Original fiction from CNET's Technically Literate series. In this three-part story, a glass of precious wine leads to a precious technological breakthrough.
J. Ryan Stradal
J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Kitchens of the Great Midwest." His shorter work has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, and Hobart, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles, where he's an editor-at-large at Unnamed Press, and is at work on a novel set in his home state of Minnesota.
This is part of CNET's Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology. The first installment of "Time in a Bottle" can be found here.
Lingering in her mouth, the taste of this wine became synonymous with the last moments her mom was alive, mnemonically handcuffed to their final seconds as a family, and no creation of God, nature, man or machine ever since could equal its impact and meaning. Which, of course, meant that she'd look for it everywhere.
Three months after the funeral, Meg's father moved to Idaho, where he created the Chateau Helen vineyard in his wife's honor, and as the years passed, found himself closer to the center of the wine world without moving. The earth's climate trudged its ineluctable path, and as the viable viticultural regions of the world slid like butter in a hot pan, Meg pursued a path distant from the daily reminders of her family's loss. She attended college in Los Angeles, double-majored in microbiology and computer science, and watched from a great, bitter distance as Russians and Chinese and Americans hastened the diminishing supply of 1961 Bordeaux reds into an inaccessible stratosphere of accessibility, and then soon after, many declared the wine past its peak, the party over. Meg wasn't ready for everything that would die along with these lost miracles.
I have a bottle of '61 Latour somewhere, her dad said. You want it as a souvenir?
She wasn't sure if she did.
What are you going to do when you graduate, her dad asked her. He badly wanted her to join him at the winery, but also wanted her to want to, which meant that he never asked.
I won't come to Idaho unless you can make something as good as a '61 Mouton Rothschild, she thought, but would not say. Instead she said, I think I need to help people. I'm just not sure how yet.
She completed her undergraduate course work in just under four years, and finished second in her class behind a brilliant, sleepy-eyed Materials Science major from Ecuador named Jose Luis.
The second time she saw him in person, it was in line at a coffee shop a week after commencement. She recognized him, and struck up a conversation. His goal, he told her, was to work on the 3D printing project dedicated to fully restoring the Great Barrier Reef, and she was honestly intrigued.
Even so, she was surprised that she ended up sitting with him at his table for two hours. Early in their conversation, it began to rain outside, which never happens in Los Angeles, and like all rare events, it evoked a coincidental but sincere intimacy. Tell me all about yourself, he asked, genuinely interested. She said more than she expected to, but he also listened like no one she'd ever met. During the conversation, their hands almost touched many times, and she wondered if they should. Then he told her about his parents, who died of cancer when their ancestral land was contaminated, and how he was adopted by a journalist covering the story and raised in the city. When the rain let up, he asked to meet her for coffee again, same place, same time, two days later, and she'll never forget the boyish, involuntary smile on his face when she replied yes.
Over the next three months, he fell in love with her. Jose Luis was an earnest and uncompromised thing of beauty to Meg, but despite his history, lacked the emotional darkness and damage to understand her, and his lovemaking was too honest and too meaningful too soon. She didn't trust any love given too freely, and he only saw life as a perpetual series of opportunities to make life better for people by giving them exactly what they needed. She tried to convince him that while this works wonderfully in the natural world, humans are not coral reefs, they don't have a singular use or purpose that can be resolved, but rather an opaque blockchain of contradictory impulses and deep-seated longings that resist long-term satisfaction, and this is a good thing, because it drives us forward. Using language she thought he'd understand, she told him that peace is a particle, and happiness is a wave, and his attempts to superposition these feelings in her just made her sadder.
I think I'd prefer to be friends, she told him one morning when she was afraid that he was about to propose to her. He began to cry, and left her house so quickly, he'd left his phone behind, charging on her nightstand.
She had to go to his lab to return it.
I've thought about it, and I understand, he said, without looking at her. It made her feel all the more terrible. It's going to be a crazy semester already, he continued, and I'm under enough pressure. Today's already been a shit show.
Anything I can help with? She asked, and meant it.
Not unless you know how to fix this SLS machine, he said, as if she didn't know what he meant.
Of course she'd used a Selective Laser Sintering machine before. It was a type of Additive Manufacturing becoming increasingly common. She'd used one a number of times to make hardware components for her workstation.
I might be able to help, she said. What are you using SLS for?
Jose Luis shrugged. Right now we're just using it to help build a special FDM printer we can bring to football games. We're going to sell 3D-printed pizzas to raise money for the department.
I'd like to join you sometime, she said, and meant this as well.
Meg didn't actually have to work after she graduated, but like a lot of people who don't, she felt that she should, so it wasn't just out of guilt that she joined Jose Luis and some of his fellow MS&E first-year grad students at their football stadium concession stand. It should have been a far more interesting job, honestly, because all they did was custom 3D-print pizzas shaped either like a football helmet or Earth, which was just the regular round kind, rebranded. As HELMET and EARTH were the only two choices listed on the menu for the customer, it didn't seem to encourage anyone to think beyond these options, thereby reducing this innovative machine to its most anodyne realms of expression. It was like exhibiting a typewriter with every key removed except the H and the 2, and witnessing people lining up to pound those two keys as if they meant something.
This is the opposite of the kind of experience I want to have as a food consumer, Meg said.
Sure, said Jose Luis. You just want a 1961 Bordeaux that you can never have again.
He wasn't being snarky to her out of bitterness. Jose Luis truthfully didn't care to comprehend Meg's ennui over the permanent loss of a viticultural treasure. On principle, he detested anything vain or irreproducible, and expensive wine therefore made no sense to him. Find another bottle you like, Jose Luis said, if you like wine so damn much.
That was impossible, Meg said, and turned to a customer, a young woman in a throwback front-zip hoodie.
I'll have a medium sized Earth-shaped, the young woman said. But with a bite missing.
You want us to bite it ourselves? Meg asked.
No, any pizza place can do that. I want you to make it with a bite missing.
Sure, Meg said, finally excited. We can make that.
Good, the woman said. I heard that you could.
What's the reason, if you don't mind me asking?
I do mind, the young woman said.
Oh come on. Are you on a diet and just want one bite less of pizza?
No, she said. No.
When the pizza was ready, the young woman took her first bite right there at the stand—a lot of people did—so they could share their unalloyed judgment. Tastes like the real thing, she said, her voice sad and sincere.
That's because it is the real thing, Jose Luis replied.
The woman appeared to be crying as she finished the pizza. She dashed off, wiping her face on her sleeve.
Jose Luis shook his head. Hey, he said. Our pizza's not that bad.
No, Meg said, watching the thick blue and yellow football crowd swallow the young woman. The grief on her face was an old one, and Meg recognized it immediately. That woman, Meg said, was finishing something that she'd lost long ago. And perhaps, until now, there was nowhere else to get it back.
That night, Meg posted ads on social media. LOST SOMETHING IRRETRIEVABLE? was the headline. I MAY BE ABLE TO HELP.
She didn't use her real name, and she didn't initially mention the additive manufacturing element. Jose Luis was disgusted. With her knowledge and skills, he claimed, she had the potential to be a talented fabricator. She could change the world, but now she'd instead waste her time reconstructing sentimental objects. People won't accept phony imitations of their memories, he said.
You said it yourself that these things are real, she replied.
Within days, people were sending her photos, material samples, bits of broken things. The first job she accepted was a little gray and pink stuffed bunny rabbit from the client's childhood. The client, a woman named Frances, requested it threadbare, with one of the legs missing and with one of the eyes chipped. This was indeed possible, and it was possible no other way.
The little stuffed bunny that Frances received a week later started a revolution. I cried for three days, Frances said, upon receiving this once-irretrievable beloved object.
In less than a week, the story saturated the internet, morning talk shows, social media. It was just as she remembered, Frances said again and again, in every way but the smell.
In the weeks that followed, thousands of requests flooded in, and Meg enjoyed the luxuries of patience and discernment. She accepted the challenge of replicating a 19th century wedding dress, a stegosaurus skull, and an artifact from Pompeii that had been destroyed by a terrorist bomb a decade before.
Of course, by now, copycats with their own 3D printers began to trickle into the marketplace, offering similar services, but Meg's work was the most popular of all, because it was that rarest combination of things: passionate, timely, anonymous, high quality and inexpensive.
Some of Meg's competitors, who weren't born into Meg's privilege, were justifiably frustrated with her ability to outproduce and undersell them. They had to make a living at this, plus they had other demands on their time, they said, and Meg faced neither compromise. Some, of course, just worked harder. Other aspiring fabricators would give up, make their lives and money elsewhere, and when they died, no kind person would mention their old dream of 3D fabrication. Of course, a few vibrant grumblers criticized the work of Meg and all of the 3D fabricators born with money, calling their products out of touch or elitist, and the system that validated their work, mostly populated by the same class, equally so.
Meg did see their point. It was never truly a fair game, what with the space requirements, and equipment and materials costs. Some could afford it and some couldn't, just like anything in life. It bothered Meg to have this perspective dominate the public discourse, though, and wishing to evolve the conversation about what had become her career, she donated two hundred 3D printers to libraries and schools across the United States and in some cases personally instructed the staff on their operation.
With or without the help of people like Meg, the machines continued to become a central feature in public libraries and common art spaces. The ecology for the untamed field of 3D fabrication broadened, which meant it improved. In time, the three most talented professional re-creators (as they would be called) were people who worked out of public libraries in Birmingham, Alabama; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; and Topeka, Kansas. These folks were initially viewed as the antidote to people like Meg, as true levelers, but after a time, they were just viewed as artists.
It isn't like my life has been easy, Meg told Jose Luis, who by then owned a firm that used 3D printers to repair ancient buildings and crumbling monuments. She told him how her mother died, and all that was lost when an overstressed glass deck buckled and threw a young girl's life into darkness. She told him again about the irreplaceable wine and how her particular incomplete pain could never be resolved.
You're a fool to think anyone's ever could be, Jose Luis said. You're not dispensing closure to people, you're dispensing myopia. You are a backseat driver in someone else's dream. You're like Charon, but you take the passenger's coin and row the boat in a circle. You do not help these people enable an emotional progression, you affirm their regression and call it closure.
Meg disagreed. After all, the demand for her work, merely astonishing at first, was now terrifying. After six months, her inbox, voicemail, and physical mailbox in Los Angeles were flooded with more compelling requests than she could handle in 40 years. This wouldn't happen if it wasn't working for people. This wouldn't happen if Meg wasn't helping people heal. She now also had a staff of 13 associate re-creators working for her, men and women whose lives and families depended on Meg's work. An economy had developed around re-creating and resolving lost memories. And business was splendid.
She'd read about, but not yet experienced, the VR "Memory Rooms" where someone could strap on a helmet or pair of chunky eyeglasses and walk through their childhood home, and the warehouse-sized Holo-virons that offered a similar realm of intangible realism. She wasn't interested. These were child's play compared to what she was planning next.
Part 1 of "Time in a Bottle" can be found here. And Part 3 is here.
Illustration by Roman Muradov.
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