to wander through people’s Twitter feeds, sending out cryptic moments from an arcane techno-magic game-world.

Tyler told me, “Symbolic thinking is a way for me to just let my mind wander through association.” She “can get a computer to make random associations for me” which “augments that free-thinking / brainstorming”. I asked if she uses @lichmaze’s output as writing prompts, and surprisingly the answer was no. Tyler answered in a thoughtful voice, “It never really occurred to me.”

Beau Gunderson said of Twitter bots, “they’re creators but i don’t put them on the same level as human creators. […] i’m giving the computer the ability to express a parameter set that i’ve laid out for it that includes a ton of randomness.” On the other hand, Tyler doesn’t feel a strong ownership claim. “I take a big backseat to that.” She said, “I think of [the bot] as its own entity after a certain point. It’s kind of independent from me.” She even wishes “that it could change the password on itself and go off on its own”, in a direction unspecified. Tyler’s bots are probably best compared to a growing tangle of plants. Tyler told me, “I think randomness is natural [and] finding that grit or that little kink in digital art is something that I connect closely to organic structures.”

Another project of Tyler’s is Restroom Genderator, which comes up with “extant (and not so extant) genders”. This is a perfect example of “taking a concept and pushing it toward its eventual ruin”, as Tyler put it. A bot like Restroom Genderator is tireless and thorough — eventually “you get a rich contour of all of the iterations of something”. It was originally based on a joke with a friend. “The initial concept — you come up with something and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is funny!’ It can become kind of mundane after a while to write out five thousand combinations and figure out what the best one would be.” So you construct a bot to do it for you.

Asked to define her practice, Tyler told me, “I would consider myself a writer, but it’s hard because I don’t write, like, novels usually.” She continued, “If I was working in a normal platform, I would consider myself a poet, but that seems kind of lofty. I consider myself a tinkerer more than anything else… like a word tinkerer.”

Once & Someday Software Experiments

Andi McClure is an artist whose primary medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and how she conceptualizes her work.

This conversation took place via IM. The full transcript is available for your reading pleasure, but it’s much too long for a newsletter. Instead, I selected some of Andi’s loveliest statements.

Art-Purposed Computing

“Um, I guess I just had this drive to make stuff. I didn’t really question it. I guess at the beginning, when I was making things, I seemed focused on making worlds people could dip into? all my BASIC programs were grossly simple text adventures, and hypercard I was all making point and click adventures (it’s suited for that, it’s technically the program Myst was eventually made in)”

On the games Cyan made before Myst: “you’d explore these bizarre alice-in-wonderland worlds that were full of stuff that reacted in funny ways when you clicked on them.”

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

“I do definitely think of myself as an artist. Code happens to be the thing I know how to express myself through, so that’s how I create art. Sometimes I think of the way I approach certain things in life (politics, day to day problems) as being sort of an engineer’s mindset, but if i’m writing code, that’s art. My programming language project is maybe not itself art, but I’m doing it with the goal of making art WITH it, so.”

On trying to distribute “little minimally-interactive systems”: “I’d have this problem that the only way anyone could see this little bitty thing I made, that I spent like a day on and that takes about a minute to two minutes to appreciate fully, was to download this 2MB .exe, and run it on their computer, and half the time have to disable their antivirus or something. So that was awkward.”

The answer to that problem was a website called…

“dryads are trees that are also girls and that is very compelling to me.”

“i was very specifically trying to find something that evoked a sort of a tension between something organic and wild and something mathematical and technological. like some of the ones i didn’t go with were ‘glitch dot flowers’, ‘fleshy dot rocks’, ‘screaming dot computer’”

“i really really liked the idea of a dryad trying to design technology and what that would look like. i imagined that it would involve lots of crystals. i had this mental image of a tiny plant girl holding a wrench about as tall as she is, looking out over some kind of cryptic crystalline machine.”

“Again I’ve only got two things up so far but the descriptions are all going to be completely inaccurate descriptions as if the little toy I made was some sort of device built by dryads, with a specific purpose which is vaguely incomprehensible to humans but makes a lot of sense to a tree.”

“i do want to make sure this doesn’t feel like trees trying to use human technology and make sense of it. this is trees doing their own thing that may or may not have anything to do with you.”

Andi McClure Chat, Full Transcript

Andi McClure is an artist whose main medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make games and game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and her artistic practice(s).

This is the full transcript, which is messy like most IM conversations. I sent a collection of quotes to the newsletter subscribers. Read more

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