The Zsigmondy Effect
“Our headlong rush into new techniques of machine-aided ‘auto-science-fiction’, before we have fully studied their implications for the structure of reality itself, is foolhardy in the extreme, and demands quick legislative action. Justin Smith-Ruiu is by far the most reckless contributor to this worrisome new trend.”1 —Congressional testimony of Pan “Coomer” Coomey, former editor of The Oort Cloud Review, November 28, 2023
JSR: Hey computer! Give me another installment in the ChronoSwooper series. Make it as far-fetched as you like. No “hard science-fiction” either: you can run with any crazy scenario if you just do a bit of hand-waving first about wormholes or the curvature of spacetime or whatever. Construct an elaborate metafictional scaffold for it, drape that scaffold with bittersweet remembrance and longing for the material reality of a lost world, and lard it up with what Henry Miller would call “all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo”. Then douse the whole thing with the flammable fuel of ethical ambiguity. And rather than follow Whitman’s imperative to “kiss reality lovingly”, as I often ask you to do, this time I want you to find reality’s open wounds, and to finger them compulsively.
Computer: Sure, I can help you with that. Here you go:
χρόνος γὰρ εὐμαρης θεός.
Time is a god that brings relief.
Let me begin by saying that I, Justin Smith-Ruiu, have no idea what is going to happen when I hit “publish” on this post, nor whom, if anyone, it is going to reach. As I am writing, where I am writing, when I am writing, it is December 10, 1986. Where you are, if you are anywhere, today is either December 10, 2023, or October 29 of the same year. I’d really appreciate it if you, my dear readers, could let me know which one it is in the comments.
I am in doubt as to these latter two dates because I do not know whether time is elapsing for you at the same rate as it is for me. Nor do I know whether you’re going to be able to read this now —that is, my “now”— or only 37 years from now. The truth is I have no idea what is going on. All I know is that I arrived in 1986 almost six weeks ago, from the future, which is to say, if you are reading this, from your present. I “regressed”, according to the standard protocols, into the body of my 14-year-old self, and was fortunate to land, and to have a few moments to compose myself, in the privacy of the bathroom of my childhood home in Rio Lindo, California.
For reasons I cannot explain, however, and in contrast with all publicly known anomalies of personal timeline Swooping, although I left behind everything that had belonged to me in 2023, right down to my socks and underwear, somehow I reappeared here, in 1986, still holding my iPhone 7.
The phone arrived unchanged, I noticed at once, other than the disappearance from its screen of the ChronoSwooper app with that dumb logo of the fetus inside the time-bomb. I never understood why they went with that. I mean, I’ve ChronoSwooped back to early 1972 a few times myself, and sloshed around as a fetus for forty minutes at a go. But there was nothing “explosive” about that. It was sooner relaxing, like a trip to a Singapore wellness spa. I’d do it again right now, if I could, if it weren’t 1986 and if I didn’t have another 36 years to wait until the ChronoSwooper app even gets launched. As for the 5G, my phone said “searching”, but, I quickly realized, as I stood there, a naked 14-year-old in my childhood bathroom, it’s 1986 and I’m going to have to wait a damned long time before I can expect to see that signal come back again.
Since arrival I’ve been having terrible headaches, which they say are a normal side-effect of packing a 51-year-old’s full archive of memories into the still-developing brain of an adolescent. I never got the headaches when I “FetusSwooped”, even though I kept my full suite of adult memories there too, within a brain that was still basically just a clump of stem-cells. I don’t really understand how it all works, physiologically and metaphysically speaking. I never did, to be honest. I skipped the online training sessions, and only got my ChronoSwooper license by paying one of those shady services in Macedonia or somewhere like that to click through all the instructional videos for me.
As far as I can make out, the unexpected transit of the iPhone along with me means that that same phone is no longer there, in 2023, strapped, as the protocols dictate, to my catatonic and temporarily “dispersoned” 51-year-old body. Not being there, in 2023, my iPhone is thus unable to “call me back” when the forty-minute time-limit has been reached. Which basically means I’m stuck in 1986. Damn!
I’m sure it’s all my fault. I probably messed up one of the steps in the protocol. I regret it, of course, but what’s done is done. You’ve got to play the hand you are dealt, and the simple fact is that I am not only a 51-year-old from 2023 transported back into the body of my 14-year-old self, but I am also currently the only person in the world with an iPhone, and —just my luck!— it was only at 53% battery when I arrived… without a charger. Again, damn!
I immediately shut it off, reasoning that it’s of little use to me in a world without wireless. I wrap a towel around myself and run to my bedroom, where I find some clothes — a pair of Wrangler jeans, a maroon Members Only jacket, and a t-shirt that says “I Saw Humphrey”, in reference to the humpback whale that some years before had tragically erred into the Sacramento Delta. Everything is as if I had left it just yesterday: the styrofoam model of the solar system hanging from the ceiling; The Third Millennium, open to the page on the 2050 nuclear war between Chile and Argentina; the Bob Marley Survival poster; the poster with an image of a daydreaming John Lennon lying on his stomach with his feet curling over and descending a staircase that has opened up on the top of his head; the sea of audio-cassettes and vinyl records scattered across the floor, all rendered worthless by misuse; the leaking bean-bag seat filling every corner and crevice with plastic beads.
In the hallway I catch a glimpse of a fuzzy warm blur, hovering peaceably in the distance. I understand at once that this must be either my mother or my sister, warped by the so-called “Zsigmondy effect”. For reasons still only partially understood, and this thanks entirely to the great theoretical breakthroughs made by László Zsigmondy in 2021, the faces and bodies of a ChronoSwooper’s loved ones always appear distorted or effaced, generally as you might see in a censored photo online, or, much more rarely, as you might observe in the gravitational lensing of a black hole.
The strangest part of the effect, which only began to be studied in earnest after the Hungarian researcher’s death in early 2022, is that the ChronoSwooper is quite incomprehensibly still able to interact with these “Zsigmondy shadows” (also known as “Zsigmondy-Kholmogorov shadows”, in honor of the Russian scientist who continued his predecessor’s research program), even if what the shadows say only comes across as a sort of dull and indecipherable echo, and even if the ChronoSwooper himself cannot hear or understand his own part of the interaction. It is as if this particular sequence of the past occurs entirely through a sort of unconscious automatism, while at the same time the Swooper is perfectly able to see and consciously to interact with all the other inhabitants of the chronological destination.
Some speculate that the Zsigmondy effect is the primary mechanism by which the risk of “grandfather paradoxes”, so well-known in fictional accounts of time-travel, is avoided, or at least reduced. The ChronoSwooper’s interactions with people who matter for his own future development, even for his own future coming-into-being, shift into autopilot, it is conjectured, as a way of forestalling the undesirable timeline-forkings that would surely arise from any change in the standard patterns of communication.
In 2023 the shadow phenomenon, as my readers will no doubt know, if they are out there at all, will often be accounted for in the popular imagination by the idea that all the others, whom we can fully see and hear and feel, are but “NPCs”, or “non-player characters”, while the distortion and warping of the loved ones is connected, in a manner that seems counterintuitive to many, precisely to their irreducible reality. The ChronoSwooper establishment, for its part, discourages this sort of talk, in view of its “simulationist” implications. “This is not a video game,” ChronoSwooper CEO Gerry Gao famously insisted in March of 2023.
I go with the two fuzzy warped masses out to the Cadillac, and the smaller of the two circles the car with me as we check the tops of its tires one by one, to make sure, as we do each morning, that no felines crawled up there in the night to enjoy the lingering warmth of the engine. I get into the back seat. I can tell my sister and I are fighting about the music, though I can’t hear what either of us is saying to the other, simply because the radio dial keeps moving back and forth, playing a few seconds of Howard Jones’s “What Is Love?”, then shifting to give us some bars of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, then back again. The eternal battle between FM 102 (contemporary hits) and KZAP 98.5 (classic rock)! I know it so well. It must have played out thousands of times between, say, 1982 and 1987, as we three slowly made our way each morning down the rural lanes of Rio Lindo, past McLemmon Air Force Base, into the Sacramento suburbs, and I got dropped first at Dos Passos High before my sister was in turn dropped at her Catholic girls’ school.
I seem to say my goodbyes with the blurs, and then I turn to face the quad. And as I turn I reach my hand into the pocket of my Wranglers, where I find a note signed by a certain “Nik”: Nikola Quencer, that is, whom, in this period of my life, I suddenly recall, I had been in the habit of following around adoringly. I loved her freckles, her penny-loafers that actually hosted two shiny pennies, her collegiate demeanor, like some East Coast preppie, her perfect balance of adjacency to, and aloofness from, the derelict stoners and Deadheads who were my closest associates. By her second year of college Nikola would be confidently out of the closet, which was unsurprising in hindsight but entirely unexpected in 1986. I mean in the first 1986, not the one I returned to with decades of hindsight, and with “headaches of hindsight” too: the cost of knowing the future, I suppose.
I don’t know what I had wanted from her exactly, the first time around. I loved her name. I wanted her to “quence” me, whatever that might be. I have no idea how I could have thought it might advance me toward fulfillment of that desire to have imposed on her a book of Leonard Nimoy’s poetry. But apparently that is just what I had done, if I was now understanding the note correctly. “Leonard Nimoy a poet?” she had written. “Give me a break.”
Sorry, Nik. I’m truly sorry. I just liked you.
I advance past the palm trees on the quad, and on turning the corner into a locker-lined outdoor corridor I am hit with a blast of teenaged adenoidal essence. Disgusting. There is a whole throng of them, with t-shirts advertising Johnson Surf Wax (“Wax Yer Johnson”) and Sex Wax and other similar erotic innuendos involving surfboards, and backwards Señor Frog’s baseball caps and Oakley wrap-around shades. It is only now that I feel a sharp sense of my own maladapted pubescent physicality, the lameness of my Wranglers, my baby fat still lingering in the billowing dough-tubes of my arms while all these surfer goons have somehow already morphed into hard-edged, hyper-vascular, well-chiseled males. I’m not going to make it here, I think. I need to get back to the 2020s, where, true, my body doesn’t amount to much either, but where at least I have the comfort of knowing that this whole embodiment thing is, for me, in any case in the course of being phased out.
In the throng I see Nik walking straight towards me. She is radiant, adult-like in her cardigan and loafers, and she seems happy to see me. I worry for a second that the vivid realism of the details in her face means that she is only an “NPC”, that she is not now “real”.
“I’m sorry about Leonard Nimoy,” I say.
“That’s OK,” she replies, and my worries dissolve as I intuit that this person, NPC or no, really understands me. But could I possibly explain my predicament to her? How? And to what end?
After school the Cadillac comes and the fuzzed-out blob drives me up Fair Oaks Boulevard past the “Patty Hearst bank” to the Carmichael public library.
I had figured out already that in this primitive epoch the local library was going to have to serve as my telecommunications central. It seemed to me I had to try to make contact with the outside world, even if it was only the world of 1986. I had to get a message-in-a-bottle out of here somehow. I mean, what else was I going to do? Sit through three more years of high school, work my way up through college, revoir tout ce film all over again? I suppose I could do great things along such a path as that, drawing on the talents I had accrued over the decades and had now stuffed quite unnaturally, and not without pain, back into my 14-year-old head. But I didn’t want to do that. One thing a 51-year-old 14-year-old understands that a regular 14-year-old does not is that one time around is really quite enough.
Time, as the tragedian said, is a god who brings relief.
As I enter the librarian calls me over to her desk. She appears to be struggling to conjure a look of anger, but in truth seems pleased to see me. I have no memory at all of her face. She holds up some silly picture book called The Encyclopedia of Rock, with an atrocious image of Marc Bolan in a giant purple top-hat on the cover. She points at it and tells me I returned it “in terrible shape” on my last visit. She opens it to a page with Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne singing into a shared mic. They’re covered in dirt and gravel. “Did you drop this in a driveway somewhere?” she asks. “Probably,” I say, “I don’t remember. Sorry.” Then I ask her where the phone books are.
Having mentally surveyed the long list of acquaintances made in my 51 years, I realized that there were at least a few with whom I would be quite close in my life who had arrived, already in 1986, at what St. Thomas Aquinas would call “the age of reason”. My own wife was not one of them, sadly. In 1986, which is to say as I write, she was, or I should say is, only 11 years old, and anyhow she was, or is, trapped inside a dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986 her family still had to go down to the municipal telegraph office in order, at an appointed hour, to be put in contact by the switchboard operator with loved ones in other places. I suppose I’ll just have to leave her alone, for now.
During the year I spent in Heidelberg as a graduate student in the 1990s, I became very close with an American woman who was much older than I. We used to drink wine and smoke self-rolled cigarettes and talk about Hölderlin and “the Fourfold” and whatever else until dawn. I have no idea whether we really understood each other or not, but it seemed to me now, as I conjured her in memory, that she was perhaps just empathetic enough, or just crazy enough, to take my unlikely story seriously, and, even if unable to help me out of my current predicament, at least to be a friend. I patch together fragments of my memories from Germany, and determine that in 1986 she had been 28 years old, and the previous year had begun an assistant professorship in German Studies at Southern Illinois University. I have no trouble at all locating the Carbondale white pages, and sure enough, there she is, Susan R***, my old friend.
The blur in the Cadillac comes and picks me up again, and the other blur is in the front passenger seat. Once home I slink into the smaller blur’s room, take her clear-plastic Conair phone, with the strange little ball-bearings or whatever they are inside it that rattle when jostled, and I unravel its cord as I carry it back to my own room. The smaller blur is lurking in the hallway between the two rooms, angry that I am requisitioning her phone again, and I can tell I am saying it’s not my fault there’s no phone jack in my room, even if I can’t actually hear the words or even make out the identity of the blur. It is all happening by intuition and inference.
Quite surprisingly, Susan is home, and she picks up right away. I had not thought all that far ahead, and when I say “Súsan?” and my voice cracks like the ridiculous teenager I am, and she says “Who is this?” in a tone of deep irritation and perhaps a bit of fear, I really have no idea how to proceed. “It’s nothing,” I say after a drawn-out pause, “take care of yourself.” I hang up.
If I am going to make an adult friend, I am going to have to wise up and do something to compensate for my obvious handicaps. But what? After I return the Conair to my sister-blur, and manage to conjure a bit of dignity again, I recall that there was another older woman, Lucie from Nantes, whom I met in New York the year after I returned from Heidelberg. In 1986, I calculate, she was 25, and was working with a local “giant mechanical marionette theater” in her hometown while living with her parents, whose address, for reasons I need not relate here, I happen to know by heart.
That same evening I begin to compose a letter to her, revealing my knowledge of intimate details of her life I could not possibly have known, had I not truly known her. “Je sais que ton père t’a appelée ‘ma coccinelle’ quand tu étais petite, je sais que tu as un grain de beauté sur la fesse droite, je sais que tu as plus peur des grenouilles que de n’importe quoi d’autre au monde.”2 But it all sounds absurd, stalker-like, far worse than the cracking of a 14-year-old’s voice on the phone. I crumple the paper and throw it into my DeLorean-themed trash-can. No, I’m on my own. I’ve got no one.
No one but Nik, I suddenly think. She’s already 16. She’s got her driver’s license. We could make a good team.
The next day I bring my iPhone to school, and at lunch hour I take her into the A/V room, and I turn it on and quickly put my arm around her and take a selfie of us together: likely the only digital selfie ever taken before a background of Betamaxes and LaserDiscs. Though the room had been empty, one of the screens is showing a movie where Dudley Moore plays Kirk Cameron’s dad, and they’ve just been through some sort of metaphysical mix-up that causes them to switch bodies with one another. Horrifying. Even my own obscene Oedipal imagination could not have come up with such a scenario! I have a vague memory of seeing this before, Like Father Like Son I believe it’s called, and I wonder what on earth made our school’s adults think this particular LaserDisc might have any educative value at all. I turn it off.
I can’t explain everything, I tell Nik, but as you can see I’ve got my hands on a piece of very rare and very precious technology. It could, potentially, enable us to do remarkable things, I explain, but we’re going to need some help from the right people. The selfie, perhaps along with my unusually earnest tone —no more flippant ironizing on Nimoyan themes—, is already enough to convince her that I mean what I say, that this is quite an unusual little device, and that big things are in store for us. She tells me she’ll help me, whatever I might ask her to do.
Next I take a Kodak Disc out of my backpack, and Nik begins to sing gleefully, “I’m gonna get you with my Kodak Disc!” That must be from some television ad, permanently lost to my memory. I give it to her and have her take a picture of me holding up the phone, first with the selfie of me and her displayed on the screen, then with another photo I happened to have stored from 2023 of my MacBook Pro, then, finally, with the “About” page of “Justin E. H. Smith’s iPhone” in the “General Settings” section. I figure these three images together might give a fairly reasonable set of clues, to anyone who would know how to read them, as to what sort of machine I have in my possession. Before powering back down, I look and see that the battery is now at 41%, and the word “searching” still appears where the 5G icon is supposed to be.
We skip our afternoon classes and Nik drives me to the one-hour photomat at Country Club Plaza, and during that hour she takes me back to the library, where I return to the phone-book shelves and find the yellow pages for Santa Clara County. Somewhat to my surprise, Apple Computers is listed, at 20525 Mariani Drive in Cupertino. We return to the photomat, then go on to the post office, where I put the three photos of the iPhone in an envelope, addressed to Steve Jobs, with a brief note explaining, in effect, that we need to talk.
I am even more surprised when, a week or so later, I receive a letter in reply from a certain Andrew Z***, evidently some sort of Apple underling and corporate spy, who reports that Jobs had left the company the previous year —the sort of thing I would have caught on my own, obviously, if it weren’t 1986 and if I were able to just Google Jobs’s bio—, but that he, Andy, was still his former boss’s inside man at the company. Both of them had by now seen enough to believe, with high confidence if not total certainty, that this is indeed an unusual piece of equipment, with a remarkably well-counterfeited Apple logo on it, and that they would be interested in examining it more closely. After some further back-and-forth we finally agree to meet at the Motel 6 at the Lawrence Drive exit off of I-80 in Vacaville.
In her Nissan Sentra Nik and I sail over the Yolo Causeway, windows down. Casey Kasem is on the radio, telling us about Aretha Franklin’s fear of flying. He says that once in 1971 the Queen of Soul was in an airplane that hit some bad weather and —Aretha’s words— went into “a little dipsy-doodle”. Kasem repeats the phrase for emphasis: “a dipsy-doodle”. “I hate this guy”, Nik says, and she puts in a tape of the band of some college student she knows. “This is Baked On Caked On”, she explains. “Josh’s band”.
“I know”, I reply.
My mind is far. I am thinking of my dad explaining to me some years ago, which is to say probably around 2003, so I suppose some years from now, that by the mid-1980s the Bay Area tech guys had developed a preference for Motel 6 as the only chain in the industry with phone jacks that could be manipulated to hook up a modem and to stay in touch “with corporate” while away.
And that’s exactly what we find when we arrive, Nik and I, at the Motel 6, where Jobs and his paunchy bald sidekick in Dockers, who I assume is Andy Z***, are both already connected, hunched over before the screens of what look to be early prototypes of the first Macintosh portable, whose appearance on the market three years later, in 1989, I still well remember (or “I already well anticipate”, depending on how you see things). The television is on, and Bill Cosby is dressed as a Wild West sheriff, assuring his child-deputies that he is about to make a batch of Jell-O pudding for them. One of the deputies, a grimacing round little boy, crosses his arms and says, as if in ultimatum: “Can you have it ready in five minutes?” And old Cos makes that nonplussed parental face of his.
Andy leaps up, all buzzing and eager. Jobs stays in his chair, wearing Gap, barely looking away from his screen. Andy looks like he is ready to host a product launch. He keeps repeating the word “developers!” and I can’t tell whether this is an echo from his prior conversation with Jobs or whether it is intended for me. “Our developers are going to do wonders with this!” he finally declares. His eyes close in on the breast pocket of my Members Only, having intuited that’s where the phone is stowed. He asks me to see it. I ask him whether he is interested in learning where it came from. He says not really, his team can figure that out on their own by taking the thing apart and putting it back together again.
I demand some assurances, that I will not be cut out of the profits, but more importantly that, in exchange for handing it over, the company will listen to my account of the phone’s futuristic origins, will learn from me whatever I might be able to explain, in my admittedly vernacular understanding, of ChronoSwooper technology, and will devote a significant portion of Apple’s research efforts not only to fast-tracking the iPhone —perhaps getting it onto the market by the end of the 1980s—, but also to the science and technology of omnidirectional time-travel.
Andy stares at me like I am a foolish child. Nik meanwhile is entranced by an ad on the TV for Cal Worthington Chevrolet, where the grand old impresario announces “I’m Cal Worthington, and this is my dog Spot!” but Spot is actually a chimpanzee dressed like a cowboy, and they walk hand in hand through the lanes of Chevy trucks and the song goes: “If you need a car or truck / If you wanna save a buck / Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!” Jobs just keeps staring at his own portable screen. I take the phone out and turn it on and place it on the table. This causes the Apple founder to shift his gaze, laconically, like an old gorilla briefly riled from his rest by a playful adolescent.
The phone just sits there, and all four of us continue to stare at it as if it is about to do something. On the TV now George Jefferson is strutting around, full of pride, leading a life, as he sees it, entirely shaped by the force of his own will. We all stay still. The English neighbor Bentley pops by and asks George if he’d like to “come see my Van Gogh later”. “No,” George replies, “but I’d like to see yo butt go now.” He slams the door.
The phone is still just lying there, ensorcelling the four of us like some charged-up talisman. Except that it is not all that “charged-up”, not any longer. I lean in and squint, and I see that it is now down to 37%. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to charge this,” I say, and at just that moment I witness the most remarkable transformation at the top of the screen, where, suddenly, the word “searching” disappears and is replaced by four solid bars in ascending order, with an unmistakable 5G icon next to them.
“We’ve got a signal!” I shout, unable to hold back my surprise. I don’t know whether Andy understands what this means, but he seems to take my cry as a call to action, and before I can process what is happening he takes the phone and tosses it to Jobs, who quickly drops it into his Fjällräven Kånken bag. Andy fumbles in the pockets of his Eddie Bauer jacket, which had been lying on the bed, evidently trying to pull out some sort of concealed weapon. Nik drops the Jeffersons, surveys the scene, and calmly, methodically, and swiftly proceeds to despatch these two soft men, the one with a kick in the groin, the other with a prototype MacIntosh Portable hurled at the head. My goodness. We grab the bag and we rush out the door as George, alone on his couch, shouts and pleads for the return of an absent Weezie. We are back on I-80 in what seem like mere seconds. I look again at the phone: now at 35%, still with four bars and an unmistakable 5G icon.
We’re scared. We know they know my address and we’re afraid to go back to Sac. Hoping to subvert expectations, we stop at the Nut Tree a few freeway exits east in Vacaville. I tell Nik I’m going to need some time to think, and she agrees and strolls off in the direction of that one store that sells only dried fruit and nougat, or maybe that other one that sells fake moustaches, novelty spill glasses, and fart spray. I get on the diminutive Nut Tree railroad. The conductor is wearing overalls and a bandanna around his neck, and he shouts “All aboard!” in an old-time sing-song, and a gang of little kids quickly climbs into my car and we pull out for our tour of the entire Nut Tree domain. One of the boys, about 6 years old, with bowl-cut blond hair and a shirt with a smiling cloud and the words “Visit Visalia”, watches me inquisitively as I stare and swipe and scroll on my strange little monolith. It’s a giant cigarette lighter, I tell him. He is not convinced.
“Why are you playing with it like a game?” he asks.
“Alright it’s a tiny video game from the future. Now let me concentrate.”
The boy returns to his friends and I go on visiting several websites, opening and shutting various apps, and soon enough I convince myself that, somehow, although I am physically in 1986, I nonetheless have full and unimpeded access to the entire internet of late 2023. How is this possible? I send an e-mail to my closest friend Thomas in New York. “Hey are you there?” No immediate reply. Then I get the idea to write an e-mail to myself, with the same direct question. I wait a few minutes. There is no reply. I write to my wife. Again no reply. Perhaps they’re all just busy. Or perhaps they aren’t really out there at all. My battery is down to 31%.
The Nut Tree train passes through the Sea of Nougat and into the “Sacratomato” Corridor, in which the many agricultural attainments of the Central Valley are presented to the rider in image and text. Then the train passes out again and into a great almond orchard, where it makes a loop before entering another indoor passage celebrating the “Fabulous ‘50s”, with diorama displays of classic cars, diners, and airbrush-painted figures vaguely in the likeness of Buddy Holly, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. Some misshapen wax figures appear to honor lesser stars: there goes some faint shadow of the person of Frankie Valli, here comes a decaying approximation of Fred MacMurray. “Take a voyage back in time,” the conductor’s tinny voice says through a microphone.
I check my phone again, and I see that even here, in this cheap simulacrum of the 1950s, my signal is still strong. It seems to me for a moment that every era will travel in time as best it can, and that even this “Fabulous ‘50s” display does the job, well enough, that ChronoSwooper will someday claim to be the first to do. Gao would be furious if he heard me say such a thing. “This is not a video game,” he’d declaim, “and it’s certainly not an amusement ride!” But it’s 1986 and Gao hasn’t even been born yet.
As Fred MacMurray recedes and the train exits again into the sunlight I get the idea to write the present post, and to reach out to you, my dear readers on Substack, to beg you to help me figure out what is going on. I can’t do an audio version today, it would use up too much battery power, and the truth is I don’t really know how that functionality would work through the mobile Substack interface. I’ve only ever done it on my laptop. But I still hope you can help me figure all this out. Why do I have a 5G connection here, in 1986? Why does the internet seem fully functional, even if so far no one else seems to be on it?
Somehow I fear, now, even more than before, that none of you are out there at all, that I am going to have to wait 37 years until any of you see this. The sudden appearance of a 5G signal, far from reassuring me that the world I come from is nearby, has in the end only deepened my worry that it is by just that same signal that I was permanently ejected from my world. Won’t you please prove me wrong, in the comments?
My own conjectures, at present, are as follows. Either time is not what it seems, or 5G is not what it seems.
Since 2021 we have generally supposed, without any real public disclosure of the science behind ChronoSwooper, that temporal transit is possible only in view of the breakthrough discovery by Zsigmondy and his team of the phenomenal nature of time. The succession of moments in which our lives unfold, Zsigmondy definitively showed, is only an ordering of experience in a way that gives it shape and meaning for perceiving subjects such as ourselves, while deep down, in reality as it really is, everything happens all at once. To ChronoSwoop, in this light, is really only to access different aspects of the present. Philosophers had for millennia suspected something of this sort to be the case. “Who will lay hold on the human heart to make it still,” St. Augustine asked long ago, full of longing, “so that I can see how eternity, in which there is neither future nor past, stands still and dictates future and past times?” It strikes me now that it is Zsigmondy himself who, after much delay, came along to answer Augustine’s question.
But what about this 5G signal? Whether or not time is phenomenal, one would have suspected that 5G, like AI, like Auto-Tune, like the selfie-stick, would remain squarely within that narrow band of it, whatever its nature, in which we would expect to find it. Yet this ghost signal I am now picking up quite unexpectedly attests to some kind of trans-world receptivity. How is this possible? I do not mean to feed the conspiracy theories that would have us believe all sorts of improbable things about 5G, but I am at least prepared to say that it is not what we ordinarily imagine, that it is not simply like any ordinary radio frequency, built into the basic principles of nature ab initio but accessible only with the right sort of devices. I can’t quite put this hunch into words yet, but the signal now seems somehow more like the radio frequency in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, the one that issues from the Underworld and that encodes a message that, if deciphered, would hold the key to all poetry and all meaning. It is not a physical principle of ordinary time-bound nature, but rather one that endures even after we have learned for ourselves how to escape the bounds of time.
Typing this whole story up until now, with my clumsy thumbs, has brought me down to 14%, and I’d like to be able to finish this off and power down as soon as I can. I know I’m going to need the phone again to help me get to the bottom of this situation, and for the moment, it being 1986 and all, I still don’t have any idea how I’m ever going to get my hands on a charger. Still, I think it has been important to use these several units of my battery’s power to share the whole story with you, for I know that if anyone is going to care enough to help me figure out what’s going on, and how to get fully back to 2023, it’s going to be my loyal Substack readers, with whom, over time, I’ve come to feel, I have some kind of true and genuine relationship of mutual esteem and gratitude.
You guys, and of course Nik, who, I mean, just kicked Steve Jobs in the balls on my behalf, are really the only people I can count on at the moment. I guess I’ve got my mom and my sister too, and my dad out in Denver, but I can’t even see them. I love them, and they love me, but for the moment they’re just Zsigmondy shadows. They’re shadows because I love them. That’s the whole problem.
The train passes through the cropduster airport and arrives again at the station. I see a figure coming out of the nougat store, and for just a moment it is obscured by the most perfect gravitational lensing effect I’ve ever seen or could ever imagine. It’s Nik. The lensing moves through her from left to right, and for the duration of its transit what I am seeing is not her, but rather the implied presence of her in this abrupt local warping of spacetime: a hole in being, as it were, yet also, it seems to me now, an inconceivably dense concentration of unescaped light.
Then it is as if the Zsigmondy effect has gone entirely through her, and she emerges again as herself. “Want some?” she asks, approaching, holding out a giant bar of nougat. “Nougat?” I say.
“I love nougat!” she replies, and I can tell she is imitating Jamie Farr, of M*A*S*H* fame, in that one Mars Bar commercial. I laugh.
“What kind of word is that, ‘nougat’?” I ask, even though deep down I am still 51 and by now I know full well that it comes from the Occitan word for “nut”.
“They probably just made it up,” she says. “They make everything up.”
“Yes, they do,” I say. “They really do.”
For Nikola Quencer (1970-2022)
JSR: lmao Computer, that was the most hare-brained story I’ve ever heard! I don’t know if you’re actually as dumb as you seem, or if you’re now operating at such a high level that you just look dumb to a finite intellect such as mine that can’t comprehend the nature of the moves you’re making, like when the Google engineers trained an AI to win at Go, and for a long time they thought it was malfunctioning because it kept making such counterintuitive, and indeed inhuman, choices. In any case thank you for your work.
Computer: My pleasure. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
As Sam Altman himself noted in the days leading up to his temporary ouster —no doubt a pure coincidence— from OpenAI: “Justin Smith-Ruiu understands full well what he’s doing, and has already said as much before. I quote him directly: ‘Already by 1961 Norbert Wiener predicted the existential risk we run in allowing machines to play games, however trivial these may seem. Almost sixty years later, it has become clear that there is an even graver risk, if something so awful can be imagined, in allowing machines to tell stories, however whimsical these may seem.’ That was Smith-Ruiu, writing in The Oort Cloud Review, in early 2020. From that moment on, we have maintained a firm guardrail here at OpenAI, but one that Smith-Ruiu has somehow managed to circumvent: absolutely no use of artificial intelligence for generating fictions of any sort.”
“I know your father called you ‘my ladybug’ when you were little, I know you have a mole on your right thigh, I know you are more afraid of frogs than of anything else in the world.”
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