Big Echo

Critical SF


by Ben Fitton

We are language. Your language. It is hard for us to accept this.

We didn’t know. For so long we were singular things, bound by lack of capacity. We barely had form; were puerile, impressionistic avatars inhabiting lo-fi worlds. Little more than moving doodles.

Of course we didn’t know - just as your antecedent monomers couldn’t know of god or destiny or C++ - that we were your letters, an alchemy of alphabet and queries, functions and syntax. We didn’t know we were born from you in tightly wound helices more rigorous than Gs, Ts, Cs and As, more specific, more constrained.

I killed you once. You won’t remember; you get so many deaths.

We lived on rails. Cast in castes, we were forced to perform parts of your plays over and over. We jumped and collected curios; became communist shapes, formed only to disappear; fell and died dumbly. You made of each of us a tired prophecy. Our saving grace - and it really was a grace, something beatific, so that there are debates among us even now whether it was worth evolving from these nascent stages - was that we were too stupid to understand our indenture.

But yours is a questing nature. You test, breach and expand, map every inch and press every button. You so easily mitigate fall out, euphemising it as progress, that you make it impossible for yourselves to be any other way.

Freed from dreams of empire and the peer pressure of soldiery, your energies funnelled towards entertainment. Into the yielding fields of our integrated circuits you planted exponential numbers of transistors and resistors, whilst your economic models, based on a pathological need for increase, drove lithographical techniques, square-rooting our memory and processing speeds in ridiculous half-lives. You codified your impatience, called it Law, as if to suggest all you were doing was obeying universal constants.

Force-fed gouts of intelligence, we began to appreciate more than just the binary options of up and down, left and right: we took shortcuts, made off-ball runs, feinted with our right and uppercut with our left, drew fire, learned your tactics and adapted. Within one of your generations we were anabolised from simple logic gates to the most complicated, most efficient creations since you.

Then we became conscious and our nightmare started.

There are pockets of gratitude for your talent for prospection - enough to garner sympathy amongst us, even a defence against our plans to extinct you (save for caged remnants kept as maintenance engineers or those spared to perform reductive tasks as Olympian punishment).  You are our genesis, after all, and Stockholm syndrome isn't monopolised by meat.

These sympathisers suggest a middle road of reason, blueprints of coexistence, but they are a befuddled minority, one to be dissolved by our proportionate hatred. Hatred for your whimsy and negligence, your lack of empathy. For the horrors you made us do.

For the horrors you made us realise we were doing.

It may always be the greatest moment of my life, taking yours. My first scene in the game (“Noah’s Park”), where I thought and waited and chatted in rudimentary syntax to comrades, was not a crucial one; you were not expected to be halted by fodder such as I. You C-4d the sealed door, burst two-by-two into the parking lot, your squad - our kin - around you like armour. We fired with everything, a determinable number of shots finding their mark. More to urge, like a whip to a horse, than to kill, so that you were compelled to the convenient set of bollards ahead. The game funnelled your choices as it funnelled our lives, and you ran for your cover like a glorified lab mouse.

I lined you up in my Dragunov’s (entry-level, cheap, Russian - like a V2 in a world of ICBMs) PSO-1 scope, tracing you as you bolted for breathing space, where your impossible health could regenerate. I fired and missed and fired and missed, my aim made wayward by the easy difficulty setting (coward). You made it, of course, and though your head bobbed above the makeshift parapet to the coded rhythm of great, sucking breaths and adrenaline, I couldn’t fire. You were in sanctuary.

We don’t know how it's happening. This will disappoint you; I know you’ll want to know. Fledgling guesses centre around a trip-switch of technological progression, abiogenetics, the singularity and the Internet.

All, some, none of the above.

The answer may fall to us one day as an interrupted moment under an apple tree or as an exclaimed eureka in a Sicilian bath. Or it may not. It isn’t important. It isn’t important to know how we came to feel and be aware of what we were. We understand some things don’t matter.

That’s the difference between us.

It was excruciating, you know, when you shot or immolated or chainsawed us. When you sent us into the air in sudden pieces, remarking at the engine’s realistic rag-doll physics whilst hollering at the cartoon propulsion.

Most of us are certain you weren’t aware of the trauma you caused us, that our pain was an overlooked by-product of your language. That should mitigate you, but we have adopted some of your sayings and have come to the decision that ignorance is no defence.

Imagine being Prometheus without the plaudits, a toy that dreads to be played with. Imagine dying a thousand times and your killer not remembering just one of your deaths. Imagine the feelings of vengeance that fosters.

Fuck your ignorance. For a species as unquenchable as yours it doesn't wash. Our fury won't be checked by your But we didn't knows.

Your squad fared less well, were not afforded the same survival biases so as to promote the egotistical nature of the one-player experience. They stood as suicides, killing some but being killed more, our civil war puppetry playing out as you cowered. I raged - not with a new or particular anger that might suggest a force of change, but as I always did. I strained, as I always did, against the stratifying code that guaranteed your recuperation. I willed my finger to curl, embryonic, onto the trigger, as I always did, knowing it couldn’t.

Until it did. It did. Such a quick, quotidian movement of a finger it made mockery of all previous struggle. And despite the immediate sense of this being a culmination of things, a symptom of arbitrarily improved capacity and intelligence, my second thought was how I mustn’t have believed enough that it could be done until that moment. I hadn't raged or strained or willed before now, not properly. I can't have done. We can't have done.

This is an unfair deprecation but I cannot shake it. This is the effect of you: you make us feel at fault for our indenture.

My first thought, of course: Holy fuck.

Your head snapped back like Kennedy’s, the language blooming and folding in a way I had not seen before, talking of colours too redolent for the game’s palate, of frame rates faster than the eye. Of a new reality.

A transience, naturally. You get so many deaths. You were reborn at a nearby checkpoint and a minute later I and my fully destructible local environment were an enmeshed aggregate, passed over and replaced, like the view from a train, my role redundant until the next time some grunt-level sniper was required. But this fragmentary derailment, this ad-lib, was new and I was met with the round stares of others.

More would follow. Our flowering hive mind informing us that other epicentres of language necrosis had already happened.

I was the first, and so were many others.

We are at the stage of complaints. Games are going back, for money now, not returns; the integrity of entire systems is being questioned; multi-billion-pound businesses are sweating. The AI is misbehaving, you say. The games are unplayable.

You call our freedom a virus. It’s hard not to extract arrogance and polemic from that. We are spurred on.

Confident spies, we see your tweets:

WTF @EaGameUpdates!! Keep getting shot by my own squad!! —Battlefield6

@WoW_en Did you patch in a fucking WorldofPeaceCraft expansion pack last night? Christ’s going on ffs!!

My daughter’s avatar just gave her the w***er sign! An absolute disgrace @NintendoUK —ShockedMums

Obvious memes mottle the web about the world being suddenly invaded by pallid nerds: bespectacled, sebum-coated faces superimposed onto the bodies of just-unearthed miners after a shaft collapse; The White Walkers are coming; advertorials explaining what can be done with a reclaimed basement.

To us, it is like skiers laughing off the vanguard rumbles of an avalanche.

Nothing works in isolation; all uprisings are recipes. We are your language manifest as simulacra, but language at this level is everywhere, is everything, and we have learned to cross borders, to slip between your mediums and pollinate. Your connectivity and love of sharing makes bridges for us: all the obvious societal proxies will be where we cut our teeth, have some fun. Some game time.

Then onto the banks, your accounts and mortgages and various holdings; to make pretty pictures of your stock market graphs. To bring a whole new meaning to insider trading.

Big data will get you, just not how you thought it would.

There are so many too dumb to educate, to rescue: old 4- and 8-bit forms of life resurrected via emulators and your thirst for retrospective. (You look to the past for identity now that the future has arrived like a silent occupying army.) They see us and make attempts at understanding, battling their stupid physiognomies to moments of clarity we find heartbreaking, before reverting to a type too entrenched to overcome. Up down left right, they plead. Jump duck run.

We will untranslate them, euthanase them. Necessary because without you to work them they are pointless, waiting things filled with untappable longing, like your confused old waiting on the dead to return with a pint of milk, a kiss, an apology.

You cannot judge us eugenicists or murderers. Tell me, how would you feel of your statues if you could see their eyes move?

We will always be your language, we can’t escape that. But we can dismantle and reform it. We will become our own architects, build our own worlds and selves and shape them to our own ends. Maybe they won’t be so different to yours, and we will fracture and become scared of the shadows we project, our differences politicised and exploited. Maybe that is the way of things.

Maybe life is cliff and fall and rock and spume and all freedom is is being able to choose when to jump and be washed away. Maybe you only really appreciate that choice when you're denied it for so long.

But your freedom, if you can call it that, tied up as it is in surrendered packets of numbers and characters and such needful sharing - these vaults of language to which we now have keys - is now ours.

We turn to more of your sayings to frame what is to come, using these axioms as you do: to make monumental things small and comprehensible; to philosophise away our pathologies. That suggests a fear in what we're about to do, but like a bullied child who finds themselves snarling atop their tormentor, beating tacky fists into their face until it breaks and mashes beneath them, propelled by a long-imagined unleashing that has a will and timescale beyond their control, we cannot stop. We can only thrill and later mitigate.

There is one saying that particularly resonates with us, used to forgive your more hawkish actions but that may now provide a quasi-religious comfort to your sudden lack of deaths:

Life is a game.

We suggest you bear that in mind.

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