In celebration of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day on April 23rd, 2007, you can now read one of Bob's previously unavailable stories for free here on his website! Please enjoy Wellsprings of Genius, and stop by the Guest Book or Discussion Forum to leave your thoughts!
"Wellsprings of Genius"
by Robert Reed
Nobody, not even Anwar, can see what’s happening inside Anwar’s skull.
He sleeps late, which can be a bad sign. And when he finally wakes, he does nothing. He just lies in bed, staring up at the tiny rectanglar blue of the skylight. Some mornings he masturbates, but not today. His face is not quite relaxed, and his hands seem conspicuously unbusy, as if he is holding them still by the simple force of will. They lay above faded sheets. They are artistic hands, long and graceful and weak. He might never have touched paint in his life, but he has a painter’s talents. That much is obvious. Otherwise, he is a sour little man in his late thirties; except for his genius, nothing about him is exceptional or even particularly worthy.
Midmorning has come and gone when Anwar finally crawls out of bed. Closing the bathroom door, he vanishes. The faucet runs. The toilet flushes twice with a clear, almost musical pop of air. Then the shower runs for a very long while, and even when the water stops, he remains inside that tiny room. Considering his work, no doubt. Working to fix what’s wrong, and fighting to help what’s best.
Ten minutes later, accompanied by a thick cloud of steam, he emerges, putting on briefs and shorts and sandals. He tells his kitchen to prepare a sandwich and latte. And finally, after so much delay, he has no choice but to enter the living room where he will spend the rest of his day.
It is a room, and it is an immersion chamber. Choosing the latter function, the nearby walls melt away into an infinite gray. With a word, he summons yesterday’s scene. Then he sits on the sofa and sets his lunch on the low table while a control panel deploys itself. For a long while, he does nothing but chew on the sandwich. Yet he doesn’t look or act particularly hungry. Stretched out before him are the remnants of a platoon—five women and thirteen men wearing armored lifesuits. They are squatting, frozen in place. Above each head floats an elaborate array of data and artist’s notes. Each character’s history and personality are defined as a set of algorithms and carefully selected memories. Health status and fatigue tallies are managed, in part, by the chamber’s AI. Consistency is one of the hallmarks of this art form. Detail and depth of vision make it our predominate storytelling medium. Part game; all epic—that’s what an immersion story is. Consumers will pay dearly to enter the minds and bodies of any one of these eighteen characters, and with a vividness very close to reality, they’ll attempt to survive the siege of New Copernicus.
By any reasonable measure, Anwar is finished with his latest work. The final assault is coming, and from this moment on, nothing is assured. Everybody lives, or dies. And every other possible result looms over these fictional characters. As always, the artist has done an astonishing job of balancing interesting quirks and compelling emotions. And where lesser talents would manipulate the narrative, leading the consumer toward the same inevitable denouement, Anwar is perfectly content embracing the fickleness of his wondrous game.
What he is doing now is the final polish. For some reason, his focus is on the platoon’s leader. Lieutenant Krupp is a tough, battle-hardened officer with a soul built from buckytubes and bile. He’s the main protagonist, and he is the main reason that the others are still alive. Without his experience and natural capacity to lead, they would have been slaughtered during any of the first three firefights. Yet Anwar doesn’t seem happy with him. He decides to reach back into the man’s personality inventory, changing nothing but beginning to add to the files, drawing new memories from nothing but a sea of rich, compliant photons.
What is the point? I could well ask.
But I know Anwar, perhaps better than he knows himself. He is compelled, and helpless, using those artistic hands and spoken commands to shape a childhood incident on the plains of Oklahoma.
I watch him at work.
And then, Anwar stops suddenly, and after taking a deep breath, he glances at the invisible wall on his left, seemingly staring at me.
An old, outmoded reflex takes hold.
For just that little instant, I turn and look away.
I met the artist only once. It was eleven years ago, and the immersion chambers were becoming universal, and I took it upon myself to travel to Anwar’s tiny corner of the world, shaking his hand while explaining, “I was one of the asshole bastards who stole your Alexander epic. But I waited for you to be finished, unlike most of the pricks. And I didn’t give it away or sell it, and I certainly never slapped my own name on it and pretended it was mine.”
I already had a fair estimate of Anwar’s character. I had dedicated several hundred hours into eavesdropping, and I’d interviewed friends and studied school records, and by assorted means, I had acquired notes made by a therapist and love letters written by past girlfriends. He would be furious with my confession, I knew. He might even try to hurt me. But he was barely five foot six, and I went to him wearing half a dozen personal security devices.
I wasn’t too worried.
And sure enough, he was only angry. Only furious. He screamed in three languages, cursing and gesturing. But he never took a swing at me, and his only substantive threat was to call an attorney.
“Do that,” I recommended. “Legal help is always valuable. Not that it would have helped you in any substantive way. But if you’d taken the trouble when you embarked on your career, you could have at least protected yourself from some very hard surprises.”
That boyish face turned stiff and cold.
“You have rights,” I agreed. “In theory, your intellectual properties will always belong to you. But the practical issues are inescapable. You are one little man with a narrow set of talents. All your energies go into your work, as they should. But because you’re exceptionally good with this new technology, what you accomplish is in demand. What you produce draws the thieves. And the thieves are just as talented in their realm as you are in yours.”
He realized that I was complimenting him, in a fashion, and for a moment, his face softened.
“The last thirty years have proven what we should have always known,” I explained. “There’s no such animal as intellectual property. Almost everything in our skulls comes from somewhere else. The languages we speak. The beliefs we cherish. The names we wear, and even the ideas that we like to think of as our own.” Then I laughed with a dismissive tone. “Your Alexander adventure, for instance. Do you realize? Even before you published, it was stolen seventeen times, then reedited in clumsy ways, and distributed for miniscule fees, not just on this world but on the other three, and throughout the orbital cities, and don’t get me started about the AI pirate community—“
“What do you want?” he barked.
I let him broil for another moment. Then quietly, and firmly, I told him, “You’re selfish, and in business matters, you’re incompetent. I bet you told yourself that you’d get rich. Am I right? That’s why you’re so pissed. Some artists don’t care if pirates steal their work and offer it for nothing. But I think we both realize that only the untalented and desperate can live that way, seeing other names lashed to their own work.”
“Again,” said Anwar. “What do you want?”
“To steal everything that you produce.” Then I let my smile fall away, showing him my own resolve. “I have a contract for you to sign. But before you do that, please, find an attorney.” He would settle for a second-rate attorney, I guessed. Correctly. “The agreement gives me the exclusive right to help publish your work, with a fair division of all proceeds, and to make your sacrifice worthwhile, I’ll protect your work and name from pirates and pretenders. Like a vicious dog, I’ll defend every asset of yours. Right now, with my considerable skills and an extensive AI staff, I’m able to give my artists as much as six weeks of undiluted earnings from whatever is their natural audience--”
“Who are you?” he interrupted.
I told him my name.
A look came into those dreamy eyes. Quietly, with a mixture of horror and reverence, he admitted, “I’ve heard about you.”
“Because I work with several of your colleagues,” I confessed, naming them. “But I don’t limit myself to one flavor of genius,” I added. “I help inventors. I’m the best friend there is for writers of all kinds. I protect the voices of singers, and the faces of actors. My best clients are bio-sculptors and intellect designers. I have even a dozen excellent landscape painters in my stables.”
Anwar glanced at the first screen of the contract. “I don’t understand. Your name is going appear next to mine?”
“It follows yours,” I countered. “Of course.”
Then I laughed, softly. I touched him for the last time, placing my hand on his shoulder and clamping down with a smothering strength. Then with a mixture of menace and adoration, I growled softly, telling him, “Of course you’ve heard about me. It’s only fair to say. In the modern world, I am one of the three or four great wellsprings of genius…”
A look comes into those eyes.
For an instant, I don’t know this man. There is a hardness to his gaze, a resolution that takes me by surprise. But then Anwar blinks and looks off into the lunar distance, resembling one of his own soldiers, frozen in place, awaiting whatever is to come next. With a near-whisper, he announces, “Finished.”
I say, “Congratulations.”
“Done,” he says.
“I can see that,” I tell him. “Thank you.”
Anwar opens his mouth, and a moment later, he closes it again.
“Are you pleased?” I ask. And before he can answer, I assure him, “I think it’s your best work ever.”
I mention numbers. Estimated sales. A projection graph blossoms in front of him, and he stares at the left-skewed bell curve, carefully counting the days of ripe profitability.
I know this man. I can anticipate Anwar’s first complaint. “In the last fourteen months,” I remind him, “I have successfully fought off eighty-three attempts to invade your files. My AIs have deflected thousands more. And my attorneys have sued three hundred people and companies and AIs on your behalf.”
“Sixteen days,” he says.
“With a good profit realized by the end of that period,” I say. “A healthy income for you, and a fair return on my considerable investment.”
After a moment, he looks back at my portion of the wall. By mutual agreement, I can watch him from this vantage point. My eavesdropping in his bedroom is my own business—a reasonable, even essential ugliness that helps insure that my genius is working only for me.
“Will anyone remember?” he asks.
I don’t understand the question.
“That I made this thing.” He says, “Thing,” with a contemptuous tone. Then he shakes his head and sighs, asking, “Fifty years from now, will anyone remember me?”
“Of course,” I reply, halfway believing those words.
“And will the public connect this thing with me?”
“If I have any role in your legacy, they will.”
“They won’t,” he counters. Then with an old sadness, he assures me, “A thousand pirates are going to be taking the credit—“
“And failing,” I interrupt.
He dismisses me. With a gesture of those long hands, he pushes my opinion aside. “They’ll steal this and make a few cosmetic changes—for the worst—and they’ll put their own names on it, and then they’ll sell it for nothing and use PR monsters and history rewriters to muddy the public mind.”
“Don’t sell me short,” I argue.
“You’re not mine to sell,” he counters.
I ignore that barb.
Then with a bitter smirk, he says, “Renoir’s Two Sisters.”
“I know the work,” I lie. Then I pull up the work, and sure enough, I do know it. “What about Two Sisters?”
“It doesn’t exist anymore,” he tells me. “Atom-level copiers have churned out millions of identical paintings—“
“With a certain percentage being altered. Sometimes, Renoir’s signature is replaced by the current owner’s.”
I have to ask, “So what?”
Firmly, I remind this little man, “First of all, think of the wonder of it. Ordinary people can own one of the great impressionist works. And if a few thousand of them are tacky enough to change the signature, what does it matter? It doesn’t change the painter’s identity.”
“But if Renoir was working today—“ he begins.
“There might be troubles maintaining ownership,” I admit. “Although if he was one of my people, I’d do everything humanly possible to protect his interests, and mine.”
My artist shakes his head, saying nothing.
“Complain,” I say. “But always remember. Humanity has never been richer. Innovation has never been this swift and sure. In an afternoon, ten geniuses scattered across three worlds can have the same perfect thought, and by the next morning, their inspiration has been disseminated and tested and improved upon and embraced. How can you deny billions that kind of wealth and success? How can any responsible, rational person wish for a return to the old sluggish ways?”
Anwar gazes at his own hands.
“Genius used to be rare,” I admit. “But now, for many fine reasons, it’s just another commodity. It’s abundant and predictable, and it can influence itself at an astonishing pace.”
After a long moment, he says, “Anyway. The thing’s done.”
“Congratulations,” I offer again.
“Try it out,” he offers lamely. Then he rises and walks stiffly toward his bathroom, saying, “Ignore me. I’m feeling a little sick just now.”
In an instant, I’m sitting inside the immersion chamber in every way but physically. But before I embrace it, I have to clear away my distractions. At any given moment, twenty-one hundred creative people are working for me, creating a wide range of products and entertainments, insights and inspired fluff. They are the best of the best, and they are a vast responsibility. But that’s why I maintain a staff, human and otherwise. That’s why I can feel confident, placing myself inside the character known as Lieutenant Krupp.
Within moments, I sense trouble.
With the clarity of a perfectly remembered dream, I find myself wearing Krupp’s life and body. The last ten years have brought enormous improvements into this technology; I only wish had the time to enjoy it more. But this scenario begins with a jolt, then a powerful sense of loss and anger. I should be able to move Krupp, but his mind is diverted by the new memory. Why? Yet even before I can guess, the memory triggers a cascade event—a chaotic but relentless collapse that easily and quickly steals away my control.
I watch the epic’s hero rise to his feet, and with an eerie smoothness, he sprays his platoon with his railgun, killing everyone in the space of two seconds.
This is an ugly, useless mess.
I freeze the action and return to the beginning. And this time, I examine this new memory.
Krupp as a teenage boy, in Oklahoma.
His father—a man whom he worships and loves and wants to please—takes him under an arm and says, “I don’t think much of our government. But I want you to join the service anyway. When your time comes. Do their fighting for them. But you’ll see your chance to help the rebels, and I pray you do—“
It’s an absurd memory.
The words themselves have little force and no history. But while I was watching Anwar at work, I failed to see what kinds of algorithms he was using here. They are religious in nature. The words are only the thinnest veneer, and what lies beneath has an enormous and sudden impact. When he becomes lucid, Krupp has no choice but to obey that contrived demand from his nonexistent father.
As an experiment, I become five of the other characters.
Even knowing their fate, I can’t save them. They fully trust Krupp. They begin with their backs to him, and before they can turn halfway around, he has cut them into boiling blood and shards of useless armor.
“This is a mess!” I call out.
The only response is the sound of water running.
“Anwar!” I call out.
I can’t see the bathroom from this vantage point. So I return to the bedroom, furious enough to expose my presence. I intend to ask him, “What do you mean, ruining fourteen months of work and investment--!”
Then I see the water running from beneath the bathroom door.
Water tinged with something red, I realize. Flowing thin at first, and then, thick and fast and awful.
I sound a company-wide alarm, and my AI attorneys instantly measure the situation and begin discussing issues of duty and liability and how to correctly alert law enforcement to what may or may not be a tragedy. I ignore them. In a desperate rush, I scour the world directory for anything of use. An old maintenance robot sits in a closet in the basement of Anwar’s apartment building. It takes me fourteen seconds to subvert its safeties and another eight seconds to mesh my limbs and senses with its own. The closet door explodes before me. I climb the stairs in great smooth leaps. Another twenty-one seconds to the top floor, and two more to reach the apartment door. But the door refuses to recognize the robot’s hands. I have to wrench it off its hinges, shoving my way into the immersion chamber where an insane Krupp sits among the dead, pointing at my apparition and laughing wildly.
A company alarm is sounding again.
But it’s not my alarm, I realize. It’s louder and even more urgent, and during the next long stride, I absorb the first unobstructed warnings that something vast and awful is happening.
The blood is deep, and in the robot’s eyes, it looks fantastically red.
I step through the thin plastic door, entering a bathroom barely big enough for one man. And there is only one man: A scared fellow wearing a ceramic and vaguely humanoid body, watching a smart-sack of fake blood releasing its contents according to some preplanned schedule.
“Something’s wrong,” I hear.
“We’re losing everyone,” says my chief of security. “First the game jockeys, and the brain builders, and now the rest of them are dropping out of our gaze—“
I close the link, stepping over the crimson sack.
What should be a shower isn’t. Instead, I find myself looking into a tiny and very peculiar immersion chamber. How did Anwar get it? Parts smuggled in under my gaze? Assembled while he pretended to shit and wash, during the mornings and evenings? Which means that he knew that I was watching him in the bedroom. He never let on, I realize. As strange as it seems, I feel cheated. I feel abused, and angry. And then my eyes focus on the impossibly brilliant colors inside the chamber, two faces staring out at me.
Little girls, they are.
The older girl—the one in the red hat—tells me, “You made two mistakes.” Her voice is Anwar’s. “First of all,” the voice says, “Renoir and those other Impressionists earned almost nothing. Not until they were old, and not until the public and critics came to understand the wondrous things they were doing.”
The robot has a simple mouth. With it, I rumble, “So what?”
“People like them today,” says Anwar, “if there are any people like them today, have no choice but to lose their work. Nobody like you is going to protect them. Not only will they be poor, but they’ll be lost for the ages, too. Who cares who painted the bastards, so long as you have them. Which is why I think this world sucks.”
Weakly, I mutter, “Okay.”
I ask, “What else did I get wrong?”
The younger girl—the one wearing the brightly flowered hat—says with a little girl’s voice, “Genius is still a very scarce thing. Scarce and fragile, and that’s always been the problem.”
“Has it been?” I whisper.
“But imagine,” she says, straightening her back and winking at me in a playful, almost flirtatious fashion. “A new immersion chamber. Better by so very much. It supplies its user with nothing but heightened senses and a set of powerful new algorithms that lift the most ordinary mind into a dreamy, creative realm where everything feels possible.”
With a ceramic hand, I reach into the chamber.
She slaps my hand with an astonishing strength, and she giggles. “No, no,” she sings at me. “Do you see? In a world where everyone can embrace and control the creative process, nobody will steal anyone’s work. We’ll all be too busy with our own sweet marvels.”
“Where are you, Anwar?” I ask.
To myself, with a slow pained voice, I say, “You and the others…my people…you did this together, without telling me…”
The two girls giggle at me, and grin.
“Bastards,” I groan. Then I reach into the chamber once again, wondering how the machinery works…how it could allow a selfish, stupid man to slip out of my grasp…
The little girls happily bite off my fingers.
And spitting them out, they keep on giggling, their faces shining in bright dreamy sunshine two centuries old, and timeless.
©2003, ©2007 Robert Reed -- All Rights Reserved
This page last updated: April 23, 2007