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The Periodic Table Of Science Fiction by Michael Swanwick
by Michael Swanwick

The Universe on the Table


"Lean close. Are you watching? Okay, now."

"What is it?"

"It's a hydrogen atom. Want me to create another?"

"How did you do that?"

"Well, this spherical space here on the table is a bubble of hard vacuum which I created by ... how proficient are you with n-dimensional vector calculus?"


"Okay, I'll simplify. What you see before you is an artificially created pocket universe."

"Cool! With stars and worlds and everything in it?"

"Well, so far it only contains a few dozen hydrogen atoms."


"But if you'll just wait a sec. There."

"Wow! What did you just do?"

"I cooled down the subatomic flux. Thus creating a lot of hydrogen atoms."

"What's that twinkling?"

"They're combining. Now we've got a lot of H2 molecules. Let's give it a stir."

"Stars! Gazillions of them! They're forming galaxies!"

"Keep watching."

"Whoops — that one just blew up. Now others are doing it."

"Supernovae. It's an important stage in the evolution of any universe. The stars were originally composed entirely of hydrogen. But under the intense gravitation, heat, and radiation at the heart of stars, hydrogen is transformed into iron, calcium, plutonium — into the entire periodic kingdom of elements, in fact."


"Yes, and they're being released. Future generations of stars can have proper planets now."

"What's the big deal with planets? They don't even provide their own illumination."

"Life, old son — life! Watery oceans, long-chain hydrocarbons, the whole nine yards. Now we've got self-organizing systems. Complexity. Evolution. You get the most delightful animals."

"How far does it go?"

"There's no telling. It's usually about this point that I shut the universe down."

"What! Why?"

"If you let it go too long, you get intelligence. Tiny little spacecraft darting all about the place. The next thing you know, your entire universe is infested. They get into no end of mischief. Moving stars, rebuilding galaxies and whatnot."

"Sounds nasty."

"It is. Once intelligent life gets loose, your universe is worthless. The best thing to do then is simply tweak the constants again and watch every star blow itself to kingdom come."

"Well, this has all been very interesting. I'm going out for a drink now. Care to join me?"

"You run ahead, and I'll catch up with you later."

"What's the holdup?"

"I've got an emergent civilization on that blue-and-white planet there, and I want to wait until they can create pocket universes of their own before I shut things down."


"Oh, it's silly of me, I know. But destroying the universe is a lot more fun when the little bastards can see it coming."

Editor's note: You can read the entire Periodic Table of Science Fiction, originally commissioned to run here, as it appears weekly in Ellen Datlow's online magazine SciFiction, on For this special issue of The Infinite Matrix, Michael Swanwick kindly wrote us an additional Hydrogen story, which appears above.

Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo Award for best short story the last two years running, in addition to previous Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of five novels and sixty short stories, all SF or fantasy.

He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter, and their son, Sean. His most recent novel, Jack Faust, was published by Avon Books. He has two short story collections out this year, Moon Dogs and Tales of Old Earth. A new novel is forthcoming in 2001.

For more online fiction by Michael Swanwick, see Green Fire, a collaboration with Pat Murphy, Andy Duncan, and Eileen Gunn, on the Event Horizon site. For more biographic and bibliographic information, see Alpha Ralpha Boulevard and FantasticFiction.

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