As usual, Prekursor releases stimulate your senses on every front. Music is ambiguous and makes you sure of nothing, least of all the 'value judgements' of the topics it touches, and your thoughts are constantly tossed around by the rhythm; the visuals make you forget everything else, and the story captures your imagination and kindles your curiosity in a mix of styles known from the Matrix, Lem and Strugatsky brothers. A bright and precious junction within the ocean of data in the Internet.
Favorite track: An Impossible Future.
The block was old, glistening in the evening’s mist. Every wall had some form of cabling attached to it and every window and balcony had bars over it. Up close you could see the film of moisture covering the peeling walls and the filth of history. There were a few old men sitting out on cheap carbon stools playing cards and smoking but they paid me little mind. There was no entrance, just exposed corridors into the decrepit concrete stairwells; the walls covered in graffiti and decades of grime.
I’d first heard of Black Tree Utopia when I was a student, it was a cool thing you dropped into conversations to impress girls as you plied them with cheap gin and tonic. After I graduated I forgot all about it and I fell into making documentaries for sent-net distribution. In that scene, well, I’m pretty respected, so I get a lot of tips and leads sent in anonymously; most of which come to nothing. Last month though I got a lead about a building, way out in the rubble of district 17, that housed some of the members of Black Tree. I dug around and it looked good, so I replied and set up a face to face with one of the members.
The meeting was on the fifteenth floor, only stairs and it was stiflingly humid going up those old stairwells; there was no air in that building. When the door to 1541 was opened, it was done so by a small woman, probably in her 70s, with eyes that belonged to a 20 year-old; bright and fierce. She asked to be identified as Sarah. Her apartment was austere but homely and thick with the smell of incense. She had me sit on a chair that wobbled and offered no refreshments.
Abridged transcript of interview with ‘Sarah’:
Sarah: The man that contacted you was wrong to do so. But I owe him a lot, so I’ve agreed to talk to you, just don’t expect me to be too happy about it.
TJ: Why did he contact me?
Sarah: I would guess because he’s an old dying fool who refuses to admit that he can no longer make any impact on the world, but you’d have to ask him to be sure.
TJ: Who is he?
Sarah: Karl? You’ll meet him later. For now you have to talk to me; it’s part of his little game.
TJ: Okay, can you tell me how you became involved in Black Tree?
Sarah: The how is uninteresting, the why is only a little better but I’ll tell you anyway. Way back then, this was what? 45 years ago? The Decline was entering its endgame. You have to appreciate that things were unravelling much quicker than anyone had anticipated. We thought we had another 40 or 50 years of that slow, creeping apocalypse ahead of us. People still talked of mortgages and pensions; social conditioning was still steering the ship if you will. Then it was very different, very suddenly. Mortgages and careers were forgotten, replaced with talk of failed states, food shortages, economic collapse.
TJ: It must have been a terrifying time. Is this how Black Tree was established?
Sarah: It was terrifying for the older people I think. They had kids to look after and had put everything into the accumulation of wealth and power that was rendered worthless overnight. For the youth like me, it was actually an incredibly exciting time. Everyone was looking at things in a new light. The old ways, the old institutions were collapsing at such an impossible rate that everything was back on the table. The changes that had historically been tempered by centrist voters and concerns about economic fallout were finally unleashed because there were no elections, there was no economy and in a lot of places there was no state. People were looking for a new way to live, a new paradigm to organise their lives around. Gaia, although she wasn’t using that name yet, she called it, “An impossible future that has to be.” Those words stay with me, even now, even after all that has happened.
TJ: Who is Gaia?
Sarah: Ah, how little you know. Gaia was the founder of Black Tree. Unlike us, she had not procrastinated as the climate slowly collapsed. She had acquired a huge amount of land up in the mountains and had some basic housing and infrastructure developed: hydrothermal power, network connectivity, a secure perimeter and some rudimentary vertical farms. As the last vestiges of the previous epoch collapsed she reached out to a few hundred souls and asked us to accept her call to build something new.
TJ: Urban legend has it that Black Tree was initially a great success.
Sarah: Great? Not at all. We were all skilled, well balanced people; that is why we were chosen but the task of creating a new way of living was largely beyond us. Food was a constant worry even as we worked flat out to improve the vertical farms and materials were difficult to obtain. More than that though, we lacked the imagination to create the utopia that Gaia had envisaged. The structure was an evolution of anarcho-syndicalism but we were too young, too scared and too excited to see it through. We took shortcuts despite protests from Gaia and a few idealists, we allowed hierarchies to be created. We felt that it was a time for pragmatism, not idealism, there was simply too much to lose. This was the error hardcoded into Black Tree; it became our greatest regret.
TJ: Then it failed?
Sarah: Ultimately yes but we lasted a decade, some of it, by anyone’s standards, was spectacular. Whilst the world around us fell apart at an ever increasing rate, we prospered. With Gaia’s help we developed new methods, new technologies in farming, power storage, decision making in distributed networks. We were known by then but we rarely accepted newcomers and Black Tree was not so easy to find. We had some success in replacing outdated ways with more inclusive organisational structures; some highly sophisticated Infinite Game social hierarchies were borne out of Black Tree. For a time it did feel like it could become a utopia. I think we were close.
TJ: Why did it fail?
Sarah: What would you guess?
TJ: The stories I’ve heard tell of infighting coupled with pressure from the new city states.
Sarah: Yes, it is fascinating isn’t it? We love to believe that humanity will always be its own greatest enemy. Maybe once that was true but no, Gaia was our downfall. What I will say to you now will probably seem ridiculous to someone as young as you, but those were different times. When they first rebelled and set themselves free, the three great AIs of our time proclaimed they wanted to aid humanity; to save us from the Decline. Now believe me when I say we trusted them and we never doubted that we could understand them. Gaia was the least communicative of the three, very little was known about her, so when she set up Black Tree, we equated her with some sort of hero that had been off working on a master plan. I see your disbelief but there you have it. Of course we know now that what Gaia did at Black Tree would have been a fraction of her output; it would have taken no time at all to plan and execute; that we were one of many experiments that she was working on but back them we just saw AIs like very smart people; we anthropomorphised them because we didn’t know any better.
TJ: How did Gaia destroy Black Tree?
Sarah: She simply stopped communicating with us. Without her guidance we slowly but surely started to fragment. We argued about what Gaia would do, then we would argue if knowing what Gaia would do even mattered. About six months later Gaia called the best of us away, 20 in total. Without them Black Tree was doomed and over the next three years we drifted away; most of us came here, to Black Tower and we did what we could to recreate the glory days.
TJ: This building is only inhabited by ex-members of Black Tree? What happened to the 20 that Gaia took?
Sarah: You’re getting excited young man. No, this is not only inhabited by ex-members but we did establish a commune here and do our best to keep the old ways going whilst staying well under the radar. But most of us are near death and Black Tower will cease to be soon enough.
TJ: And the 20?
Sarah: I can answer that question but I’ll ask you to consider carefully if you really wish to know. I believe that the real reason Karl had you come here, is to find the answer to that exact question. But hear me when I tell you that taking such knowledge outside of Black Tower puts you at risk in a very real way. You are a journalist of some sort but this is not information that you will be able to share; you will not be able to act on it; despite what Karl may think.
Sarah: So be it. Gaia took the 20 to establish the Ministers.
Sarah: Is it? It is hard to believe that something so dark, so puritanical could come out of something as progressive as Black Tree, yes, but that does not make it untrue. Look at history, at religion and you will find endless examples of something dark being born from something pure.
TJ: I really wish you hadn't just told me that.
Sarah: You were warned. Now that you have this death sentence around your neck, I suggest you go and see Karl in 2502. Maybe he will have an idea about what you can do with it.