Bubble Universe (A Short Story)

One of the things that apparently is different about ebook publishing from traditional publishing is that people will buy short stories. I’m going to write a series of short stories and make each of them available on the Kindle/Smashwords for 99 cents.And of course, as always they’ll be posted here free of charge. This one is now up on smashwords, Kindle (US) and Kindle (UK)

I first noticed something was wrong at the last election, when my party won.

We’re not supposed to win. That’s not what we’re for! We don’t win things, we lose but win a moral victory, and then when the other lot are in we can complain about how they’re getting everything wrong, taking away our freedoms and so on. That’s the way it’s meant to work – they have the power, we have the moral superiority.

I mean, I don’t like it being that way, but it’s not really about what I like, is it? If elections were decided by what I want, things would be very different.

But the last election had felt different. People had been talking about it as ‘the first online election’ (just like they’d talked about every election since about 1999), and certainly all my friends had been talking about it. It had been quite exciting, actually, the number of my friends who’d said they’d be voting for us. All the online polls were for us, all the blogs I read were supportive of us, people were updating their statuses to tell all their friends they’d voted for us… It made me almost think we could win, but I hadn’t really thought it was possible until the first exit polls started coming in.

I should have guessed then, actually. Especially when the radio remarked on what a low turnout it had been. But on a historic day like that one, you don’t think about that kind of thing, you just celebrate. Anyway, it can’t have been that low a turnout – all my online friends had been out and voted, and were busy sharing posts by all their friends, who’d also voted for us.

In fact, it seemed like everyone was celebrating. Everywhere I looked online, there were more people talking about how historic it was, how it was a victory for hope, and for change, and for the new politics, how it showed there was a progressive consensus in this country despite what those fools in the mainstream media said.

I didn’t actually see what those fools in the mainstream media said, of course – in fact the newspaper I read… well, read, I skim the headlines online… it was vaguely supportive of us, as I recall. But apparently there were a lot of pompous bigots in the mainstream media who said that this was the end of the world, that it was the downfall of civilisation, that my lot weren’t ready for government. Or so I was assured, by the media bloggers.

When I went to work the next week (I’d taken the week off to help with the campaign – I’d been that committed to the cause) there were a few fewer people than normal there. Apparently a couple of people on temporary contracts had not had them renewed, or something. I didn’t bother to check, to be honest, I was still on a high from the victory. So was everyone else at work, actually. It seemed like I didn’t know anyone who’d not voted for us – which was quite surprising, as it hadn’t been *that* overwhelming a victory. But as far as I could tell everyone was as excited and relieved as I was.

On my way home, I passed a number of shops that were boarded up, or had ‘going out of business’ signs up. I wasn’t that bothered though – I never went in them anyway. In fact there were only two or three shops I ever went into – I did most of my shopping online, where I could get exactly what I wanted, rather than just what was on offer in some small shop. In a way it was a shame, but you can’t stop progress. And the mess the economy was in… well, you expect a few things to disappear from the high streets in a situation like that, don’t you?

That night I looked through my Google Reader feeds, and saw an interesting story in New Scientist – apparently scientists had found evidence of ‘bubble universes’, separate universes from ours that we have no way of contacting. I shared it, but most of my friends had already seen it.

***

The disappearances, when they started ramping up, still took some time to be noticeable. There were fewer old people on the streets, a few less homeless people, a few less drunks outside the bars on Saturday night. For a long time, it just seemed as if things were getting a little bit nicer.

Things were certainly getting better for me. My favourite band, The Red Balloon, had slowly been building up momentum. I’d first heard about them from a mailing list I was on, and I’d ‘liked’ them on various social media sites as each one rose and fell, shared their tracks in my playlists, and got a lot of my friends listening to them. They did sort of jangly guitar-pop, the kind of thing that should have been massively successful, but which never was.

But more and more of my friends had been getting excited by them, and so, it seemed, had a lot of other people, and when their new album came out I could hardly get away from it. When I wasn’t playing it myself it was coming up in my recommended tracks on last.fm, or my friends were sharing tracks from it, or… it just seemed to be everywhere. One of those zeitgeist-defining moments, you know? And they were getting covered on all the big music blogs, all the tastemakers were listening to them… it just seemed like everyone was listening to them. I felt like my taste was being validated.

Of course, there was a slight element of disappointment that something that was just my little secret was getting bigger, but that’s the thing I remember most from that summer – the Red Balloon being the soundtrack for everyone who mattered.

I know that sounds shallow, in retrospect. But it’s not like anyone had been counting the number of street people. It’s not like anyone was bothered at the time that there seemed to be a lot fewer arseholes around.

A couple of newspapers closed down that summer, too. There’d been some kind of scandal, but really they were just closing because they were obsolete. We all knew that. Everyone I talked to said the same – they didn’t read them anyway. They were old media.

A lot more of the shops closed down. There was talk of recession, but again, it didn’t really bother me. It just meant that the city centre was a lot emptier. And as far as I was concerned, that was a good thing.

But over time it seemed to get weird. There seemed to be fewer people everywhere, and those that were there just seemed to be pretty much the same as me – quite educated, quite articulate, quite progressive, very self-obsessed. It got spooky. I actually started taking a few contrarian positions just because I didn’t like living in an echo chamber. All that happened was people blocked me, and I lost a few friends who I never heard from again.

But the world seemed to be… I don’t know… thinning out a bit? A new social network started up, aimed at early adopters and the technocratic elite, so of course I signed up and that became my main online home. Along the way I lost touch with a few old friends, but that’s what happens. People grow apart.

But I still managed to stay blind to what was happening. I think we all did. I don’t think it was until the photographs from the space station that anyone even started to worry.

I remember seeing them, shared in my reader by one of my friends, and being puzzled for several minutes. They were just normal photos of the Earth, and I didn’t see anything wrong with them at first glance, but my eyes kept being dragged back to them, like a tongue poking at an aching tooth, because something wasn’t quite right.

When I realised, that was the moment when everything changed.

When I noticed Africa wasn’t there any more.

***

As best we could work out, later, it was all down to perception. We’ve known for centuries that perception shapes reality. Despite that pompous windbag Johnson, Berkeley was right when he said esse is percipi.

And certainly since the discovery of quantum physics, a little over a hundred years ago now, we’ve know that reality doesn’t work in the common-sense way people think. Everyone knows about Schrodinger’s Cat – though nobody could tell you what it actually means – but in those few months after the disappearance of Africa (and, on further examination, most of Asia and South America and a lot of the smaller central European republics) people were discussing a lot of wilder ideas, from Wigner’s Friend to Hilbert’s Hotel, to try to rationalise what was happening.

But it all comes down to the same thing, in the end – something needs to be perceived to exist. If you turn away from the moon long enough, when you look back it won’t be there.

Of course, there were also questions about what ‘existence’ meant – there were huge rows between the Copenhagenists, who argued that perception collapsed the wave-form and that anything that wasn’t perceived didn’t have any existence at all, the Everettians, who insisted that the Unperceived (as we started to call them) had just gone to a different universe to live their own lives, and the Bostromians, who were convinced that it was a glitch in the computer program on which we were all running, and that one day the Unperceived would reappear.

Those rows stopped pretty quickly once all the Everettians and Bostromians disappeared too, though.

The best conclusion we could come to – the rapidly-dwindling numbers who were left (though luckily, as far as I could tell it was all the most intelligent people who were left, and indeed there’d been a hypothesis for a time that there was some sort of selection on the basis of IQ going on, until those idiots had disappeared) – was that communications technology had become too good.

Or, rather, filtering technology had.

There was no longer a ‘consensus reality’ on which everyone was agreed. Rather, I got my news and opinions from things my friends (intelligent, educated, sensible people) shared, so I had a good understanding of the way the world actually worked. But there were huge numbers of people living in fantasy worlds – one where creationism made sense, or where free-market economics was flawed, or where talent-show pop music had some artistic value.

We were all living in our bubble universes, increasingly separated from each other, and had less and less contact. Eventually, the fantasists became so disconnected from reality that their perceptions and ours were completely incompatible, and they became the Unperceived.

The same, rather more sadly, happened to those whose life experiences were just too different. The homeless people, the foreigners, those we just didn’t see or hear about. They just disappeared. That was a shame, in a way… but possibly they were better off that way. They didn’t have much of a life anyway, did they?

It would be nice to think the Everettians had been right, and they’re all off living in their own worlds, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense that way. We have to be reasonable people, and the reasonable conclusion is that the Unperceived no longer exist – in fact that they never existed.

I’d say we will remember them, and that their sacrifice would not be forgotten, but it would just be a lie, wouldn’t it? Their death, like their existence, was entirely futile, and nobody now alive noticed them go. It’s sad, but we have to be realists.

***

So we tried to make sense of this new, emptier world, as more and more people disappeared. All the opposition politicians had disappeared long ago – some reports said that they’d first turned into a sort of bland, faceless mush, but we were almost certain that this was just a horror story. Somehow the shops – the few that were left – continued to be stocked with food despite their lack of staff, and when we ordered supplies off the internet they’d arrive by snail mail, though who was delivering them remained a mystery. All the essentials of civilisation continued, and eventually we got used to it. Films carried on coming out, and it was widely assumed that these were being generated by a rather crude computer program – which explained a lot about the previous few years’ films, too.

The numbers of people carried on decreasing, of course. There was the Great Retard Genocide a year later, when an argument about whether the use of the word ‘retard’ was still ableist now that there were no disabled people left, and the subsequent blockings, caused an estimated twenty thousand people to become Unperceived. There was the discovery that not only was the Deputy Prime Minister one of the Unperceived, but he’d never really existed, having been invented by a more-than-usually dishonest journalist. In fact it quickly became apparent that there were only four politicians in total, the rest being now mere hazy memories.

They disappeared, in their tens, hundreds and thousands. One by one, they were blocked, for sharing one too many photos of their cats (cats having, if anything, increased in number even as the human population was being wiped out), for reblogging animated gifs without credit, or just for having become boring. When the Red Balloon’s follow-up album turned out to be a bit samey, there were no more musicians left on the planet.

But we didn’t really care, by this point. I know it sounds awful, like we’re some sort of callous, heartless monsters, but it’s not that. When you’ve seen six billion or more people just disappear, leaving no evidence that they’ve ever existed, you become inured to it. At least that’s what we told ourselves. And anyway, it’s not like there wasn’t enough music out there in the cloud for us to listen to forever, without having to have human beings making more.

My girlfriend disappeared that year. We’d been drifting apart anyway.

I started to spend less time online. It was losing its appeal to me, for some reason. I spent endless hours walking through deserted streets, looking at the empty shops which nobody had ever visited. I tried opening the door of one, once, and discovered it didn’t open. Further examination proved the ‘windows’ were pasted-on photographs, and the ‘shop’ was in fact just a featureless white block of cold material with no way in or out. I’d always suspected as much, to be honest.

I was getting increasingly sick of the online echo chamber, blocking more and more people. I discovered I didn’t really need them. After all, they’d never really existed.

I stopped going to work. I had very few workmates left anyway, and most of them just sat around and looked at the internet most of the day anyway, rather than doing any work. I doubt they noticed I’d gone. I lost touch with most of them, I don’t know what happened to them.

Eventually, there were just two of us left.

We both knew game theory. We knew that we were dependent on each other for our continued existence. We just had to perceive each other. To know the other existed. So we made an arrangement. We retreated to opposite sides of the world (which had now shrunk to some five miles in diameter) and arranged to communicate precisely once a day. To minimise the chances of disagreement, our communications would consist of one word each, sent by email. I would say “there?” and he would say “yes”. As long as we did this, we’d be fine, and there was no reason why we couldn’t both live forever – so much else of the world was governed by our perceptions, why shouldn’t that be?

That was ten years ago, and we’ve not seen each other since, just sent the daily messages. I’ve spent my time watching films, listening to music, reading – there’s millennia of culture there in the cloud, created by people who now never existed. It’s been the happiest few years of my life, truth be told.

But today, I got a different message.

It just said “No.”

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7 Responses to Bubble Universe (A Short Story)

  1. I wonder if it was you or Mat that said “no”… ;)

  2. I love this – just the right level of creepy for me, and of course I’m a sucker for what-ifs with a philosophical bent.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Glad you like it. I think you pasted something in the wrong box for your screen name though ;)

  3. Pingback: links for 2011-08-10 « Thagomizer.net Thagomizer.net

  4. Kelly says:

    This is the first work of yours I’ve read and I realize its a short story, but does it have to be this short?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yes, it does. Stories should be the length they should be. This story needed to be about two and a half thousand words. Other stories I’ve written needed to be anything from ten thousand to seventy thousand words.
      If anything, rereading this a couple of years on, I’d cut a couple of hundred words out. It’s a little wordy.

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