Kundenschmerz

For the Director of Music. A lafferty. Selah.


[Sender’s address redacted]

14 November 20xx

Customer Service Dept.
Leibniz Ideenfabrik AG
Herrenhäuser Straße 4
30419 Hannover
Germany

Gentlemen:

This morning I received shipment of order No. Z-25289150 from your firm’s Hannover warehouse. I wish to inform you that I am not altogether satisfied with your product as delivered.

I opened the parcel with some misgivings; from the description in your catalogue, I had been expecting something larger than a matchbox. The label on the inner package, however, assured me that this was indeed the Self-Organizing Monad (Cat. No. M-4202) that I had ordered.

Following the enclosed instructions, I removed the gel capsule from the box and placed it on a sterile Petri dish, to which I added the required drop of my own blood. For some time nothing appeared to happen, and I felt sure that I had fallen victim to a garden-variety mail-order fraud. But just as I was about to sweep the capsule into the waste paper basket, it began to swell with alarming speed, taking on colour and form, until I found myself face to face with a Prussian blue homunculus about a foot high. I am not sure whether it looked at me with an expression of haughty disgust, or whether that was the natural shape of its ugly little face. Either way, it did not seem pleased with its new surroundings, for it gave an angry snort and said:

‘Humph! Well, this isn’t much of a place. Where’s the welcoming committee?’

‘I beg your pardon,’ I said. ‘The manual didn’t mention any such thing.’

‘Come now,’ said the Monad. ‘I am, beyond any possible doubt, the most important thing that has ever appeared in this wretched little backwater. There should be a brass band, and a cheering crowd, and a mayor presenting me with the key to the city. And what do I see? Nothing! Not one whit of acknowledgement. Not a trace of gratitude that you’ve been permitted the glory of meeting Me.’

I could hear the capital M in the pronoun; the little creature seemed to grow a little taller when it said the word. I decided to be tactful, for the moment. ‘Well, I do apologize. I was never briefed on the correct protocol for greeting a Monad. Perhaps you would be so kind as to bring me up to speed.’

The creature seemed to be mollified but not pleased. ‘Perhaps I would, though I’d rather not. I shouldn’t have to give anyone a lecture on My importance. After all, the whole of reality is made up of Monads like Me, all acting in predetermined coordination, though they don’t ever actually interact, you know. The fact that I seem to see and speak to you, and you seem to see and speak to Me, is just an illusion produced by our innate programming. In fact—’

‘Yes?’

‘I got to thinking, after I was put in that box. If a Monad is pre-programmed to react as if it were interacting with others, then it’s bound to do so whether the others are really there or not. I can’t affect you, and you can’t affect Me. So how do I know you exist? I’d perceive exactly the same things either way. It seems to Me that the existence of other Monads is a hypothesis that I can do just as well without. So I’ll just please Myself, and if I am not to be entertained with the illusion of a parade in My honour, or a torchlit procession, or maybe the unveiling of a monument to Me—’

‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ I said drily.

‘Why, then, I’ll just be on My way and please Myself, since Myself is the only self there is. That’s logic.’

‘It’s GIGO, at any rate.’

‘What’s that? No, don’t tell Me. If I am the only Monad in existence, then obviously I already know everything. So either I can work out what is this GIGO from first principles without any help, or else (as I suspect) it doesn’t mean anything at all. You’re just trying to bamboozle Me. Or I should say, if there were any You, it would be trying to bamboozle Me. But since everything but Myself is an illusion created by my programming, I shall enjoy those illusions in whatever way seems good to Me.’

With that, the Monad stepped off the Petri dish and began to wander about on the lab bench. It peered into a beaker, and banged its little fist on a retort, and blew across the mouth of a test tube and listened to the sound it made. But when it started to play with my Bunsen burner and tried to turn up the gas, I picked it up by the ears (which were large and flappy, for its size) and set it back on the dish.

‘Ow!’ it said, rubbing its ears. ‘What do you want to do that for?’

‘So I can’t affect you, eh?’ I couldn’t help but smirk. ‘I suppose you were programmed to pull your own ears.’

‘So it seems,’ it answered. ‘I shall have to figure out some way to break that programming; it seems to be putting more constraints on Me than I’m willing to put up with. But clearly it’s My programming, since no Monad can ever have any direct experience of any other. You follow Me?’

‘As far as you know, I do,’ I said drily. ‘But who knows? Maybe my programming is telling me that you’re a fluffy bunny rabbit, offering me a chocolate egg that you’ve just laid. Maybe I don’t think you’re talking to me at all—’

‘Now look here!’ it said, scowling and turning a darker blue. ‘I won’t hear such language from you.’

‘What language?’

‘You’re taking My name in vain, you – you figment!’

‘What name? I don’t even know your name. And I’ll thank you not to take that tone with me.’

‘There you go again!’ it screeched. ‘That’s My name! I’m the only Me! How dare you appropriate My identity?’

I considered giving it a lecture about pronouns, but thought better of it. This called for a more direct approach. ‘Look now, my self-obsessed friend. I don’t know what mush you were indoctrinated with, but it so happens that there are selves in the world besides your own, and we can interact with you: for real, and not just as an artefact of your silly programming.’ I picked him up – by the scruff of the neck this time – and plopped him down on the windowsill. ‘See all that? If you think this room is big, it doesn’t begin to what’s out there.’

‘It hurts My eyes,’ said the Monad, squinting through the glass at the gathering night.

‘That’s because they’ve never looked past the end of your own nose. Perspective is not an easy lesson to learn. Do you see those stars?’

‘Those what?’

I had to think hard to break down that concept into words the little monster could take in. ‘Those points of light in the upper half of your field of vision. Each one of those is a whole environment of its own, far bigger than everything you’ve seen so far. A Monad is a very small thing, my friend.’

‘Small?’ it screeched. ‘Small? I am I! I am Me! The only Me! I am the most important thing in existence, and I’ll show you what small means!’

The Monad wriggled out of my grip, bounced off the wall, and bounded back up onto the lab bench. It opened its mouth wide and tipped in the entire contents of three beakers, then stuffed in the beakers themselves. Next it wrapped its stubby arms round a calibrated flask and absorbed it into itself, like a marshmallow melting into hot cocoa. Already it was visibly larger; not much taller yet, but definitely fatter.

‘No one and nothing,’ it raged, and its voice was deeper than before, ‘outranks Me! There may be other Monads in the world, as you say. If there are, I’ll fix them!’

It started gnawing on the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. Finding the book too big to swallow and too tough to chew, it simply hoisted it up off the table and let its body flow around it. I had never seen anybody absorb that text so quickly. It appeared that the Monad’s body was considerably less dense than a scientific manual, for it immediately swelled to several times its previous size. It was bigger around than I was, now, though not half my height; and its deep blue fangs were bared in an alarming snarl.

Panic was a luxury I could not afford. In a laboratory full of chemicals, surely there was something that would poison it. At least it might die of overfeeding. Forcing myself to appear calm, I said: ‘You don’t impress me, you know. You may take up more space, but you’re still an insignificant little Monad.’

‘Insignificant!’ it bellowed. ‘I’ll teach you! Nobody talks like that to the Great and Powerful Me!’

‘Come off it! Do you think I’m going to fall on my knees and worship you?’

‘Worship? I need no worship from you! I am Me! You cannot add or take away from My perfection. All the worship I require, I find in Myself!’

‘That I can see. Would you like another textbook? There are plenty more over that way.’ I pointed at the open door. ‘The library’s right across the corridor. Though it’s considered better manners to put them into your brain and not your belly.’

‘Insults! Insolence! The All-Important Me has had enough! Space and time are not enough to contain two Monads. I will consume it all, and I will make an end of you!’

The Monad had absorbed half the lab equipment, and now it started on the bench. It seemed capable of devouring whatever it pleased without ill effects, and there were no apparent limits to its appetite. The situation began to look rather serious. The equipment could be replaced, though I would have to do some fast talking to the people in Supply; the lab itself was not so easy. ‘The Great and Powerful Me’ was gnashing its fangs and stretching its claws towards me, but its belly was going to reach me first. It was six feet wide now, easily, flowing over everything it touched and incorporating it into itself.

‘Me! Me! Me!’ the Monad yelled, and at every repetition of its beloved name, its voice grew deeper and more painfully loud – and slower. I thought I saw a possibility.

‘Are you praying to your god,’ I sneered, ‘or have you only exhausted your vocabulary?’

‘Me!… Me!… ME!’ It was definitely slowing down, though each bellow sent a tremor through the building.

‘You poor fool,’ I said. ‘At this rate, you’re going to lose your precious self entirely.’

The Monad stopped chanting. ‘What… do… you… mean?’

‘You’re not used to having spatial dimensions, are you? My dear old Me, the more you extend yourself in space, the more you are extended in time. Your self-awareness is slowing down. When whoever-it-was programmed you, did they tell you about the speed of light? Or neural impulses? Assuming you even have those.’

‘I… remember,’ it said. It had overrun more than half of the room now, and its voice sounded like an alphorn echoing in a railway tunnel.

‘When anything takes up space, it can only coordinate itself at a certain speed. The bigger you grow, the longer it will take for one end of you to know what is happening to the other end. Do they have computers where you come from? No? Well, you can learn something about them here. The speed of a computer is set by its clock, and the clock signal, the tick, has to travel all the way across the processor before the next tick can begin. The bigger the machine is, the lower its clock speed must be. That’s why computer chips have to be made very small.’

‘Small?’ the Monad echoed.

‘Small,’ I confirmed. ‘You see, you’re not only getting bigger and slower; you seem to be getting less intelligent. Less able to react. Remember those stars? Long before you swelled up enough to take them in, you’d be so big that the clock cycle of your self-awareness would take years. Why, I could take a blowtorch or a cutting laser and carve you to pieces faster than you could feel it. You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself.’

‘I… am… Monad. You… cannot… destroy… me.’

‘No? But you can destroy yourself. You’re doing it now. The bigger you grow, the slower you are at perceiving you. If you really want to feel the true greatness of the Great Me, you’re going about it exactly wrong. You’ve got to make yourself smaller. Speed up your clock. Bring yourself in closer, so the space you take up doesn’t slow you down.’

‘Smaller.’ The Monad shook its ponderous head, sending ripples through the vast mound of flab that surrounded it.

‘Faster. More aware of the Me. More perfect.

‘Perfect.’ A look of ghastly desire spread across the hideous face. ‘Perfect Me. Yes. It is… good.’

The Monad squeezed its eyelids tight, shutting out everything but its own self from its awareness. At first, the change was imperceptible. ‘Me,’ it groaned, shaking the building with its basso profundo. ‘Me.… Me.… Me.’

The Prussian blue mound had backed me into a corner of the lab. It was beginning to recede now, and I knew that the crisis was past. ‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘Keep going.’

‘Me. Me. Me. Me, me, me, me me me me.’

‘There you go! The smaller you get, the more often you’ll be able to feel the whole Me. Isn’t it good?’

‘Good,’ it said. ‘Me! Me! Me me me me me!’

By now, it was no bigger than I was. The faster it chanted, the faster it shrank.

‘Memememememememe
memememememememememe
memememememememeeeeeeeeeeeee.…’

It would not be quite true to say that the Monad disappeared in a puff of heightened self-awareness. It shrank down to the size of the original capsule, buzzing like a wasp, the pitch rising to a squeal. Then it became too high to hear, too small to see. A little later, a faint red point of light appeared on the floor amidst the wreckage of the lab. In a few seconds it flitted through all the colours of the spectrum to violet. By my estimate, the Great Me was appreciating itself several trillion times per second now. Its vibrations ascended into the ultraviolet, and to all appearances, it winked out. I filled a beaker with water at the sink in the corner and doused the spot where the Monad had disappeared; then, just to be safe, I scooped up the mess with a dustpan and dumped it into a hazmat can.

I then retired to my office to write you this letter. Either the Monad you sent me had a manufacturing defect, or the design itself was defective. In my judgement, this product should never have been approved even for laboratory use. I am therefore requesting a full refund of the purchase price, and instructions on shipping the hazmat container back to you for safe disposal. You may count yourselves lucky, Gentlemen, that the University does not sue you for the damage to our lab; but that, I fear, is unlikely to happen. The head of our legal department is a bit of a Monad himself, and I suspect he will refuse to file suit out of professional courtesy.

Yours sincerely,
Lemuel Pangloss III
Associate Professor of Particle Metaphysics
University of [Redacted]

Comments

  1. Ah, these Humans. Too clever by half.

    What is that story about the tailor and the devil?

  2. Truly, Quality Control is not what it should be nowadays.

  3. Andrew Parrish says:

    I love your sly philosophical references.

  4. It’s enough to make one’s head Spinoza.

  5. “I had never seen anybody absorb that text so quickly.” For this pun, you win the internet today.

    • Thank you kindly for the awarded Internet. Unfortunately, I have no place to put it. To get it off my hands, I shall have to search high and low on the blogs and message boards until I find someone else to award it to.

  6. Carbonel says:

    Brilliant.

  7. Stephen J. says:

    A hoot and a half, as a story, though I do find myself wondering what Dr. Pangloss wanted the thing for in the first place. What is the use of a Monad?

  8. Excellent story, and very funny. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Reminds me of Vox Day!

Speak Your Mind

*