6 April 2019

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species

Pockets of sentience glow in the cold, deep void of the universe like bubbles in a vast, dark sea. Tumbling, shifting, joining and breaking, they leave behind spiraling phosphorescent trails, each as unique as a signature, as they push and rise toward an unseen surface.

The Regular

She had liked him for some reason. Perhaps because they were both broken, and the jagged pieces happened to fit.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition

Thus are our memories compressed, integrated into sparkling jewels to be embedded in the limited space of our minds. A scene is turned into a mnemonic, a conversation reduced to a single phrase, a day distilled to a fleeting feeling of joy. Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.

Like tides, the Tick-Tock nuclear reactions operate in pulses. Cycle after cycle, each generation discovers the world anew. The ancients leave no wisdom for the future, and the young do not look to the past. They live for one season and one season alone. Yet, on the surface of the planet, in those etched, fantastic rock paintings, is a palimpsest of their rise and fall, the exhalations of empires. The chronicles of the Tick-Tocks are left for other intelligences in the cosmos to interpret. As the Tick-Tocks flourish, they also deplete the concentration of uranium-235. Each generation consumes some of the nonrenewable resources of their universe, leaving less for future generations and beckoning closer the day when a sustained chain reaction will no longer be possible. Like a clock winding down inexorably, the world of the Tick-Tocks will then sink into an eternal, cold silence.

The universe is full of echoes and shadows, the afterimages and last words of dead civilizations that have lost the struggle against entropy. Fading ripples in the cosmic background radiation, it is doubtful if most, or any, of these messages will ever be deciphered. Likewise, most of our thoughts and memories are destined to fade, to disappear, to be consumed by the very act of choosing and living. That is not a cause for sorrow, sweetheart. It is the fate of every species to disappear into the void that is the heat death of the universe. But long before then, the thoughts of any intelligent species worthy of the name will become as grand as the universe itself.