In You will remember this, Justen Russell introduces Futures to a novel alien race with a very different perspective on life from our own. A microbiologist by day, Justen has very kindly taken some time out from the lab to explain the origins of his latest tale, and the choices he made when writing it. As ever, it is best to read the story first.
Writing You will remember this
In an earlier draft of You will remember this there was a poster on the wall behind the narrator. On it a single, colourful image depicted our Solar System in all four dimensions, from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe. That poster, like Patrick Xu, added a little background to the world of the story, but the section it was described in did not fit nicely into the final version.
I have wanted to write this story since the I first encountered the theory of a biological arrow to time. The theory states that the Universe and everything that will happen is already determined. That we — living, conscious entities within that Universe — experience the past, present and future as a quirk of our biology and entropy. Because we form our memories by organizing molecules in our brain, at any point in time we can only remember events that occurred before those molecules were organized, i.e. we can remember the past but not the future, but both exist.
That poster with an image of the Solar System from the start of time to the end was mentioned in passing. The narrator said: “Personally, I just like the colours.” That is probably why it did not survive to the final draft. It was an artefact that was more meaningful because it was taken for granted. Pop-culture is full of scientific images, images that changed our perception of the world, images that took thousands of person-hours to create: the periodic table, Earth from space, the double helix of DNA. These images are placed on posters, screen-savers and corporate logos. They become so commonplace that they have meaning outside of the technical details they contain. The image of the Solar System in four dimensions was the same. Everyone in the story grew up knowing the Universe is determined, but not really understanding what that means. To most, the poster would have been just a pretty picture that represented an abstract idea, even though it contained in it everything that had happened, and everything that would happen. Not with enough resolution that one could see what they would be doing at 11:45 next Tuesday, but it would be understood that such precision is possible. I think the purpose of this story is to wonder what it would be like to grow up knowing such a profound truth without understanding it personally; children do not meet aliens.
It would be unsettling to talk to an alien for the first time. I know I would struggle to pass the test. My first attempt would be similar to the narrator’s, I would try to do the opposite of what was said. Afterwards, I would need to try again. The second time I would probably do exactly what was said and hope to somehow ‘trick fate’. I already know how disappointed I would be, on the third attempt, when after planning to stand there silently and ignore whatever was said I hear a prediction that I am going to do exactly that. It would take me many attempts, but I think I would eventually understand. I am afraid, however, of what truly understanding means. It would be so easy to conclude that consciousness is an illusion, that predetermination is incompatible with choice.
A large part of this story is to contend the opposite. Consciousness is making choices, even if those choices have already been made, even if those choice will always be made; they are still meaningful. If one chooses to wait before crossing the road, or chooses to run for political office, or chooses to compensate for the wind when landing on Titan’s Mayda Insula, they make that choice with the information available at the time. To always make the same choice in the same situation, with the same circumstances, and the same memories does not make one an automaton. It does not mean that one is simply a pawn to fate or swept along in the current of predetermination. It means those actions were, are, and will continue to be a part of the determined shape of the Universe. It means those choices, in their own small way, mattered.