Small Thoughts: Ephemera by Ian R. MacLeod

Ephemera is the title story of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July/August 2018 issue. It takes place in a near(ish) future world in which humans have created a database “cloud” that is kept in outer space that is somehow protected from cosmic rays and the like. To monitor and care for this database, which is named the “Argo,” for the Argonauts, a sentient robot is made who can live in space for thousands of years if needed. They call this robot KAT, which See the source imageis an acronym for Kinetic Autonomous Thought.

Plot: The central plot of this piece revolves around the inevitable destruction of humanity as KAT watches from the safety of her Argo spaceship/database center. She is to preserve all the data in the Argo and teach the humans who survive this nuclear war once they emerge from underground after the ensuing ice age is over.

While upon the Argo, KAT busies herself with learning all about humanity. She (yes, KAT identifies as a gender), reads classics like Jane Austen, watches classic films, and observes the great works of art. She is able to enter digital versions of museums that once were and experiences all the masterworks of every age. She waits millennia for humans to re-emerge. They never do. Then, out of nowhere Mr. Darcy comes to have a conversation with KAT. It turns out somehow a consciousness has been created by humans that can move between networks and worlds. This consciousness has gone on across the universe doing whatever a high consciousness does. It asks KAT to come with it.

How Things Feel Tried: Much of this story, for me, felt tried. The idea of a high consciousness appearing to a lower one as “something you’d find familiar,” is straight out of the book and movie Contact. The idea of a nuclear war that wipes out humanity, tried. A robot watching as humanity destroys itself, tried. A robot finding humanity so fascinating it’s willing to stay in solitude, in exile, simply to visit and revisit the digital recreations of human creations reeks of exceptionalism and the belief that somehow there is some intrinsic worth to anything humans do. On all these accounts I’m confused why I kept reading.

But I Kept Reading: Despite all these grievances I kept reading. This is a short story, but it’s not THAT short. It’s a novelette and I’m not a fast reader, so it took me a bit of time to get through this. One aspect I enjoyed about this piece was the fact that, despite the self-aggrandizement of the human race, the author also acknowledged the fact that everything we strive for in art may ultimately be found through a technological consciousness greater than our own.

Conclusion: While I feel like this piece is tried, I also think it may be an interesting access point for many people who aren’t necessarily as steeped in the SF genre as myself. It packs a lot of ideas into a relatively small space, albeit ideas I’ve seen before. I think the thing that really kept me reading was the narration–it was clever and new enough in tone that despite the tropes, I found myself interested.

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