The Bernoulli War

“The Bernoulli War” appeared in the August 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It received an Honorable mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, and was reprinted in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013 Edition.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publisher…

No, really. This story was all but accepted in mid-2011, but there was some issue with the way the characters were named. Originally, I used strings of characters from various writing systems: Khmer, Chinese, Hangeul, Greek, Roman, Sanskrit, and so on.

For example, the iterations of the major Bernoulliae character in the original were named things like:

  • Bernᑝ-佳-䷟-‫פֿ‬
  • Bern 牛-微
  • Bernᑝ-平-Ѥ-Ͷ
  • Bernᑝ-平-Ѥ-Ͷ1

Which would have looked really cool in print… but the problem was that most of this was impossible to represent in the ebook version of Asimov’s distributed for Kindle, so I was asked to rename the characters something that would work.

I messed around with a few alternate naming systems, but in the end, I wound up the basic idea that is in the story now: characters getting names autogenerated (pseudorandomly) using the content of spam filter apps dug out of the cruft of ancient software. The problem was that the spam terms — in the .doc file! — tripped the spam filters at Asimov’s SF, and so my rewrite never got through. I figured the esteemed editor Sheila Williams was just busy, and waited a while before sending an inquiry which, unbeknownst to me, also didn’t get through. (After a second unanswered inquiry, we got on Facebook and figured out that both the rewrite and my inquiries hadn’t gotten through.)

Amusing note: originally, “phentermine” was not the drug I used for the characters’ names; originally, it was a word that begins with “cia” and end in “lis,” which we changed, to my later chagrin: it’s a drug for treating erectile dysfunction, and “The Bernoulli War” is, after all, about a different (but also troublesome) dysfunction related to the erection of something. Ah well, it was a pretty long-shot in-joke, anyway.

Unlike some of my stories, I have very clear memories of the time (back in 2009) when I started working out the idea behind this piece. I can in fact remember I was in the shopping complex that adjoins Yongsan Station, in Seoul, and approaching (and then riding down) a particular escalator, when I realized what it was my machine civilizations would be fighting over.

I started work on the story after reading Daniel Gilbert‘s fascinating book Stumbling on Happiness. Toward the end of the book is a discussion of the measuremennt of happiness, in which Gilbert discusses the happiness-based decision-making metric developed by the Dutch mathematician Bernoulli. Bernoulli’s theory essentially decoupled value from simple monetary terms, and then coupled value with happiness. If having something makes you happy, it is valuable. If you are facing a decision involving possible risk, then you can measure the potential happiness of a good result against the potential happiness deficit proceeding from a poor result (or from failing to take on the risk).

Now, I’m not sure in what sense of “happiness” Bernoulli was thinking, but the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia comes to mind: that is, of maximizing one’s, er, “human” potential. (A concept given much more straightforward expression in the old US Army ads we used to see up in Canada, where the audience was exhorted to “Be… All That You Can Be!”)

Of course, for postsingulatarian, software-based life, it’s possible that eudaimonia would be the only real kind of happiness worth talking about — everything else could be synthesized, emulated, or instantiated at will, and the only limitation on that would be processing cycles. Okay, really it would depend on available hardware and energy, but assuming those as a given, then sooner or later it all becomes about processing cycles.

I was in that Korean shopping mall I mentioned above — the one attached to Yongsan Station — as I was thinking this over; indeed, I was walking out of a Korean bookstore and past a Starbucks, on my way down to the subway system below. I was thinking about the economics of South Korea, which is hardcore capitalist, in a way I’ve not seen elsewhere. In fact, I’d argue that South Korea is capitalistic in a much deeper way than this. When I hear people talk about Western society as Judeo-Christian, I have a bunch of caveats I feel the urge to bust out (because we behave in a lot of ways that just aren’t Judeo-Christian; in fact, even the Jewish and the Christian folk among us behave in ways that aren’t really all that Judeo-Christian), but I can see where they’re coming from. But as for South Korea, sometimes it seems like the society went from being a Confucian, agrarian state, just a century  ago, to being full-on capitalist-consumerist postindustrial culture with only a few Confucian ornaments left hanging here and there, something that I’m quite certain was in part an effect of the Japanese occupation, but was much more profoundly a result of the mass industrialization and economy-building that happened under the Park Chung Hee dictatorship.

Okay, “economy-building” is the nice way of putting it. The ultra-fetishization of the national economy of South Korea is more like it, and even now, when Park gets any criticism, your average older Korean is quick to point out that nobody should criticize the man who “saved Korea” and who was so good for the economy. While I think that capitalism is to modern and postmodern cultures what Christianity was to Medieval Europe — a force that binds people and societies together in interesting and creative ways, but which also, in its current state, generates all kinds of toxicities that people will not be willing to live under forever — I find it’s even more the fundament of South Korea culture than it is, say, the Canadian culture in which I grew up.

(I hear alarming things about Canada these days, mind you. But I don’t think politicians are — publicly — calling for the adoption of a copy of the US medical insurance system there, as the current President of South Korea was doing the other year.)

Of course, the capitalism (er, Capitalism, really, if we include the economic dogmas and all) rampant in South Korea is alien to the kind of capitalism we’re hearing about up in North Korea — the black market of necessities, that is. Publicly, though, North Korea is violently anti-Capitalist, Very Collectivist, and so on. But that’s all about material stuff, not about happiness — that’s the one thing that’s interesting: both North and South Korea have missed the whole notion of the Bernoulli model, in a way I think most North Americans I know personally haven’t quite done. So much in common, between North and South, and yet so very opposite…

This got me thinking about a story I’d tried to write years before, “The Tale of Baejjanggi and Gaemi,” which was basically a retelling Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants. (Baejjanggi and Gaemi are the Korean words for those creatures, as used in tellings of the fable.) It was about ant-like salarymen and anarchistic grasshopper-women or something unworkable like that. But the conflict between grasshoppers and ants — between the impulse to live in the moment and enjoy and eat what you need and not worry to much about tomorrow’s “food” (or processing cycles), and the impulse to hoard, to be careful, to assure the  future — seemed to be pretty applicable to two definitions of “happiness” from the point of view of Bernoulli’s theorem.

And the rest, as they say, is science fiction.

But there are a couple of easter eggs in the story. One of them is a reference to the Chinese literary figure Lu Xun, and I’m referring to this passage of his, which I ran across in Simon Leys’ translation in The Burning Forest:

Revolution, counter-revolution, non-revolution.Revolutionaries are massacred by counter-revolutionaries.

Counterrevolutionaries are massacred by revolutionaries.  Non-revolutionaries are sometimes taken for revolutionaries, and then they are massacred by counterrevolutionaries, or again they are taken for counter-revolutionaries, and then they are massacred by revolutionaries.  Sometimes, also, they are not taken for anything in particular, but they are still massacred by revolutionaries and by counter-revolutionaries.

Revolution.  To revolutionize revolution; to revolutionize the revolution ofrevolution; to rev…

Another is the French poetry, which is snagged from the poem “Roman” (“Novel” — 29 Sept. 1870) by — who else? — a very young Arthur Rimbaud. This is the book where you can read the best translation I’ve seen (and the original), but for those who only read poems online, an English translation (under the title “Romance”) is here.

Oh, of course, the name Masar Gergos is a very obvious anagram of the name of another character who wakes in a position comparable to his. But even if you miss the anagram, the reference should be obvious.

There are probably other little bitlets tucked into the story, too, but hey, for some people happiness is an easter egg to hunt, so far be it from me to impinge on their joy any further!

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