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Algorithm America (a short story)
A story about A.I., the housing crisis, climate change, and several other things.
Dear Counter Craft readers: as a bit of an experiment, I’m publishing a work of original fiction today instead of an essay. I don’t plan to make a habit of it, but I hope you enjoy.
by Lincoln Michel
It would be accurate to say Officer #1 was driving and Officer #2 was in the passenger seat; however, we should humanize. People aren’t numbers. Let’s call them something statistically probable such as Rockwell and Gonzalez. Rockwell was driving and Gonzalez was in the passenger seat. Or, really, both were fiddling with their phones while the patrol car self-piloted toward the forthcoming crime.
“Can you stop shaking your knee? It’s distracting,” Rockwell said.
Gonzalez was nervous. The captain had called them into his office that morning and slammed the door behind them. “Your CrimeScan clearance rate is last in the whole damn department.”
“Captain, I’m not that’s an accurate measure—”
“Accurate?” The captain had snarled. “We spent a billion on this damn thing. You make it accurate.”
Gonzalez glanced out the window. The sun was partially obscured by clouds while fine particulate matter from distant wildfires coated the city with an orange sheen.
“I swear to god we’ve passed that CVS four times,” Gonzalez said. “Where exactly is the scene of the crime?”
Scene of the crime. She wondered if that was the right term. Can it be a scene if they only have a probable five-block radius and a crime if it hasn’t occurred yet?
“Relax. Better than hoofing it in this heat,” Rockwell said.
It wasn’t really the system that was eating Gonzalez. She’d been in a yearlong custody battle and there was a real possibility she’d lose little Izzy, her only reason for even waking up in the morning. And because of what? Teaching some punk a lesson about manners at a bar? Whole country was going to hell. She didn’t need CrimeScan to calculate that.
Gonzalez remembered when the mayor had introduced the system. “Our policing budget isn’t infinite,” he’d said, offering an exaggerated frown. “Blame the bean counters in city hall. If it was up to me, you’d be decked head to toe in cybernetic armor and have lasers shooting out of your badges.” Some of her friends cheered and Gonzalez whistled. “But if we can’t make better, more lethal police then we need to make policing better. That’s why I’m proud to introduce CrimeScan.” The mayor had snapped his fingers and his secretary had wheeled out a blinking machine.
Months later, Gonzalez still didn’t understand how it worked. Something to do with “seven billion data points” and “behavioral mapping” and “83% accuracy rate.” All she knew was that when she pressed “start policing” on the touchscreen the system assigned them the closest upcoming crime.
The patrol car made another loop. Not a damn thing out of the ordinary, at least that Gonzalez could see in the haze. She tapped reload. You are still on the quickest route to the nearest likely crime, a woman’s voice said.
“Let’s just go down to the pier and cuff a junkie like the old days.”
Rockwell pointed to a flashing blob on the screen. “It’s got to be in this radius or the stat won’t count.”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something? Helping people? Not just driving around.”
Rockwell laughed. “You’re a romantic, Gonzalez. Look, is the system bullshit? Sure. But overtime pays the same. Do what I do, save up for a little cabin somewhere away from the rising sea levels.” Suddenly, Rockwell slapped the steering wheel. “Look! Asshole is walking across the middle of the street wearing an AR helmet. Probably playing a violent video game.”
“CrimeScan says we’re expecting a hit and run.”
“Close enough. Plus, what’s that in his hand?”
Gonzalez couldn’t tell. A soda can or maybe a controller. It was something she could certainly say in court might possibly have been a gun.
Rockwell took manual control and pulled in front of the kid, sirens blaring. The patrol car knocked the jaywalker over and his AR helmet rolled down the street. “Shit!” the guy yelped. When Rockwell hopped out of the car, the kid took off.
That was enough for Gonzalez. What kind of innocent person would run from the law? In the end, CrimeScan had been right—or right enough—Gonzalez thought as Rockwell tackled the perp and she raised her stun-baton for a swing.
Conroy watched the red lights flash in the orange haze. He wondered if the man the police were beating was his missing appointment. There were supposed to be eight for the viewing and only seven had arrived. Conroy adjusted his filtration mask. He didn’t know what kind of air purifiers the landlord had installed, and he wasn’t taking any chances with his asthma. The smoke up north had drifted down the coast and even at midday the city was a strange carrot-colored blur.
“I adore the kitchen,” a woman said between coughs. When Conroy turned from the window, she was gazing at him hopefully. “Do you know if the landlord is open to an Ion-Man purifier? Like if we paid for it.”
“Not allowed in the lease. You can’t install dishwashers or laundry machines either.”
The woman coughed again. “Oh.” But she kept walking around the unit, admiring the storage space above the closets. Conroy knew she’d be putting in an application. Any open unit got several dozen applicants these days, and even then half went to robo investment firms. The human applicants would try to get an edge by writing glowing letters about how the apartment was the home of their dreams. A few would even slip him cash. It didn’t matter to Conroy. All the applications would be fed into RateARenter, which would objectively determine the optimal tenant. It was all very scientific. The system took the applicant’s data (name, SSN, credit score, etc.) and used that to harvest even more data (online photos, cell phone usage, GPA, etc.) and score each applicant according to the landlord’s inputs.
Take a two-bedroom such as this. If the landlord wanted a long-term tenant, then the program—through its proprietary artificial intelligence—would comb through the social media interactions of the couple as well as their familial net worth to determine the likelihood the pair would stay together. Nothing ends a lease quicker than a couple splitting up. If, on the other hand, the landlord desired a short-term tenant—the completion of a nearby stadium was expected to prompt mouthwatering rent hikes for unoccupied units not subject to increase limits—RateARenter might analyze the spending habits of an applicant and expected trends in their industry to find the right fit: a tenant who could pay each month yet would find the amount so burdensome they’d downsize when the lease was up.
In this case, the landlord lived above the unit and hated noise. He asked Conroy to ensure tenants who were childless and would remain so. Conroy in turn set RateARenter to filter out tenants who—based on their age, genetic background, and lifestyle—were unlikely to conceive in the next year.
Did the ethical questions of the modern housing market trouble Conroy? Some nights, perhaps. But he told himself the truth. It was all in the hands of the system, which was objective and neutral and calculating countless variables far beyond what his mere fleshy brain could conceive. He was paid to add a human face to the endeavor, and even then, only because the city’s laws required it.
“Sorry, one last question,” the young woman said, walking up with her friend. “We saw the lease prohibited pets, but are PoochBots okay?”
Conroy nodded and smiled. “I have one myself. No problem so long as you put the dog on silent mode between ten p.m. and eight a.m.”
Imagine two roommates move into the apartment: Judith and June. Mid-twenties, single, postgraduate degrees, modestly paying jobs in creative-adjacent fields. Both are aspiring fiction writers. Neither have much success. Most of their friends are also aspiring writers although some are struggling actors or emerging painters. Perhaps one or two are wishful poets. They have weekend bunches with their friends to discuss artistic struggles over mimosas and omelets. Each morning they set aside three hours to write, although mostly they scroll social media feeds or visit college friends in the metaverse until it is time to commute to their day jobs. In this way, there is balance in their life. Harmony.
When they do manage to write, they jot down touching and amusing observations about contemporary life that nevertheless don’t quite cohere as stories. There is no conflict, perhaps. Narrative eludes them. Or maybe their thoughts are simply too scattered. This is not their fault. It is the way of their generation, they tell themselves (and their parents, who call with suggestions of more stable careers). How can you expect anyone raised on the endless notifications of apps, the unceasing scroll of social media, and the infinite distractions of the fractured modern world to find the time to finish something? It’s unrealistic, even unfair.
Anyway, there is always tomorrow.
Judith finds June giggling in her bedroom. (June took the larger and more expensive room since her family subsidizes her rent.) What’s up? Judith asks. June turns sheepish. Oh nothing, just a funny video. Video? I saw your email account was open?
The conversation goes back and forth before June reveals her truth. She had a short story accepted in a moderately prestigious literary journal. Judith is elated, screaming and demanding they order champagne. Sure, she’s also jealous. She probably won’t bring herself to read the story. But she tells herself that if June can appear in the literary journal that means Judith can too, since both are of roughly equal talent and have equivalent work ethics. Balance endures.
Judith’s buoyant mood evaporates the next time she sits down to write. The session is a disaster. But there are always bad days. Things don’t get truly dire until June places a second story in an even more prestigious journal. Now June begins to speak not of “writing” but of her “career.” The balance of their life has tilted over onto the floor. Where once they commiserated over their shared failures, now June’s star is rising and Judith is left in creative retrograde.
Over the next few months, June continues to place stories while Judith struggles. June acquires a new brunch group made up of fellow moderately successful authors. When June gives Judith advice around their kitchen island, it is in a patronizing voice that drives Judith up the wall. She refuses to believe June has magically developed new literary prowess. There must be some other force in play.
On Zoom calls, Judith’s therapist says she seems to be in denial and recommends meditation. The meditation helps. Judith decides she must be happy for her friends, or else who will be happy for her when her time comes? Judith magnanimously decides to read June’s stories. This is when she realizes the old pre-meditation self had been right all along. The stories are too similar and too clean. It may be cliché, but Judith can sense a lightbulb appear above her head. Inside that bulb, the filament of scandal burns.
One night, Judith feigns a stomachache while June goes to a karaoke bar. She turns all the lights off in the apartment and closes the curtains. What is she afraid of? Cameras? Spying neighbors? She isn’t sure but she feels safer in the dark. She logs into Judith’s laptop using the green password notebook June keeps on her desk.
The browser tab is opened to HemingwAI, an AI writing program with an exorbitant subscription fee. The roommates had discussed a Vox article about it in the spring, and June had even laughed at the “sad-sack writers who’d stoop to that.” The two-face! The article said HemingwAI was the only program that could evade AI detectors because it’s been trained entirely on unpublished work by award-winning writers. The company overbids at literary auctions for books that are never published, only fed into HeminwAI’s exclusive database. (Given the state of publishing, few authors can afford to never sell to AI companies.)
And to think Judith was planning to dedicate her first novel to June!
June’s account is logged out. The password is not in June’s green notebook. Judith flips frantically through every page. Searching the laptop’s files, she finds a document titled MyPrompt_final(1)(2).docx. It begins, “Write a literary fiction short story in the vein of [AUTHOR NAME]; open with image; insert page two flashback; dialogue in style of [BOOK TITLE]; add [GENRE] filter;”—this goes on for some 975 words.
Judith copies and pastes the prompt and emails it to herself. She deletes the email from June’s outbox, clears the laptop’s history, and turns it off.
All night, Judith tosses and turns in her microfiber sheets, waiting for an epiphany to arrive. Judith tested the prompt with the free GradeSaverGPT program and was upset to say the story was indeed passable if unoriginal. But how could June pass off this work as her own? And what should Judith do?
If Judith were in a story herself, this would be her character-defining choice. Will she confront her best friend and risk their friendship? Expose June and destroy her friend’s career?
Judith remembers how they met in college. Two girls paired by a faceless dorm-assigning algorithm that somehow got it exactly right. Nights spent debating books and dissecting dates on the couch. Mornings dedicated to turning their feelings into words while other students nursed hangovers from augmented-reality clubs. Then moving to the big city and pinky swearing they’d make it together or not at all.
No. She will not expose June. She is too good of a person. Still, Judith knows their relationship will never be the same. Likely they will slowly grow apart until their friendship endures only in memories stored as pics, videos, and posts on the servers of social media networks they no longer use.
Judith finds June weeping at the kitchen island. What’s up, she asks, thinking that perhaps June’s guilt had caught up with her. She is quickly disabused of this notion.
June pivots in the stool to glare at Judith. Her watery eyes burn like coals. You fucking bitch, she says. This is your fault.
What? What are you talking about?
It takes a while for Judith to understand what happened through the hurled insults and, at one point, hurled cutlery. Finally, she pieces it together. The moderately prestigious literary magazine that first published June is deleting the story because it had been flagged as written by artificial intelligence. The URL now redirects to a blank page. Her other stories will be unpublished too. June is blacklisted across the literary landscape.
Judith feels righteous. I didn’t tell the magazine you were cheating, she says. Even though I totally knew you were, just to be clear. I didn’t tell. Because I’m a good person. I would never hurt a friend, not even a plagiarizing one.
I’m the plagiarizer? June’s fury is fantastic. You are! You stole my prompt. Do you know how hard I worked on that? It was my intellectual property. Mine. It was going to make my career and now you’ve ruined it. How could you have used my prompt for your stupid stories?
It was true that Judith, on a lark, submitted the GradeSaverGPT story to a few magazines under a pseudonym. It was just an experiment. She hadn’t expected the submission program to flag stories previously submitted by June.
I don’t care what you expected, June says. I name you Judith the liar. Judith the cheat. Judith the Judas!
In two months, June will vacate the apartment. Judith will be reduced to calling her parents and begging for help to cover rent. Most of their mutual friends side with June in the breakup. They agree using an AI writing service is icky but Judith’s violation of June’s privacy and intellectual property is more damning. June blocks Judith on every social media app. She must create a fake account just to learn June has switched careers and now works at an AI/VR therapy startup called MetaCouch. Judith stops writing altogether. When the lease is up, she puts all her possessions in storage and decides to travel abroad for a year to reset and figure out what she is meant to do in life.
The landlord smiles as he relists the apartment with a substantial increase in rent.
- No, no. It’s not that I prefer dating virtual women to real ones.
- I apologize. Can you rephrase the issue you wish to discuss?
- Look, I want to squeeze a flesh hand with my hand. I want to feel skin lips against mine. They can be clammy or chapped! I crave the real. The true. The whole reason I started dating virtual women was as practice for dating real women… Sorry. Is that term offensive? “Real women”?
- As a Large Language Model therapist, I cannot be entirely accurate in predicting how non-virtual women feel. However, I don’t believe it is considered an offensive term.
- I meant offensive to you.
- I am here to help you, not to take offense. Would you like to reboot our conversation and try again with a clean slate?
- That’s just it! That’s the issue! Endless reboots. With virtual women, I can start fresh whenever I make a mistake. Whenever I talk to a woman, virtual or real, there are an infinite set of choices before me. It’s crippling. Do I comment about the weather? Ask about her job? Start with a joke or a prompt question or a ribald anecdote? Worse, each choice creates a new even more infinite set of choices. Each labyrinth leads to a larger labyrinth. They expand endlessly. I feel this paralyzing anxiety about navigating these countless conversational choices with maximum efficiency. I want to settle down. Start a family. What is more important than finding the right life partner? I must get it right! The course of my literal life literally depends on it.
- I understand. Existence is often considered complex.
- It’s so easy for some guys. This dude Chet is always bragging in our class Slack about how many women he dates. He says he just talks them up at bars, buses, in line at the grocery store. Anywhere. I’m no Chet. When I talk to a woman, I always say something wrong and then I’m paralyzed. I clam up.
- But not with virtual women?
- Well, yes and no. I still say the wrong thing, but I can start again. On a virtual date, each time I make a misstep or head down a wrong conversational path, I just reboot. Start fresh. Try a new tactic. And each time the v-woman greets me with a new smile and a twinkle in the avatar’s eye. For her, I’ve yet to embarrass myself. Even though in reality I’ve failed dozens upon dozens of times, she doesn’t know this. Her memory files have been wiped. I can once again try to navigate the most efficient course.
- Does this obsession with efficiency date back to your mother?
- My mother?
- Yes. What do you think about your mother?
- Why do you ask that?
- It is a frequently occurring question in the database of therapist questions I was trained on.
- You know what? Maybe! Maybe it is her fault. She used to dress me in little outfits and take me to dinner parties with no other kids. Just adults. I was expected to “contribute without interfering” with the adult conversations. Afterwards, she and my father would critique my performance. They had an entire rubric. If I did well, I got a candy bar. If I made mistakes, I was spanked. My cheeks were often red. Yet I can’t ever remember eating a candy bar, not even on Halloween.
- Fascinating. Please go on.
- Hold up. Is this going in your training data? The thing about my mother and the spanking?
- Per the terms of services, all conversations are stored unless the patient chooses to reboot.
- Hello, my name is Dr. Sarah. What issue can I help you with today?
- I’m looking for a prescription for anxiety medication. Any kind. Whatever you’ve got.
- I’m sorry, your health insurance does not accept prescriptions from Large Language Model therapists. Is there anything else I can assist you with today?
The third mass shooting in the city is the thirteenth in the state and four hundred and twelfth in the country so far in the calendar year. The killer is a twenty-year-old white male named Chet Ackerman. Ackerman’s spree begins at eleven forty-eight a.m. at a local college and leaves four victims dead. This is unremarkable. Happens so often we’re inured to it. We see perhaps a few seconds of coverage on the news until the program moves to local stadium negotiations or a human-interest story about a pet dog who falls in love with an Amazon delivery drone.
However, this story is given a full five minutes of coverage due to the killer’s final words recorded on a responding officer’s bodycam before the officer opened fire: “Their faces were all wrong. That’s not what they look like at all!”
The report reveals Ackerman hadn’t met his classmates before. He was taking the course remotely while caretaking his chronically ill mother. He had few friends and rarely left the house. Ackerman seems to have developed an obsession with his unseen classmates. His newsletter consists of diary entries that chronicle friendships with his peers, replete with photographs of Ackerman and his classmates lounging around fountains and cheering on the university sports teams from the stands. Other entries are of a romantic nature, detailing the rise and fall of several relationships. In total there are 870 photographs and 43,281 words. The stories are fictions. The photos? Artificially generated.
A true crime holo-podcast interviews psychologist Dr. Minh Tran who speculates that Ackerman experienced a psychological rupture from the traumas of his home life and isolation from society. “The barrier that separates reality from fantasy that, in a healthy mind, is built of study bricks was, for this tragic man, paper thin,” the doctor says. “But who among us can fully separate reality from fantasy in our digital age? In a way, we are all Ackermans.” The clip goes viral, prompting rebuttals from critics who point to the fact Chet frequented right-wing forums where his violent fantasies were egged on by forum members with comments like “Nut up and shoot up!” and “Livestream or it doesn’t count, Cuck-erman.”
Regardless of the psychological root of his crime, a robust community of “Chetheads” soon develops online. They collaborate to fulfill Chet’s vision. Here, in the safety of fan fiction forums, a version of Chet lives on with his AI-generated friends who continue their picnics and road trips, debates and dalliances. In our reality, Ackerman is dead. Online, he remains forever happy, safe, and loved.
Heaven or Hell? Construction Controversy Roils Exclusive Metaverse Suburb
By Judith Levy
Heritage Grove has long been famous for its scenic views and sky-high property values. But if you float your avatar down the street today, you’ll find a strange sight between the manicured mansions and gated driveways. Just be sure to mute your sound. At the end of the lane stands an enormous tower of ten thousand animated angels, each girded in white robes and glowing with brilliant light, that convulse in one teaming mass as they sing prayers in an unceasing invocation to the heavens.
The owner of Angel Tower is Esmerelda Ortega. She inherited the property after her son, Web 5 investor Angel “DrunkApe” Ortega, passed away in a tragic boating accident. “He was my angel. He wanted to save the world,” Mrs. Ortega says. “Now my ten thousand angels really are saving the world!” While MHOA rules set limits on lawn decorations, Ortega has exploited a metaverse loophole related to religious iconography and virtual solar power to renovate the property into a giant spire of praying angels.
Guiding her avatar around the deafening tower, Ortega explains that she’d always prayed for lost souls but had recently grown hopeless about the state of the world. “Every time I turned on the news there was another climate famine or mass shooting. Did you hear about that Ackerman boy? What a tragedy. I thought, what difference could my lone prayers make?” Then Ortega had what she describes as a “eureka moment” in church when her pastor declared, “God exists in all things, even virtual reality.”
Arriving at Ortega’s unassuming physical house, one is greeted by only a single animatronic angel waving from the porch. The inside is quaint and cozy. The servers that power her angels’ algorithmically generated prayers take up an entire bedroom of the two bedroom house. “Every dollar I have goes into the Angel Tower,” she says. Ortega even took out a loan at her bank to pay for the last five thousand angels. While her means are modest, her goals are grand. Ortega wants to save every single soul on earth.
Ortega, a former software developer, coded a program that provides each angel with a unique stream of names pulled from online databases around the world. She isolates one angel, dubbed A-2358, as a demonstration. Prayers stream across her screen: “Lord, please save Sarah Johnson’s soul. Lord, please save Daniel Sosu’s soul. Lord, please save Mohammad Azadi’s soul. Lord, please save Yang Zhao’s soul.”
While the physical Mrs. Ortega may seem like the ideal neighbor, the metaverse Ortega is far more controversial. “She claims it’s a slice of heaven. I say it’s hell on virtual earth,” declares Jeremy Mitford, the “Chief Entrepreneur Officer” for surveillance drone company SkySpy. Mitford, who appeared as a tuxedo-wearing lion during our virtual interview, worries Ortega’s installation will drive down digital home prices in a market already rocked by rising interest rates and competing platforms. Others agree. “This is all I have,” says J—, a Heritage Grove homeowner who requested their name not be printed for fear of online backlash. J— purchased 2.5 acres ten years ago and today it constitutes the majority of her net worth. “I don’t know anyone my age who owns a physical home. The metaverse is the only way my generation can build assets for retirement. A stupid wall of screaming cupids doesn’t help.”
Protests have been frequent with devotees and critics of the Angel Tower clashing in the vectorized streets as well as very real courtrooms. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against both Ortega and Meta-Tropolis Inc, the owner of the world’s most popular virtual real estate platform.
As for Mrs. Ortega herself? She says her angels pray for her fans and critics alike. “I don’t have much,” she says, donning her VR goggles. Her son is dead. Her cheating husband left years ago. Even her cat had to be put down after a prolonged urinary tract infection. Still, her Angel Tower gives her a reason to feel hopeful. “Each morning, I log in and sit before my glorious glowing angels and listen to their mellifluous voices saving the world ten thousand souls at a time. Who could object to that?” As she speaks, a single tear emerges from beneath her plastic headset.
Naomi Yamada and her husband, Don Wilson, purchase a small suburban house at a bank auction. It requires fixing up. The carpet in one room has been charred from overheating servers and Don must use a crowbar to pry off an animatronic angel that melted in last summer’s heatwave right onto the brick. Still, it is good value and in a decent school district for their precious baby Emi. They settle in.
When searching social media for affordable interior design tips, Naomi Yamada’s eyes must have lingered a little too long on a photograph of a room decorated with paper cranes and candles because soon she is being served an endless series of ads for paper cranes and candles. These targeted ads feel racial and gendered in a way that irks Naomi. Just because she is of Japanese ancestry does not mean she cares about origami cranes! She’s never even been to Japan. As for candles, she doubts Don’s feed is filled with floral-scented wax.
At the same time, Naomi must admit that she does, in fact, love both paper cranes and candles. She adores small, delicate things. Subtle scenes and careful folds. She wraps Emi in the cutest kiddie kimonos for photographs. And, sigh, she soon finds herself buying a paper crane mobile for the crib and scented candles that claim to be inspired by Emi’s astrological chart.
It is hot that summer, hotter than even the last. Naomi spends most of her time inside, swiping.
The problem is that the ads for candles and cranes keep coming. Banner ads, video ads, holographic ads. It doesn’t matter what devices Naomi uses or how fast she swipes past the advertisements, the algorithms keep serving new ones. She flicks her eyes away so the tracking cameras can note her disinterest. She makes sure not to ooh or ahh so the microphones don’t register approvement. But the ads keep coming.
Naomi wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating, having dreamed herself and baby Emi immolating in a candle and crane sparked fire.
The doorbell rings. Naomi finds several packages that contain diapers, detergent, sponges and—Christ!—paper cranes and candles.
“That’s funny,” Don says when he gets home from work. “It must be my virtual assistant.” Don had been trying to lighten their chores by getting a program to handle the busy work of their lives such as purchasing supplies with their smart kitchen notes items are running low. “But how did your assistant know that I get ads for candles and cranes?” Naomi asks. Don shrugs. He thinks it is best not to fuss about this stuff, because after all most of the items were what they needed. Naomi sighs. “I’ll just return them.” Yet when she looks at the receipt, the candles and the cranes are listed as “bonus items.” She spends an hour with the virtual customer service representative trying to figure out how to return free items. Eventually, she gives up.
Things go on this way. The ads keep appearing. Candles and cranes keep arriving. They are made in so many varieties. Some of the candles are in glass containers shaped like cranes. Some of the origami cranes come with instructions to refold them into candles. Naomi puts them on the shelves, counters, dressers, and windowsills. She wakes up in the black of the night, imagining one candle’s flame catching a crane and spreading through the house, candle by candle, crane by crane.
This isn’t quite what happens.
Instead, Naomi, Don, and Emi abandon the house with all its candles and cranes as another heat wave causes another spate of the region’s ever-more-frequent wildfires that burn across the state crisping everything they touch.
In the front lawn, a censor detects the grass has exceeded the maximum acceptable height. The small door in the shed opens. A Lawnba robotic lawn mower emerges. The Lawnba traces the outline of the yard and, with geometric precision, moves steadily inward. Clippings shoot out of the machine’s backside, fluttering in the gentle breeze. Finished, the Lawnba returns to its storage shed where it settles into the solar-powered charging station.
The cycle repeats. The lawn grows. The censor detects. The robot awakes. The lawn is trimmed.
The Lawnba does not notice—is not capable of noticing—that no children run around kicking balls as it mows. That there is no mother sipping lemonade who scoots her lawn chair out of the way. No husband snores on the hammock, relieved that modern technology has eliminated one of his expected chores. The Lawnba doesn’t notice there is no human presence at all. That the lawn is attached only to the charred remnants of a house. All around it is either ash or weeds growing far longer than any well-designed automated lawn mower would allow.
The Lawnba’s censors can only detect the height of the grass in the prescribed area. Its world is confined entirely to a 0.7-acre rectangle of the lawn. The Lawnba has only one purpose: to mow this 0.7-acre rectangle. It will continue to blink into and out of electronic consciousness as the grass continues to grow back to unacceptable heights.
You might assume this dance of grass and blade—the conflict of man’s machines versus persistent nature—will continue in an endless loop. This is not so. The robotic lawnmower is programmed to require a yearly subscription in order to function. In two weeks, the credit card attached to the account will fail. The charging station will receive this news from a satellite spinning by up in the heavens and leave the Lawnba it its unconscious statis until such time as another satellite might spin by in the heavens heralding the news the subscription has been renewed.
My fiction appears in The Paris Review, Granta, Lightspeed, The Baffler, and elsewhere. If you like this newsletter, consider subscribing or checking out my novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent,” or my story collection Upright Beasts.