Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
The Cosmic Orb has issued a new Natural Law: at random intervals for the rest of time, the wealthiest 10% of humans in the universe will spontaneously dissolve into potable water.
Wen Wen Yang is first generation Chinese American, raised in the Bronx, New York. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University with a degree in English, Creative Writing. She’s convinced people to pay her to push buttons. No one pays her to write, she just likes to play god. She isn’t a nice god. You can find her writing, "Ink Stains" and "Lukewarm" in Towson University's Grub Street Vol 70; and "The Fox Spirit" in Remapping Wonderland: Classic Fairytales Retold by People of Color.
Gailey: How does the Cosmic Orb measure wealth?
Wen Wen: Letter from Cosmic Orb Auditing regarding your Liquefaction Risk
Dear Wealthy Individual,
In the latest audit of your possessions, you are at risk of liquefaction! Don’t worry, we have some easy ways for you to stay flesh and bone.
First, we have noted the reported lower value of your land due to the temporary landfill created in April of this year. However, we audited the twenty-five (25) acres and found that its location and 5,000 sq ft home to be one of your greatest assets.
After you clean up the temporary landfill (recycle or incinerate, please), may we suggest:
- Selling the parcels off (we suggest dividing it as to avoid giving someone else your risk)
- Gifting the land to strangers. Our audit of your biological relations and those within your closest circle show they are also in danger. Their audits are also arriving now and they are unlikely to be able to accept your gift.
Second, you possess many pieces of art (pages 3 to 20). The easiest solution is a gallery open to the public at least seventy hours a week. That will translate the wealth into public instead of private.
(Exception: The painting in your guest bedroom is a forgery, though of excellent quality, so you do not need to place it on display.)
Third, there was an internet rumor that audits would miss items in safe deposit boxes and offshore accounts. These rumors were incorrect. You can sell these assets through the Cosmic Orb Wealth Management website and app. We recommend the early education, home healthcare, or social work categories for your asset liquidation as those are least in danger of liquefaction.
Related to the third point, we’d also suggest you tip generously! While there is automation in several fields, we’re sure you can find the individuals who would accept your excess wealth.
Fourth, the debt on your account has been flagged as fraudulent.
- The owners of your debt are fictional or have not lent you capital
- You have made no or only token payments to lower debt burden
- Your acquisition of wealth continued after acquiring the debt
Attached is a list of your assets listed from largest to smallest.
You can always check your position in the world on the Cosmic Orb Wealth tracker app, updated daily.
If you have any questions, please let us know!
Gailey: What measures do people take to try to protect themselves from this fate?
Wen Wen: Welcome to Cosmic Orb Wealth Management:
Too Many Assets? Post in the “Free To A Good Home” Forums. Please list the value of each item based on their Cosmic Orb audit.
Need to Spend? Browse Charities!
Rather spend it on yourself? Browse Experiences!
Too many choices? Hit the Random Gift button!
Gailey: What happens with the water?
Em: Hey, we can’t make it to dinner tonight. Tell Dad we’re sorry!
Papa: Got the alert. Are you headed out?
Em: Waiting on details.
Papa: Terry can come. Dad’s trying a new shepherd’s pie recipe. [Em reacts with hungry emoji.]
Em: Did I tell you Terry’s joined the MTA? They’re on call for mop duty! They think the water’s going to smell bad, but I told them that was just the train.
[Papa reacts with green-face emoji.]
Papa: That was for the train, not the water. Is MTA doing ‘release into nature/ don’t think about drinking people’?
Em: Yes. Central Park Reservoir!
Papa: What are their benefits?
Em: So much time-off! Maybe two weeks in Europe this summer.
[Papa reacts with thumbs up.]
Em: Some 10% were on the trails. The National Park’s handling recovery. Shepherd’s pie, here I come!
[Papa reacts with thumbs up.]
Em: NVM. They’re tagging me for a home security system. Grr! Want anything?
Papa: Dad would like another salt shaker. I will take $20 from you if you do NOT bring him another salt shaker.
Em: Make it $200.
Papa: Do you want me liquified??
Papa: Text me when you get home.
Meg Elison is an author and essayist. She writes science fiction and horror, as well as feminist essays and cultural criticism. Her work has been on the Otherwise (formerly Tiptree) longlist, nominated for the Audie Award, and won the Philip K. Dick Award. She has been an Otherwise Award honoree twice. She is a 2021 Hugo and Nebula award finalist and her novelette The Pill won the 2021 Locus Award. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Shimmer, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Catapult, Terraform, and many other places. Her debut novel, "The Book of the Unnamed Midwife" won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. Her YA debut, Find Layla was published in fall 2020 by Skyscape. It was one of Vanity Fair's Best 15 Books of 2020.
It’s impossible to know when the Cosmic Orb will make its choice and liquefy the rich. There are superstitions and religions that are built on the hope that they can predict. People look for signs; for drought and for deaths among the over-fortunate. But the truth is nobody knows.
Naturally, there is an ongoing scramble to avoid staying out of the unlucky top 10%. Financial information and tax liability filings are kept secret beyond secret. If people knew who the richest were, they would refuse the shuffle when it came time. No one wants to accumulate just a little too much, or take someone’s place in the tithe. Armed with their secrets, the richest give extravagant gifts and sell off tracts of land and gemstones and the best of their technology. People receive these gifts with a watchful eye, surveying their neighbors and friends to see whether they were suddenly looked upon with pity or speculative schadenfreude. The ability to read envy in the eyes of others is a prized asset, a trained skill. Envy is the beginning of the end.
But taxes aren’t the whole of it. No simple balance sheet can be trusted to predict these outcomes. There was once a generation that included a pair of brothers, whose fortunes seemed perfectly even. Their homes, on adjoining plots of land, were both large and well-appointed. They had two children each, equal balances in the bank, went on the same vacations and enjoyed the same vices. Neither one had thought themselves all that rich; no rich man thinks himself wealthy so long as he knows anyone wealthier than him. They must have both been in the round bottom of that woebegone class without knowing it. But on the day when the mansions and palaces of the unlucky had run rivulets under their doors, scions wailing, only one brother had become a wet spot in his bed.
The one whose wife really loved him was gone. The widow stood in desperate scorn over the funeral, the water twisted out of the bedclothes and used to water a seedling, as is traditional. Her opposite number, the aloof and indifferent sister in law who was always too good for their adjoined life and their bottom of the top rung existence, did not even have the grace to perform gratitude for her good fortune.
Water is wrung from clothes and sheets, squeegeed off the floor and collected in the bottoms of bathtubs to be ceremoniously spread over young plants, acknowledging that life feeds on life, life gives to live, none of us is lost when the Cosmic Orb decides, only changed. There’s no grave stone-- the Orb does not allow for such things. Any monument erected to the honor of the rich, marbled dead turns to water as well. Only the honored dead have a burial. Only the lucky liquefied are drinks for a tree.
The ones discovered by their servants and their unloving families, they are not granted the ceremony of it all. Sure, they’re mopped up and wrung out. But afterward they’re collected and filtered and sweetened and garnished, they’re drunk over ice by the people who made them rich. They are toasted for their hubris, their ignorance, their prevaricating and sneaky dances of trying to be the richest but not too rich, and their ultimate failure.
These are the folks who know the secret: water isn’t water. It’s made up of all the water that has come before it; the ice from comets and the sweat of dinosaurs. Cycled into rain and drink and spit and bath and wine and round again, sucked into the grape and sucked out by the sun to make a raisin. Whatever the label says, whatever you think comes for your tap, water is the history of the world and things older than the world. Wealth is the same way; the money comes from generations who owned and bought and sold, who stole and hid and hoarded. As much as it tries to be as clean as the rain, it’s the recycled blood of slaves and the puke of infants, the beer drunk by emperors and the feverish diarrhea of human sacrifices.
In order for a society to function, wealth must run freely. It cannot be collected in cisterns and bottled in basements forever-- everything else will die. It must run in the gutters, to drip to the roots of carrots to be sold at the farmer’s market, to run pell-mell to the sea and the fisherman who make their living upon it.
The drinkers raise their glasses in gratitude to the Cosmic Orb for keeping this cycle flourishing and wet. They give their thanks that the ultrarich can rest in piss.
My Orb would be deeply difficult. Everyone naturally immediately rushes to try to figure out how to predict when the liquefications will happen; the problem is that they simply happen every time it occurs to the Orb, which can't be externally predicted. If the Orb is distracted by, for instance, a memory of that summer when you could buy Dr. Pepper popsicles, the ultrarich can live another day. The Orb is also impossible to bribe but it will accept and redistribute wealth, which leads to some confusion as wealthy people try to understand how much they are meant to tithe to the Orb to prevent themselves from getting hydrated. It takes a very, very long time for someone to figure out that the tithe only works if you give the Orb enough of your wealth to take you out of that top 10%. It takes a long time because very wealthy people are not actually good at figuring things out, and nobody outside of their immediate circles has any interest in helping them with this problem.
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Wen Wen’s scenario is a fantastic experiment in form: a story told through communications, with an eye toward new structures, bureaucracy, and the delicious downfall of secret wealth. Meg’s new order is a beautiful exploration of the wealth that comes with being loved and understood, and the soul-deep poverty that comes with taking advantage of others. My thing is really just an excuse to write a self-insert Cosmic Orb who really misses those Dr. Pepper popsicles, while also getting to dunk on the staggering incompetence of the ultra-rich.
How would your Cosmic Orb get the ultrarich seriously damp? How would people try to get around the new way of things? How would they fail?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this newsletter. The subscriber community is a wonderful and supportive one, and we’re spending 2021 finding new ways to stay connected and share experiences.
No matter what you do, please find a way to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. There are some resources here to get you started. You can also click here to find ways to support Black people and communities.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.