Transcendence Express


[Begin of excerpt]

Transcendence Express artwork by Vincent Chong

Transcendence Express artwork by Vincent Chong

I: Daybreak in a little village in the Zambian highlands.

She’s teaching. Maths and science at the village high school. The school itself puts the word derelict to shame. A building so run-down our own country’s squatters would find it uninhabitable. Windows are an illusion, walls that are more crack that brick, benches that should be reported to Amnesty’s human rights watch and a roof that doubles as a communal shower in the wet season.

She writes large letters on a shabby blackboard. Her class, slowly getting used to the sight of a freckled redhead whose skin is shining from the liberally applied sunblock, starts to give more attention to the teachings than the teacher. 

Hard to believe she’s really doing this and enjoying it. Stranger still that she took a whole year off from one of the world’s premier scientific projects. Most baffling, though, is the project she’s taking up with her class.

At first everybody—me included—thought it was a strange after-class hobby thing involving manual skills. Carving wood: something she’s not terribly apt at so she goaded the local sculptor into helping her and the children out with the practical parts. Making a flat, laptop-sized wooden box with a hinged cover. Each child making her or his own. So far, so good, so innocent.

Then she told her schoolkids they were going to fill their boxes up with something special, layer after layer. She made two large vats, filled them with certain ‘secret ingredients’, let them stand for a couple of days (so that they would ‘grow full’) and then added salt to one and zinc sulphide to the other until both solutions were saturated.

Right now they’re applying the first layer.

High School in Kaoma, Zambia

High School in Kaoma, Zambia

“Miss,” One of her class asks, “why we do this?”

“You have to say: why are we doing this, Timmy.” She can be a bit bitchy in class, too.

“Why are we doing this, Miss?” Timmy rolls his eyes but complies.

“Because—if we follow the instructions carefully—these boxes will become your window to the world and beyond.”

Which leaves me wondering, but those young kids can be very sharp.

“Like your laptop computer, Miss?” A large-eyed girl with knobby knees.

“Very good, Melissa. Only better and on a purely biological basis.”

“Really, Miss?” Neither the class nor I believe our ears.

“I know this sounds too good to be true. We will need several months and we will have to be very careful. But if we follow the instructions and do our very best we might succeed.”

A mix of skepticism and expectancy from the class. Liona saying you sometimes need to do crazy things to get even crazier results. I can’t believe it.

That same night, in our barracks, I can’t hide my disappointment.

“How can you do it?”

“Do what?” With that semi-innocent look saying she knows exactly what I mean.

“Saddle those poor kids up with illusions. Biological laptops, my arse!”

Uh-oh: that smile:  “You’ll be surprised.”

“Unpleasantly surprised. But your class will be devastated.”

“They won’t be. David, you have to trust me on this.”

“Trust you? Some of these kids may believe in magic, but I don’t.”

“The magic we’re developing here is of the technological kind, the one so advanced as to be indistinguishable...”

“Something’s going on, and I haven’t got a clue, right?”

“David, I’m walking a fine line here. I’d like to tell you more but for the moment it’s better if you don’t know.”

“Is this illegal? I don’t want—”

“Depends on your definition of ‘legal’. About as ‘legal’ as achieving patent rights on the genome of certain tropical plants that indigenous people have used for their curing properties from times immemorial. Trust me: I’m doing the right thing.”

“The right thing?”

“Remember the Worldchanger? I’ll tell you more as soon as we have some BIQCO’s running.”

“Biko? As in Steve Biko, the activist?”

“That’s a good one, very appropriate, thank you.”

Then she kisses me and does all those things that make further talk impossible. In the upcoming unrest I let it rest.

[End of excerpt]

Kids in Kaoma, Zambia

Kids in Kaoma, Zambia

Review Quotes:

(NB: this is one of my most-reprinted stories, and most probably the most reviewed one. I'm including most of the reviews below that I was able to retrace on the internet, and I suspect that there have been quite a few more in print. Thirteen reviews shown below, and there are 25 + 19 more on the Escape Pod website + forum, and 33 more on Goodreads [of The Apex Book of World SF, which do not all mention my story]. Positive reviews on top, negative reviews at the bottom, and a number of translated reviews in between.)

The second of the two contenders for strongest story is Jetse de Vries’s “Transcendence Express.” Liona Jansen is a dedicated young teacher who is trying to bring education and technology to poor children in Zambia after following her lover there. Without the resources to bring computers and a functioning network to the children, Liona instead lets each of the children grow biological computers—much her own design—as projects that quickly become the children’s learning tools. Not long after that, the computers equal and then surpass anything that the narrator, Liona’s lover and the volunteer she followed to Africa, has ever seen before. The ramifications of this action are intriguing, realistic, and admittedly not a little cathartic, as the children end their isolation with these new computers and decide to use them to help bring about better lives and living conditions for themselves and their families.
— Danny Adams
In “Transcendence Express” by Jetse de Vries (2007), the children of a Zambian village are shown by a Dutch volunteer teacher how to construct cheap “quantum computers.” Is this a story of people being “saved” by being given Western technologies by well-meaning volunteer workers? Perhaps, but the villagers are seen as taking control of their own lives, and the goal is to make such relief work unnecessary.
— Andy Sawyer
Transcendence Express, by Jetse de Vries – David and Liona are volunteers in Zambia. He’s works at the hospital, she’s a teacher. But what exactly is she teaching? First she has her students working on wood carving, making flat boxes. Then the students are babysitting some kind of solution mixed with salts and sulfides, it’s very fragile. Some of the boxes never set, others begin working right away. Liona says she’s making computers for the kids, but how could this be possible? David gets angry, he wants her to stop leading the children on, and Liona simply invites him to sit in on her class and see the machines at work. And they do work. The students talk with their computers, each teaching the other. In a classroom led by Liona, filled with students and their ever speeding up computers, who is teaching who? Remember, this is a science fiction story, *not* a fantasy story. Also, it’s got a highly amusing little romance dynamic, that everytime David asks her how the things are really working, she seduces him and distracts him, keeps his mind on her body, not her brain. I couldn’t help but chuckle while reading this, and I got a huge grin on my face by the end.
— Redhead (Andrea)

Little Red Reviewer;

(I do like the irony of a female redhead reviewer commenting on the female redhead protagonist.)

“Transcendence Express” by Jetse de Vries first appeared back in the dinosaur days of Hub‘s history. You know, when it was a print magazine for a few issues. Anyways, we’re in Zambia here, where education and the like is rather minimal. Or diminishing. A teacher by the name of Liona Jansen is trying to enhance the lives of the poorer children by bringing maths and science into their heads. Unfortunately, being where she is, instructional tools are hard to come by. Jansen instead allows her class of kids to grow their own computers, a task that will soon have very damaging outcomes.

It’s a very surreal piece, mixing gritty reality with the stark contrast of future endeavors and self-doubt. I enjoyed the way Vries jumped from scene to scene, especially towards the end of the story. Technology is both a blessing and a curse, and “Transcendence Express” really makes one think about where we are going as a culture, a society, a tech-wired force that seems unstoppable at times. There are no answers here, only ideas. But they are haunting ones, articulately accurate. Definitely worth a read, and I’m thankful that Hub had the mind to reprint it online.
— The Anon Reader
Netherlands, Jetse de Vries
”Transcendence Express” (2007, shortstory) - 4/5
In the Dutch lowlands, research into quantum computing hits stride when crossed with biology, resulting in a bioquantum computer (BIQCO). Liona, once a straight-laced follower of innovation, follows her boyfriend to Zambia where he is a volunteer. She, too, volunteers her knowledge to the community. The homemade BIQCOs slowly learn from the children and, in time, the children learn from them.
— Reviewer 2theD on
Written by Interzone’s e-submissions co-editor, Jetse de Vries, Transcendence Express is a high-tech slice of speculative science fiction that follows the adventures of a Dutch computer scientist as she introduces organic quantum-powered laptops to the African village where she and her boyfriend are doing volunteer work. The technological speculation is well grounded in current research and theories, and the characterisation of Liona and her boyfriend is solid. There are a few moments where the language of the narration stumbles, but given that de Vries is writing in his second language the story flows very well indeed. My only complaint would be that there is a lack of opposition and conflict to Liona’s plans; circumstance and bad luck provide a few stumbling blocks, but the reader would have more sympathy with her if there were another character actively working to prevent her mission from succeeding. Nonetheless, it’s a brisk story of the almost-now that does something currently quite rare – it paints a picture of a plausibly brighter future, and we need more fiction that does that.
— Paul Graham Raven
Of recent stories, Jetse de Vries’s ‘Transcendence Express’, published in The Hub 44 (and apparently in other places) is a shining example of optimism*. Set in an African village school where a teaching volunteer who’s been involved in the development of quantum computers from organic materials gets the kids to carve their own laptops from wood. Extraordinary things happen in the interface of heuristic AIs and the children, leading to new solutions to old political and social problems.
— Dave Lee
Transcendence Express by Jetse de Vries is one story I was particularly interested in, partly because the author is Dutch and partly because of a number articles and interviews I read online. De Vries is a man with an opinion. A scientist (illegally) brings quantum computing to a poor nation in Africa and thus heralds the end of development aid. The concept is very interesting indeed but de Vries does take rather big strides. I think there is a longer work hidden in this story. The consequences of the actions of the scientist are enormous but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow your own computer?
— Val

Val’s Random Comments (*);

Then, quite apropriately (as the story did appear in the first “Apex Book of World SF”, there are a few international reviews, which I’ll quote both in theor original language and the—sometimes slightly edited—Google translations.

First, a Spanish review:

La idea Negroponte Un portátil para cada niño sirve como base a esta optimista historia donde una científica que consigue el primer procesador cuántico deja toda su investigación de lado para enseñar en una aldea africana. Pero las clases no serán al uso y el objetivo final puede cambiar el rumbo de la Tierra.

Es muy bueno, un relato que ojalá se hiciera realidad.
— Fantástica – Ficción

Fantástica – Ficción;

Google translation (slightly edited by me) of the above Spanish review (I assume that the reviewer did mean a Negroponte Switch, see Wikipedia link):

The idea of a ‘Negroponte Switch’ laptop for each child serves as a basis for this optimistic story where a scientist who gets the first quantum processor leaves all his research aside to teach in an African village. But the classes will not be in use and the ultimate goal can change the course of the Earth.

It is very good, a story that I hope will come true.
— Ibid

Second, a Danish one:

Fuld damp mod singulariteten

Tags: Anmeldelse Jetse de Vries Novelle Science fiction

Anmeldelse af “Transcendence Express” (gratis, som podcast), af Jetse de Vries, læst i Apex Book of WorldSF.

Skitse: En lærerinde i Zambia kan lave biologiske bærbare? Hm.

Er det science fiction? Kunstig intelligens og utopia lige om hjørnet. Nice.

Temaer: Liona er egentlig en forsker i Holland, men hun opdager, at den bedste udnyttelse af hendes nyeste opfindelse kan ske i Zambia. Og så er det ellers bare at sætte turbo på mod den nye verden. Ikke alene kender hun ruten til den bedre verden, hun vælger den.

Er det godt? Jeg nød den her historie, ja.

Note: anmeldelse af hele bogen i Proxima nr. 91.
— Proxima

Here’s the Google translation:

Full steam towards the singularity

Tags: Review Jetse de Vries Novelle Science fiction

Review of “Transcendence Express” (free as a podcast) of Jetse de Vries, read in Apex Book of WorldSF.

Sketch: A teacher in Zambia can make biological laptop? Hm.

Is it science fiction? Artificial intelligence and utopia around the corner. Nice.

Themes: Liona is actually a researcher in the Netherlands, but she discovers that the best use of her latest invention can be done in Zambia. And then I’ll just put the turbo on to the new world. Not only does she know the route to the better world, she chooses it.

Is it good? I enjoyed this story, yes.

Note: review of the entire book in Proxima no. 91st
— Proxima

Proxima Science Fiction;

Third, a Dutch one (hey: I m flattered):

Deze eerste bundel bevat ook een verhaal van een Nederlandse schrijver. Transcendence Express is van de hand van Jetse de Vries die momenteel woont en werkt in de Verenigde Staten en misschien wel het meest bekend is van zijn werk als redacteur voor Interzone. In 2010 is ook de door De Vries samengestelde, buitengewoon interessante bloemlezing Shine verschenen van optimistische sciencefiction, als tegenhanger voor alle post-apocalyptische verhalen die de laatste tijd de markt overspoelen.

Het verhaal laat zien dat het weldegelijk mogelijk is om proza te schrijven in een tweede taal. De Vries beheerst het Engels tot in de puntjes. Het verhaal combineert thema’s als ontwikkelingshulp en de economische belemmeringen die worden opgeworpen voor ontwikkelingslanden met het technologische concept quantum computing. Het is niet het sterkste verhaal in de bundel maar wel zo interessant dat ik het persoonlijk niet erg zou vinden als De Vries wat meer eigen fictie publiceerde.
— Rob Weber

Google translation (with a few minor edits from my side):

This first volume contains a story of a Dutch writer. Transcendence Express is written by Jetse de Vries, who currently lives and works in the United States and is perhaps best known for his work as editor for Interzone. In 2010, also compiled by de Vries, the extremely interesting anthology Shine appeared with optimistic science fiction, as opposed to all the post-apocalyptic stories lately flooding the market.

The story shows that it is most definitely possible to write prose in a second language. De Vries mastered English to perfection. The story combines themes such as development aid and economic barriers posed to developing countries with the technological concept of quantum computing. It is not the strongest story in the collection but so interesting that I would not personally mind if de Vries has published more of his own fiction.
— Rob Weber



Also, 25 comments below the original post on Escape Pod, and 19 more on their forum. And 33 reviews on Goodreads of the Apex Book of World SF Volume 1, although my story is not always mentioned in these.

As with the comments in both Escape Pod threads, there are reviewers who didn’t like “Transencendence Express”, to wit:

In ‘Transcendence Express’, Jetse de Vries establishes that you can write a story about good things being done by clever people, but that it may not be as satisfying as you’d expect. On the face of it, this is a rock-solid hard SF story, with a young scientist taking her knowledge of quantum computing to a small farming village in Zambia, and enabling local schoolchildren to build their own biological quantum computers, or BIQCO’s. These computers, which rely on simple products and skills, are set to transform the villagers’ lives. The End.

It rubs me up the wrong way when a story lacks conflict. It’s as if someone’s taken the flavour out of my ice cream, and all I’m left with is something cold. It’s worse, however, when a story deliberately evades conflict. Surely it’s not hard to see that by enabling one village to make enormous leaps forward in agricultural productivity, you’re setting it up for trouble with its neighbours? We might wish human nature were other than it is, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and, in my opinion anyway, a truly positive story would show how obstacles are met and overcome, not pretend they won’t happen. Conflict and difficulty and mistakes and things going wrong don’t lessen a story; they’re part of what can make it great.
— Debbie

GUD Magazine (#)

Let’s All Talk About the Biological Computers
Technology is the focus and the folks in this story are an afterthought.

The best way for me to describe De Vries’s character development is comparing it, for good or ill, to the work of Isaac Asimov. Think back to any of Asimov’s Robot stories, where one engineer is having a conversation to another engineer about recent robot developments. What do the engineers look like? Who cares! Tell us more about the robots!

Instead the human beings serve as a framework to show the scientific revolution taking place. There’s no changes in personality or evolution of character, both are pretty static when they aren’t having weirdly awkward personal moments.
— Zeke R

The Minotaur Illusionist;


  • Originally appeared as the cover story of Hub #2, in February 2007.
  • Reprinted as an audio podcast on Escape Pod #122September 2007;
  • Reprinted in Hub Online #44, February 2008;
  • Reprinted in The Apex Book of World SF 1, edited by Lavie Tidhar, September 2009;
  • Translated in the Romanian in Anthology of European Speculative Fiction, April 2013;

Author notes:

(*) = The reviewer is absolutely correct here, as I did get back to this world and wrote several more—and much longer—stories about the subject. To be posted right here after they’ve been published (or even despite of that, we’ll have to see);

(#) = I do agree with the remarks in this critical review. And I actually think there is plenty of conflict—rising above the circumstances of poverty, illiteracy and destitution is riddled with conflict—but I failed to highlight that in “Transcendence Express”. In subsequent stories I do try to address that—they are literally filled with conflicts—so I hope people will check those out, as well. When they come out (either there or here).