Poems and Distant Lands

WRITTEN BY
Gu Shi

TRANSLATED BY
Ken Liu

ILLUSTRATED BY
Kirsten Zirngibi

1.

2044. Mo Xiaoran found me on the forty-second day of my unemployment.

“We should have won!”

Though it had been years since we last saw each other, she still couldn’t let it go.

Back in university, Xiaoran had organized a multidisciplinary team to compete for an international prize in new technologies to combat ocean pollution. I was a member.

“What’s the point of bringing up something from so long ago …”—we had come this close to winning—“Shijie,[1] how have you been?”

I was the youngest one on the team, and like everyone else, I called her shijie. The familiar form of address still felt right.

Perhaps that competition meant more to the two of us than to anyone else. It was the closest I ever came to success, and the only failure in Xiaoran’s illustrious career. In the eighteen years that followed, she started a company, recruited investors, got married, had kids, went through an IPO. I, on the other hand, worked overtime, took on a mortgage, got divorced, sank into debt, and became unemployed.

“Of course I want to mention it. Why else would I be looking for you?” She spat out her words as crisply and rapidly as ever, completely ignoring my attempt at social niceties. “Did you see the news?”

“What news?”

She tossed the link into my visual field. Two days ago, an ancient tanker on the verge of being sent to the scrapyard had suffered an explosion in the South China Sea, spilling almost three hundred thousand tons of crude oil. The latest reports from this morning, however, showed that the fires had gone out, and no trace of crude oil could be seen on the surface. Experts were speculating that Typhoon Swordfish, near the coast of Vietnam, had triggered a chain reaction changing the wind and current patterns, leading to the oil’s rapid dispersion.

“They’re guessing that the oil had been swept into the deep ocean,” said Xiaoran. “But I checked the map. The accident site is at least a thousand kilometers from the edge of the typhoon—the theory makes no sense.”

I hesitated. “But it’s the ocean … Hard to say definitively either way.”

She gave me a careful look. “Chen Shiyuan, you’ve changed.”

Thinking she was referring to my exhausted appearance, I sighed. “You, on the other hand, look exactly the same.”

“That’s an absurd thing to say!” She went back to the oil spill. “As soon as I saw the news this morning, I got on a plane and came to see you. Don’t you remember the email you sent me two years ago? You told me that our microbots were still in the ocean.”

“You never answered!” The memory still stung.

“It was a misunderstanding—look, I was planning a new seabed adventure tour at that time, and I thought you had found out some of our trade secrets.”

I gave her a disbelieving look. “I thought your company is in space transportation … What are you doing with seabed tourism?”

She grinned. “Space cargo was our initial line of business, and then we branched into moon tours. However, that market is saturated now, and it’s still too expensive and dangerous to run tours to Mars. I decided to go in a different direction and expanded into the ocean bottom as a new line of service.”

“Did you find something interesting there?”

She gave me a mysterious smile. “I can still recall the first line of your email: ‘They’re like ghosts. A few times, I almost caught them.’”

“Yes!” I held my breath.

“I’m ready to give you an answer now.” Her eyes sparkled like an excited child. “Let’s go find them at the bottom of the ocean.”

2.

Xiaoran called them “silkworm cocoons.”

They really do make silk!—that was my initial impression when I encountered them for the first time back in 2025. A bunch of white egg-shaped objects were scattered over the bench. Suspended in a tank of water was something that resembled a breakfast eggcup.

I moved closer. The “eggcup” turned out to be a cocoon in the process of being printed. Sticking up out of the bottom of the cup was a retractable metal shaft tipped with two shiny needles, a bit like the hands of a watch, spinning rapidly. The needles emitted thin white strands along the rim of the half-egg sitting in the cup, building up layer after layer. Not much time passed before the stacked threads had sealed the apparatus within a perfect, complete egg.

“What do you think?”

I turned. The questioner had a sharp, unexcitable face. (Later, I’d find out that she could also look kind, especially when her eyes turned into slits when laughing.) “I’m Mo Xiaoran. Welcome to the team.”

“I think this is just a common application of 3D printing,” I said, deciding to be direct. “You’ve enhanced it with extensive miniaturization and the capability to function underwater. But I can’t see how you can win the prize with this.”

She frowned and shot back in a rapid-fire stream, “You’re not very observant. And you didn’t read the material I sent you.”

She was right about that last part. Getting no response from me, she beckoned. “Come over and look again.”

This time, I noticed that there was a spindle-shaped object in the water, about 25 centimeters in length, whose tip touched the bottom of the eggcup. Xiaoran put her hand into the tank and stirred the water, and then showed me the dark slime stuck at the tips of her fingers. “This is a mixture of seawater and crude oil, a simulation of an oil spill.” Then she pointed to the spindle-shaped object. “That’s a miniaturized chemical plant capable of taking in the crude oil and turning it into various polymers needed by the 3D-printer. A few others on the team have made a mini pulverizer for waste plastic. With all these components, we can turn plastic trash in the ocean into whatever recycled plastic shapes we want.”

I was sure I looked stunned.

“Technology is sometimes indistinguishable from magic, isn’t it?” She was pleased with my reaction. “Took us three years to get this far, and we’ve been keeping it all under wraps. Watch—the best part is yet to come.”

As she talked, the egg-shaped cocoon that had just been printed suddenly detached from the cup. The silky material seemed to pull the oil from the water, and soon the cocoon was stained black. A tiny propeller at one end began to spin, thrusting the cocoon toward the mini chemical plant. As the cocoon docked against the spindle, the surface gradually turned from black back to white. Apparently the captured crude oil had been transferred.

“By alternating hydrophilic and hydrophobic surfaces, the cocoon could adsorb and repel the oil repeatedly, supplying the chemical plan with high efficiency,” said Xiaoran. “The contributions of the material science group have been very valuable.”

“So, it’s a … cycle?” I was finally beginning to grasp her idea. “You’re making a kind of microbot that grows and feeds on plastic and crude oil?”

She stared at me. “I literally said that on the first page of the PowerPoint I sent you.”

Busted. “Sorry. Um … I didn’t open the attachments…”

She sighed. “We’ve designed three roles for the different microbots: ‘collectors,’ responsible for locating and gathering crude oil and waste plastic; they bring their cargo to chemical plants and pulverizers—which we call ‘transformers’ because they transform sources of oceanic pollution into the raw material for 3D printing; finally, we have ‘builders,’ who print and construct new robots, like these cocoon-gatherers.”

“A biomimetic community!”

“Right, that’s one way to understand it. Or think of it as a single, distributed robot. Look at this.” She picked up one of the cocoons from the bench and pointed at the shallow depression at one end. “We designed a set of standardized connectors so that the microbots can interface and link together. This way, the propellers of the collectors can be used to move the whole community toward oil spills, while the energy reserve in the transformers can supply power to the builders and collectors during the journey. When they separate again into autonomous units, they can go back to their tasks, reproducing and sustaining themselves.”

I tried to poke holes in her vision. “But what is the ultimate source of power? There’s no electricity in the ocean.”

She looked at me like a fool. “But there’s oil.”

Ah! I had only one question left. “Seems as if you’ve got everything figured out. Why did you invite me to join?”

“We’ve been working with the prototypes here in the lab,” said Xiaoran. “But the ocean is nothing like a controlled tank. It’s an unpredictably complex environment with unforgiving competition. The prototypes are much too basic. In terms of biological comparisons, they are not much more sophisticated than single-celled organisms with DNA. We need AI specialists to give them intelligence and provide them direction!”

I felt utterly inspired. “All right! When can I start?”

3.

A material science team from India won the prize in 2026. Mo Xiaoran was so upset that she didn’t attend the awards banquet. I went, and promptly cornered one of the professors on the jury.

“Your team did give an excellent demonstration,” he told me. “And I do believe what you’ve done is valuable. But the winning team had a more direct and effective solution.”

“They did nothing more than … tossing a washrag into water!” My English was not good enough to express everything I wanted to say. “We … we planted a seed! It’s going to grow, reproduce, keep on breaking down the plastic trash in the ocean. Don’t you get it?”

His smile faded at my rather rude outburst. “Your solution is excessively complicated, and all it can achieve is turning oil spills and plastic trash into more plastic products. These objects will remain in the ocean, so we’ll probably find them in the bellies of beached whales someday. We have no way to even verify your results. As one of the robots’ creators, you’re too emotionally attached. But you have to focus on the problem.”

I realized then that I was responsible for our failure. Xiaoran had assigned me a specific task: We don’t have much time. Your job is to make the microbots behave like homing salmon, periodically returning to a designated location. This way, observers can verify the experiment’s result directly.

But I had become obsessed with the idea of a plastic-based biological community. After a week of all-nighters, I gave her a plan of improving her prototypes, mainly in two ways:

  1. From mere reproduction to adaptation: Give the silkworm cocoons the potential to evolve new functions by upgrading “builders” into “designers.” By incorporating AI chips into the microbots, they would be able to react to the changing conditions of the oceanic environment and print cocoons with new abilities, such as more powerful propellers or larger surfaces for adsorption.
  2. From mere observation to information exchange: The “transformers” should be given upgraded navigation systems and connected to a communication hub linking us with the microbots. We would then be able to upload software upgrades based on feedback from the robots, such as new design parameters for the cocoons or weather data to optimize the navigation.

Xiaoran was skeptical. “Wouldn’t this be too complicated?”

The plan I gave her was already the result of a great deal of simplification. For a whole day we debated as I tried to make her understand that hardware was only the foundation of artificial intelligence, while software formed an ecosystem of its own. Only through abundance and chaos, coordination and contradiction, innovation and elimination, could a new, successful product emerge.

“I get your vision,” she had said. “But I don’t believe that’s what they want.”

Only in hindsight did I understand that by “they” she meant the prize jury. In the end, she had seemed convinced by my arguments. “All right. Go ahead and do as you suggest.”

“Are you agreeing with me?”

She smiled. “I like your enthusiasm and passion.”

4.

The first few years after I got married, I often had to work long past midnight. One night in 2035, I suddenly remembered the hub that I had intended to use to communicate with the microbots.

Xiaoran had been prescient. My design was much too complex and there hadn’t been enough time for testing. During the competition trial, the homing system failed to work as intended. Even after the completion of the trial, the communication hub never received any coordinates from the microbots. For a long time, I felt so bad that I had let the team down that until graduation, I kept on uploading software upgrades, modeling data, and new designs to the hub, hoping that the microbots would make use of them. It was like tossing pebbles into the bottomless ocean.

But as soon as I logged on to the hub site that night, I found tens of thousands of coordinate entries. I couldn’t believe it. With a cup of strong coffee by my side, I picked a few of the coordinates at random and checked them: Gulf of Mexico, North Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Bohai Sea, the coast of Norway, and … Antarctica?

Crude oil and waste plastic in Antarctica? Someone must be playing a cruel joke on me.

But I couldn’t help but continue my analysis, tracing the route of every entity that had uploaded its coordinates. As I gazed at the colorful lines following the ocean currents, a feeling of excitement that I hadn’t felt in years overwhelmed me.

More questions followed: How do I prove that they are still out there?

When my wife asked me for suggestions for our next vacation, I immediately proposed diving in Malaysia. Logging on to the hub again, I sent navigation instructions to nearby microbots. Only after I had leapt into the endless waves near Sabah did I realize just how vast the ocean was. Helplessly, I stared at the yellow lines on the screen passing near my location.

During the subsequent years, I got my scuba license, but I still couldn’t find any confirmation of the microbots in sunken ships, sea caves, or coral reefs. Near the beginning of the 2040s, biocomputing became all the rage, and biomimetic algorithms gradually replaced traditional artificial intelligence languages. I jumped from employer to employer, but my salary kept on going down instead of up, and my wife and I had long since separated. On the day I received the final divorce papers, I suddenly realized that after years of staying as busy as possible, I couldn’t furnish any proof that I had accomplished a single meaningful thing.

I couldn’t accept it.

I sent an email to my shijie: They’re like ghosts. A few times, I almost caught them.

5.

I was sure that Xiaoran could tell how nervous I was, especially when the milky-white hull of the submersible gradually changed into a panoramic display of the view outside.

The submersible was essentially a large-scale version of the microbot silkworm cocoon. “The material is different,” explained Xiaoran, “but the design and structure are based on our prototypes—after all, both were intended for marine use. Oh, there are also many similarities between space and the deep ocean: both are treacherous environments where one can’t afford any mistakes.” She gave me a forced smile, and I understood what didn’t have to be said aloud: I have no position to offer for which you’re qualified.

The schools of colorful tropical fish had changed to the eerie, alien denizens of the deep sea. I was puzzled. “How could they be all the way down here?”

“I can assure you that we caught some fuzzy images at this depth,” Xiaoran said, “but nothing that would stand up as proof.”

More fish swam past the submersible, with the panoramic display labeling every specimen for our benefit. Xiaoran grew anxious as well. “Come on … with three hundred thousand tons of crude oil, they must be gathering here …”

The data from the communication hub supported her theory. On the screen, numerous colorful lines swirled around our location, gathering and scattering. Situated in the middle of the maelstrom, however, we could see nothing outside the hull.

After two hours, I had to say something. “I’m afraid we won’t find them this time either. Almost two decades now … sometimes I think they were mere figments of my imagination—at least you still remember them, proof that I’m not going mad.”

She looked at me. “That competition meant a lot to me.”

“But it was the only time you didn’t win.”

“By conventional standards, I suppose I’ve been winning nonstop.” She wasn’t the type to go for false modesty. “But my accomplishments are all perfectly predictable and controllable. I’m good at figuring out what the other side of a trade wants, and what I have to pay to get what I want. There’s no meaning to this sort of victory, no joy of surprise.”

“I don’t understand.”

She looked at me. “Shiyuan, you live in your own world, which isn’t a bad thing. Do you remember the day you tried to convince me of your plan for the microbots? I knew that you weren’t thinking the way the prize jury wanted you to think, but I saw how devoted you were to your vision. So I thought, let him try it his way; maybe something interesting will happen.”

“But we lost!”

“The result was disappointing. But I was also glad it turned out that way. Finally, I had done something from which I got no reward—my investment earned no return. It meant that when I chose to put my trust in you, I did so only because I thought your idea was valuable in itself, not because I wanted to win a prize.”

I sighed. I suppose this was the way winners thought: even a wrong judgment could be rationalized in the name of a higher ideal.

“It’s like your name, Shiyuan—poetry and the far-off are the true meaning behind the act of creation.”

We were enveloped in darkness. The sun was very far away, and perhaps there was crude oil all around us. Thus, the tiny white dot that shot across the panoramic display was particularly jarring. A long text label followed it: Collector•SN203904210106.

Almost as soon as it had appeared in our view, darkness swallowed it. But then, more cocoons, like a strand of glowing pearls, swam overhead. They were all proceeding in the same direction. Xiaoran configured the submersible’s AI to distinguish crude oil from seawater on the panoramic display using false color. The submersible began to pursue the red patches.

By the time the red patches took up more than half of our view, we finally saw our first robotic “jellyfish”: the spindle-shaped transformers had become the tentacles, while a dozen-plus builders, working together, had woven a massive bell out of thousands of cocoons. As the rim of the bell undulated, the plastic jellyfish swam with the currents, heading for the heart of the oil spill.

“Did you ever design a body plan like this?” Xiaoran’s voice had grown high-pitched from the excitement.

“No,” I croaked.

We found ourselves in a deep-sea current, whose flow could be discerned with the naked eye. A gold rush was in progress, except it involved robotic prospectors and crude oil: a ferocious “shark” was biting into an “anglerfish,” trying to capture the oil-soaked cocoons covering its body; an “octopus” spat out its store of oil in an attempt to confuse the dagger-toothed “eel” that was attacking one of its arms; a “lobster” was dragging a plastic bag—apparently a treasured find, judging by the way it was blowing bubbles—while riding on the back of a “turtle” …

Imitating the sea creatures they had encountered, the microbots had created a brand new world.

“But …” I swallowed, trying to find some flaw in this dreamlike world. “How can there be so many cocoons? The transformers and builders we had made couldn’t possibly print so many.”

Xiaoran zoomed in on a “crab” on the screen and pointed to the legs. “They must have changed our design and printed more transformers and builders. The only thing they couldn’t duplicate are the AI chips and the navigation system. Look at how medical plastic waste is used as the core of their design! So clever!”

“Then that means—” I felt a sudden pang of fear. “Only cocoons from that very first generation had been uploading their coordinates? We’ve been greatly underestimating—”

Xiaoran couldn’t spare the attention to deal with my doubt. “Look over there!”

The seabed lay exposed below us, an endless expanse of pure white, jagged terrain. As we got closer, I realized that I was looking at a city.

Gigantic transformers, tens of meters tall, loomed like totem poles in the middle of each cluster of structures. Every returning “organism,” studded with oil-soaked cocoons, would touch one of the poles to give up some oil.

“What in the world are they doing?” Xiaoran muttered to herself. “Paying taxes? What sort of data did you upload to that hub?”

Principles of Taxation.” I had no trouble remembering the title because I had gotten the book for an ex-girlfriend, who needed it as a textbook. I had probably saved the electronic file into the wrong folder on my computer.

“And what’s that?” Xiaoran zoomed in on another cluster. “A market?” The lobster from earlier was next to a “hermit crab,” exchanging its beloved plastic bag for a pincer.

We had created an entire civilization.

6.

Xiaoran was quiet most of the way back up to the surface.

Then, she asked, “Should I bring tourists to see them?”

“You’d make a lot of money for sure.”

“I’m asking whether I should.”

“We are responsible for them,” I said. “What sort of legal obligations are imposed on the creators of a new civilization?”

She looked thoughtful. “Hmm, I think I shouldn’t.” After a while, she asked, “Do you think this new civilization poses a threat to humanity?”

“Maybe. They’re developing so fast.”

“Then what can we do?”

“If we stop producing more plastic trash, I think we’ll be all right.”

“Good point,” she said, sounding reassured.

#

We parted ways after emerging from the submersible. Back home, I still had nothing to look forward to but a mountain of debt.

But I was at peace.

[1]         One’s shijie (or the masculine counterpart, shixiong) is typically an older student who studied in the same university department or laboratory as oneself. There is an expectation that a shijie should be a mentor, even after graduation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gu Shi is a speculative fiction writer and an urban planner. A graduate of Shanghai's Tongji University, she obtained her master's degree in urban planning from the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. Since 2012, she has been working as a researcher at the academy's Urban Design Institute. Ms. Gu has been publishing fiction since 2011 in markets like Super Nice, Science Fiction World, Mystery World, and SF King. She won a Galaxy Award for Best Short Story with "Möbius Continuum" in 2017 and a Gold Award for Best Novella at the Chinese Nebula (Xingyun) Awards with "Chimera" in 2016.