A Tribute To The Greatest Comic Writer

Something I’m transferring over from my old journal. I’ve always wanted to be able to write sci-fi (science! writing! two of my favourite things in one nerdy package!) and once I started this I couldn’t really stop. It’s probably riddled with all sorts of errors, but I haven’t gotten around to editing it, actually.

Inspired by the truly immortal Wodehouse. Although that might be giving the game away a little…

Maufrais, inventor of the first true artifical intelligence being, had a keen sense of irony. (Which was still buggy with the Jupiter-05 AI Android, but Maufrais had hopes that the neural pathways would establish themselves soon) So he bypassed the outrage and proceeded straight to wry resignation when he heard the Board of Global Controllers’ decision.

“Basically,” said Peggy, personal assistant and PhD in Quantum Engineering, “they say you can screw around with the very fabric of space and time, but they don’t want you upsetting the delicate psychology of the Presidents by giving them android golfing buddies.”

She’d read the official holomail, and so had he, but part of her innate charm was how she insisted on summarizing tedious bureaucratic messages into highly unprofessional soundbites. It helped both of them get over the pomposity.

This particular missive directed Maufrais to stop pissing off nervous Presidents and use the time machine to test out the Jupiter on an “appropriately retrograde Western civilization on Earth, 19th-21st century”. The idea was that older civs, apparently insanely paranoid about everything from toasters to notebook computers, would spot a homicidal android from miles away. That protecting this droid from complete destruction by the aforementioned insane paranoid humans was a difficult job, the BGC hadn’t deigned to consider.

Fortunately, Maufrais liked screwing around with the space-time continuum.

“Right,” he said, heaving himself out of his beanie. “Have you -”

“Scheduled the time jump for next month; I’ll send you a reminder this weekend,” said Peggy, smugly. Maufrais rolled his eyes at her, but grinned anyway.

He left the research up to Peggy, as always, so when they arrived at the forbiddingly impressive Chronological Institute, he was already familiar with their precise time, location, and cultural run-down. Which were nonetheless presented to him in a neat little blue folder.

“Good morning, crew,” he said, tossing the folder onto his bag (Peggy glared) and stepping into the pre-jump room. “What the hell is this?” he added, as Peggy thrust a bunch of clothing at him. It was that horrible retro cotton or something, and he looked around to find his technical historians all uncomfortably adjusting various things discreetly. Peggy herself was wearing some sort of skinny, baggy thing that reached down to mid-calf level, with some ruffles and layers that Maufrais determinedly tried to avoid noticing.

“It’s sort of hideously, deliberately unflattering, isn’t it, sir?” she remarked, watching him change into his three piece suit. “Seriously, they cannot invent retro-mimicking mod-cloth soon enough. If only for the Chrono department.”

“You know, I almost feel bad making Jupiter wear this,” remarked Maufrais, glancing over at the silent figure.

Hordes of plastic surgeons had labored over the minute asymmetries of Jupiter’s face; legions of psychologists had argued over the appropriate body language; armies of quantum engineers had survived on liquid caffeine for weeks to program feedbacks and survival instinct routes into his brain. And then they’d had to teach him everything.

Maufrais had spent several sleepless weeks working out cultural conditioning. It wasn’t simply that something programmed to represent human intelligence had to learn, and feel, and think, and react, it was also the fact that so many of the things humans learned and believed and reacted to were culture-specific. If Jupiter had been rewired – a term that the psychologists and physicists both detested – to match modern standards, he wouldn’t have turned a hair when Maufrais threw on his clothes. But this 20th century anachronism had politely averted his – its – eyes and was now calmly looking through an old copy of Shakespeare. The trick was to think in terms of layers; the droid could be “erased” enough until it was a “child” – learning capacity, belief, doubt, room for thought all hardwired in – and then re-teach it according to the time period they were jumping to. This hundred and seventy pound hunk of the most sophisticated machine in existence was far more comfortable in its dull brown waistcoat and suicidal tie than the humans in the room.

Just when the crew seemed as though they’d undergo spontaneous combustion from the stifling clothing, the five minute countdown began. Maufrais had been in time jumps a handful of times, but only to times within the past few years; everything about this leap seemed simultaneously familiar and terrifying. Telling himself that there were Chronologists who did this sort of thing everyday, he led his crew into the room.

Nearly anyone connected with the Chron Institute had a healthy obsession with science fiction – time-travel in particular, of course. One of the things they laughed at indulgently had to do with the whole space-time thing. One did not sit in an oversize armchair and twist Victorian steampunk-type knobs and levers so that one was transported directly back; and then the space factor! Either they didn’t account for it at all, or they made it out into a huge issue. How Maufrais was given to understand it was – you couldn’t screw with four-dimensional equations (which represented space-time) without putting in all the numbers. Your present location and time, and then your final location and time, went in the equations, and then you just did a little 4D vector analysis and then you had to make sure that the time value was negative and then –

(At this point Maufrais stopped trying to understand and settled for “making intelligent noises”.)

But the important thing was the transport vehicle. It was so top-secret that even Maufrais (who was a big gun and had any number of friends in the Chron) had no idea what it was called, and his friends changed subject very quickly when he asked them things about it. He did know what it was capable of, though – you could actually localize the time-space flux change* inside this room, without the entire building (or city, or anywhere else) disappearing as the equations took effect.

The room was still slightly buggy, though. Objects strapped into the grooves along the seats, especially larger ones, only had a three in five chance of reappearing after the jump. “So no dinosaur safaris yet,”** Maufrais had joked, and then the technocrat he’d been speaking to had gone apoplectic and started haranguing him about “responsibility” and “cutting-edge technology” and “sensible, scientific applications” of said technology.

Either way, the jump was supposed to be psychologically disturbing, which meant that all of them were strapped in by semi-intelligent drones and then pricked with (carefully adjusted to weight) doses of anesthesia. Maufrais still awoke earlier than the others, and was just in time to see Andre, their coldjumper, unlock the door.

Coldjumpers held one of the most extraordinary jobs on the face of the planet. After geo-chrono-historians had analyzed (and reanalyzed, and re-reanalyzed) the geography, urban and otherwise, of the location in the time period they were leaping to, coldjumpers went in to ensure safety. They had a predetermined entry and exit time in which to determine exactly what the situation was at the time of the leap. For instance: jumping into a bare patch of desert right on top of nomadic twelfth century humans with a finely honed sense of the supernatural usually didn’t end without incident. More than a handful of coldjumpers had swaggered back with tales of how they’d knocked out dozens of terrified denizens, all screaming “Begone devil!” and waving pitchforks***.

A rather less exciting part of their job description was to brief jumpers on the immediate conditions of their surroundings, including the likelihood of discovery, and to do a couple of last minute checks for historical authenticity. Peggy was a maniac at research, so Andre got off easy, but they still had an entertaining few minutes talking about the boxy cars – “Ornate as hell, no concept of aerodynamics” – the faint beginnings of an interest in “modern” physics – “Einstein started it like, fifteen years ago, and even he doesn’t totally believe it” – and, of course, the women’s clothing – “Can you believe this was when fashion apparently started?”

Finally, the debrief wound down and the transport vehicle readied itself for the leap forward. “All right, folks,” said Andre, rubbing his hands, “got a couple of those cars waiting outside – let’s hope no one dies of boredom by the time we get you to your hotels – and then in the morning we can talk about Jupiter’s arrangements.”

He made them an ironic bow. ‘Welcome to London, 1921!”

“It’s pretty interesting,” Peggy remarked, collapsing loose-limbed on the huge feather bed of their inn. Maufrais looked around as he was helped out of his horrible jacket by Jupiter. “I mean.” She gestured at the relative lavishness – the huge bed (they’d checked in as a couple on honeymoon, which Maufrais wasn’t entirely averse to), the delicate lampshades and clawfooted baths, the personalized service. “We exchange a certain level of luxury for efficiency, right?”

Maufrais snorted. Peggy was only on her second jump, so the novelty still existed. But Maufrais was getting itchy at not being able to connect to the Web. For heaven’s sake, these people had practically just discovered electricity. They wouldn’t see the first computer for another fifty years.

Speaking of which… Maufrais turned and regarded Jupiter, who was silently examining the fixtures. There was only one thing troubling Maufrais about the droid, and it could be summed up in a word: glands. Any emotion, any reaction, was going to be controlled by the glands, which in turn followed the torturous inner workings of the human mind. And the theory of cultural conditioning (which was really more of a law for the psycho-physicists) dictated that those torturous inner workings were shaped by social factors and upbringing and external experiences. They could build madly complicated circuits, but they couldn’t be sure of the results. Hell, they couldn’t even be sure if that conditioning made any sense, if it was wide and detailed and interrelated enough for the kind of emotional responses required of a thirty-something middle/working-class London man in the 1920’s.

Here was the problem: artificial intelligence was exactly that. It would be easy enough to use Jupiter’s high-resolution cameras and video-capture equipment, his extremely sensitive touch sensors, to simply read in information from the world around him and then output some reaction based on a few basic rules pre-programmed into him. But with AI, there would be no hard-wiring of the social conditions into the droid’s brain; meaning that you couldn’t just specify preexisting conditions like “if you see a man wearing a top-hat, defer to him; he is of a higher class” into its brain. Maufrais and his teams had to build the droid’s brains to, literally, learn the rules itself.

They had spent several entertaining weeks doing the “re-wiring” for cultural conditioning, leading Jupiter’s metal skeleton around amongst the actors working in the psych department. One of Maufrais’ biggest accomplishments had been the creation of the capacity to “ask questions”, or basic curiosity. Maufrais was rather proud of the drone, but he’d had to give all his techies a couple weeks off after they expressed an intense desire to beat Jupiter’s questioning brain in with a sledgehammer~. It had been everything from “who are these people” and “what is a top-hat” to “why do men and women walk arm-in-arm but not two men, or two women?”

And then they had to account for the time leap itself. Someone had come up with the idea of establishing two modes in Jupiter. When he was acting as a a test droid, they put him into the “test” mode, where he automatically shut off certain behavioral pathways and reopened the “slave” circuits; those allowed him to assume the role of a primitive robot that simply took orders from his creators. Right now he was in test mode, but Maufrais was wondering what would happen if you put Jupiter in test and then ordered him to assume the full behavior of an early 20th century working class man. He decided to postpone that until the techies would be around to take the blame if the droid’s brain imploded.

What all this meant was that the psychologists and technicians working on Jupiter had about three weeks to cram the sort of social knowledge into Jupiter that would ordinarily take a couple of decades. Fortunately for them, Teller’s Theory of Innate Intelligence had been refined over the past few years. In fact, a couple of Maufrais’ previous leaps had been solely designed to accelerate Teller’s understanding, with the hindsight (foresight?) of Jupiter’s development. The upshot of this was that Jupiter had an IQ of about 140 (readjusted somewhat for environmental factors and nutrition, circa 1920).

While Jupiter learned quickly, there wasn’t enough indication that his emotional quotient was the same standard. Oh, his social conditioning held, because he was exquisitely aware of the nuances of inflection, body language, and tone that went into social interactions. But they’d taught him to limit his own responses so that he could deal with situations that he’d never encountered before.

And this, specifically, was the reason the Board of Global Controllers was demanding the retrograde inquiry. Maufrais didn’t like taking orders from a bunch of idiots who couldn’t tell a quark from a quiche, but he’d admit that Jupiter needed a tad more testing.

On to the next part


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