SH Flashback: “The House Beyond Your Sky,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A new (belated) entry in my allegedly weekly Strange Horizons retrospective:

The House Beyond Your Sky,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum
In the far future, as the universe is winding down, a creator of simulated worlds is creating a truly new universe; but a visitor's arrival changes things. (Trigger warning for abuse.) (Published in 2006.) (3,900 words.)
You can listen to this story in audio format from Escape Pod, though I'm not sure this is a great read-aloud story. (And the well-meaning (unrelated to this story) editorial comments about diversity-in-sf at the beginning of the podcast strike a couple of unfortunate notes.)

Now our universe is old. That breath of the void, quintessence, which once was but a whisper nudging us apart, has grown into a monstrous gale. Space billows outward, faster than light can cross it. Each of our houses is alone, now, in an empty night.

And we grow colder to survive. Our thinking slows, whereby we may in theory spin our pulses of thought at infinite regress. Yet bandwidth withers; our society grows spare. We dwindle.

We watch Matthias, our priest, in his tiny house beyond our universe. Matthias, whom we built long ago, when there were stars.

(See also the full list of Flashback stories.)

(I'm still way behind on posting Flashback stories. Still hoping to catch up soon.)




A lot of these Flashback stories are stories that I felt didn't get the attention they deserved at the time. This one did; it was the first SH story nominated for a Hugo award. I was very pleased by that, though disappointed that it didn't win. (It lost to a Tim Pratt story that we had previously rejected before Tim sold it to Asimov's. So yay Tim!)

I often enjoy stories with posthuman settings, full of lines like “megaparsecs of exuberantly wise matter, every gram of it teeming with societies of self” and ”My template will be stored in spurious harmonics in the shadow-spheres and replicated across the strandspace, until the formation of subwavelets at 10 to the -30 seconds” and phrases like “mimetic engines” and “ontotropes”; but sometimes such stories can be hard to find a human connection with, so I like Ben's use of metaphor (and the explicit reminders that this is only a metaphor) in this story to help build that connection for non-posthuman readers.

But I think that what really builds that connection, at least for me, is the thread about Sophie. Matthias is a plenty interesting character, but I think Sophie (small though her presence in the story is) keeps both Matthias and the reader grounded in humanity.

This is the sort of story that expects readers to already know a lot. The part about simulations and compression, for example (“Scientists teaching baboons to sort blocks may notice that all other baboons become instantly better at block-sorting, revealing a high-level caching mechanism. Or engineers building their own virtual worlds may find they cannot use certain tricks of optimization and compression—for Matthias has already used them”), is a shorthand summary of an idea that's part of the discussion of whether our universe is a simulation; for people familiar with that argument, it's evocative, but people unfamiliar with it may have no idea what it's talking about. But one thing I like about this story is that I think that even if you don't follow all the tech stuff in detail, the gist of the story is followable, partly because of the metaphors.

Still, looking at the Escape Pod reader comments, it's clearly not to everyone's taste; it worked really well for some people and not at all for others.

One thing I was worried about during the editing process was giving readers sufficient clues at the beginning to help them figure out what kind of story it is, to establish reading protocols. In Ben's original version of the story, there was more posthumany stuff in the opening section; I worried that that would be offputting to readers, wouldn't let them ease into the story, so Ben ended up cutting that material, but the result may be a story that advertises itself as one thing in the opening section (which could read like a fantasy story) but then turns out to be something else. I still like the current opening, but I think it was an interesting exercise in setting reader expectations.

Another thing I like about this story is the echoes of religion. The metaphors of priest and pilgrim; Matthias's biblical “be not afraid” and his disclaimer that he isn't God despite being the creator of Sophie's universe; Matthias's prayers to his own God; the line “Take the keys from me”; and more. Especially when the posthuman and plot and religious threads combine, in the line “Endpoints in time are established for a million souls. Their knotted timelines, from birth to death, hang now in n-space: complete, forgiven.”

But I think what I love most in this story is the ending, the last couple of sections. Especially this part:

"Are you sad, too, teddy bear?" she whispers.

"Yes," says her teddy bear.

"Are you afraid?"

"Yes," it says.

She hugs it tight. "We'll make it," she says. "We'll make it. Don't worry, teddy bear. I'll do anything for you."

One last thought from me: Gender is interesting in this story. Matthias is explicitly described as “neuter,” but the story uses male pronouns and a gendered name to describe him. Ben and I discussed this at the time; I think if I were editing this story now, I might push a little harder on the gender stuff, suggest going further with it. (As Ben has subsequently done in his as-yet-unpublished but amazing novel.) I found it interesting recently to run the story through Regender to swap the genders.

For some further discussion of the story, see also some comments on Ben's blog.

And speaking of Ben's blog, while I'm here I'll include a link to his latest blog entry, which provides an “Anti-Extropianist Toolbox.”

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