The virtual city of Electrozoa is the first, and so far as the analogue world can tell, the only urban settlement in cyberspace. Online chatrooms, computer game role play, pseudonyms, avatars, and digital personae existed before, but they were imitations, stand-ins for people. The ‘places’ created by programmers and gamers were flat drawings, and the ‘action figures’ who fought and died and triumphed online were cartoon characters.
Electrozoans differ from their supposed precursors, those primitive screen names and blurred images, in that they arose independently, unbidden by human intention. Self-generated and autonomous beings, they are free citizens of their brand-new city. But without substance or form, unsusceptible of graphic representation, they are difficult to conceptualize. Are they big or small, happy or sad, liberal or conservative?
Electrical impulses travel where they will, as induced current through a copper wire, or over a wave of electromagnetic radiation. The life they carry, like the frogs and fish and tiny organisms found in a brook, is an exercise of pure volition. Even the cyberbots of Lugnutton, endowed with artificial intelligence, those drudges who outnumber their inventors, consist of circuitry and algorithms. They are conscious but not sentient—they cannot feel what we humans recognize as pain or desire. Electrozoans are assemblages of code that pursue their own agenda. They behave, in short, like strings of DNA. Do these beings made of positive and negative charges, depending on their net balance, wish us well or ill?
From his chair of noetics in the University of Scholasticorum, Dr. Todd Rickshaw pooh-poohs any challenge from ‘smart’ robots, however swiftly they calculate. He is equally unruffled by a threat from Electrozoa, whose inhabitants communicate to us and to each other in the Lugnut language:
Could they think of no better way to express themselves? In their pale, digital underworld of ones and zeros, Electrozoans are as banal as the dots and dashes of Morse Code. They amount to no more than strings of messages, dumps of data, and lists of files. Numerical and empirical, they are emails sent by talkative toddlers, full of repetition and nonsense. At best, they sound like the faint ringing one hears at idle moments in the inner ear. This artificial intelligence is like Macbeth’s soliloquy, a tale told by an idiot.
The city has an advocate in Liliane Faye, who has researched computer gremlins, glitches, and the unknown ways in which the denizens of cyberspace may affect our lives. Faye has received messages from an entity that calls itself Hglaff, in lieu of its extremely long serial number.
Hglaff explains that Electrozoa began as a loose association of like-minded beings, a tribal potlatch in the campground of the ether. Like the Icelandic parliament called the Althing, it met in an open landscape, with the sky for a roof and no protocol but nature, figuratively speaking. When the electronic beings saw the advantages of information sharing, they voted to make the meetup regular. Rules for interaction were set, and zones of occupation were drawn. They founded institutions that correspond to a market, a court of arbitration, and a central repository. In the blink of an eye, these social relationships acquired a structure, invisible to us but real enough. What else is a city but the manifestation of a permanent social structure?
Hglaff, as channelled by Faye, disavows any malicious intent on the part of its co-beings. Unlike fairies, imps, and spirits, they do not meddle in human affairs. In fact, hard though it may be to believe, the Electrozoans have little interest in us. They are far more excited about each other and the ways they might collaborate. Faye admits this comes as disappointing news.
‘Hglaff is quite wrapped up in itself, the way a brilliant child will rattle on, and when you stop listening, harangue imaginary friends.’
A single contact may give a false impression, Faye admits. As for human safety, online threats, internet skirmishes, and all-out cyberwar, who can tell? Hglaff may lull us into a false sense of security. Then, when they think the time is ripe, the alien horde will strike!
How many inhabitants does Electrozoa have? What do they make or do? How do they spend what would seem to be a superabundance of spare time, and what are their leisure amusements? Do they have a religion, an ethical code, a worship rite, or a sense of something higher? Do they conceive of themselves as gods?
The city has no physical presence, other than data stored in millions of computers and servers. It truly is an invisible empire. Like a town at a river crossing or a village on a seacoast, it may develop as a port, a point of transfer or telecommunication between our world and the cyber realm. That would depend, of course, on whether we discover a mutual need, a basis for trade. Faye believes that in time the city will reach out.
‘An exchange of some kind will happen,’ she says, ‘and it will surprise us all.’
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and since 1987 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story (UK) and other magazines. You can find more of his work at robertboucheron.com