Friday, November 20, 2015

Providence 2100 CE

Providence, 2100 CE
by
Bobby Derie

Dawn peeked through the smart windows on College Hill, where it was measured for UV content and filtered. The flat on Benefit Street cycled through a slow thirty-minute warm-up to the day, the dark glass brightening slowly for a gentle wake-up. Tea cycled automatically, GMO leaves traced with nootropics, boiling lithia water leaving behind a light white scale.

In her creche, Mariah was already awake and wired. Clicking out of the visual novel she had been browsing, she breathed out, rose and stretched in a half-conscious sun salutation to the tea pot, bowing obedience to the promise of more caffeine.

An icon blinked in her vision. Personality compiled.

Mariah's biometrics monitor implant marked the heart rate increase. She caught her breath, held it, counted to ten to calm down. Tea could wait.

"Voice interaction, Maxi. Launch Lovecraft emulation." She subvocalized to her home system. Her roommates weren't here, but she felt it appropriate to practice volume etiquette.

In her augmented vision, the image of a man came into view. At 47, he looked older than his years, hair going gray and face lined around that lantern jaw. Then again, people didn't often live as long back in the 1930s.

"Hello, world" she said. "Mr. Lovecraft, I presume?"

The hologram in her vision was "looking" around her apartment. The artificial personality had no eyes to see, but sensors in the apartment scanned every surface and could emulate his perception, within limits, and incorporate the data. He looked up at her comment, eyes widened with recognition at the sound of his name, the emulation extrapolating from his face the underlying physical architecture, incorporating known physical habits and tics, filling in the blanks from human algorithms...

"You presume correctly, miss. I apologise, but you seem to have me at an advantage." The voice buzzed in the tiny speakers implanted in her skull. The voice came out was a bit higher-pitched than the image suggested, a tenor with a Rhode Island accent, a pure Yankee dialect that had died out before Mariah was born.

"I'm Mariah," she said. "I compiled you."

"I beg your pardon?" The eyes held her own, the body posture relaxed but restrained; the Lovecraft emulation was not keen to share or violate personal space.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft...born 20 August 1890, died 15 March 1937. The master of the weird tale. She had spent weeks hunting down every scrap of his life to fit into the personality profile, accessed physical archives where his letters had laid untouched for a decade, scanned photographs and fiction. Beyond his writings and the memoirs of his friends and family she had to access deep data on the period of his life, the generic background of early 20th century linguistics, science, geography, politics... So she told him, in halting old English - a language she had only heard from documentaries and in historical films - what he was. What he had become, after he died; the proliferation of his fiction, his concepts. His brow bunched at the concept of cuddly Cthulhus and pop-occult paperback Necronomicons, but he seemed more affected by the publication of his private letters and some of his juvenalia, saddened at the deaths of his friends, bemused at the study of his life and works. Yet he listened, mostly quietly, asking only a few technical questions regarding computers as she carried on. He nodded slowly as she finished.

"I do not know if I completely understand the process you describe, but I believe I grasp the generalities - though it sounds like a technology worthy of the terrible Mi-Go! I must admit that I had never imagined that once my physical existence had ceased, that the particular combination of atoms and processes that made up my self would ever again reach even this semblance of reoccurant form." He seemed to examine his own hands in slight wonderment. "Though as you say, I seem to lack a physical existence, as such, and this apparent form is but a convenient illusion. Is it a product of my emulation that I accept this so readily?"

"I don't...think so. I didn't compile you to be comfortable in your virtual skin, exactly. There are some options for improved compatibility, but they can compromise your personality reconstruction and I wanted to be able to interact with...well, you, as much as possible. To talk with the real Lovecraft. I have questions."

The emulation sketched a slight bow. "Very well, miss. Since I owe to you my resurrection, the least I can do is answer what queries you might pose for me. Although if I understand what you have said, I am not certain what I might be able to add that is not already in my published works. What am I, in this form," his arm swept to indicate his virtual self, "that is not in your archives? I admit, I do not put it beyond your future technologies to give me true intelligence, so I do not merely parrot lines entire from my letters, but from an existential standpoint, what in me moves and speaks, if it is not taken directly from those lines? What, precisely, can I answer that you yourself cannot look up?"

Mariah swallowed before she spoke. "The personality emulation extrapolates from the whole corpus of your work...everything survives, which is more than most people from your era. I don't want to get into theories of intelligence, what I want to know is...what do you see when you see me?"

Lovecraft seemed to look her up and down, in a concentrated calculation that brought to mind old films of Sherlock Holmes, the studious detective at work. "I should say you are a young woman, perhaps twenty years of age, dark of hair and eye, dressed in...I am not sure how to describe your apparel; they resemble what in my time were pajamas, though it appears to be some descendant of the more libidinous flapper dresses, or perhaps some sort of bathing suit."

"And my...race?"

The emulation seemed to hesitate. "I had thought at first you were a quadroon, although the longer I stare the more difficulty I have in guessing your ancestry. There is something of an almond-shaped slant to your eyes that speaks of Asian heritage, and a slight hook to your nose that might speak of Semitic heritage, possibly Latin. The skin color definitely speaks of the Negro, but of course there are many races in Africa, and not all of them are true Negros, so it could be-"

"So you know I'm mixed race." Mariah cut him off.

"Well, yes. I would have thought that was obvious."

"And how do you feel about that?"

"I do not think I quite understand."

"Do you hate me? Are you going to go on a rant about miscegenation? Or shun me?"

Lovecraft's face twisted as simulated emotions found expression on his face. In a corner of her vision, Mariah noted the CPU cycles uptick as the emulation took more resources.

"I can assure you miss, I do not hate you. I am no bigot." He said. "Nor do I feel the need to shun you, or to hold your race against you. Certainly, it is no fault of your own that you were born of...of mixed birth. None of us can control such circumstances, and you seem a very intelligent and high-quality specimen."

"But you do disapprove of...miscegenation."

"I find the practice regrettable, inasmuch as it represents a dilution of the races, which is often disastrous to the respective cultures. Biologically, there are-"

"But that's...that's bullshit! Science doesn't work that way. Culture doesn't work that way."

Lovecraft's face seemed, to Mariah, carefully blank. "I do not wish to upset you, miss, and perhaps we should change to some more pleasant topic. I seem to have inadvertently given you offense, for which I apologise. It was not my intent to insult you."

"No! No, we're not moving on, this is what I want to get at," Mariah said. "Race. You do know that race is just a social construct, right?"

"I assure you, miss, that race is a biological fact, for which there is a plethora of evidence. Now, it is true that there is a distinction to be made between, shall we say, biology and spirituality. There is a vast chasm between the Nordic and the Negro, but it is entirely biological and physiological, a matter of specialisation and refinement; between, let us say, the French and the Teuton, the matter is more spiritual, being a difference in individual strengths and weaknesses rather than the evolution of the human stock."

Mariah scowled, breathed out, and counted to ten. The tea chimed, and she walked over to pour herself a bitter cup.

"And what if I told you that you were wrong?" she said between sips. "Not from any fault of your own, necessarily, but the 'science' that you depend on to support your theories has since been proven to be bunk, irredeemably tainted by racism."

The emulated halted again, then slowly shook his head. "I believe I understand what you mean. There were, in my own time, individuals who voiced similar sentiments - friends of mine, even, with whom I argued the subject, since they were vociferous on the subject of equality among races...but they never denied that there were races, that I recall. To challenge the idea is to challenge the very fundamentals of the understanding of biology and evolution..."

"Maxi, pause emulation." Lovecraft froze, and Mariah drank her team in silence as she stared at him. She could, she knew, forcibly download an education in modern biology straight into his program. Run the emulation through an entire course, to make him incorporate it into his thoughts and memory. But if she did that, what was the point? To force this shade of Lovecraft to realize he - no, not even him, but the flesh and blood man he was based on - was wrong? Wouldn't that just bypass the whole point in emulating Lovecraft to begin with, if all she did was try to shape him into her way of thinking? She stewed and drank tea.

By now, the sun had risen in the Benefit Street flat; the smart windows had finally shifted to unfiltered daylight. Mariah checked the humidity and got dressed before addressing Maxi again, telling the home system to resume the simulation.

Lovecraft caught himself as he unpaused; while not aware of the passage of time, the sudden shift in the environment compared with his short-term memory made him quickly aware that something had changed.

"What happened?" His voice went up slightly in pitch, showing how upset he was.

"I paused you." Mariah said. "Sorry, I just got a little heated. This is the reason I brought you back, see. Your views on race. I wanted...I guess I needed to confront you on the subject. Because it's such a part of you, your letters, it ties in to so much of your philosophy and understanding of politics and civilization..."

"I would not think that my views were atypical. Even if," he paused as if considering, "in this future, the racial-equalitists have, apparently 'won out.' In my time, such an understanding of race was rather commonplace. I do not pretend to lay judgment on your future, with its technological wonders; I must certainly seem to be a backwoods hick by comparison, a positive throwback..."

"No, sadly, you're not. That's part of the problem." Mariah muttered. "Look, I need to go walk."

"Around Providence?" Lovecraft blinked, and there was a look on his face that could only be described as yearning. "Might I...accompany you?"

"Yeah," Mariah snapped on a pair of smartgoggles. "Maxi, synch the Lovecraft emulation to my smart goggles, eyes-out."

With a jitter, the Lovecraft virtual representation disappeared, but she heard him gasp. She looked down at her own hands, and saw the pale overlay of his old man hands in her augmented vision. "I know you 'see' yourself as having eyes and all, but that's just your emulation. Think of yourself as a brain in a canister," she smirked, "and you can 'see' through the cameras in my smart goggles. What I see, you see."

"Fascinating. I believe I understand."

With her invisible passenger, Mariah took the small winding stairs down, and stepped out the front door to Benefit Street. She aimed her feet at the Riverwalk, and walked briskly. Dogs with smart collars walked themselves, kids peeled bark off the re-engineered fungal-resistant birch trees planted to replace the dead elms. In places, the sidewalks were still fifty or a hundred years old, and she paused to stare at carpenters installing an ornate doorway on a new Georgian mock-up. As they hit the river, Lovecraft, who had heretofore been quiet, spoke up.

"It isn't how I imagined it."

"Yeah, they haven't changed all the street names."

She practically felt his frown. Mariah called up a virtual mirror and placed it in the upper left of her field of vision, so that she could see his face.

"It is, for all the changes, still Providence. I must admit, I had worried that the city of my birth might have been altered beyond all recognition by the passage of more than a century."

"Yeah, us mongrel hordes haven't trashed the place yet." Lovecraft gave a pained look.

"I forget, sometimes, how much of my life and private thought you must have had access to. It is true, in my time in New York, I was rabid about such things." He seemed to consider. "Even during my life, that was a long time ago."

He sighed, and stared out through Mariah's eyes. The emulation narrated points of interest as they walked, and despite herself Mariah's interest was piqued by what he said, and she listened intently to his tour, and sometimes added her own bit of detail on what had happened in the century and change since the physical Lovecraft had died. Eventually they found themselves on the trail that climbed Neutaconkanut Hill.

"I wish I could give you greater satisfaction," Lovecraft said, his voice buzzed through her implants, "I do not know if the fault lies in the manner of my reconstruction, or perhaps my original self was set eternally in his patterns of thought, with regards to race. I can only speak for myself, and...I do not mean any insult. I truly do not. But even when I strive to imagine life, as you say...that the biology I knew was false, or flawed, and that the Negro and other races are not biologically or socially inferior...I can understand it, on an intellectual level. Yet at a more visceral, instinctive level, I fear that many of my reactions remain. It is very difficult for me to accept, if you understand, that what you say is true. There are implications beyond those that immediately present themselves. If I was wrong on that matter, then what does that say to, for example, the Confederate states and slavery? To the evils of Reconstruction, and the free niggers..."

"That was propaganda. All that Birth of a Nation stuff, that was just Southern reconstructionist bullshit. And please stop saying niggers." Mariah felt bad to have spoken the word, and covered her mouth so no-one could read her lips. There were cameras everywhere.

"My point entirely. As you said earlier, this...I will admit, it is a prejudice...has been fundamental to me for so long, and ties into so many aspects of my thought, of my understanding of history and the systems of the world. I do not want it to be true."

Thought the emulation had no biology as such, stress responses were extrapolated, and the final confession that Lovecraft had dragged out seem to have cost him something.

"But you did, didn't you? I mean, you must have run across science, even in your own time, that disproved some of it. You argued about it with James Ferdinand Morton, J. Vernon Shea, the Liebers...you changed your mind, on some things. By the end, you seem almost...you changed your mind on some things."

"And on others, I remained steadfast. Remain, steadfast, despite our conversation. It is true that my friends and correspondents and I argued on race...and as I was forced to state and re-state my views, as I was challenged on these issues I did reconsider and ameliorate some of my positions. But not all of them."

"You were an antisemitist that married a Jews. That had Jewish friends."

"They were exceptions. Nor were my views always consistent throughout my life, as you should know. In my youth, I was more vocal. I knew so little - I had never even met any Jews, until I came to the Slater Avenue School. As I grew older, as I met more people, as I gained in understanding, my views gained in sophistication. I made exceptions. I re-evaluated some of them. I am embarrassed at some of the things that I said and did in my youth."

"Like that poem you wrote? 'On the Creation of Niggers.'"

In the mirror that hovered in her vision, the emulation froze - not paused or seemed to stop to think, but the program itself seemed to stall. Mariah walked back down the hill. She hoped that if she gave it a bit of time, the program would resume again, or at least get to a point where she could save and exit.

As her feet pointed back to Benefit Street and College Hill, Mariah still wanted answers.

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