The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders, from the anthology Hieroglyph.

Read a Great Sci-Fi Story About Useless Gadgets—With a Twist

Read a Great Sci-Fi Story About Useless Gadgets—With a Twist

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

“The Day It All Ended”

A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

This short story appears in the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will present an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by Hieroglyph. For more information on the event and to RSVP, visit the New America website; for more on the Hieroglyph project, visit ASU’s Project Hieroglyph website.

Bruce Grinnord parked aslant in his usual spot and ran inside the DiZi Corp. headquarters. Bruce didn’t check in with his team or even pause to glare at the beautiful young people having their toes stretched by robots while they sipped macrobiotic goji-berry shakes and tried to imagine ways to make the next generation of gadgets cooler-looking and less useful. Instead, he sprinted for the executive suite. He took the stairs two or three at a time, until he was so breathless he feared he’d have a heart attack before he even finished throwing his career away.

DiZi’s founder, Jethro Gruber—Barrons’ Young Visionary of the Year five years running—had his office atop the central spire of the funhouse castle of DiZi’s offices, in a round glass turret looking down on the employee oxygen bar and the dozen gourmet cafeterias. If you didn’t have the key to the private elevator, the only way up was this spiral staircase, which climbed past a dozen Executive Playspaces, and any one of those people could cockblock you before you got to Jethro’s pad. But nobody seemed to notice Bruce charging up the stairs, fury twisting his round face, even when he nearly put his foot between the steps and fell into the Moroccan Spice Cafe.

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Bruce wanted to storm into Jethro’s office and shout his resignation in Jethro’s trendy schoolmaster glasses. He wanted to enter the room already denouncing the waste, the stupidity of it all—but when he reached the top of the staircase, he was so out of breath, he could only wheeze, his guts wrung and cramped. He’d only been in Jethro’s office once before: an elegant goldfish bowl with one desk that changed shape (thanks to modular pieces that came out of the floor), a few chairs, and one dot of maroon rug at its center. Bruce stood there, massaging his dumb stomach and taking in the oppressive simplicity.

So Jethro spoke first, the creamy purr Bruce knew from a million company videos. “Hi, Bruce. You’re late.”

“I’m ... I’m what?”

“You’re late,” Jethro said. “You were supposed to have your crisis of conscience three months ago.” He pulled out his Robo-Bop and displayed a personal calendar, which included one entry: “Bruce Has a Crisis of Conscience.” It was dated a few months earlier. “What kept you, man?”

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It started when Bruce took a wrong turn on the way to work. Actually, he drove to the wrong office—the driving equivalent of a Freudian slip.

He was on the interstate at 7:30, listening to a banjo solo that he hadn’t yet learned to play. Out his right window, every suburban courtyard had its own giant ThunderNet tower, just like the silver statue in Bruce’s own cul-de-sac—the sleek concave lines and jetstreamed base like a 1950s Googie space fantasy. To his left, almost every passing car had a Car-Dingo bolted to its hood, with its trademark sloping fins and whirling lights. And half the drivers were listening to music, or making Intimate Confessions on their Robo-Bops. Once on the freeway, Bruce could see much larger versions of the ThunderNet tower dotting the landscape, from shopping-mall roofs to empty fields. Plus everywhere he saw giant billboards for DiZi’s newest product, the Crado—empty-faced, multicultural babies splayed out in a milk-white, egg-shaped chair that monitored the baby’s air supply and temperature in some way that Bruce still couldn’t explain.

Bruce was a VP of marketing at DiZi—shouldn’t he be able to find something good to say about even one of the company’s products?

So this one morning, Bruce got off the freeway a few exits too soon. Instead of driving to the DiZi offices, he went down a feeder road to a dingy strip mall that had offices instead of dry cleaners. This was the route Bruce had taken for years before he joined DiZi, and he felt as though he’d taken the wrong commute by mistake.

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Bruce’s old parking spot was open, and he could almost pretend time had rolled back, except that he’d lost some hair and gained some weight. He found himself pushing past the white balsawood-and-metal door with the cheap sign saying Eco Gnomic and into the offices, and then he stopped. A roomful of total strangers perched on beanbags and folding chairs turned and stared, and Bruce had no explanation for who he was or why he was there. “Uh,” Bruce said.

The Eco Gnomic offices looked like crap compared with DiZi’s majesty, but also compared with the last time he’d seen them. Take the giant Intervention Board that covered the main wall: When Bruce had worked there, it’d been covered with millions of multicolored tacks, attached to scraps of incidents. This company is planning a major polluting project, so we mobilize culture-jammer flashmobs here and organize protesters at the public hearing there, like a giant multidimensional chess game covering one wall, deploying patience and playfulness against the massive corporate engine. Now, though, the Intervention Board contained nothing but bad news, without much in the way of strategies. Arctic Shelf disintegrating, floods, superstorms, droughts, the Gulf Stream stuttering, extinctions like dominoes falling. The office furniture teetered on broken legs, and the same computers from five years ago whined and stammered. The young woman nearest Bruce couldn’t even afford a proper Mohawk—her hair grew back in patches on the sides of her head, and the stripe on top was wilting. None of these people seemed energized about saving the planet.

Bruce was about to flee when his old boss, Gerry Donkins, showed up and said, “Bruce! Welcome back to the nonprofit sector, man.” Bruce and Gerry wound up spending an hour sitting on crates, drinking expired YooHoo. “Yeah, Eco Gnomic is dying,” said Gerry, giant mustache twirling, “but so is the planet.”

“I feel like I made a terrible mistake,” Bruce said. He looked at the board and couldn’t see any pattern to the arrangement of ill omens.

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“You did,” Gerry replied. “But it doesn’t make any difference, and you’ve been happy. You’ve been happy, right? We all thought you were happy. How is Marie, by the way?”

“Marie left me two years ago,” Bruce said.

“Oh,” Gerry said.

“But on the plus side, I’ve been taking up the banjo.”

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“Anyway, no offense, but you wouldn’t have made a difference if you’d stayed with us. We probably passed the point of no return a while back.”

Point of no return. It sounded sexual, or like letting go of a trapeze at the apex of its arc.

“You did the smart thing,” said Gerry, “going to work for the flashiest consumer products company and enjoying the last little bit of the ride.”

Bruce got back in his Prius and drove the rest of the way to work, past the rows of ThunderNet towers and the smoke from far-off forest fires. This felt like the last day of the human race, even though it was just another day on the steep slope. As Bruce reached the lavender glass citadel of DiZi’s offices, he started to go numb inside, like always. But instead, this time, a fury took him, and that’s when he charged inside and up the stairs to Jethro’s office, ready to shove his resignation down the CEO’s throat.

“What do you mean?” Bruce said to Jethro, as his breath came back. “You were expecting me to come in here and resign?”

“Something like that.” Jethro gestured for Bruce to sit in one of the plain white, absurdly comfortable teacup chairs. He sat cross-legged in the other one, like a yogi in his wide-sleeved linen shirt and camper pants. In person, he looked slightly chubbier and less classically handsome than all his iconic images, but the perfect hipster bowl haircut and sideburns, and those famous glasses, were instantly recognizable. “But like I said: late. The point is, you got here in the end.”

“You didn’t engineer this. I’m not one of your gadgets. This is real. I really am fed up with making pointless toys when the world is about to choke on our filth. I’m done.”

“It wouldn’t be worth anything if it wasn’t real, bro.” Jethro gave Bruce one of his conspiratorial/mischievous smiles that made Bruce want to smile back in spite of his soul-deep anger. “That’s why we hired you in the first place. You’re the canary in the coal mine. Here, look at the org chart.”

Jethro made some hand motions, and one glass surface became a screen, which projected an org chart with a thousand names and job descriptions. And there, halfway down on the left, was Bruce’s name, with “CANARY IN THE COAL MINE.” And a picture of Bruce’s head on a cartoon bird’s body.

“I thought my job title was junior executive VP for product management,” Bruce said, staring at his openmouthed face and those unfurled wings.

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Jethro shrugged. “Well, you just resigned, right? So you don’t have a title anymore.” He made another gesture, and a bright-eyed young thing wheeled a minibar out of the elevator and offered Bruce beer, whiskey, hot sake, coffee, and Mexican Coke. Bruce felt rebellious, choosing a single-malt whiskey, until he realized he was doing what Jethro wanted. He took a swig that burned his throat and eyes.

“So you’re quitting; you should go ahead and tell me what you think of my company.” Jethro spread his hands and smiled.

“Well.” Bruce drank more whiskey and then sputtered. “If you really want to know ... your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. Have you ever looked at the schematics of the ThunderNet towers? It’s like you were trying to build something overly complex. And it’s the ultimate glorification of form over function—you’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless. I’ve had a Robo-Bop for years, and I still don’t understand what half the widgets and menu options are for. I don’t think anybody does. You use glamour and marketing to convince people they need to fill their lives with empty crap instead of paying attention to the world and realizing how fragile and beautiful it really is. You’re the devil.”

The drinks fairy had started gawking halfway through this rant, then she seemed to decide it was against her pay grade to hear this. She retreated into the elevator and vanished around the time Bruce said he didn’t understand half the stuff his Robo-Bop did. Bruce had fantasized about telling Jethro off for years, and he enjoyed it so much he had tears in his eyes by the end. Even knowing that Jethro had put this moment on his Robo-Bop calendar couldn’t spoil it.

Jethro was nodding, as if Bruce had just about covered the bases. Then he made another esoteric gesture, and the glass wall became a screen again. It displayed a PowerPoint slide:

DIZI CORP. PRODUCT STRATEGY
+ Beautiful Objects That Are Functionally Useless
+ Spare Capacity
+ Redundant Systems
+ Overproliferation of Identical but Superficially Different Products
+ Form Over Function
+ Mystifying Options and Confusing User Interface

“You missed one, I think,” Jethro said. “The one about overproliferation. That’s where we convince people to buy three different products that are almost exactly the same, but not quite.”

“Wow.” Bruce looked at the slide, which had gold stars on it. “You really are completely evil.”

“That’s what it looks like, huh?” Jethro actually laughed, as he tapped on his Robo-Bop. “Tell you what. We’re having a strategy meeting at 3, and we need our canary there. Come and tell the whole team what you told me.”

“What’s the point?” Bruce felt whatever the next level below despair was. Everything was a joke, and he’d been deprived of the satisfaction of being the one to unveil the truth.

“Just show up, man. I promise it’ll be entertaining, if nothing else. What else are you going to do with the rest of your day, drive out to the beach and watch the seagulls dying?”

That was exactly what Bruce had planned to do after leaving DiZi. He shrugged. “Sure. I guess I’ll go get my toes stretched for a while.”

“You do that, Bruce. See you at 3.”

The drinks fairy must have gossiped about Bruce, because people were looking at him when he walked down to the main promenade. If there’d been a food court in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would have looked like DiZi’s employee promenade. Bruce didn’t have his toes stretched. Instead, he ate two organic calzones to settle his stomach after the morning whiskey. The calzones made Bruce more nauseated. The people on Bruce’s marketing team waved at him in the cafeteria but didn’t approach the radioactive man.

Bruce was five minutes early for the strategy meeting, but he was still the last one to arrive, and everyone was staring at him. Bruce had never visited the Executive Meditation Hole, which also doubled as Jethro’s private movie theater. It was a big bunker under the DiZi main building with wall carpets and aromatherapy.

“Hey, Bruce.” Jethro was lotus-positioning on the dais at the front, where the movie screen would be. “Everybody, Bruce had a Crisis of Conscience today. Big props for Bruce, everybody.”

Everyone clapped. Bruce’s stomach started turning again, so he put his face in front of one of the aromatherapy nozzles and huffed calming scents. “So Bruce has convinced me that it’s time for us to change our product strategy to focus on saving the planet.”

“You what?” Bruce pulled away from the soothing jasmine puff. “Are you completely delusional? Have you been surrounded by yes-men and media sycophants for so long that you’ve lost all sense of reality? It’s way, way too late to save the planet, man.” Everybody stared at Bruce, until Jethro clapped again. Then everyone else clapped too.

“Bruce brings up a good point,” Jethro said. “The timetable is daunting, and we’re late. Partly because your Crisis of Conscience was months behind schedule, I feel constrained to point out. In any case, how would we go about meeting this audacious goal? ‘Enterprise audacity’ being one of our corporate buzzsaws, of course. And for that, I’m going to turn it over to Zoe. Zoe?”

Jethro went and sat in the front row, and a big screen appeared up front. A skinny woman in a charcoal-gray suit got up and used her Robo-Bop to control a presentation.

“Thanks, Jethro,” the stick-figure woman, Zoe, said. She had perfect Amanda Seyfried hair. “It really comes down to what we call product versatility.” She clicked on a picture of a nice midrange car with a swooshy device bolted to its roof. “Take the Car-Dingo, for example.

What does it do?”

Various people raised their hands and offered slogans like “It makes a Prius feel like a muscle car,” or “It awesomeizes your ride.”

“Exactly!” Zoe smiled. She clicked the next slide over, and proprietary specs for the Car-Dingo came up. They were so proprietary, Bruce had never seen them. Bruce struggled to make sense of all those extra connections and loops, going right into the engine. She pulled up similar specs for the ThunderNet tower, full of secret logic. Another screen showed all those nonsensical Robo-Bop menus, suddenly unlocking and making sense.

“Wait a minute.” Bruce was the only one standing up, besides Zoe. “So you’re saying all these devices were dual-function all this time? And in all the hundreds of hellish product meetings I’ve sat through, you never once mentioned this fact?”

“Bruce,” Jethro said from the front row, “we’ve got a little thing at DiZi called the Culture of Listening. That means no interrupting the presentation until it’s finished, or no artisanal cookies for you.”

Bruce sighed and climbed over someone to find a seat and listened to another hour of corporate “buzzsaws.” At one point he could have sworn Zoe said something about “end-user

velocitization.” One thing Bruce did understand, in the gathering haze: Even though DiZi officially frowned on the cheap knockoffs of its products littering the Third World, the company had gone to great lengths to make sure those illicit copies used the exact same specs as the real items.

Just as Bruce was passing out from boredom, Jethro thanked Zoe and said, “Now let’s give Bruce the floor. Bruce, come on down.” Bruce had to thump his own legs to wake them up, and when he reached the front, he’d forgotten all the things he was dying to say an hour earlier. The top echelons of DiZi management stared, waiting for him to say something.

“Uh.” Bruce’s head hurt. “What do you want me to say?”

Jethro stood up next to Bruce and put an arm around him. “This is where your Crisis of Conscience comes in, Bruce dude. Let’s just say, as a thought embellishment, that we could fix it.” (“Thought embellishment” was one of Jethro’s buzzsaws.)

“Fix ... it?”

Jethro handed Bruce a Robo-Bop with a pulsing Yes/No screen. “It’s all on you, buddy. You push Yes, we can make a difference here. There’ll be some disruptions, people might be a mite inconvenienced, but we can ameliorate some of the problems. Push No, and things go on as they are. But bear in mind—if you push Yes, you’re the one who has to explain to the people.”

Bruce still didn’t understand what he was saying yes to, but he hardly cared. He jabbed the Yes button with his right thumb. Jethro whooped and led him to the executive elevator, so they could watch the fun from the roof.

“It should be almost instantaneous,” Jethro said over his shoulder as he hustled into the lift. “Thanks to our patented ‘snaggletooth’ technology that makes all our products talk to each other. It’ll travel around the world like a wave. It’s part of our enterprise philosophy of Why-Not-Now.”

The elevator lurched upward, and in moments they had reached the roof. “It’s starting,” Jethro said. He pointed to the nearest ThunderNet tower. The sleek lid was opening up like petals, until the top resembled a solar dish. And a strange haze was gathering over the top of it.

“This technology has been around for years, but everybody said it was too expensive to deploy on a widespread basis,” Jethro said with a wink. “In a nutshell, the tops of the towers contain a photocatalyst material, which turns the CO2 and water in the atmosphere into methane and oxygen. The methane gets stored and used as an extra power source. The tower is also spraying an amine solution into the air that captures more CO2 via a proprietary chemical reaction. That’s why the ThunderNets had to be so pricey.”

Just then, Bruce felt a vibration from his own Robo-Bop. He looked down and was startled to see a detailed audit of Bruce’s personal carbon footprint—including everything he’d done to waste energy in the past five years.

“And hey, look at the parking lot,” Jethro said. All the Car-Dingos were reconfiguring themselves, snaking new connections into the car engines. “We’re getting most of those vehicles as close to zero emissions as possible, using amines that capture the cars’ CO2. You can use the waste heat from the engine to regenerate the amines.” But the real gain would come from the cars’ GPSs, which would start nudging people to carpool whenever another Car-Dingo user was going to the same destination, using a “packet-switching” model to optimize everyone’s commute for greenness. Refuse to carpool, and your car might start developing engine trouble—and the Car-Dingos, Bruce knew, were almost impossible to remove.

As for the Crados? Jethro explained how they were already hacking into every appliance in people’s homes, to make them energy-efficient whether people wanted them to be or not.

Zoe was standing at Bruce’s elbow. “It’s too late to stop the trend, or even reverse all the effects,” she said over the din of the ThunderNet towers. “But we can slow it drastically, and our most optimistic projections show major improvements in the medium term.”

“So all this time—all this hellish time—you had the means to make a difference, and you just ... sat on it?” Bruce said. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“We wanted to wait until we had full product penetration.” Jethro had to raise his voice now; the ThunderNet towers were actually thundering for the first time ever. “And we needed people to be ready. If we had just come out and told the truth about what our products actually did, people would rather die than buy them. Even after Manhattan and Florida. We couldn’t give them away. But if we claimed to be making overpriced, wasteful pieces of crap that destroy the environment? Then everybody would need to own two of them.”

“So my Crisis of Conscience—” Bruce could only finish that sentence by wheeling his arms.

“We figured the day when you no longer gave a shit about your own future would be the day when people might accept this,” Jethro said, patting Bruce on the back like a father, even though he was younger.

“Well, thanks for the mind games.” Bruce had to shout now. “I’m going to go explore something I call my culture of drunkenness.”

“You can’t leave, Bruce,” Jethro yelled in his ear. “This is going to be a major disruption, everyone’s gadgets going nuts at once. There will be violence and wholesale destruction of public property. There will be chain saw rampages. There may even be Twitter snark. We need you to be out in front on this, explaining it to the people.”

Bruce looked out at the dusk, red-and-black clouds churning as millions of ThunderNet towers blasted them with scrubber beams. Even over that racket, the chorus of car horns and shouts as people’s Car-Dingos suddenly had minds of their own started to ring from the highway. Bruce turned and looked into the gleam of his boss’s schoolmaster specs. “Fuck you, man,” he said. Followed a moment later by “I’ll do it.”

“We knew we could count on you.” Jethro turned to the half-dozen or so executives cluttering the roof deck behind him. “Big hand for Bruce, everybody.” Bruce waited until they were done clapping, then leaned over the railing and puked his guts out.

Charlie Jane Anders on writing “The Day It All Ended”

Until recently I was always intimidated to approach real scientists and experts to check the science in my stories. I figured they were busy people and didn’t have time to worry about my weird flights of fancy.

But I’ve found lately that scientists really like getting the chance to have input into science fiction, and working on my story in Hieroglyph really helped me get over my fear of being an annoying author.

For my story in Hieroglyph, I was hoping to pull off a fake-out—you think the story is going in one, fairly depressing direction, and then it suddenly turns out to be something quite different. And for that to work, I needed there to be some technologies for mitigating environmental damage embedded in these apparently useless gadgets that everybody is carrying around.

So the great part about writing, and especially revising, this story was getting to have a crash course in different technologies that could absorb carbon. I exchanged tons of emails with two people at Arizona State University: Braden Allenby, Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics, and Jean Andino, senior sustainability scholar with the Global Institute of Sustainability. And I also emailed a lot with Jez Weston, a policy analyst with the Royal Society in New Zealand who had given a talk about geoengineering at Nerd Nite Wellington.

The thing I learned from all three of these experts was that doing things like reducing a car’s emissions below a certain point, and capturing carbon from the air, are difficult and expensive to do—but there are things that could be coming along, even if they would be expensive to implement (perfect for the overpriced gadgets in my story). Allenby suggested you could spray sodium hydroxide into the air and capture carbon for storage underground. And then Andino came up with an even better solution—you could use liquid amines to capture the carbon, with solar power used to regenerate them. Andino, who has done a lot of work for Ford, also suggested a technology that uses a photocatalyst to convert CO2 emissions and water into methane, which could be used as a fuel source. You could even capture the CO2 within the car’s cabin.

This was a really fun research gig, and a chance to learn something about the cutting-edge technologies that could help save the planet someday.

Visit hieroglyph.asu.edu/DiZi to read an engineer and ethicist’s thoughts on “The Day It All Ended” and for a peer-reviewed technical paper about carbon capture.

Reprint permission from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Copyright © 2014 Charlie Jane Anders.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future