At night the office no longer smelled of coffee and toner, stale doughnuts and pizza crusts. The cleaners had washed all the cups, taken the pizza boxes for recycling, and sprayed the air with ozone-friendly pine-scented chemicals. When I arrived the crew were already leaving, phones in hand, calling babysitters and boyfriends in English and Spanish. I knew they hadn't dusted or vacuumed, but I could hardly blame them for that, with all desks smothered in papers, and the floor covered with boxes full of donated PCs waiting to be added to the network.
I tried not to gaze at the clutter, which reminded me all too much of home. Julie hadn't been round to collect the cardboard boxes I'd filled with her things.
This story became outdated as soon as I wrote it.
Obsolescence is the fate of much science fiction, but this story is barely SF — it contains no speculative elements, and is set in the real world of today (or yesterday). It could perhaps be called "honorary" SF in that it deals with science-fictional themes (e.g. SETI), albeit without a science-fictional premise.
The spark for this story was my discovery of the Internet fad known as "Googlewhacking": the art of entering two words into the Google search engine, and having it return just one single web page out of all the billions of websites out there. (Both words must be recognised as valid by online dictionaries, and you can't enter a two-word phrase in quotation marks.) It's a curiously addictive game, which I spent rather too much time on. Feeling guilty at the way it had made me neglect the story I was supposed to be writing, I decided to use my Googlewhacks as the basis for a new story. It's not time-wasting if it's research! I crafted a short piece in which Googlewhacking — the search for something unique, and the state of being singular — metaphorically represented a character's relationship issues and his involvement in SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence).
The text includes a number of Googlewhacks (two words that return a single website), and the title "Lonesome Cosmogonist" is — while relevant to the story — also a Googlewhack. At least, it was when I wrote it. The Internet changes so fast that none of the story's Googlewhacks are still valid. Indeed, my original draft included the sentence "Three billion web pages searched", which used to appear on Google's results page. By the time the story sold, I'd changed it to "Four billion web pages searched", to reflect the increase in Google's coverage. (At the time of writing, Google no longer includes such a figure in its results.)
I expect that "Lonesome Cosmogonist" will soon look rather quaint. After all, how long will Google — let alone Googlewhacking — survive? The story isn't set in the future, so it's not quite on the level of those old stories that imagined starship pilots using slide-rules to plot trajectories. Nevertheless, genre readers have a tendency to expect fictional technology to be whizzier and shinier than the actual gadgets in their home.
But what goes around, comes around. All you have to do is wait long enough for nostalgia to set in. Nowadays we have "steampunk", a sub-genre that lovingly re-engineers Victorian technology. Decades from now, writers will be busy re-imagining the turn of the millennium, making it far more strange and colourful than it ever was to live through. Perhaps Google, and even Googlewhacking, will one day emerge from the electronic dust to fascinate readers, as they try to imagine what a "website" once was.