Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History

I've always wanted to visit the Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History. Just think of what kind of a grand place it would be.

It'd be a pretty big place, of course. Intergalactic, that means it'd cover the art and natural history of more than one galaxy. Even tiny galaxies are big, containing millions of stars, perhaps thousands if not hundreds of thousands of civilizations, and certainly millions if not billions of planets each with their own natural history. There's no way you can fit all of that into a building. Even an ordinary planet wouldn't be big enough.

I imagine the entrance itself might look like a building though. It would be the result of an intergalactic competition of architects. Some if not most of the architects might not even know they're participating in a competition. After all, the people curating the museum wouldn't want to involve civilizations in the Intergalactic Commonwealth unless they were ready. (We have to assume there's an Intergalactic Commonwealth, because who else would build the Intergalactic Museum. And we have to assume that the Intergalactic Commonwealth doesn't contact cultures that are not ready to join because, after all, we haven't been contacted, yet.)

So this competition would itself take a considerable amount of time, of course. Maybe not millions or billions of years (the time for light to travel from one galaxy to the next), but even if some kind of faster than light transmission of information were possible, it'd be a while before the hundreds of thousands of entries to the competition were collected. There'd be a committee, comprised of members from several representative cultures, to select the finalists based on criteria of scientific aesthetics. (Scientific aesthetics is what you get when you figure out why things are pleasing and interesting, and generalize it enough so that creatures from a wide variety of cultures will appreciate it.)

In fact, now that I think about it, it's entirely possible that there may be many modes of aesthetic perception, each the result of the evolution of various creatures. I don't expect there to be an infinite variety of modes, since the cultures that would be considered for this project would all have certain things in common, but there'd likely be more than one. Perhaps hundreds, or even thousands. In fact, there might be a committee established for each of these modes, and each would select their own winners.

Eventually the entrances to the Intergalactic Museum of Art and Natural History would be built. If an entire planet isn't large enough - I figure they'd perhaps terraform an otherwise uninhabitable planet for this purpose - they might build a Dyson Sphere around a star. Close enough in, and the mass of the star and the sphere together should be enough to create a gravitational gradient suitable for moving about on the surface, and retaining an atmosphere. The nice thing about a Dyson Sphere is that it can capture all of the energy radiated by the star to run the Museum. A sphere like that would require some kind of station keeping to make sure the star remains at the center of the sphere (radiation pressure from the star isn't likely to be constantly symmetrical - one good flare, and the entire business would start to drift, with no guarantee that a balancing flare would happen to push things back), but for the intergalactic commonwealth that'd be a minor matter.

The main thing is, if they pick the right kind of star they'll have the energy supply for millions if not billions of years, and plenty of room for the museum.

The surface of the museum would be sculpted to simulate various natural environments. In fact, there might be dimples in the surface, similar to the dimples on a golf ball. Each dimple would contain an atmosphere suitable to the creatures whose museum entrances were located there. There wouldn't have to be a separate dimple for each species - that would be unrealistic - but it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that many species could comfortably share the same environment, even if they evolved on entirely different planets.

Supposing it were possible to arrive at the museum via spaceship, you'd be looking out onto the museum with various kinds of cameras that can give a view adjusted for the visual organs of whatever species happens to be looking. The surface of the sphere wouldn't be illuminated by the star, of course. Although it might be cool to have the thing set up in a binary system, any kind of binary companion would have to be pretty far away, so that its tides wouldn't disturb the museum. At such a distance the companion would merely look like a very bright star, producing less light than a full Moon on Earth.

No, if the surface of the museum is illuminated, it'd be by lamps of some kind. Perhaps there'd be arrays of lenses and mirrors conducting light from the star inside to shine out through the surface. Humongous balloons floating in the atmosphere in each of the dimples of the museum would have reflectors suspended on their underside. They'd be tethered above the light tubes, and the light from the star inside would then be reflected back down to the surface. Filters of various kinds would make sure that the light was suitable for the particular species in the vicinity, and the mirrors and lenses could be adjusted in case a diurnal rhythm of some kind was desired.

From space it would look a lot like those pictures of Earth's nightside, except that the light clusters would be evenly spaced out. Maybe it'd be more like looking at a gigantic disco ball, floating in space, with occasional rays of starlight glinting out at the cameras of the approaching spaceship when a reflector balloon gets pushed around by the winds.

But actually, I don't think that the Museum would be built all in one place. That'd be cool, in a fashion, but impractical. After all, it would require transporting visitors and artifacts to the Museum. There'd have to be hotels and the like at the Museum, too, since such a Museum could never be visited in its entirety in just a few days.

No, it is much more likely that the Museum would be distributed, with entrances (the same ones that won the architectural contests) located on most major planets. The exhibits would be available via sophisticated virtual environments that allow most sensory modes of interaction. Perhaps many visitors wouldn't even go there physically, but rather visit via some kind of intergalactic internet.

Imagine the exhibit for Earth. I imagine that the geological history of our planet is going to be remarked as fairly interesting, given that relatively few worlds of the millions or billions (perhaps only 1% or fewer) have a Moon like ours. For us this has had a number of important consequences, from stabilizing our planet's axis of rotation (and hence our seasons) to providing strong tides that might have hastened the evolution of life on land. I don't know if planets without those features could even evolve intelligent life, but if the can I expect their evolutionary history to be quite different from ours. While I expect the principles of evolution to operate in all places in about the same way, I don't expect the particulars to be the same at all, so the Museum's exhibit for Earth would include a list of species that have evolved here, as well as their evolutionary relationship to each other.

Our cultures currently aren't (as far as I know) members of the Intergalactic Commonwealth, so that detail would be noted alongside all parts of the exhibit concerning the history and cultures on our planet. Since for a long time - thousands of years - various levels of technological advancement existed simultaneously on the planet, the exhibits for each civilization would have to include information on its interactions with neighboring civilizations, and on its contributions to the human treasury of knowledge. I have no idea how the curators of the exhibit would divide up these civilizations. Their perspective on our history would be a deep time perspective, not the kind we use, fraught with tribal prejudices and mythologies. Assuming Earth was surveyed early enough in its history to catch the evolution of the human species, and thus note the rise of species capable of sapience, the exhibit has various options, ranging from following germ lines to following language groups. It's doubtful the exhibit would put a great deal of emphasis on tribal lines or national identities, since in the deep time perspective these things don't actually matter all that much. What would matter are milestones of human development, ranging from the taming of fire to formal education of our young to descriptions of the universe like the General Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. Cultural tools like public education might not exist among all species, but models of the physical universe should be pretty much identical, regardless who discovered them. Therefore I'd expect a lot more attention to be paid to when and how humans began to organize into communities with laws, and a lot less attention to when we discovered the wheel or orbited our first satellite.

Once the Earth does join the Commonwealth, perhaps the Earth Exhibit of the Museum would be moved to the Earth, and curated here by human scientists. But for now the exhibit could be just about anywhere. Since we kind of have to assume that some form of faster than light travel is possible (otherwise you can't really have an Intergalactic Commonwealth), the actual location of the exhibit wouldn't even have to be anywhere near the Earth, or even in our galaxy. However, the most likely eventuality would be that the species that originally discovered the Earth would have come from our galactic neighborhood, and they would be the ones who initially set up our exhibit.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Last Chapter

Shelly took a last look at herself in the mirror. Looked OK. She dropped her compact into her purse, just in case.

"Today's meeting with Barry should go well," she told Steve. "I'm sure it's all a tiny misunderstanding."

Steve didn't say anything. Steve never said anything, anymore. Steve had died, what, was it now almost ten years ago? It wasn't something Shelly liked to think about, especially since she hadn't told Barry.

"Anyway, I should be home before dark," she said. And, "Bye, honey," as she closed and locked the door to her tiny apartment behind her. What remained of Steve, a silver plated tin jar full of his ashes, continued to sit silently on the small lamp stand by her bedside. It said nothing.

Shelly took the subway downtown, then hurried up into the busy streets, glad to be above ground again, away from the constant taint of urine and body odor that a battalion of cleaning staff never were able to remove, no matter how much bleach they blasted on the dank stone down there.

Barry had told her to meet him at JoJo's. His office was just a couple of doors along the street from the restaurant, so they had met there often enough that the wait staff knew her on sight. Today Raoul was tending reception. She could see Barry sitting at their accustomed spot by the window and waved at him. As Raoul lead her to the table Barry smiled. It melted her heart, the way it always did. She almost smiled back, but controlled herself just in time.

If she lost this account, all would be in vain! Everything at all times must be completely professional. She sat down opposite him.

"Hey, Barry," she said. "Have you been waiting long?"

"Actually, I took the day off," Barry told her. "I was hoping we could enjoy a leisurely lunch and then talk."

Damn. That'd take an entire day, not the brief meeting she'd promised Steve. There was no help for it, though. She forced herself to smile back.

"That sounds nice."

Barry had already looked over the menu. JoJo's served a kinda sorta French cuisine. It was OK, but Shelly had never figured out what was so French about it, besides the prices. But Barry was always paying for both of them, so she hadn't worried about it much. By herself, she could not have afforded it.

Lunch passed with inconsequential chatter over servings of steak and chicken, and she had to be careful not to eat too much, if she didn't want to feel as if she were starving tomorrow.

"Are you still living at the usual address?" Barry asked her.

"Um, yes. Why?"

"I thought you and I needed some time to talk things over. I'll call a cab later to take you home."

That didn't sound good. Shelly realized her work was not as good as Steve's work, but what else could she do? Steve had to keep turning in manuscripts. That was all there was to it. She had found Steve, collapsed in his apartment, arranged for a quiet funeral, and kept his ashes. She supposed someone was collecting the royalty payments. She was just getting her usual share, barely enough to keep her apartment. There was no time to expand her agency. No time with all the writing she had to do.

She gather her courage and asked, "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know how to tell you this," Barry said. "I suppose there's no good way to say it, so I'll just have to come right out and tell you."

Shelly realized she was holding her breath. She tried to calm herself down. Breath, girl. When she didn't say anything, Barry continued.

"I've been Steve's editor for twelve years now, right?"

"It'll be twelve years this June," Shelly said.

"Remember I told you that Steve's books were good, but not marketable in the US?"

"Yes, I remember," Shelly told him. "That's why we were going to your UK partner."

"Well, here's the thing. There is no UK partner."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, we haven't been selling Steve's books in the UK."

"I guess I don't understand. Why would your company... wait. You have been paying Steve royalties, so where are you selling the books?"

Shelly suddenly had the suspicion that Barry's masters had created a huge copyright nightmare, and that her secret was about to be revealed to the world. No, she couldn't allow that to happen!

"Barry, whatever happened, I'm sure Steve will understand. We can work it out," she tried to soothe him.

"You misunderstand me," Barry said. "No copies of Steves books were sold, ever."

"What were you paying him for?"

"I'm sorry," Barry said. "It's all my fault."

Shelly had clenched her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling. Now she let go and reached out to pat Barry on his arm. He covered her hand with his, gave it a brief squeeze, and let go. She looked at his face and was surprised to find tears in his eyes.

"Barry, nothing can be that bad. It's just books and money. We'll work it out."

"No, I don't think you understand," Barry told her, leaning forward in his seat across from her, his voice tense and urgent. "There is no publisher. There are no books. I'm not an editor. Shelly, when I first met you I told you I was an editor because you told me you were looking for one, and I was struck madly in love with you from the moment I set eyes on you. Shelly, forgive me for betraying you like this, but I could not bear to never see you again. I had a little money, and I used that to pay for Steve's royalties, and your commission. Every sales meeting we had here was my little piece of heaven. But my money is running out. There were some bad investments..."

Shelly managed a little laugh.

"This is a joke, right? A joke in very poor taste, right?" she asked him. Then she got up, slapped his face, and walked out of JoJo's, her back held straight.

On the way home she felt curiously calm. Her world, destroyed. Nothing was left. Steve, gone. Not that he'd ever amounted to much. Her career, stillborn. Because of Barry. And Steve, of course. Her life, over. It wasn't until she was turning the key in her apartment door lock that she began to sob. By the time she had closed the door behind her and shot the bolt she was bawling like a child. Wailing, she sat at the small table in her kitchen, across from the second-hand laptop she was using for her writing, and let the tears run down her face. They washed her waterproof mascara into blueish black runnels that collected under her chin and dripped unheeded onto the table.

When morning came she woke, still sitting at the table. Her face had gummed itself to her arms, pulling like some kind of glue when she sat up.

"I must look a sight," she said. Then she realized there was no one to say it to. She walked into the bathroom, used the toilet, and ran the water in the sink until it was scalding hot. Then she scrubbed her face until it glowed. After combing her hair into some kind of presentable shape, she went into the bedroom to fetch the silver plated tin that contained Steve.

"Sorry, lover boy," she told him. "It turns out you're not the only one." On the way to the door she paused, went back into the kitchen. She unplugged the laptop and wrapped the chord around it. After she put on her shoes, she clamped the laptop under her arm and carried it and the tin down to the trashbin. They made a satisfying thunk.

Back in her apartment, she gathered up some clothes, stuffed them into a small day bag, and added her cosmetics. Fourty minutes later she was waiting on the stoop of Barry's brownstone. She rang the bell.

"Yes?" came Barry's voice, after a few moments.

"It's Shelly. May I come up?"

"What? Oh, sure, sure, just a moment," and the door buzzed. Shelly pushed it open and hurried up the stairs. She'd felt committed earlier that morning, but now it seemed that something was trying to turn her back. Determined to see it through, she pushed herself forward.

Barry was waiting for her beside an open door. He didn't give her day bag a second glance but invited her inside and lead her into a small office where he asked her to have a seat. Then he sat down next to her.

"Do you forgive me?" he asked her. That took her a bit by surprise.

"No. Yes. I don't know," she said. "You know, I have a secret, too." Then she told him about Steve, how he was dead, and how she'd been writing all of his books these past ten years, desperate to keep people from finding out he was gone.

"He's the only author I ever was an agent for," she told Barry. "I never had time to do anything else after he died. So when you told me you never sold any books, I thought at first everything was gone. But then I realized, if you never sold any of his books, then they're still there to be sold. So you will now help me sell them. You will put me up here in your apartment, and I will keep an eye on you to make sure you do your job this time. We can sell them under Steve's name, if that sounds good. Or under my name, since I wrote most of them. Or under your name, if you think that'll work better. I don't care. But I want them published."

She looked at Barry expectantly. Please say yes, she thought. Because you're the only reason I did any of this. The only reason why I stuck with Steve, so that I could keep shopping books to you. I've loved you for twelve years, and I'll be damned if I let that end now.