“The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”, John Chu, at Clarkesworld (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/chu_07_16/)
I imagine that everyone involved in SFF circles has by this point seen the programming for World Fantasy Convention, and the very merited backlash to it. There are a number of issues to address, of course, but one of the conversations I was quickly drawn into on Twitter was how much incredible SFF is being created by Asian writers, all ignored for the sake of an offensive in-joke. This blog has covered several of these stories, but there are countless more. In the face of the implication that Asian SFF writers and the work they produce matters less than someone’s tired and unfunny “joke”, I reject this narrative. Asian authors are producing some of the most beautiful, innovative, exciting speculative fiction right now, and I want to highlight their work. So today I’m discussing John Chu’s “The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”.
The story is well-suited for this blog’s aim: for interactive narrative and speculative fiction to speak to each other. I might cheekily claim that Chu’s work is in fact hypertext fiction: the linked footnotes move the reader to a different place in the story, and the reader can choose at what point they’d like that clarification.
“The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale” is a love story disguised as the specifications for a microprocessor which was never actually built. The narrator is the writer of the design document, and also the designer of an aspect of the system named Brady, which was designed to interact with another aspect of the system, named Ian. Our narrator tells the story of how he and Ian’s designer, Ajay, worked to create this system of [ ] and to debug the problems which arose. It’s a technical description, but it’s supposed to be: the narrator is a man who’s unused to expressing his own emotions, who buries the traces of his desire in the footnotes of a design document which may never be read. The processor’s workings are not the point of the story: how its functions are built and refined and imagined over hours of effort and connection is where the truth lies.
The footnote conceit, then, is the story’s hinge. At Fourth Street Fantasy, I spoke about paratext in genre fiction, about the assemblage allowing a unique and profoundly personal reader experience outside linear prose order. The story of Brady and Ian, of the narrator and Ajay, erupts from the margins which ostensibly contain it. “Once a branch instruction is digested,” the narrator writes in the design document, “Brady does find out the truth of where to go, but that shows up too late to do anything besides correct his mistakes. The worm only ever tells him where he should have gone, not where he should go.” Brady is not the only one in the story to suffer from the issue of foresight. It’s Ajay, in the end, who has the most of it, leaving the company and the narrator as he sees the cancellation of the Sentry project looming. But foresight isn’t simple; it leaves a team and an individual reeling in its wake.
I’m not a microprocessor architect, quite obviously, and so I’m out of my field, but I didn’t have an issue following the speculative layout of a processor which never actually existed. The story might be easier for a reader to follow if they have a background in tech or a tech-adjacent field, but the pleasure of discovery when stumbling across an unexpectedly personal bit of commented code is similar to the discovery of a scrawl in a book’s margin, or a photograph creased in yellowing pages. What remains are traces: of a processor which was never actually built, of a relationship terminated unexpectedly, and a narrator struggling to order vast reams of information, to distill disparate information to the only strictly necessary. The footnotes remain as a testament to the inextricability of the human element, the fingerprint which we all leave in the technology we mold or create. No code, no neural network, no program is created in a vacuum; the narrator is unwilling to pretend that Sentry’s system was not influenced by the architects who developed Brady and Ian, or that the architects themselves were not influenced by their creation in turn.
Chu’s story leaves the job of assembling the story to the reader, and there are threads missing: the night the narrator spent at Ajay’s, likely one of many, and the pieces Ajay left in his wake. But the romance feels more profound for these lacunae. There are missing moments in this connection which we’re not given access to, but which we’re asked to imagine, to construct for ourselves. The Sentry system is designed to output a result; its functions are invisible to all but the designers. So too are the paths and branches which this relationship traversed. The design document can only hint at both.