‘Ex Nihilo’: Aliens, A.I. and God’s First Rodeo

Editor’s note: The following article is a reflection upon the artistic process for a short story, ‘Ex Nihilo’, a piece at Transept’s 2024 art exhibition. Matthew wishes to thank ahead of time all who visit the exhibition and recommends that readers of the manuscript for ‘Ex Nihilo’ also listen to the audio recording of the story read by Karen Kiefer, Alan Tricker and himself, through the headphones provided at his station. He is very pleased with how Karen and Alan elevate the story and hopes you can experience it like this as well.

For the 2024 Transept art exhibition, ‘(a)void’, I wrote a short story called ‘Ex Nihilo’. The title is supposed to call to mind that extraordinary film about artificial intelligence gone rogue, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), as well as—you guessed it, theologians—the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. I will now try to describe how this piece went from nothing to something.

Matthew Nelson, cover for ‘Ex Nihilo’, 2024.

As usual for me, the genesis of the story was akin to tossing a bunch of ingredients into a meat grinder. Into this emergent hot dog went a hodgepodge of anxieties and speculations. Ingredients included: the threat and promise of A.I.; the climate crisis; the theory of life’s origins as a result of ‘directed panspermia’—i.e., the idea that alien beings of some sort seeded life in the distant past; and the vague collective sense that the world feels especially unstable these days, like we’re facing some kind of precipice where things could either keep going badly (off the cliff we go) or else turn around somehow.

This story is also inspired by the general weirdness of living in times where impossible sci-fi stuff is mutating from fiction to reality right before our eyes. Are we gonna have computers that talk to us? Yep, old news. Will there be computers that are smarter than us? Of course. Can we plug our brains directly into the World Wide Web? Sure, sign up for the human trials now. Will there be free zero-point energy available so wars aren’t fought over resources? (Whoa whoa whoa don’t get ahead of yourself there little fella! Energy’s gotta be paid for, it’s the Law. And you know what happens to Law-breakers.)

On a human level ‘Ex Nihilo’ concerns an elderly man in the year 2107 as he comes to terms with the grief of losing his son, who died back in the 2070s. This man, Exeter, is being given palliative care, having refused free State-provided cures called GRTs (Genetic Reprogramming Therapies). That is, Exeter chooses to die. He refuses the indefinite life extension—‘immortality’ as it’s popularly called—that is now widely available. The story revolves around what happens when a ‘Chap’ (a cyborg chaplain) tries to play on Exeter’s childhood Christian faith and convince him to live. Underlying their conversation is the question: What do living and dying really mean in this brave new world of the twenty-second century? What does it mean to care for the body and soul of people in an age of so-called ‘spiritual machines’?1 

Sandwiching this story is a frame narrative set about four billion years ago, on a planet you might be familiar with. It’s basically an account of life’s origins from the vantage of panspermia-directing aliens. You’ll see here that these creatures are feeling a bit raw. They are part of a dying civilisation that has been given the absurd task by ‘the Creator’ to bring a bunch of extremophile micro-organisms to this young planet, a world on fire, in the hopes that from this Seed will evolve a new ecosystem of life. However, doubt assails these aliens. Will they actually complete their mission? Will they trust their Creator? Could life really grow from a Seed planted in such inhospitable conditions as the asteroid-barraged burning hellscape that is this hopeless planet? How could anything possibly survive in such a place? Does that Creator really know what they’re doing? How to continue believing that, although things seem bleak now, maybe this isn’t the Creator’s first rodeo?2

As a whole, the story is a way of facing the many ‘voids’ of meaning, hope and significance that confront us in times of profound uncertainty and cultural transformation. As such, it tries not to do what we often do—deny the existence of those realities, devising strategies for not dealing with them. In this sense ‘Ex Nihilo’ is an attempt to cease trying to ‘avoid the void’. And, in the process, unblinding: coming to see that what looks like a void might not even be a void after all but rather a state of potentiality, with a good Creator mysteriously shining amidst it all.

That at least was my aim. The reality is that I spent most of my leisure time the past three months refusing to write this thing. Avoiding the void became my specialty. The rush that came from following an initial spark of creativity inevitably flickered out when I realised, as always happens, that I’d have to sit somewhere and quietly pay attention. Only through such faithful attention can anyone make anything, including this story. Further, I also had to trust that the story would be better told than untold. I had to believe that it would be better not to coast passively, filling ‘empty’ time, rather than write this. Absurdity of absurdities, to the doubtful like myself.

Eventually, somehow, like those ancient aliens, I came around to embrace the task. I finally made the plunge that let these characters do what they were created to do. Instead of reading and watching all those news articles and books and videos and movies, drinking up the content streams offered to me, I began writing ‘Ex Nihilo’. I was now back on mission. The hot dog was officially on its way.

The teaching of creatio ex nihilo was a major inspiration for this story, insofar as it involves the origins and destiny of life on Earth, but also as bearing upon metaphorical emergences from ‘nothingness’, including deeply traumatic states of grief and hopelessness. Creatio ex nihilo is a Latin phrase that undergirds the doctrine of a divine Creator, one who—unlike a demiurge or human artist who forms using pre-existent materials—creates everything ex nihilo, ‘out of nothing’. As you’ve probably guessed by now, my story ‘Ex Nihilo’ is not quite so theologically pure. It is rather a creative straddling of the worlds. It manoeuvres between suppositions of such a divine Creator, on one hand, and, on the other, the idea that life emerged not as an act of a supernatural God’s creation but as a result of some other beings (extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials, interdimensional entities, etc.) who seeded life upon the planet.

I’ve always found the latter to be as much worth contemplating as it is funny. As a theory of life’s beginnings, doesn’t ‘directed panspermia’ just kick the can down the road, so to speak? If a non-human intelligence engineered the seeds of biological life from which everything living evolved—or by some accounts, just human life, the real ‘alien’ on Earth—the question still stands as to who or what made those Engineers. Right?

Alternatively, there are those like Nick Bostrom, who think everything is just a computer simulation. Cyberpunk fiction and The Matrix films are basically intuitions of this reality. But that doesn’t really get us off the hook either. If everything we know is a simulation, doesn’t that imply that there’s a substrate at the ‘bottom’ of it all, some baseline reality from which everything is simulated, that reality where our Simulation-programmers exist? Or, are the programmers simulated too? Even if there are such multiple simulacral layers or orders, I don’t think that helps either. There’s got to be some ‘original’ reality from which all those orders derive. Right?3 Or, maybe it really is ‘turtles all the way down’. Simulated turtles. Sure, why not?

Ahem. Where was I?

As I play around with such speculations, it occurs to me how limited I am—not so much in my capacity to figure out the mysteries of the universe (although that is very much the case), but rather I am often limited in my ability to set that aside for what is right in front of me. More specifically, I find myself avoidant or unable to speak upon a loss that was another major motivation to this story, which informed the process of writing it and helps explain why I often turned away from the task. In a way, this artistic process reflection is an act of avoidance of that void, of that which is barely nameable in my world, something truly inexplicable. I refer to the loss of a particular loved one. I have not lost a son, like Exeter, but I have lost a very young nephew this year, Gavin, who was taken from my sister and her husband and our family and all who loved him. ‘Ex Nihilo’ has this grief in the back of its consciousness. What I have written only glances at such true profundities. And yet, in this story of aliens and A.I. and a burning planet, I am attempting—however paltry an effort—to begin facing this grief. As hard as losing Gavin has been and continues to be for our family, we nevertheless have experienced the goodness of the Creator God in the midst of it all—that God who shines in the darkness, God the Son ‘through [whom] all things were made…that have been made’,4 that ‘man of sorrows’5 Jesus whose death and resurrection the Church observes this week. Such a God is not absent but is present and ‘near to the brokenhearted’.6 I hope, somehow, that this is inscribed in and between the lines of ‘Ex Nihilo’. And I hope that you, too, whatever your own unspeakable void, might see something of this God who draws beauty out of nothingness.   

Author

  • (Associate Editor) is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, under the supervision of Gavin Hopps. He is researching the theological implications of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon (1937- ), exploring his work as post-secular literature, and in relation to the Gothic tradition.

1. As transhumanist Ray Kurzweil calls the time of the coming ‘singularity’ in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (London: Penguin, 1999).
2. Like the mystery of the chicken and the egg, the precise spacetime location of that ‘first rodeo’ remains a riddle for the ages.
3. Wrong. At least, according to thinkers like Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida, for whom an ‘origin’ or ‘original’ is viewed as unnecessary in various respects.
4. John 1:3-5 NIV.
5. Isaiah 53:3 KJV.
6. Psalm 34:18 NRSV.
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