3 June 2002
Each one is the size of the grain of rice, a dense cage of lasers and smoke holding in suspension eight single human neurons grown in zero gravity. Engram bullets. That's what they look like, if you look very carefully.
I was working at the Rutherford Applied Linguistics Laboratory in 1989 during the construction of the first artificial engram. Not directly on it, of course, but after the press releases and the Sunday newspaper articles I helped put the things on a manufacturing line.
Here's the big thing about engram bullets: they fit in. Maybe they're sentient, maybe they're not. But they appear different, depending on how they want to be seen.
During the '90s they were the staple of the club scene. Pop one under your tongue, so small you could barely notice it, just a tiny cold spot. About a half hour to come up, then you could feel your tempo rising, your word count increasing, then it was Big Ups and Booyakashas and Disco Biscuits till dawn.
Then again, they were eaten like sushi too. Each one with chopsticks, each one a delicate flavour, each one slightly different. An engram is filling, if you consume it in a restaurant context.
Pretty soon they seemed to be almost everywhere. A domestication of consciousness.
And that's the problem, pretty soon they were everywhere. And I never got round to having one either. I'd already had dinner, or I wasn't in the mood, or I had work the next day or something.
Every so often, you see, the linguistic polarity reverses direction. That's not something to be taken lightly. For centuries, at least, the idea of North has been associated with the idea of Up, as opposed to South which is Down. A temperature rises as it increases. Happy people are up, and when you're up you stand tall.
This isn't an accident. The phallus stands up; towers are powerful and they point right up; the sun gives life and the temperature is most when it's the sun is highest in the sky. All these metaphors are consistent with one another. And our language is tightly coupled with our environment.
The feedback loop goes both ways. Last time the metaphors reversed, the Earth's magnetic field switched over. You can see it in the rocks.
What the RALL didn't count on was that so having many of these engram bullets was destabalising the linguistic metaphor coherence. Or maybe the scientists there would have thought of it, only the engrams wouldn't let them. Who knows. But whatever, by the early years of the twenty-first century about half of the world's population had consumed engram bullets. As food grown in vats, as embedded in Fourth Generation cellphones, as conversation starters.
RALL found that it wasn't wasn't just the natural change in language. It wasn't just Namchester and Jeff Noon wordplay. Not just neologisms. All of this was significant in a much deeper way.
The engram bullets were interfering with the most fundamental metaphors langauge and consciousness were based on. Ideas so taken-for-granted, so utterly obvious that it's impossible to write them down, to communicate them.
Imagine a universe where instead of three directions you can move in, those three space dimensions, and one time dimension (a future and past) -- imagine instead having only one space dimension so you can only go left and right, say, and three time dimensions. Not easy. The universe flopped into its current configuration less that one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. It had to decide: if this coin had to come down heads or tails, on what side should it fall? And without any particular bias, it just chose heads. Symmetry broke, the coin fell, and the universe was formed. That's the foundations of reality for you. Imagine meeting someone who came from a universe where the coin fell tails, where they have three ways of moving in time, but as difficult as you find it to conceive of that, they can't think of moving more than one way in space.
Right, now imagine that, except for language.
Language rests on these broken symmetries. That language is recombinant lets us express new ideas without having to reinvent from the ground up. But to do that, we have metaphors. Based on metaphors. Based on more. And they all have to agree. You can't have a tails coin in a heads universe.
But that's what the engram bullets were doing. Coming up tails.
The linguistic polarity flip-flopped. Maybe the engram bullets had their own agenda, or maybe they had to find new ways to feed on ideas once the Language Academies started arming up to eradicate them. Whatever, they're like ants now. Everywhere.
Once the RALL had realised that tiny wormholes were forming on the linguistic landscape, they stopped producing the bullets. They poured bleach into the neuron vats and smashed the giant crystal towers of lasing material that grew continuously from the substrates. Too late. If there's one thing ideas are very good at, it's reproducing. Pandora's Box had been opened.
So the Acadamies started fighting back, but it's impossible to halt change and no matter how many dictionaries you produce or dangling participles you prune or how well armed your language police. If that's the way the cookie's crumbling you better crumble with it.
We stopped consuming, to starve them. Banned the media. But the engram bullets are perfect consumers, so it didn't help.
Language was massively interfered with, at the very lowest level. The metaphor polarity switched, a linguistic infection of the network, the effects rippling through the social rhizome.
Where the two different metaphor sets came into contact, they interfered. Like the Atlantic and Pacific meeting at the Cape, they clashed. Like two waves meeting, when two peaks combine they make an even bigger peak, whitecapping. But when a peak meets with that which is inbetween peaks, they cancel out. There's nothing. Less than nothing. The interference pattern of these two metaphor groups was just the same.
Half of all people became glorious. Half were wordsmiths. Articulate. Prolific. They would announce, produce. They didn't want to listen. They were amplified. They broadcast into the noösphere, emitting complex constructions. Maybe that's what the engram bullets wanted all along. Maybe in their heart of smoke, within their cage of light, right at the centre of that mesh of axons this was the endgame. So they could feed. So they could consume their former audience. That was what happened to half of the people.
The other half, we're the antinodes. We're incoherant. We've been cancelled. The metaphor and antimetaphor met inside me and vanished into a linguistic vacuum. The Tower of Babel fell, and I'm trapped in the rubble.
I know one day the engram bullets will get hungry again. They'll find me. And they'll turn my world upsidedown.