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The iHole, by Julian Gough (FICTION FRIDAY #1)
A little extra something for the weekend: for the first time in years, you can read the story that persuaded Markus (Notch) Persson I was "the right guy to write the end game text for Minecraft"...
INTRODUCTION, AND EXPLANATION
One of the nice things about running your own Substack is that, as well as doing all your serious work, you can also play around, and try things out. So, Fiction Friday is an experiment; a bonus; an add-on, which you are free to skip if you hate fiction. (Alternatively, if you love fiction, but hate introductions, you can skip this intro, and go straight to the story.)
But if people generally approve, I’ll occasionally post a piece of fiction on a Friday, maybe every month or two, to give you something interesting to read over the weekend. Some pieces will be by me (because I own them, so I don’t need to clear rights), some may be stories I like by other writers (if I can get the rights cleared). They may be related to the themes of The Egg and the Rock in some oblique fashion, they may not. They WILL, I hope, be entertaining.
I have two reasons for posting this particular story.
One: I’m profoundly aware that a couple of hundred of you are now helping fund this strange venture – many of you being artistic types sent here by Neil Gaiman,, and other writers – so I wanted to give you some gifts, in return, that you might enjoy (on top of the regular non-fiction science posts), and this is probably my most popular short story.
Two: I saw (in my dashboard) that a huge number of you had clicked on the broken link that was supposed to lead to The iHole, in my post I Wrote A Story For A Friend. So clearly there is some interest.
The iHole is the short story that I sent to Markus (Notch) Persson, after he asked me to write the ending to Minecraft. I sent it to him as a kind of audition piece, to make sure he knew what kind of writer he was getting. (A peculiar one.) He liked it, a lot; and so I wrote the ending to Minecraft.
Unfortunately the link in my post (like the link Markus used in his 2012 tweet, above) was dead, because I screwed up a lot of links when I updated my old website to work for mobile. In fact, for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, it’s basically been impossible to legally read The iHole online for a decade.
I wrote the original version of the story in 2011, with Steve Jobs and Jony Ive of Apple turning up as major characters. A year later, it was shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award – a special, one-off, international award to celebrate the fact that London was hosting the Olympics in 2012. All the stories were due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But, just before broadcast, the BBC lawyers got nervous and asked me to rewrite it without Steve and Jony. By happy coincidence, I had been thinking about removing Steve as a character anyway – his tragically early death in 2011 had locked the story into a very particular era, and I wanted The iHole to float slightly free of time. So I rewrote it, as the version you see here.
And so Andrew Scott (who plays Moriarty in Sherlock, and the hot priest in Fleabag) recorded a stunningly dark and funny version of it for BBC Radio 4. His reading is marvellous; he made lines sinisterly sexy that I had definitely not written as sinister or sexy. (A good actor finds far, far more in a text than the author actually put there; Andrew Scott’s reading was so much better than the way I used to read it that I now just rip him off totally when I deliver the story in public.)
I would love to put up Andrew’s recording here, but the BBC’s agreements with Equity, the actors’ union, make that very, very difficult. (If things ever change, I’ll add the audio file here.) There’s a print version of the story in the Comma Press anthology, The BBC International Short Story Award 2012. There is also a very rare limited-edition printing of the original (legally dubious but fun) Apple version of the story, in a very short book, or booklet, called An Apple a Day, by Delere Press.
Oh, one final note: the black holes in this story are for entertainment purposes only. They do not in any way resemble, or behave like, real black holes. I’m using them as a metaphor. I’m playing with them.
Anyway, here’s The iHole.
It was a presentation Tuesday, and the room was full. While they waited for Thierry, they ran through a year's worth of rumours. He’d moved back in with his mother. His mother was schizophrenic. No, she’d lost her memory in a carcrash. She collected, ah, butterflies? Barbies? Beanie Babies. She’d been seen wandering around a parking lot, naked... But the rumours had low energy, and soon died out. Thierry himself had no enemies, no friends, and no life that anyone knew of.
He’d unveiled it before most people had noticed he was in the room.
The black hole sat there, floating in mid air, beside the lectern.
Eventually somebody said “…But what does it do?”
Thierry scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, it kind of doesn't matter what it does. Everyone will want one. Look at it.”
They looked at it. It was beautiful.
Sharif, from the hardware engineering team, reached towards it. Stopped. “What about the interface?” he said. “You can't really touch it, can you?”
“No. But I’ve already talked to, ah… design. Justin doesn’t think that’ll be a problem.”
“Why can I see it?” said Melissa from the strategy group.
“Positive and negative uh particles...” Of course, Melissa’s background was in physics. Thierry restarted. “Matter and antimatter particle pairs come into existence all the time, everywhere, you know—vacuum energy—but usually they annihilate each other straight away.”
“Like the Oilers and the Flames,” said Brett, ever the professional Canadian. Nobody laughed, they didn't even acknowledge it, they wanted to hear Thierry.
“Um, this is designed to suck in the antimatter, and push away the, the matter. So it radiates. But the radiation is coming from just outside the Schwarzschild radius, the event horizon, you see? Nothing can come back from inside the Schwarzschild radius.”
“But...” Melissa was frowning. “Hawking discovered that small black holes evaporate, no?”
“Only incredibly small ones. And besides, if it's losing mass you can just feed it.”
Melissa nodded. “Have you… fed it?”
“Uh, not yet.”
Melissa leaned towards it. “Can I?”
Melissa picked up Thierry’s pen from the lip of the lectern. Thierry’s body almost made to reach for the pen, but only twitched slightly, as his mind cancelled the order. It was just a pen.
“So, anyway,” said Thierry. “It’s spinning, so it’s stable, like a gyroscope….”
Melissa threw Thierry’s pen through the air. It vanished into the black hole.
“Oh my God,” said Melissa. “That felt...” She shook her head. “These are going to be huge… Do it,” Melissa urged the others. “Do it…”
It was a very clean space. No trash cans, no trash. People began to look through their pockets for old tissues, ringpulls, candy wrappers. They dropped them, threw them, flicked them into the black hole. Each time, a gasp, or startled laughter.
“Why doesn’t it fall?” said Sharif. “I mean it has a lot of mass, right?”
“That was the hardest part. It’s designed to radiate boundary energy asymmetrically—downwards—enough to balance gravity. It’s constantly making very fine adjustments, like a Segway.”
“Is it safe?”
“There are safety features. Filters. You don't want kids falling into them. It's too small to swallow anything larger or heavier than, you know, a melon. Anything bigger will just bounce back.”
“What about your finger?”
“If it’s attached to you, it'll bounce back. It registers the whole mass.”
“So you'd have to cut up your victims,” said Brett.
Thierry smiled uneasily.
They drifted away, excited, a little giddy. Thierry was right; they all wanted one.
Chris got his own private presentation the next day. The recent breakup of Apple by the Department of Justice had created a huge, open space at the heart of the crowded consumer hardware business. Chris had been looking for something big, bold, and original, to take that space. This was it. He made it a priority project.
They assembled a team around Thierry. A lot of technicians under him, and some senior managers unobtrusively over him. Let's say, alongside him.
Over the next few weeks, they perfected it. Justin came in with his team, and they radically improved the interface. Made it more sensitive to human-scale movement. Now you could move it around with hand gestures. It could follow you like a balloon.
The prototypes were kept under the usual high security in the new building. But the original, by unspoken agreement, Thierry was allowed keep. It floated over the white leather top of his new desk. He didn't put anything into it himself. But people would wander by, from every corner of the campus. They’d chat for a minute, then say they didn’t want to disturb him, but could they… He’d nod, and they’d throw something into it. A soda can, a cigarette butt. Sometimes something wrapped up, or hidden with a hand. And then the big sigh of relief, or the sudden laugh, at the oddness, the finality, of putting anything into the black hole. The satisfaction.
“Well, it’s not like any normal means of disposal,” Thierry would say politely.
“Yes!” They’d be giddy. “It feels like I blasted it beyond the solar system…” “…beyond the edge of the galaxy,” “…beyond the rim of the known universe.”
“Yes,” he’d say. “You did. It is removed from the universe.”
Technically, things went pretty smoothly. The biggest arguments were about what to call it. What seemed the only obvious name to Thierry was fiercely contested by some of the marketing department. In the end, Chris over-ruled marketing. “People will hate the name. Sure. So what? It’s simple and it works. People hated the name iPad, for about a week. They made every possible joke about sanitary towels—for a week. And then they got used to it.”
Chris launched it in February. He did it beautifully. The crowd gasped, the crowd laughed. Young people said it was the best launch they could remember. Old timers said it was as good as one of Steve’s.
Thierry celebrated that night. The team took him to a bar in the hills west of Sunnyvale. Around 2am, he was standing outside, looking up at the stars. The black hole floated over his head. He tried to line it up with Sirius. There. The black hole bent the starlight around itself, making a tiny ring of light.
He felt his vision flashing, and he looked down, bewildered, at the joint in his right hand. Who’d given it to him? He brought it up to his eyes. Was it laced with something? The white paper, the smoke, seemed to turn blue, then red, then blue. By the time he realised it was a cop car’s lights, it was too late, they had the camera on him and were filming. He flicked the joint, reflexively, toward the black hole, and it vanished from the universe.
The cops took him in and tried to frighten him for the next two, three hours, but he was very relaxed and waited it out. He had nothing on him. They let him go at dawn. He picked up the original iHole at the front desk. The young cop on duty, who'd been playing with it, feeding it paperclips, said, "So when can I get one of these?" and Thierry gave him the tour.
The previews, working off the specifications Chris had announced at the launch, were sniffy as hell. Why would anyone want this? The price is all wrong. It doesn't do anything a garbage can doesn't do better, for less.
But the reviews, once people had actually tried one, were raves.
The company shipped five million iHoles on day one, and they were sold out pretty much everywhere by the end of the week. And the word of mouth was incredible.
A month later, McGowan, in the New York Times, wrote a sober and considered piece that basically said, it isn't perfect, but they will iterate it. Look at all the things missing from the first iPod, iPhone, iPad... “But already it has replaced the office shredder, wastepaper baskets, your garbage can, ashtrays... Not just replaced. It’s made the act of disposal sexy. My kids fight to take out the trash, and they dispose of it eggshell by eggshell, they don't want it to be over. When people love a device so much that they want to play with it, even when they don’t actually have a task that requires it… the device works. The iHole is going to be a huge, global hit.”
And it was.
People started to bring out attachments, add ons. You could connect your iHole to the back of your mower. Watch the grass fly up, curve around it, and… vanish. One attachment—with a little ramp, a cheeseholder—turned it into a better mousetrap.
When the iHole 2 came out, they'd made its sensors much, much more fine-grained. Now it could tell the difference between you and the crumbs on your hands, the sand in your cracks, dandruff in your hair. You could set the filters to clean yourself with it. You could be so clean it was as though you'd never really been clean before.
The only negative reactions came from the environmental movement, but even they found it hard to find an angle, a tone. They came off as attacking it just because it was new.
There was something close to a backlash, when the recycling companies started to go out of business. But the company immediately ran ads showing how much landfill would be unnecessary if everybody carried an iHole. The number of incinerators that wouldn't need to be built. Smiling children played in green fields as their father dropped the picnic rubbish into the family iHole.
Then the company tweaked the iHole 3 so that it absorbed carbon dioxide from the air around it. And they dropped the price of the entry model by a hundred bucks.
At the launch, a stunning, two-minute long, twenty million dollar film by James Cameron painted the iHole 3 as the ultimate carbon capture device. Green resistance collapsed. The company’s share price doubled.
Then the scare stories started running. It had taken a while—iHoles were as close to tamper-proof as consumer products could get—but now people were modifying them. A man in Brazil—upset after his girlfriend left him for a woman—managed to stick his penis in a jail-broken iHole, with highly unpleasant consequences. Which he filmed for her. The clip was the most viewed in the world that year.
The first big court case involved a woman in New Jersey who'd modified an array of iHoles to take massive objects. She ran the operation out of a warehouse, and got caught when the stream of dumptrucks started blocking the docks. She was charged with running an unlicensed landfill. The company was subpoenaed, as an accessory.
There were months of tortuous argument, from dozens of expert witnesses. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, with more and more parties joining the case.
Liberal groups, worried about the abortion implications, defended the right to dispose of whatever you like on private property. They also argued that garbage disposal was a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment. Conservatives defended private ownership of modified iHole arrays on Second Amendment grounds.
Thierry followed the case with decreasing interest. Halfway through the Supreme Court hearing, the judges had requested iHoles, in order to understand the case. It was quite obvious they’d fallen in love with theirs instantly, and were clearly not going to rule against the company.
After a lot of closing evidence from physicists, the case was dismissed on the grounds that, even if there had been a crime, it had not been committed in this universe.
The first knockoffs were announced at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, a few weeks later. But there were stability issues, and none of the products which were announced that January made it to market that summer.
Microsoft had learned a lesson from the failure of their answer to the iPod. The Zune had sold poorly through online shops, partly because it was always last in any alphabetical list of similar products. Senior executives at Microsoft were anxious not to make that mistake again. They over-ruled their marketing department, and in late September launched the A-Hole.
But it was already too late. The iHole completely owned the market. Even expensive, well thought-out competitors were perceived as cheap, inferior copies. In the run-up to Christmas, desperate for market share, Microsoft began to sell their A-Hole at a loss. They still couldn’t get penetration.
The unauthorised modifications began to get out of hand. In a global marketplace, this threw up some cultural differences. That autumn, in Canada, people used it to get rid of leaves.
In the USA and Mexico, the number of people found murdered dropped sharply. The number reported missing rose.
In China, protests in rural areas ceased to be a problem.
In Saudi Arabia, radical jihadists dropped Shias, German tourists, and the wrong kinds of Sunni down the hole—slowly, headfirst—and posted the videos online.
In the West Bank, settlers threw Palestinians down the hole (except on Saturdays). And vice versa (except on Fridays).
In Gaza, Hamas and Fatah spent most of their budgets on iHoles, and threw each other down the hole in such quantities that Gaza became quite peaceful, until an Israeli soldier threw a Palestinian teenager down the hole at a border crossing, and it all kicked off again.
A number of lawsuits emerged from all this. But the company made no admission of liability, and was cleared in every case. The US Supreme Court’s precedent proved extremely useful. In country after country, the entire product was deemed to exist, by definition, beyond the event horizon, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the court, whose jurisdiction was limited to this universe.
At the end of the year, the amount of money Thierry received in his bonus was ridiculous. He celebrated by going to the bank, withdrawing a million dollars in cash, and throwing it, a hundred dollars at a time, into the original iHole. Then he smashed up all his furniture and fed in the pieces.
On his way to the bar that night, the cops stopped him. He thought it was to do with his mother, but it was for pot again. He was so relieved, he let them find some.
Afterwards, when the court summons arrived, he regretted it. Too late.
To avoid thinking about the court case, he lost himself in research, helping Justin work on the big problem. Eventually they solved it, by shifting the Hawking radiation into the visible spectrum. Cautiously, tweak by tweak, they turned a black hole white.
The next iteration had hardly any functional improvements, but it came out in white, and the world upgraded. Within a month, kids with the original black iHole were being jeered at in the street. Their hats, their lunch, their homework were shoved down the hole.
Back in court, Thierry felt proceedings weren't really real. He’d opted for jury trial. The judge and the lawyers on both sides seemed to be playing language games. Thierry couldn't see how their arguments related to empirical, objective reality. They just seemed to be sentences about paragraphs of old laws that had been written with no understanding of the strangeness and beauty of the universe.
He modified his iHole as the jury deliberated. When they came back into court and announced that they had reached their verdict, he gently lobbed his modified iHole into the jury box, and they all disappeared.
This led to a second, more serious court case. But precedent in iHole law was by now clear: “If an event occurs within the boundary, information from that event cannot reach an outside observer, making it impossible to determine if such an event occurred."
The judge in Thierry’s second case determined that the first jury had reached a verdict but that it was not known yet, therefore could not be acted upon. As a verdict had been reached in the original trial, there could be no second trial. However, Thierry was ordered to restore the settings on his iHole to their original state. He did so.
Thierry was released.
Back at home, he didn't seem to know what to do. The house was just a shell with a futon lying on the floor of one room. Using his Swiss army knife, Thierry ripped up the futon and fed it into the black hole. It took all night.
At dawn, he brought the iHole to the lab and let himself in. The cleaners stared at him. He said hello, quietly. He sat at his desk, in his imposing chair, and looked at the iHole for a while. He'd stuck with the original black so long, it was coming back into fashion as a retro look.
He slowly logged into the iHole’s core code, through layer after layer of security.
He modified the source code for all iHoles worldwide, and sent it out as an emergency security patch.
Something fell back out of the iHole, and bounced across the desk.
He picked it up, and looked at it. His pen. He brought the tip down to the desk’s surface, and scribbled. After a hesitant, scratchy second or so, the ink came through. He stared at the tight black scribble on the white leather.
A Snickers wrapper fell on the leather beside him. Then another. As the candy wrappers and used tissues and Coke cans fell all around him, bouncing off his back, his arms, his bowed head, he wrote “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” on the white leather desk, till the pen ran out of ink and the dry tip tore holes in the white skin.
Eventually the first Beanie Baby fell onto the desk. He threw the empty pen into the corner of the room, curled up in the big chair, and waited for his mother to return.
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