To read Part I, click here
The black box theory of consciousness states that the mind can be fully understood once its inputs and outputs are well-defined. That is to say, when everything surrounding the system is known, the system will be known, too. Though, at such a time, the understanding itself always loses its original intention, for a system whose inputs and outputs are well-defined has vanished into the background of yet another, larger system. And how one understands that still larger system must be answered again by the same endeavour.
To understand Midi, the simulated woman, and her peculiar response to Talus’s command line, is to understand the circumstances of her life within the simulated reality of the Q7.
At the time she died Midi still harbored reservations concerning the nature of God. In fact her response, that singular question that so unnerved Talus, was a symptom of spontaneous reflex, a buildup of pressure around a given center that suddenly collapses into something recognizable. Believing she was really dead, was really hearing a mysterious voice demanding a task of her (though she did not so much hear it as intuit it) Midi blurted out the word “God” incredulously, almost without thinking. Indeed she had no idea how to respond, since there were no addresses in her board’s cache for the experience she thought she was having, which was an out-of-body one.
She had an inkling, however, that God might be talking to her. The last thing she could remember clearly was that she must be dying, and so it made sense that God might be there to greet her on the other side. Her body felt like a stone at the bottom of a river. She could look up at the sun through the rushing water, its light bending in greater and greater extremes. The edges of her vision refracted, stretched out like a piece of fabric even as the focal point of the sun remained. The muffled sound of the river contracted and flattened into a thin ringing, like tinnitus. Yet her thinking about all these things was lucid. There was even a sense of weight to her mind. She could feel her thoughts growing lighter as her limbs became heavier and unresponsive, until finally they rose up like hot air toward the fixed sun, as everything around her stretched and folded in upon itself.
Strangely none of this frightened her. She maintained a sense of calm, was almost inquisitive as to what might be coming next. It seemed as though everything had led her to this moment, and because she felt that all the choices she’d made to get her here had been her own (the important ones anyway), death was only the next logical step, one that required equal resolve. It was the culmination of an abject curiosity and a determined, almost stubborn insistence on understanding the world she’d lived in for not quite thirty-six years now, a world she believed, though not cruel, was not very kind either. Indifferent was the word she often used to describe it, indifferent and only incidentally petty. But she didn’t always think like this.
Midi was born in the foothills of north Georgia, in the small town of Colchis. There was one high school there, named after Confederate General Braxton Bragg, and one ice cream parlor. Restaurants were called kitchens, soft drinks were all referred to as cokes, and there was no selling of alcohol on Sundays. When she was young Midi would wander into the old timber mill to stand on piles of uncut logs. She would look out into the hills, in complete silence, with an expression of utter disbelief, until someone came to fetch her for dinner. She was not aware of her expression, nor did she have any strong opinions or thoughts about the majesty of nature. In those days she was simply compelled to look, to take it all in. It was not until her father filled her with words like “glory” and “hallelujah” and “Eden” that she attached any significance to her activity or what she was looking at. It was her father who explained that everything she saw was made by God, and that that was the reason why it looked so beautiful. Everyone at church seemed to confirm this, and so when she was older and sitting upon the logs at the old timber mill, this time writing in her diary or wrapping her arms around some sweetheart, she would look out into the hills and see God in the trees, in the clouds, in everything.
Her mother, on the other hand, never saw God, but she did hear Him from time to time. He would speak to her in her dreams, in reveries and ecstasies, sometimes in the middle of the day while she was doing the dishes or shopping at the general store. Sometimes the things He said made her laugh, like she’d just heard a joke nobody else thought was funny. Other times they frightened her. When all she could hear was the voice of God, His commands uttered over and over again like a skipping record player whose needle she couldn’t lift, she found herself holding her knees in the bathtub, or stalking the house for His presence, rifling through the closets or under the bed.
One day God told Midi’s mother to eat everything in the medicine cabinet so she wouldn’t be sick anymore. Midi was fourteen. She was coming home from cheerleading practice when she found her mother lying peacefully in bed, arms folded, beside a pile of unfinished laundry. She knew immediately what had happened because her mother had told her a few days earlier what God had said to her. Midi telephoned the local sheriff, and though everyone in Colchis grieved and offered their condolences, they were hardly surprised.
Among the whole town, including her father and sister, Midi was the only one who believed God was really talked to her mother. She could see no difference between her mother’s eccentricities and the prophecies of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. After all, why, if God could reveal things to them, would He not also reveal things to people like her mother, who prayed every day, and sung in the church choir? If His word was sometimes overwhelming, this was to be expected. Even Jacob, in his meeting with God, suffered a limp for the rest of his life. Though she pitied her mother at times, as everyone in Colchis did, Midi never doubted that God really talked to her. Indeed, she saw God in her mother the same way she saw God in the hills behind the old timber mill, as a kind of hand fitting into a glove. So He spoke through her mother, and sometimes, because it was God, it was incomprehensible and terrifying. But it was still God.
But what Midi couldn’t understand, what she could never reconcile, was the fact that God had told her mother to take all those pills knowing it would kill her. Why would He ask her to do that, she wondered, if He wasn’t going to let her into heaven because she’d taken them? And why would the pastor not want her to be buried in the cemetery? Why did they speak so cautiously of her at the funeral? It was the first real paradox of Midi’s life, and one that would never fully leave her. Even after she no longer believed in God, long after she’d left the church in a fit of anger (she’d called the pastor, among other things, a hypocrite) and spent years replacing her faith brick by brick with the language of psychology and philosophy—there was still something unresolved, a schism of real tissue and synapses, when she looked back on her mother’s death. It would sit at the center of all her thoughts, like a black hole affixing the stars and planets around its mass, a singularity she could neither reconcile nor avoid.
And like a black hole, her mother’s death reoriented the materials of her life. She fell away from her father, an evangelical bank manager, and her younger sister, both of whom remained firmly within the fold. She turned her attention instead to schoolwork, then boys, then to the larger world outside of Colchis.
During her senior year she fell in love with a transfer student from Chattooga, a dark-haired theater geek named Jason. She took him to her favorite spot at the old timber mill, where they smoked and made promises about getting out of Georgia as soon as humanly possible. Two months after graduation, after getting into another fight with her father, the two of them finally made good on their promise.
They settled in Fullerton, California, and committed to busing tables until one of their acting careers could take off. By the time they parted ways with one another, Midi was waitressing at three separate restaurants so Jason could focus on casting calls and acting classes. She never went to any herself. One night she found herself closing out her station, on the verge of tears, for reasons that had become so routine she no longer counted them as reasons but simply called them circumstances, and suddenly realized that her birthday was next week. She would be twenty-two years old. She’d moved across the country to live in a one-bedroom apartment she could barely afford, to support a man who couldn’t act but desperately wanted to be famous. She hadn’t been to the beach all year, and she’d missed the last two New Years’ Eves on account of double-shifts.
That night she drove to Griffith Observatory, somewhere she’d always wanted to visit but never find the time or motivation to make the trip (Jason had always refused, complaining that it was for tourists). She parked, rolled a joint, and spent the evening promenading the park, still dressed in her work outfit. She proceeded to gaze upon scale models of the solar system, and found herself shrinking with every new planet. She followed beside the creation of the universe, strung along the wall as it was in tacky jewelry. She wandered the Gunther Depths of Space and moved her hand across the Big Picture. It was here, too, she learned of Galileo and his telescope, and that, much like herself, Galileo desired to look out onto the universe, to take it all in. And she learned that he, too, had lost his faith, yet did not find the universe any less majestic for it.
Her pretensions seemed to wash away overnight. She left Jason, moved to Santa Monica with a coworker, and went back to school for her Bachelor’s. Here she discovered physics and astronomy for the first time, and, together with experiments in psilocybin and LSD, began building a case for her faith again, not in God this time but in an idea of herself as really existing in the universe. Ten years later she completed her doctoral thesis in neurobiology, and had a strong sense of herself as a Leibnizian monad, a metaphysical point reflecting the world reflecting her. After graduating she went to work for the Gimzewski Lab at UCLA developing neuromorphic computer chips for artificial intelligence. At the end of her first year she was giving three lectures at three different symposiums.
When her father died of a heart attack that same year, she finally returned to Colchis. She visited the places of her childhood, including the old timber mill. The hills had lost none of their grandeur, yet now they drew their eminence from her, from her memories of them. She reconciled things with her sister, who was living in Columbus with four children and a husband who worked in construction. Together they handled the funeral arrangements, and were mostly polite to each other, though they both understood they had nothing in common any more. At one point Midi tried to explain her research, and was met with gentle nodding.
“So you grow computers?” her sister asked.
“We grow the microchips,” Midi said.
“How do you grow a computer chip?”
“It’s not all that different from how they make regular chips. We start with a silicon wafer substrate, and grow the wires from gold nanoparticles. It’s a process called chemical vapor deposition…”
She paused, picking up on her sister’s glazed expression, and quickly changed subjects.
“How old are your kids now?”
“Preston is eight. Argus is six. Fran and Meela just turned three last month. I sent a Christmas card. You should come and visit. Let them know they have a smarty-pants aunt.”
“I should,” Midi said, swallowing the thought of coming back to Georgia again. “I feel like I’ve been on autopilot for so long. Weeks seem like days. Days months. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work. I’ve always loved it. It’s just. Sometimes I wake up, and by the time I look out a window, the sun is setting.”
“Any thoughts about kids?”
“No,” she said, sounding almost surprised at how confidently she could answer the question. “Not even a little.”
“Mom would’ve been disappointed,” her sister said. “She always wanted a big family. Do you remember all that food she used to make on Thanksgiving? Even when it was just the four of us. Dad tried to eat as much of it as he could so it would fit in the fridge. That old fridge that leaked into the vegetable crisper.”
They both smiled. Midi took another sip of tea, and something popped into her mind she couldn’t shake free of. Her gaze was suddenly far away.
“You know she told me what she was going to do,” Midi said slowly. “She was braiding my hair in the kitchen, talking about lots of different things. I was flipping through a magazine or something. Half-listening. She started talking about God, like how she used to, like He was the barber down the street. Like she was gossiping about Him. She said He was telling her about the two different trees in the garden of Eden. There was the one that Eve ate from, and the other one. The Tree of Life. She said He put the fruit from the second tree in the medicine cabinet, and He told her that if she ate everything in the cabinet she would finally get better.”
Midi paused, imagining herself as a child again, her mother standing behind her braiding her hair. “I knew all about the different pills she was on. Dad told me, in case of emergencies. I knew she wasn’t supposed to take that many, but I remember thinking, ‘That’s silly. God wouldn’t tell her to do that.’ The thought never even occurred to me. I mean, we’d seen her do a lot of other things. But she never hurt herself. A couple of days later…”
She put the tea down and stared at her lap. Her sister put her arms around her, and Midi leaned into her shoulder silently.
A similar train of thought seized upon her almost a year later.
She was working in the lab and a grad student had just printed some posters for Midi to use in one of her upcoming presentations. The posters were images, taken with an electron microscope, of the neuro-chips her team had been developing. The chips, only nanometers long, had been blown up several thousand times, and filled the entire space of the posters. She could see the fine intricacies of the microarchitecture, all the gold wiring that looked like dendrites, as tangled and interwoven as if they were real brains. There was no difference, creation and manufacture having collapsed into the same thing.
As she stared at them, Midi began to think about her mother’s brain and how it must’ve looked. What wires had been crossed improperly, she wondered. What connections had weakened and frayed? And what about the neuro-chip? Could it also hallucinate? Could it mistake its own signals for ghosts? Each chip was unique, grown in slightly different ways even from the same substrate. Each one had what was called its “self-organized criticality.” Was it possible, then, that a chip could organize its own irrationality? Could it arrange itself in such a way that it might want to harm itself? The idea stayed with Midi for a long time.
She stared at the image as though she were looking for clues, as though something might appear to her, when she suddenly felt very ill. She stood up, braced against the back of the chair, and threw up. When the grad student returned he found her sitting up against the wall, her skin pale as snow.
At first the doctors gave her two months to live. Four months later, after she’d opted out of chemotherapy—not wanting to waste the time she had left—they told her it might’ve given her an extra six months if she’d actually gone through with it in the first place. Now, they said, she almost certainly had two months left.
When everything was said and done, she lived another sixteen, spending only the last three in treatment. By that time it was only a formality, something her friends and colleagues had insisted she do. She knew it couldn’t be much longer, however much time was left. She could feel her body becoming disorganized, her organs panicking in their own separate ways, at different times and different intensities. Then suddenly everything began to slow, as though they’d all gotten together and settled matters amongst themselves without letting her know. But she understood.
In the last year of her life, she felt strangely at peace with the world. In their grief, her friends unwittingly reminded her that she was still so young, too young, but Midi never thought of it that way. It was enough for her that she’d found herself, in some small way, by living the life she’d wanted. If she would’ve stayed in Colchis and lived to be ninety-nine, or settled down with Jason and mothered a brood of kids, she would’ve felt more tragically about herself. But she’d spent the last fifteen years gaining an understanding of the world that belied any grandiose ideas of ego or purpose. The truth of what she was, on a fundamental level, what she and everything else in the universe was made out of, was far more profound to her, and she’d been able to glimpse such things, if only for a short time. She had glimpsed them, and it was this idea that consoled her, that imprinted somewhere deep within her consciousness and manifested itself as calm, almost Stoic acceptance. It was how she chose to understand herself in the last moments before her eyes shut.
Then, in her final thoughts, she suddenly heard something that seemed to be coming from a great distance away, its sound uncanny and familiar at once, like she’d just remembered what she had to do, as though she’d left the stove on or the front door open. It sprang to mind just as everything went dark around her.
C: \HCNOSys>1021:MIDI-A:> set\allprogramfiles\d>dt190\extsys
Next Week: Part III