The downloadable boy

An excerpt from Ken MacLeod's "The Cassini Division."

Topics: Books,

“You want to live in a dream world!” I accuse.

I’m clinging by my left big toe to a hole in an angled aluminum bracket, floating at right angles to the kid I’m arguing with, and squirting jets of hash beer into my mouth from a nozzled plastic bottle that once contained something quite different (whose taste lingers) in the crowded recreation-deck (or, inevitably: “wreck-deck”) of an Earth Defence battlesat abandoned to squatters and orbital decay and it’s 2062 and I just know it can’t be, and I’m dreaming. So the accusation doesn’t carry much conviction.

The kid is about nineteen and must be a recent arrival: he’s fat, and nobody gets — or stays — fat in free fall (it’s that great weight-loss diet we have). His face, dotted with more eruptions than Io, calls to mind all the pizzas he must’ve stuffed in it. His eyes tend to bulge: the modern equivalent of pebble lenses, due to several corrective cornea ops for reading-induced myopia. Disdaining the hops and hemp as unhealthy, he’s sucking some vile cocktail of smart drugs, spiked with euphorics. He knows everything.

“You’re the dreamer,” he says. He waves a hand at the window, thirty feet away on the other side of the wreck-deck. Through the mass of drifting drinkers, through clouds of smoke and stray droplets, the image of a brick-red surface crawls past. Madagascar, I’d know it anywhere. “You’re still stuck in commie altruism. You want to help people who’re beyond help. They’re doomed. ‘Earth — the Third World,’ ha-ha. Time to grow up and get with the program, Ellen. Time to move it out. There’s a big universe out there.”

“My point exactly.” I gesture, too, at what’s now the Indian Ocean. “And Earth is part of it. You want to live in a virtual reality.”

“Not entirely.” He smiles, showing bad teeth. “We’ll pay a lot of attention to the outside — we’ll have to, if we’re gonna turn all that dumb mass into smart-matter. Matter that thinks, and dreams. A world of wonders, where you can be anything you like, not what chance and your genes have made you.”

“I don’t want to turn the universe into a big computer running virtual realities,” I tell him. “And don’t call me a ‘commie altruist,’ by the way. It’s just ordinary human concern. I just don’t like to see people suffer, so it would be very unselfish of me to ignore ten billion people blundering into the dark.”

“You won’t have to see them suffer,” he tells me, with insufferable assurance. “You can just edit them out. Anyway their problems are their problem. Why make them yours?”

“Because I care about them, and if that sounds altruistic, just think of it this way: I’m selfish enough to want to be, oh, the princess of the Galaxy! OK — at a pinch, I’d be happy just to live forever in a Galactic Empire. I personally want to see a universe crowded with people having a good time.”

I wave expansively at the wreck-deck, to illustrate.

“People!” He snorts. “Where’s your ambition? We can do better than that.”

“You want to be machines.” I knock back a snort of the drink. “I don’t.”

He shrugs. “If you want to live in space, you’re better off as a machine than as a bag of sea water. The human body’s design spec is: a spacesuit for a fish. Machines are at home in the universe.”

I give him a grin so wide and delighted that he thinks I like him, and I come back with a quote from a dated dystopia that had a huge resonance for me when I was a kid: This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. (Not that we were in any danger of that perfect day, or any other, but the book spoke to me.)

“‘Machines are at home in the universe. People are aliens.’”

He’s still smiling back, still thinks I’m agreeing. The hash beer drives me to stoned and pissed elaboration: “Strangers in a strange land. Marx was wrong — we aren’t alienated from our humanity, alienation is humanity. We’re always capable of stepping back and looking at what we’re doing, from the outside as it were — we have an outside, inside and it’s as infinite as space. No Turing test can come close, no matter how good it is at faking an organism. Machines calculate; people count. Machines have programs; people have purposes.” I stop and stare at him and take another shot of beer. “So there.”

“People are machines too,” he says. “And machines will have all we have, once we’ve transferred our minds to them.”

“That’s what you call it. Stripping your brain away layer by layer and modeling it on a computer is what I call dying.”

“It’s transcending,” he says. He slaps his chest, almost setting himself spinning. “This is dying. ‘The meat is murder.’”

“Yeah,” I say cruelly. “If I had your body, I’d want to be something else.”

He doesn’t take this as the crushing put-down it’s intended to be. “Yes,” he says, still smiling. “When I upload, I might model my virtual body on yours.”

My attention is distracted by the television screen at the end of the bar, where my parents’ faces have appeared, talking to me in a language I don’t understand, smiling, reassuring. Their twitching, dead-but-galvanized bodies are drifting in front of the screen, attached by pipes that are sucking up their brains. “Goodbye, Ellen,” they’re saying, “goodbye. See you in ten thousand years.”

Furious, I turn back to the kid, but he’s already changed, from slob to blob, a paramecium shape buzzing with fractal cilia, a patch of which snows to pixels and freezes to a face — my face.

“I like your body,” he says.

“In your dreams!” I yell at him. “In your dreams!”

And I wake.

The quilt cuddles me, the pillow drinks my tears.

“Hush,” it soothes. “Everything will be all right.”

Ken MacLeod is the author of four novels, most recently "The Cassini Division."

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