Just another day in utopia

by Stuart_Armstrong13 min read25th Dec 2011116 comments



(Reposted from discussion at commentator suggestion)

Thinking of Eliezer's fun theory and the challenge of creating actual utopias where people would like to live, I tried to write a light utopia for my friends around Christmas, and thought it might be worth sharing. It's a techno-utopia, but (considering my audience) it's only a short inferential distance from normality.

Just another day in Utopia

Ishtar went to sleep in the arms of her lover Ted, and awoke locked in a safe, in a cargo hold of a triplane spiralling towards a collision with the reconstructed temple of Solomon.

Again! Sometimes she wished that a whole week would go by without something like that happening. But then, she had chosen a high excitement existence (not maximal excitement, of course – that was for complete masochists), so she couldn’t complain. She closed her eyes for a moment and let the thrill and the adrenaline warp her limbs and mind, until she felt transformed, yet again, into a demi-goddess of adventure. Drugs couldn’t have that effect on her, she knew; only real danger and challenge could do that.

Right. First, the safe. She gave the inner door a firm thud, felt it ring like a bell, heard the echo return – and felt the tumblers move. So, sound controlled lock, then. A search through her shoes produced a small pebble which sparked as she dashed it against the metal. Trying to ignore the ominous vibration as the triplane motor shook itself to pieces, she constructed a mental image of the safe’s inside from the brief flashes of light. Symmetric gold and gilded extravagances festooned her small prison – French Baroque decorations, but not yet Roccoco. So Louis XIV period. She gave the less visited parts of her mind a good dusting, trying to remember the tunes of Jean Batiste Lully, the period’s most influential composer. She hoped it wasn’t any of his ballets; she was much better with his operas. The decorations looked vaguely snake-like; so she guessed Lully’s ‘Persée’ opera, about the death of the medusa.

The engine creaked to a worrying silence as she was half-way through humming the Gorgon theme from the opera. Rushing the rest of the composition, she felt the door shift, finally, to a ten-times speeded up version of Andromeda’s response to Perseus’s proposal. She kicked the door open, exploded from the safe, took in the view of the temple of Solomon rushing up towards her, seconds away, grabbed a picture from the floor, grabbed an axe from the wall, hacked off one of the wings with three violent cuts, and jumped out of the plane after it.

Behind her, the plane disintegrated in midair as the temple lasers cut it to shreds and she fell through space, buffeted by the wind, not losing her grip on to the mangled wing. She had maybe thirty seconds to tie herself to the wing, using the object’s own canvas as binding, and she rushed through that. The Machines wouldn’t allow the fall to kill her, of course, but it would hurt quite a bit (another of her choices – she’d allowed herself to feel moderate amounts of pain), put back her attempts to ever find Ted, and, most importantly of all, be crushingly embarrassing socially.

Once she was lashed to the plummeting piece of wood and canvas, and she was reasonably confident that the fall was slow enough, and her knots secure enough, she finally looked at the photograph she had grabbed during her explosive exit from the plane. It showed Ted, trussed up in chains but smiling and evidently enjoying the novel experience. Underneath was finely engraved note saying “If you ever want to see your lover again, bring me the missing Stradivarius by noon tomorrow. Nero the 2nd”. Each capital letter was beautifully decorated with heads on spikes.

So! It seemed that her magnificent enemy Nero had resorted to kidnapping in order to get his way. It wasn’t like Nero could actually harm Ted – unlike Ishtar, her lover had never chosen to accept any level of pain above mild, brief discomfort. But if he was ‘killed’, Ted would feel honour-bound to never see her again, something she wasn’t ready to cope with yet. On the other hand, if she gave Nero her last Stradivarius, he might destroy it for good. It was her own choice: she had requested that her adventures have real meaning, hence real consequences. If she failed, and if Nero so choose, a small piece of humanity’s cultural history could be destroyed forever, permanently stymying her attempts to reconstruct Stradivarius’s violin-making techniques for the modern world. Culture or love, what to choose? Those were her final thoughts before she crashed into an oak tree shaped like a duck.

She returned to bleary consciousness fifteen minutes later. Her fainting was a sign the Machines were only granting her partial success in her escape attempt; she would have to try harder next time. In the meantime, however, she would have to deal with shotgun pressed into her face and the gorgeous man at the other side of it shouting “Get off my property!”.

“Pause,” she said softly. The man nodded; she had temporarily paused her adventure, so that she wouldn’t have to deal with danger or pursuit for the next few minutes, and so that this guy wouldn’t have to get her away immediately to protect his property from collateral damage. Most Adventurers disdained the use of the pause, claiming it ruined the purity of their experience. But Ishtar liked it; it gave her the opportunity, as now, of getting to know the people she bumped into. And this person definitely seemed to be in the ‘worth getting to know’ category. He put down his shotgun without a word and picked up his paintbrush, applying a few more touches to the canvas in front of him. 

After disengaging herself from both the mangled wing and the duck-shaped tree (she’d have a dramatic scar from that crash, if she choose to), she worked her way round to what he was painting. It was a rather good neo-impressionistic canvas of her, unconscious in the tree, pieces of torn canvas around her, framed by broken branches and a convenient setting moon. Even with his main subject out of the frame, as it were, he still seemed intent on finishing his painting. 

“Why did you splice your tree’s genes to make it look like a duck?” she asked, when the silence had gone on, in her estimation, for ten times as long as it should have. He had done a pretty good job with that oak, in fact; the feathers and the features were clear and distinct amongst the wood – or had been, until someone had crashed a triplane wing into the middle of it.

“I didn’t,” he said. “That’s normal oak; I just trim and tie it.”

“But...” she looked at it again in astonishment; the amount of work involved to get that detail from natural wood was beyond belief. And oak wasn’t exactly a fast growing plant... “It must have taken you decades!”

“Two centuries,” he answered with dour satisfaction. “All natural, no help from the Machines.” He waved his hand up the side of the hill. “I’m making the perfect landscape. And then, I shall paint it.”


The layout was a tapestry of secret themes. Hedges, streams, tree-rows, pathways, ridges and twined lianas carved the landscape into hidden pockets of beauty. Each such pocket seemed to be a private retreat, cut off from the others and from the rest of the world – and yet all were visible at once, the layout a cunning display of multiple intimacy. Here and there were formal gardens, with lines of flowers all at attention, row after row, shading across colour and size from huge orchids to tiny snowdrops. Some pockets were carefully dishevelled, mini deserts or prairies or jungles, perfect fragments of wild untamed nature that could only exist at the cost of supreme artifice. There were herb gardens, rock gardens, orchards, water parks and vineyards; modelled on ancient Persia, England, Japan, France, Korea, Spain, the Inca and Roman empires – of those she could immediately recognise.

And then a few touches of fancy, such as the segment they were in, with the oaks shaped into animals. Further off, a dramatic slew of moss-coated sculptures, with water pouring out from every nook and cranny. Then a dynamic garden, with plants blasting each other with discharges of pollen, set-up in a simple eight-beat rhythm. And a massive Baobab, its limbs plated with a forest of tiny bonsai trees.

“What’s your safety level for all this?” she asked. If he’d chosen total safety, he wouldn’t have needed her off his property, as the Machines wouldn’t have allowed his creations to be damaged by her adventure. But surely he wouldn’t have left such artistic creation vulnerable to the fallout of Adventurers or random accidents...

 “Zero,” he said.

“What?” No-one choose zero safety; it just wasn’t done.

“As I said, no help from the Machines.” He looked at her somewhat shyly, as she stared in disbelief. “It’s been destroyed twice so far, but I’ll see it out to the end.”

No wonder he’d wanted her out... He only had himself to count on for protection, so had to chase out any potential disturbances. She felt deeply moved by the whole grandiose, proud and quixotic project of his. Acting almost – almost – without thinking, she drew out a battered papyrus scroll: “Can you keep this for me?”

“What is it?” he asked, before frowning and tearing up his painting with a sigh. Only then did he look at the scroll, and at her.

“It’s my grandfather’s diary,” she said, “with my own annotations. It’s been of great use and significance to me.” Of course it had been – the Machines would have gone to great pains to integrate such a personal and significant item deeply into her adventures. “Could you keep it for my children?” When she finally found the right person to have them with, she added mentally. Ever since her split with Albert... No, that was definitely not what she needed to be thinking right now. Focus instead on this gorgeous painter, name still unknown, and his impossible dreams.

“What was he like?” he asked.

“My grandfather? Odd, and a bit traditional. He brought me up. And when we were all grown up, all his grandchildren, he decided we needed, like in ancient times, to lose our eldest generation.”

“He died?” The painter sounded sceptical; there were a few people choosing to die, of course, but those events were immensely rare and widely publicised.

“No, he simply had his intelligence boosted. Recursively. And he withdrew from human society, to have direct philosophical conversations with the Machines.”

He thought for a while, then took the scroll from her, deliberately brushing her fingers as he did so. “I’ll keep this. And I’m sure your children will find their ways to me.” An artefact, handed down and annotated through the generations, and entrusted in a quirky landscape artist who laboured obsessively with zero safety level? It was such a beautiful story hook, there was no way the Machines wouldn’t make use of it. As long as one of her children had the slightest adventurous streak, they’d end up here.

“This feels rather planned,” he said. “I expect it’s not exactly a coincidence you ended up here.”

“Of course not.” He was reclusive, brilliant, prickly; Ishtar realised a subtle seduction would be a waste of time. “Shall we make love?”, she asked directly.

“Of course.” He motioned her towards a bed of soft blue moss that grew in the midst of the orchids. “I have to warn you, I insist that the pleasure-enhancing drugs we use be entirely natural, and picked from my garden. Let me show you around first, and you can make your choice.” They wandered together through the garden, shedding their clothes and choosing their pleasures.

Later, after love, she murmured “unpause” before the moment could fade. “Get off my property!” he murmured, then kissed her for the last time. She dived away, running from the vineyard and onto the street, bullets exploding overhead and at her feet.

Three robot gangsters roared through the street in a 1920 vintage car, spraying bullets from their Tommy guns. The bullets ricocheted off the crystal pavement and gently moving wind-houses, causing the passer-by’s (all of whom had opted for slight excitement that week) to duck enthusiastically to the floor, with the bullets carefully and barely missing them. Diving round a conveniently placed market stall a few seconds before it exploded in a hail of hurtling lead, she called up her friend:

“Sigsimund, bit busy to talk now, but can you meet me in the Temple of Tea in about five...” a laser beam from a circling drone sliced off the pavement she was standing on, while three robot samurai rose to bar her passage, katanas drawn (many humans were eager and enthusiastic to have a go at being evil masterminds, but few would settle for being minions). “...in about ten minutes? Lovely, see ya there!”

It actually took her twelve minutes to reach the Temple (she’d paused to vote ‘yes’ on the question as to whether to bring back extinct species to the new Amazonian Rainforests, and to do some light research on the Stradivari). It was nearly-safe ground, meaning that adventures were only very rarely permitted to intrude on it, just enough to give a slight frisson of background excitement. She would certainly be safe for the duration of her conversation.

The priest, in gold and white robes with huge translucent butterfly wings, bowed to her as she entered. “I shall need to Know all about you,” he intoned, to her nodded agreement.

Sigsimund waved at her from a floating table that was making its way serenely through the temple’s many themed rooms, floating on a river that brought them through the Seventy-Seven Stages of Civilization. Ishtar swam out to join her, taking her seat at the gondola-shaped table.

“By your current lack of clothes,” Sigsimund said, “I take it you’ve been putting my advice into practice.”

Sigsimund was one of those who wished above all else to help their fellow human beings. In a world without poverty, disease or death, she specialised in the remaining areas of personal pain: relationship difficulties, jealousies and emotional turmoil. It was quite a popular and respected role, since most humans were unwilling to get rid of those negative emotions artificially, lest they become less than human; but at the same time, they appreciated those who ensured they didn’t have to suffer the full sting of these painful experiences unaided.

Sigsimund had first developed an interest in Ishtar when her long term relationship with Albert had fallen apart. Albert was a physicist (by mutual agreement with the Machines, physics was one of the areas where research was reserved to humans; so all fundamental new discoveries about the nature of reality were entirely triumphs of the unaided human mind), and his need for monogamy had ultimately proved incompatible with Ishtar’s desires. In Sigsimund’s expert analysis, the first stage in Ishtar’s recuperation was a lot of casual sex; she disapproved of Ted for this reason, feeling her friend wasn’t leaving enough time for play before starting another serious relationship (she dismissed comparisons with her own 78-year relationship, started two days after her previous one ended, with the line “we ain’t all the same, you know”).

So as Ishtar recounted her adventure, while strategically wrapping herself in an embroidered sarong that fell from the temple’s sarong-tree, Sigsimund started positively glowing.

“Fabulous!” she said. “I couldn’t have designed it better. And, even more perfect, you’ll never see or hear from him again, and didn’t even get his name. Maybe we can move on to the next step of my recuperation curriculum?”

“Go on”, Ishtar said suspiciously.

“Have you considered spending some time as a man? It would broaden your perspectives on things.”

Ishtar stared fixedly for a full twenty seconds, hoping to convey the full ridiculousness of the suggestion. “I am entirely convinced,” she said, “that that would be entirely unhelpful.”

“As someone who has been mending people’s psyches for a hundred and seven years, and who has access to your full psychological profile and detailed recordings of your activities and emotions for the last decade, let me say that I am entirely convinced that it would be entirely helpful.” A passing clockwork insect dropped a plump apple-strawberry into her hand, and she devoured it. “You should learn to live a little.”

“Why don’t you ever have Adventures?”, Ishtar asked. “You’re the one who should live a bit.”

“Oh, just let me continue spreading happiness and healing pain all around me. Adventures aren’t really my thing.”

“99.7% of people have had adventures,” Ishtar said, lifting a lime sherbet from a leaf floating past. “That makes you, my friend, a member of a tiny and dweebish minority.”

“Yes, but most people just have short adventures when they’re teenagers or on honeymoons. Only...” she let the thought out to the world, and the answer appeared in her mind a second later: “...only 32% of people have adventures as a major part of their lifestyle. And as for people like you, whose whole lives revolve around adventures, the number drops precipitously... J’accuse you of being the member of a tiny and dweebish minority. Also, I need time to learn Akkadian properly, if I’m going to be any use in my next dig. Incidentally, what do you think of my new face? You haven’t commented on it.”

“I like it,” Ishtar said, politely. “Very... colourful. Ethnic, even.” Though of no ethnicity known to man or beast, she added mentally, and the universe is very thankful for that fact. Though maybe some of the more brightly coloured lizards could find some small aspects of it alluring, she conceded. In dim light. If they didn’t have to see it all at once.

“I find it brings out the best in my friends,” Sigsimund said with a huge rainbow grin. “Nobody likes it, nobody dares say anything.”

“Whereas I hope that is not the verdict you shall give on my tea,” said the temple priest, holding a tiny cup aloft as his ivory throne descended lazily from the sky. “Madame Ishtar, I have downloaded your full history, biological records, run thousands of simulations with models of your taste buds, Glossopharyngeal nerve and brain stem; looked through your history for all pleasant and unpleasant taste associations I could find, analysed your stomach contents and recent consumptions, cast your horoscope, computed your chi, and peered deep into your chakras. And added a bit of flair and feeling. I believe this is the best cup of tea you ever had.”

The smell hit her before her hand even touched the cup, a light scent of burning grass that catapulted her into her childhood, dancing with her sisters in front of the traditional forest fires. It was the young girl and the woman who both clasped their finger across the cup, reunited across time by the single perfect aroma. She wasn’t conscious of drinking the tea, but she must have, for it exploded in her mouth, hot, spicy, cool, fruity, chocolaty and lemony. The tastes chased each other across her tongue and nerves, alternating with rapid and smooth transitions. She had just enough time to appreciate one taste combination, register a dozen half-formed marvellous impressions, feel that her joy was about to peak – but already the transition had happened, and she was in a new taste-world. She lost the consciousness of her tongue and nose; the sensations were applied directly to her brain, the mediating machinery stripped away.

And then, in three glorious seconds, it was over, and only one word could describe her feelings with sufficient poetry and precision:


She also recognised the tell-tale sign of her dopamine system being inhibited. This was an essential precaution with any super-stimulus, to prevent addiction: though she liked the tea more than anything in recent memory, she wasn’t filled with an irresistible want for it. It was just a perfect moment for her to treasure.

“It is traditional,” the priest intoned, “for guests to leave a little something in exchange.”

Ishtar thought deeply. She wasn’t that used to ritual situations, and she couldn’t think of anything she had of comparable value to exchange. “Well,” she said, “I did spend two decades as house-wife, a while back.” The priest’s expression didn’t change. “One of the things I became good at was... baking cookies.” Still no sign as to what the priest was thinking, in any direction. “I did a whole lot of chemical research, of course, and some of them turned out sublime... One batch in particular, took my breath away and pounded my lungs with the sheer joy of being alive and tasting existence itself. And chocolate. I can... I can share the memory of that with you. It’s... very private, so please don’t go bandying it around to anyone...”

“That is...”, the priest said, as the memory was downloaded into his mind, “...generous.”. He bowed and his throne levitated away.

They sat in silence for a minute, until Sigsimund felt it was time to return their thoughts to trivialities. “By the way, I had a chat with Nero,” she said.

“You did?” Ishtar blinked, struggling to conceive of Nero as anything else but the magnificent and constant bane of her existence, the perfect enemy.

“Oh yes,” Sigsimund said, “He’s another one of my friends; he’s doing quite well, in fact, and is trending happy and well balanced and looking around for a healthy, low hassle relationship.”

“Well, I’m happy for him, I suppose...”

“In fact,” Sigsimund said, wagging eyebrows the size of maple leaves as suggestively as she could, “I would go so far as to say, that if you’re interested (and I recommend you to be interested) the rivalry between you might be amenable to... ending up in the traditional way, if you catch my drift. No pressure, just a thought to keep in mind when you both end up sweaty and wrestling over an exploding volcano.”

“That’s interesting,” Ishtar allowed, grudgingly. She sat in silence for a while, a stray thought nagging the rest of her brain for attention. She brought back the memory of the picture of Ted in chains. They had felt a little odd and fake, like they were made of plastic. Or maybe not weighing as much as they should. Like there wasn’t enough gravity. Not space or the moon but maybe...

“For the moment, I need a bit of a break,” she said. “You want to go skiing?” Sigsimund shook her head. “With rockets?” Still more head shaking. “On the mountains of Mars?”

“Now you’re talking!” Then Sigsimund’s gaze grew a little more serious, staring over her friend’s shoulder. “Though I see you’ll have to take the long route?”

Ishtar turned round. There, paddling slowly towards her through the stream, was the largest mechanical tiger she’d ever seen, its diamond-and-steel jaws glowing in the light of the temple as the other guests arranged themselves around it to witness the spectacle. Smoke belched from its nostrils alongside a tinny synthesised version of Nero 2’s laughter. Ishtar’s hand reached for her weapon, which she didn’t have, so it closed around a cheese knife instead. “If I make it, meet you tomorrow at the little Italian starport at the foot of Olympus Mons, okay?”

“See ya there,” Sigsimund said, and saluted, as her friend gave a blood re-curdling scream and launched herself over a fleet of tiny sailing ships battling each other, cheese knife pointed directly at the tiger’s clockwork heart.