Please bear with me, memories are vague. I'm looking for the name of a short scifi story, by a fairly prominent author IIRC, where a person was evolving "pet artificial life" in their basement. Written circa 2000, I think.

As the story proceeded the life got increasingly more complex. It started off simple but became gradually more well-defined and intelligent, resembling organisms, and later evolved a civilization. The evolution kept speeding up until one day the person came back to find his "artificial creatures" managed to break out of the confinement he imposed on them. The civilization basically became smarter than humans, and escaped ?into another dimension? via some new physics it invented, in a singularity event.

I'm not 100% sure, but I think the life was digital = evolving in a computer. But I may be wrong about that. In any case, the life was super tiny / not visible, so if not digital, maybe microscopic / nanotech or something.

Fairly short, perhaps 20 pages in total.

What I remember from the story is that the person tried to set up restrictions for what his creation could do without harming them, making the constraints ever more sophisticated as the life became smarter and smarter. But in the end, they managed to escape anyway (they vanished, basically, without harming the person or anyone else).

EDIT: I just went through short stories of Ted Chiang, because I thought it might have been him. But no luck there :(

  • 6
    This matches potentially hundreds of stories. Can you give any detail that would be unique?
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 14:02
  • 2
    @user124114 I don't quite understand your "I suspect this story is canonical" remark. Usually, when I see people say a particular story is "canonical," they mean "it's part of the 'official continuity' within a much larger set of stories that were all happening in the same fictional universe." Are you suggesting the story you want is one small piece of a popular series?
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 15:20
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    @Lorendiac Canonical = part of an authoritative list, an accepted "standard" element. In this case, a short story that is well known… or so I thought :(
    – user124114
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 16:16
  • 4
    @user124114 - dude, I've had a couple of bad StackExchange experiences, where people gave me a hard time in the comments. The community can sometimes be pretty judgmental and uppity. But ... BUT ... you gotta give us something here. Help us, so we can help YOU. Any other details, y'know? Did the protagonist have a romantic partner? What was his day job? Was it set at the time of publication, or near future or far future? What was the color of the book's cover? Anything additional will help.
    – user121874
    Commented Jan 1, 2020 at 11:55
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    Not a short story, but otherwise sounds very similar to Permutation City.
    – brunns
    Commented Jan 1, 2020 at 19:35

1 Answer 1


This sounds like "Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan, first published in 2008.

The premise is that a billionaire has bought the rights to an extraordinary powerful computer, and is using it to simulate artificial organisms in the hope that they will evolve consciousness. His initial choice to run the project turns down the job, on the grounds that natural selection requires the deaths of countless sentient simulated beings, which is incredibly immoral.

He proceeds with the project anyway, but developed his own moral qualms when the life forms develop language. At that point, he modifies the simulation to make the beings immortal, and encourages their further development using subtle cultural manipulation.

Eventually he makes contact with the civilization and gives them access to a real-world physics laboratory, which they use to escape from both their simulation and our own universe.

  • Eternal thanks.
    – user124114
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 19:08

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