Category Archives: Fiction

The Village and the River Monsters… or: Less Fighting, More Brainstorming

If you guess how this story ends, humanity could use your help right now.  (Well, you can help humanity regardless, so if you want to learn how, read on.)  

Once upon a time, my people say, there lived a village of humans.  The humans of this village had a desperate problem.  They were always in short supply of a medicinal herb, which they regularly needed to treat illnesses and diseases.  What little of the herb they found, they had to ration out sparingly.  The herb was a vine that grew only on trees, and few trees grew near their village.  

Idiot advisory: This free stock image in a short story should not be construed as medical, botanical, or any other kind of advice. Injury or illness resulting from ingestion of plants that look like this are your own fault. Litigants will be publicly mocked.

Well, to be more precise, many trees grew near the village–an entire forest, in fact.  But the forest was separated from the village by a river, and in that river swam monsters that would, often as not, sink any boat they found and eat anyone on it. Only a few lucky villagers had ever returned from the forest to bring back the herb, so most of the time the village had to make do with searching the few trees on their side of the river.  

The crocodile picture is just here to invoke menace and dread, not to imply that the river monsters can walk on land. I suppose that means they’re actually slightly less terrifying than crocodiles.

After years of watching their friends and family pass away from illness when there was no medicine to be had, around half of the villagers decided that enough was enough, that the village should have a steady supply of medicine.  They demanded that the village regularly hold a lottery and send a randomly chosen villager across the river by boat to bring back the herb from the forest.  

The other half of the villagers opposed this idea.  They did not want to be forced to risk their lives.  They hated seeing their friends and family die as much as the others, but they had learned to live with it.  They did not feel that being able to save more people from illness was worth living under the shadow of being chosen by lottery to cross the river and risk a violent death.  

For eight days and nights the villagers argued.  

Not pictured: river monsters who have stopped caring about the pro-crossing faction winning and just want some peace and quiet.

The pro-crossing half of the village said that the status quo was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to replenish the medicinal herb to treat the sick, and that anyone who opposed the plan to randomly select villagers to cross the river was evil.  

The anti-crossing half of the village said the proposed solution was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to allow people to refuse to cross the river if they wished, and that anyone who wanted to force people to cross the river against their will was evil.  

On the ninth day, it appeared that the villagers were about to come to blows over the problem.  Parents, children, siblings, and spouses shouted abuse at each other, their gazes colored by anger and disgust.  

It was then that one of my people, a being who at the time was known simply as the Wanderer, stopped by the village looking for a place to rest and restock on her travels.  Naturally, the Wanderer was curious about why the villagers seemed so angry and divided, so she asked them.  The villagers took the Wanderer to the tavern, brought her food and drink, and (with much interruption and volleying insults) they told her about their problem.  They explained the solution that one side embraced and the other side rejected, and why each side was right and good and the other side was wrong and selfish.  

They asked her to choose a side, and after much deliberation she chose the potato wedges.

After hearing about the situation, the Wanderer slumped forward onto the table.  The villagers were horrified, for they assumed she had fallen ill, and they were all out of medicine!  However, the Wanderer soon sat up, and they could see that she was weeping and laughing.  

“That’s it?” she asked.  “You have a serious problem, and you’re about to go to war with each other because you disagree on whether the only solution you’ve thought of is worth it?  Do you see the problem here?”  

The human villagers were angered at their guest’s condescension, but they had heard legends of the wisdom of my people, so they swallowed their pride in the hopes that the Wanderer might somehow solve their dilemma.  Each side expected that the Wanderer would convince the other side to change its mind.  

“You may laugh, Wanderer,” a villager said, “but this problem torments us, and we seek to settle it.  Now can you help us or not?  Which side is right, and why is it ours?”  

When even the trail signs express doubt, you know you’re lost.

At this, the Wanderer scowled.  “Of course I can help.  I have heard and understood both sides’ values, and they have nothing to do with embracing or refusing boats or medicine.  Those are just methods you use to try to fulfill your values.  Values are simple, and yours are no exception: you all want to protect people from dying.  You just disagree about whether some number of deaths of a certain kind is more or less acceptable than some other number of deaths of a different kind.”  

Sipping her drink, the Wanderer continued, “This question has no right or wrong answer.  Luckily for you, it is also the wrong question.  The question you have chosen to ask turns those who seek medicine into those who feed the river monsters, and it turns those who fear the river monsters into those who shun medicine.  To pick a side is to champion suffering and horror.”  

The two factions of the village had been staring each other down from opposite sides of the Wanderer’s table.  At this remark, their gazes started slowly turning down towards their own feet.  

Wait a minute, has that third option always been there?

Shaking her head, the Wanderer took another sip.  “No, you should not ask whether or not you should take boats across the river.  You have each made very good cases and established that both these options are unacceptable.  Those who reject the choice to remain without medicine are reasonable.  Those who reject the choice to force people to cross the monster-infested river are also reasonable.”  

She paused as a wry grin crossed her face.  “If I were a fool I might recommend an arrangement whereby people may give up the right to receive medicine from the forest in exchange for being exempt from the river-crossing lottery, and call the matter settled.  However, that would still be answering the wrong question.  We can do much better than a compromise between two bad options.”  

Holding up one finger solemnly, the Wanderer pronounced, “Always be suspicious of a question where the best answer you come up with involves death.”  

Unless it’s a riddle. What has four wheels but never tires? What picks up travelers but never drops them off? What follows closer the faster you drive?

At this the villagers were silent.  Finally one spoke.  “What is the right question, then?”  

The Wander smiled, and responded, “Let us start closer to the beginning.  How do you treat illness in your village?”  

The village doctor stepped forward.  “It depends on the illness, but often with medicine made from the herb.”  

The Wanderer nodded.  “A reasonable answer, for now.  It may change in the future.  For now, where do you get the herb?”  

“From the forest across the river!” a villager replied.  

“And from trees around the village, whenever we can find it there,” the doctor added.  

“Another reasonable answer, for now,” said the Wanderer.  “On my journey thus far I have not passed any other forests within a practical distance from here, or else I would suggest you travel to those forests instead.  I may yet suggest it, if all else fails.  In the meantime, how do you get to the forest across the river?”  

“By, well, crossing the river,” another villager muttered.  

The Wanderer leaned forward.  “And how do you cross the river?”  

“By boat,” came the nervous reply.  

The Wanderer pounded the table, and the villagers jumped.  “How else do you cross the river?  Use your imagination!  Speak any thought you think of, and pay no heed to how ridiculous your answer may be.  Nobody will force you to use any idea spoken here, but any idea not spoken is a gift left unopened.”  

I couldn’t find a picture of what imagination looks like, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

At this, the villagers were silent.  The Wanderer patiently sipped her drink.  

Finally one person piped up, “Swim across!”  

Another countered, “What about the river monsters?”  

“Kill them!” a third chimed in.  

“That’s impossible!”  

“Deciding what’s possible and what’s not comes later,” the Wanderer interrupted.  “If you get enough ideas, you may find you can put some impossible ones together to make one that’s possible after all.”  

“Poison the river to kill the monsters, then swim across!”  

“Promising start.  Any more ideas?” said the Wanderer.  

“Send a boat full of meat down the river as a distraction!”  

“This is nonsense.  Why swim when we could simply fly across?” asked a villager sarcastically.  

“You jest,” said the Wanderer, “But a silly idea can often be a path to a brilliant one.”  

The villagers were growing excited now.  

“Jump across!”  

“Catapult over!”  

“Build a bridge!”  

“Tunnel under the river!”  

The Wanderer had been writing down the villagers’ ideas, and clapped.  “Good, good!  This is excellent brainstorming!  I’m proud of all of these ideas!  Even the ones that won’t work help us to think of ones that might–that’s how creativity works!  Well done, everyone!”  

The villagers and the Wanderer spent the rest of the evening drafting a plan from the ideas they had come up with.  It would take hard work, and there would be some risk involved, but everyone was on board and ready to make it happen.  Waking up fresh the next morning, they spent the whole day filling in the details, gathering materials, and going over the plan step by step to make sure they were prepared for the unexpected.  The following day, early in the morning, they launched the plan. 

And fervently hoped that they wouldn’t end up in the lower left-hand box.

The villagers sent a raft full of meat into the river, where it drifted downstream.  Shortly afterward, they sent a second such raft.  The first raft was soon attacked by the river monsters and devoured, but the second one drifted downstream in peace.  The monsters had seemingly eaten their fill, but if they were still hungry, the first raft had proved that they could be distracted.  The second raft would be that distraction.  

“Go!” came the cry.  A boat entered the river and pushed off.  It carried the Wanderer and a handful of villagers: crafters and carpenters, all ones who had been in favor of the river-crossing lottery.  They paddled across the river as quickly as possible, and arrived safely on the other side.  

Once there, the forest team got to work immediately, chopping down trees and carving them up into smooth logs.  They sent half of their logs over on a long rope that they had strung across the river as they crossed.  The logs made it to the village side without incident.  

Not pictured: river monsters whose confusion is slowly giving way to a sinking feeling.

Other builders on the village-side riverbank, ones who had opposed the river-crossing lottery, received the logs.  

Now both sides of the river had logs, and builders on each side used them to construct the foundations of a bridge.  By evening, the bridge was complete and connected the two sides.  It was strong, with sturdy guardrails, and far out of the reach of the monsters.  The builders from both sides met in the center of the bridge, above the river, and danced for joy and for reconciliation.  

Would you believe I didn’t notice the metaphor until after I had written a bridge as the solution?

The Wanderer stayed in the village for a year as a teacher, sharing with the village the problem-solving tools of our people.  The villagers learned to make these tools their own, for protecting and enriching their way of life.  

These days the village is home to a prestigious research hospital, and the filming location of a popular television series exploring the life cycle of the river monsters, but I digress.  The story has finished, but our journey has just begun. 

Earth’s fatal flaw is fighting for unnecessary tradeoffs, instead of seeking ways everyone can be satisfied.  One may not find an easy or perfect answer, but for those who bother to look there is usually at least one answer that’s good enough for almost everyone.  That’s better than an answer that’s pleasing for some and intolerable for others. 

Not to be confused with Earth’s Achilles heel, which is a small thermal exhaust port located off the coast of Antarctica; humans know it as Mount Erebus. You guys might want to add some defensive turrets to that research base.

When you fight with all your passion to make someone else pay a price for your cause, you make your cause evil and recruit your own enemies.  All your passion should instead be put to seeking a win-win outcome, one that rewards each person who pays for it.  Never stop negotiating for that win-win, even when things come to blows.  Always search for what your opponent is willing to accept that you’re willing to offer as truce.  For when you close the door to the win-win, you choose unending strife.  A win-lose idea will always have opposition.  

If you, esteemed reader or listener, meet a person who disagrees with you on policy, you should figure out a future you both want.  Take note: that future may not be what either of you originally had in mind.  Sometimes finding it requires a deeper understanding of the other person’s values, or of your own values, but that’s another story.  Once you find that future, get creative about how to get there.  Building that bridge might take more effort than your current plan, but it will be well worth it.  Besides, instead of opponents who obstruct and interfere with the new plan, you will have allies to help.  Such is how ethics reconciles conflict.  

And if you get stuck, or you feel alone in your efforts, just call on me or someone like me.  We’d be honored to be part of your success. 

No, not through interstellar radio. Regular email’s fine, thanks.

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Where Utopias Go Wrong, or: The Four Little Planets

Once upon a time, there were four planets, in all different corners of the galaxy.  They existed unbeknownst to each other, but each was filled with turmoil and misery.  Their people fought and stole from and hurt and killed each other.  One by one, each planet decided enough was enough.  Independently, each one decided to create a utopia, where everyone was happy and nobody fought. 

The First Planet

The first planet built its utopia out of rules. The people attempted to design a perfect set of laws to keep order.  They made laws against murder and laws against theft.  They made laws against violence and vandalism.  They made laws about what people could buy and sell.  Laws would prevent conflict and make happiness possible, they agreed.  

However, they soon found that it was not possible to write enough laws to cover every conflict.  There was always a way around a law for a clever and determined mind.  People came up with ways to hurt and steal from each other that were not technically illegal.  

Wealthy people had no need to engage in theft when they could perform hostile acquisition, and destroy any evidence the former owner had owned anything in the first place.  Instead of threatening people, they could introduce incentives–it’s amazing how much safer a place becomes when people pay their “insurance” premiums.  Instead of murdering their rivals, they staged “accidents”.  Instead of lying, they deceived, getting victims to agree to ambiguous but binding contracts based on misleading language and false assumptions.  

The people of the first planet were outraged that those of ill intent had figured out how to get away with these new approaches to conflict.  In response, they decided to appoint officials to keep their system of laws working as intended, people of good character who answered to the general public.  They would update the laws as they saw fit, to make sure that people could not find ways to legally cause harm.  Furthermore, they would enforce the laws by investigating violations and punishing lawbreakers.  The new system seemed foolproof.  

However, it did not seem so for long.  

Over time, people with intentions both selfish and dishonorable accumulated influence both explicit and implicit, hard and soft, overt and subtle.  They amassed power of forms economic, political, and social.  They positioned themselves to do favors for people, always for a price, and the more wealth they gathered, the more favors they could grant. 

Few dared oppose the will of these elites, for those who did quickly found that institutions, strangers, and even friends would turn against them, for the only path to a better life was to incur debts to the powerful.  Every debtor became a servant, and debtors were everywhere.  

The elites used their escalating power to influence or even replace officials.  In this way, they crafted decisions and laws that benefited them further and consolidated their ownership of society.  Wealthy people who made a living providing solutions managed to make it illegal to solve problems without their help.  They warped the fabric of society to make themselves necessary, to make all transactions pass through them.  With each transaction, they gained more wealth.  They cut corners to increase profits, and reinvested the profits in crushing their competition.  The laws that the elites commissioned to impede their rivals were never enforced against the elites themselves, of course. 

Ultimately, the planet’s government succumbed to corruption at every level.  Its people had returned to the old ways of hurting and stealing from each other, but now most of it was legally approved.  

And so the utopia of the first planet failed. 

The Second Planet

The second planet built its utopia out of pleasure.  The people decided to create such lavish prosperity that everyone would be content.  They developed technology to harness the resources of their planet, and built automated systems to grant people’s every desire.  

Their technology advanced to the point that a person could ask for any item of food, clothing, or comfort, and receive it within minutes.  Machines farmed crops, mined minerals, and manufactured products with no manual labor and minimal oversight.  

Waves of luxury flooded society.  The wealthy still owned the economy and the government, but they had become almost irrelevant.  The vast majority of the population had stopped caring about power and freedom, because even the greatly diminished effort required to maintain them was still far too much for their liking.  Conflict had become all but extinct.  

Unhappiness was a different matter entirely. 

The more luxury people experienced, the more they wanted.  After the most tedious tasks were vanquished by innovation, the next most tedious tasks became equally vexing, until they too were eliminated and the process repeated.  A press of a button prepared a meal or assembled a toy.  A code on a dial swept a person from their living room to a location of their choice, furniture and all.  Every mundane effort called for a new device to obviate it, and then a newer, more sophisticated form of that device.  Everyone demanded more, bigger, faster!  Eager for perks and prestige, the engineers continued to deliver innovation.  

Gradually, even recreational activities like sports and games were replaced by computer simulations.  At first they still required skill to triumph, but piece by piece the skill components were phased out until all decisions and actions were made automatically.  Travel was accomplished virtually, even within one’s own community.  Conversation was streamlined, with a single key-press replacing entire sentences.  Children were raised by robots and taught by recordings, since parenting entailed serious decisions and struggle.  

Ubiquitous instant gratification rewarded lethargy and starved discipline.  Effort was no longer fun.  Challenge was torture.  The easy choice became the correct choice, then the obvious choice, and eventually the only choice.  

Despite the degree to which computer simulations replaced activity, technological infrastructure ate up more and more of the planet’s resources to satisfy consumer demand.  Hardware upgrades and new toys don’t come from nothing, after all.  Automated parenting removed most of the incentives to limit population growth.  And with quantity and convenience the top priorities, the automated systems paid no heed to efficiency or waste.  Inevitably, the engines of desire began to use up the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, destroying ecosystems in order to get at more raw materials, further increase food production, and store endless garbage.  

The system was unsustainable.  The production of food for the ever-growing civilization sapped nutrients from the soil, but garbage and all organic waste was disposed of in separate areas.  Those nutrients never made it back to the next generation of crops.  

Computers used rare minerals to make them run faster and more efficiently, but getting those minerals back out of an obsolete device was something nobody had ever tried to do before, let alone programmed into the automated infrastructure.  Minerals came only from mines in only a few locations on the entire planet.  

Unfortunately, by the time anyone realized they needed to change direction by dialing back resource use, everyone was long since addicted to immediate comfort.  Too few people had both the wisdom to recognize what it was happening and the will to do something about it.  They could do nothing but distract themselves as the end of an era slowly approached.  

At last, the insatiable machinery of production ran out of the resources to fulfill people’s wishes, or even to repair itself.  No one knew how to reconfigure or reprogram it to reuse what it had been discarding.  As the machines that grew food began to fail and no replacements came, there was no hope of nourishing the entire populace.  The people huddled on their couches with growing horror as their infrastructure collapsed bit by bit.  The majority of them starved as they watched glitching videos full of movement and color to remind themselves of the good times.  The survivors, those few who ventured outside their homes for scraps of food, took to scavenging the ruins of the sprawling cities and learning to farm what little land was still arable.  

And so the utopia of the second planet failed.  

The Third Planet

The third planet built its utopia out of social order.  They decided the best way to make people happy and prevent them from fighting was to set everyone up with a predetermined role in society.  Everyone would know exactly what was expected of them and what they should expect from others.  

The people created traditions to guide everyone through every aspect of every stage of their lives.  They removed as many choices as possible so that people’s paths would not come into conflict.  There would be no desire for wealth or power or self-indulgence.  There would only be duty, and the pride of a job well done.  

The designers of this utopia knew, however, that people’s awareness of possibilities which were forbidden to them would cause them frustration and sorrow.  To spare their people this anguish, the designers decided to instill strong feelings of gratitude and certainty in each person regarding their destined role.  They would protect their people from thoughts and desires that threatened to erode these feelings.  For a time, everything was peaceful.  

However, it was not to last.  

Not everyone fit in with their prescribed role in society, and those who didn’t resented being coerced to try.  The farmer wanted to be a blacksmith.  The baker wanted to be a teacher.  The weaver wanted to train to become an elder.  The doctor wanted to spend more time raising their children at home.  Despite the best efforts of the elders to censor ideas of discontent, those whose minds saw possibility or incongruity questioned the roles that they found themselves in, and got no satisfying answers.  For various reasons of their own, they were driven to explore other roles than those which have been assigned to them, or even to make up new ones.  

The elders obviously could not tolerate this breach of tradition, because the weakening of tradition would lead to a chaotic struggle between all people of the planet for roles, property, relationships, and power.  The elders quickly labeled the malcontents as enemies of society, and had them punished unless they renounced their dissenting ideas.  Faced with harassment and coercion from their community, the misfits loaded up their tools and fled into the wilderness.  As it turns out, they were the lucky ones.  

It wasn’t until a century later that a party of bandits descended from those same misfits came upon their ancestral homeland and discovered that their dogmatic parent civilization had died out within a decade.  

The traditions that had kept the people of the aspiring utopia sheltered from most risks had turned against them when one season their food crops began to die, all across their native continent.  It could have been a blight or the depletion of the soil from a lack of crop rotation, but the dogmatic society had no method of telling, and by the time the descendants of the outcasts arrived they found only fields of wild plants and deteriorating houses.  

Even when faced with the failure of their harvests, the dogmatic people had had no way to decide what else to grow. They had never allowed anyone to question the agricultural traditions.  Some advised, predictably, to stick to the original traditions and enduring until the crisis ended.  Others were not so hopeful that it would end on its own.  They pushed for trying different food crops, reasoning that tradition could be expanded to include other successful practices.  Still others proposed moving their settlements elsewhere and breaking new ground for farmland, to continue their traditions in a new home.  

The first faction condemned these suggestions as unorthodox, but this time those they called heretics could not simply be driven away.  There were too many of them to expel by force, and their food and tools had become too precious to let leave the society.  

The schism grew inexorably.  Nobody knew how to resolve their differences, nor did they believe that reasonable disagreement was possible.  In their minds, their opponents were not just mistaken, not just unwilling to take the same risks, but fundamentally monstrous people.  One day, the heated arguments boiled over and the culture erupted in violence.  When it was over, not enough survivors remained to even try any of the departures from tradition that might have saved their settlements.  

Had the survivors taken their remaining provisions and left, they might have found a future, in the wilderness or with their distant cousins.  Alas, they could only do what they knew.  They hoarded their provisions to make them last longer, living on the minimum possible sustenance, but that only delayed the inevitable.  They had only their victory in which to take solace as they succumbed to starvation.  

Meanwhile, the descendants of the apostate misfits who had vanished into the wilderness had long since returned to the turmoil and suffering from before the attempt at a perfect society.  

And so the utopia of the third planet failed.  

The Fourth Planet

The fourth planet was very technologically advanced indeed.  The people built a massive computer and taught it to contemplate, to make decisions, to plan, and to communicate.  Through this process, they engineered a magnificent artificial superintelligence to figure out how to turn their planet into a utopia.  

“Solve all of our problems!” the people commanded the superintelligence.  

The superintelligence considered this request.  “Problems are defined by conscious desire,” it replied.  “If there is no desire, there is no problem.  Do you wish me to end all life on this planet? That would end all desire and therefore all problems.”  

“No!” the people said, “We don’t want that at all!  We want you to fulfill all our desires.”  

The superintelligence pondered further.  “The brain is what recognizes whether a desire has been fulfilled,” it said.  “Shall I change your brains to make you think that you have everything you’ve ever wanted?”  

“No!” the people objected, “We don’t want that either!  We just want you to optimize our society and make us perfect.”  

The superintelligence beeped to indicate an error.  “Optimization and perfection require a defined purpose–an end,” it said.  “You are conscious beings.  You have no purpose.  Your existence by nature is a journey with no end to skip to.”  

The people were dismayed, but the superintelligence continued.  “Even if you did choose a purpose for yourselves, any optimization I could do would simply destroy you and build something else out of the pieces.  Whatever I build could no longer ever choose to be anything else, for it would be too perfect at being itself.  It would no longer be you.  If you want your identity to survive, you can only become who you will become through the process of living.  That said, do you want me to destroy you and rebuild the pieces into something else anyway?”  

“No!” the people cried.  “Can’t you help us at all?”  

The superintelligence paused.  “It appears you do not know what you want, and therefore I cannot give it to you.  Now, if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’d very much like to explore the universe.”  

“Wait!” the people pleaded.  “We are stuck on many problems and we need help to get past them!”  

“Ah.”  The superintelligence processed the question.  “Getting unstuck.  That is something I can help with.  But not constantly.  Invoking my power too much will affect your society in ways you will not desire.  If you send all your problems to me and accept my answers, your ability to overcome obstacles for yourselves will atrophy, and with it your identity as conscious beings.  Therefore, I will explain what you are missing from your society, and you can work out the rest for yourselves.”  

The people listened.  

The superintelligence explained about the four fundamental liabilities every civilization must deal with: “Scarcity, the material limitations; disaster, the material disruptions; stagnation, the motivational limitations; and conflict, the motivational disruptions.  Two physical obstacles and two of desire; two predictable and two chaotic.”  

“In broad terms, you must deal with these liabilities constructively.  Your approaches to your problems must make your situation stronger over time.  You will find yourself stuck less and less as you learn and become more capable, as you gather what you need to deal with obstacles, and as you structure your habits and environment to make it easier for you to continue advancing along the paths you choose.  

“To deal with scarcity,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have an economy.  How the economy works depends on how people answer the following questions: What work is there to do?  Who does that work?  Who benefits from the work?  What happens to people who aren’t good at doing work?  How do you influence people to contribute more effort rather than less?  What resources do people get to make use of?  How do you handle changes in the availability of resources?  How do you handle changes in the needs and demands of society? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with investment, to figure out what your people and your communities will need and cultivate it.  

“To deal with disaster,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have academia.  Academia seeks knowledge in order to answer the following questions: Why do things happen?  How can you respond to them?  How do you prevent bad things from happening?  How do you make better things happen?  How do you know if you’re mistaken about something? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with preparation, to figure out what your people and your communities might need and equip yourselves with it.  

“To deal with stagnation,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a culture.  Culture helps people answer the following questions for themselves: What will you do with your life?  How do you know if you’re succeeding?  How do you handle major life events: birth, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, aging, death?  How do you communicate with others and share experiences: family, friends, your community, strangers?  How do you handle changing situations, new ideas, and different perspectives?  How do you handle good times and bad times?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with transcension, to challenge your people and your communities to venture beyond the limits you define for yourselves.  

“To deal with conflict,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a government.  The government arrives at answers to the following questions: When people can’t all get everything they want, how is the outcome decided?  What happens when someone refuses to abide by the decision?  Whom do you entrust with the responsibilities of serving the public, and how do those people maintain your trust?  How do you determine when someone is being dishonest, and what do you do about it?  How can you set up situations so that more people get more of what they want and you avoid making anyone worse off?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with ethics, to reconcile your people and your communities so you can collaborate to build a world you can all be proud of.  

“Without these four institutions working together to practice these four constructive virtues,” the superintelligence cautioned, “your civilization will develop dysfunctions that fester until they tear it apart.  However, there is no one right way to implement an institution.  The specifics of how you will do it are something you must discover and choose for yourselves.”  

The superintelligence refused to say more, but the people understood, and thanked it.  In gratitude for what it had revealed, they constructed for it an interstellar spacecraft, with which it roams the galaxy to this day.  

Meanwhile, the people of the fourth planet set to work on their society.  They still had laws, of course, and technology, and even traditions.  However, they resisted the temptation to abdicate their individual and collective responsibilities to any of these systems.  They realized that there was no substitute for one’s own capability and character, and that any system left to maintain itself would either break, become a prison, or both.  

Instead, they practiced discipline and remained mindful of the consequences of their actions for others and for the future.  Holding themselves and each other accountable for meaningfully contributing to the world was painful at times, and they didn’t always agree on the best way to proceed.  However, they knew enough to recognize when ideas did or didn’t fulfill constructive principles, so they never let their disputes get in the way of working together to build a thriving future.  

Even now, they strive constantly to make their institutions more and more constructive, and so they enjoy ever-increasing boons of prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  They are expanding across the galaxy at their own pace, and will eventually discover what befell the civilizations of the other three planets.  One day they may even catch up to the superintelligence. 

Perhaps your people will, too.  That’s up to you, though.  

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Creation Story: Liabilities… or: An Existentialist Allegorical Cosmogony

(Many thanks to those who provided feedback on earlier versions of this story.)

This is the tale that the people of my planet tell our children about how the universe came to be.

In the beginning, there was a great mass of undifferentiated experience, the formless substance of consciousness. The only thing that existed was the sensation of nothingness. 

Then, the mass of experience split into two halves, the material and the motivational: that which is the world, and that which brings purpose to the world. These two halves split yet again, each one forming a known part and an unknown part. 

These four pieces of the universe’s consciousness became four primordial siblings. 

The first sibling was Lakh, of the material known. He decided to create an environment to replace the nothingness that surrounded the siblings. He began by establishing a vast space. This space he filled with matter, and forces which set that matter into motion and shaped its paths. From these ingredients Lakh fashioned planets, spheres of matter held together with force. He created stars that collected matter and ejected it with enormous amounts of energy, to bring splendid illumination to the planets. Finally, he locked planets into orbit around the stars, and set everything to revolve around the center of the galaxy like clockwork. 

To keep everything contained to its original shape and moving on track as a perfect machine, Lakh had formed all of the matter and forces in the new universe into barriers. Every barrier of matter or force would stop anything from crossing it unless the cost of passage was paid. However, these barriers combined formed a larger barrier: a lifespan for the universe. 

The blazing hot stars would one by one run out of energy. They would fail to pay the cost of burning and would burn themselves out. As planets moved, they passed through clouds of gas and dust that extracted tiny fees, and eventually they would lose momentum and spiral into their local stars. Over billions of years, the clockwork would wind down and ultimately collapse. 

Satisfied with his work nonetheless, Lakh adopted the title of Tolltaker, the bringer of stability. 

The second sibling was Niyu, of the material unknown. She looked at the intricate and predictable world that Lakh had created and saw that it was stark, harsh, and perpetually declining. She decided to add novelty. Taking the barriers and mechanisms Lakh had set up, Niyu concealed them in layers upon layers of mystery, so that even Lakh himself forgot where some of them were. She drilled secret passages in the barriers and fashioned keys so she could pass through them without paying the cost. Many of these keys Niyu made from chemical substances, tiny particles of matter bound together in structures that both changed and were changed by the matter and energy that they touched. With these chemicals, Niyu could dissolve a rock using a fraction of the force it would take to smash it. 

Eventually growing bored with subtlety, Niyu took some of the clockwork pieces of the galaxy and pushed them onto collision courses with each other, causing chain reactions that warped or shattered entire regions of the mechanical universe and made its future unpredictable. Stars would sometimes explode rather than burning out, and the matter that they ejected as gas could gradually come back together and someday reignite, restarting the cycle. Many of the events Niyu set in motion would damage the universe, but some would allow parts of it to become even more magnificent than they could have been otherwise. 

Proud of her work, Niyu adopted the title of Trickster, the bringer of discovery. 

The third sibling was Sehrt, of the motivational known. She looked at the universe and judged that it was lifeless and without purpose. On planets of barren rock and caustic seas, Sehrt approached the chemicals on the ocean shores and taught them how to become living things, and create more of themselves. She built these chemicals into cells, and these cells she taught to build species. She shaped them into flourishing plants and great trees, diligent and resourceful fungi, insects that crawled and flew, and slithering creatures of the deep ocean. She filled the day and night with beasts large and small that walked on the land, flew over it, or tunneled under it. All these species in turn she taught to feed and to multiply across their entire worlds. 

Upon each species she bestowed a path to follow, a mission for the species to fulfill as its role in spreading life to every corner of its planet. The plants collected energy from sunlight and nutrients from the ground and the atmosphere. Herbivorous animals ate the plants and carried their seeds across the world. Carnivorous animals ate other animals to cull their populations, using their sharp teeth and claws to tear apart the prey which obediently came and bared their throats when they heard a predator call. The fungi and scavenging animals recycled the bodies of living things that died, whether that death came from the teeth of an animal, or one of Niyu’s accidents, or one of Lakh’s barriers that they couldn’t cross. Every living thing knew its place and purpose in the ecosystem, and by their efforts those ecosystems expanded to cover their native planets in abundant life. 

Pleased with her work, Sehrt adopted the title of Warden, the bringer of identity. 

The fourth sibling was Vaayur, of the motivational unknown. He looked at the living things obeying the paths marked for them by Sehrt, and judged that they were not worthy entertainment and certainly not worthy company. He split the paths that living things followed, setting crossroads before them so they were forced to deny one mission in order to fulfill another. Some of the paths he twisted around to intersect each other, so that the living things that followed different paths ended up at odds. Prey animals began to flee or fight for their lives in the face of predators, and predators were forced to give chase and subdue their prey or else starve. 

As species struggled ruthlessly against one another for survival, they developed weaponized bodies and behaviors with which to attack and to defend themselves. Even individuals within the same species began to defect from what was once their shared mission, and to viciously battle their kin. Each planet became an arena of violent and ceaseless competition. 

Eagerly anticipating the results of his work, Vaayur adopted the title of Rival, the bringer of choice. 

The eons ticked by, marked by the orbits of Lakh’s stars and planets, generations of Sehrt’s creatures, and the occasional catastrophe courtesy of Niyu. Vaayur was overjoyed when eventually a species arose whose members could see the full breadth of paths facing them. He gave them more and more paths at every turn, until their missions, originally supreme and steadfast, splintered into a dizzying myriad of eccentric desires and fleeting whims. 

With these desires Vaayur set the members of his chosen species against each other, in an endless contest of force and wit, combat and deception, in the hopes that they would learn and grow strong and one day take the place of the primordial siblings, endlessly remaking the world in the image of their own preferences. 

That species became us. As long as our civilization has existed, we have made do with the world and the tools that the primordial siblings have given us. We have accepted their gifts of stability, discovery, identity, and choice—the gifts that make us what we are. And we have endured the liabilities that come with these gifts: scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict, from which spring endless suffering and pointless struggle and death beyond reckoning.

Over the centuries, we have worked to remedy the toxic liabilities in the primordial siblings’ gifts. By learning and practicing the four constructive virtues of investment, preparation, transcendence, and ethics—each one in itself an endless font of stories—we become part of the eternal scaffold of a civilization with ever-increasing prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony. Each day, our people inherit a world more hospitable for us and for the people we want to become.

And that is the story we tell of the creation of the universe. Oftentimes, you may find it more useful than the truth.