Little Acorn
Rupert Goodwins

Throughout history, humankind has only been able to watch in amazement as its ideas take on lives of their own.

"I can never get enough of trees," says Simon Beswick, the artist. His latest structure -- Grand Oak of Orion -- is the largest object he's constructed. Sometimes he says that it will never be finished; alternatively, that it was finished the moment he finalized the programs for the tiny, powerful spacegoing robots or worker ants that are doing the donkey work.

For Grand Oak is assembled in space, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, in the middle of what used to be called the asteroid belt. The mining craft bring in rocks, minerals, metals from the region, and from that bounty produce two things -- more of themselves, and more of the Oak.

The Oak itself is, at the time of writing, some five hundred miles long from topmost branch to deepest root. It is in form as in name, an enormous tree, complete, uprooted, thick trunk fractally branching out top and bottom to dense and mazy tips. It is, as everything is this far from the sun, a dark and cold place, fitfully lit by flashes of light from the worker ants. On command from Beswick, though, the ants take up position and illuminate the Oak with a thousand brilliant beams. The effect is indescribable: there are more colors here than one ever suspected existed, and mundane words such as glitter, iridescence, and jewel are grotesquely inadequate. It may not be the greatest spectacle in the Solar System, but it's the closest we men and our machines have come to mirroring the massive beauties that nature has carelessly condensed from the dust.

Yet Beswick is surprisingly sanguine about the importance of this work. Propose that the Grand Oak may be the most significant work of art this century, and he shrugs. "It took so little effort, and so little cost," he says. "And it's hard to claim significance for a work that has demanded so little of either from me." Indeed, he refuses even to claim authorship for it, preferring to be seen as a director of what he refers to as "the project."

"The thing builds itself, and has done so from the beginning. I suggest how certain aspects may progress; there's a wide variety of materials found by the workers, and often the choice for which to use on a certain part is aesthetic. They ask me, but more often mechanical pragmatism determines the result. I sometimes feel that the real art lay in making it happen, organizing the finances and practicalities."

Bureaucrats would agree. While the popular image of the Grand Oak is of one man and uncountable machines, beavering away in the lean, dark corners of the system, the resultant corporate structures on Earth and Mars have a size and complexity to rival the branches of the Oak itself. The mining companies who support the project are much more than mere sponsors -- they reap an exceptional knowledge of the asteroid belt, together with substantial proportions of the finer elements discovered. They're also managers of by far the largest fleet of autonomous mining ships in existence -- a fleet that built itself, and that is growing exponentially. The whole business long ago became self-financing, and Beswick has been known to publicly muse that while the Oak is the nominal reason for the activity surrounding it, it may be no more than a metaphor for what is actually taking place.

It's natural to ask where it all may end. The dynamics are fascinating; as the Oak grows exponentially, so does its appetite for raw materials. A rough sphere of mining activity has grown outward from the site of the Oak; if you assume an even distribution of material in that space, its increased surface area will nicely match the demands of the tree. Ferrying the stuff in gets more difficult; the algorithms behind the workers are choreographed were based once on bees returning to the hive "as much from instinctive, aesthetic reasons as from analytic, reductive reasoning," says Beswick. But the dense mesh of computers that runs the workers has long since modified those designs on its own initiative: another part of the community of humans that live in the branches of the bureaucratic shadow the Oak casts on the ground is devoted to unravelling these decisions and understanding just what it is that's growing out there.

And before you can predict where it'll all end, points out Beswick, you have to know where it is now. That's surprisingly difficult: there are graphs of materials used, radius and length and mass, and all show the same pure exponential law. But exponential systems distort their media in unpredictable ways -- the third Law of the Net -- and nobody's prepared to say just which bit of the medium in which the Oak is growing will buckle beneath the stress first.

If pressed, Beswick will admit that he'd like to see the Oak reach maturity -- whatever that will be -- before he dies. "If you follow the analogy through," he points out, "at some point the project will reach some form of equilibrium where its own growth will slow dramatically or stop and its energies will go into procreating a forest. Which raises the problem that's dogged creators ever since the activity became fashionable; it looks as if durability of a work depends on independence, mutability and mortality. And sex."

It's known that the consortium behind the Oak is more keen to see the tree finished. Nobody who's seen it ablaze in space is in any doubt that here is a sight of infinite attractiveness in a damn awkward spot. Proposals to move the Oak into a LaGrange point have been circulating, although even here the tidal forces of gravity may damage the structure. And Beswick's teams of programmers are surprisingly unwilling to say with any certainty that the huge machine out there can ever be turned off.

Meanwhile, the Grand Oak of Orion is unperturbed, attended by its artificial acolytes, following with absolute certainty the single purpose that it undoubtedly owns: to grow.

Rupert Goodwins ( Ex-chief planner of the Tongan manned mission to Mars, international jewel thief and mild-mannered reporter, Rupert Goodwins writes about computers by day and behaves oddly at night. He lives in London, a large post-imperial city set in an alluvial clay bowl, but doesn't worry about it.

InterText stories written by Rupert Goodwins: "Little Acorn" (v6n4), "Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley" (v6n5), "Neon Sea Dreams" (v7n4), "The Year Before Sleep" (v8n1), "Amo, Mensa!" (v8n5).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Rupert Goodwins.