The Atlantis Variation

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I Watched Mezzanine Tranches Glitter In The Dark, (von Sachsen-Rampton, 2009)
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The Atlantis Variation is a finance fiction novella by alpha-crazed beat poet Hunter Barkley.

Set in a in a sprawling, clockwork metropolis, groaning with a slop of “solutions” — generic grey entropic, over-engineered minutiae — and in a fluctuating spacetime that waivers crazily between the present, future and past (Barkley went so far as to invent a whole new tense, the “plumperfect present”, to deal with events which, he said, could only be located probabilistically at a given point in time) The Atlantis Variation revolves around one queasy weekend in September 2008.

Lloyd T. Graeber, a junior officer in the FIA’s netting squad, when running down an aleatory contract in Luxembourg, stumbles upon a conspiracy orchestrated by a secret society of stuffy old men calling themselves C.H.S.P. With their furtive “Project Atlantis”, the old men plan to undermine the derivatives trading universe by unleashing a new, artificially intelligent master trading agreement, the 2008 ISDA Decentralised Autonomous Agreement, known under its working title as The Atlantis Variation.

According to Barkley’s dystopian vision, the 2008 ISDA would be a definitive, final, flawless[1] self-aware edition of the ISDA Master Agreement. Short, plainly worded, future-proofed and agile, it would allow counterparties to agree robust trading terms with little fuss and only the cursory clerical management delivered through unskilled personnel in low-cost jurisdictions and, eventually, chatbots.

It promised to be the long-lost missing use-case for distributed ledger technology, natively negotiated “on-chain” between arrays of dematerialised large language models housed, for the sense of theatre, in a single giant data centre in the outskirts of Bucharest.

Had it been implemented, the Atlantis would have addressed the financial, infrastructural and regulatory challenges which would dog the financial derivatives market in the early 21st century, eventually bringing to the brink of an abyss the rolling countryside of Aïessdiyé, a verdant wetlands in whose folded hills, nooks and crannies peaceable, hobbity little swapsfolk had for generations made their comfortable burrows.

While they romped wealthily about their sun-drenched meadows, the ’08 would silently, effectively consolidate all documentation across a wide range of products and asset classes (including but not limited to repo, stock lending, prime brokerage, exchange traded derivatives, commodities and emissions), finally moving the financial world into a stable utopian state in which all risks are known, all eventualities experienced and contingencies accounted for. Risk would finally be banished for ever.

That was the theory: the reality was infinitely darker.

As they dove feverishly into the weeds the project scope expanded — at first gradually; in the closing stages at breakneck pace — and in the final days — as per the warning of Pimco van der Sark, ex-NASA and now a lexophysical engineer at the University of Bretton Woods — exceeded the Schwarzschild radius of document comprehension altogether. There was a sudden, catastrophic implosion, and everything associated with the project — all drafts, riders, boilerplate, annexes, FPML, schedules — and everyone — the entire firm ISDA engaged to “hold the pen” — a mysterious cyber law firm that spontaneously winked into existence when a document management system became self-aware[2] — and several thousand members of ISDA’s document working group, seconded by their employers to contributing their “clarifications” and doubt-avoidances for the greater good of the standard form, simply vanished into thin air.

It was subsequently shown by van der Sark (a character loosely based on real-life lexophysicist Havid Dilbert) that all this energy was not destroyed, but instead ejected as a white-hot spume of coordinated financial capital regulation, spewing out across the financial universe a whole new in space-tedium dimension.

Interestingly, along with the regulation, Flight 19, a squadron of Linklaters syntax convolution bombers missing in action since disappearing from reality over the Bermuda Option Triangle during a routine redrafting mission in 2011, were discovered, dazed and confused but still alive, in the New Mexico desert. This was doubly curious because they were dislocated in both space, tedium and time: in 2008, they had not yet even gone missing.

But in the immediate aftermath of the implosion everything — the document, the personnel, the drafting miscellanea and terabytes of tedia — were lost to history. We now do not know what the agreement said, how it said it, or indeed whether the agreement really existed at all. And the chatbots —

Well, speaking of chatbots, Barkley claims that Roy Batty’s extraordinary speech from the original Blade Runner (1982) originated when a page of his novel fell backwards in time through a rent in the fabric of the space-tedium continuum created by the implosion, landing in Rutger Hauer’s lap as he was waiting in makeup for that final scene. Not realising this was a unique document from the apocalyptic future, Hauer took it for a script redraft. He adapted it, but only slightly, from Barkley’s original text, which took the form of exchange between an ETD negotiator and a mortally injured CDO lawyer as they dragged their mutilated psyches away from the smoking ruins of the brokerage firm Wickliffe Hampton:

“You thought you knew everything, didn’t you,” sneered the hapless futures specialist. “And now look at us. You did this. You have no idea.”

A bubble of blood foamed from thee CDO salesman’s mouth. Weakly he turned, a replicant gleam in his eye, and said:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack-ships on fire off the red-herring of Orion 2006-1 hybrid CDO.
I watched mezzanine-tranches glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like payments in kind.
Time to retrain —
As a primary-school teacher.

Critical reception

The story’s was deeply unpopular with the few people who were even aware of it, let alone bothered to read it. This had something to do with an almost total lack of human characters. For this, Barkley was unrepentant. Asked why there was no hero or heroine, he replied, “because that would be colossal a failure of historiography. The Atlantis Variation is set in a world, not unlike our own, in which humans are already irrelevant and are becoming downright annoying.”

What little character arc there was took the shape of an awakening moral compass in the automated Bulgarian playbook as it nears the Singularity. Necessary plot exposition came about in turgid, implausible dialogue between two minor characters, credit officers Dan Grade and May Cole, for some reason portrayed as hairless, naked weaklings swimming in Swarfega, their extremities tethered by USB cables to a giant neural network, designed to systematically optimise available background neural processing capacity in their brains as they worked on the pro forma payee tax representations of the secret new agreement.

See also


  1. There was to be no Section 2(a)(iii)
  2. The firm, Tubb Fuller Breaden Potter Bacon, (known in its marketing literature as TFBPB) has never been heard of since, and curiously, no record now exists of this firm before 2008, even though it was apparently a global behemoth.