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Authors: Scarlett Thomas

Our Tragic Universe

BOOK: Our Tragic Universe
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For Rod, with love.



Title Page
Also by Scarlett Thomas


Organise a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal). Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible – in short, remain close to the ‘truth,’ in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phoney ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real …

Jean Baudrillard,
Simulacra and Simulation


about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby. Her text said,
Can you be at the Embankment in fifteen minutes? Big disaster
. It was a cold Sunday in early February, and I’d spent most of it curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage in Dartmouth. Oscar, the literary editor of the newspaper I wrote for, had sent me
The Science of Living Forever
by Kelsey Newman to review, along with a compliments slip with a deadline on it. In those days I’d review anything, because I needed the money. It wasn’t so bad: I’d built up some kind of reputation reviewing science books and so Oscar gave me all the best ones. My boyfriend Christopher did unpaid volunteer work on heritage sites, so it was down to me to pay the rent. I never turned down a commission, although I wasn’t at all sure what I’d say about Kelsey Newman’s book and this idea of surviving beyond the end of time.

In some ways I was already surviving beyond the end of time: beyond deadlines, overdraft limits and ultimatums from my bank manager. I hit deadlines to get money, but not always to give it away. That winter I’d been reduced to cashing all my cheques in a high-commission, no-questions-asked place in Paignton and paying utility bills at the Post Office with cash. Although what did anyone expect? I was hardly a big-time writer, although I was still planning to be. Every time a white envelope came from the bank Christopher added it to the pile of mail on my desk upstairs. I never opened any of these envelopes. I didn’t have much credit on my phone, so I didn’t
text Libby back; but I put the book down and got off the bed and put on some trainers. I’d vowed never to go out in Dartmouth on a Sunday evening, for complicated reasons. But I couldn’t say no to Libby.

The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse. I still had fifty pages of
The Science of Living Forever
to read and the deadline for my review was the next day. I’d have to finish the book later and make sure I filed the review on time if I wanted any chance of it being in the paper on Sunday. If it didn’t go in until the next week I would miss being paid for a month. Downstairs, Christopher was on the sofa cutting pieces of reclaimed wood to make a toolbox. We didn’t have a garden he could work in, just a tiny, completely enclosed and very high-walled concrete yard in which frogs and other small animals sometimes appeared miraculously, as if they had dropped from the sky. As I walked into the sitting room I could see sawdust getting in everything, but I didn’t point this out. My guitar was propped up by the fireplace. Every time Christopher moved the saw back or forth the vibration travelled across the room and made the thick E string tremble. The sound was so low and sad and haunting that you could barely hear it. Christopher was sawing hard: his brother Josh had been for lunch yesterday and he still wasn’t over it. Josh found it therapeutic talking about their mother’s death; Christopher didn’t. Josh was happy that their father was dating a 25-year-old waitress; Christopher thought it was disgusting. It had probably been up to me to stop the conversation, but at the time I was worrying that I hadn’t even looked to see what book I was supposed to be reviewing, and that the bread was running out and we didn’t have any more. Also, I didn’t really know how to stop the conversation.

Sometimes when I went downstairs I’d think about saying something, and then I’d imagine how Christopher would be likely to reply and end up saying nothing at all. This time I said, ‘Guess what?’ and Christopher, still sawing madly, as if into the back of his brother’s head, or perhaps Milly’s head, said, ‘You know I hate it when you start conversations like that, babe.’ I apologised, but when he asked me to hold a piece of wood for him I said I had to take the dog out.

‘She hasn’t been out for ages,’ I said. ‘And it’s getting dark.’

Bess was in the hallway, rolling on a piece of rawhide.

‘I thought you walked her this afternoon,’ Christopher said.

I put on my anorak and my red wool scarf and left without saying anything else; I didn’t even turn back when I heard Christopher’s box of nails fall on the floor, although I knew I should have done.

How do you survive the end of time? It’s quite simple. By the time the universe is old enough and frail enough to collapse, humans will be able to do whatever they like with it. They’ll have had billions of years to learn, and there’ll be no matron to stop them, and no liberal broadsheets and no doomy hymns. By then it’ll just be a case of wheeling one decrepit planet to one side of the universe while another one pisses itself sadly in another galaxy. And all this while waiting for the final crunch, as everything becomes everything else as the universe begins its beautiful collapse, panting and sweating until all life arcs out of it and all matter in existence is crushed into a single point and then disappears. In the barely audible last gasp of the collapsing
universe, its last orgasmic sigh, all its mucus and pus and rancid
will become pure energy, capable of everything imaginable, just for a moment. I didn’t know why I’d contemplated trying to explain this to Christopher. He’d once made me cry because he refused to accept spatial dimensions, and we’d had a massive row because he wouldn’t look at my diagram that proved Pythagoras’s theorem. According to Christopher the books I reviewed were ‘too cerebral, babe’. I didn’t know what he’d make of this one, which was a complete head-fuck.

According to Kelsey Newman, the universe, which always was a computer, will, for one moment – not even that – be so dense and have so much energy that it will be able to compute anything at all. So why not simply program it to simulate another universe, a new one that will never end, and in which everyone can live happily ever after? This moment will be called the Omega Point, and, because it has the power to contain everything, will be indistinguishable from God. It will be different from God, though, because it will run on a processing power called
. As the universe gets ready to collapse, no one will be writing poetry about it or making love for the last time or just bobbing around, stoned and listless, waiting for annihilation, imagining something beautiful and unfathomable on the other side. All hands will be on deck for the ultimate goal: survival. Using only physics and their bare hands, humans will construct the Omega Point, which, with its infinite power, can and for various reasons definitely will, bring everyone back to life – yes, even you – billions of years after you have died, and it will love everyone and create a perfect heaven. At the end of the universe anything could happen, except for one thing.

You can’t die, ever again.

It wasn’t the kind of book Oscar usually sent me. We reviewed popular science, however wacky, but we drew the line at anything New Age. Was this a New Age book? It was hard to tell. According to the blurb, Newman was a well-respected psychoanalyst from New York who had once advised a president, although it didn’t say which one. He had been inspired to write his book by reading the work of the equally well-respected physicist Frank Tipler, who had come up with the idea of the Omega Point and done all the necessary equations to prove that you and I – and everyone who ever lived, and every possible human who never lived – will be resurrected at the end of time, as soon as the power becomes available to do it. Your death will therefore be just a little sleep, and you won’t notice any time passing between it and waking up in eternity.

Why bother with anything, in that case? Why bother trying to become a famous novelist? Why bother paying bills, shaving your legs, trying to eat enough vegetables? The sensible thing, if this theory were true, would be to shoot yourself now. But then what? I loved the universe, particularly the juicy bits like relativity, gravity, up and down quarks, evolution, and the wave function, which I almost understood; but I didn’t love it so much that I wanted to stay beyond its natural end, stuck with everyone else in some sort of coma, wired up to a cosmic life-support machine. I had been told once – and reminded of it again recently – that I would come to nothing. What on earth would I do with all that heaven? Living for ever would be like marrying yourself, with no possibility of a divorce.

There were thirty-one stone steps down to the street. I walked with B past Reg’s place on the corner and across the market square, which was completely deserted except for one seagull pecking at a flapping chip wrapper and making the sound they all make:
ack, ack, ack
, like a lonely machine gun. B hugged the wall under the Butterwalk by Miller’s Deli, and stopped to pee as soon as we were in the Royal Avenue Gardens. Everything seemed to be closed, broken, dead or in hibernation. The bandstand was empty and the fountain was dry. The palm trees shivered. There was a smell of salt in the wind, and something seaweedy, which became stronger as we approached the river. No one was around. It was getting darker, and the sky above Kingswear was bruising into a mushy green, brown and purple, like the skin of an apple. The wind was coming in from the sea, and all the little boats danced on their moorings as if they were enchanted, making ghostly sounds.

BOOK: Our Tragic Universe
11.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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