top of page

ADORNMENT THEORY

Of course, they were waiting for me.


We knew I'd be a historical figure. I figured after two hundred fifty years, there'd be a huge fanfare at my arrival. A red carpet laid out for me, as the celebrity I am. To be the first to step through a time portal! The first human to travel into the future! It's as big as Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon. I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I'd be the biggest meme of the day.


The swirl of light and roar of the transition to 2275 rose around me as I stepped through, then faded in sparks and echoes. I looked up eagerly, ready for the epic roar of a vast crowd. We had conquered time!


I was standing on a lawn; a small crowd wearing a bewildering mix of plain and elaborate clothing stood about. This was no stadium. There were no lights, no banners, no delegates in sashes awaiting me. The few who were present gave a ragged cheer and clapped politely.


You remember the words I'd memorized. We agonized over every line. There was no way I was going to flub these first words the way Neil had. I opened my mouth, breathed deeply to make my proclamation--


--and inhaled a bug.


A woman wearing an amazing gown, sort of an Iris van Herpen confection, came forward and slapped me vigorously on the back. "Hi," she said. "I'm Harry."


I recovered enough to look around. I'd stepped into a beautiful park with towering old trees, overflowing flower gardens, and winding flagstone paths. Past the trees were complicated piles of architecture that looked kind of like overgrown versions of Habitat '67. The air wasn't particularly warm, but it was thick: full of scents and pollen. Suffusing the air was a vast cloud of insects; I didn't hear city noises but rather insect drones, the laughter of birds, low animal calls, and the shrieks of playing children.


Something was wrong with the sky. It was half black, as if some cloud composed of millions of rocks were somehow swirling through the air. I blinked, and then realized what I was seeing.


It was a flock of birds --so many birds that they obscured the sun and half the dome of heaven. I completely forgot my grandiose speech and just gaped at it.


Pulling myself together, I stammered, "I--I want to know." Harry had seen my astonishment at the thunderhead of birds and was laughing.



I pushed on. "I want to know -- have we gone to the stars? Settled the planets? Solved disease, poverty? I know I'll change the future by reporting back whatever you tell me now -- and you know it. It's kind of a time loop, right?"


Harry raised an eyebrow.


"I want to know... what we've done," I finished lamely.


She tilted her head, frowned, and said, "Who is this ‘we’ you're talking about?"


"Um... humanity?"


The kids who'd been hanging about took this opportunity to cheer, "Yay Time Traveler!" in a way that suggested their parents had put them up to it. Then they dispersed.


"Humanity did all those things," said another of the reception committee. "But you were already starting to realize in your time that we were more than just humanity."


He frowned at Harry.


"You knew what we could do if humanity was still here at all; but you'd run out of questions that could have humanity as their answer. I'm kind of surprised that you haven't asked the obvious question."


"Uh, haven't you studied me? Prepared for this meeting?"


Harry shrugged. "It was always going to go exactly the way it's going, because it already went that way,” he said. “We get time travelers all the time now, we know how it works. Sure, you're the first, but did you really think you'd be the last?"


"I... guess not. So, what are you people? Diplomats? Leaders? Scientists?"


They variously shrugged, grimaced, or shook their heads. Harry said, "I'm a teacher, but again, you're not asking the obvious question."


"Okay..." I tried to gather my thoughts; this wasn't going at all the way I'd expected. I was ready for a radioactive wasteland, alien overlords, or some ultimate dystopian nightmare -- not a parkette and some tussling kids.


"You say you're surprised I haven't asked the obvious questions. Twice now,” I said. “So what's the first one I should have asked?"


She peered at me owlishly. "Well, why of course."


"Why?"


"Why travel through space? Or time?


Why settle other worlds? Why travel to the stars?"


"Oh, well, because we want to spread life and consciousness throughout the cosmos." I started to gesture at the sky, but the gigantic cloud of birds took that moment to darken the sun, and I had to bat more bugs away from my eyes.


She looked puzzled; another person of indeterminate gender leaned in and said, "Half the insects were gone by the time he was born. I talked to some trees on the way over and they told me. Most of the birds and mammals were gone too. You grew up in an empty world," they said to me, "but it was all you knew. This," they waved around at the buzzing, "is the normal state of things."


The rest of the crowd seemed disappointed in me. They were moving away, clearly with other things to do. Harry hung around. We walked a little bit and she pointed out the sights. She spoke to people, to rocks, birds, and entities she called deodands, which she said were AIs. There was some subtle nanotech or something that gave them voices. "Deodands are AIs that think they're some natural system, like a pond, a forest or--" she gestured at the sky.


"--A giant flock of de-extinct passenger pigeons?" I asked. Harry nodded.


"The only way humanity was going to survive on Earth was by accepting that the divisions between us and the rest of the world that seemed obvious in your time, were artificial. I don't mean that philosophically or religiously. Even by your day, it was becoming obvious that it was an urgent physical and political fact."


"So, you took the idea of animism -- that everything has an intelligent spirit --"


"And we made it real." She nodded. "Well, you did.


"Your civilization was so angry and anxious," she went on. "You had no idea what the future might hold. You didn't know if there was life everywhere, or only on this planet. You didn't know how the universe began, or what the limits to science are. You thought you were alone and had the weight of the whole universe on your shoulders.


But by the time you were born, things were already changing. Quantum Mechanics had blown up the Cartesian divide. Everybody knew that the universe isn't composed of independent objects possessing properties prior to their interactions with other things...


It had already been proven, back in the twentieth century, that the universe is an undivided whole. You were all just in denial, because your whole civilization was built on the idea of isolation. Isolated objects. Isolated people. Isolated nation states. Things that could be put in boxes. Separated. Owned.


"And as to being alone in the universe, we're not." She shrugged. "Life is everywhere we look, once you know how to find it. We don't need to seed consciousness throughout the cosmos. It's already there. Consciousness isn't special and adding computational power doesn't make it any bigger because our identities are indivisibly part of our physical environment. There was no Rapture of the Nerds; no uploading of consciousness, that idea only made sense if the Cartesian divide was real. And humanity has learned how the universe started, how it ends; so have other species like ours. You knew we would learn all of that. So, the obvious question I thought would be on your mind was, 'If humanity has no great destiny among the stars or in some virtual paradise, then why do we do anything?'"


"This is beginning to sound like a sermon."


"Ah, that stuff. Religion died too, when we fully accepted Quantum Mechanics, Enaction and the extended nature of our minds and biology, and our total lack of uniqueness in the universe. You'll see. You live in a time of crisis precisely because you're still struggling to come to grips with these facts."


"So, what could possibly come after..." I thought about the categories she'd just dismissed. "After colonialism, religion, and science?"


"A great change, like the coming of that flock," she said. Her voice had altered subtly, in a way that was starting to send shivers up my spine. "A realization: that humanity is exactly like the plumes on a peacock's tail, the spots on a butterfly's wing, or the antlers on a deer." Her voice seemed to be coming from all around me now.



"Humanity has no destiny. There is no grand purpose, but there is something humanity can be proud of. For you are the antlers of the Earth!"


There was a long moment of silence. Then she burst out in howls of laughter, pointing at me and gasping. "Oh, the look on your face! Ah, ha, that was perfect."


"What are you saying," I sputtered, "That we're only going to come to our senses when we accept that our lives are meaningless?"


"No, no! Antlers is a bit of a silly metaphor," she admitted. Harry's voice was her own again.





"The term the scholars used, back when they first started taking seriously this report you'll give, was 'Adornment Theory.' The idea that in the absence of any grand metaphysical or cosmic purpose, humanity can be content to be an extravagance, like the brilliant plumage of a bird, or the swirling of that giant flock, the symphony of the cicadas or the glorious colors and scents of the flowers. Totally unnecessary, yes. But profligate. Overwhelming with the generosity of our own being." She grinned. "With its unique ability to build, travel, to sing, craft and imagine, humanity is the adornment of the planet itself. Humanity is Earth showing off. Other worlds have their own ways of doing it. You are the adornment of the Earth. That is all you are, and that is all that you need to be." She turned and walked away. I stood there stunned, then called after her. "What was the second question I should have asked?" Harry spun around. "Oh yeah," she shouted back. "That one's easy. What you should have asked was, "What exactly is it, that is speaking to you now?'"


A roar came from the sky as a million passenger pigeons flooded the air, ripping around me like a tornado and then ascending, leaving behind turbulent air and floating feathers.


Harry was gone.


I ran back to the time portal.


__________________________________________________________________________________



Karl Schroeder


Karl Schroeder is the author of 10 science fiction novels and dozens of short stories. In 2002 he was invited to participate in a foresight workshop hosted by Jack Smith in Ottawa, and began contributing to foresight projects. In 2011, he was part of the first cohort to receive a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University. He continues to write science fiction and design fictions as part of his speculative design practice. Karl lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and daughter.



23 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page