Hypothecaries, or where ideas come from

The idea that became Night Sky Mine had its origins in a piece of legal boilerplate. At the time, I was working part time for an older lawyer who was winding down his practice; he needed someone to answer phones, type letters, and prepare a few documents for his remaining clients, most of whom were elderly. (It was through this job that I learned how to read and verify Medicare statements.) In this case, I was typing a statement of trustee powers, and got to the point where the trustee was allowed to sell, buy, mortgage, or hypothecate [the covered property]. I had never seen the word “hypothecate” before, and the small office dictionary didn’t contain it (the lawyer didn’t believe in the internet, and this was before smartphones). When he came in, I asked what it meant, and he said it was to pledge something as security without giving up control of the item – a sort of hypothetical interest in it.

But by then I’d had several hours to think about the word, and a part of my brain conflated it with “apothecary.” What, then, was a “hypothecary”? A virtual apothecary, someone who carefully crafts solutions from bits of code harvested from the nets… Which led me in turn to wonder about programs that became, not artificially intelligent, but artificially alive, able to exchange code with other programs of similar and/or very different types, the former being analogous to breeding and the latter to feeding. And this turns out to be convenient to human beings, because it’s faster and cheaper to “breed” two programs that do most of the things you want, and either keep “breeding” or “pruning” them until you get the program you really want. (I put the words in quotation marks because of course that’s not what’s really happening, but it’s the convenient metaphor — this was rapidly becoming a book about metaphor superseding, becoming more effective than, reality.) But of course some programs get loose and colonize unguarded parts of the virtual world, until virtual space becomes its own sort of wilderness. Most people stick to the walled gardens of the well-defended, well-curated local networks, but hypothecaries travel the wildnet, harvesting not only virtual flora but capturing and taming the virtual fauna as well.

And from that came story: Kelly 2/1 Ista is an apprentice hypothecary, learning to manipulate virtuality. She is also a foundling, the only survivor of a disaster on one of the Night Sky Mining Company’s mining platform, and without a provable identity, she will never be able to leave the station — she is less “real” than the programs she pursues on the wildnets. She’s determined to change that, however, and when similar attacks occur on the company’s local mines, she joins forces with a pair of off-world investigators, unaware of the dangers lurking in both the real and the virtual worlds.

There were some other pieces that fed into the story — some ideas about the future of semi-skilled labor, the difficulties of maintaining a cross-class relationship, exploring several flavors of queerness, my grad school work on the unintended consequences of imperfect metaphors — but the main line of development came straight from a word I’d never seen before.

(And, if you’re interested — until July 1, 2023, Night Sky Mine is part of the 2023 Pride Storybundle. There are a total of 17 books in the bundle if you count the bonus books, one of the biggest and most wide-ranging bundles we’ve put together for Pride. You can also choose for part of your payment to go to Rainbow Railroad, an NGO dedicated to helping LGBTQIA+ people threatened by state-sanctioned violence.)