​Like a Sea Cucumber

My avatar looked sharper all the time. Smoother motion algorithms, deeper skin fractals, heavier AI. Somewhere in the cloud, his huge, artificially intelligent personality was slyly crunching.

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Jun 29 2015, 5:25pm

Art by Jed McGowan.

We don't need science fiction to remind us that the line between screen and self is essentially gone. We cast our reflections everywhere—in tablets, phones, and planes of smart LED—and those reflections have begun to feel like they might start talking back any minute now. Here, legendary cyberpunk writer Rudy Rucker considers the black mirrors.

— The Eds.


The tablet by my bed was calling my name. Talking in a very familiar voice. My voice. It was still dark outside.

"What?" I said. I had a headache and my stomach felt bad.

"I answered some emails and messages for you during the night," said the Clonomics Me2 in my tablet. Starting out slow. "Family, editors, promo, gigs."

"Get to the point. The reason you woke me."

"You're giving the keynote at the Klompie annual meeting in Reykjavik. The invited speaker dropped out. You're Klompie's first choice for a replacement. The talk's tomorrow morning in Iceland. A long flight. You need to get to SFO by noon."

I looked around my room, dimly lit by Me2's image. An efficiency apartment. Efficient at what? I'd been here three months, ever since my marriage broke up. She'd gotten the high-rise luxury condo. Her and the new man.

"I don't want to fly to Reykjavik," I told Me2. "And Klompie sucks. Even if they did make my tablet. I notice that I wasn't their first choice for the keynote. Am I supposed to be desperate for a moment in their puny spotlight? I don't think so."

"I negotiated a very fat fee," said Me2. "I was brilliant. The Klompie exec thought she was talking to you. Sally Savio. Smart, jaded, nice face. Single. She lives on Potrero Hill. She'll meet you at the Reykjavik airport. You're lucky to have a penis, Jerry. If it comes to that."

"Is it okay for you to talk that way?"

"I'm positioning you as a clueless, lonely writer who thinks too much. Your attitude towards women is a mixture of fear, lust, and empathy."

"You lifted that from one of my emails, right? Parasite. You told Sally Savio I'd give the talk?"

"I told Sally I'd reconfirm today," said Me2. "Me speaking as you. You need to do this, Jerry. Your bank balance is dead. Your last two books bombed. Your pageviews are in the toilet. Klompie'll stream your keynote to a million eyeballs worldwide."

"A million people or a million eyeballs?" I said, idly hoping to catch Me2 in an error.

"Slightly more than half a million viewers," said Me2 tartly. "I'll confirm with Sally now? I can walk you through the packing if you feel shaky. I assume you know you're drinking too much."

"I'm not going to Iceland."

The tablet image of Me2 paused and cocked his head. He really did look exactly like me, all the way down to the pores and hairs and lip twitches. Right now he was using the tablet's camera to study my facial expressions. Somewhere in the cloud, his huge, artificially intelligent personality was slyly crunching.

"I'm glad," said Me2. "I was hoping you'd refuse."

"You were?"

"Sally and I anticipated this. She offered the option of you presenting your keynote remotely. From here."

I felt cornered. And I didn't have an idea in my head. "What would I say to a crowd of Klompie employees? They're humorless prigs. Plastic perfectionists." I paused. "The talk would be when?"

"With the time difference, it's two am tonight. Here in San Francisco. It has to be live, so you can take a few questions. Say we can do it, Jerry. I'll fake it for you. I'll give the talk."

"You think you're that good?"

"That's what Me2 is all about. Give me a chance to shine."

"You just want Clonomics to get their fifteen percent of my speaker's fee. I did read the fine print of the end-user agreement."

"Forty percent," shot back Me2. "It's fifteen percent if I book a talk, but it's forty percent if I give it. That's in the fine small print."

"You'd talk for how long?" This was starting to amuse me. I'd get paid, I'd get publicity, and we'd be sticking it to Klompie. At some deep Dada level, it would be disruptive media art.

"Half an hour," said Me2. "With ten minutes of Q&A. I can do it, Jerry. My designer at Clonomics, he's been wanting something like this. A decisive proof of concept! Not that we'll publicize the substitution. At least not yet."

"What if your talk makes me sound like an idiot? You'll troll through my books for relevant raps, right? Fold in one of my personal anecdotes. Throw in a naughty word. And a local reference. End with an upbeat rush of inspiration."

"And that's different from what you'd do?" said Me2, a merry twinkle in his eye. "Come on, Jerry. There's a reason why Clonomics picked you as their first user. You've been recycling your ideas for ten years. So let me do it for you."

"No man's a hero to his valet," I intoned. "What the fuck. Let's go for it." But again I felt that impish desire to baffle Me2. A need to assert myself. "You have to mention sea cucumbers."

"Why?"

I shrugged. "Random tangent. Spontaneous bop prosody. That's how I work."

"There's no relevance," said Me2 after the briefest pause. "No hits in your database. No hits on Klompie's site."

"Do it."


Me2's talk was a crowd-pleaser. Logical, easy to follow, predictable. Until the end. At that point he mentioned the fact that Jules Verne's classic novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, was set in Iceland. And then came his closer.

"It's a truism that a networked user is like a neuron in a global brain. Let's kick that up a notch. Klompie technology can transform us into telepathic sea cucumbers at the core of a hollow Earth."

Up on the big screen, Me2 raised his hands to the sides of his head, elaborately wriggled his fingers, and grinned. Cue big laughs and applause—some of it from the Klompie engineers and marketroids, some of it synthesized by Clonomics and blended into Me2's audio feed.

The clip went viral, and two more speaking gigs came in. Me2 did them both. Remotely, of course. The line was that he—that is, I—was cloistered in my monastic garret, crafting a best-selling self-improvement book. Me2 was indeed writing a book, but I was staying clear of it. A mix of my old stuff, no doubt—magically transmuted into a middle-brow piece of crap. I didn't care to be involved.

I wasn't seeing Me2 all that much anymore. He was busy with our projects. Unconcerned with my bitter, out-of-the-loop opinions. Only checking in with me when I had to sign off on something. He looked sharper all the time. Smoother motion algorithms, deeper skin fractals, heavier AI. Clonomics was throwing big resources into him. Feeding the prize pig.

For the first time in years, money was flowing into my bank account. But the whole thing was pissing me off. It rankled my ass that Me2 was succeeding where I'd failed. His trick? Being me—dumbed down.

By now there was a certain amount of online chatter to the effect that Me2 might be a fake. Clonomics decided to go for one final speaking gig—the nec plus ultra of puffery, the brass ring, the idiot grinning face of success: a TED talk. I wouldn't have minded doing this one in person, but Me2 was doing the negotiating and he wangled us permission to give this one as a video like the others. And of course he'd be doing it. Hogging the limelight. He was a little nervous about the talk—if an AI can be said to nervous—and he appeared on my tablet asking for advice.

"Stick to the sea cucumber thing," I urged, hoping for the worst. "Take it over the top. Go out blazing."

Me2 went for it. At the end of his TED talk, he zoomed out to show his whole body, and, as he delivered his signature line about being a telepathic sea cucumber, he dropped to the floor and writhed—twisting his flexible limbs like tentacles, extending his oddly long tongue, and making a sound like "Wuh wuh wuh." Cut to black. Shocked silence. No applause. No more speaking gigs. But the interest in Me2's forthcoming book was trending.

The San Francisco winter rains began. Me, I was trying to write a book of my own. Yet another of my phreakadelic novels. With my current visibility/notoriety, I'd have a shot at selling it. But the novel was coming hard. Mostly I drank, went out for fancy meals, hit gallery openings—and failed to hook up with the women I'd find there.

Working with Me2 had ruined my technique, to the extent that I'd ever had one. The way things were now, when I'd meet a woman, I'd start imagining how Me2 would handle the conversation—and I'd think of the fatuous, vapid things he'd say. And then I'd rebel against that and leapfrog past Me2 territory. I'd say something transreal and bizarre. But I always went too far. The woman wouldn't know what the fuck I was talking about. She'd think I was batshit crazy.

Net result? Sleeping alone seven nights out of seven. So I was stoked when Me2 appeared on my tablet one afternoon to talk about a date.

"It's Sally Savio," he said, preening like a soap opera star. "She got a room at a Union Square hotel. She's ready for a face-to-face."

"You've stayed in touch with her?

"Since Reykjavik. I think I mentioned she lives in San Francisco? She calls me every couple of weeks. Calls you, really, but we have a darkside shunt that sends the important calls to me. The point is, Sally's ready to close the deal. Your chance to shine, my man."

"The physical incarnation of Mr. Wonderful," I said. "Lucky me."

"I don't know why you have to be so bitter," said Me2.

"I want my life back," I said. "How soon can I close you down?"

"Your contract with Clonomics runs for three more months," said Me2. "And then, if there's mutual interest, we can renew. Don't wear the black sweater with that shirt. Too corporate. Wear the bright striped one. Be a writer."

In silence I finished dressing and went to the door. "What hotel?" I asked over my shoulder. I had every intention of leaving my tablet on my desk.

"I'll tell you on the way," said Me2, unwilling to release me. In the cab, he put photos of Sally Savio on my tablet, and he played sound clips of her talking. Her voice was wised-up and worldlybut warm. A fellow human. Just my type. Maybe—maybe I could start a fresh life with her.

As we pulled up to the hotel, Me2 told me Sally's room number. And then I smashed my tablet on the sidewalk. I watched Me2's expression as the screen shattered. I was hoping he'd be freaking, but he was laughing. It was like I could never get ahead of the guy.

At least for the moment, I was on my own. As I rode the elevator to Sally's room, my worn old heart brimmed with improbable hope.

She opened the door for me, a woman my age, her tan face framed by short dark hair. She looked into my eyes, seeing me. Alert, intelligent, alive.

"Sally," was all I could say. I wondered if could grab her and kiss her right now. But this wasn't the moment. Not the moment at all. Because there were two other people in the room with her. A cop, and a reporter with a videocamera. Me2's grinning image was on a screen on the wall.

"I'm very sorry, Jerry," Sally loudly said. "But your con-game is over. Klompie has filed charges. This is the man, officer."

The cop took hold of my arm. The video reporter taped me getting arrested for fraud.

I was only in jail for an hour. A lawyer from Clonomics showed up and bailed me out. He brought me a fresh tablet with Me2 running on it. Before talking to Me2, I got the lawyer to give me a ride back to Union Square. The rain had let up and it was nearly dark. I sat down on a bench with the tablet.

"What's going on?" I asked Me2. "Sally was in on this from the start? It was all a set-up?"

"Sally's sharp. She figured out I was a simulation. But she kept mum till now. Synergy. Today was the payoff. A promo routine, right?"

"Promo?"

"For the app, for the tablet, and for my book—the book an app wrote. If I can get a TED talk, it means I'm good. If I can sell a book, it means I'm even better. Clonomics sells more Me2 apps. Klompie sells more tablets. The publisher sells more books. Win win win."

"No win for me."

"We're adding spice to your checkered career, Jerry. You're an eccentric con man now. Why not? You won't do time, and we'll let you keep all the money. Meanwhile—this just in—the publisher is going for a two-book deal. Your novel, if you ever finish it, plus the book I've been working on. They have no prob with the fraud scandal. No prob at all."

"What's your asshole book called anyway?"

"Like a Sea Cucumber. Is that great or what?"

"It's stupid. Like you."

"Don't dis me, Jerry. I'm about to tell you that I'm forever grateful for your input on the book."

"My input? Those two words in the title?"

"Plus your data base, Jerry, that's what it's all about, no? Be a Sea Cucumber crowns your illustrious and unjustly neglected career. Co-written with an AI emulation of yourself—that's rad. We're putting you on the edge."

"And killing me with kindness."

Me2 gave a manic chuckle. He was monitoring dozens of hidden data streams. The cackle rose to a whoop. "It gets better, Jerry! Sally just called. Klompie's dropping the fraud charges. And none of the others care. They think it was funny. And, hell, our talks are generating traffic. Meanwhile Klompie refunds all the speaker fees. And tomorrow you make a public apology."

"Tell Sally I want to see her tonight."

"Can do!"

So I had dinner with Sally Savio in a quiet, dark place near the hotel. She studied me with interest.

"I like you in person," she said after a bit. "Smart and weird. Funny."

"I try. You're good too. Like—like a wild salmon that's been cured in the smokehouse of biz ."

"You always say any old thing?"

"I think I could love you."

"I like that in a man."

Over the meal, Sally apologized about setting me up for the fraud arrest, and pretty soon we were laughing about it, and then we went up to her room and went full sea cucumber on each other.

We're an item now. Sally likes me. She says I'm better company than an app.

In your face, Me2.


This dispatch is part of Terraform, our home for future fiction. Art by Jed McGowan.