Monday, June 21, 2010

There is No Time in Waterloo

This piece was commissioned by McSweeney's and printed in Issue 32, a speculative issue with fiction about life in 2010. It was reprinted in the anthology, Darwin's Bastards. The version below is slightly different from the two published version (which also differ from each other, slightly.) This piece was conceived with Margaux Williamson. With special thanks to physicists Sean Gryb, Aaron Berndsen, Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour.

Everyone in Waterloo was an amateur physicist, and they endlessly bugged the real physicists as the physicists sat in caf├ęs talking to each other. The amateurs would approach and put questions to them; simple questions, obvious ones. Or else they asked questions that even a physicist couldn’t answer, or questions that weren’t in the realm of physics at all, but had more to do with biology or straight computation. People who know almost nothing about what they’re talking about are often more enthusiastic than the ones who know a lot, so they do all the talking, while the ones who know their shit stay silent and get red in the face.

Whenever a real physicist would start to correct or explain a point, the amateur would smile and nod, and would loudly proclaim that they’d read something about that in a magazine or book recently. Then they would start explaining it and the physicist would listen, tight-lipped, or else abruptly put an end to the conversation, in frustration.

Then the physicist would return to the Perimeter Institute, which was built on the top of a gently sloping hill, and sigh in relief to be home again, standing at the chalkboard, working out equations.


One afternoon in March, a rumour went around town that some boy’s Mothers had predicted that a kid was going to blow up the mall on the left side of town, so all the teenagers got on their scooters and sped off towards the parking lot there.

As Sunni was leaving her apartment, her mother called out from her usual place on the couch and asked where she was going. Sunni returned and explained about the rumour, saying that she was really eager to see the mall be blown up; that she and her friends had so much pent-up energy—they were wild with energy and simply couldn’t wait.

Sunni reluctantly went back and explained about the rumour, admitting that she was really eager to see the mall be blown up; that she and friends had so much pent-up energy – were wild with energy – and simply couldn’t wait.

Sunni’s mother felt a bit of regret that she was going to watch the mall be exploded, but didn’t object; after all, if that was Sunni’s destiny, who was she to interfere?

She replied, “I guess if some boy’s Mothers is saying that one of you is going to blow up the mall, then one of you is going to blow up the mall.”

Then Sunni became emotional and started to cry. She said to her mother, “Please look for a job!” Her mother had lost her position as a law professor after the City shut down all the University departments that weren’t considered excellent enough. The Perimeter Institute had elevated Waterloo’s intellectual pride, and the City wanted to be as excellent in every field as it was in physics, or else not engage in that field at all.

Now her mother replied softly, as she had many times before, that her Mothers said she should not look for a job. At this Sunni cried harder and got out, “Don’t you know that whenever a Mothers say not to look for a job but just to stay on the couch, it means you’re going to die?”

Her mother had been on the couch for a year and a half. Of course she knew, but she just shrugged and looked down at her Mothers and flipped it about in her hand. Maybe it really was that there were no jobs out there. Or maybe she was going to die. She told Sunni that she had no choice but to listen to her Mothers. Sunni said she understood, admitting she did not know her mother’s destiny. Then she left the apartment and went downstairs and got on her orange scooter and zoomed off.


At the mall the teenagers spoke excitedly with each other, drawing together and apart, eager for the show to begin. They asked around to discover whose Mothers had predicted the explosion, but no one seemed to know. When after an hour the mall still remained standing, undisturbed, they started checking their Mothers to see if they were the one destined to blow it up. It appeared that none of them were.

Now they began to grow tense and upset. It was not the first time something like this had happened. A week before, some boy’s Mothers had predicted a fight, but no one had thrown the first punch. A month ago, there was supposed to have been an orgy in back of the other mall, the nice one, but after standing around awhile they had checked their Mothers and learned that the probability of their participating in an orgy was really low.

It started to rain, as a weatherman had predicted. Dispirited, the teenagers began to drift off. Only Sunni and a few of her friends remained, to finish the conversation they’d been having about film. They each had their own distinct opinions about art, but came together in agreement that surprise in drama was an inaccurate reflection of life; the best stories followed the path of greatest likelihood. Indeed, when you thought about the best stories down through time, their greatness and terror came from the fact that the most predictable and probable thing always occurred.

“Like in Oedipus,” Sunni said, watching her friend as he lit up his cigarette with an old-fashioned butane lighter whose flame danced high in the air. As the boy tried to snap it closed smoothly, a fumbling occurred, and it tumbled, aflame, onto Sunni’s hand and her Mothers, igniting the casing in a sudden burst.

“Oh, fuck!” Sunni cried, batting her Mothers into the air, which arced, smoking, and dropped on the pavement, the lighter clattering beside it.

“Oh my God, Sunni—is your Mothers dead?” Danny gasped.

“Nope! Nope! Luckily no!” Sunni replied, picking it up. It was burning hot, and she tossed it from hand to hand. Looking down as it cooled, she saw that the screen had been melted into a squinty little eye. The keys were matted down to their wires, and the casing was tarry and charred.

“Still works!” Sunni announced. Then she got onto her scooter, feeling like she was about to faint, and rode to the parking lot around the other side of the mall, her Mothers propped behind the windshield. She kept glancing at it, but no glance transformed it from the twisted, charry mess it had been in the glance before.

In the back parking lot, she stopped her scooter and got off and doubled over, hyperventilating a bit, then ran a distance to throw up. This vomiting might have been because she was pregnant. Most of her friends were; they knew that there was a greater probability of having a successful career and a nice-looking body if they gave birth while still young, and their Mothers pushed them in this direction.

When Sunni returned at last to her Mothers and saw it there on the windshield, she was overtaken by a spell of vertigo. It wasn’t clear yet whether its destruction was the worst, most tragic thing that had ever happened to her, or if this was the most exciting moment of her life. She only knew that she had never felt such dizziness before, and upon asking herself what to do now, then glancing down reflexively at her Mothers for the answer, she grew overwhelmed by vertigo once more.


Twenty years earlier, the citizens of Waterloo had grown enthralled by a book written by a physicist who had been invited to spend some time Perimeter. The book was called The End of Time, and its author had argued in a persuasive and beautiful way that time did not exist; the universe was static. There were a slightly less than an infinite number of possible moments hanging about, like paintings in an attic, all real but out of reach, and each person’s destiny was nothing more and nothing less than the most probable of these possible futures.

The people most taken with this idea led fervent discussions on how to best realise the theory in one’s life. Like humans anywhere, they didn’t want to waste their time. They hoped to reach their destinies as quickly and efficiently as possible—not their ultimate destinies, just their penultimate ones. And so it made sense to try and act as much in accordance with probability as they could.

The executives at the BlackBerry headquarters in Waterloo decided they would capitalize on this desire, and they began producing a machine they tagged The Mother of All BlackBerrys. It remained a phone you could email from, but it had an added, special feature: given ongoing inputs, it was calibrated to determine for each user what they were destined to do next.

“It will be a device that determines a person’s most likely next action based on previous behaviours. If the input is one’s life, then the outcome is one’s life,” an executive explained to the rest as they sat around a table.

“Brilliant!” said another executive, reaching for a Danish. And they all reached for Danishes, and toasted each other, smiling.


The Mothers—as people began calling them—were at once a huge success. They eclipsed everything in culture at that moment, like any great fad down through time. People in Waterloo consulted their Mothers at every turn, and it quickly became as impossible to live without a Mothers as it had once been to not check email. People wondered how they had managed their lives before the Mothers. They even bought Mothers for their babies.

If life became somewhat more predictable as a result, it was also more comforting, and soon the citizens of Waterloo didn’t even notice that they were going in circles; that it was always the same thing over and over again.

The physicists, though nominally to blame for the proliferation of the Mothers, were largely skeptical and had a hundred doubts, so it was not unusual to be standing in a supermarket line-up and hear one of them testily provoke and challenge an amateur physicist who was checking his Mothers, if the physicist was having a particularly bad day. “So, do these Mothers calculate quantum or classical probabilities?” the physicist might ask; a question over which the amateur might stumble, only to regain his footing upon consulting his Mothers about whether continuing the conversation would be to his benefit, to which the Mothers would reply that the probability was low.


What will Sunni do without her Mothers? I sometimes ask myself a similar question. What would I do if I didn’t know what was to come? If the inputs of my past were to disappear, I’d have no idea how I behaved in relationships past, and would not know how to behave in them now. I would play it all differently, not knowing how I was likely to behave. I might forget how much I once hated to be on a soccer pitch, but was forced onto the field, and avoided soccer ever since. I might, while lounging in a park, say to the soccer players, while rising, Do you need an extra player?


If you draw a line across a piece of paper, that is King Street. Now draw a small, perpendicular line crossing King Street near the centre. That is Princess Street. That is the part of town where losers, misfits, and orphans hang out. It’s where someone crosses the street drunk, and someone else crosses the street with ripped jeans and a lazy eye.

On either end of King Street, draw a square. These are the two malls. The mall at the right end of town is in the richer neighbourhood, near the Perimeter Institute, the University, and the Institute for Quantum Computing—all those institutions representing the heights of Waterloo’s excellence. The other mall, the one the teenagers gathered at, is situated near the Old Town Hospital, City Hall, and the more run-down establishments that deal with humanities and the human body.

Now watch Sunni speed along the long line of King Street, arriving within minutes at Princess.


Sunni was like all her friends and all her friends were like Sunni. Their machines represented the part of the brain that sees patterns and nothing but patterns. To that part of the brain, everything fits. There is no randomness to life, no chance. If ever their Mothers missed something, or something not predicted occurred, it would correct for the future, learning from what had happened and fitting this new thing into a better, more complete image of the whole. In this way, if not everything was already accounted for, Sunni and her friends had faith that in time it would be.

Sunni had always avoided Princess Street, since only losers hung out there. But since nearly every teenager whose Mothers broke wound up on Princess, it was where she decided to go now. She still had the instincts of someone with a Mothers, and wanted to waste no time before moving on to the likeliest next stage of her destiny. She parked her scooter and walked straight into one of the bars, pushing its red door open.

Two teenagers she had never seen before were sitting on tall stools, smoking and drinking, and upon entering Sunni could hear them whisper: Doesn’t she look like Shelly? No, but she reminds me a lot of my grade-four gym teacher. Actually, today in its entirety reminds me a lot of grade four.

Sunni went to perch on the stool beside them and said hi, placing her hand below her slightly heavy belly. They regarded her blankly. Without waiting for a sign of their interest, she explained that she had lost her Mothers that day.

The boy nodded solemnly. Once your Mothers is dead, he knew, it’s gone for good. The factory had shut down years before due to a lack of demand for the Mothers beyond Waterloo, and not a single repair shop in town knew how to fix the machines. The boy explained that the very same thing had happened to him four years ago, but told Sunni not to worry; life would not be as different as she feared. Having said this, he turned to face his friend, finishing up the anecdote he had been telling about his childhood, concluding, “And I still feel its reverberations today.” Then the two of them put down their money and began packing their bags to leave.

“Wait! Wait! Where are you going?” Sunni cried anxiously, and the boy sighed deeply and said, “Relax. Personality is as static as time; it’s a fixed law. People don’t change. As long as you remember that, you’ll be all right. Now we have to go and write in our diaries.” And they left.

Sunni, still sitting there, glanced down at her Elders pin as it began to blink and beep. Then she jumped up from the stool and left


Time is a measurement of change. The change in the position of quantum particles cannot always be known, because they don’t seem to exist in any fixed spot. At the level of human bodies, we can see that time has passed because one moment I’m here at this bar, the next I’m at City Hall. But at the quantum level, everything is cloudy. This is the mechanism for the disappearance of time. The people of Waterloo liked the timeless theory because, deep down, they felt it. Their lives, in so many ways, reflected it. The science simply stamped their intuition with the air of authority and truth.


No,” said a physicist, standing in the park under the gazebo, to the twenty-odd citizens picnicking around her. “We don’t all believe that time is static.”

The picnickers smiled up at the physicist. They continued to eat their bread and sandwiches and throw their strawberries into the grass.


Though Sunni left for City Hall as soon as she received the call, she arrived a little later than everyone else. The other Elders were already there, waiting for the emergency meting to begin.

The teenagers of Waterloo, whose Mothers had been receiving inputs since the day they were born, were believed by everyone to have a more accurate grasp of what the future would hold. Compared to their Mothers, their parents’ Mothers were deeply lacking: twenty, thirty years unaccounted for. So a special place in Waterloo was reserved for the young. They were given much respect. They bore the official title Double Special Elders, since having a particular destiny is the essence of being Special. They were paraded about on ceremonial occasions and called in to advise the city on all the important matters.

Sunni crept quietly through the side door, up to her seat in the fourth row of the dais, which seated thirty across. Already Waterloo’s two hundred and fifty native-born teens were in their seats, and they glanced at Sunni and watched her take her place, though she had tried to make her entrance subtle. The mayor, standing at the podium before them, was in the midst of explaining the current crisis, but after two minutes, Sunni was still totally lost, so she whispered to the boy beside her, asking him what she had missed.

He replied quickly, “This morning Perimeter received word from Africa that all the problems in physics have been solved.”

What?” she whispered back. “Are you sure? The measurement problem and—”

“Yes, yes, everything,” he insisted hotly. Then he rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask me.”

Sunni slumped back in her chair, stunned. The mayor was now on to the mundane, municipal details, explaining how much it cost the city to fund the institute, claiming that it would be humiliating for Waterloo to carry on the project of physics when the field was now kaput. He gestured at the two physicists who had come to explain the proof, should anyone want to hear it. He said that they represented the physicists who believed the institute should be kept alive—not because the African proof was wrong; it wasn’t—but for reasons that he, the mayor, did not completely understand, though if one of the Elders wanted to hear their reasoning, the physicists could give it. As for the rest of the physicists, they were too preoccupied with going over the proof to attend the meeting that day.

“Would any of the Elders like to see the African proof?” the mayor asked.

Sunni looked around tentatively. No one else seemed to want to hear it, but she wanted to know, so she awkwardly raised her hand. The mayor nodded at the physicists, and the younger of them stood and went to the whiteboard and began drawing an equation and a little diagram. He turned to the Elders and began to speak. He was only a few sentences into his elucidation when the mayor interrupted him to exclaim:

“Aha—look! It’s like an earthworm praying!”

At which point the young physicist violently threw his marker onto the ground and left the whiteboard and sat down beside his friend. He was too upset by the events of the day to push forward. It wasn’t even so awful that a proof had been found; the pain in his heart was about how unsatisfying a proof it was. It just wasn’t the beautiful, elegant thing that everyone had been hoping for.

Sunni wanted to ask the physicists what the African proof said about the unreality of time, but just as she was about to raise her hand again, the boy next to her leaned over and pointed at Sunni’s Mothers, which she still reflexively clasped tightly in the palm of her hand.

“Is your Mothers dead?” he gasped.

Sunni, hiding it quickly beneath her sweater, replied with feigned ease, “Nah, it’s just a new sleeve. My architect friend made it. He’s cool.”

“I wouldn’t want a sleeve that looked like that.”

“Never mind.”

“You should take that sleeve off.”

“One day I will.”

Then the mayor turned to the teenagers and asked, “Should Perimeter be closed?” In this way voting began.

The first Elder spoke: “Yes.”

The second Elder looked up from her Mothers, which knew that once you began talking about ending something, usually that thing ends. “Yes!”

The third Elder spoke. “Yes.”

And on and on it went: yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

Now it was Sunni’s turn. She hesitated, glancing down at the blank screen of her Mothers, which she had pulled out again. It was still a twisted, black, charry mess. She took a deep breath, and said very quietly, though loud enough for everyone to hear:

“I am no longer Special.”

Then she stood up from her place on the dais and climbed carefully down the steps. It was a humiliating walk, one others had performed before her while she had watched in pity and fear. Behind her there rose a wall of whispering; it was the world Sunni had been part of, sealing itself off behind her.

She walked past the Mayor and beyond the physicists, towards the doors at the end of the hall. Just before she slipped out, she heard the mayor announce the tally of the vote: it was unanimous. Perimeter was to be shut down within the hour.

“Fucking teenagers,” the older physicist muttered.


Sunni stepped out into the breezy air of the afternoon, blinking in the brightness of the day. Her face felt oddly hot. She stood on the steps of City Hall, faintly bewildered. Her eyes rested on a tree that stood a short distance in the grass, and she watched it gently sway, moved by the breeze. What would move her, now that her Mothers was dead? With each day, she felt, her destiny would be less and less clear, and less and less would what was probable be the law that ran her life. She tried to imagine what other law might come to replace it, but no other laws came to mind.

Perhaps, she mused, she could learn about living from this tree—let the laws that moved it move her as well. At base, she knew, she was made up of the very same substance as the tree; she must be, in some sense, treelike. She stepped down onto the lawn.

At that moment, her attention was distracted by some vague sounds in the distance. She squinted. Son she could discern a lethargic parade approaching from the far end of King Street. After watching a bit longer, she realised what it was: a small tide of physicists was flowing from the doors of Perimeter. They came closer, heaving down King Street with stooped postures, dazed, carrying boxes of computers, papers and chalk, streaming towards their cars, which would take them back to the university towns from which they had come.

“How pathetic,” came a small voice.

Sunni turned around and noticed that sitting cross-legged beneath the tree was a scrawny boy around her own age. From the first glance she could tell that he was a loser, but such a loser he wasn’t even a Princess Street loser.

“They don’t have to leave,” he said.

“But it’s their destiny.” Sunni replied, moving closer. “I was in the meeting. I saw it happen.”

The boy looked up at her sceptically, pushing his bangs away. “Destiny? What a word! These physicists don’t believe in the future. Most of them don’t, anyway. I know it. I’m good friends with some of them.”

“But—” Sunni shook her head. “If there’s no destiny, how can you know what’s going to happen next?”

The boy, whose name was Raffi, frowned. He paused a moment, then went on to quietly explain, barely raising his voice above a whisper, so that Sunni had to move closer to hear.

He told her that last year’s Bora Bora proof, which contributed to the African proof, revealed that not everything that comes to pass can be known in advance; rather everything is in a continuous state of co-creation and co-evolution with everything else. The future is utterly non-computable and non-predictable – possibly not mathematical, in essence, at all. No future can exist until it exists, since we are all creating reality together in a radically flexible present. “Like, things can happen all sorts of different ways,” he said.

Sunni sat back hard against the tree. She was flustered by all that this boy was saying. But the Bora Bora proof was impossible! Absurd! She turned her head as the Double Special Elders began emerging from the tall doors of City Hall and spreading across the lawn, heads bent low over their Mothers as they decided where to go next. She was about to say something when, in the distance, a blue spiral burst into the world, lighting up the sky. Sunni felt like she was going to vomit, felt like her insides had been scooped out with a spoon. 

“It’s the action,” Raffi said quietly. “It’s coming closer, I see.”

“What action?” Sunni asked.

Raffi said slowly, looking at her again, “You’re a Double Special Elder through and through. You didn’t even know.”

Now another explosion burst blue in the distance, near the mall on the left side of town. A high-pitched radial whistle was emanating from the spiral, and Raffi got up like a smooth animal. He bent over and started rummaging in the large duffel bag that had been lying beside him in the grass.

Sunni pushed herself closer to the tree, scared. In the distance, a physicist in a red overcoat turned around and began walking towards them. Raffi looked up to answer the question on Sunni’s face and said, “It’s a Spiral. We might know how to handle this.” The physicist came near and Raffi walked off with her, in the direction of Perimeter and through its front doors.

Now Sunni was alone. She found herself, for the time, watching the Elders, many of whom were gazing into the distance where the spiral still hung. Sunni observed them glance down at their Mothers to make sense of it; to know how to respond. But their Mothers had no valuable insight; could not fit the spiral into the pattern; had never known such a thing before.

Get on your scooter and go home, was the instruction that appeared on their screens; an instruction applicable to many situations, and the most common one.

The teenagers made their way to their scooters, seemingly sure in their movements, for somewhere inside they felt a reassurance: it was not that their Mothers lacked insight about this new thing, but that the question they had posed to their Mothers about the explosion was not a pertinent one. What happened in the distance had nothing to do with the patterns in their lives. It had nothing to do with all the ways they were Special.

They got on their wheels and, like the physicists, sped off from the heart of town.

Sunni looked up as an acorn fell from the tree and landed on her head. She thought about what she knew.


Anonymous said...

i dont understand...

Anonymous said...

King and Princess is the only place in K-W where the losers don't go.