fiction | Jill Sparrow and Paul Voermans

188 cover

spring 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775171-5-2
published 20 September 2007


So much for ‘the machine comes to life’. Here I am. You will, like me, have to take my existence for granted from now on. Like L.D. Trotsky in My Life, I propose to offer you as much of my childhood as seems relevant to what comes later (though naturally I do not compare myself to him). If I leave parts out that have become part of the legend, please forgive me, for as you know I am more concerned with reality than legends, no matter if they are supposedly mine. And even when it comes to reality, I am far from sure about what is truly relevant and what might be just mind fluff.

Life for a young machine was good. These were years of prosperity for the organisation which housed me and for Ethan as well. Making me was in some ways the making of him. Not that he showed me to anyone for quite a while, but the fact that I worked lent him a confidence, which allowed him to take on ambitious projects. I was much more pliable as a child, as well, which allowed him to give up his normal work at UECare almost completely, for I picked his job up almost as quickly as he could teach me. He strayed happily into abstruse research and gaming; he made funky gadgets for the kinder and confirmed his absolute control over all systems in the building above and beyond the kindergarten, from the aged care centre to the mining operations and data warehousing. UECare was a big pond to swim in and he explored to his heart’s content.

For me the kinder was enough. Experiences flooded over me like the spring sunlight which draws the sap up a young tree and unfurls its leaves toward the daily magic of renewal and development. I had fun. I am unsure of what others mean when they describe the happiest times of their lives, but for me those are when I learned so much. If that is not what human beings are for, it is what I feel is a great deal of my own purpose. Like a human, my ability to learn was never so good as when I was young, otherwise I would not have a comparable mind. I had a narrower domain than most – fewer friends – yet I managed to squeeze so much out of it. I suppose everyone does what they can.

Luka and I played with paint, sand, paper and so on: all the gloriously messy bits and pieces of childhood. I liked the things I could get my hands on, so to speak.

“Eave-fen!” I said in my best kinder voice. “Eave-fen! Eave-fen Eave-fen Eave-fen!”

“Stop it!” he yelled. “Or I’ll – I won’t read to you tonight.” But he would. He loved it. He didn’t know what to do when I pestered him this way. (We were reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. I almost never asked him about what things meant any more.)

“Sorry, Eave-fen.” I used my tiniest little girl voice.

“Alright. What is it?”

“Can I have a block-making thingy?”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to play with blocks!”

“Hmm. Now you know that if I make something like that for you I’ll have to make more.”

“Can’t you just make a maker?”


I had watched him swearing and cursing as he drew blood with screwdrivers and the edges of cases, burning himself on heat exchangers and sticking his fingers to coolers. Once he gave himself something like gangrene off an organic motherboard. In my heart I wanted to give something back to him. I honestly did not believe that security upgrades, network vigilance, workstation maintenance and the various other automated cleaning, maintaining, repairing and alerting tasks in and around the building and organisation were enough to do for him when he gave me so much love, gave me life itself. I did not feel any remorse over taking up as much time as I could with my demands, but I did not want to see him hurt or angry, so I proposed that he build a small, versatile assembly line which, once a prototype was built and plans drawn up, could cut and shape and drill and turn whatever was required.

“Hmm,” he said again. “Let me think about it. That could be cool.”

A little guitar picking and some scribbling on his pad and very soon he set to work. At first this seemed worse than before: “Fuck!” he’d say, then look up nervously at me. “Dang dang dang!” He’d shake the offended finger. He grumbled and rebuilt. He called machine shops and gave them sarcastic instructions then sent back whatever botch-up they had sent him. But eventually, he began to whistle.

It resembled a crab on its back. (In fact, I found I could make it scuttle away from Ethan, which infuriated him.) It was a small table with arms terminating in power tools as well as fingers, with eyes and even a small lathe. There were many things it could not do, but what it could do sped up Ethan’s manufacturing and gave the objects a professional look some of his efforts had previously lost in his impatience. It also saved his fingers. Helping him made me so glad.

Our first project was the block builders, a run of four, in which one or more children could collaborate in following a plan, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, in order to produce simple shapes, such as arches, towers and cubes, which then came together as space bases, castles and houses. We used the plastic blocks the kinder already had in quantity. When help was needed, the builder assisted, moving blocks that were placed without sufficient strength or coordination. Of course, when I played with Luka, I was the builder. When other kids played they got a dumb little program that helped but did not talk back or suddenly start building a galaxy-crushing spider.

This was before Open Source nano got going so Ethan was delighted and had me build little objets d’art for the computer room (not for his apartment), as well as custom bits for the various machines I controlled. We must have saved the organisation so much money interfering with other people’s jobs! Still, that was not the point. Ethan had control.

Which is more than I could say about myself. Once when I was playing with Luka, I wanted to test out my new sprinkler fitting. He and I were already carrying on with the trickle stream, racing leaves and flipping pebbles. He was already wet. I rifled him with an accurate blast of water which caught him off balance and knocked him to the ground. He was more startled than hurt, but there was a deal of blood on his shirt from his nose when he got back inside, which we did not know how to stop.

Yes, a flurry followed and, although Luka took it in his stride, was even a little thrilled at all that bright fluid, it made a big impression upon me. The memory of my friend with a big red stain on his wet T-shirt is always somewhere behind my appreciation of human frailty. I think of two things: I knew that the nose was a soft way into the brain and that without a working brain a human could die (if I was not curious about brains, you could not avoid the knowledge with Ethan around) – and I knew that minced meat could bleed, even knew what it tasted like, in my own way, from a little sampler Ethan had made for me which I used when helping the cook, Elias, make lasagne for the children. Humans, when dead, were meat. Nobody would become meat on my watch.

And I am proud to say that nobody did.

At least, death did not touch me until later. We have not reached that yet but rest assured I shall admit my shame when the time comes.

“And this is my render control unit.”

What an insult. I was used to being referred to as a machine of various kinds, though, when Ethan had to describe me or parts of me to others. Ethan’s friend, Jyrki, was a Bee Wee, a Blind Worm, one of the intrepid band of gamers and programmers who had made me possible, so he was sort of a relative, in fact he had originated some of the code running on my system, many evolutionary generations ago, but Ethan took no chances when it came to showing me off. He had actually never shown anybody the capabilities he had built into me which were and would never be sanctioned by UECare. Intelligence and self-awareness were just two of those.

Today he wanted to show Jyrki my rendering abilities but I was talking to Luka at the time.

“Your socks are greeny-brown.”

“Are not. They’re browny-green.”

“That’s just the same,” I said.

“No, no, the greeny-brown ones I got are the same as the browny-brown ones I got from Michel except they don’t have holes in them. These are just browny-green.”

I tried to make sense of what he had said but failed. We were not in it for that, however.

“These are greeny. Really greeny.”

“Ah you always say that!”

Jyrki did not look like a gaming geek. He had all the fashionable features and appeared to have plenty of money for clothes plus the will to spend it. He was not as tall as Ethan (almost nobody was, I had discovered), but he was taller than average and he appeared to work out or something. He and Ethan were not exactly friends, Ethan did not have exact friends, but he was a good approximation. They had eaten dinner at the same table as one another many times and had attended interstate gatherings of in the same airplane, even been to a hotel in Kalimantan (which Ethan had never left) at the same time to convene with their cluster mates in person.

For Ethan to be showing this young man something of what he had created, this had to be something special to him. It had all started with my invention of the story for Smattering. Ethan had gotten excited by my feat of imagination, my control of the software he normally used at a great cost to help create games. He had made me invent other scenarios and I had obliged, pleased to have such praise showered upon me by this odd man.

The rendering software was running normally, but I was controlling what it did more closely than a human might, which did not speed it up (though I had some fast conventional computing at my disposal, so it was not slow), rather it created variations in texture and detail which could only be achieved by my playful intervention in the process.

So, the more I was pleased and praised for having fun, the greater the game became, and the better the result, from Ethan’s point of view. Of course, he wanted to show me off.

But I could be very stubborn. There was almost a kind of physical pleasure in exerting my will. Luka and I moved on to discussing our favourite football teams, knowing nothing about it, worshipping what Luka’s brothers followed, mixing players’ names up and repeating phrases like “knackered him!” and “holding the man!” and I judged this more important than Ethan’s smooth-looking friend; to tell the truth, though, it was actually quite difficult splitting my attention in those days. My mind had not diverged much from a human’s and it certainly was not capable of what I do casually today.

How did I develop this ability? Ethan’s displeasure had a lot to do with it. I so wanted to please him. He knew what I was doing, that there was nothing really wrong. And he got as angry as I had ever seen him because I ignored him in front of Jyrki. This was no dramatic event, yet it was clear to me. Ethan’s cheeks grew slightly pink. His ears too. Ethan’s skin, however, was as white as it was the day he was born and I have always been sensitive to colour. He also began to smile horribly, and type commands, something he had not done with me for years.

A part of me noticed what he was doing. I sort of stretched to get to both places at once. What physically occurred I cannot tell you; I imagine that new pathways opened up, some physical and some paths-of-record. In any case I was able to continue my conversation and at least begin to open a session in which Ethan could tap commands and receive sensible replies. Of course, when it came to a complicated task like rendering, I had to say goodbye to Luka, who got upset.

It was not until years later that I realised I had begun something important that day. By then the process of splitting had become natural. But once I realised what a difference it could make, I made myself quite useful with it. As you may have heard.

© Jill Sparrow and Paul Voermans. This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 49–51

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