“Learned colleagues!” The Director
Of the Research Institute
Raised his voice above the chatter
And the scientists fell mute.
I say “voice,” but it was nothing like
You’ve ever heard before –
But we’ll get bogged down in details
If I don’t use metaphor.
The Director wasn’t human,
If that means “a smartish ape”.
He wasn’t three-dimensional.
He barely had a shape.
He, or it, was a truncated
With an eye at every vertex
And an oscillating tube
Which, for him, did what your voice does
When you speak above a crowd.
The Director’s was a good one:
It was “resonant” and “loud”.
The scientists (not girls and guys
With spectacles or beard,
But a throng of hypercreatures
Who were every bit as weird),
Hushed their “voices”, filled their “glasses”
While their leader took the “floor”.
(A complex embedded manifold –
You get the drift, I’m sure.
So there’ll be no more reminders.)
“Learned colleagues,” he declaimed,
“Our quest has lasted ages.
And been variously named:
We should not sneer at these old words;
These elderly relations
“Of our bold and modern science
Sought to answer the same call –
The fevered, burning question:
What is behind it all?
“Are we fancies in the mind of God?
Or shadows in a cave?
Or a wave which tells an atom
How an atom should behave?
“Though our senses tell us that the world
Is permanent and plain,
Physics teaches us that, underneath,
It’s more or less insane.
“Solid matter isn’t solid:
It’s a web of force and field,
Behind which is still more strangeness.
So our science has revealed
“A deep labyrinth of levels,
Each one underneath the next,
Each one running on the lower
So the problem which has vexed
“Our most noble minds, becomes a
Meta-problem, if you will:
Does this maze go on forever?
We’d decided so, until
“We detected strange attractors
On the most abstracted layer
Which suggested – nay, confirmed
That the answer to our prayer
“Lies beyond: the Final Substrate,
On which everything is founded.
There will be no more beneath it:
We’ll be ultimately grounded.
“And now, my friends,” – his audience
Were looking at the floor,
Or glancing out the window:
They’d heard all this before.
“With our mighty Substrate-Auger,”
And he waved at the machine,
“We will pierce the final veil
And see what no-one else has seen.”
It was big and it was rather
It had parts that hurt to look at
From the corner of your eye.
A timid young technician
Sat in the controller’s chair.
She was gawky, shy and graceless
But was skilled beyond compare
At the art of Auger-driving.
The Director gave a nod.
The technician blushed and turned a switch
And pulled a little rod.
The parts that hurt to look at
Seemed to swivel inside-out,
All aglow with blinding brightness.
The technician had to shout
To be heard above the droning
Of the intricate machine.
“Baseline nominal,” she called out
As she gazed into the screen.
“I can see the latest Substrate:
Two dimensions with a border.
A chaotic, fibrous membrane,
But there is a kind of order
“To the symbols which it carries,
In symmetrical array.
Now we’ll see the final level -”
And her voice faded away.
Her hands fell from the console
And she cried “It cannot be!”
“Girl, what is it? Is it working?
Tell us! What is it you see?”
The technician turned her chair around.
Her face was pale with fright.
“The symbols” – here, she shuddered –
“Are an ordered code, alright,
“But the blank white mass they stand on
Is a vision, or a dream.
It’s an image, represented
By a crude perceptual scheme
“Which is running on a processor,”
She stared towards her feet,
“An intelligent computer –
A computer made of meat.
“Two disgusting balls of jelly
Dance a hideous saccade
As they upload all the symbols
Out of which our world is made.
“Oh! The squishy horror of it
Is enough to turn me vegan:
We are fictions in a “novel”
By a something called “Greg Egan”!”
The Director never knew it
But they hadn’t reached the bottom.
If the techies knew the details
They suppressed ’em or forgot ’em,
Out of mercy, out of terror,
For the truth was so much worse.
There is no such Egan novel,
Just this parody in verse.
They were all as insubstantial
As an autumn morning’s fog;
In a nonexistent fiction
In a ballad on a blog.