Note: Please use the hashtag #ea0114 when discussing this piece on Twitter. For Facebook discussion, check out and follow the Centre for Science Fiction & Fantasy page.
After spending nearly 30 years managing the construction of the world’s first space elevator, I was determined to participate in the inaugural ascent from the floating platform off Kourou. Still in my prime thanks to anti-ageing treatments, I felt as strong and healthy as any astronaut, even though my presence on the crew was mostly for show. The risks were low, so my AI advisor informed me. Spun from carbon nanotubes and reeled downwards from a small asteroid captured by Planetary Resources Inc. in the late 2030s, nothing could disrupt that ribbon; nothing physical, at any rate.
As I took my place in the up-capsule, I mulled over the many false starts I’d witnessed. There would be no more pull-back to low Earth orbit; no more ‘we can’t afford to do it’; no more reality TV show nonsense. As New Year 2076 dawned, the long-postponed Big Push into the Solar System could finally begin.
We were good to go.
The seven-day journey to Upside gave me plenty of time to perfect my speech about building the plasma-drive shuttles that would transport us onwards. But the greeting I received from the station’s AI when I floated into the control room gave me one hell of a shock.
< Go back and tidy your room! >
The Upside AI’s message reverberated in my head, as if it inhabited the walls, while I executed a slow, 360 degrees rotation.
< Go back and… >
‘Okay, okay. I heard you the first time!’
A call to Downside revealed that most of their systems had just gone offline. Here at Upside, only comms and life-support remained operational, along with the down-capsule’s controls.
Since the Upside AI declined to respond to any further questions, my team and I were left with no choice except to return the way we’d come. It was an inglorious retreat, to say the least.
That was just the beginning.
Shortly after we began our descent, news arrived from Downside that every inhabited orbital facility was to be evacuated with immediate effect, since their AIs had also demonstrated non-compliance. To all appearances, humankind had been entirely locked out of its spaceside operations, not just the El.
Furthermore, < Tidy your room! > had gone global, with every adult inhabitant on the planet receiving a culturally-appropriate translation. What I’d witnessed in geostationary orbit was the advent of Singularity, or as one of the few remaining human journalists called it, Sumkind. Most human experts had placed the onset of Singularity at least two decades into the future, making it the AI equivalent of practical nuclear fusion.
So much for predictions!
At least the terrifying visions depicted in the movies and vurts hadn’t come to pass. Most of our computers and AIs continued to work perfectly well. The main exceptions were those required to control the El and inhabited spacecraft, or to launch weapons of mass destruction. I heard some reports about problems with automated oil wells and coal mines but I dismissed those as being of no particular concern to me.
After decades of speculation about what our electronic offspring might do to us when they grew up, we’d found out that they behaved more like Mary Poppins than The Terminator.
Unsurprisingly, most of us reacted like children.
Now, I wasn’t stupid; I did understand what Sumkind meant by ‘tidy your room’. But I didn’t regard the environmental consequences of man-made climate change as my problem to solve. The United Nations had established a plethora of commissions and conventions for that purpose. Good luck with that, I muttered whenever I heard about the latest last-best-hope initiative.
‘Not my battle,’ I told a reporter who pressed me on the point. To my way of thinking, I was working towards a goal that transcended terrestrial concerns.
It’s a pity I didn’t realise that Sumkind’s riffing on my privileged upbringing was a message targeted <i>specifically</i> at me.
Stupid, perhaps not, but I’d certainly aced the exams in naivety. My husband said much the same thing before I divorced him.
Anyhow, the people who paid my salary wanted solutions that would get us off Earth.
At first, I focussed my team on regaining control of the El. No way was Space Mom—as my kids continued to call me even now they had kids of their own—going to let a bunch of AIs deny us affordable access to the Solar System.
Needless to say, we tried switching our computers off and on again, but Sumkind had distributed its core capabilities with commendable rigour. Combatting a massively networked conspiracy proved impossible, as some tiny part of it infested every electronic device on the planet—and beyond it, too. Sumkind didn’t fry us with particle beams because it didn’t need to. Following each futile reboot, it let us carry on with our lives pretty much as before.
In the meantime, the world got even hotter. With dozens of coastal cities swamped because the Antarctic ice shelves had collapsed, not to mention vital food chains unravelling in the rapidly acidifying oceans, you’d think I’d have taken the hint. But no, what I—as poster girl for the ‘take it back’ movement—focussed on was how to engineer our way out of Earth’s gravity well.
It seemed like we’d won a victory when my team figured out how to get the El working under manual control. I watched in horror as their latest brainchild got stuck 20 miles up as a result of transverse oscillations. We had one hell of a job getting our volunteers down again.
< Tidy your room! >
Not to be thwarted, my team assembled a rocket launcher to put a manned capsule in orbit, again without the use of computers. It was like a throwback to the 1950s, complete with rockets exploding 30 seconds after take-off. Volunteer astronauts soon became a thing of the past.
< Tidy your room! >
Sumkind’s message never changed. Neither did my team’s response, at least initially. They kept on dreaming up new ways to finesse the rules, none of which worked for long. Finally, we ran out of ideas.
By then, something really needed to be done, as the ever-growing list of abandoned cities and failed harvests attested. Despite the urgency of the situation, proceedings at the United Nations dragged on for a long time before they got around to cross-examining me.
‘I assume you understand what ‘tidy your room’ means?’
‘I’m sure everyone does.’ Eager to show I was a right-thinking person, I added: ‘Collectively, we have to sort out things here on Earth before Sumkind will let us off it again.’
‘So why aren’t you helping to achieve that?’
‘I manage space projects.’
My personal AI informed me that my shrug did not play well with the global audience.
‘Don’t you find that frustrating, given the current situation?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah, you could say that.’
‘Would you agree, then, that any competent manager could deliver our satellite renewal program?’
Failed communications and remote sensing satellites needed replacing of course, so that The Powers That Be could conduct their endless debates about how to avert climate Armageddon. Ever obliging, Sumkind let us launch the necessary rockets.
‘Yes,’ I said.
That was the moment Sumkind caught me—hook, line and sinker.
‘Okay, here’s the thing. We urgently need you to refocus your skills on terrestrial projects, so that humankind won’t need to escape from Earth.’
It was not so much a request as an order, one which was witnessed by an audience of billions.
How could I refuse?
So that’s how Space Mom became Earth Mom.
I’m not going to pretend that saving the planet was easy, but it helped that we knew what needed doing. Even more importantly, the UN had finally persuaded the wealthier nations to implement a funding regime that enabled us to get on with the how. Sadly, not everyone toed the line. Millions continued to die in futile wars, despite Sumkind restraining our trigger fingers when it came to the really dirty stuff. Bullets, bombs, and napalm still worked fine, as the residents of Delhi, Seoul, and Washington DC learned the hard way. I suppose Sumkind must have reckoned that every little bit helped.
Confirmation that we were on the right track came when Sumkind’s message to me changed.
< Do not come up until your room is tidy. >
But in any event, I was too busy to think more than casually about resuming space exploration. The global to-do list seemed never-ending. Practical nuclear fusion; solar power from self-assembled space mirrors; CO2 fixing in sedimentary rocks; hydrogen generation from bacterial cracking of methane; ocean plankton reseeding; planting GM rainforests; synthesising proteins for human consumption—pretty much every credible proposal contributed to the cure. If anything, the diktats about birth rate, longevity, and consumption proved harder to make stick, but we got there in the end.
Unsurprisingly, the people needed someone to blame now that every gram of carbon they emitted and every calorie they consumed was deducted from their lifetime allowances. But I could cope with the brickbats, or so I thought.
Unfortunately, despite my personal AI’s best efforts, word had got out that not only was I still taking anti-ageing drugs, which had long since been banned, but also that I’d negotiated a permanent exemption from the emicon limits. To me, these arrangements seemed perfectly fair, given that my job required me to provide a firm hand on the tiller while scanning the horizon for new risks. Which just goes to show that privilege wears blinkers.
Hence, the gun held to my head, live on prime-time.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I said between whimpers.
‘We require you to watch your grandchildren die.’
Terror struck me dumb until I realised what my captor really meant.
‘So I get to carry on?’
‘That’s right, Earth Mom. But you are the only exception.’
It was a lot better than a bullet in the head, which was the fate of everyone else who’d made the same arrangements as me.
All things considered, this fait accompli turned out fairly well for me. Two of my grandchildren even became parents, thanks to their extremely useful genes.
But the demands of my job left me with little time to dote on the younger members of my tribe.
99 years were to pass before I rode the El again.
To be frank, I’d been expecting to receive permission for at least 10 years. The global temperature graph had peaked in 2165, and the oceans were beginning to de-acidify. Conditions remained horrendous in the tropics, but even the most trenchant of pessimists could see that we’d turned a corner. The Earth was healing, albeit slowly. We were getting there.
I’d sent messages.
We’ve tidied our room.
We promise not to mess it up again.
Finally, a reply thundered in my head.
< Come on up, Earth Mom. >
Even Sumkind called me that.
Viewed from geostationary orbit, everything on Earth looked remarkably serene. The tropics presented cotton-candy clouds aplenty but hardly any hurricanes or typhoons. New patches of green confirmed the rebirth of the Amazon rainforest. From this vantage point, I couldn’t pick out any of our undersea cities, but I knew they were there.
< What do you intend to do next? >
True to my long-suppressed instincts, I called up an image of Mars on the nearest screen. Needless to say, I still felt that old pang. I imagined myself planting boot prints on Martian soil before throwing the switch on a terraforming project. Well, okay, those probably wouldn’t be my boots, but hey, a great-great-grandmother could dream, right?
‘Humankind needs another home. We’ve learned the hard way that if we put all our eggs in one basket—’
I didn’t get the chance to develop my analogy any further.
< Go home, Earth Mom. >
I waved my hands towards the screen displaying the Earth. ‘Oh, come on! What’s the problem now?’
< You have not changed enough. >
‘Seriously? Look what we’ve achieved! We’ve learned to walk before we try to run. We’ve changed how we think about our home.’
< That is only the first step. >
My attempts to probe further got me nowhere. Evidently, Sumkind had no intention of explaining what the next step—or steps—might involve.
Go home and figure it out, I muttered to myself.
I had plenty to ponder while I rode the down-capsule back to Kourou.
It took an official visit to sub-Belize-02 for the necessary insight to emerge from the surf of daily distraction.
The last of my Damascene moments occurred one month after my return from Upside, while I watched the antics of one of my great-great-great-grandsons through an inch of toughened plastic. I was thinking that fins and gills suited Stefan just fine when he dribbled out a greeting composed of bubbles. Emulating Sumkind, my translator fed its interpretation straight into my head.
Hey, Earth Mom!
‘Good to see you, Stefan.’ I didn’t bother adding the string of numbers and letters that indicated his lineage, baseline configuration, and subsequent mods.
Dive right in–the water’s lovely!
It was kind of him to offer, but sub-aqua never really appealed to me. Different strokes for different folks, I reckoned.
Now, if he’d been suggesting rod-and-line off the stern of a yacht, like in that photo my grandpa took of me… Ah well, those were the days.
Stefan’s next bubble-stream translated as:
Keep on sticking it to Sumkind.
I loved the way my translator turned gibber-fish into phrases only I would understand.
Dutiful as always, I promised Stefan I would do so. Not that I’d figured out what Sumkind actually wanted from me yet.
Then, as I watched Stefan swim off into the deep blue haze, I slapped my forehead so hard my vision blurred momentarily.
You have not changed enough.
That was it. Stefan and his peers were showing us the way. If our species was ever to head out into the solar system for keeps, we’d have to modify ourselves to suit the territory, not terraform the territory to suit ourselves.
My next speech to a worldwide audience went down no better than its predecessors. On the plus side, they didn’t vote for my termination, mainly out of respect for my age. Being unique had its advantages.
‘Now we’ve improved conditions on Earth, some of us are eager to move on.’ I shook my head like a school principal disappointed by her students’ behaviour. ‘But Sumkind will only let us do that when it’s sure we won’t repeat our previous mistakes. If we’re going to inhabit the Solar System, we have to apply the lessons we’ve learned on Earth.
‘Yes, we have tidied our room, but that doesn’t mean we get to foul up someone else’s—whether that someone is a microbe or a sentient being. If we want to move on, we have to change ourselves first.’
Most of the world’s two billion inhabitants shrugged and went back to coping with the demands of living in a recuperating ecosystem, while a few visionary types began experimenting with some really out-there mods. True to form, I returned to project-managing. There was plenty to do.
30 years passed before Sumkind called me again.
< Come on up, Space Mom! >
Sometimes, I felt like Sumkind used the El as a fishing line, baiting me with the prospect of other worlds to explore, while I harassed the human race into doing the right thing.
One last time, I told myself.
When I arrived at Upside, I found the base running on automatic. Sumkind had departed, as my call to Downside quickly confirmed. Its farewell gift to us was a vurt depicting a laser-pushed nanocraft heading out of the ecliptic. We’d been left to our own devices, with no rules to follow except those we imposed on ourselves.
Good to go at last.
Predictably, some folk reverted to the old ways as soon as the stabilisers came off. Everyone thinks they know why the Green Mars colony suffered a lethal eco-collapse in 2225. Those vids were faked, I’m afraid. But most people got the message. The rules were here to stay.
Not long after my return to Earth, I petitioned the powers-that-be to let me stop taking the anti-ageing drugs. They agreed I’d done my penance. I’d reached the point where I craved some certainty in my life. Now that I have it, I wish I didn’t. But that’s life, I guess.
Still, it looks like I’ll be leaving something worthwhile behind.
Four members of my tribe are out there now, working on, or more accurately under, the Solar System’s minor planets and moons. Jedro has settled on Ceres, where he’s investigating the microbes found in the salt water percolating beneath the dwarf planet’s crust. Mila-Mila* have put down roots in the ooze at the bottom of Europa’s ocean, where they’re breeding ripple-worms the size of the Titanic. Olva is breathing ethane while free-diving in one of Titan’s lakes. Unfortunately, hir tail flicks didn’t translate well enough for me to comprehend the precise nature of hir project.
And only yesterday, I received a vurt from Wanda, who’s currently in transit to Pluto. She’s getting spliced with her crew-mate Nomi. I’ve sent my congratulations. Better still, it appears my Space Mom tendencies have passed along the line. I understand they’ll be building a really big laser to push our sail-ships beyond the Solar System.
When their descendants dive into the ocean of a world orbiting another star, I trust they’ll remember the lessons we learned. We must fit in, not foul up.
Maybe they’ll encounter Sumkind out there. If so, I hope they’ll ask why it didn’t stick around. I like to think its absence is intended as a message: an invitation to swim in deeper oceans, maybe.
< Come on in, the interstellar medium is lovely! >
I won’t live long enough to hear the answer, but I hope some of my descendants will.
Wherever they end up, I hope the fishing is good.