Sunday, March 23, 2008

Greg Egan's "Dark Integers" (novelette, science fiction): Communicating with & fighting aliens from a parallel universe!

Quote from short story titled Dark Integers by Greg Egan. An example of the kind of sentences the story is littered with.Tolerable second half; utterly boring first half.

Concept is similar to Asimov's "The Gods Themselves". In this story, there is a way to pass messages across the universes, & to effect changes to destabilize material across them - sort of hurling bombs at the other side! There is also the concept of a vast & concrete border between the universes - porous through the story, tightened near end!

Bane of the story is author's attempts to explain this essentially magical technology. And not once, but repeatedly in first half, less often in second half - just too many complicated sentences that don't mean anything at all. Quote in the box at the top right of this page is among the clearest of a lot of such sentences.

In author's explanations of underlying technology, you find strong echoes of Arthur Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God". A computation in an ordinary laptop makes changes to either the border between the universes or causes major instability at the other end! Controlled & small changes to border are used to set up communications channels across universes (& also among the human protagonists).

To understand the title of the story, you need to be a computer programmer familiar with C++. One of the protagonists has code that includes a class named "dark" - short for "dark int", the way "long" is a shorthand for "long int". It models a 4096-bit unsigned integer. Why call it dark? "Dark matter, dark energy ... dark integers. They're all around us, but we don't usually see them, because they don't quite play by the rules." Whenever a variable of type dark gets certain values assigned, some sort of instability happens in the parallel world! Irrespective of the machine the program is run on, or underlying CPU architecture! So long as programmer's intention is that it holds a certain integer value!!!

Full text of this story is available for download.

Story summary.

There is a cabal of 4 superheroes (well, one heroine among them): Bruno Costanzo from Sydney (the narrator); Alison from Zurich; 80 year old Yuen from Shanghai; & Dr Tim Campbell from Wellington, New Zealand. Campbell joins the cabal midway through the story.

Bruno & Alison were once students of Yuen at a university in Shanghai. There, they had some idea about these parallel universes & did something. Result was inadvertent major damage on the other side. An alien called Sam contacted them, told them of the result, & recruited their support to ensure such breach never takes place again. Oh - and aliens have known about our existence for long, & have been monitoring us.

Cabal is born comprising Bruno, Alice, & Yuen. They decide to keep this information to themselves, & not inform any government - because governments will likely turn it into dangerous weapons.

10 years have passed. Another incident is reported by Sam. Looks like someone else somewhere on earth has again done the computation on his computer that kind of hurled a bomb at the other side. And this appears to be a rather powerful bomb - hitting deep inside their universe; cabal's original just touched the border.

Narrator turns detective. Locates Campbell as culprit. After some drama, Campbell will get recruited as a super theorist into the cabal.

Aliens want to know how Campbell mounted attack. Our friends refuse to divulge, because aliens have been holding back information too.

A sort of uneasy truce ensues for a while. Our friends spend this time actually mapping the near Sol planets of the parallel universe! Looks like Sam is actually aboard a spacecraft that has been chasing earth's trajectory! They also perfect (computational) weapons to attack in case aliens attack.

Of course, alien attack comes suddenly. Initially, they mess with world's banking system. Soon, all kinds of communications systems are under attack. They are also making planes crash, factories bursting, ...

Cabal convenes. Remember, they have secret communications channel using the cross-universe border; so shut down of normal communications networks don't affect them. They mount counter attack. Eventually a truce is agreed. Borders are sealed - except for a small breach. Well - this breach can be used both for communications, & in future attacks from either side... But all is well for now.


In some of the reviews of this story on the web, the author is congratulated in questing the premises of arithmetic: why must 2+2=4?

I was taught that maths is just a collection of assumed axioms, & things rigorously derived from them. I'm unable to comprehend the idea that axioms or statements I made have changed by themselves! Even if I forget that my artificial system of deduction that is maths actually affects the physical world - in my universe, or in someone else's.

This would have been a much better story had the author kept the mechanics unspelled- the way Asimov did in "The Gods Themselves".

Fact sheet.

"Dark Integers", short story, review
First published: Asimov's, October/November 2007.
Rating: B
Nominated for Hugo Awards 2008 in novelette category.