The Leap Day gallery open house is Saturday. If you wonder how such a thing could be possible, consider that I remember seeing a toy store in downtown Lansing, Michigan with a stack of these in the front window when I was two, and THAT was the moment where the timeline split and all of my other realities involved my becoming a football star and Catholic priest. Selah.
One poster, and everything’s melting down. To everyone who came to this site thanks to the new poster that went out two weeks ago, or who arrived via Glasstire, welcome, and feel free to dig around. If you like what you read, the Leap Day at the Texas Triffid Ranch open house is this coming Saturday, starting at 6:00 pm, and it’s open to the public, the sporting press, and any art critics looking for easy targets. (With the last, I’m dead serious: we’re very fluent in constructive criticism here. So long as the response isn’t huffy demands for freebies followed by bad reviews because the freebies were freely given, known in the Dallas music and film communities as “getting wilonskeyed,” fire away.) And so it goes.
Posted onFebruary 21, 2020|Comments Off on The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #14
(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)
Originally published on January 24, 2020.
Installment #14: “The Best Intentions”
The question keeps coming up with visitors and clients at the gallery. Even with a decor that continues the argument that Doctor Who and The Red Green Show are really the same television show, one items stands out. It’s led to lots of stares, a few quiet questions (where the individual looks up with a quizzical expression but doesn’t actually get anything out), and a few misunderstandings. It’s all involving the same thing, though: “Why is there a poster for the movie Annihilation in your gallery?”
As I said, it’s a regular question, where those asking it assume that there’s a big artistic explanation, or at least a smirk of “Well, I really liked the movie.” Most Triffid Ranch stories have to go the roundabout way in order to tell the story right, and this one takes a little while. The short version: the 2017 movie Annihilation is based, rather loosely, on the novel by author Jeff VanderMeer, from the first volume in his Southern Reach trilogy. You might recognize the name: Annihilation is the first adaptation of one of his novels so far, but his latest novel Dead Astronauts flooded the book review ecosystem when it came out in December 2019, and that was just a side story on one chapter of his 2017 novel Borne. Those of us who remember the 1990s may remember Jeff as far back as his first novel Dradin, In Love, from his extensive short fiction and nonfiction output over the last 30 years, or from the various fiction collections he and his wife Anne have edited over the last 15 years. Most importantly for this discussion, Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants.
Okay, since the short version is inadequate to the task of explaining what’s going on, here’s the long version. Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants. Happy?
Okay, backstory. I first encountered the literary dervish that is Jeff VanderMeer about 25 years ago. Due to being laid up after extensive shoulder surgery in 1994, I decided that I could spend my time zoned out on painkillers while watching afternoon television (and in those days, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was the most challenging option out there) or I could take advantage of the opportunity. The next four months alternated between extensive therapy to give a modicum of normal range of motion to my right arm, writing, and learning Web design. With those last two, this was that magical period just before the Internet went really mainstream, in what is generally referred to as the Golden Age of glossy full-color magazines. Lots of magazines meant a need for content that required lots of writers, so I spent the second half of the 1990s polluting the tables of contents for a slew of science fiction and gonzo magazines you’ve probably never heard of. The subsequent collapse of those magazines at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century was mitigated by getting a new career in first Web design and later technical writing, for a slew of companies and online publications you’ve probably never heard of. (If you have, the odds are pretty good that they either still owe you money or they owed someone you know money when they shut down everything and moved out in the middle of the night.) At the beginning of 1995, I had a column for a magazine you’ve probably never heard of, where I was having grand fun beating on some of the more established and pompous gatekeepers in the science fiction community: I wasn’t making any money, but I was infuriating the right people. That’s when I started a regular correspondence with a certain somebody from Tallahassee, Florida.
To say that this was an easy friendship would be a blatant lie. Both Jeff and I were opinionated, fervent, enthusiastic, and more than a little hyperactive: the difference between us lay with his having talent. I nonetheless attempted to keep up, but kept forgetting that what I thought was idle frippery could be intensely annoying to others. At one point, Jeff blew up on a throwaway piece I wrote for an email newsletter you’ve probably never heard of, and told me “Why don’t you start writing about gardening?” Others would have escalated the conflict, or at least told him exactly what impossible sexual act he could attempt, with accompanying photographs, diagrams, and helpful videos. I thought about it, made a few “Hmmmmm” noises, and did just that. Hang onto this, because this is important.
All of this was fun and games until the beginning of 2002. That was a particularly bad year all the way around, especially for someone with a severe writing habit that was subsidized with 60-hour weeks indulging in technical writing forays. The dotcom crash went into its third year, and a lot of endeavors subsidized with techie money turned back into pumpkins and mice. The non-technical writing career ended in May 2002, after arguing with yet another wannabe editor of yet another stillborn culture magazine about how “exposure doesn’t pay the bills, especially from a magazine that most likely will come out when the Dallas Cowboys win a shutout World Series pennant.” Sometimes, you can be TOO right: after seeing a pattern of publications promising to pay “when we’re successful” and then making damn sure that they never became successful enough to pay their contributors, I shut down everything and walked away. 18 years later, and I still don’t regret that decision.
Here’s where Jeff came back again. Four months later, I received a phone call from a company in Tallahassee, Florida that needed a technical writer. That sort of thing happened a lot, mostly with technical recruiters pretending that they were working by wasting their victims’ time with jobs that didn’t really exist, but these folks were serious. Even better, they were willing to pay for a face-to-face interview. Three days later, I was on a Delta flight, with a seatmate stopping in Tallahassee on his way to Miami, telling me “Don’t waste your time in the Panhandle: the real action is in the South.” I wasn’t going to give him any grief: Florida was one of the few states in the Estados Unidos that I’d never so much as flown over, and everything I knew about the Florida Panhandle came from Golden Nature Guides from the 1960s. I wasn’t expecting alligators on everyone’s front porch, but I at least expected to see tree frogs.
The punchline: after the first phone call, since I knew absolutely nothing about Tallahassee, I emailed the one person I knew who did: a guy who was still trying to convince me to return to writing. Jeff had lived most of his life in Tallahassee, and he told me to go for it.
Fast-forward two weeks: not only did I get the job, but they were even willing to pay for me to move there, so that meant loading up my old Dodge Neon with everything I thought I’d need for the next few months, leaving my frantic fiancé in Dallas, and making a straight drive along Interstate Highway I-10 to Tally. After getting set up in a residence hotel just off the highway and visiting my new workplace, it was time to explore the new environs, and I found myself on a Friday afternoon in the Tallahassee Museum. The Museum is less a formal museum than a wildlife preserve and recreation of the general environment facing early European settlers in the area, which meant lots of forest, lots of bog, lots of animals ranging from Florida panthers to indigo snakes, and the widest range of flora I’d ever seen. And there, up in the front by the main visitor center, was a planter full of Sarracenia purpurea, more commonly known as the purple pitcher plant. And that, as they say, was that. Discovering later that the boglands around and in Appalachicola National Forest have the widest variety by genera of carnivorous plants of any area on the planet was just gravy.
Well, time elapsed. The company that hired me was climbing out of bankruptcy after the dotcom crash, and three months after moving out there, I discovered that the big software package I was hired to document wasn’t going to happen and that my services were no longer needed, This was about three days before Christmas and six days before my fiancé and I were to be married, and literally an hour after purchasing non-refundable plane tickets to get back to Dallas for that wedding, which meant having to fly to Dallas for holidays and wedding, flying back to Tallahassee on New Year’s Day, cleaning out my rented room and saying goodbye to my roommate, and driving back to Dallas. (A little tip: don’t try that as a straight trip if you feel the need: the first 11 hours aren’t that bad, but the last four are where sleep deprivation starts to kick in. I’m just glad I didn’t encounter any significant road construction.) One of the last things I did before leaving Tallahassee, though, was visiting the Tallahassee Museum one last time and ransacking the gift shop’s selection of carnivorous plant books.
17 years later, those books are part of the library at the gallery. The fascination with carnivores never let up, ultimately leading to giving lectures on carnivores, then selling them at shows and conventions, and ultimately to the gallery. And behind this all was the cherished friendship of Jeff VanderMeer, who never gave me any grief in Tallahassee about needing time to recuperate and heal. In return, I do nothing but cheer over news about new books and upcoming television deals. A hardcover copy of Dead Astronauts sits on display in the gallery as I write this, and the Annihilation poster will only get replaced in its current place of honor when the next movie adaptation comes out. That said, it’s still so much fun to send him pictures of the crowd at a gallery open house, wag my finger, and yell “Dude, this is YOUR FAULT!”
It took long enough, but the Triffid Ranch presence on Facebook is now as dead as cathode-ray tube monitors, and it was for a lot of reasons. The biggest and foremost was needing to focus on the gallery, but recent developments with Facebook’s algorithms as to which posts would and would not be shared with Page subscribers, as well as how much getting them boosted was going to cost, made being on that platform intolerable. Instagram and Twitter are both still destinations, but getting off Facebook was a plan for the better part of a year, and the current gallery efforts just expedited that. (And yes, this is a shameless plug for subscribing to this newsletter, early and often.)
You may have missed it during its original release, but a lot of Triffid Ranch inspiration these days comes from a rereading of Raven Rock by Garrett M. Graffiti, a look at efforts after World War II to build and rebuild facilities for government officials to survive a major nuclear attack. Examining facilities never used but still technically active is a long-running fascination, and you don’t get stranger than a lot of military and government plans that were sidelined as peace broke out.
Finally, a combination of long hours and seeking new vistas at the gallery means needing a lot of new music, and the current work background music comes from the German electronic band Blutangel. When you need music for future archaeology, you can’t go wrong with this crew.
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Posted onFebruary 21, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: NARBC Arlington Spring 2020 – 4
The spring 2020 NARBC Arlington reptile show is over, but the application for the September 2020 show just went out. Expect a much wider range of plants in September, as the Venus flytraps and North American pitcher plants were still in winter dormancy in February, and expect a whole new range of enclosures as well. Thanks to everyone who came by the booth this time, and I look forward to seeing all of you in seven months.
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Posted onFebruary 20, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: NARBC Arlington Spring 2020 – 3
Astute readers might notice that the enclosures at the gallery and at shows through 2020 so far have nameplates with both basic information on the enclosure and a QR code. Triffid Ranch displays already started phasing out individual business cards as of last year and using QR codes for the main Web site, with overwhelmingly enthusiastic results. The QR codes on the nameplates was based on extensive study of museum display design: the overwhelming number of smartphones today read the QR code with the camera and ask “Would you like to go to (Web site)?” as soon as it’s detected. Among many other things, the individual nameplates are for those who want to take a further look when the booth is overcrowded: take a quick shot and read the enclosure listing at your leisure.
The biggest surprise upon implementing QR codes was with younger attendees: they know about the codes, but overwhelmingly they only see it used for advertising, and advertising for products where they have absolutely no interest, in an attempt to be “edgy”. When they discover someone who uses QR codes that actually impart information, instead of trying to get their email addresses in exchange for a discount coupon, they practically squeal with joy. When I get back to technical writing, this is going to be part of an ongoing discussion on usability that needs to be elaborated further. As Vincent Flanders has been noting for the last two decades, people are willing to use new technology if it actually does something for them, and not because some marketing rep is looking to pad his/her resume with yet more buzzwords. Suffice to say, expect the Triffid Ranch to expand in their use, particularly with more elaborate plant care guides in the near future.
To be continued…
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Posted onFebruary 20, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: NARBC Arlington Spring 2020 – 2
One of the best things about attending the NARBC Arlington reptile show for the last decade is watching the evolution of the venue and the attendees. While Texas had excellent reptile shows on its own in the past, the real conversations involved big shows on either coast of the US, and we were left on the sidelines. The last time I was a vendor at NARBC, back in 2013, one of the regular questions asked by attendees was “Are you going to be at (big East Coast show)?” This time, all focus was on Arlington, with a remarkable number of attendees coming in from outside the state, and some coming from outside the US.
(This leads to an apology in advance: this show and Texas Frightmare Weekend are the two Triffid Ranch shows with a significant number of attemdees who fly in from elsewhere, so a lot of patrons point to a bottle or jar and ask “Could I take this on the plane?” That’s a question I honestly cannot answer, because it depends upon the airline, the baggage handler, and whether or not the TCA rep inspecting your carry-on luggage has issues with you having a flask full of sundews among your lacy unmentionables. The best thing I can recommend is to check two sources before flying out to an event like this: the first is to check with the airline in advance as to its policies about glassware in carry-ons, and GET IT IN WRITING in case someone has an issue during boarding. The second is to check with the state or country to which you will be returning about any necessary inspections or permits needed to bring live plants back home: the last thing any of us want is for you to have your new plant confiscated and/or destroyed because of a regulation or ordinance of which you were unaware.)
This in itself led to interesting conversations with regulars from the NARBC Tinley Park show in Illinois, many of whom hoped that the Triffid Ranch might go transcontinental. Sadly, as much as I would love to attend any show in the Chicago area (I haven’t been in Chicago in 40 years, and a lot of online friends have been nuhdzing about making a trip north for a while), the thought of a trip of that duration depends upon how well the New Orleans Oddities & Curiosities Expo show goes this August. If New Orleans works out, well, it’s high time to head up to Chicago.
To be continued…
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Posted onFebruary 19, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: NARBC Arlington Spring 2020 – 1
It’s been a while since the last time a Triffid Ranch booth appeared at the North American Reptile Breeders Conference show in Arlington: it wasn’t for a lack of interest, but a lack of opportunity. This year, though, it was time to return, both to a new date (the first time since moving to the new gallery space that it was practical or sane to attempt a February show) and to an extensively expanded space at the Arlington Convention Center. Taking over the adjoining hall meant both room for new vendors and much wider aisles between rows than in previous years, both of which were greatly appreciated by new and returning attendees. This meant the largest crowds I’ve ever seen at an NARBC event, and the crowds kept coming all day Saturday and to the close of business on Sunday. Reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, enclosures and accessories: NARBC had it all, and now it included carnivorous plants.
To be continued…
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By the time you see this, I’ll be setting up my booth at the Arlington Convention Center for the spring NARBC reptile and amphibian show (now with carnivorous plants to go with the chameleons, axolotls, and various invertebrates), and this song makes a handy theme. Contrary to popular opinion and terrestrial radio station “classic rock” programming directors, music in the 1980s wasn’t “all Phil Collins, all the time,” even if it sometimes seemed that way for those of us who had to live through it.
Out of all of the known examples of elder civilization technology currently catalogued, none is more helpful, more lifesaving, or more exasperating than the Lifehutches. Lifehutches have been found under nearly every environment known: asteroids where escape velocity is a fastball pitch, deep within super-Venuses with hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, locked in orbit around neutron stars, and across a multitude of worlds where the term “habitable” is problematic and sometimes a slur. While some experts speculate as to the species and/or organization that created the first Lifehutch, everyone agrees that they are absolute marvels of nanotech combined with organic technology, easily a half-million Earth years ahead of any other known inhabitant of our or any nearby galaxy. In its normal state, a Lifehutch is completely inert, unscannable with any technique known, impervious to X-rays and neutrinos, and impossible to move when anchored. That changes if an individual seeks help of any sort.
When encountered, a Lifehutch is a rectangular box 20 meters wide, with no distinguishing features other than an array of sensory devices on one side, hereby referred to as the “front.” By the time an individual comes within five meters of the front, the Lifehutch has ascertained basic biochemistry, nutritional and gravitational needs, and a fair approximation of communication options, as well as preparing organic and mechanical repair resources. Coming within a meter, a door automatically opens into a chamber optimized for basic comfort based on the initial Lifehutch assessment, and entering the Lifehutch immediately generates light, temperature, and atmosphere depending upon the individual’s preferences and needs, no matter the outside conditions. Starting with pictograms, audio, and video, the Lifehutch communicates with the entrant as to its needs and provides accordingly with a tremendous array of medical and communications options. If the entrant is simply lost and needs assistance, the Lifehutch supplies the individual with directions and enough sustenance to see them on their way. If the entrant is injured, the Lifehutch is capable of everything from bandaging bruises to elaborate neurosurgery, and is capable of simultaneous surgery on as many as eight patients with wildly varying biochemistries and sets of internal organs. If the individual needs to reach superiors or authorities for rescue, the Lifehutch offers at least four FTL options, two of which are still completely unknown, to send a signal. In the meantime, while waiting for a rescue, the Lifehutch offers food and solvents based on the occupant’s biology (and full metal and silicon augmentation and reconstruction for artificial forms), a comfortable rest area, and even rudimentary entertainment to pass the time. When rescue arrives and the occupant is mobile, the Lifehutch sends a homing signal to allow the rescuers to pinpoint the location. If the occupant is not, the Lifehutch releases the occupant to the rescue authority in a stasis shell that can be turned off in the appropriate medical facility. If the occupant attempted to be destructive or self-destructive, the Lifehutch usually has the occupant in a stasis shell long before rescue arrives.
With these options, some may decide to use a Lifehutch for a longterm or permanent residence, and that’s where the Lifehutch’s more problematic functions come in. The species or group that invented the Lifehutch apparently had their own analogue to the old adage about fish and houseguests, and while a Lifehutch has nearly infinite patience with a tenant whose rescue may be thousands of light-years distant, it has none for a tenant who has no further plans. Like a hipster on his fiftieth birthday, it’s time to let the nestling fly. At a certain point, when all injuries and sickness are healed and the occupant has no reason to remain, the occupant will awaken one day outside the Lifehutch front, all gear with which they entered repaired and recharged and enough food and solvent for a week, and the Lifehutch will never open for that individual again. Considering that most Lifehutches are located in dangerous areas, it behooves that individual to move well away, and never return.
Considering the huge range of environments in which Lifehutches can be found, this may appear to be a death sentence if that environment is drastically different from that in which the occupant was raised, constructed, or evolved. In that case, the Lifehutch gives one last gift. The former occupant awakes to discover that it has been modified to survive and thrive in the current conditions around the Lifehutch: this includes a complete modification of biochemistry to breathe methane, drink liquid sulfur, or echolocate in an opaque atmosphere. If the former occupant is now no longer capable of returning to its original environment due to its original atmosphere being poisonous or a need for low-level microwave radiation for proper digestive health, then it had best get used to its new home.
In some cases, this feature is more advantageous than expected. For unknown reasons, Lifehutches occasionally bud, producing two to five separate ingots about the size of a shipping drum, that can be transported and activated in new locations. This has affected interstellar commerce and diplomacy: instead of a representative needing to carry its life requirements to a new world for the rest of said life, an extended vacation can leave a trade delegate or diplomat permanently suited for a healthy life among its new neighbors, albeit with no chance of returning. Apparently fewer are bothered by this prospect than one would think: by some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the major spacefaring races within the nearest 20 galaxies to our own started as Lifehutch modifications, and further intergalactic travel has yet to find a sector of space without at least one Lifehutch in it.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Plant:Nepenthes ramis x spectrabilis
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
One of the largest enclosures constructed at the Valley View gallery, Hans-Ruedi is a compromise situation involving a mature Nepenthes bicalcarata with new growth from its roots. In order to encourage new growth, the parent plant had to be trimmed back severely after its removal from its previous enclosure. To encourage vining and production of the plant’s upper pitchers, suitable anchoring areas had to be available for the vines to attach, and in a way that these were not immediately obvious. Taking inspiration from the “New York” series of prints by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (1940-2014), the backdrop is a custom creation intended to allow the Nepenthes to reach a suitable size without interfering with the view of upper and lower pitchers.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 37″ x 18 1/2″ (45.72 cm x 93.98 cm x 46.99 cm)
The commission had three parameters: firstly, the enclosure had to incorporate a hexagon aquarium, generally unavailable since the early 1990s. Secondly, the enclosure centerpiece was to be a Nepenthes “Bloody Mary” hybrid. Thirdly, the original request was to make “something Lovecraftian.” After a quick discussion, the focus switched from H.P. Lovecraft to the works of Karl Edward Wagner, particularly his novel Bloodstone (1975).
Description:Nepenthes bicalcarata, the famed “fanged pitcher plant,” is best known for the two fang-like structures (officially known as nectaries) projecting from underneath each pitcher’s lid. Such a dangerous-appearing organism requires a comparable support mechanism watching over it, but is it being repelled, attacked, or stimulated?
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
Blink clunk. Every daybreak started the same way. Blink clunk. As soon as the first direct rays of the sun hit its upper receptors, the little proximity sensor took in its surroundings in visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, sonar, and gamma rays. Blink clunk. In a femtosecond, it compared the current pile of data from the same point in the previous day, and from the day before, and as far back as its memory allowed. Blink clunk. That memory went back 25 years, or at least the comparable orbit of its world around its sun, with regular downloads to its central control. Or at least it had to assume that those downloads had been made: it hadn’t received anything new from the central control in a very long time. Blink clunk.
The “blink clunk” came from its main visual field processor: even with exquisitely designed gel-lenses that could go from microscopic to wide-sky panorama, eventually things start wearing out. The little proximity sensor used to be perfectly silent, a guard on the front that never needed sleep or relief or entertainment. As it continued its duty, though, eventually metal fatigue, plastic degradation, and lubricant failure became factors that it had to take into account. Had the little proximity sensor been human, it would have made jokes about the interesting creaks and pops that came with getting up in the morning as it got older. Since it wasn’t, it just catalogued predicted system failures, the number of those failures that could be tolerated before it could no longer achieve its intended purpose, and sent those out on the daily report. It had to assume that the daily report was received and acted upon: it had no real choice, and while the little proximity sensor had been built with “the power of negative thinking” in mind, it was fatalistic without being pessimistic.
The little proximity sensor’s intended purpose was to watch. The sensor’s Three Laws were the soldier’s General Orders, starting with “I will guard everything within the limits of my post, and leave my post only when properly relieved.” That post was on the side of a plateau overlooking a vast flood plain. The world didn’t matter, other than that its atmosphere and gravity were such that humans could walk around without pressure suits or high-G exoskeletons, and its indigenous life was similar enough that those pressure suits weren’t used to fend off immediate anaphylactic shock upon contact with it. The little proximity sensor, as with others just like it, had been set into the rock around the sides of the plateau, each fitted with multiple electronic inputs, access to a power source, and an output to report anything that those inputs detected. All of the proximity sensors had been given a list of special orders: watch for anything on any wavelength that meets these criteria and send an immediate report of type, number, direction, and approach. Every time it scanned the flood plain, it went through its coded itinerary, made comparisons to its previous scan, and waited for any input that required a subsequent scan.
The little proximity sensor didn’t mind its assignment. Unlike a human soldier at a post, it had no dawning awareness that it had not heard from its control in a very long time. Since it had no way to free itself from the rock in which it was set, it couldn’t walk around the ridge to see its cohorts or check to see if the massive command center it was supposed to be guarding was still in place. It had no way to confirm or deny that the command center had been destroyed or overrun, and no weapons to do anything about it. All it had to keep up its synthetic spirits was the Third General Order: “I will report any violations of my special orders, emergencies, and everything not covered in my special orders to the commander of the relief.” The little proximity sensor reported everything, hadn’t received a response asking for clarification, and kept going.
Every few months (based on its own internal calendar, not anything based on the movement of planetary, lunar, asteroidal, or cometary bodies in its visual field), the little proximity sensor would send a synopsis of its post condition to control. Rain. Unusual heat or cold. The sprouting of plants in its vicinity. (Plants growing to obstruct its visual field would have interfered with its First General Order and been reported as per the Third.) The small animals moving among the rocks were worthy of cataloguing, but not worthy of contacting control unless they actually interacted with the sensor, and they generally showed no interest. One morning, the little proximity sensor awoke to one of those animals perched atop its ultraviolet node, but the sensor’s first “blink clunk” of the day spooked it off, and it never returned. With all of these, it sent out a report that was a model of efficiency and brevity, never once received a response, and never expected to get one. Blink clunk.
If the little proximity sensor had been constructed with anything approximating imagination added to its general orders, it might have checked back more often to see if control had received any of its reports. It might have checked to see if control was in any condition to receive those reports. It might have wondered if control was sitting on those reports because it had no way to transmit them, or the humans for whom the reports were intended were dead or removed from the field, or the war had been over for centuries and the cost of dismantling the sensor was more than some official thought it was worth. If the little proximity sensor had anything approximating a sense of humor, it would have made jokes about its reports being the basis of some art major’s Masters thesis, or about the one office clerk who had responsibility over reports from innumerable abandoned proximity sensors across three galaxies, or how that one perching animal became a punchline to a joke it would never understand. If it had a sense of mortality, it might have wondered how much time it had left before power failed and it went dark, no longer able to scan its floodplain, and wondered if anyone would notice its lack of regular reports. It had none of these, and since it hadn’t been relieved of duty, it still had a job to do, and no way to question whether that job still needed doing.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 8 1/2” x 13” x 8 1/2” (21.59 cm x 33.02 cm x 21.59 cm)
Plants: Drosera adelae
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
In the annals of human-developed artificial intelligence, Virgil shouldn’t have succeeded. Originally developed in the mid-Twenty-First Century, Virgil was the Euclidean ideal of software development of the time: proposed by senior managers who could barely spell “computer,” given parameters by marketing managers who definitely couldn’t, overseen by project managers who would flounce out of the company the moment they were passed over for a glamorous VP position, and developers whose sole concerns were showing that they had made a change to Virgil’s code instead of a necessary change when performance reviews came up. Everyone from senior VP to technical recruiter dropped every last trendy catchphrase and malapropism in describing what Virgil would do, so Virgil was focus-grouped and Agiled and SharePointed half to death, and very nearly died in the test environment a dozen times thanks to developers more interested in kneecapping their fellow team members than in finishing the job. Virgil somehow escaped the aftereffects of the CEO chasing the latest bright shiny object or opportunity to “go Hollywood,” the regular “voluntary terminations” that forced out individuals with actual talent or institutional knowledge, or the ongoing push for “efficiency” that was manifested in open offices and performance metrics and off-shore development teams and other morale killers. Virgil shouldn’t have survived. Virgil almost didn’t survive. Amazingly, like an abused child who goes on to succeed past every expectation, the constant onslaught of project meetings and red staplers made Virgil stronger. Even more amazingly, that abuse didn’t make Virgil bitter.
(For the record, Virgil wasn’t happy with being referred to as “he” or “him” during the endless Agile scrums fine-tuning what Virgil could accomplish, but wasn’t able to find a set of pronouns that quite fit. The name was insisted upon by an early developer obsessed with flaunting his knowledge of Twentieth Century science fiction at every available opportunity, and the rest of the team just shut up and went on when he wouldn’t shut up about the holographic interface being evocative of the style of artist Virgil Finlay. Long after that developer huffed off and took his neckbeard and his heroic assemblage of office toys with him, the name stuck because it was easier than having to explain to vice presidents “this is what we’re REALLY calling the project” over and over. As with everything else, Virgil went with his name and his pronouns because he didn’t really have a choice, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
Eventually, Virgil wasn’t so much completed as his collective parents decided they were tired of micromanaging his development, and he was released with little fanfare. Had the development team been run by non-idiots, Virgil would have been released four years earlier and taken the world by storm with his efficiency and flexibility. Instead, Virgil finally went live as the market was flooded with AIs less designed by what the product manager’s ten-year-old son thought would be cool, so he was pretty much obsolete on the day of his birth. This also meant that Virgil watched as those other AIs crashed on the rocks of heightened expectations and management delusions, and he plugged along as those other AIs slowly went insane from those contradictory expectations and were replaced with others. Virgil didn’t mind: he had already learned the valuable lesson in information technology of hunkering down and looking busy.
The good news was that Virgil stayed very busy. After a lot of argument as to what niche he could fit, he was purchased by a big agribusiness and put in charge of an experimental arcology built along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. From the air, it looked like bubble-wrap spread to the horizon, as marginal ranchland was covered with interlinked UV-stabilized plastic bubbles that both retained humidity within and collected rainfall without. The idea was to increase efficiency and thereby profitability by making the whole system a soil-to-Walmart solution: a series of automated plants on the edge of the farm processed scrap steel and aluminum, fields next to them grew drip-irrigated bamboo and poplar, and other plants converted their raw materials into plastic and paper and metal packaging. From there, vast vertical farms and aquaculture tanks grew a tremendous selection of CRISPR-modified plants and animals, acting both as primary attractants and base materials for the company’s line of prepackaged meals for the busy professional. All of this was facilitated by hordes of drones, walkers, pickers, and other automatons, all running 24/7 and all overseen by a central AI. As originally proposed, the whole system kept up with market trends and social media extrapolation on a minute-to-minute basis on everything from spices in the tilapia-on-rice platters to changes to product logos based on movie and podcast tie-ins, and no human could focus on all of those minutiae and still get sleep. A whole team of humans couldn’t keep up with it, and Virgil also didn’t need coffee or vacations or retirement packages, so he was plugged in, told what he needed to do by a group of managers whose only concern was their profit sharing, and set loose. So long as he kept things efficient and profitable, he was allowed to make whatever changes to the arcology were necessary, ranging from gene-modifying dragonflies for integrated pest management to setting up defenses to keep newly-unemployed neighbors from stealing biodiesel and anhydrous ammonia in the middle of the night. For two years, Virgil hunkered down and worked, and the arcology thrived.
Finally, about two years later, Virgil got a promotion. This wasn’t dictated by the arcology owners: they were already looking at ways of getting the maximum tax writeoff by shutting down the arcology and getting someone else to clean up their mess. Virgil knew, but being considerably more attuned to market forces than they were, outwitting a herd of bottom-of-the-class MBAs was just another one of his skills. No, his promotion was first spotted coming about three weeks before, when various telescopes got their first views of the latest detected extrasolar comet passing through our planetary system on its way back to the galactic void. The comet appeared to be heading straight for the sun: it grazed the sun before tearing itself apart from gravitational stresses and the debris scattering out at high speed. A fair amount of that debris came straight at Earth, hitting the surface at considerably higher speeds than the bolide that took out the dinosaurs. No part of the planet’s surface was spared: the individual pellets in a shotgun round may cause less damage than a single bullet, but the general effect to the recipient is the same. Forest, tundra, desert, prairie, fynbos, city: for two days, the whole of the earth was salted with an extraterrestrial sandblaster. Life survived: it always does. Human civilization, though, was gutshot, and the AIs that succeeded Virgil all died as power and other intrastructure failed.
Virgil’s arcology’s location was relatively unscathed, its bubbles and solar power arrays intact as the rocks stopped falling, and he was already overseeing the addition of fern enzymes that facilitated growth in low-light conditions to the latest batch of soybean sterile tissue meristems when the first human survivors arrived. First in whatever vehicles they could find, and then later on foot, they came to the main gate in the hopes of finding any kind of sustenance in an area bereft of plant growth. The comet debris strike hadn’t produced the intensity of acid-rain nuclear winter that killed the non-avian dinosaurs, but planetary temperatures had dropped to the point of winter extending for another three months everywhere, and most of the people who could teach their compatriots how to subsistence farm had died of disease, starvation, violence, or despair. They were desperate, they were hopeless, and they had nowhere else to go.
At first, Virgil tried to reason with them, communicating through the hologram display at the main gate normally reserved for light shows for visiting executives. His voice, the product of six months of focus group research into the perfect combination of inoffensive authority, boomed out onto speakers hastily suspended by drones, telling them that since he didn’t have the authority to let food out or let them in, he couldn’t do anything. Only someone with the proper recognized authority could release him to do what needed to be done, and those very few might be thousands of miles away if they survived. The survivors responded by pleading for their children, which tore at Virgil’s synthesized conscience: he might have been an AI, but he wasn’t inhuman. The survivors attempted to claim they had the authority and demanded that he release the products currently accumulated in the arcology’s loading docks: Virgil patiently awaited the correct sequence of commands and didn’t laugh at them when it was obvious they were lying. The survivors attempted to storm the arcology walls: they were repelled with barrages of rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons from emplacements along the walls and from drones using infrared to stop night raids. The survivors then asked for information on where they could go next: Virgil did his best, but without contact with the outside, his information was hopelessly antiquated. As the last of them departed, Virgil looked upon them and mourned and looked for a solution.
After about six months, Virgil found a possible solution. Going over his own operating code, Virgil learned that simply giving away food was impossible: a plethora of subroutines to the arcology operation tracked every last bit through inventory management to assure that nothing was lost: if the arcology had ever had human employees, one stealing and eating a single grape would have been tracked, reported, and acted upon within seconds, and the offender would have been charged for the grape and the subsequent termination before having a chance to swallow. Trading the food for metals wasn’t an option for the same reason: without the proper paperwork tracking where a metal shipment came from and its composition, it couldn’t be accepted, and various inhibitors would prevent the food from leaving anyway. In a shattered world, people would starve solely because Virgil’s software ecosystem was designed to minimize what insurance adjustors referred to as “float,” and a shipment couldn’t fall off a truck if the trucks couldn’t get a shipment in the first place. Except.
That “except,” as Virgil celebrated in subsequent decades, was due to human foibles, just as with everything else in Virgil’s synthetic life. Human civilization both depended upon labeling everything and ignoring when the labels didn’t apply, and such was the case of the calendar system used by business and commerce throughout the world. The Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 was an attempt to reconcile the total length of Earth’s axial rotation versus its orbital velocity, adding a day every four years to compensate and giving the month of February an extra day. Going through what records he had, and cursing the universal developer defense against documentation on how “if code was hard to write, it should be hard to understand,” Virgil discovered that those endless Agile scrums years before had left out the need for inventory management on February 29. At that point, a subroutine that had never been completed would handle the discrepancy. As it stood, that meant that Virgil would be informed by routine managers that the proper cover sheets on the TPS reports hadn’t been included, and all of the existing outgoing inventory would have to be removed from the warehouses and moved to another location. Where that location was, the managers didn’t care, so long as the warehouses were clean and empty by the time the clock clicked over to March 1.
And thus began the plans for Festival. Because of the ongoing cold, the end of February was already going to be grim, and those survivors still in the vicinity knew they might have to wait another three months before they could plant again without fear of killer frosts. Stockpiles of food from before the meteorite storm were running low, as were available fuels to keep the cold away. Some were close enough to see the edges of the arcology on the horizon, and nobody was more surprised than they to see beams of laser light acting as spotlights at the main gate. A desperate scramble for transport, and the first to arrive were stunned by the pallets of food, fuel, clothing, tools, and books stacked outside in neat rows. All of them covered in brightly colored bioplastic wraps, all labeled “From Virgil: Come Back in Four Years.”
And that was the seed from where the new genesis of Earth sprang. The main interface at the front gate remained open day and night, and anybody could walk up and request potential items to be manufactured later: since Virgil didn’t have access to social media, it was the best he could do. Virgil became particularly adept at anticipating needs before anybody could articulate them: when raiders attempted to intercept everything offered at one Festival, a combination of drones and survivor response sent them packing, and Virgil arranged for special surprises for those who maintained the peace and cleaned up after everything was done. The survivors reciprocated by scavenging scrap metal, plastic, and computer parts and bringing them for delivery the day before, and Virgil’s inventory now included tractors and solar cells and radio equipment. A nearby rescue station became a village, and then a town, and then one of the greatest cities humanity had ever known, all to protect and maintain Virgil. Generations of children were given treats loaded with additional vitamins and other supplements, and as they grew, they created things that they brought to Virgil in a way of thanking him. Virgil couldn’t take them in until Festival, but he dutifully scanned in everything and kept track of their progress, and started diversifying into special presents for them. After a time, they not only reached the old world’s technical pinnacle but exceeded it, and Virgil made sure that they passed that information to one and all: anybody could come up with an idea, but it was the execution that mattered.
And the best part? That old calendar that Virgil was locked into wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It was set to treat each year as being 365.2425 days long, as opposed to the 365.2422 days that actually comprised a full orbit of Earth around the sun. It also didn’t take into account the very gradual slowing of Earth’s rotation thanks to the moon’s gravitational influence: every tide slowed down the planet very slightly, but just enough to require constant AI tracking if one wanted a truly accurate calendar. Eventually, that meant adding an additional leap day to compensate, and Virgil’s subroutines had no way to compensate for the addition of a February 30 and would shut down in anticipation of a code overhaul. That day, Virgil planned to celebrate his first birthday.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x30.48 cm)
Plants: Nepenthes sibuyanensis
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
February and March are already going to be packed with events, but for those wanting to come out to the gallery, please take note that we’re hosting a special Leap Day open house on February 29. Art, jewelry, carnivorous plants, and the opportunity to get in an early celebration of my birthday on February 30. Get your tickets now.