Rob's musings on The Thaumechanical Man

Author: Fermi Project

Demo of Dystopia

I’ve been working at recording an audiobook of Dystopia for a few months now. I recorded through chapter 12, threw some out, picked it apart, and re-recorded a pile of it. I’ve bundled the first seven chapters into a mini-audiobook, now available as a free download.

Some of it sounds great. Some of it will need to be recorded from scratch. I have an idea in my head about the ordering of the quality of the chapters, but I don’t know where the threshold is. I’d appreciate hearing your opinions.

Overall, I hope you enjoy it. If you don’t hear any fatal flaws, please pass it around to friends.

Exception-driven architecture

This might be a bit obscure if you’ve never written software. Short version, when a chunk of code runs into a problem that it can’t solve, it sends a memo to its boss. This is called “raising an exception.” The upper-level process will give an order like “go get my car,” and if someone down the line notices a flat tire, the process that notices the flat tire lets the upper process know that his car will be late.

One of the challenges of AI is to figure out how to span the gap that exceptions will need to jump when transferring from machines to humans. What will the interface look like when you have a hundred machines under your control, all of which have something that needs your attention? Could that be exploited, merging computer viruses with memetic ones?

While talking to my daughter (who is learning programming), she asked me why she can’t throw and catch an exception within a function. For those who are familiar with the topic, you might think that this is a “my daughter’s so dumb” joke, but she’s not dumb. It’s just something that she never really knew the purpose for. She thought it was weird that the teacher wanted her to write code that way.

It occurred to me that this is a good example of common sense, but not something involving what we normally think of as common experience. When are programmers told what the purpose of this is? For me, it’s in the nature of the word “exception,” but I think I just learned by having to catch so many of them. For me, it’s like someone who doesn’t understand a punch.

The point, I think, is that some of the hardest things to teach are the things that we think others should already know. I think that this has immense implications for diplomacy, but it will definitely inform my teaching methods.

Just as an excuse for including it in the blog about my book, I thought I’d mention that this is the driving factor for Rikmon asking Clempson to teach him perceptron matrix theory. Rikmon has read all the books, but needs a real thaumaturge to relate the common sense.

Preview of Dystopia: Clempson Goes to Hell

Here is a preview of chapter 1 of Book 2 of The Fermi Project. Not necessarily the final version, but close enough for a preview. I have the first draft of the book on the ropes, and should have the second draft hacked out by first quarter next year.

Ch 1: The Valley of Regrets

After a century and a half and twenty thousand miles, Clempson still hadn’t been able to put this place behind him. Maybe he needed to see if he had done any lasting good for this world, or maybe he just craved an end to the story. Either way, he was drawn back to the valley of regrets.

Eight hundred years had passed in this world, suggesting a backslide from the iron age he had fostered. He found the watch tower that overlooked the city abandoned, one wall collapsed where a cliff had eroded underneath it. The precipice gave him a good view of the remnant of the city below. The forest had whittled it down to a fraction of its former glory, and the three-story palace on the hill was just a pile of rubble.

Anger and grief swelled in his chest, but he pushed it down. This is catharsis, he told himself. He’d have to learn their oral histories to understand what happened after he left. The bard he’d shared his camp with sang of the Night of Terror, when the emperor went mad and killed thousands, but he was pretty sure that there were no more than a couple hundred in the palace that night. 

Time had boiled his memories down to a few burned-in certainties  and gruesome flashes of bodies being shredded by his deathwalker. He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his bald head, pushing the images aside. He’d have to do some meditation in the ruins to drain the power of those memories, but it wouldn’t do any good to mull over them now.

Perhaps he had been mad. He wanted to believe that his rage was a side effect of the poison that they used on him, but it’s also possible that years of frustrated suspicion burst like a damn after he’d been betrayed by those he loved most.

His thaumechanical mule and cart awaited him outside of the tower. “It’s now three hours and twenty minutes after noon,” its reeds clicked in Munk Nonotone. “Did you find anything interesting?”

“Yes,” Clempson clicked back. He gave the mule a summary of his observations, knowing that the homunculus would record what he told it on thaumaturgically coded spools of silver wire. “End report.” He climbed into the saddle and put his helmet back on. “Let’s go to the school.”

“Are you sad,” the machine queried. “Would you like me to play a song?”

“No, thank you.” It comforted him to travel with an entity with worse social skills than his own, but this wasn’t the time. “Discontinue banter until further notice.”

The machine whinnied its recognition of the command.

The absence of traffic on the road confirmed his suspicions about the collapse of trade. Halfway down, he took a side path that led to a meadow where a partial ring of granite columns rose from a field of waist high grass. His aqueduct ran across one side of the mountain above the meadow, its graceful stone arches showing little sign of erosion.

The aqueduct was where it all started. The valley needed water, so he built them an aqueduct. Simple, right? He should never have gotten into government. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed at all.

When he entered the circle, he was surprised to find a marble statue of himself in the center. A copper plate on the base read, “Aquius, God of Aqueducts” Not a bad likeness, and they got the embossed sigils on the armor right. He considered his current armor, deciding that he’d need to change before anyone saw him. 

A synthetic braying emanated from his mule. Clempson looked and listened, but didn’t find anything out of place, so he walked back to the homunculus. “What was that?”

The munk tapped a hoof on the ground, reminding him that he’d disabled commentary.

“Mule, resume banter.”

“That was the widder clearance alarm.”

It took Clempson a moment to remember what that alarm did, but then his stomach sank, and he shouted,  “Emergency protocol aech!” The alarm existed to warn him if anything might bump into the mule’s four-dimensional constructs, but it hadn’t triggered since he’d tested it. There was nothing out there.

Nothing but Hellian voidships.

Clempson hadn’t mastered four-dimensional engineering, but he understood it well enough to use it to hide things. The mule detonated the explosive coupling that attached it to his cart, and the saddlebags dropped to the ground. Abandoning its semblance of the equine, its carapace expanded and ports opened, internal components shifting to and from the nominal volume. The saddle and gimble vanished, launched into the droit volume to be replaced by a machine turret. It was going to take him forever to reassemble it all.

His mule could take out an entire phalanx if it needed to, but he’d seen the craters that Hellians could make. Most of them just amused themselves with questionable trade practices, but there were tales of roving bands that would treat civilizations like their playgrounds, or loot and run. Their ability to cull magic and technology from other worlds made them hazardous under the best of circumstances.

He popped the bindings on his cart and hefted his versatile weapon, alert for any shift in the environment. A breeze rustled the tall grass that grew on either side of the stone roadway, but otherwise all was silent. The saddle assembly startled him by reappearing on the nominal plane and clattering to the ground. Did voidships make a sound?

Twenty feet away and six feet up, an axe head faded in and fell, soon followed by a skeleton. Worn olive-green clothing materialized around it, and then the rest of a woman appeared as she dropped and rolled, keeping her halberd in hand. Hellian paratroopers?

He leveled the shotgun end of his weapon at her while four more people fell out of the sky around him. Their rumpled clothing looked to be made of natural fibers, and their pasty skin lacked the distinctive sunburned hue of Hellians. He relaxed a little with the hope that these might not be technologically advanced supremacists.

“Which of you is in charge,” he demanded. He knew they wouldn’t understand him, but his tone conveyed confidence. He relied upon his helmet to hide his worry and uncertainty.

A woman to his right, tall and dark-haired, wearing a baggy shirt and pants with a muted green and brown floral print, replied something like, “Omlagus garfungiloops rics,” while pointing a tube at him. 

Pain flared in his head as the gift of Tongues made room for their language, but he maintained his angry scowl and held up a finger, stating, “You aren’t going to understand this, but I have to keep you talking until I learn your language.”

The tall woman growled something to the man to Clempson’s right, a short light-haired man wearing denim and plaid. The man replied and their language coalesced in Clempson’s mind, comprehension of their previous statements spilled in. “Are you the builder?” “I thought you said he would know our language.” “Maybe you can get your own intel next time.”

They weren’t speaking Hellian tradespeak, but they couldn’t be mistaken for friendly. “Who are you, and what do you want,” he demanded.

The short man shot an energetic “Ha!” at the woman.

She ignored him and addressed Clempson. “You’re definitely the Builder. We need your brain.”

“I’m using it.”

The shorter woman scowled. “Not that brain. The mechanical one.”

“I’m using that one, too. You haven’t answered my questions. What problem is that brain going to solve for you?” Their lax posture and poor discipline ruled out an organized military. “And while you’re at it, tell me where you stole the voidship.”

The woman exchanged worried glances with her compatriots, and then everything went to hell, figuratively speaking. A loud crack behind him heralded a spike of pain in his left shoulder. He blew a hole through the woman in front of him before falling forward, getting out of the way of what came next. 

Bright flashes told him that his mule had just eliminated whoever had shot him. Clempson rolled onto his back, agony engulfing his arm. The short woman raised her halberd, but before she could bring it down, a blue-green bolt split his vision, leaving an after-image of a blinding ray of light passing through the woman’s exploding head.

The tall woman yelled, “Assholes!” and ran away. An amorphous white blob materialized around his mule, enveloping it.

Clempson used his weapon like a crutch to push himself to his feet. The two remaining not-really-Hellians were running towards the blob. Blue-green flashes lit it up from the inside, and bolts cut wildly through the air, blowing the remaining man in half, but stopped after five shots. This worried Clempson — the gun should have worked for at least twenty. The bubble must be gumming it up.

The earth shook and a puff of air blew past him. Dozens of white cords extend from the bubble to where a ripple shattered the air. A metal box the size of a small barn materialized at the other end of the cords, with an entrance like a hangar door. The remaining attacker jumped into the hangar and the cords dragged the bubble along the ground.

Clempson limped to his cart, each step driving pain through his shoulder. Blood dripped from his limp left hand. The leather strap that secured his toolbox to the cart resisted his clumsy, one-handed efforts, so he dug for an edged weapon.

An orange explosion blew a hole from inside the bubble. It didn’t feel prudent to equip his mule with an overload capacitor, but the munk must have decided to launch a rocket propelled grenade. A secondary explosion shattered the mule’s body. It wasn’t going to free itself.

Clempson flopped his weapon atop the chest and fired buckshot across the edge of the blob. Bits of white goo flew off, but few of the cords were severed. When he ran out of shells, he dropped his weapon and found the machete.

The best he could do with his injured shoulder was a weak trot, and the strands dragged the homunculus across the ground faster than he could move. The hangar door closed before he could reach it, and the big metal box faded away.

He collapsed to his knees, spots crowding his vision. Pulling off his helmet, he puked onto the grass and cursed in three languages. Damn them.

Survival first, he reminded himself. Nobody would come to his rescue. He harnessed his anger to drag himself back to his cart, where he used the machete to slice through the strap that held his tool chest to the cart, wishing he’d thought of that before he’d lost the mule.

With a whistled command, the lid of the chest popped off and sprouted six limbs. He ordered his trunk munkey to help him out of his armor. The shot had shattered his alchemically hardened wooden back plate and punctured his molten polymer underjerkin. He could feel metal and splinters embedded in his shoulder.

After chugging a strong draft, he used the munkey’s remote feed to pick lead and splitters out of his scapula. The gift of Vigor prevented him from bleeding too much or getting infected, but he had to stop twice to let the pain subside.

Each of the three Gifts had a downside. The flip side of the Vigor was that Children of the Gifts usually died violently. He didn’t age, didn’t have to worry about infection, was devilishly hard to poison, healed quickly, and even dealt well with sleep deprivation, but this didn’t leave many ways to die. Wanderlust, connected to the gift of Passage, ensured that he didn’t spend much time in the company of friends, and the Sympathy brought by the gift of Tongues made interfering with bullies an inevitablility.

The sun dipped to the horizon by the time he’d finished tending his shoulder, so he had to drag his cart to the fire pit in front of his statue, cursing the not-actually-hellians the entire distance. How had they known about the thaumechanical brain housed in the mule? What use could they have for it? Didn’t they know about the mule’s weaponization? Maybe it was the weapons themselves they were after.

Adrenaline aftermath kept him awake while the trunk munkey built a fire and prepared dinner, but blood loss and alcohol made the world spin dangerously. He had to keep moving and stay awake until he could get some food into him, so he dragged the three and two-halves bodies back to his camp and looted them. 

In between bites of ham sandwich, he found geometrically shaped coins, wallets, papers, and odd collections of cards, all showing the regularity of automated manufacturing. He also found a couple of metal and glass bricks, no more than a half inch thick. When he pressed a button on a brick’s side, the glass side lit up like a vid display, except in color, its surface covered in clusters of ideograms that he didn’t recognize. He’d have to crack one open after his arm healed.

In the flickering firelight, anger sizzled under his calm exterior. They didn’t just take his transportation — they took the culmination of the past century of tinkering and research. An artificial mind, spanning fifteen hyper-layers of thaumaturgical perceptron matrices, that approached human mental capacity while having access to a modular set of intelligences, sensors, and devices.

Everyone needed a hobby. By stealing his hobby they had made an epic mistake. Now he needed a new one. If they could travel between worlds without portals, so could he.

A flicker caught his attention — a brief reflection from some bit of metal beyond the dome of light created by his camp fire. The crisp lines of fancy robes faded in from the shadows. Clempson considered grabbing a weapon, but he’d already exhausted his ammunition, and was in no condition to fight. Fortunately the figure wasn’t dressed for conflict. The hemline wouldn’t survive a walk in the park, much less the rough conditions an hour’s walk from the local approximation of civilization. 

The robes resolved into a femine form, statuesque in stature and stillness, gliding over the rough ground as if she were floating. At first he thought that her complexion was an artifact of the firelight, but when she got close enough, he realized that her skin was an unnatural vibrant crimson, deeper than any he’d seen, even among Hellians. Even if it were makeup, her sharp features and black, silky hair were clearly Hellian.

Clempson played up his exhaustion. “Have you come to finish the job?”

The Hellian stopped on the other side of the fire and smiled. “I think you’re mistaking me for someone else. Do you need help?” She spoke in Panthroplean, so she must know who he was.

Clempson wouldn’t put it past a Hellian to stab someone so they could sell him a bandage. “Nothing that isn’t free.”

“Well, then, do you mind if I sit?” She spoke with a delicate lilt and soft trilling that felt to his ear like essence of lullaby, but fast instead of slow. Her robes resembled red oak, but hung and moved like fabric instead of limp rubber. It still gave her tall, thin frame the appearance of a wooden statue.

Clempson indicated a large log to his right, but the woman flourished, and the walking stick that she wasn’t using for walking unfolded into a stool. Nice trick.

“I’m afraid I have you at a disadvantage.” She sat and crossed her long legs. “I’ve been following your career since you built this thing.” She gestured upward at the arch of the viaduct, flickering red in the glow of the fire.

“I have a career?” Unbidden memories washed over Clempson. “Why would you bother having me followed?”

“I don’t have you followed. I just buy reports from your biggest fans. Do you have any idea how well Chronicles of the Children of the Gifts sell on the Hellian market? I purchased the rights after the first book, but if I hadn’t, someone else would have.”

Clempson didn’t have any idea. “Ok, make it up to me. Who are you?”

She smiled and spoke softly. “Call me Victor, Baron of the Ninth Circle of Hell. Don’t be too impressed — they have a lot of barons up there. I’m looking to recover a stolen cargo ship.” Victor glanced at the bodies.

“Victor. That’s an odd name.”

“It isn’t a name, it’s a title. You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get people to call me that.”

“I’ll save that for another time. I bet you can tell me how they got hold of the ship. They didn’t seem competent enough to earn it.”

“They were competent enough to take your homunculus.”

“At the cost of four lives.”

“Lives are cheap on Hell. Your mechanical brain is probably worth more than the ship.” She held an open hand towards the corpses. “May I look?”

“Be my guest.”

Victor collapsed her chair back into a walking stick and approached the cadavers. She pulled one of the glass-metal bricks from the folds of her robe and traced patterns on the glowing glass side with a finger. A light issued from the metal side, illuminating the corpses. After digging through the clothing, she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have found one of these, would you?” He waved her brick in Clempson’s direction.

“I might have. What are they?”

“They’re called gladdugs — compact information storage, communications, sensors, that kind of thing.”

It occurred to Clempson that he might be able to use Victor to retrieve his munk. “Will it help you find them?”

“Maybe. If one of them was receiving telemetry I could use it to track their departure.”

“Would you take me along? I’d like a chance to retrieve my property, too, you know.”

An exaggerated look of sadness crossed Victor’s countenance. “I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to accept unbonded passengers. Would you take my word that I would return it to you?”

Clempson failed to hide his affront. “I’m sorry, do I know you? No, you have no way of convincing me. How do I avoid being an unbonded passenger?”

“That’s not advisable. You’d have to wear a security necklace at all times. Taking it off in any Hellian facility would be an instant death sentence. Is your machine really worth it?”

He had no intention of staying on the Hellian ship any longer than necessary, and knew he could cut through any collar they put on him. “That’s more than just a machine to me. It has the records of the worlds I passed through to get here. I might never find my way back home without it.” Clempson watched his trunk munkey add more wood to the fire and felt a wash of sadness. “It’s also the closest thing I have to a friend,” he mumbled.

Victor’s lip curled and she snorted. “Some people have imaginary friends, it figures you’d have built a synthetic one. Very well, but remember that I warned you.”

The Widder

Warning: Here be spoilers. This is a brief description of how the 4th dimension works in my world for those coming in in the middle.

This is a 4th physical dimension, similar to that described in Flatland. In place of “up” or “down”, the other dimension has directions named “droit” and “widder.” Droid is from heraldry (and medieval Latin) meaning either “a right” or the right side of a crest, opposite to sinister. Widder comes from widdershins, an archaic word for counterclockwise, upstream, or the way it isn’ t usually done.

In the first book, I introduce the idea of the Hellians (and Mouse) having access to a 4th dimension. Mouse can use it to pass “over” walls, and the Hellians travel in ships that navigate it.

The second book takes place mostly on Hell, so I go much deeper into how it all works. Clempson has had three hundred years to figure out much from a piece of wood that Mouse gave him, and he used that understanding to build a mule-shaped homunculus.

The 3d space we live in is called the “nominal volume.” The Hellians only use the widder half of the 4th dimension because the droit volumes are full of space monsters. They call this widder-space. Everything that isn’t in the field of influence of a planet is a formless void that they call “the void,” and thus their ships are called voidships.

When things are thrown off of the nominal volume, they fall back onto it. This follows the normal Pythagorean formula for gravity. There is a transition cost when shifting from widder to droit, causing 4d motion to dampen instead of vibrating indefinitely.

If something “falls” onto solid material, it is blocked from entering the nominal plane and can get stuck. Air and water will just get out of your way. Hellians have figured out how to dislodge and displace solid material, but it’s like punching a brick wall. There is no air outside of the nominal volume. You’ll carry some with you if you’re thrown out, but otherwise, vacuum rules apply.

I’ll add more details if anyone asks.

Is it really science fiction?

It isn’t clear to me whether The Thaumechanical Man is science fiction or fantasy. It doesn’t fit cleanly in either, but neither does it bridge or mix the two the way, for instance, Piers Anthony’s fiction does.

The fantasy/sci-fi division is an old argument, often centered around the two strongest known cases: Star Wars and Star Trek. In Star Wars, the story itself could just as easily be told in a world with horses and swords and magic. The technology is part of the scenery, not part of the story. In Star Trek, the stories generally revolve around warp drives and phasers and transporter beams.

This quality works in the other direction, too. Case in point: The Warlock in Spite of Himself. In that series, what they call magic is actually telepathy and telekinesis, and the main character is from a star-faring society, and the plot line revolves around him figuring out how it all works. That one’s cleanly categorized as sci-fi.

It confuses things that neither Panthropolis nor the Third Empire feel like they have a higher level of technology than we do. Panthropolis is slightly more advanced than our world, but the time spent in researching alchemy and thaumaturgy have leeched from their research in chemistry, telecommunications, electricity, and a few others. This confusion clears up a lot when we get to Hell, as the Hellians have a tech level somewhere between Expanse and Star Trek: Enterprise.

A clear issue is the existence of magic. Is it even possible to write science fiction with magic? Of course it is. In Dune, spice basically grants magical powers. Telepathy and telekinesis are endemic to sci-fi, but I think that “it’s all just psychic powers” is as tired a trope as “it was all a dream.”

For this issue, I’m going to invoke “in the real world, magic is just a technology we don’t understand.” Electricity was once magic. Nanosurgeons would be miraculous to us. When the technology involves laws of physics that we don’t even have access to, you have to call it magic even if it’s as rudimentary as banging two rocks together. However, if you define it strictly enough, you can treat it like a technology. My goal with magics is to be able to describe each of them mathematically, if for no other reason than to reduce inconsistencies.

How the FX are accomplished, however, is all window dressing. What really matters is the story. Could the story be told if it took place in a fantasy setting? Sorry, no, that’s a red herring. I don’t think we’ve effectively established that it isn’t actually a fantasy setting, so this perspective doesn’t work.

You could ask if the story revolves around understanding the implications of the technology, but that doesn’t work, either. Most books with a rigorously detailed magic system revolves around the workings and implications of it (Raymond Feist, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Brandon Sanderson,

It all circles back around to how you perceive the tech/magic divide. At the bottom of it, I wrote this conundrum into the story with my foundational assumptions about the world. Any magic, if sufficiently reduced to practice, is indistinguishable from technology. Thus, fantasy becomes indistinguishable from science fiction. If I did it right, this question should be unanswerable.

Alas, this leaves me with a dilemma. I don’t know how to categorize it, but Amazon needs a category, doesn’t it? I picked science fiction because my writing style is more resemblant of Heinlein and Niven than McCaffrey and Tolkien. Maybe you can help me out. Where do you think it belongs?

The Great Lens of fiction

And what is with the Klingons? Remember, in the day
They looked like Puerto Ricans and they dressed in gold lamé
Now they look like heavy metal rockers from the dead
With leather pants and frizzy hair and lobsters on their heads

– Aurelio Voltaire, U.S.S. Make Shit Up

This form of inconsistency never bothered me, but it sure seems to bother a lot of other people. There were attempts to refer to the 60’s TV Klingons as Human-Klingon fusions, but I always found this to be an excessively complex explanation for something that was merely an artifact of an imperfect lens. If the film makers of the 60’s had better technology, then it would have come closer to later efforts.

This philosophy has a lot of impact on my writing, especially in areas where I have to translate concepts. In the second book, Clempson visits a place called Hell. Is it really the biblical place described in Dante’s Inferno? Of course not. That would be boring. It is, however, a very punishing place that is spoke of very poorly in any place where they know it exists. When shown through the lens of my writing, that’s the best word for it.

This is a standard literary technique that allows authors to create a richer world by harnessing people’s expectations. It’s why elves and goblins are so common. The pitfall of this technique is where the author relies too much on prior art. Elves that are tall, skinny, long-lived, pale skins with pointy ears and a haughty attitude. Goblins that are short and green-skinned with few smarts and fewer morals. Archetypes or stereotypes, it’s all still the Planet of Hats, the implication of mono-culture, so I avoid relying on it too heavily.

If I’m not going to lean on the stereotypes, then why would I include them? There’s more to the archetypes than cultural flavor. They’re also allegorical. I’m exploring the concepts of Good and Evil, as they exist beyond the concept of good and evil people. The second book isn’t about evil people, it’s about what makes people evil.

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