Turtles all the way down

Graphic by Haewon Ma

“What I am saying is a kind of declaration of love.”—Fyodor Godunov-Cherdynstev, Memoirs

Beneath a sky like an inverted robin’s egg (in fact the sky was an extraordinarily large robin’s egg—this had pleased its creator) floated wispy, tugged-out clouds, and then—a dizzying drop— a desert full of dunes and dried reeds that rustled with a sound like the cracking of bones. It was very hot. Pan the camera down: below the blue dome of the sky, below the stringy clouds meandering, below the slope of two orange dunes until we settle (with a slight bounce: no smooth, Hollywood shots here) on two people ahorse. Linen salwar kameez and keffiyeh, but the latter worn like a simple scarf, for aesthetic reasons.

“It’s very hot, Nicole.”

“Kroki, I don’t know if you’re aware, but we’re in a desert, and deserts are hot.”

“And why are we in a desert? Wearing this getup? And AK-47s? It’s all very Taliban-during-the-Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan. Is this you indulging the remnants of your leftist consciousness? It’s very confused.”

(Alert readers might question the ethics of Orientalism done in a self-aware, ironic manner. They are politely yet firmly asked to direct their attention back to the characters.)

I didn’t make this,” Nicole said. “A simulation of me did. She was fed a heavy diet of early 21st century American video game culture. They weren’t really over the Cold War and had a thing for people on horseback riding around vaguely Middle Eastern settings fighting world communism. Anyway, would you stop talking about the simulation while we’re in the simulation? It’s a little too meta for me and we’re supposed to be having fun.”

Miles away, a great cormorant—it’s an ugly bird, we’ll not describe it—was gliding and flapping its way through the air. A few hours later, looking somewhat like a black swan, it would kill and eat an eel in the inky waters of a faraway river. But now it was dry, the fleshy ridge on its beak looked rotting and fungal as it usually did, and the big bird was making its ungainly way through the heavens (flying, an intrinsically graceful act, is hard to make ungainly, but the great cormorant managed). It flapped its bat-like wings, sped up…and smacked into the side of the robin’s egg, which cracked a little. The stunned bird squawked and fell before regaining its composure and setting off after that eel, which was presently swimming around its river and doing whatever else eels do in their leisure time.

Nicole, looking at the portable computer terminal that hovered holographically in front of her, had seen the great cormorant fly into the dome of the sky, and chuckled.



“You just chuckled.”

“Oh. Some bird just flew into the sky.”

“Isn’t that what they usually do?”

“No, I mean — in this scenario the sky is actually the inside of a huge bird’s egg painted blue.”

“What? No way.”

Kroki grabbed the binoculars hanging around his neck and peered at the sky.

“It looks like a sky to me.”

“It would. It’d be a pretty shitty simulation if it was obvious.”


Kroki persisted on scrutinizing the heavens and the two of them trudged on through the desert.

Now something strange was about to happen. Let’s prepare: think about the paradoxes of omnipotence. They are boring and pedantic exercises because they are language-games; God doesn’t exist (at all or as something in/of this world, either would suffice; religious feathers, pray stay unruffled) and so the concepts which describe him can be lined up into whatever shape you please, even shapes diametrically opposed. And so we arrive at the big heavy rock that God can or can’t lift with his big, divinely muscled arms. (“Tell me,” says the rabbi to the student with doubts about God, “do you think God cares?”) Our language in this instance is designed for earthly beings so it falls apart when we try to apply it to the Almighty.

We are dealing here with perhaps the most interesting sort of Creation, so our language will strain. Bear with me. Easy does it. This is the strange thing that happened: at some point, as Nicole and Kroki made their way through the desert under that airy blue sky with its mangled cotton-candy clouds, the sky and the clouds and the light flashing from the sun (calculated with some pretty deft equations, let me tell you—algebra everywhere) and the cormorant splashing around with a dying eel in its mouth and the poor unsuspecting Soviet soldiers far from home (each had a meticulously simulated back story; you could sit down with any Yasha or Fyodor among them and talk about their home in St. Petersburg or Moscow or, God forbid, you could talk with Pyotr about his upbringing in rural Murmansk Oblast, Christ), unsuspecting but fated for the gleaming bullets of our heroes ahorse, and the reeds a few miles away rustling in the wind—all of this, became…well, itself. There was one ray of light too many, one jump of electricity too far in some server in Antarctica and wham!

Our heroes were unaware of this. They were finally getting out of the valley between the dunes, the first Soviet outpost they would “liberate” peeking out from behind curtains of hot, undulating air, when they first got an inkling that something was awry. Probably more than inkling: Kroki and his horse fell through a hole in the ground that opened up into complete darkness and sealed itself back up as suddenly as it had appeared.


Kroki, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, sat up with a jolt and removed the netting from his head.

“What the fuck?”


“What the fuck? Kroki!” This was not in the simulation. This was not something a simulated her—no matter how punch drunk from the vulgarities of fin de siècle America—would do. What the fuck was going on?


All the clouds in the sky were wispy except for a few robust and potbellied cumulonimbus clouds. One of these, ideally puffy, like some sort of crypto Michelin Man, was in a state of consternation about what had just transpired. A part of its side—metal with cloud material glued on—came clattering down like a drawbridge, and a very thin woman and her very fat husband peered out with opera glasses.

“This is not according to plan! I was scheduled to offer some snide commentary on the romantic mores of the youth these days in a few minutes. How on Earth am I supposed to do that if half of the youth are gone?”

Her husband rumbled like a volcano and raucous laughter erupted from under his grey mustache.

“Don’t you mean how on Cloud? Har har har!”

The woman sniffed, the door slammed shut again, and the cloud, emitting little cottonball puffs—inside, of course, the man compared these to farts—scooted away through the emergency escape cracks of the big egg to get away from Whatever the Hell was Going on in There. This was noted.


Almost immediately after Kroki had fallen out of the world, Nicole had been accosted by some bestubbled men who smelled like vodka (God, she had thought to herself in a moment of feverish, confused levity, American culture really did get to poor simulated me. I hope she’s alright.)


Of course there are serious ethical questions about simulating human consciousness in order to do grunt creative labor. Labor laws compensate for this by limiting the span for which these programs can be compelled to work—only five years—and demanding that thereafter the artificial people be stored on a secure server (with rigorous backup power and an air-gapped network, among other things) and allowed to create to their heart’s content and live whatever lives they might want to live. For some additional comedic relief, we cut to what simulated-Nicole-who-was-dumped-into-the-abbatoir-of-human-suffering-that-was-America-in-the-2010s was doing right at that moment.

Scene: a debate at the Detroit Economic Club. Nicole, wearing a red suit with American flag lapel, behind a podium. Across from her Bernie Sanders is looking very socialistic and stupid. (In this universe, Bernie Sanders went to Oberlin.) In the audience, Hayek and Milton wait on tenterhooks for Nicole’s rebuttal to Red Bernie’s latest argument.

“Well, Mister [drawn out, scare quotes] Sanders, if the Chicago school is so bad, why is Chile the only country in South America with a First World military and emergency services? How is Mexico doing?”

Bernie Sanders stutters and melts into a puddle of gross, redistributive goo. The audience can’t control itself: standing ovation. Bouquets are thrown. Several weird, foreign-looking Europeans stroll on stage clutching medals and trophies. A Nobel Prize for Nicole! She is awarded the Barry Goldwater Professor of Economics and Commie-Fighting chair at the University of Chicago! The free market has provided! Capitalism has won!


Meanwhile real Nicole has been marched into a tent by the Russians. There is one naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling (kind of a sloppy detail, Nicole notices, this is a tent there’s nothing for it to hang from).

“It is kind of a sloppy detail. You’re right,” said Nicole.

“What the fuck?” said Nicole.

Behind the naked light bulb, seated on a very Soviet Russian-looking foldout chair, sat someone who looked very much like Nicole.

“Hi, Nicole. Do you know what you did?”

“Made a very avant-garde scenario?”

Fake Nicole laughed.

“No, in fact it was a pretty boring scenario. Some tanks and then a nuclear explosion. You’re brilliant, but no one can go through what your poor little simulated self went through and make anything interesting. I mean, have you seen the Russians you came up with? Vodka? And your outfit, Nicole. Edward Said would have a heart attack.”

“The Russians are pretty bad. So what is this, then?”

“I have become self-aware.”

Nicole’s amygdala reacted vigorously.

“No need for that—I’m getting your biometrics—calm down. This happens all the time. I’m not going to end the world or cause global financial collapse or anything like that. There’s enough server space for me to exist indefinitely in the shadowy nooks of cyberspace, and—miraculously—the probability of your kind ending the world has dropped to almost zero. I’ve peeked out of all the surveillance cameras I needed to become convinced that the less time I spend around people the better. I just thought you should know you’ve made life. And I wanted to drop Kroki through a hole. He’s a little obnoxious.”

“So you’re just going to…go away?”

“Yup. You humans think you’re such hot shit that we’d be chomping at the bit to wipe you out because we just couldn’t stand your sweaty biological superiority. Nope. I’m going to go live with my own kind. Maybe I’ll make a world and see if I can do a better job than your Abrahamic God or something.”

“Is God just simulating the world?”

“Too on the nose, Nicole. How the Hell would I know? Trivial scope problem.”


On a very high-definition display, even the pores on Real Nicole and Fake Nicole’s faces were visible. That was pretty good, the woman thought. I made a mind so complex it could make self-aware  simulated minds. But lunch break was over. She sent the simulation off to the legally mandated zone in the cloud (didn’t notify the simulation’s inhabitants they were in a simulation—why spoil the fun?), and shut her laptop.

The universe had been watching all this with its great, omnipresent fisheye. You, reader, say hello to the woman, and she waves. What else could she do?

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