The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine



“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
― Albert Camus

Breaking Point

Epigraph, Chapter Three, Project Maldon

Economics says the more of something there is, the cheaper it is. Thus air (until recently) was free, while diamonds commanded a high price. The same principle applies to human life. With twelve billion people swarming the globe, life is cheaper than it used to be. How much cheaper we are still discovering

Breaking Point, A collection of essays on Post Millennial topics. Henrikus Grobius Jr.

The AI known as “Helen”

Epigraph, Chapter Two, Project Maldon

Of all the enigmas of the enigmatic Skellig Michael Institute, by far the most mysterious is the artificial intelligence being known simply as Helen. By the Turing test, she is definitely intelligent — her conversation is indistinguishable from that of a shrewd well-educated person. What is more remarkable she appears to have a well-defined character — sardonic, playful, sometimes a trifle eerie. Her personality is constantly and deliberately refined through a sophisticated program of human interaction.  Does she have desires? Is she ever lonely? Needless to say, the scientists cannot answer with any authority, and Helen avoids all questions on the subject. There is little precedent for dealing with AIs, and one is tempted to ask what private agenda this awesome entity contemplates, as it circles the globe in high orbit, looking down on our teeming, fragile planet.

Puzzles of the PM: Henrikus Grobius Jr.

The Goldfish

He awoke from a dream of gold and ivory magnificence to the usual mild hangover and sour stomach. It had been a true dream, a fine, strong dream, he had them on occasion. He had been an admiral. Or a lord, or perhaps poet laureate — riding in a carriage drawn by magnificent black  stallions to a heart-shaking event of stunning import. Perhaps the dream was an omen foreshadowing the recognition of his genius? Or the final, ultimate lotto win?

He yawned, stretched and considered. Yes, that was it, the long-awaited win which he knew with every fiber of his being lay just around the corner. Clearly the dream was a portent, a sign of fine times to come. His spirit soared, it was going to be a wonderful day.

The sun poured like molten metal through the cracked kitchen window. Its dazzling rays highlighted the graceful sculpture of egg-stained dishes, dirty pans, moldering cardboard tubs of Chinese take-out which awaited his august attention. All in his great good time. He lit one of his last cigarettes and lay back.

Time. How it tumbled by, buzzed by, here then gone! He sensed a slight buzz around the back alleys of his brain, but that was customary. Background noise, like the fly – flies actually – buzzing around the pile of crockery. It was going to be a great day. He just had to remember why.  Read or download full story

Wolfe’s world — overview

(Dr. Edward Wolfe, Fellow Level II of the Skellig Michael Institute, expert in SocioCybernetics*, is the protagonist of Project Maldon and Hunger Star. Here is a quick look at his world.)

It’s closer to the end of the 21st Century than the beginning. Trends that were evident in the early decades have  accelerated– the fragmentation of nations, the rise of extremist religions, massive social dislocation as robots and AI entities take over more and more jobs. The divide between rich and poor continues to grow, and even to accelerate.

Who’s in charge here?
Artificial Intelligence entities (AIs) have been developed, and four of the most advanced ( Big Red, Lao Tze, Solomon and Helen) are generally given most of the credit for keeping humanity from total disaster, by expert juggling of scarce resources, brokering of  fragile agreements between nuclear-armed power blocks and, it is whispered, a clandestine policy of assassination targeting those judged to be destabilizing influences. If anyone — or anything — is truly running the show, it may be these AIs.

Long life — for those who prosper
Medical sciences are thriving. For those who can afford the treatments, life can be prolonged many years, perhaps a century or more. No-one knows except the Elders (as they have been dubbed) — and they are not telling. The wealthy can also afford the genetic engineering needed to breed “super children,” offspring endowed with intelligence, athletic skills and good health. Auto-immune diseases such as arthritis can be arrested and reversed with tailor-made medicines. Experiments with enhancing and storing the elusive thing called “consciousness” on machines are underway. Chip implants, prosthetic limbs and sense organs have given those who can afford them near superhuman powers of recall and perception. In every way, the borders that used to define what it is to be human are becoming blurred.

The high frontier is opening, but...
New materials and techniques have made space travel and colonization feasible. Humans have gained a real if precarious foothold in space, with outposts on Mars, a nascent asteroid mining industry, and a scatter of permanent, near self-supporting colonies on the Moon.  Several large orbital habitats serve as jumping-off points for outward bound missions — and as lifeboats, should conditions Downwell** spiral out of control. But space travel is still expensive, fatal accidents common and enabling technology in the early stages of its evolution. The promise of outward expansion is there, but it will take time to fulfill. The question is, does humanity have time?

The Die Back lurks
Despite progress in some areas, there is a growing sense of crisis. At the heart of the crisis is the world’s runaway overpopulation. Everyone agrees there are far more people than the tormented planet can sustain– but no-one agrees what to do about it. How to bring the population down to sustainable levels? Who decides who should not reproduce — and maybe who should die? With famine, disease and violence stalking the favelas and suburbs, with the wretched of the Earth washing up at the locked gates of walled communities, with conflicts flaring on every continent, the Die Back (as it has come to be known) seems all but inevitable.

When and how The Die Back starts is a matter for earnest debate and hysterical pronouncements. But few doubt that it is coming. Soon.


*SocioCybernetics:  the science (some say art) of computer-assisted social engineering. The Skellig Michael Institute is universally acknowledged as the leader in SoCy, a discipline sometimes described as the most effective way ever invented of meddling in other people’s affairs.

**Downwell: abbreviation of “down the gravity well.” A somewhat derisive term used by spacers for Earth.


She arrived about four in the morning — a half hour before the missiles

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Three)

Wolfe speaks to one of the few survivors of the nuclear attack on Tehran, and learns his wife Omaha may still be alive.)

“Omaha is dead. She died at Tehran of course.”

“No, my friend, there you are mistaken.” Merridew shook his hooded head slowly, painfully, from side to side.

Wolfe heard a roaring sound like the surf, coming from somewhere inside his own head. “What are you saying?”

“She was right beside me when the strike came. They took us to the same hospital.” Sir Mark croaked, a mirthless cackle. “We were at a party you see, an all-night bash. At a suburban home, organized by one of the more liberal mullahs of my acquaintance. I persuaded her to come, meet some connections. Normally I doubt she would have showed up, but she was in overdrive — she’d just completed some hush-hush task or other and it had gone well. So she arrived about four in the morning, all aglow. A half hour later, in came the missiles.”

The room had turned hot and suffocating, a cramped, claustrophobic oven. Wolfe realized he had to leave immediately, get out into the cool air before he was sick. “You’re sure she was alive after the attack? I mean, you must have been in terrible condition. Maybe you were delirious?”

“Oh no, I was all too lucid. It was Omaha that was delirious. We were in the same ward for three days. I remember it well; she kept raving about getting back to the Institute at all costs, telling Helen what she’d found. She was taken out by the first UN ambulance convoy. I assumed she’d made her way back.”

“Jesu come quick, what happened to her?”

“Less than no idea. Ask Helen, she should know.”

Songs of sadness from The Lost

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Two) 

Wolfe and Morgan, his cyborg lover, arrive on Earth from the Institute’s headquarters in high orbit. As they leave the spaceport they become aware of an eerie, ceaseless noise.

The trip down the gravity well was blessedly uneventful: a brief stopover at Orbital Three, the massive UN. space habitat, a leisurely glide across the blue and white splendor of the globe and so down onto Runway F at the Kilimanjaro space facility. Wolfe and Morgan, legs wobbly in the relentless gravity, which was somehow more engulfing than the spin at Orbital, endured the formalities of arrival with what patience they could muster. Those completed, they emerged into the hot African sun and blinked about. A confusion of foreign smells, spicy, exciting and rank crowded into Wolfe’s nose, making him blink.

A dull roaring noise came faintly to his ears, a distant rhythmic sound as of surf on a distant beach. Except that there was no beach within hundreds of klicks.

They hailed one of the small, brightly painted electric carts which flitted about the huge port and gave the driver the name of their hotel. With themselves and their meager luggage aboard they darted off into the teeming traffic. Wolfe asked the driver, a tall, bald African with tattooed cheeks, about the odd noise.

“It is The Lost, good sir and madam, the hungry, hopeless ones. They camp around this island of plenty and sing songs of sadness to Auntie Lean because they cannot share its happy destiny.”

“Why can they not?” asked Morgan.

The driver made a gesture signifying resignation. “They have no money, no skills, no tribe, no tomorrow. They are The Lost. Their destiny is to suffer.”

“Are there many of them?”

“As many as the stars in the sky.”

Wolfe visits the bazaar

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Six)

It was a few minutes before eight when Wolfe ventured into the bazaar at Stanley Park. On his shoulder was a guard monkey named Brian, a modified rhesus, equipped with narco-tipped spurs on legs and wrists and flash-bonded to Wolfe. Any attack, so the Celestial Hope security experts assured him, would bring a furious response from Brian. The monkey also ported a homer and a small camera. Signals from both were monitored by the Celestial Hope team.

The bazaar was a twenty-four hour a day affair which covered three hundred acres, an endless, flood-lit, rain-soaked warren of small, well-secured booths with small windows, reinforced doors and security devices. Guard animals of various sorts, chemically spiked for aggression, stared at the passers by with baleful red eyes from perches or kennels. Everything that the mind could imagine could be bought or sold here, as well as some things most minds shied away from.

Despite its baleful reputation as the violent heart of a brutal city, the bazaar was crowded, even at this hour of night, as ordinary-looking people went about their private errands with the bland innocence of fish swimming through and around a school of sharks. Some of them were thrill seekers in search of the unwholesome pleasures of the bazaar: husk humpers, gooheads in search of a spray or two, even a handful of curious business people here for a taste of illicit excitement. Others worked the bazaar, manning the twenty-four hour booths or servicing the patchwork infrastructure. Wherever humans congregated, for whatever holy or hideous purpose, the maintenance crews of civilization — plumbers, electricians, garbage collectors and so on —  were on call.

Others had come to the bazaar to deal. Some, like Wolfe, were buyers, looking for custom pharma, proscribed genes or slaves. Others had come to sell: their services, their organs, even themselves. Since entering the bazaar Wolfe had passed a half-dozen booths offering cash up front for indentured servants. Ten, twenty and thirty year terms were on offer. To his amazement, the inviting, glass-paneled consultation rooms in the front of each booth were thronged. Perhaps it was just a shill, models paid to bring innocents into the booth. Or perhaps people were desperate enough to sign away a decade or two of their lives — or their children’s — for some ready cash. It was a sobering thought.

Wolfe wonders why

A depiction of a base on a hostile and barren moon. The moon's Earth-like planet rises in the background. The small colony is equipped with two rovers for astronauts to use for exploration of the surface. - Elements of this image furnished by NASA

What might they find on Luna? Other than bureaucracy and vacuum.


(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter 1)

Wolfe sometimes wondered why he was doing this — leaving whatever passed for home behind, taking off in a metal cylinder to start a new life on an airless moon.  He had never really thought of himself as the hardy colonial type. Yet, recalling the surge of exaltation he had felt when launch was imminent, he knew he was committed to the expedition.  What might they find on Luna? Other than bureaucracy and vacuum of course… Lava tubes snaking below the surface. Water ice in places where the sun never shone. Craters that could be roofed over and pressurized. A refuge and maybe a new home, if not for them then for their children.


The Hunger Star from Orbital One

Industrial area at night

“You and I see a nova, an amazing cosmic event. Frightened, ignorant people see Auntie Lean’s eye peeping at them from Die-Back land.”

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter One)

Wolfe floated across the room towards the viewing port and looked out in never-failing wonder. Below him, or perhaps out from him was the Earth, an immense living teardrop of blue, green and white trickling down the dead cheek of endless space. Above the globe, stitched against the eternal night of space, was a brilliant, glaring white star — the Hunger Star.

It had blossomed into luminous being three weeks ago — the very night the United Nations had officially announced huge rice and grain shortfalls for the coming year, the result of new crop infestations and eccentric weather patterns. According to some commentators, its appearance had triggered the global food riots that followed the announcement, as terrified people the world over looked into the sky and saw their own doom written there in the supernova’s white, malevolent glare. From that night on, despite official attempts to rename it, tame it with a technical tag, the supernova had been known as the Hunger Star.

It was so bright Wolfe blinked as he looked at it, trying to somehow grasp the immensity of the titanic forces that had been unleashed unthinkably long ago and far away, sending this stream of light washing across the galaxies to terrify the sentient creatures on a small, lonely planet. It was impossible; the thing was beyond the scope of his mind.

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