By Charles Swanson
|"Ok, students. Where
did Rex leave off? What subject was he covering?" I projected my
voice, stressing the vocal features I'd identified as professorial.
There was some nervous movement. The student Rex's notes called
'Classical Kris' raised her hand to speak.
"Professor Eggars? Rex didn't really teach us so much as lecture us. I think you'd better start with the basics."
"Ok, class. And remember, I'm not a professor. I'm just a student, like you." I knew what they'd be thinking. But he's so old. Well, screw that. I was only ten years older than the youngest there. "So let's start with the basics." The one Rex's notes called 'Danger Dave' went back to his texting.
I wasn't surprised Rex had left them all bewildered. The only students about whom he'd cared had turned out to be cultists. Here they were, a week until summer, and they had an entire course's worth to learn.
"So! What is a meme? Anyone?"
I'd awoken that morning rather excited, despite the fact that I'd slept in a small cot in a cavern underneath several basement levels of the academic buildings of the University. Raw rock walls and concrete floor were actually more appealing than the University's offer of a dorm room after our house had become unavailable. It had exploded.
I'd awoken excited because in the timeline I'd extrapolated, today Rex would give my account the final permissions and administrator status on his network. He'd been slowly working up to it, versing me in its use and maintenance, for a week now. The week before he'd gone over how to operate his experimental apparatus, or how to at least shut them down without damaging them. It seemed like he was letting me in more and more by the day.
At the time, my hypothesis was that he was simply low on manpower. After all, we were down to four: Rex, Dr. Polski, my girlfriend, and myself. But it developed that he had something different in mind.
As I crossed the raw rock room to find Rex, eager to get started, my girlfriend stirred in her own cot. "Gil? Why are you up so early?"
"I'm going to work with Rex. You know he's giving me access to everything?"
She looked more awake now. "What? Everything? You know that means he's leaving, right?"
My mind blanked for a moment, and I recognized that that was, in fact, the best explanation. Internally I chided myself for not seeing it. I thought I was so good at not dismissing the difficult concepts...
"Well, I'm going to talk to him about that then."
"Ok, class. A meme is an idea. You say 'meme' instead of 'idea' when you want to sound smart, or when you want to bring up a different set of connotations." I looked around at my students. Dave was dozing behind sunglasses. Kris was writing notes in pen, then going back over her notes with different color highlighters. Orange. Apparently she'd considered that a 'definition'.
"When someone talks about a meme, they talk about a discrete unit of information that can be passed to another person through communication. 'Meme' is to invoke thoughts similar to 'gene', which can be passed to another generation through mating. It's almost a one-to-one relationship, meme to gene." Here's where I could get some audience participation going. I turned to Danger Dave. "You. Dave. There's a difference between passing a gene to another person and passing a meme to another person. What is it?"
Danger Dave looked up from behind his mirrored sunglasses. He looked surprised I'd called on him. "Uh... Genes are more fun to pass to another person?" Yes, it was a snarky comment indicative of contempt for the professor, but it was also indicative of internalizing the concept, at least a little bit. Rex's notes on him were sparse and uninspiring. Had he never tried to engage the kid?
I tried to cut through the scattered laughter that his comment had precipitated. "True, Dave, but not an important difference in our context. Does anyone have an idea? Kris, how about you?"
Kris already had her answer ready. I saw her reach it when I'd first formulated the question, but she went through a small routine anyway, narrowing her eyes in faux-puzzlement, looking over her notes once, and clearing her throat before plaintively answering, "Gene transfer is fundamentally one-way, and meme transfer can be two-way?"
Smart kid. "Again true, and that does cause differences, but the biggest one hasn't been said yet. Anyone? Here it is: You have no choice what genes you pass on. It's random. But you can pick and choose what memes you communicate, and the content of those memes can affect how frequently you pass them on. If an idea is very conducive to communication, you communicate it more frequently."
I left the comparison to a virus to their own imaginations.
There were no stalactites or stalagmites in the cavern. It wasn't natural; it had been bored by a giant insectoid monster during a fight with NASA Lass. The walls were scraped out by giant, scythe-like claws in an instant, not the eons-long drip of water. It was therefore necessary to place concrete pillars at regular intervals. It was ugly, but when it had been built, no one expected us to live there long-term.
Rex's favorite place to access our little network was a room that had one of these pillars in its center. It was a nice, central location, with hallways radiating away from it in which were housed those experiments that weren't destroyed when the Atomic Girl went crazy.
It was empty. From one of the interfaces that ringed the concrete column, I called up the location of Rex's wristpad. It returned an error code that basically meant 'Rex doesn't want you to know his location right now.'
Rex really might be gone. The thought upset me. Rex was my friend, or as close a to a friend that I had here in the City. I had my friends back at the newspaper office, but I hadn't seen them in a year, and their problems and interactions just seemed so... small... now.
To be sure, I checked my account status. Yes, I was the 'ultimate administrator', a title Rex had himself before today. An addendum said 'Don't screw it up.' Rex was gone.
Just then the doorbell rang. It was exactly the same noise as in our old house, and it was rather incongruous to hear it here in the depths of the cavern. The doorbell had been installed at the insistence of the administration of the University, after it became impossible to hide our presence from them. Just one of the many complications that the Strangelings brought on us.
I went to the door, or rather to the airlock-like interface between officially-built academic buildings and our recently-officially-sanctioned research labs down here. On the peep-hole monitor, I saw that our visitor was probably young, perhaps a student here, but couldn't quite nail down his age. The grainy, pale face against the darkness of the sub-basement on the low-quality monitor was somehow slightly off, as if there were some fundamental asymmetry that I couldn't quite place. Wait... Rex? There was an obvious resemblance.
I opened the outer lock, as I was required to do by our new understanding with the University. "Can I help you?" I said.
"Yes," he said politely. "My name is Gil Pembury. Is Rex Riptide here? I'm his little brother."
"So what are some memetic phenomena?" I asked the class. Blank stares. "When I say 'memetic hazard', what do I mean?" More nothing. "Come on, class. What, that we've just said, could constitute a hazard?"
Classical Kris raised her hand. I let it sit for five seconds before I was sure no one else would have an answer. "Yes. Kris."
"A meme could be bad for you, but passed on anyway?"
"Right. Another way of saying that is that a gene that is deleterious to an individual has no way of out-competing other genes because they're passed on at random, but a meme that is deleterious can out-compete another meme if it's particularly conducive to being passed on." Kris started furiously writing. I sneaked a peek at her notes. She had written 'bad ideas might be popular anyway'.
She commented unbidden for the first time. "This stuff would have been really useful to know, like, at the very beginning. Rex just sort of bandied it about in one-liners."
"Your name is Gil Pembury?"
"That's right. At your service."
I looked at my assembled companions. Dr. Polski looked interested. My girlfriend was at a loss. The tech sent down by the University was ignoring us and documenting the equipment with a surprised expression on his face.
"Gilligan?" I asked.
"No. Gilgamesh. Our dad was rather fanciful with names."
"I noticed that. Is Rex's real name even 'Rex', or did he change both when he moved away?"
Rex's brother Gil looked uncomfortable. "Rex changes both names whenever he moves, I've gathered. His original name was Thor, after our father."
My girlfriend looked at Rex's brother, who we'll call Gil 2. It looked as if she were trying to will her mind through his, to stare straight into his head. "How often has he done this? Your brother, how many times has he just moved on, leaving his friends behind?"
Gil 2 must have picked up on the connection between Rex and my girlfriend. He looked uncomfortable. "I've lost track of him for months sometimes, so I don't know exactly, but he's been staying about six months per location for the last five years."
Only six months per location! Why so long here? I looked over at my girlfriend. Oh, right. Rex's ex-girlfriend. Still, Rex didn't seem like the type to form personal connections if it would hold him back. I spoke next. "Well, you only missed him here by hours. How can we help?"
"Right. And time is of the essence, so I'd really like to get to work as soon as possible." Gil 2 looked up at the tech. "It looks like you're in the habit of sharing your information, a property rare in Rex's groups. I'd like access to Rex's personal files." He made a gesture then, imperceptible to anyone who hadn't spent a lot of time around Rex. It meant what he said next carried more import than he wanted to share. "Who did Rex give ultimate administrator access?" he said in a manner that was otherwise utterly indistinguishable from the business he was otherwise conducting.
I looked up, more aware than I was before. "Me. I have access to the files you want."
His eyes met mine and didn't waver. "Your name was Gil, right?" he asked.
"I see," he said, and looked away.
Gil 2 was not an enemy operative. That much was obvious. He had Rex's mannerisms, his habits. He knew Rex personally, and had been affected by him in a profound way. He was who he claimed he was, even if his errand was obviously false. To bring Rex back to his mom and family? It didn't hold water.
"Ok, Gilgamesh Pembury. Follow me; I'll get you that access."
"Now class, we've talked about memetic hazards, but what about the other end of the spectrum? What do I do if I want to optimize an individual?"
They looked uncomfortable with my word choice. Danger Dan's phone went into his pocket for the first time all lecture. Happy Heather raised her hand. "Optimize... an individual? Professor Eggars, what do you mean?"
I had been too loose with my tongue. Quick, camouflage! "Sorry, a bit of Ichabod's formalization came out here. An individual in his notation was a mathematical construct. Optimizing it is just finding its constituent closest to the eponymous epsilon." Totally meaningless. I can make up jargon on the spot. I watched as their eyes glazed over by degrees. "What I meant was, is there such thing as the opposite of a memetic hazard, some sort of memetic improvement package?"
Kris's hand shot up. She was certainly the most motivated, but I still didn't want to discount the other students. There was potential in all of them. I sighed. No one added their hands in the air to Kris's. I called on her, and her hedging routine started again. Look down, crinkle in concentration, ask the answer rather than assert it. "You could... give positive memes the same attributes that make the hazards so dangerous?"
"That's right. If I want someone to get the right meme, I can frame it in the right way. There's a science to it. If you are adept, you can study these attributes and construct your own memes."
Late that evening, I had taught Rex's lecture. I had run Rex's experiments. I had made adjustments to the deal Rex struck with the University to keep the government off of us. I had helped Rex's brother. It was the end of the day. We three surviving friends of Rex were gathered around his little brother, asking questions about Rex's childhood.
Dr. Polski: "Can you point to anything in his childhood that may have inspired his formalization of complexity theory?"
My girlfriend: "Was your family religious at all?"
Me: "Did you move around a lot as a family?"
On and on. Finally my girlfriend burst out. "You knew him for fifteen years, Gilgamesh! You've been hunting him for five more! You have to have some insight into his mind, right? Please? I have a question."
The room became silent but for the humming of air moving through electronics. Gil 2 looked straight at me at the mention to 'insight into his mind'. He nodded to my girlfriend.
"What was he doing with his life? Was the work he did here really worth the moving around, the abandoning his friends and any family he may have made?" A deep breath. "Just... Why?"
Gil 2 responded almost immediately. "The answer is actually pretty simple. Rex is... different. He's not like you or Dr. Polski. The question you have to ask is: How do beings like Rex reproduce?"
She and Dr. Polski looked at each other, then around the room. Fine, they'd leave it to me. "Ok, guys. Let's think about this. First, define solution space."
Six eyes jumped to me, wide. I looked around, not immediately getting it. My girlfriend's stare was almost accusing.
Then I got it. "Oh, right." I said. "Memetically."
Dr. Polski went on to get his formal doctorate. He is a professor at the University and teaches with a vigor that has been described as 'inhuman' by more than one student.
The Atomic Girl never reversed her course from the Earth.
Rex 1.1, Adversary, created a human civilization on the otherworld planet. He never again tried to cross over to our own world.
Rex 1.2 died in a car accident, when an SUV ran his motorcycle off the road.
Rex 1.3.1 and Rex 1.3.2 flipped a coin for the laboratory equipment that Rex 1.3 had given them as a goodbye present. They currently both reside on Deimos, having decided to never look at the coin.
The Coeurl, an effective Rex 1.3.3, raised a civilization from the dust of his dead planet. It survived until it made contact with smarter beings via the Beagle project.
Gil's girlfriend broke up with him and requested a tailor-made Rex from Rex 1.3.1 and Rex 1.3.2. They lived happily ever after.
Perhaps !N and NASA Lass still exist, but are certainly unable to affect this mortal plane.
Rex 1.3, Gil's friend, sacrificed his life to "save" the "lives" of countless billions of "people."