by David Moles
My oldest notes for this story [“The Metric,” in our May/June issue, on sale now] go back more than a decade. There’s nothing in them about plot or character, only things like “post-stelliferous futurity” and “deep time.”
The earliest fragment of prose I can find has the title, “The Metric,” and something (though it’s not clear yet what) called the metric. It has a number: nineteen billion years. It has a place name, Limit Ordinal, that almost made it into the story: there’s a scene that takes place above a public square called Limit Cardinal, which suggests Limit Ordinal would have been another square, somewhere else in the city; but the city itself doesn’t as yet exist.
The next fragment has the city, Septentrion, and its age, seventy thousand years. And it has these lines, which survive, almost untouched, in the published story:
It was said that Septentrion was so old that when its first stone was laid there were still stars in the sky; this was untrue, and would have been untrue had the city been a hundred times older, but it was certainly more ancient than anyone alive could comprehend, and its origins, like those of the sun and the moon, the sky and the sea and the earth, belonged to that deep time in which every ancient thing seems more or less contemporary with every other, and the age of all of them is the same, which is: unimaginable.
Deep time, and the city. Any science-fictional equivalent of an Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index would surely include an entry for last city on Earth, the; and Septentrion is clearly one of those, in genre if not in detail. Its immediate antecedent is of course the Kalpa, of Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time, a book and an author whose influence on “The Metric” would be clear even if the timing of those early notes (only a year after City was published) weren’t so suggestive. Septentrion owes something to the Axis City of Bear’s Eon, as well, and there are echoes of Eon’s Way in the metric itself, and of Pavel Mirsky, the “messenger from descandant command,” from Eon’s sequel Eternity, in Tirah’s mission (if not Tirah’s nature or character). But Septentrion has other antecedents: Diaspar, from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” and The City and the Stars, and the Last Redoubt, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, both acknowledged influences on Bear’s novel; and the cities collected in C.J. Cherryh’s Sunfall, with familiar names and strange far futures. And it has others, I’m sure, more than I can remember or count.
Deep time, and the city—that’s where “The Metric” started. The fragment that introduces Septentrion has those; and it has the ship, out of that deep time, that—as in the published story—“announced itself in the early hours . . . a flare of violet-white at the very edge of the empty sky.”
And it has a protagonist, named Petal, who lives in that city, and sees that ship come down; though I didn’t yet know who Petal was.
I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—
It was another year and a half before I wrote this note, without knowing just what I meant by it:
It can’t be a coincidence that the end of the world comes at just the time it becomes clear it doesn’t have to be the end.
The notes and fragments that follow over the next few months trace the process of figuring out why the world was ending, and how; what the metric was, and why. (Somewhere in there I was pleased to find I’d rediscovered, or rather reimagined, the “conformal cyclic cosmology” of Roger Penrose—but thankfully not its detailed predictions, which haven’t aged well. “Forgotten among the bones of the earliest discarded cosmologies,” as Tirah’s story-within-the-story has it.)
I figured out who Petal was, and what Petal’s life was like, and what the end of Petal’s world meant. I situated Petal in a family and a society, identified Petal’s twin, Piper, and their parents, Hare and Cutter and Snow. I gave Tirah a name.
Four years after I’d started, I knew where Petal and Tirah’s story took place and why; and I knew, in broad outline, where and how it had to end. I read parts of their story at WisCon in 2014 and 2016. I took them onto the ice and across it, to within sight of their destination.
And there I stopped. I knew how their story had to end—but like Petal at the end, I wasn’t ready to face it.
In the nearly ten years it took me—off and on, and between other projects—to write “The Metric,” I moved across an ocean, and across a continent. I changed jobs four times. I got married. I bought a house. I had two children. I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—let alone when I was Piper’s age, or Petal’s.
It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the last third of this story, most of what I wrote in the winter of 2018–2019 to take “The Metric” to its end, is written not from Petal’s point of view, but from Piper’s, and from the point of view of a Piper who has also grown up a great deal—beginning with that moment on the lake when Piper insists on taking some responsibility for what Petal’s done, insists on being treated like an adult. A Piper who has come to understand, with an adult’s understanding, what the end of the universe might mean.
That first fragmentary set of notes, the one that talks about post-stelliferous futurity and deep time, also has this to say:
Intelligence and individual initiative certainly exist but are irrelevant to the course of human development, which is basically about statistics.
I might have believed that, when I wrote it. Tirah, or the senders of Tirah’s message, might believe it. Piper and Petal would both disagree with it, reflexively, from the very beginning. But Piper is the one who can see that it’s asking the wrong questions. And Piper, in the end, is the one who—at least for the purposes of the story—proves it wrong.